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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