Sunday, September 30, 2007

Radio Interview with Mike Corley

Mike Corley has invited me to be on his radio show Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 12:15 Central Time. It is available live on the internet from his site and also on the Salem Radio Network. We will be discussing "Do We Need Revival or Reformation?"

Thursday, September 27, 2007

CT on Mark Driscoll

I have never met Mark Driscoll but much of what I know about him I appreciate. How can you not like a guy who goes to Seattle and plants a church that is rock-solid on the Gospel? Or someone who refuses to compromise on biblical manhood and womanhood in that context? Or someone who is unashamedly reformed in his understanding of how the Gospel works but doesn't put it on his calling card? Or someone who has helped motivate and equip hundreds of young pastors to plant churches around the world?

I have heard the criticisms, and read some of the crudeness that has come from his pen. I would never try to justify vularity, no matter what the source. But I have also heard of Driscoll's repentance, and read some of his humble expressions of it. Dr. Danny Akin and Southeastern Seminary took some heat for having Driscoll on campus recently at the Convergent Conference. But, as he does so well, Driscoll poked some of those critics in the eye by pointing out that the North Carolina Baptist Convention has invited Doug Pagitt to speak at a church leaders' conference October 16. [EDIT: I have been informed that this invitation has been withdrawn by the BSCNC]

The September issue of Christianity Today has a good article on Driscoll ("Pastor Provocateur") by Collin Hansen. It's worth reading. Here are a couple of the better quotes.
Jennifer McKinney, director of the women's studies program at Seattle Pacific University, says she started teaching about the sociology of gender in part because of issues raised at nearby Mars Hill. She notices that many female students who attend Mars Hill abandon career ambitions as social workers or youth pastors. Instead, they prepare to become wives and mothers.

"I can't say that folks who go to this church are not active, thinking beings," McKinney says. "But the perception on campus is that these women completely change."
Don't you just love it! I can't say that Professor McKinney is a narrow-minded feminist but the perception is that she thinks women who esteem the roles of wife and mother are idiots. You have to appreciate a church and ministry that makes a self-styled Christian university nervous because of the transformation of lives.

Here is Driscoll's very Driscollesque summary of the reformed faith:
"People suck, and God saves us from ourselves."
Finally, Driscoll on the relationship between Fundamentalism and the Emergent Church:
"Fundamentalism is really losing the war, and I think it is in part responsible for the rise of what we know as the more liberal end of the emerging church," Driscoll says. "Because a lot of what is fueling the left end of the emerging church is fatigue with hardcore fundamentalism that throws rocks at culture. But culture is the house that people live in, and it just seems really mean to keep throwing rocks at somebody's house."
Read the article and pray for Mark Driscoll.

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!.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

In praise of bivocational pastors

In eternity, when the full story is finally known, the significant work of bivocational preachers will finally be appreciated. Though it is common to think of pastoral ministry primarily or even exclusively in terms of "full time" (or "fully funded") positions, much faithful service has been rendered to Christ's Church by men who serve as pastors while also being employed in other vocations. Today it is estimated that 60-65% of Southern Baptist churches are served by bivocational pastors.

In his Lectures on the History of Preaching (50-51), John Broadus quotes a passage from John Chrysostom "in which he bestows generous and exuberant eulogy on the country preachers around Antioch" in the late 4th century. From his Homilies on the Statutes (XIX), Broadus quotes the following:
You might see each of them now yoking oxen to the plow, and cutting a deep furrow in the ground, at another time with their word cleaning out sins from men's souls. They are not ashamed of work, but ashamed of idleness, knowing that idleness is a teacher of all wickedness. And while the philosophers walk about with conspicuous cloak and staff and beard, these plain men are far truer philosophers, for they teach immortality and judgment to come, and conform all their life to these hopes, being instructed by the divine writings.
Such "good and useful men," Broadus notes, "have abounded...in every period, country and persuasion in which Christianity was making any real and rapid progress."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chapman's call to prayer and the elephant in the corner

Dr. Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee, called on Southern Baptists to pray during his report to the excom earlier this week. Specifically, he said that we need to be praying for God to bless us with "His wisdom, His glory, His holiness and His witness of Jesus Christ."

Amen.

Those 4 concerns are vitally important and should be focal points of our praying. But sometimes, I wonder if prayer is tantamount to hypocrisy, or at least a cover for our clear disobedience to God's revealed will.

When the Israelites, still basking in the displays of God's power in their victory over Jericho, were humiliated in their efforts to conquer Ai, Joshua and elders of Israel fell on their faces for hours and cried out to God in heart-felt prayer (Joshua 7:6-9).

