Thursday, February 07, 2008

New name, same historical revisionism

On December 21, 2007 Ergun Caner sent me an announcement about the name change of Liberty Theological Seminary to Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. I gave it only passing notice. From all that I know, Liberty may be the finest Fundamentalist seminary around and I don't care how many times they extract and reinsert the name "Baptist" on their letterhead.

When Caner became dean of the seminary in 2004 he took the name "Baptist" out. The rationale given for reinserting it I found mildly amusing, but again, not worth much more than a raised eyebrow. He wrote,
[S]ince 2004, much has changed, both here at Liberty University and in the Southern Baptist Convention. Too many schools have Baptist in their name but not in their doctrine. Some have drifted into liberalism and cultural relativism; still others remain orthodox, but have drifted toward non-Baptist reformed doctrine and cultural isolationism. For us, this was our line in the sand. We want to build bridges to a lost world without burning the bridges of our doctrinal heritage. We are putting Baptist back in our name, and taking back a term that has been misused [emphasis added].
He further explained their vision:
We want to train students from across the evangelical spectrum, in the classic Baptistic stance of our Anabaptist tradition and Sandy Creek revivalistic heritage.
I remember thinking at the time that if Caner is the one defining the "classic Baptist stance" of our heritage at Liberty then any student there who wants an accurate understanding of Baptist history should definitely make sure he has access to the internet so he can verify what he is taught by reading primary sources that are now readily available online.

I was content to keep these thoughts to myself and had forgotten about them until Wednesday night. While sitting in the Newark airport due to weather-related flight delays I took the time to listen to an interview with Caner conducted by Wes Kenney over at SBC Today. It is a very good interview. Kenney does a good job of raising issues pertinent to Southern Baptist life in a very brief span. The whole interview lasts about 17 minutes. I encourage you to listen to it.

Some of what Caner says is encouraging and informative, such as the story of his conversion and the account of how Dr. Falwell "tricked" him into becoming the Dean of the seminary at Liberty in 2004. He describes the recent transitions of leadership at Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church how smoothly they have been due to Falwell's clear instructions that his sons were to take over responsibilities upon his death.

Caner then explains the reason behind the recent reversion to including "Baptist" in Liberty's name.
I am a classic Sandy-Creeker-Anabaptist-history-Baptist and there just didn't seem to be a voice for that on the east coast. There is a great [voice for this view] in Southwestern Seminary....But on the east coast we had guys building bridges toward Geneva.
This is an obvious slap at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary's co-sponsorship with Founders Ministries of the Building Bridges conference last November (get the audio here). I suppose this means that I could claim to have a hand in the renaming of the largest Fundamentalist seminary in the world. :-)

Commenting on the Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism Conference, Caner commends Malcolm Yarnell for doing a "masterful job of defining the rest of us," by which he means those who are not part of the "small" and "tiny" portion of the SBC that are not committed to the doctrines of grace but who are the "stump-winders"(?) and "saw-dust-trail boys."

Dr. Caner both hates and misrepresents historic Calvinism. He is concerned with the undeniable resurgence of evangelical Calvinism among Baptists. I can certainly understand that and have no quarrel with his desire to debate renounce it. I do regret, however, that he consistently handles the historical data so poorly.

He can call himself a "Sandy-Creeker," but at some point he must deal with the abundant evidence that within the Sandy Creek, Separate Baptist tradition there is a significant regard for Calvinistic doctrines. Even his mentor, Dr. Paige Patterson, publicly acknowledged this fact in the dialogue he held with Dr. Mohler at the 2006 Southern Baptist Pastors' Conference.

Caner further muddies the waters and exposes both a pugilistic demeanor and untrustworthy historical assessments when he makes this observation about the current resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC:
The whole fight started when they started saying, " ...we've always been Calvinists, both strands [presumbably he means both Charleston and Sandy Creek traditions]." That's a lie. That's not just a misstatement. That's just an outright historical fallacy....To say that ... Southern Baptists have always been in one way or another, Calvinists, is not only short-sited, it is just poor theology and poor history.
First, who is fighting? There are some in the SBC who are drooling for a fight over Calvinism. That tends to be endemic to certain strands of Fundamentalism. Without some boogeyman to battle they are without a raison d'etre. I am hopeful that a growing number of Southern Baptists are seeing through this tendency to demonize those with whom we disagree and not allow those who are itching for a fight to dominate the denominational dialogue. That was a large part of the motivation for the Building Bridges conference.

