When the answer is Yes: SDBs, Calvinism and Arminianism

When the answer is Yes: SDBs, Calvinism and Arminianism

by Nick Kersten, Librarian-Historian


As we work to correct common errors and misconceptions about Seventh Day Baptist history, this month we look to frequent assertions about our doctrine. This one relates to one of the most prevalent Protestant theological divides—Calvinism and Arminianism.

We receive sporadic requests here at the Society asking us to identify whether Seventh Day Baptists are or have historically been Calvinists or Arminians. If you know the theological debate, the chance is excellent that you have an opinion. In this case, the misconception about SDBs isn’t about the answer on one side or the other, but rather the assumption that there IS an answer at all.

Disputes between the adherents of the two positions are longstanding. During John Calvin’s life and after his death in 1564, opinions about his doctrine multiplied, and criticisms were leveled at it on a number of fronts. His view that God’s sovereignty extended even into the realm of one’s election yielded particular attention, as it seemed to limit human agency.

One of his critics was Dutch theologian Jakob Hermanszoon, better known today as Jacobus Arminius. Arminius trained in Geneva under Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, and then headed into the pastorate in Amsterdam in 1587.

Although originally convinced of Calvin’s positions, Arminius gradually came to disagree with Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty with respect to election. His followers published a treatise solidifying his positions in 1610, the year after he died.

Those knowledgeable about Baptist history will recognize that the origins of the Baptist movement spring from the historical period immediately after Arminius’s death, as John Smith’s famous congregation in Amsterdam was also started in 1609. Perhaps not surprisingly, with the debate about Calvin’s doctrine and Arminius’s response fresh, when the Baptists returned to England, groups coalesced around both positions. The General Baptists sided with Arminius and his followers, while the Particular Baptists in England sided with Calvin and his followers.

Among the Sunday observing Baptists in London, denominational rifts opened between the Calvinists and the Arminians, but no such rifts open among the Sabbatarian Baptists. It would seem that their shared distinctive was more unifying than the divisive capability of their other theological positions.

That same spirit was embodied in America as churches began to proliferate on this side of the Atlantic. Reading the records and the doctrinal statements they made from the 17th century through the 19th century, it is clear there was no uniform position on the matter as local churches covenanted to observe the Scriptures without clearly identifying with one side or the other. The Conference’s first Statement of Beliefs likewise does not declare an allegiance to either view.

That is not to say that there were not vocal adherents of the various positions. To give just one example, longtime SDB pastor, field evangelist, and educator Alexander Campbell recounts in his autobiography the difficulties he had on the mission field following up after the ministry of Calvinists. From his comments, it is abundantly clear he was not an adherent of Calvinism. Counter examples are not difficult to find.

But more than any of these individual positions we might highlight, it is clear that our people have taken this approach: as long as someone continues to affirm the Scriptures and honor the local church covenant, caring for one another, adherents of both positions would be welcomed. Furthermore, as is the case with so many historical trends, if we look closely we can ascertain slow shifts between Calvinist and Arminian thought among SDBs, moving like a pendulum in response to changing social conditions and the extremes embedded in the ascendancy of the other position.

The answer to the question: “Are Seventh Day Baptists Calvinist or Arminian?” is, and has always been, “Yes.”

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