Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reflections on the dust-up over Calvinism at SWBTS

Last week the otherwise catatonic SBC corner of the blogosphere erupted when Wade Burleson wrote that the administration of SWBTS planned to purge Calvinistic faculty in the name of economic cutbacks. I received numerous questions via facebook, twitter, email and old-fashioned phone calls about that accusation and the resultant denials and counter-denials it provoked in a flurry of blog posts and comments. In response to many requests, I actually drafted a post with my own take on the situation. However, after seeking counsel from trusted advisors (who were split in their judgment), I decided not to post it. In light of the brouhaha that followed Pastor Burleson's post, I am glad that I didn't get involved in what quickly became public mudslinging. One brief comment that I sent in a private email in response to a direct question did get posted in a comment thread (without my permission), but otherwise, I have merely watched, listened, and done a bit of checking on the sources for some of the information that became public.

Here are some relevant links that chronicle the debate:

Wade Burleson's 1st post: Forcibly Removing All the Tulips at SWBTS
SWBTS Professor Greg Welty's response
Bart Barber's Response
Wade Burleson's 2nd post: Forcibly Removing All the Tulips at SWBTS (Part II)
Wade Burleson's 3rd post: Are Southern Baptists Blind or Blindfolded?
Wade Burleson's 4th post: The Big Picture: Resisting Separatist Ideology
Wes Kenney went to the source and interviewed Paige Patterson
Ken Silva also weighed in with thoughts and research
Aaron Weaver also gave his take on the events

Some have used my silence about the events of last week as evidence that there was no truth to the charges. Others have considered my silence to be a failure of nerve. Neither conclusion is warranted. I didn't post about it because of the method by which I handle information that comes my way.

Let me try to explain.

I was contacted by a couple of Southwestern folks two weeks ago who voiced concerns about what they perceived to be threats against Calvinistic professors on campus. I was not the only one to receive such information. Because I could not verify all of the information I chose not to go public with any of it. I have no reason to doubt any of the folks with whom I have communicated, but I also recognize that perceptions sometimes can deviate from reality in ways that make accurate reporting of events problematic. In the absence of an eyewitness who was willing to "go public," I limited my comments to private communications with the exception of a brief expression of hope that what I had heard was not true.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, there seems to be a consensus that there will not be any faculty at Southwestern removed on the basis of their Calvinistic soteriology. Those who believe that Wade was right in breaking this story see his actions as securing that outcome. Those who believe that he was wrong in breaking the story see this outcome as proof that there was no truth to the story to begin with. Who knows if either of these conclusions is true? Well, obviously there are some who know, but they aren't talking.

What can we learn from all this? Several things, no doubt. But here are 3 lessons that quickly suggest themselves to me.
  1. The Bible's wisdom about discernment and judgment should be heeded at all times. "The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him" (Proverbs 18:17). "He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him" (Proverbs 18:13).
  2. The divide over Calvinism in the SBC is significant and will not go away by pretending it is not there. Thankfully, there is a growing number within the convention who are serious about building bridges over this divide that will enable us to work together on the basis of uncompromising Gospel convictions to which no Pelagian or Hyper-Calvinist could ever agree. Unfortunately, there remain some (namely, a coalition of old guard Fundamentalists and avant-garde self-styled defenders of Baptist Identity) who do not want to see such a Gospel consensus unite Baptists who might not see everything eye-to-eye on the doctrines of grace. It appears to me, however, that these naysayers are increasingly marginalizing themselves.
  3. The SBC is in desperate need of leaders who refuse to put their fingers to the political winds before determining what steps to take. We need leaders who are willing to cooperate with all those who are confessionally committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are determined to see the Gospel shape our churches and impact our world. We need leaders who are willing to talk to those with whom they disagree instead of merely talking about them. We need leaders who aren't satisfied merely to defend the Bible but who are devoted to living under its authority. From where I sit it is apparent that such leadership is emerging from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Danny Akin and those with him seem intent on showing Southern Baptists a healthy way forward into the 21st century.
This will certainly not be the last opportunity for Southern Baptists to get up-in-arms over reports about questionable plans or actions of one of our agencies or institutions. Hopefully, we will learn from last week's experiences and will determine to respond by speaking accurately, plainly, truthfully and lovingly about any legitimate concerns that arise. The days when heads of our agencies could take actions and expect not to be questioned publicly about them are over. And that's a good thing.

We do not have to agree on every jot and tittle to live together harmoniously in the SBC family, but we do have to remember that loyalty to Christ trumps loyalty to any "cause" or party. Our Lord calls us to honor Him in speech and conduct, regardless of how strongly we may disagree with those whom we address.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Ed Stetzer responds to David Allen

In my earlier critique of David Allen's review of Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, I did not mention his criticism of the research presented by Ed Stetzer on the growth of evangelical Calvinism within the SBC. Dr. Allen cites many problems with the research and the interpretations that were given to it.

Yesterday, Dr. Stetzer responded to Dr. Allen with a lengthy explanation about the research methodology and why the results should not be dismissed out of hand. Dr. Stetzer writes,
Over the years, we have learned a few things about research in SBC life. Research tends to get people in our denomination excited. Many people quote it, most like it, and some despise it. People will quote and misquote statistics regularly to prove or disprove whatever matters to them. Simply put, we are an enthusiastic, passionate, and often imprecise people when it comes to church research.

As such, when we do research, it gets a lot of debate and discussion. We do not mind at all--and sometimes we read a comment and think, "Good point!" or "We should have thought of that." As such, we very infrequently respond to inappropriate uses or criticisms of our research.

However, I do see a pattern developing. It appears that when one of the faculty members at one of our seminaries disagrees with the results of our research, they write a rebuttal or a criticism. We actually don't mind a (good) rebuttal and questioning the wording of questions is normal and expected. However, it does seem that the faculty at Southwestern is making a habit of taking time away from their important tasks to critique our research. I thought it would be wise for me to take this opportunity to respond in what I hope is a gracious way.
Dr. Stetzer's response is indeed gracious...and convincing. Read it here.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Brief Response to David Allen's Explanations and Rejoinder

Drs. Malcolm Yarnell, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and David Allen, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching, George W. Truett Chair of Ministry, and Dean of the School of Theology, both serving at my alma mater, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have each recently deemed words written by me on this blog worthy of public "responses." Dr. Yarnell's is basically an amped up version of his final comment in the meta of this post. It so is rife with innuendo and misrepresentation that I will not take time to respond to it.

Dr. Allen's comments, however, are worthy of a response. It is refreshing to read comments from a denominational employee who has not forgotten that the seminary where he works is "owned and operate[d], through the trustee system, by the churches of the SBC." It is also encouraging to read these words from him:
Dr. Ascol and I not only differ and disagree on the subject of Calvinism, but in fact, our disagreement in certain areas is quite strong. However, for the record, let it be known that I do not view Dr. Ascol’s critique of my words as an attack on me personally.
My critique of Dr. Allen's review of Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, was never intended to be personal and, for the record, I do not take his criticisms of me and my views personally, either. I acknowledge him as a brother who is seeking to honor our common Lord and who deserves both my love and respect, which he has. My further interaction with some of his public comments is for the purpose of promoting understanding, accurate representation of the views we hold and mutual accountability--things that I sense Dr. Allen values as much as I.

I am grateful that Dr. Allen has willingly altered his manuscript to remove some of the condescending language he employed when describing Tom Nettles and Nathan Finn.

