by Samantha Adams
The Calvinist-Arminian debate is one of the most divisive issues in recent Southern Baptist history, and university President Dr. David S. Dockery is playing a significant role in working toward unity.
As the issue of salvation theology even escalated to heresy charges before the convention in June, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Dr. Frank Page asked Dockery to co-chair a 16-member advisory council to bring unity in the 15.9 million-member denomination.
Calvinists emphasize God’s sovereignty in salvation, while Arminians emphasize the individual’s freedom of will in salvation.
More than 60 percent of SBC presidents are “concerned about the impact of Calvinism in our convention,” according to a June 2012 survey conducted by LifeWay Research.
The discussion has led to harsh words between SBC members.
Even accusations of heresy arose from men on both sides of the issue when, in May 2012, more than 650 Southern Baptists signed a statement about the doctrine of salvation in an attempt to push back against SBC churches that hold to Calvinistic theology, according to a June 8 Baptist Press article by Weston Gentry.
The article said both Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, a Calvinist, and George W. Truett Theological Seminary professor Roger Olson, an Arminian, said the document “sounded like semi-Pelagianism, a traditionally heretical understanding of Christian salvation.”
The advisory committee held its first meeting Aug. 29-30 in Nashville and will meet again in early November, according to a Aug. 31 Baptist Press article by Art Toalston.
“Traditionally, Baptists have been comprised of people who are more Calvinistic and less Calvinistic — for centuries, actually,” Page said in a phone interview Oct. 1. “And there have been times where that working together has been more difficult.”
Now is one of those times, Page said. Some of the Southern Baptists who hold to the two perspectives are having what Page called “serious problems working together.”
Page said he wanted to form the council to discuss how people of both perspectives can work together, especially how they can pursue missions and evangelism together — a focus of the SBC.
Page said he asked Dockery to be his co-chairman on the council because Dockery’s leadership in the SBC, his character and his ability to bring together both sides on a debate is unquestioned.
Southern Baptists in both camps deeply respect Dockery, Page said.
Of the 16 members currently on the council, Dockery is the only member who is the president of an undergraduate institution. Page said the council members may change as their work continues.
Calvinists were, in centuries past, referred to as Particular Baptists, Dockery said in an email Sept. 26. Arminians were known as General Baptists.
When engaging in the debate about the role of both within the denomination, Dockery said he prefers to refer to “Particular” and “General” perspectives because the words “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” often create emotional responses from many.
Dockery said his own theological view is somewhere in between the two perspectives.
For the past several years, Dockery has turned to Baptist history to promote unity among Southern Baptists with Arminian and Calvinistic perspectives.
At the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s “Calvinism: Concerned? Curious? Confused?” conference in August, Dockery said both perspectives have been present in the denomination since the 17th century.
Rather than focusing on their differences regarding salvation theology, Dockery said rising trends of secularism, neo-paganism and new atheism should be of more concern to Particular and General Baptists.
“We need to unite and rally around a shared commitment to the Gospel and not spend time fighting one another when we have so much more in common with one another than we have differences,” Dockery said. “I have tried, with God’s help, and will continue to try to build bridges and promote consensus and unity so that we can worship together, learn together, learn from one another, serve together and participate as Great Commission Christians on mission together.”