Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

01 June 2013

Calvinist Baptists, But No ‘Lutheran’ Baptists?

As a Reformed Christian who is in some fashion heir to Calvin’s legacy, I find myself puzzled when I see a title such as this: Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. What does it mean to be a Calvinist in a Baptist denomination? It cannot imply an acceptance of Calvin’s view of the sacraments, which take up considerable space in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and are more than incidental to his theology as a whole. It does not seem to imply recognition of a real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, or of baptism as a sign and seal of God’s grace. Nor does it seem to imply an acceptance of Calvin’s ecclesiology, which takes up volume IV of the Institutes and is generally followed by those churches calling themselves Presbyterian or Reformed.

Although John Calvin and Martin Luther are generally recognized to be the two principal reformers of the 16th century, there is a certain asymmetry in their respective legacies, as seen in the fact that no one ever complains of creeping Lutheranism in the Southern Baptist Convention. As far as I know, there is no pro-Luther party in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Why not? If one becomes a Lutheran, it almost always means that one has joined an explicitly Lutheran Church, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or Canada) or the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. By contrast, if one becomes a Calvinist, it usually means that one has embraced Calvin’s theology — generally his soteriology — while possibly staying put with respect to ecclesiastical loyalties. This is clearly the case with respect to Calvinist Baptists.

From an historical vantage point, the reason for this difference between the Lutheran and Calvinist labels is far from obvious. After all, Calvin was much more explicit in setting forth a reformed ecclesiology than was Luther, who was more willing than his Genevan counterpart to tolerate different ecclesiastical polities in different geographical contexts. The Churches of Sweden and Finland, for example, maintained an episcopal polity with bishops in apostolic succession. Nevertheless, when Swedes and Finns migrated to North America, their respective transplanted church bodies, the Augustana and Suomi Synods, were generally less hierarchical and more congregational in nature, without in any way impairing their continued communion with the mother churches. Their common adherence to the Augsburg Confession was more important than their polities.

On the other hand, when Reformed Christians established their churches in the New World, they usually brought their polity with them to this side of the Atlantic. Thus if Lutheranism has been historically more flexible than Calvinism with respect to ecclesiology, it is not immediately evident to some of us why becoming a Calvinist is usually thought to be a soteriological statement while becoming a Lutheran is an ecclesiastical one. But it may be that I’m missing something that others have picked up on.

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5 Comments:

  • I guess that is why some prefer to call themselves "Reformed" Baptists---though there have been many Reformed who decry that label as well. Maybe we Baptists who hold to the Second London Confession of Faith (1689) ought to retain our old denominational label of "Particular Baptist"?

    By Blogger Ian Hugh Clary, at 1:46 PM  

  • It seems Baptists are not so particular as they once were. http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

    By Blogger MikeSnow, at 5:36 PM  

  • "What does it mean to be a Calvinist in a Baptist denomination?"

    It means to believe in arbitrary predestination and to constantly upset the Arminians by shoving Romans 9 up their *** every chance you get.

    By Blogger James Jordan, at 12:39 AM  

  • James, why do you think this is? My experience is that Baptists who become "Calvinists" tend to acquire a rather hard edge. I don't want to tar every such Baptist with the same brush, but I've seen it happen too many times to think it's mere coincidence.

    By Blogger David Koyzis, at 3:49 PM  

  • I think most people who become Calvinists are dragged there kicking and screaming by previous Calvinists who keep attacking them with Romans 9 and basically pulling this terrorist routine that unless you submit to our little Islam of believing in arbitrary\random predestination rather than the Arminian predestination based on foreseen faith, then we will torment forever and ever in this life and you will never be able to have any joy in your salvation. So, they convert to Calvinism, just to get the other Calvinists off their backs. But once they've done so, in order to keep the others off their backs for good they must prove themselves to be a good little Calvinist, which means engaging in the same sort of terrorist tactics against Arminians themselves. Basically, they were at one point happy Arminians who had peace and joy in their Christianity, but the Calvinists robbed them of it, and now they are taking out on those who are still Arminians. Kind of like children who grew up sexually abused who instead of becoming more compassionate end up abusing children themselves.

    By Blogger James Jordan, at 6:19 PM  

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