I am sorry to see Dr. Allen continue to defend his accusation of James White being a hyper-Calvinist. What I originally wrote has been largely vindicated. Thinking people are not impressed. The juxtaposition of the two following sentences by Dr. Allen does not help his case:
Incidentally, the attempts of Phil Johnson and James White at parsing words, nuancing or otherwise skirting the main issue at hand, have failed to show my initial statement concerning White to be false, in my opinion. I am willing to concede Johnson’s point that his Primer does not state what I interpreted it to state.
Dr. Allen concedes that he has misinterpreted Johnson's primer on hyper-Calvinism, which misinterpretation is the basis on which he leveled the charge against Dr. White. To acknowledge that one's premise is false while refusing to admit that the conclusion built upon it is in any way affected does not make sense. Here is the way that it comes across to me.

Original argument:
  1. According to Phil, anyone who is bald is a hyper-Calvinist
  2. James is bald
  3. Therefore, James is a hyper-Calvinist
After Phil debunks the assertion that he has stated that anyone who is bald is a hyper-Calvinist:
  1. I admit that Phil has proven that he never said that anyone who is bald is a hyper-Calvinist and that when I said that he said that, I was wrong
  2. Nevertheless, this does not prove that my conclusion about James White is false
What is it that makes one want to maintain the conclusion that is admittedly built on a faulty premise? The rationale escapes me.

On November 24, under a heading that says, "Why I said James White is a Hyper-Calvinist," Dr. Allen wrote,
My main point, which seems to have been lost on so many people, was not to focus on James White and his hyper-Calvinism. My point was to show the unwisdom on the part of Tom Ascol in his willingness to team up with James White to debate within the Southern Baptist Convention. Many non-Calvinists within our convention are concerned not only about Calvinism, but about some hyper-Calvinistic tendencies in the convention.
Anyone who knows me well can vouch for my "unwisdom" in various areas. Dr. Allen could have chosen any number of ways to highlight it, had he wished. I am glad that he pointed out that this was his "main point" because I also was among the "many people" that missed it. Of course, if, as has been sufficiently demonstrated by Phil Johnson and James White and asserted by me, James White is NOT a hyper-Calvinist, then Dr. Allen's main point is not only hard to recognize it is without merit.

This sheds light on why Dr. Allen thinks that I continue to miss the point. He writes,
Apparently Ascol is either 1) unaware of this difference between White and himself, or 2) does not believe there is a difference between his own views and White on this subject, or 3) is unwilling to conclude that such a difference makes White a hyper-Calvinist, or some combination of the three.
I am fairly aware of what James White believes. He speaks and writes very clearly. He and I do not significantly disagree on this subject. We might state things a little differently, but we both agree that God's will must be seen in terms of decree and precept and we both agree that God will not be frustrated at the end of history. Dr. Allen simply does not understand James White's views nor, it appears, the theology of hyper-Calvinism.

Furthermore, Dr. Allen writes, "Can anyone say that Steve Camp does not meet Phil Johnson's criteria on hyper-Calvinism?" Yes. I can. Dr. Allen has conceded that he misunderstood and therefore misrepresented Phil Johnson's criteria. Thus, once again, the conclusion which derives from the faulty premise also falls.

The brotherly thing for Dr. Allen to do is to retract his statements, apologize to these men for bearing false witness against them and continue studying hyper-Calvinism.

Dr. Allen transcribes his comments from the John 3:16 conference with the following:
Now whatever we do in Baptist life, we don't need to be teaming up with hyper-Calvinists. It's fine for Calvinists to get together and have debates with non-Calvinists. Fine, dandy and wonderful; let that happen all day long. But it is time for Calvinists within the convention to come out and say some strong words about hyper-Calvinism.
I find this admonition incredible. Founders Ministries has been decrying hyper-Calvinism longer and louder than ANYONE in the Southern Baptist Convention. Anyone who has ten minutes and knows how to use the search engine on our website could learn that. Let me just set the record straight on this.
  1. In 1996, the Founders Journal published a letter I wrote to a father whose son was caught up in real hyper-Calvinism, trying to counsel him on how to help and evangelize his son. In that same issue, an excerpt from a small book I wrote was included under the title, "Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism: Issues Shaping Our Identity as Southern Baptists."
  2. In 1996, Founders Ministries gave away 2000 copies of Iain Murray's book, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism. We were ridiculed, chastised and questioned by friend and foe alike for "stirring up trouble when there is none." We pressed on with this effort because, as students of history, we know that hyper-Calvinism is a parasite and it only emerges where true Calvinism lives. Because we saw the danger of what might attend the resurgence of true Calvinism, we sought to educate as many people as we could about the issues.
  3. We have, on this blog and elsewhere, repeatedly addressed the error of hyper-Calvinism, calling it pernicious, damnable, and unbiblical.
When I read Dr. Allen's words that "it is time for Calvinists within the convention to come out and say some strong words about hyper-Calvinism" I want to laugh and say, "Welcome to the party, I am sorry it took you so long to get here."

In his review of Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, Dr. Allen raises concerns about my involvement, and Founders Ministries' involvement, in the Building Bridges Conference and raises a question about "two Southern Baptist entities (LifeWay and Southeastern Seminary) partnering with a non-Southern Baptist entity (Founders Ministries) for this kind of conference." He writes,
My concern is with the involvement of the Founders Ministries. For them to be a co-sponsor legitimizes their agenda within the convention, an agenda which is counter productive in my judgment. For SBC entities to partner with any non-SBC group that is polarizing and that represents a small fragment of the convention is problematic.
In response to this, I made the following points: 1) Why then would he tolerate his own seminary's partnership with a non-lordship salvation group like Grace Evangelical Fellowship by hosting them on campus? 2) Why would he support and participate in the John 3:16 conference, sponsored by 3 "Southern Baptist entities" in partnership with Jerry Vines Ministires, a "non-Southern Baptist entity?"

Here is Dr. Allen's rejoinder to this:
First, Dr. Jerry Vines is a Southern Baptist with every right to express his theological disagreement with Calvinism through his own ministry.
Amen. No one is questioning this point. The same is true of me and Founders Ministries.
Second, there is a significant difference in Founders Ministries partnering with SBC entities for a bi-partisan conference, and SBC entities co-sponsoring a partisan conference.
Let me get this straight. If SEBTS and LifeWay had partnered with Founders to sponsor a partisan conference (let's call it, the "Acts 13:48 conference" :-) ), then Dr. Allen would have us believe that he would have had no problem with that? That strikes me as unlikely.

It gets even more confusing. He continues:
Furthermore, since non-partisan SBC entities partnered with partisan Founders Ministries for the Building Bridges Conference, it would seem to me Dr. Ascol would have no grounds to question non-partisan SBC entities partnering with partisan Jerry Vines ministries on this or any subject.
I didn't question him on this. I used his actions (participating in the J316 conference) as an example of doing the very thing that he protested about the Building Bridges Conference. For him to suggest that I was the one who raised this question is convoluted.

I am grateful to read of Dr. Allen describe himself as "one of those who genuinely want to bridge our doctrinal divides and live together with my Calvinist brothers and sisters in true unity and love." I believe him. My critique of what he has written and said do not address the question of his motives. Motives belong to God. I have simply tried to point out that much of what he has written and said has been detrimental to his own stated desire.

I have been informed that an open forum on Calvinism is being hosted tomorrow by Dr. Allen for students and interested parties in the Truett Conference Room on Southwestern's campus. This seems to me to be a good step and I will pray that it will go a long way to clearing up confusion and building more bridges. I recommend that you read Quincy Jones' admonitions at the link above if you plan to attend.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

SBC and Calvinism: Three events that widened the divide

Three events over the last few weeks have called fresh attention to one of the serious doctrinal issues currently brewing in the SBC. There are others, and they are not unimportant, but the one that looms large on the horizon is the debate over Calvinism or reformed theology. Terminology matters, so let me quickly assert that what I mean by "Calvinism" is exactly what the great Southern Baptist statesman, John Broadus, meant when he wrote,
The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin's opinions or actions, but I do not see how any one who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches.
What we are talking about is the sovereignty of God in salvation including unconditional election, total depravity of sinful nature, definite atonement of particular sinners by the death of Christ, the monergistic work of the Spirit in regeneration and the preserving grace of God operating in the life of every believer. We are not talking about sprinkling babies.

