Calvinism debate shakes up Southern Baptist Convention

Just how much do you know about Calvinism? Former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey developed a short quiz to gauge readers' knowledge:

See if your score is predestined, or if you have free will to determine your score.

Go ahead. Take the quiz.

I scored — gulp — 58 percent.

In other words, I probably should start this post by referring to Matthew 15:13-14, where Jesus talks about "the blind leading the blind." My apologies, GetReligion readers, if I lead you into a ditch with this post.

In yesterday's critique of an Associated Press story on the political influence of the Southern Baptist Convention, I promised a follow-up post on a mystery subject covered by AP and RNS. That subject: the theological debate over Calvinism simmering in Southern Baptist circles.

In about 900 words, AP covered the debate in a story advancing the SBC's annual meeting, which starts today in Houston:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Is God's saving grace free to anyone who accepts Jesus, or did God predestine certain people for heaven and hell before the beginning of the world? That's a 500-year-old question, but it is creating real divisions in 2013 in the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Calvinism is named for the 16th Century theologian John Calvin. Among other things, it teaches that Jesus died only for those who have been elected by God for salvation. That idea does not sit well with many non-Calvinist Baptists, who believe Jesus died for the whole world.

Some of the theological differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinists can get pretty far into the weeds, but what may seem an arcane controversy has become very heated, especially over the past few months.

RNS took AP's 900 words and countered that it could "Name That Tune" in only 700 words.

The top of RNS' story:

Nearly 35 years after conservatives launched a takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, a new divide is emerging -- this time over the teachings of 16th-century Reformer John Calvin — that threatens to upend the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

When Southern Baptist delegates gather for their annual meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Houston, they'll be presented with a report, "Truth, Trust and Testimony in a Time of Tension," that focuses on the growing popularity of Calvinism among Southern Baptist pastors and seminaries.

At stake are fundamental beliefs on who can be "saved," the need for evangelism and whether Baptists will retread familiar battlefields on the proper roles of men and women.

Calvinism, which traditionally is the domain of Reformed churches like Presbyterians, differs from traditional Baptist theology in key aspects, particularly on the question of salvation. The report concludes that those aspects, while important, should not divide Baptists.

When I read the AP and RNS stories — as a Calvinism novice (see above quiz score) — I found them meaty and intriguing. But as my GetReligion colleagues and I discussed the subject in an e-mail thread yesterday, I started to wonder if this is one of those subjects that's almost impossible to cover adequately within the space constraints of a 700- or 900-word wire service story.

Reader Ryan, a self-described Calvinist Baptist, weighed in with a comment on yesterday's SBC post:

This Religious News Service piece is popping up in several places. It includes lot of theological terms with very specific meanings in this debate (predestination, election) but is light on definitions. This is especially frustrating when the entire debate hinges on these definitions, but we don't hear anything where each side falls other than a quick "Calvinists believe in predestination". The debate really hinges on Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace.

For an example of the confusion this reporting causes, this fragment from the RNS article “Eighty percent of SBC pastors disagreed with the idea that only the elect will be saved” is loaded with ambiguity. I haven’t seen the original LifeWay poll to know who was surveyed or the types of questions asked, but does that response mean this 80% of SBC pastors think that non-elect will be saved? That elect will not be saved? That there's no such thing as election? What would that even mean?

It also conflates Reformed theology in the SBC with gender roles, specifically around female clergy. And to speak to this issue, they interview a *former* Southern Baptist!

This one from AP is a little better (although the sides are lined up as “Calvinists” and “non-Calvinists”). There’s a bit of interesting speculation as to why this debate is happening now, but no real evidence.

Now, Ryan obviously has a dog in the hunt — making him not the best person to offer an unbiased assessment of the journalism produced by AP and RNS. And did I mention that I scored a 58 percent on the quiz, making me not the best media critic to assess the specifics of these two stories?

Perhaps GetReligion's resident Calvinist — Joe Carter — will want to weigh in. Or maybe Mollie, who made a 100 percent on the quiz, although she admits, "Totally guessed on three questions."

For now, it's your turn, GR readers: How'd you score on the quiz?

And what'd you think of the AP and RNS coverage?

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