Lately, we’ve been talking about Calvinism and Calvinists in relation to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It surprised me to notice that most of the people behind the Conservative Resurgence (the Old Guard, I call them and their sympathizers) weren’t really Calvinists themselves. But they got a huge amount of support from Calvinists all the same. Calvinists spoke their language — and then turned it against them. These Calvinists took brutal advantage of one concept in particular: Southern Baptists’ newfound affection for a doctrinal stance called inerrancy. This belief opened the door for Calvinists to gain control of the SBC.
(Note: Inerrancy means that the Bible is without errors of any kind. Literalism means everything it talks about really happened just as it says. A lot of nuance can be involved with both. Evangelicals also use words like “infallible” to describe their beliefs about the Bible. Just know that these terms are mostly interchangeable. I usually refer to this mindset as “literalism,” personally. However, “inerrancy” is how Southern Baptists describe their stance, so I’m content to use that term here.)
A brief introduction to inerrancy
Inerrancy is the cornerstone of modern fundagelicalism, that weird fusion of evangelicalism with fundamentalism. In short, it just means that the Bible is considered utterly without error in any way.
(The message is perfect, in broken systems.)
Back in my day, though, evangelicals absolutely rejected fundamentalism. That definitely included the SBC. They bristled at the mere suggestion. Meanwhile, my fundamentalist crowd bristled at being called evangelicals.
Essentially, fundamentalists considered evangelicals as Fundies Lite who couldn’t hack the real deal. For their own part, evangelicals considered us swivel-eyed fanatics. Obviously, each side had a point here.
So in the late 1980s, I got into arguments all the time with my evangelical friends about literalism and inerrancy. I’d been a member of the SBC briefly a few years earlier, of course. I’d joined the Pentecostals precisely because I thought the Bible was meant to be taken more seriously than I saw Southern Baptists taking it.
My friends pitied me because they thought I was subjugated. (Well, yes.) And so I bristled even harder at their pity.
After all, they risked Hell over their rebellion and cowardice!
I was the safe one here! Not them!
The Conservative Resurgence changed everything
What I describe here must sound like a whole other world to today’s Southern Baptists, especially younger ones.
Then, the Conservative Resurgence happened. Since that ultra-conservative takeover of the SBC, which took place around the 1980s and 1990s, evangelicals have lapped my old crowd in sheer swivel-eyed fanaticism.
(On that note, I saw some photos of my old church a while ago. Most of the women wore pants and makeup! They even sported cut and styled hair! WHAT!)
The old divide between the two tribes had vanished. Now, only some subtle differences in dress codes remained between them. Heckies, even those differences weren’t universal.
And that divide vanished because of a few Southern Baptist men’s hard-right push for inerrancy.
This was the cornerstone belief for both sides
From the very beginning of the Conservative Resurgence, its proponents pushed hard on inerrancy. Here’s a 1998 post from Baptist Press about it, titled “Inerrancy affirmation only first step in SBC reformation, pastor declares:”
The doctrinal turnaround resulting from the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention “will be lost” unless the widespread affirmation of biblical inerrancy is coupled with a reform in Southern Baptist preaching, an Oklahoma pastor told students and faculty at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary March 10. [. . .]
“I’m disturbed that — after the ‘Battle for the Bible,’ [. . .] we see being employed a secular methodology, a secular ecclesiology and a preaching that very little oftentimes resembles the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” [Alan] Day thundered.
“Our contemporary denominational reform, I believe, is not complete with a mere reaffirmation of the Scripture and its authority,” he added. “There must be reform of our preaching or the gains of the past 20 years will be lost.”
Dogwhistles abound everywhere here! “Reform” is an important word for Calvinists, obviously. The post includes even more important Calvinist dogwhistles, such as describing inerrancy as “orthodoxy” that was “delivered to the saints.”
Also, that bit about “the Battle for the Bible” is important.
The battle for (Calvinists’ take on) the Bible
Southern Baptists absolutely do see the battle for inerrancy as “the battle for the Bible,” but the term refers specifically to the Calvinist interpretation of the Bible. The notion of battling for the supremacy of their interpretation of the Bible hails from the very beginning of the Conservative Resurgence.
