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.
In January, the president of the SBC's Louisiana College, Joe Aguillard, wrote in his "President's Pen" column, "My love for all Baptists including Calvinists, does not constitute our approval of its being advocated at Louisiana College."
That came at the same time three Calvinist-leaning professors learned that their contracts would not be renewed. Although Aguillard has not given a reason for the dismissals, many people have connected them to the column.
On blog posts, some defended the move, citing it as payback for an inclination at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., to hire Calvinists over non-Calvinists.
More fuel was added to the fire when the SBC's Campbellsville University declined to renew a professor's contract this spring. Although there was little evidence, observers speculated online that it was because the professor espoused Calvinist views.
Scott McConnell, vice-president of research for the Southern Baptist's Lifeway Research group, said one of the reasons that such a theological debate can seem divisive to an outsider is because Southern Baptists are used to being very united on doctrinal issues.
"From my perspective as a researcher, when we ask many questions of Southern Baptist pastors, they are usually in the same space. ...Typically we see nine out of ten or 95 percent agreeing to something."
It's not exactly clear why the debate is ramping up now, considering Baptists in general have been divided about the issue since at least the 17th century, said Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University.
"It's a side of Puritanism that there is a kind of moral order and structure," Leonard said. "At its heart is a deep anxiety about moral chaos and pluralism in America and the wider world."
When Lifeway polled Southern Baptist pastors about Calvinism last year, 30 percent said their churches were Calvinist.
"That's a lot of folks on the other side of the fence," McConnell said.
Thomas Kidd, a professor of history at Baylor University, said the disagreement is especially alarming to some Southern Baptists because of their beliefs about the Bible.
"For people who are evangelical and believe the Bible is true in every word, it leads people to assume that on doctrinal issues there will be agreement. If the Bible is true, then it should give us clear guidance on every issue," Kidd said.
The conflict could continue to grow as the next generation of pastors takes over. The Lifeway poll found 8 percent of pastors overall strongly agreed that they were Calvinists, but among those pastors aged 18 to 44, 18 percent identified strongly as Calvinists. Among those 65 and older the number was just 1 percent.
The Lifeway poll also found that 61 percent of pastors were concerned about the impact of Calvinism on the SBC.
Evangelism is a huge focus of Southern Baptist life and some non-Calvinists worry that the belief in predestination is incompatible with spreading the gospel.
"People involved will always say, `If you believe in Calvinism, you don't believe in evangelism. If you believe everything is predetermined, why even bother to preach the gospel?" Kidd said. "But as it turns out, Calvinists have never acted that way in the Southern Baptist Convention."
On Friday, a special advisory committee to SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page issued a statement meant to bring the two sides together and chart a way forward.
The statement comes just ahead of the SBC's annual meeting in Houston on June 11 and 12. Among other things, it seeks to reassure non-Calvinists on the issue of evangelism, stating, "We affirm the church's duty to obey Christ by preaching the Gospel to all the nations and by making disciples who obey all that Christ has commanded."
Reaction to the statement, published in the journal SBC Life, was cautiously optimistic.
"There's going to be less consensus in the future, so people are going to have to get really comfortable with disagreeing about these issues," said Collin Garbarino, an assistant history professor at Houston Baptist University. "The latest document tries to do that, to say it's OK not to have that 95 percent consensus."
But he added, "On both sides there are going to be certain individuals who are not satisfied and who want to draw lines in the sand about what it means to be a Baptist and what it doesn't mean. And they tend to be noisy and tend to have blogs that get a lot of traffic."