God's response is very instructive as well as timely for Southern Baptists. He said, "Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face? Israel has sinned ...." (7:10-11a). There was sin in the camp due to Achan's violation of God's clearly revealed will. Because of this, it wasn't time to pray. It was time to act. The sin must be addressed before it would even be appropriate for Joshua to pray for God's blessing.

God had clearly spoken, making known His will that the Israelites were not to take any of the "accursed things" from Jericho and that all of the silver, gold, bronze and iron was to be placed in the treasury of the Lord (6:18-19). Achan did not do this, but stole some of the forbidden things (7:1).

Then, when Israel marched on Ai, expecting God to go with their army as He had at Jericho, the Lord let them flounder in defeat. In the wake of that humilation, Joshua and the elders pray. And the Lord, in effect, tells them to stop praying and to get up and correct the sin that is in the camp.

I have often wondered what that scene must have looked like from heaven's perspective? His people are praying for His blessing while violating His revealed will. It must have appeared to be highly presumptuous in the sight of God.

Granted, Joshua did not yet know about Achan's sin. When it was made known to him, he did not pretend like it was no big deal, or ignore it, or justify it or make excuses about why it couldn't be addressed. We don't read about him saying, "But Lord, we don't want to violate the autonomy of the local clan."

Which brings me to the elephant in the corner of our SBC zion. I am grateful for Dr. Chapman's call to prayer. We desperately need what only God can provide. But isn't it time for our leaders to do something about the elephant that is stinking up the room? Of course, I am talking about the horrible, God-dishonoring fact that most of our SBC church members give no signs of spiritual life. If you can assume that merely showing up at church is a minimum indicator of spiritual life then it is not too much to conclude that over half of our denomination's 16.3 million members are spiritually dead.

We are Baptists. We say and have repeatedly confessed in our writings that we believe we understand the Bible to teach God's clearly revealed will that a local church should be comprised only of regenerate members. We have, historically, been champions of our Lord's teachings on church discipline. We believe that by doing so we are merely submitting to the revealed will of our Master. Or at least, we used to believe and do those things.

What must it look like to heaven when we pray for the Lord's guidance and blessings as we intentionally ignore and refuse to do what He has called us to do? I think it must look like presumption and hypocrisy.

The issue of our inflated statistics and regenerate church membership has gained increasing attention over the last 2 years. Even some leaders are now admitting that we have a problem (see here and here) . But admitting to a problem and calling for action on it are two different things. It is time for Southern Baptist pastors, churches and denominational leaders to stand up and say unequivocally,
"We have sinned. Our churches are filled with unconverted members. Our evangelism has too often encouraged this very malady, and we must repent!"
We must have reformation in our church life. It will not be easy. It will not be painless. But it is absolutely necessary if we are serious about desiring God's blessing."

Do we want His wisdom? It is displayed in the church that is ordered according to His Word (Ephesians 3:10).

Do we want His glory? It is displayed to those who humbly seek Him in obedience to His revealed will (Exodus 33:18-34:7).

Do we want His holiness? Then we must obey His will, delight in what He delights in and do what He commands (1 Peter 1:14-16)/

Do we want His witness to shine through us? It will, when we live differently from the world and bear His image in lives of obedience and good works (Matthew 5:16; 1 Peter 2:9-12).

These are all things for which we must pray. But let our prayers be without presumption. We must be willing to deal honestly and humbly with our sin--particularly with the sin of churches filled with unregenerate members.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Thursday Radio Interview on WNYG

Chris Arnzen of WNYG in New York has invited me to be on his "Iron Sharpens Iron" radio talk show this Thursday from 3-4 PM Eastern time, to discusss Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism. It can be heard live via their website. Archived copies of the programs are also available.

On Friday, September 21, from 3-PM I will participate in a "Pastors' Roundtable" on the same program. It is also available on the links above.

Monday, September 17, 2007

More from Spurgeon on courage

From a paper on Spurgeon's preaching:

As a small child Spurgeon's grandfather taught him never to be afraid to stand up for what he believed was right, regardless of the consequences. In the Stambourne chapel, where he worshipped for the first years of his life, it was common to sing the last line of a hymn twice. By the time he was 6 years old, he was convinced that this was the right way to sing. So when he returned to his parents' home and began worshipping in their church, he repeated the last line of the hymns, whether the congregation did so or not. Only after a "great deal of punishment" was he convinced otherwise. (Autobiography, 1:28 [the 4 vol. set])

Spurgeon demonstrated that same courage as a teenager when he ecclesiastically separated from his parents by becoming a Baptist. Courage also characterized his preaching ministry. He had no tolerance for what he called "putty-men who are influenced by everybody, and have no opinions except those of the last person they met" or the "weathercock brethren–men whose religious opinions veer with the prevailing doctrinal current in their neighborhood" (Pike, 1, III:185).