The three events that have put the spotlight on this issue recently have come from those who are not merely non-Calvinists, but are more accurately described as anti-Calvinists. They profess to have no axe to grind against Calvinism but their tone and treatment are unhelpful to the kind of fraternal dialogue that Southern Baptists desperately need to be cultivating at this point in our history.

1. Steve Lemke's article
Entitled, "What is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians," in The Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (vol. 5, no. 2, Fall 2008), the good points that Lemke makes are marred by his numerous mistakes and misrepresentations of Calvinism in general and Southern Baptist Calvinists and Calvinism in particular. I will cite only two examples.

First, Dr. Lemke makes the following tired charge about Founders:
Founder's [sic] Movement Calvinists tend to look backward nostalgically to Calvinists of prior generations, to make their Calvinism the focal point of their ministries, to be rather assertive and defensive about their Calvinism, and to be less evangelistic than the average Southern Baptist church.
Dr. Lemke footnotes this by citing a "study" (which is actually his own methodologically flawed survey that has been clearly debunked since he published it) that leads him to his conclusion. Several months ago I applied Steve's methodology to churches that he himself pastored. The results are...well, let me just say that were I to publish them he would be hoisted with his own petard.

Second, Dr. Lemke completely misunderstands Timothy George's ROSES acronym, displaying a failure to understand both Dr. George's theological views and the so-called five points of Calvinism (he was previously corrected on this, also). By the way, Dr. George has been on the advisory board of the Founders Journal for over 15 years. I will not take space here to provide the documentation of Lemke's unfortunate failure to grasp what George has written, but simply refer you to Justin Taylor's and Tim Brister's demonstrations of this point.

2. David Allen's review

Dr. Allen published on the Baptist Theology website a 34 page review of Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue (B and H Academic, 2008), which is a collection of the papers presented at the Building Bridges Conference sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Founders Ministries last year. Dr. Allen uses over 500 words in an attempt to debunk research conducted by the the North American Mission Board and LifeWay Research, both of which indicate that Calvinism is on the rise in the SBC.

Tellingly, he defend's Lemke's previously cited "study" of Founders churches. Allen writes, "The fact is, some brands of Calvinism (hyper-Calvinism and other extreme forms of five-point Calvinism) are in fact less than evangelistic." So are some brands of fundamentalism and Arminiansim, as is evidenced by the general state of churches across the SBC, most of which are not Calvinistic.

I find Dr. Allen's defense of Dr. Lemke's "study" interesting, in light of the fact that, as I have done with churches that Lemke has pastored, I have applied Lemke's methodology to churches that Dr. Allen has pastored, as well. Suffice it say that, if I had a mind to, I could publish those results and, with no less authority than that which Lemke and Allen claim, conclude that "Southwestern and New Orleans seminary administrators" are a threat to evangelism and healthy church life.

Allen repeatedly writes with a condescending tone (examples: "I have been a bit tough on young Finn;" he accuses Tom Nettles of writing with "characteristic brusqueness;") that demonstrates his bias and detracts from his evaluations. Furthermore, his treatment of Malcolm Yarnell's chapter borders on hagiography. While high praise for his colleague at SWBTS could be expected, the detailed criticisms that mark his treatment of other chapters are absent in his evaulations of Dr. Yarnell's contribution. I find it particularly odd that he did not even quibble with Dr. Yarnell's identifying a heretical anti-trinitarian as part of the Baptist family. Any vision of Baptist identity that consciously welcomes heresy into the DNA is dangerous and I would think that other Baptists, regardless of their views on the doctrines of grace, would as well.

Additionally, when Allen finds mistakes in Yarnell's article that he simply cannot ignore, he chalks them up to "technicalities" or "generalities." He completely misses Dr. Yarnell's misunderstanding of a cited article by Mark Dever. Yarnell accuses Dever of using the New Hampshire Confession for the membership of his church but the 1689 Confession for leadership, a position that Dr. Dever has publicly repudiated and which the article Dr. Yarnell read simply does not affirm.

Dr. Allen writes his review with admitted suspicions that there is an agenda afoot in the SBC by Calvinists that everyone should come to hold to a reformed understanding of salvation. He calls attention to a throw-away comment, intended to be humorous, in my chapter. After noting that I was not suggesting that "everyone must or should become a convinced Calvinist," I added, almost parenthetically, "though you would hear no complaints from me were that to happen!" When presented orally, that line got some laughs. Unfortunately, when Allen read it, it caused alarm bells to go off in his head confirming his already suspicious thoughts of the existence of a nefarious Calvinist plot to "Calvinize" the SBC.

Moving beyond the book under review, Allen raises deep concerns about an article published in the Founders Journal, written by Tom Nettles and entitled, "Why Your Next Pastor Should Be a Calvinist." He writes:
I cannot imagine using such a title, much less arguing it in print. A church's next pastor should be the man God leads that church to call, be he Calvinist or no. Imagine the outcry if some group of non-Calvinists should publish an article entitled "Why Your Next Pastor Should not be a Calvinist." Please understand. Ascol is well within his rights to direct the Founders Ministries and to publish such an article in his journal. This is not in question. What is in question is whether such constitutes a problem for the SBC and for Ascol's involvement in a bipartisan conference such as "Building Bridges." Since one cannot distinguish between Ascol the Calvinist pastor and Ascol the director of the Founders Ministries, his presence on the program of the "Building Bridges Conference," given the stated goals of the Founders Ministries, is problematic in my view. Furthermore, what is the precedent for two Southern Baptist entities (LifeWay and Southeastern Seminary) partnering with a non-Southern Baptist entity (Founders Ministries) for this kind of conference? I have already stated I think the conference is a great idea. We need to have more. My concern is with the involvement of the Founders Ministries. For them to be a co-sponsor legitimizes their agenda within the convention, an agenda which is counter productive in my judgment. For SBC entities to partner with any non-SBC group that is polarizing and that represents a small fragment of the convention is problematic.
I would like to know why Dr. Allen has never raised an outcry over the dozens if not hundreds of attempts by denominational employees and others to tell churches that "your next pastor should not be a Calvinist." It is ironic that Allen thinks my presence on the program of Building Bridges was problematic. I am the one who originally suggested the conference.

Allen's concern about the "precedent" for Southern Baptist entities partnering with a "non-Southern Baptist entity" is eerily similar to the response I got from the pre-conservative-resurgence-faculty of Southern Seminary to the sesquicentennial issue of the Founders Journal. They professed shock and dismay that I would publish a picture of "their" library (Boyce) on the cover of the journal. Perhaps Dr. Allen needs to be reminded of Baptist polity in the same way that those liberal professors needed it.

The "entities" and those who serve in them are answerable to all Southern Baptists, including those of us whose theology they may despise. The suggestion that an entity is not "Southern Baptist" because it does not receive Cooperative Program dollars is terribly provincial and betrays a bureaucratic mindset that is no different from that which prevailed before conservatives came to control the SBC.

Furthermore, if this is a matter of conscientious concern for Dr. Allen, then I wonder why he has not raised his voice in protest over the partnering of his own seminary with "non-Southern Baptist entities, such as the Grace Evangelical Fellowship, a non-lordship salvation entity that denies the necessity of repentance for salvation (their "Affirmation of Belief" states, that "no sorrow for sin" or "turning from one's sin" is necessary)? According to the Southwestern website, the seminary is hosting this antinomian Fellowship on campus March 30-April 2, 2009.

