Thursday, March 04, 2010

Memo: How to smoke out a Calvinistic pastor in your church

Yesterday I was sent the following 3 documents that have been circulating in Western Tennessee among some Southern Baptist Churches. It seems that they were distributed at seminars being held for churches to teach "how to find out if any of your staff are Calvinists and how to get rid of them." Since receiving them I have communicated with others who have verified that they are being made available to Southern Baptist churches in Tennessee, not by any official denominational worker, but by zealous people who view the doctrines of grace as heresy. I am trying to contact one or more of those persons in hopes of better understanding what has provoked this mission.

The first document is in the form of a memo and is entitled, "Reformed Red Flags." It contains a list of 16 "behaviors" to look for when seeking to smoke out Calvinistic pastors. Number 3 on the list is "use of the ESV Study Bible." Someone should alert Crossway immediately. Founders made the list, as did John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, RC Sproul, James White and the first Southern Baptist confession of faith (which is still used at Southern and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminaries, and which even the famous non-Calvinist Paige Patterson has signed), the Abstract of Principles.

To read the documents in a larger size, click on them.


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The second document is entitled, "Theological differences between Traditional Southern Baptist and Extreme Calvinists." It seems to be a warmed over version (and perversion) of some of the things that Fisher Humphreys put in his book, God So Loved the Word: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism. Most of the depictions of Calvinism in this document are built on the caricatures found in the previous one and many of the views described as "Traditional Baptist" are held by all evangelical Calvinists. Granted, I know the document purports to deal with "Extreme Calvinists," but I defy anyone to capture and put on display such a creature as described below. Are some Calvinists unbalanced? Yes. Are some jerks? Yes. Is there a danger that the profile given below of extreme Calvinism is sweeping into Southern Baptist churches? No. The kind of inaccurate and distorted representations are easy to make (anyone who reads blogs knows this) but they violate the 9th Commandment and should be renounced by anyone--Calvinist or not--who genuinely takes the Bible to be the Word of God written.


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The last of the documents is recommended to churches to use with new pastors and staff members. The desire expressed in this document that a pastor be forthcoming in doctrinal convictions is commendable. It assumes, however, that the church to which it is recommended does not have a historic Southern Baptist confession of faith (most notably, the Charleston Confession, Abstract of Principles or New Hampshire Statement). A case can even be made that the Baptist Faith and Message is largely a Calvinistic statement, though not as explicit as earlier Southern Baptist confessions. The problem with many of our churches is not that pastors are coming in and trying to teach some "new" doctrine. Rather, it is that they often have drifted from their own stated doctrinal foundations through neglect or liberalism or pragmatism. When a pastor begins to restore those foundations, what he teaches can sound new when in reality it is fully in accord with the church's own doctrinal statements.


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Much could be said about the wickedness and ignorance behind a campaign to "smoke out" Calvinistic pastors using these dubious tools. However, I want to conclude by issuing a plea to my fellow pastors who may be more reformed in our understanding than others in the SBC. Though these documents promote caricatures and distortions, they are a sad reminder that this is the way that at least some people perceive us. As I have indicated, I don't know anyone who fits the profile that these documents present. I doubt such a person exists within the SBC. Nevertheless, this is how some people perceive us.

What shall we do? Protest and return fire with fire? Point out the practical (and sometimes, doctrinal) Pelagianism of our less Calvinistic brothers? Become defensive and try to answer each accusation point-by-point? I don't think that response is called for. Saying nothing of Proverbs 26:4 for the present, I instead recommend that we take the opportunity to examine ourselves and our ministries and see if there are any kernels of truth whatsoever in the accusations on which the caricatures are built. Enemies can help us even when they are trying to destroy us. Learning from them does not mean that we agree with the charges or judge them fair.

Caricatures die in the presence of long, consistent evidence to the contrary. Our agenda is not to be set by accusations (or even affirmations). We have the Word of God for that. Let's examine ourselves in the light of that Word and determine to live wholeheartedly for our crucified and risen Savior. Critics will come and critics will go. What ultimately matters faithfulness to our Lord expressed through obedience to His Word.

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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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