Throughout the sessions today I was struck that this is truly a new thing for Southern Baptists – a conference dedicated to doctrinal precision. What is more, it is the goal of Building Bridges to promote understanding and encourage unity among Southern Baptists who differ over the biblical doctrine of election and other doctrines generally associated with Calvinism. There are significant figures in Southern Baptist life in attendance including seminary presidents, professors, Lifeway executives, and the President of the Southern Baptist Convention.
One of the unique things about Building Bridges is that each session consists of two speakers addressing the same theological issue; one from the perspective of a Baptist Calvinist and the other from that of a non-Calvinist. It is a somewhat grueling but nevertheless excellent format. The lectures have been scholarly, challenging, and irenic. It has been an example of how theological dialogue ought to be conducted among brothers who affirm Gospel essentials.
There has, however been one exception so far. In my opinion Malcolm Yarnell who teaches at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary did not display the kind of fairness and irenic spirit that was so characteristic of the other presenters. Dr. Yarnell, a decidedly NON-Calvinistic Southern Baptist, addressed the topic “Calvinism: A Cause for Rejoicing, A Cause for Concern.” Needless to say, his perspective weighed most heavily on the cause for concern. Fair enough. After all, his job was to speak from the non-Calvinistic point of view. The problem, to my thinking was two-fold: his attitude and his scholarship.
I will not go into too much detail but Dr. Yarnell made several errors. First of all he defined three “Calvinisms”: 1) Classical Calvinism 2) Baptist Calvinism 3) Hyper-Calvinism. Those are helpful distinctions. The problem is that even though Yarnell affirmed the difference between hyper-Calvinism and the first two options he seemed then to confuse the categories. He seemed to suggest too close a kinship between Classical and Baptist Calvinism and Hyper-Calvinism.
Dr. Yarnell highly exaggerates the presence of hyper-Calvinism. I know a lot of Calvinists and not one of them could be considered “hyper” except by the most ill-informed among us. While hyper-Calvinists certainly did have a presence in England in the 19th century there are very few of them left. Systems which reject the call to evangelize don’t tend to reproduce themselves. However, Dr. Yarnell seems to see a hyper-Calvinist boogey man lurking somewhere within every Calvinist just waiting to get out.
Incidentally, hyper-Calvinism is not five point Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism is an aberration that believes sovereign election renders missions and evangelism unnecessary and that the Gospel should not be freely offered to all. Calvinists have always rejected those ideas.
Another weakness in Dr. Yarnell’s presentation was his downplaying of the prominence of Calvinism among the early Baptists. He even denied the Reformed character of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. That was a new one for me. I don’t know of any non-Calvinist church historians who deny the presence and, indeed prominence of Reformed doctrine in Baptist and Southern Baptist origins. Dr. Yarnell, however, seems to question this.
Another questionable tactic used by Dr. Yarnell was the use of anecdotes. At one point he said he once spoke to a Calvinist who justified leaving his wife because it must have been God’s will. In twenty years of pastoral ministry, I have talked to numerous men and women who justify their divorce by saying, “It’s God’s will,” none of whom were Calvinists. Is it then legitimate for me to conclude that non-Calvinists are susceptible to such nonsense because they do not embrace Calvinism? I was amazed that a scholar would make such a nonsensical link.
To make matters worse, Dr. Yarnell actually played the Servetus card. Now, I expect uninformed persons who have no formal training in church history to appeal to Michael Servetus in order to discredit Calvinism. I expect people like Dave Hunt and Ergun Caner, neither of whom are careful scholars, to appeal to Servetus to dismiss Reformed doctrine. But Dr. Yarnell should know better. It was purely anecdotal and even inaccurate not to mention the fact that the Michael Servetus situation has nothing to do with the legitimacy of Reformed doctrine.
I felt as if I were being scolded during Dr. Yarnell’s address. He even took a few swipes at John Piper. If he does not agree with Dr. Piper’s Calvinism, fine. But John Piper is a careful scholar and pastor. He is a godly man who has provided laypersons with some of the most accessible theology of any Christian writer. He is also, by any measure, passionate for the cause of world evangelization and a tireless champion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For those reasons any non-Calvinist ought to extend Piper a measure of kindness and respect. But those are qualities that, in my opinion, were missing from his address.
I am sure Dr. Yarnell is a fine man. I have no doubt he is an intelligent man who also loves Jesus and cares about the Gospel. I was disappointed that he did not make a better attempt to get his facts right and to truly understand those with whom he disagrees.