The same question arises over the joint sponsorship of 3 of our Cooperative Program-supported-seminaries with Jerry Vines Ministries in the John 3:16 conference. Given the anti-Calvinistic propaganda spread by Dr. Vines, Allen's participation in this conference makes the stated substance of his protest about the sponsorship of Building Bridges ring hollow. One is left to wonder what is really behind his complaint, since his own participation in the John 3:16 Conference betrays his professed reasons for concern.

3. The John 3:16 Conference
The recent John 3:16 Conference was sponsored by Jerry Vines Ministries, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. From what I can tell, this conference is the brainchild of Dr. Vines. Critiques from those who were there have been expressed on various blogs (see Lindsey, Mark and Burleson) and don't need to be rehashed here. Although I must say that any conference that accuses James White of being a hyper-Calvinist loses credibility with thinking people.

The most devastating critique I have read has come from David Miller, who has long been welcomed among the "movement conservative" leaders within the SBC as a stalwart defender of the inerrancy of Scripture and of the need to see conservative theology restored to the convention. Anyone who knows him will testify to his godliness and deep love for God's Word. David is an effective evangelist and his pivotal role in the SBC battle for the Bible is unquestionable, as he was a leader among trustees at Southern Seminary when that institution was in the throes of being rescued from liberalism.

David attended the John 3:16 conference and recently told me of his experience there. He also shared with me some of his evaluations that he passed on to a couple of the sponsors of the conference. The conference, he said, almost inspired him to write a book, the title of which would be, How Many Inconsistencies and Contradictions Can One Hear in Only Five Sermons. "The brethren (presenters)," he said, "not only contradicted each other but themselves as well" while building "straw men" and "knock[ing] them down with Scripture verses taken out of context...with measured sarcasm and no small dose of arrogance."

Do not misinterpret my critique of these events as suggesting that we should not be talking plainly about theological differences in the SBC. Pretending that we all agree, or suggesting that our differences are completely irrelevant would be no more helpful than the kind of dismissive misrepresentations of views that I have pointed out above. Nor am I suggesting that Drs. Lemke, Allen and Vines don't have the right to hold to and argue for their own views.

What I am suggesting is that the approaches exhibited in these three events undermine true understanding and therefore any serious effort to maintain unity. By God's grace there is a growing number of Southern Baptists who genuinely want to bridge our doctrinal divides where we can and who want to live together in true unity and love with those with whom we disagree on some points. Such efforts hold great promise for the future, if they can avoid being sabatoged by those who seem threatened by such a movement.

The John 3:16 conference, along with Allen's review and Lemke's article, do not represent a healthy way forward for Southern Baptists. In fact, if the mischaracterizations, inaccuracies and false accusations that permeate these three events are allowed to become the modus operandi of the non-Calvinists in the SBC, then I fear that those who have predicted the inevitability of a major battle over the doctrines of grace will be proven correct. In fact, some have suggested that this is precisely what certain anti-Calvinists want because they believe that a major fight that erupts soon is their best hope for running Calvinists out of the SBC.

Regardless of the purpose of these kinds of attacks, I pray that all Gospel loving Southern Baptists, whether Calvinists or not, will not be provoked into responding in kind. I learned long ago that another person's sin never justifies my responding sinfully.

Now is the time for Southern Baptists of all stripes to stand up and hold those who misrepresent brethren with whom they disagree accountable for their words and actions. Speak the truth in love and leave the consequences to God. The anti-Calvinists (as opposed to non-Calvinists) are becoming, as one seminary student put it recently, "increasingly irrelevant," especially to younger SBC leaders. While they are writing and preaching to themselves, more and more Gospel-centered Calvinists and non-Calvinsts alike are showing a genuine willingness to link arms in order to move forward to make disciples of the Lord Jesus.

The future belongs to the bridge-builders, not party-builders.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Concerns about the challenge of Calvinism

Clear Creek College
Two stories arrived in my inbox within 24 hours that indicate that Southern Baptists are past the point of avoiding a dialogue about theology. The first came from the September 9, 2008 edition of the Kentucky Baptist Western Recorder. Dennis Fox is the President of Clear Creek Baptist Bible College and contributes a weekly column to the paper. He announces an upcoming conference on "Meeting the Calvinist Challenge." The conference is decidedly "not a debate about Calvinism" but rather a "response to the challenge of Calvinism," which he defines as "the challenge of trying to be 'converted' to Calvinsm."

Dr. Fox is plain-spoken when he writes,
The trustees and administration of Clear Creek made it very clear a few years ago when we publicly stated that we do not teach, promote or endorse Calvinism. We maintain this same position today.
This kind of candor is commendable. While I could wish that Clear Creek would be more open to the theology on which the Southern Baptist Convention was founded, it is certainly the prerogative of the trustees and administration and Kentucky Baptists not to be.

The other story is announces the results of a LifeWay study. Noting the documented growth among younger SBC pastors who identify themselves theologically as "5-point Calvinists," LifeWay Research asked 778 Southern Baptist pastors to agree or disagree with the statement, "The rise of Calvinism among recent seminary graduates concerns me."

The results: "27 percent strongly agreed and another 36 percent somewhat agreed with the statement indicating that they were 'concerned.' Sixteen percent strongly disagreed with the statement and another 17 percent somewhat disagreed. The remaining 5 percent indicated they 'don't know.'"

Call it the return of theology to the SBC. Whatever your attitude about the actual theological points involved there is no escaping the fact that Calvinism is a conversation that the Southern Baptist Convention is going to have. And it will be best addressed in formats initiated by last year's Building Bridges Conference, where the issues are clearly stated and positions are heartily yet respectfully argued.

Does Calvinism present a challenge? Without a doubt it does. If it is true, then we must acknowledge that much that is being taught in our churches today is false. If it is false, then we must acknowledge that those who believe and teach the biblical doctrines historically delineated by that nickname are misled and misleading others. We cannot have it both ways.

I believe that this coming conversation has great potential good as well as for evil. By that I do not mean that it will be good if "our side wins" and "there side looses." What I mean is this: if the kind of thinking that views this dialogue as a "win-lose" proposition and that wants to choose up sides prevails then much evil can erupt from it. If the 63% that are "concerned" decide that they need to declare war on the growing numbers that embrace the doctrines of grace, or if those in the growing minority decide to lock and load on the ones who are concerned, then we can expect an ugly and largely fruitless bloodbath.

If, on the other hand, cooler heads prevail and this issue can be viewed as an intramural debate amongst brothers who are willing to show love and respect to those with whom they disagree, then much good can come from it. This is my prayer. And it is how I want to conduct myself.

Don't misunderstand me. I am NOT suggesting that anyone back off his or her convictions. What I am suggesting is that Southern Baptists grow up and learn how to be ruthlessly biblical in arguing for positions that we believe are derived from the written Word o God and to do so in love and gentleness. Ours is a day that seems to think that solid convictions and genuine humility are mutually exclusive. But truth and love are not opposite choices. Truth requires love and love always rejoices in the truth.

So, let the conversation begin...or in some cases, let it continue. Join it. Don't be shy about it. Nail your theological colors to the mast and speak plainly about your beliefs. And do it without rancor or animosity, but in joy and hope that as we press each other to examine God's Word more carefully, the Lord may well be pleased to give us all greater insight into the truth He has entrusted to us.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue

Broadman and Holman just released the new book, Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, which is a collection of the papers presented at the Building Bridges conference last November. Ray Clendenen and Brad Waggoner have done a great job compiling and editing the presentations. They have also added a Glossary of theological terms by Shawn Wright as well as 3 appendices (authory, subject and Scripture), all of which will make the book much easier to use than it would have been without them.

