Beeson Divinity School dean and professor, Timothy George, wrote an essay in 1985 entitled “Systematic Theology at Southern Seminary.” George mentioned that perhaps the greatest accomplishment of James P. Boyce’s chair of theology successor, F.H. Kerfoot, would be his editorial work on Boyce’s magnum opus republished in 1899, Abstract of Systematic Theology. Dr. George also indicated some of the editorial comments Kerfoot included distanced himself from Boyce’s strict Calvinism. I found George’s claim fascinating.
Indeed Kerfoot’s footnotes reveal a trend in the theology of Baptists in the south. Long before the end of the 19th century, Southern Baptists were apparently already moving away from the strict Calvinism of Boyce, the first generation of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. That assumes, of course, that Calvinism had the theological advantage over non-Calvinism. Even so, the late W. Wiley Richards was undoubtedly correct in his essay, “Southern Baptist Identity: Moving Away from Calvinism” (Baptist History and Heritage, October 1996)1 when he wrote:
The divergence from the Calvinistic base was felt among Boyce’s colleagues at Southern Seminary. Edwin C. Dargan (1852-1930) defined total depravity meaning that all of one’s faculties are more or less twisted out of shape by sin, affecting the whole of one’s nature.22 In what some Calvinists might label scandalous, Dargan argued that if people are to be saved, they must have a hand in it in the form of repentance and faith.23 His views prefigured those of the majority of Southern Baptists in succeeding decades (p.31)
Dargan and Kerfoot were at Southern seminary at the same time. And, while according to Richards, Dargan was questioning Boyce’s strict Calvinistic understanding of Total Depravity, Kerfoot was questioning Boyce’s insistence that regeneration precedes faith. Below is Kerfoot’s footnote to Boyce’s treatment in the Abstract of Systematic Theology:
The reviser feels little doubt that the author is mistaken in the position that he takes here as to the chronological relation of regeneration and conversion to each other. Regeneration must, indeed, be a logical antecedent to conversion. But it can hardly be a chronological antecedent. Least of all does it seem possible for an “appreciable interval of time” to come between them. If this were true, then one could be a regenerated person without repentance or faith. For repentance and faith are the elements of conversion. But one cannot be a saved person without these. How then can one be regenerated, in point of time, before one has faith or repentance? Can a regenerated person be an unsaved person? The true idea seems to be that regeneration has logical antecedence, but not chronological antecedence. Logical antecedence does not necessarily involve chronological antecedence, as the author seems to think. For example, logically the sun must exist before it can give light. But chronologically the light may be synchronous with the existence of the sun. So with regeneration and conversion. The state of certain souls in the examples cited by the author does not seem to be a state of regeneration at all, but only a state of conviction, which we have seen is a state antecedent to regeneration in adults. (italics original, page 347 and page 348)
The truth is, Kerfoot sounds much like those Southern Baptists who penned what was called the Traditional Statement, a confession which caused so much of an uproar that Southern seminary’s president offered a public response. The response Mohler expressed implicated the authors of the Traditional Statement as near embracing heresy. The irony is, what they were saying remains almost identical to what Al Mohler’s early, pre-Liberal, theological predecessors at Southern seminary were saying.2
1the same issue of Baptist History and Heritage has an essay by Tom Nettles in counterpoint style entitled “Southern Baptist Identity: Influenced by Calvinism.”
2Another irony is, Founders Ministries honors F.H. Kerfoot as a great influence on the SBC who “maintained evangelism as a great priority while recognizing the need for confessional orthodoxy” What is more, nothing seems to exist on Founders Ministries website remotely indicating Kerfoot’s clear dissent from the strict Calvinism of James P. Boyce. In fact, almost invariably, the impression one gets reading the information on Kerfoot at Founders Ministries is, he was just as strict a Calvinist as was Boyce. The reader can be the judge. See these articles where Kerfoot is mentioned by Mark Dever, Bill Ascol, C. Ben Mitchell, Tom Nettles, Joe Nesom, Tom Ascol (names are linked to each post respectively).