Typing "why are Calvinists . . ." in Google is one clue into a serious debate among Christian denominations over whether Reformed Theology, also called Calvinism, actually pushes seekers away from Christianity instead of attracting them, according to CP interviews with theologians who study the subject.
When one enters the phrase "why are Calvinists" in Google, the first few auto-fill responses that appear are: "wrong," "so angry," "so arrogant," "such jerks," and "so negative." A recent brouhaha in late November at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which caused four students to walk out of a lecture, is just the latest in a series of events that keeps the subject simmering.
Calvinism is a theological construct that places such a high priority on God's sovereignty that it draws a conclusion that all believers are predestined by God to believe, casting confusion over whether those who place their trust in Jesus Christ as Savior have done so of their own free will.
Most Calvinists argue they are misunderstood when it comes to evangelism, adding that they are just as committed to preach the good news of Jesus Christ as any other Christian.
Reformed theologian Greg Dutcher noted in a video released by Cruciform Press in 2013 that when he sat down to write Killing Calvinism: How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside, he started typing "why are Calvinists" into Google and the first auto-fill option that came up was "arrogant." Dutcher's book is a Calvinistic rebuke to the haughty Calvinist who might love Calvinism as an end in itself, or refuse to learn from non-Calvinist Christians. He contends that a proper understanding of Reformed theology can never yield a smug attitude.
Southern Baptists have many members who are Calvinists, and though still a minority, their numbers are growing in the denomination, especially among millennial Southern Baptists. The latest Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting featured a razor close election for president between a 43-year-old Calvinist and a 58-year-old traditional Southern Baptist. Calvinism was a central issue in that election. The Calvinist withdrew rather than cause a division.
Younger millennial Calvinists assert the tension is just a misunderstanding.
Some Calvinists "have the reputation, whether it is a factual reputation or not, of coming across as either smug, arrogant, or even angry," said James Forbis, a third-year student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky who believes in Reformed Theology.
"I think the only reason there is that reputation out there is because of a few who kind of ruin the soup," he said in a recent interview with The Christian Post.
Forbis, 26, hails from Longview, Texas and dreams one day of planting churches in New England. He affirms all of Calvin's famous five points, but unlike Presbyterians, does not believe in infant baptism or their particular form of church governance.
In late November Rick Patrick, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Sylacauga, Alabama criticized Calvinism at a chapel service at Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, calling it a "Trojan Horse." Patrick argued that certain theological particulars of Reformed theology and the ministry practices that flow from it constrain evangelism. Anything that throws evangelism into question has historically been anathema to Southern Baptists. The seminary has some Calvinist millenials who are students there. Four in attendance reportedly got up and walked out of the chapel service during his remarks.
"I know there are a fair number of you who think you are a Calvinist, but understand there is a denomination which represents that view," said SWBTS President Paige Patterson at the close of the chapel service, according to a Dec. 1 Baptist News Global report. "It's called Presbyterian."
Patterson subsequently clarified his remarks on the SWBTS theological blog saying that he was speaking only for himself, not urging fellow Southern Baptists to leave the denomination.
Asked to comment on what happened, Forbis said, "I really appreciate Paige Patterson, he's a hero of mine in the faith," citing Patterson's role in turning the SBC around from liberal decline to vibrant theological orthodoxy in the 1970s and 80s.
"They were fighting for the inerrancy of Scripture. So I celebrate them and I am thankful for them. But yes there are deep, theological divides there. I think it is generational thing, I really do," he added.
Insiders sometimes characterize the theological disagreement that exists within the SBC as a "3 to 4 point" versus "5 point" debate. Regarding Calvin's famous five tenets, or points, also known as TULIP, Southern Baptists generally believe in some of T (total depravity), U (unconditional election) and I (irresistible grace), reject all of L (limited atonement), and completely embrace P (perseverance of the saints). It is the "limited atonement" tenet, which can be translated into a belief that only some are predestined to be saved that causes much Southern Baptist consternation.
"I've had a couple of professors [at SBTS] who have told me privately that they aren't 5 point Calvinist, but 3 to 4 pointers," Forbis added. "But it's not like they would be at risk of losing their job if they made that public. SBTS does have the reputation of being the Reformed seminary within the SBC, but I have met several students, both past and present, who would not label themselves as Reformed."
"We are never the ones who are on the attack," he continued. "We are kind of always on the defense whenever [traditionalists] attack the Reformed Theological position ... And we are always the ones who may respond in a way that may come across as angry when really it's just because we are frustrated," he said.
"This dates back to when the SBC was founded, it was that way. And really, I think it has a lot to do with traditionalists within the SBC do not understand Reformed Theology. They don't understand the Baptist-Calvinistic viewpoint," adding that if the traditionalists would just listen a little more they would realize they have much in common than they think. He asserted "a lot of us don't feel welcome within the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting every year," which is why they retreat to Calvinist enclaves like The Gospel Coalition and Reformed conferences like Together for the Gospel.
"I don't know that the SBC needs to turn completely Reformed. I don't see that ever happening, but I do think there is this deep misunderstanding between the two sides."