The audio of the conference has been available since shortly after the meeting. Now that this book is published, anyone can have ready access not only to the words of the speakers but also to the research on which those words were based. Despite criticism from certain sectors of the SBC that the conference received (and continues to receive), this book demonstrates the ability of brothers to come together to speak plainly and respectfully about important issues on which we do not see eye-to-eye. I highly recommend it.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Baptist Standard on the Calvinist Resurgence

The Baptist Standard has published a package of articles on the resurgence of Calvinism. Ken Camp, the managing editor of the Standard, has done a very credible job on the stories. One of them highlights a talk by Leo Garrett on "Baby Boomer Baptist Theologians" in which he contends that at least half of the most influential Baptist theologians in that category are rather Calvinistic.

A second story is about definitions and is better than many that I have seen on the same subject. Once again Dr. Garrett is cited to define "hyper-Calvinism." I still disagree with the inclusion of the first 2 (supralapsarianism and belief in a covenant of redemption) of his 5 points of hyper-Calvinism, but appreciate the alterations he has made in his views from last year. Dr. Garrett is a humble, gracious scholar and it was very wise for the Standard to seek his insights on these issues.

A third story identifies factors that have led to the resurgence of the doctrines of grace over the last two decades. Attention is appropriately focused on John Piper as perhaps the leading human catalyst. Roger Olsen is cited as an appropriate critic of the Piper and the movement. I like Olsen but, not surprisingly, disagree with his assessments.

It doesn't take much insight to know that the Baptist Standard would not celebrate the resurgence on which they report. But they reported on it honestly and are to be commended.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Steve Gaines revives the caricatures of Calvinism

I hope I live long enough to see the day when the common caricatures of the doctrines of sovereign grace have been so widely exposed that any self-respecting preacher will be ashamed to keep serving them up as if they were irrefutable critiques of what John Broadus called "that exalted system of Pauline truth which is technically called Calvinism." Honestly, I don't know what keeps some men from being ashamed of doing so in this present day, given the numerous refutations of those caricatures over the last twenty years. Some doctrinal misrepresentations seem to have a shelf life that is longer than most urban legends.

Steve Gaines illustrated this point again last week in his chapel message delivered at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas. Here are a couple of the straw men that burned to the ground with much ado. After warning his hearers not to "get caught up in [that] theology that says that God just wants to save some" and citing Scriptures that he believes disallow particular redemption, Gaines says (at the 20:20 mark),
It would emaciate my evangelism if I couldn't walk up to a total stranger and say, "Jesus died for you." There's some people who can't do that. They can't do that. They say, "Jesus died for the elect, I hope you're one of them."
I would hate to think that my evangelism would be emaciated by the elimination of something that the New Testament knows nothing of! Nowhere in God's Holy, inerrant Word do we find an evangelistic appeal based on the idea that Jesus died for the particular person being appealed to. Where is there any record of any apostle going up to a person, stranger or not and saying, "Jesus died for you"? Jesus died for sinners as sinners. The promise of salvation is for all who will, through faith, receive Him as Lord. "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31), not "Believe that Jesus died particularly for you."

What does it say about one's understanding of evangelism when it would be "emaciated" unless a statement that the Bible nowhere makes nor instructs us to make can be said? I mean no disrespect, but this highlights much that has gone wrong with the conservative resurgence in the SBC. Too many are willing to thump their Bibles and boldly declare its inerrancy while denying its sufficiency in for matters of faith and practice. If the Bible is inerrant (and I am fully convinced that it is), then shouldn't it be treated with more respect than is shown by those who blatantly neglect (church discipline) or add to (evangelism) its clear teachings?

Gaines' caricature of how those who believe in particular redemption evangelize needs no comment. It is dishonest on its face and I challenge him one example of a Christian who would make such a statement. If such a miscreant were to be found, I would be the first resist him and his God-dishonoring engagement of lost men and women.

Next, Dr. Gaines repeats a canard that should have been put to rest long ago. It was a key point of Jerry Vines' diatribe against Calvinism in 2006. It stems from equating regeneration with the whole work of salvation. Regeneration is sine qua non to salvation, but it is not the full content of salvation. Failure to make that distinction leads to the following fallacious critique (beginning at 24:00):
You cannot be saved until you repent. The same theology that says that Jesus only died for some says, no, no, no, no, no, you repent after you are saved. Number one, that's not even logical. But, number two, it is not biblical. You say, "Oh no, no if you believe you have to repent to be saved then that's works!" You know what that's like" [It's like] saying, go downtown to Dallas, find a guy on the street; he's a beggar, he's sitting there and you go up to him and you say, "You know, I want to give you some money. But, now, don't you reach out your hand because that would be works. Don't you reach out your hand! In fact, when I hand it to you, don't even open your hand because that would be works. I'm just gonna throw it on you and somehow you need to get hold of it. I don't know how. I'm just gonna zap you with some money. Don't you say anything! That'll be works, too." How ridiculous have we gotten. "Oh but that's my system." Get rid of your system and go back to the Bible. Quit reading the Bible through your theology and start getting your theology from the Bible."
Now, I applaud Gaines' insistence that repentance must be preached in the preaching of the Gospel. That is no small thing in this day and age of minimalist preaching. The confusion that his words reflect, however, between reformed theology and dispensational theology is astounding. It is the Reformed understanding of the Gospel that has insisted on the preaching of repentance in the face of those who have attempted to separate repentance from faith.

The recognition of the priority of regeneration in relation to faith and repentance cannot legitimately be construed as teaching that repentance comes only after salvation. It is a misrepresentation that no honest theologian--Reformed or otherwise--would ever make.

Teachers like Zane Hodges have asserted that repentance is not part of Gospel and should not be insisted on in evangelism. But he does so as an advocate of "non-lordship salvation." Gaines would have done much better to take that teaching--that does exist--and critique it rather than building a straw man out of his ill-informed understanding of reformed soteriology and destroying it.

Some will regard my review of Dr. Gaines' remarks as unkind or perhaps even harsh. Such is not my intent. I look forward to the day when this kind of review will be unnecessary because the caricatures that call them forth will have died away. Until that time, those who unabashedly misrepresent the theology and teaching of a growing percentage of Southern Baptist pastors and churches should be held accountable for their words. If doing so causes embarassment, let the cause be rightly traced to the those who perpetuate the caricatures and not to the ones who simply call attention to their misrepresentations.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quick Takes on T4G '08 and the reformed resurgence

I have spent the last couple of days with 5000 friends at the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville. OK, I'm stretching the truth a bit. It hasn't really been two full days. But there are 5000 people here. The preaching has been good and the conversations between the speakers has been fun and encouraging as an example of the value of friendship.

It has been great to bump into several old friends and to make even more new friends. I am encouraged to hear the stories of God's work in various churches and minsitries around the nation--stories of conversions, church plants, church restarts, God's deliverance and providential ordering of lives.... It has been a good reminder of what has been rather quietly taking place across the evangelical world the last couple of decades.

The resurgence (in the case of the SBC, "recovery") of reformed theology has begun to catch the attention of more and more folks. Collin Hansen's book, Young, Restless, Reformed, will further help to tell some of the story of this resurgence. I had lunch with Collin yesterday. Though he interviewed me for the book, this was the first time I had the privilege of meeting him face-to-face. He is a great guy and it was interesting to hear his "outsider's" perspective on Calvinism in the SBC. Be sure to read that chapter in his book. What Collin observed is exactly what some of us have been saying for the last 8 years. Some (much?) of the response to the revival of the doctrines of grace is more politically than theologically scripted. Collin found this surprising, which simply confirms that he is, indeed, an SBC outsider.

