As a Reformed Christian who is in some fashion heir to Calvin’s legacy, I find myself puzzled when I see a title such as this: “Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention.” What does it mean to be a Calvinist in a Baptist denomination? It cannot imply an acceptance of Calvin’s view of the sacraments, which take up considerable space in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and are more than incidental to his theology as a whole. It does not seem to imply recognition of a real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, or of baptism as a sign and seal of God’s grace. Nor does it seem to imply an acceptance of Calvin’s ecclesiology, which takes up volume IV of the Institutes and is generally followed by those churches calling themselves Presbyterian or Reformed.
Although John Calvin and Martin Luther are generally recognized to be the two principal reformers of the sixteenth century, there is a certain asymmetry in their respective legacies, as seen in the fact that no one ever complains of creeping Lutheranism in the Southern Baptist Convention. As far as I know, there is no pro-Luther party in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Why not? If one becomes a Lutheran, it almost always means that one has joined an explicitly Lutheran Church, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or Canada) or the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. By contrast, if one becomes a Calvinist, it usually means that one has embraced Calvin’s theology—generally his soteriology—while possibly staying put with respect to ecclesiastical loyalties. This is clearly the case with respect to Calvinist Baptists.
From a historical vantage point, the reason for this difference between the Lutheran and Calvinist labels is far from obvious. After all, Calvin was much more explicit in setting forth a reformed ecclesiology than was Luther, who was more willing than his Genevan counterpart to tolerate different ecclesiastical polities in different geographical contexts. The Churches of Sweden and Finland, for example, maintained an episcopal polity with bishops in apostolic succession. Nevertheless, when Swedes and Finns migrated to North America, their respective transplanted church bodies, the Augustana and Suomi Synods, were generally less hierarchical and more congregational in nature, without in any way impairing their continued communion with the mother churches. Their common adherence to the Augsburg Confession was more important than their polities.
On the other hand, when Reformed Christians established their churches in the New World, they usually brought their polity with them to this side of the Atlantic. Thus if Lutheranism has been historically more flexible than Calvinism with respect to ecclesiology, it is not immediately evident to some of us why becoming a Calvinist is usually thought to be a soteriological statement while becoming a Lutheran is an ecclesiastical one. But it may be that I’m missing something that others have picked up on.