Second, who has ever said that Southern Baptists have always been Calvinists? This is a very unhelpful misstatement at best and gross misrepresentation at worst. Of course Southern Baptists have not always been Calvinists in a universal sense. No one believes that. But the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that this convention was founded by those who affirmed the sovereignty of God's grace in salvation.

Timothy George has noted that each of the 293 delegates who met in Augusta, Georgia in 1845 to establish the Southern Baptist Convention came from churches or associations that embraced the Chaleston/Philadephia/Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. Caner may not like this fact, but it will take more than gratuitous assertions to make it go away.

The final excerpt from Caner's interview illustrates the cautions that one ought to have in following his historical assessments. When asked about whether Calvin would approve the so-called 5 points of Calvinism, Caner made the following historical gaffes while trying to distinguish Calvin from the Calvinists.
During the life of Calvin a guy named Amyraut...Moise Amyraut said Calvin believed in general atonement. And his fiercest opponent was Theodore Beza, the guy who took over for Calvin.
So historian Caner would have us believe that Amyraut disagreed with Calvin during Calvin's lifetime and was fiercely opposed by Beza. Calvin (1509-1564) died 32 years before Amyraut was born and Beza (1519-1605) died when Amyraut was 11. Those must have been some fierce debates between the octogenarian Beza and the pre-adolescent Amyraut!

It was Shakespeare who wrote, "What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." In the final analysis I do not care much whether an educational institution calls itself Baptist or not. What matters to me is that those who lead and teach in such institutions be honest with their subjects and not try to rewrite history simply because they don't like the way it happened.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jerry Falwell's Friday the 13th declaration: Limited atonement is heresy

Last Friday at the "College for a Weekend" emphasis at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Jerry Falwell preached a chapel message to 1828 prospective new students along with current students, faculty and staff. Under the title of "Our Message, Mission and Vision," Dr. Falwell delcared his purpose to be to communicate who Liberty University is in order to persuade prospective students to matriculate there.

Much of what he said regarding the "message" of Liberty is praiseworthy and ought to be applauded by all Bible believing Christians. When he came to articulating their belief in the "substitutionary atonemement of Jesus Christ for all men," however, he added a statement that I find tragic. Here it is (about 10 minutes or so into the video):
"We are not into partcular love or limited atonement. As a matter of fact we consider it heresy."
Don't misunderstand me, I do not regard it as unfortunate that he articulated his and Liberty University's honest beliefs, no matter how offensive they may be to me or to others. In fact, I applaud his willingness to state clearly not only what they believe but also what they do not believe. We need more such plain speaking in our day.

What I regret is that he finds particular atonement to be "heresy." This must mean that he and Liberty believe that those who hold to particular atonement to be heretics. Among the countless numbers of people whom he would brand with the H-word are many who would make any evangelical Who's who list (including Bunyan, Owen, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Carey, Boyce, Mell, Dagg and Lloyd-Jones, to name but a few of the dead ones). I find this sad.

Does Jerry Falwell and Liberty University really judge John Piper to be a heretic? If we take his words seriously, as surely we ought if we are to honor him, then he believes that Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, D. James Kennedy, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Tom Nettles, Wayne Grudem, Sinclair Ferguson, James White and Fred Malone teach heresy.

That certainly is his and Liberty's right to believe. I simply regret that they believe it. I do not regard my universal redemptionist brothers to be heretics because of their views of general atonement. I think they are wrong and they think the same of me. But that does not mean that we have to accuse each other of being heretics.

Dr. Falwell's comments shed some light on the atrocious comment made last year by the president of his Liberty Seminary. Those of you who have read this blog in February of 2006 probably recall when Dr. Ergun Caner declared that "Calvinists are worse than Muslims." I am sorry that he believes that but certainly applaud his willingness to state it clearly, since he does indeed believe it. I am all for people and institutions nailing their colors to the mast for all to see. I just wish that the flag under which he and Liberty have chosen to fly did not condemn so many faithful servants of Christ as heretics.

Perhaps I am naive, but I have a hunch that these kinds of vitriolic, dismissive and historically invalid castigations are more and more being seen not only as inaccurate but offensive to Christian brothers on both sides of the extent of the atonement question. Such inflammatory rhertoric can still incite an audience, and perhaps it will continue to draw students and revenues to institutions, but it is not helpful to the cause of Christ in either fellowship or evangelism.

It is time for this generation of believers to learn how to disagree over substantive issues without falling into the sins of slander and bearing false witness. When the Word of God that we love gets trampled underfoot by those who profess to defend it in the very process of their defense, it is more than ironic. It is tragic.

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