The resurgence is being noticed by those across the spectrum in SBC life. Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary's theological journal, which is scheduled to published in the next few weeks, contains an article by me entitled, "The Way We Were and Are Becoming Again: The Resurgence of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention." I also was interviewed this week by the Texas Baptist Standard that, in conjunction with some other state Baptist papers, are doing a package of stories on this very issue. Who knows how those stories will turn out? But I must say, I was impressed with many of the questions. They were thoughtful and seemed not to be agenda-driven.

Some have raised honest questions about how widespread the resurgence is. Compared to the larger evangelical world, it is true--the reformed movement is still very small. But unlike other movements, it is theologically driven and is recovering doctrinal and biblical insights from the past. These distinctive features give it some strength and substance that will make it more formidable for the long haul than the fads that come and go with some regularity.

Those who believe the doctrines of grace have reason to be encouraged, and no reason to be complacent. There is a real recovery of the Gospel taking place. Those who are reformed are helping lead the way. We have many reasons to pray and to keep pressing forward in seeking the renewal of existing churches and the planting of new ones.

I plan to write more about this in the weeks ahead.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Other Resurgence - FJ 71

The theme of the latest Founders Journal (71) is "the other resurgence." It contains articles by Tom Nettles and Christian George, representing the "old guard" of the reformation efforts within the SBC and the rising generation who is similarly committed to those efforts.

Dr. Nettles needs no introduction to most of the readers of this blog. His teaching and writing ministries have been blessed of God to call many back to our biblical and historical roots as Southern Baptists. His book, By His Grace and For His Glory (recently revised, updated and republished by Founders Press) has never even been seriously engaged, much less refuted by those who lament the resurgence of the doctrines of grace among Baptists over the last 25 years. It is a classic work. Tom's article in this issue of the Founders Journal is entitled, "Why Your Next Pastor Should Be a Calvinist." I highly recommend it.

Christian George is the son of Dr. Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Christian is also an author (his latest book is Sex, Sushi and Salvation) and is about to being working on a PhD at St. Andrews. His article is entitled, "Younger Evangelicals and a Restlessness for Revival." It reveals the heartbeat of the twentysomethings that are hungry for authentic Christianity.

My editorial in this issue of the FJ looks at the "Calvinistic Resurgence" in light of the "Conservative Resurgence" and makes two points. First, the latter did not occur without significant controversy, which makes the makes the castigations against the doctrines of grace and those who believe them as being "controversial" lose their force (especially when they come from the very controversialists who led the charge in the 1st CR). Second, despite all of the good that was done in the 1st CR, by and large, the Southern Baptist Convention is in need of dramatic renewal in our day. Arguably, our churches are worse off today than they were in 1979.

We place every issue of the Founders Journal online about 6 months after they are published in print. This long-standing policy inevitably decreases the number or print subscribers that we have, but it furthers the goal of Founders Ministries, which is to work for the recovery of the Gospel and the reformation of local churches everywhere.

If you are not a subscriber to the journal, this would be a great time to become one. You may sign up by going here.

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Galyon interviews Wagner

James Galyon has a very informative interview with SBC presidential candidate, Bill Wagner. Dr. Wagner, in an earlier interview, made the statement that he thinks Calvinistic Southern Baptists are less missional than the non-Calvinistic Southern Baptists. Dr. Galyon challenges this statement and provides a wonderful overview of missionary efforts in the early Reformed movement.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Bill Wagner: Calvinists are "less missional"

SBCtoday has posted another of their informative interviews. This time it is with Dr. Will Wagner, former IMB missionary and professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He was the first person to announce his candidacy for the SBC presidency to be decided in upcoming convention meeting this June.

Among the many questions Wagner addressed, one had to do with the resurgence of Reformed theology in the SBC. His answer was rather convoluted. After acknowledging that he finds the question "very interesting," he offers what he hopes is a "blunt" response.
I feel that we as Southern Baptists are a very large organization. And there is ..
There is plenty of room for Calvinists and Armenians [sic] within the Southern Baptists. I think tha we should not really make this that much of an issue.

However, I have spoken to a lot of our missionaries overseas and its a very strange thing because our missionaries have said that we are beginning to get more and more people out on the field who are Calvinistic in their theology, and it is strange, but those that are Calvinistic are not nearly as desirous of winning people to Christ as they are about talking about theology. So I am little bit fearful, that if Calvinism begins to have too much influence, that we might go the way of some of the other Protestant denominations have gone and that is to deemphasize our missions.

Now, I know of a lot of tremendous missionaries who are Calvinists. But I say, by and large, Calvinists have a tendency to be less missional in their approach.
Dr. Wagner seems like a very nice man. He has some thoughtful responses to the questions that he was asked. I appreciate his candor in responding to this one. My own experience has been far different from what he has described. Most of the Southern Baptists I know who are Calvinistic are very evangelistic, and most of the missional guys I know are rather Calvinistic. That holds true for those who are in the states and those who are serving in other countries.

Missionaries from our church helped plant the first church among an unreached, overwhelmingly Muslim people. We have another family preaching the Gospel at one of the international crossroads of Muslims who come from some of the most restricted countries in the world. Another of our families is researching and trying to chart information on unreached peoples that have been overlooked or unknown to modern missiologists. God has recently opened a door for our church to become aggressively involved in evangelistic and church planting efforts among one of the most unreached people groups in the world. We are partnering with other Southern Baptist churches who share our theological and missional convictions.

Again, this may simply be a difference in relationships and experiences between Dr. Wagner and me. However, his suggestion that the SBC may go the way of liberal mainline denominations is, at best, terribly ill-informed. Even a superficial reading of history shows that it is the lessening of Calvinistic convictions, not their resurgence, that has led to spiritual and doctrinal decline among Baptists and other evangelical groups. Listen to Tom Nettles' presentation at the Building Bridges conference or read his article in the soon-to-be-mailed issue of the Founders Journal on, "Why Your Next Pastor Should Be a Calvinist."

I am grateful for Dr. Wagner's willingness to address the question with such a charitable spirit. Obviously, I do not share his fears. The resurgence of Calvinism within the SBC bodes well for our churches and missional efforts. It is leading to a reexamination of what the Gospel actually is, which is leading to a recovery of that Gospel and a more thoughtful, biblical approach to proclaiming it. And that is the foundation of reformation and revival.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

John 3:16 Conference

Jerry Vines Ministries is hosting a "John 3:16 Conference" at First Baptist Church, Woodstock on November 6-7, 2008. While the final schedule of the meetings will be posted later, according to the website, the following lineup is listed.
  • John 3:16 - Dr. Jerry Vines
  • John 3:16 to the entire world - Dr. Charles Stanley
  • Total Depravity - Dr. Paige Patterson
  • Unconditional Election - Dr. Richard Land
  • Limited Atonement - Dr. David Allen
  • Irresistible Grace - Dr. Steve Lemke
  • Perseverance of the Saints - Dr. Ken Keathley
No explanation or elaboration is given about the rationale for the conference. All of the speakers are gifted, competent ministers. Hopefully the messages will be made available online. This has the potential to be one of the best contemporary engagements of the so-called five points of Calvinism by those who, generally, disagree with them (or at least most of them).

While, given what I know about the preachers, I do not expect to agree with many of their conclusions, I welcome this kind of theological dialogue. Isn't it great that Southern Baptists are talking about important matters of biblical theology rather than whether or not to ordain homosexual men to the gospel ministry?

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Luther Rice's Calvinism

When you talk about Luther Rice and Calvinism, you need to clarify whether you are referring to the man or the seminary that bears his name. Dr. James Flanagan, the President of the Luther Rice Seminary, recently wrote about Calvinism in his "President's Perspective" column in the Pioneer (Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring 2008).

He chose to address this topic, he says, because he is often asked by alumni "where Luther Rice stands on issues related to Calvinism." Well, where Luther Rice the school stands is decidedly different from where Luther Rice the man after whom it is named stood (and still stands!).