In 1979, Adrian Rogers (Arminian), Paige Patterson (Arminian), and Jerry Vines (Arminian) thought together super-hard at the ceiling. They came out of that session convinced that inerrancy was the only way to save the SBC from creeping liberalism.
But now, they realized they needed to convince the rest of the denomination to buy in.
This rather chilling retrospective post describes that battle in great detail. As the post tells us, the architects of the Conservative Resurgence got exactly the person into the SBC Presidency that they wanted, Adrian Rogers. Southern Baptists mark his election as the real beginning of that movement.
As I mentioned, even by the late 1980s fundamentalism had not yet completely swept through the SBC. But the insurrectionists were on their way.
From the get-go, inerrancy functioned as the steeplejackers‘ central attack. And it was important for a very, very important reason.
Back when Calvinists could be subtle
That 1979 prayer meeting and Adrian Rogers’ election did not come out of a vacuum, of course.
Earlier, a book called The Battle for the Bible had already captivated Southern Baptists. Its author declared:
I regard the subject of this book, biblical inerrancy, to be the most important theological topic of this age.
So inerrancy was already on a lot of Southern Baptists’ minds.
A few years after that prayer meeting, in 1982, as we discussed yesterday, a subsect of Southern Baptists arose. Eventually, they would name themselves Founders Ministries. From the very get-go, their single-minded goal was always to push Calvinism into dominance in the SBC.
And I think they did it through the weaponization of inerrancy. They are the ones who seem to have put the whole notion into Southern Baptists’ minds.
Cuz that book I mentioned a moment ago? The Battle for the Bible?
It was written by Harold Lindsell — a hardcore Calvinist.
How Calvinists weaponized a strange doctrine
Of course, Calvinists didn’t need to convert all these Old Guard Arminians to Calvinism. They just needed to persuade them of inerrancy. That was all these Calvinists needed to get their feet in the SBC’s door. As I said yesterday, the god of Calvinism looks a hell of a lot closer to the Bible’s portrayal of Yahweh/Jesus than the god of Arminianism does.
Once they had persuaded Southern Baptists of the enormous need to believe that the Bible is totally inerrant, then Calvinists could work on drawing them over to Calvinism as they pleased. (Yes, the strategy sounds a lot like how soulwinners try to get their marks scared of Hell so they can sell their product more easily.)
That’s what I gather from headlines in Baptist Press like that 1998 one I listed earlier, “Inerrancy affirmation first step in SBC reformation, pastor declares.” [Relink.] Or consider this retrospective post from 2018 from one of those Founders guys, Tom Nettles: “Inerrancy Was Really the Issue.” In it, Nettles wrote:
Inerrancy was the issue, not personal popularity, ascension of power, oppression of women, or defeat of enemies. Everyone would profit from a confidence settled immovably on the written revelation. We all would seek to minister, grow in grace, and relate to one another under the same authority.
So. Calvinists pushed hard for inerrancy because once they had inerrancy installed, they could steer the ship any way they pleased.
The linchpin issue for Calvinists
I grant evangelical culture warriors this one credit:
They possess an unerring sense of linchpin issues.
Just as abortion represents the very center of women’s rights and progress, inerrancy represents the very center of evangelicals’ culture wars.
(After all, those were heating up too alongside this inerrancy squabble. Indeed, abortion became a culture-war issue around this same time. Meanwhile, the extreme politicization and polarization of evangelicals proceeded apace.)
In 2000, the SBC created a document they call the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM). It enshrines inerrancy in its very first paragraph. And it’s so incredibly Calvinist in its wording that I found an outraged 2005 blog post criticizing an SBC church for hiring “an admitted 5-point Arminian” pastor.
Indeed, I found no shortage of Christians (like this one) expressing great concern over how specifically and strongly Calvinist-leaning the BFM is. But by buying into inerrancy, the SBC had all but opened the door and personally invited Calvinists into their home.
Why Calvinists pushed so hard on inerrancy
The reason that Calvinists rightly saw inerrancy as an avenue to dominance was simple:
Evangelicals long ago lost their ability to think critically about their faith.
Cause and effect got effectively unlinked and demolished years ago. Those in power add asterisks to their claims and promises on the fly and without warning. (All the flocks can do is “Pray they do not alter it further.”)
Testing claims objectively became forbidden — even treated as heretical. Doubts? Only in tribe-approved amounts, longevity, and outcome; otherwise, likewise treated as heretical. Even raising doubts about a fellow Christian’s testimony became off-limits.