Luther Rice the man made this observation in a letter to a friend:
How absurd it is, therefore, to contend against the doctrine of election, or decrees, or divine sovereignty.
His biographer, James B. Taylor, contends that it is beyond doubt that Rice held to the doctrine of "divine decrees." However, consider what Luther Rice added immediately after the above extract:
Let us not, however, become bitter against those who view this matter in a different light, nor treat them in a supercilious manner; rather let us be gentle towards all men. For who has made us to differ from what we once were? Who has removed the scales from our eyes? Or who has disposed us to embrace the truth?
He was a Calvinist who acted like one--or at least like how one should act. If those who claim to believe most strongly in God's grace do not act graciously then their conduct undermines their profession.

While Dr. Flanagan does not hold to Luther Rice's theology at this point, he does exude his spirit. I think his article is, in many ways, a model of how dialogue about this issue should take place. By that, I mean that his spirit is irenic while his convictions are clearly stated. Obviously, I disagree with some of his points and I would challenge his arguments in places. But the way he has written invites such dialogue. I don't get the impression that he would be offended by such an exchange. In fact, he writes,
Much of this conversation is an attempt to emphasize the common ground shared by Baptists and other evangelicals, but to say that we all march to the same drummer because we share a common belief in eternal security is inadequate. There are significant questions that need to be asked and substantive differences that need to be brought to the fore if we are to make headway[.]
Dr. Flanagan makes it clear that he will not hire anyone who believes in particular redemption ("limited atonement"). He defends that position by stating:
We believe that Jesus' death is sufficient to save all mankind but is efficacious only for those who believe. We reject the notion that Jesus died just for the elect.
I wonder how he would feel about someone who believed this: "The death of God's Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world."

That quote comes from the 2nd head of doctrine of the Canons of Dort. I believe that some of the angst that my non-Calvinist friends have about particular redemption would be lessened if they read the statements of Dort carefully at this point. I am not suggesting that they would all become convinced of particular redemption, but they might come to recognize that it is not a view to be lightly dismissed. In fact, I believe some would discover that they are far closer to Dortian Calvinism at this point than they ever imagined.

A second place where I would graciously challenge Dr. Flanagan's argument is in his treatment of the secret vs. revealed will of God. He rejects this approach while citing God's instructions to Abraham to kill Isaac as a passage that is "commonly cited as proof of these supposed dual volitions." He offers no alternative, however understanding, however. What does one do with this passage? Was it God's will for Abraham to kill Isaac, or was it not? To make the point even more starkly, "Was the death of Jesus God's will, or was it not?" I can argue that it both was and was not. It was because Christ was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world and, as He repeatedly told His disciples, this was the reason that He came. It was not because God has expressed His will in His law, which says, "Thou shalt not murder." This is a conundrum not only for Calvinists. The recognition that God has a revealed will as well as a secret or decreed will is the best solution that I have heard that maintains the integrity of the sacred text.

Dr. Flanagan ends his article with these gracious words:
Obviously, there are many issues related to this topic that we cannot get into in such a short article; hopefully this essay has given you an idea of where we stand. We do not think that those who differ with us on these doctrines are heretics. They are good and godly brothers and sisters. Many have achieved a level of scholarship that we can only admire, and their passion for the glory of God is evident. We rejoice in the good that they are doing for the cause of Christ. On these important issues, however, we believe they have greatly erred.
It does not offend me in the least for a brother to point out that he thinks I am in error, especially when he has tried to point it out to me with sincerity absent any caricature. It is this spirit that will facilitate the kind of discussions that brothers and sisters in the SBC need to be having.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Prime Time America interview, and what all the attention on Calvinism indicates

Moody Radio's Prime Time America is scheduled to broadcast a story today for which I was interviewed. I don't know when the segment will air but the show starts at 5PM Eastern time. It is about (what else?) the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC. Phil Fleischman did a great job with the interview and indicated that he also interviewed Paige Patterson for the story. In addition to being heard on Moody stations it will be available on their website and will be archived after the broadcast.

All of the interest in this subject is good for a variety of reasons. First, it is evidence that a doctrinal renewal is taking place within the SBC. That has been obvious to some of us for years, but it has been harder to convince others. Some simply haven't been too observant, but others, I think, just don't want to face up to the reality of what it taking place, largely out of fear that is based on misunderstanding or at least incomplete understanding. If I believed some of the popular caricatures about Calvinism and Calvinists then I, too, would be afraid of a so-called "Calvinistic resurgence." I should also add that if some of the worst examples of those who call themselves Calvinists are representative of the resurgence, then I would also be fearful of it. But the caricatures are simply that and the radical extremists may make a lot of noise but are very small in number and do not represent the movement.

A second reason this attention is a good thing is that it is provoking some serious investigation into what is going on. Collin Hansen, who wrote the famous, "Young, Reformed, Restless" cover story for Christianity Today last year, has a full length book on the resurgence coming out in early April. I have read the manuscript and found it very helpful in putting human faces on the resurgence. Also, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary's journal, Theology for Ministry, plans to have an article on this in the upcoming May issue. The more this movement is investigated, the more the caricatures will be exposed and the truth will be brought to light. That is not to suggest that there are no negative realities within the movement. There are, and where they exist, they will be brought to light as well. Anyone who is familiar with the history of reformation and revival knows well that the devil always keeps pace with what the Lord does in seasons of renewal. What is happening today is no exception and those of us who count ourselves a part of this movement should not resist the kind of honest critique that others might make of us. In fact, we need it so that we can be helped to see what we otherwise might overlook or ignore.

A third reason that I believe this kind of attention is a good thing is that it will cause some people to take a fresh look at things the Bible teaches. This is always a valuable exercise. Too often we become perfunctory in our Bible reading. Anything that awakens us to reexamine Scripture with greater care will serve us well.

I have to confess some aversion to being asked about Calvinism in the SBC. By trying to answer some of the questions that come my way I find that some people think that this is all that I care about, or what I am most passionate about. That is simply not true. As I stated to some friends recently, my fear is not the the SBC is not Calvinistic enough, but that it is not Christian enough. My understanding of what is happening is this: the revival of biblical Christianity within the SBC is provoking a resurgence of the doctrines of grace. There are many who are genuinely concerned about the former who are not "five-point-Calvinists," and that doesn't bother me at all. What I have discovered is that brothers and sisters in that camp are not fearful about the "resurgence of Calvinism," either. That kind of mutual respect and common commitment provides the groundwork for genuine unity and healthy cooperation. I am greatly encouraged to see it happening on an ever-increasing scale.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Christianity Today: TULIP Blooming in the SBC

In a rather poor article in Christianity Today Ken Walker takes note of the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC. Ten years ago, that might have been news. Today it is, at best, old news.

There are some good quotes by Al Mohler and Timothy George and a not-so-good-one by Frank Page. What is disappointing is the Walker's obvious misunderstanding of the issues involved, as evidenced by this paragraph:
Mohler said a deepening interest in theology is driving younger Southern Baptists to explore Reformed thinking, and he dismisses the fear of some that the budding Calvinist wing will tilt the SBC back toward its 19th-century anti-missionary movement.
Southern Baptists fought against the "anti-missionary" mindset--both the theological and the ecclesiological kind--that pocketed American Baptist life in the 19th century. To suggest otherwise is at best irresponsible journalism.

Timmy Brister has written a very cogent response in which he addresses Page's comment that,
The totality of history shows the vast majority of Baptists have not been [Calvinists], so why go back to the founders?...I think we need to go back to the Bible.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Southern Baptist Evangelists lament the recovery of Calvinism

Baptist Press reports the gathering of 15 "prominent" evangelists in Jackson. The meeting was initiated by Jerrry Drace to discuss issues that they judge vital to their ministries. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, the growing recovery of our denomination's doctrinal heritage is one of their great concerns. The other is the seeker-sensitive approach to ministry.

I have classified some of the reported comments of participants into 4 categories.

1. Concerns that every Southern Baptist Calvinist I know would share, assuming the scenario that is described is accurate (Calvinists in the SBC have been so long and are so often caricatured that this caveat is understandably necessary).
Drace told the group he currently is working with some young pastors who are "so leaning in this morphed Calvinism that they almost laugh at evangelism. It's almost to the extent that they believe they don't have to do it. So [Calvinism] gives them an excuse not to do evangelism."
Anyone professing Christian who laughs--or "almost laughs"--at evangelism should be sharply rebuked. I hope brother Drake will do exacdly that.
Sammy Tippit of San Antonio, Texas, asked if some of the seeker-friendly approach could be attributed to a backlash against the type of manipulation people see in televangelists.
I think he is partially correct. More and more serious pastors and churches are growing weary of seeing people emotionally jerked around by well-intentioned but biblically shallow preachers. Such manipulation is not limited to televangelists.

2. Concerns that leave me wondering exactly how Calvinism got implicated.
Wayne Bristow of Edmond, Okla. added that he's distressed about having to "tiptoe" around terminology for fear someone will misunderstand or take his comments another direction. For example, he said he has always told people who have asked that he can preach and give an invitation with authority and confidence because he believes in the sovereignty of God.

"When I preach I know the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of people in that congregation -– arresting them, convicting them, convincing them and drawing them to Christ," Bristow said. "If I didn't believe that, I have no authority; I have no confidence. All I did would be in my own strength, and I would be forced immediately into a ministry of manipulation. But we live in a time now where [Calvinism] has come so much to the forefront that when you say something like that then … you've got to be labeled."
I am not certain where the Bible teaches that one's authority is based on being certain that when he preaches the Spirit is arresting, convicting, convincing and drawing the hearers to Christ, but that is beside the point (to say nothing of a "ministry of manipulation"). Is the concern that Calvinists will question that kind of thinking or label it? I just don't understand the concern.

3. Concerns that sound like the greatest problem with the seeker-sensitive "system" is that it prevents vocational evangelists like those at the meeting from being invited to preach in churches that employ it.
"When the pastor preaches on Sunday morning in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, do you think he's going to bring in this fire-breathing evangelist who wears a tie and black suit and have him stand up there and tell people that they are going to hell?" Michael Gott of Keller, Texas, asked rhetorically.

"Do you think he's going to change that whole user-friendly approach to have somebody like you or me tell people that they must recognize there's something wrong, and what's wrong must be changed, and the only one to change it is Jesus Christ.
We're not even within the system," Gott said. "It's not like [leaders] are rejecting evangelists, but the system has eliminated the role of the vocational evangelist. That is going to have to be changed by seminaries, by denominational leaders who challenge churches to use an evangelist.
These comments speak for themselves.

4. Concerns that puzzle me in the way that they are expressed:
"Southern Baptists neglected serious Christian education from the early 1960s, and that's when all the trouble started. From discipleship training we went to the amorphous youth groups, whose only real good was to keep kids happy until they graduated from high school and graduated from church. Now, you have a generation [of college students] who have come along and want something deeper and they have latched onto Calvinism" [emphasis added].

Poe said the "greatest missionary" for Calvinism in the local church is John Piper, a Reformed Baptist theologian, preacher and author who currently serves as pastor for preaching and vision of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Two of his most popular books are "Desiring God" and "Let the Nations be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions."

"He's effective because he's so passionate," Poe said. "He holds huge, stadium-type events that are rip-roaring. There's nobody else doing anything like that so he becomes [Calvinism's] expositor. But John Piper's version of Calvinism is not something John Calvin would espouse, or even that Charles Spurgeon [British reformed Baptist preacher] would espouse.

"Calvinism has an appeal because it tends to have an answer for everything -– you can explain everything [by saying] that God predestined it."
Is the rise of Calvinism really "trouble?" No one questions John Piper's passion. But to attribute his effectiveness to that one quality is naive at best. There are lots of passionate arminian preachers. I dare say that most if not all of those gathered for this meeting would be classified such. Could it be that Piper's effectiveness stems from his Christ-centeredness and biblical fidelity? To declare that Calvin and Spurgeon would not espouse what Piper teaches (on the doctrines of grace) is debatable, though not really that important.

To claim that Calvinism's appeal is its tendency to "have an answer for everything" borders on hubris. I don't know what type of "Calvinism" Poe has been observing but whatever it is, it is foreign to me. Furthermore, and more troublesome, if his assessment is accurate, then it is an indictment on the thousands and thousands of young leaders who are coming to embrace the doctrines of grace, suggesting that their motivation stems from wanting "to have an answer for everything" rather than wanting to know and believe whatever God has revealed in His Word.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Said at Southern podcast

Tony Kummer, Tim Brister and others launched a blog last summer called, "Said at Southern." It regularly has very helpful information that is relevant not only to those connected with Southern Seminary. Anyone interested in current trends in evangelicalism and the SBC will not be disappointed by regular visits to the site.

One feature I just discovered is SAS podcasts. I just listened to Kummer's interview with Dr. Brad Waggoner of LifeWay Resources. It is insightful and encouraging. It is entitled, "Podcast #4 - Brad Waggoner on Calvinism, the Gospel and the SBC." At about 15 minutes in Waggoner addresses the rise in the Reformed understanding of salvation within the SBC, but don't skip over the part before that or after it, because the whole interview is very good. He also talks about the upcoming Building Bridges Conference on Southern Baptists and Calvinism. If you have not registered for this historic event, you should do so asap!.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A conference on Southern Baptists and Calvinism

Today at the Founders Breakfast in San Antonio, I announced an upcoming conference on "Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism." The conference is being jointly sponsored by Founders Minstries and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is scheduled for November 26-28 at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina.

Details will be made public over the next few weeks. The reason for making the announcement now is to encourage people to hold the dates and begin making plans for what promises to be a historic gathering for Southern Baptists.

The purpose of this conference is to bring together Southern Baptists of various theological commitments in order to hear pointed presentations and dialogue about what is arguably the most important theological movement among us today. It is certainly one of the most controversial movements on the scene. Some people seem to despise those doctrines that have historically been denominated Calvinism. Others greatly fear them. Some caricature them beyond recognition.

Among the proponents of Calvinism there are some who seem to be more interested in winning theological debates than in advancing the Kingdom of God by preaching Jesus Christ. Others allow their commitment to God's sovereignty in salvation to excuse their lack of evangelistic passion or to justify a pugilistic spirit.

It is time for Southern Baptists to come together to discuss openly and honestly these particular doctrines of grace that once were the theological consensus among our forebears and is now becoming more prominent among us again. The organizers of this historic gathering envision sessions addressing the strengths and weaknesses of both Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic positions on salvation. The presentations will be exegetical, theological, apologetic, passionate and pastoral. Our desire is for the issues to be addressed in what I call a ruthlessly biblical manner. Such an approach will be neither rude nor superficial. Rather, if our goals are met, they will be energetic, thoughtful and humble and all who participate will walk away with a deeper respect for arguments both for and against the Reformed understanding of salvation. More importantly, we hope that all will recognize more clearly the glory of God displayed in the salvation that He has provided for sinners in the person and work of His Son. That is something which both Calvinists and non-Calvinists need in increasing supplies.

Please join me in praying that the Lord will use this opportunity to strengthen the fellowship and spiritual health of His people known as Southern Baptists. I believe that both are within reach.

Stay tuned for forthcoming details.