In the absence of critical thinking skills, what Christians learned instead was wingnuttery. Wingnuts don’t tether their beliefs to reality, so they keep pushing into more and more extreme beliefs and behaviors. There’s never a point where they test their beliefs against reality, then accept whatever reality has to say about the matter.
And Southern Baptists’ evolution into wingnuts clearly suited Calvinists down to their fingertips, because they’ve certainly not tried to fix that problem ever since installing it into the flocks.
The Problem of Wingnuts: Calvinist Edition
To create a denomination full of wingnuts, SBC leaders taught their flocks to compare new claims only with their existing beliefs rather than testing them using any objective methods. If the new claim matched up pretty well, then they had to accept it as true. If it didn’t match well enough, then the recipients learned to reject it out of hand.
SBC leaders also taught the flocks a whole range of antiprocess techniques that they could use to reject those arguments before they even fully understood them.
So Southern Baptist flocks learned that the Bible was inerrant, and that inerrancy represented the only approved way they could examine any new idea or claim.
Once Calvinists had accomplished that feat, all anybody needed to do to convince them of anything was work up a really flashy argument that used lots of Bible verses to push through the new claim — and, of course, make sure it fit into an existing belief the targets already held.
This is how you get a whole denomination filled with people who claim to absolutely prioritize the Bible — and yet do not actually read it, study it critically, or have any idea what any of it really means.
Sidebar: Some Christians have always seen right through Calvinism
Calvinists don’t seem to mind Biblical illiteracy, either, for all the hand-wringing I’ve seen them do over it. In the 1970s-1990s, they sure weren’t saying that Biblical literacy was the most important thing for Southern Baptists to pursue. No, they were all tootling the inerrancy horn with vigor. Thus, I see their laments over Biblical illiteracy as disingenuous at best.
Granted, the very last thing any Christian leader should want, anyway, is for the flocks to read the Bible for themselves and without their Jesus filters affixed firmly in place. That’s exactly how I deconverted, and how a lot of other people do too, after all. There’s a reason why Catholic leaders kept the flocks away from that book for so many centuries.
But Calvinists defanged the Bible itself. If ex-Christians ever marvel at how they could read the Bible over and over again while not really noticing all the horrific and evil stuff in it, inerrancy has a lot to do with that. Antiprocess makes inerrantists’ minds gloss right past all that stuff. If they think about it at all, it’s in the context of hand-waving apologetics that redefines those things as the actions of a just and good god.
Indeed, between 2008 and 2014 Rachel Held Evans wrote some very moving essays about the vast, unthinkable cruelty and depravity of Calvinism. She nailed it: how consistently it leads Calvinists to view genocide and slavery as divinely good, to blame victims, to excuse everything they should condemn while rejecting everything Jesus actually told them to do. She also wrote about her onetime tribe’s love of literalism “until you bring up gluttony.” And about how often Christians completely misinterpret what the Bible “clearly says.” Other Christians even noted how her theology led to more compassion and love, while that of Calvinists went in the dead opposite direction.
And none of it mattered.
What Rachel Held Evans once called “hyper-Calvinism” is now the prevailing belief system for a growing number of evangelicals.
The mishmash that doesn’t matter
Sure, the inerrancy crowd is a hopeless mishmash of ideologies. So what? In fact, A Quiet Revolution describes it in its introduction:
Theologically, the inerrancy group now ascendant among Southern Baptists consists of a spicy blend of pragmatists, pietists, dispensationalists, Finneyite revivalists, charismatics, Arminians, Calvinists, and countless variants and combinations of each of these categories. So far at least, these divergent groups have managed to live relatively peaceably together because they share an overriding commitment to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture.
As the author says: that’s fine.
That “spicy blend” serves Calvinists’ interests all the same. All of those folks are wingnuts by now. And Calvinists are very, very good at persuading wingnuts. As long as the wingnuts do as their masters wish, then I suppose doesn’t really matter what they call themselves.
Calvinists will outnumber them all
eventually soon anyway, thanks to their get-em-young strategy.
Go on. Tell me again that religion is good for people. Tell me a real live god is involved in any of this squabbling. It’s been a good day already, but I can always use a few more laughs!