At no time was his pulpit courage more obvious than in the Baptismal Regeneration debate of 1864 and the Down-Grade controversy in 1887-91. In the former Spurgeon knew full well that he was stirring up rattlesnakes' den by preaching against the teaching of the Anglican Church's view. He told his publisher before-hand that he was about to destroy the sale of his printed sermons, because he was sure that the controversy would cost him many friends and provoke many attacks. He was half-right. He was viciously attacked, and he did lose friends, but that sermon immediately sold more 100,000 copies and ultimately more than three times that (Full Harvest, 55-57).

The latter controversy required even more courage because Spurgeon stood virtually alone in warning against the damning influences of higher critical ideology. Those who should have stood with him did not and many tried to persuade him to be silent. Spurgeon, of course, had purchased truth at too high a price to sell it so cheaply. As a divinely appointed watchman for the people of God, he had to speak out, even if it meant standing alone. In a sermon in 1888, shows the timelessness of conviction and courage in contending for God's revealed truth.
We admire a man who was firm in the faith, say four hundred years ago . . . but such a man today is a nuisance, and must be put down. Call him a narrow-minded bigot, or give him a worse name if you can think of one. Yet imagine that in those ages past, Luther, Zwingle, Calvin, and their compeers had said, 'The world is out of order; but if we try to set it right we shall only make a great row, and get ourselves into disgrace. Let us go to our chambers, put on our night-caps, and sleep over the bad times, and perhaps when we wake up things will have grown better.' Such conduct on their part would have entailed upon us a heritage of error. Age after age would have gone down into the infernal deeps, and the pestiferous bogs of error would have swallowed all. These men loved the faith and the name of Jesus too well to see them trampled on....

It is today as it was in the Reformers' days. Decision is needed. Here is the day for the man, where is the man for the day? We who have had the gospel passed to us by martyr hands dare not trifle with it, nor sit by and hear it denied by traitors, who pretend to love it, but inwardly abhor every line of it . . . Look you, sirs, there are ages yet to come. If the Lord does not speedily appear, there will come another generation, and another, and all these generations will be tainted and injured if we are not faithful to God and to His truth today. We have come to a turning-point in the road. If we turn to the right, mayhap our children and our children's children will go that way; but if we turn to the left, generations yet unborn will curse our names for having been unfaithful to God and to His Word. (C. H. S., Sermons, 1888, 83-84; cited in Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon, 192).

Friday, September 14, 2007

Charles Spurgeon and Ministerial Courage

I, like so many other pastors, love Charles Spurgeon. He is a hero and mentor to me. Though I am not worthy to tie his shoes, I long for his passion, his spirit, large-heartedness, jealousy for his Master's honor, evangelistic zeal and his faithfulness till death. And though I don't have his gifts, I do have his God and so I have sought to learn from him for nearly 30 years. His life has been something of a prism for me through which I have learned and am still learning some of the ways of God.

Several years ago I presented a couple of papers on Spurgeon and in the process of research was struck in a fresh way with his ministerial courage. He preached courageously and took unpopular stands courageously. He rejected well-intended counsel from friends when he believed it would result in sinful compromise or in any way detract from his Savior's honor.

The recent controversy over the seminary professor who wrote an anonymous letter expressing his concerns about denominational leadership by bringing charges against two seminar presidents grieves me. As several have pointed out in various and sometimes eloquent ways, this whole scenario is tragic for many reasons. I won't list all of them that I see. Others have identified them far better than I could.

The one, glaring concern that to me overshadows all the rest is what this controversy seems to suggest about the current level of ministerial courage in our ranks. I loathe the fact that a professor in one of our seminary's feels that he must fear for his job if he follows Jesus Christ's teachings on how to address sin in a brother's life. I loathe the fact that this same culture of fear permeates many of our churches. But what I loathe even more, and find particularly heart breaking is that a man of God--whether serving in the pulpit or behind the lectern--would judge that it is acceptable to stay silent when he should speak or stay hidden when he should step forward in order to preserve his position. Many who have commented on these events have used exactly that kind of reasoning.

I have no desire to be scornful toward any man who has ever had a failure of nerve, nor would I ever pretend to be immune to such failure. We all need mercy and grace to be the kind of ministers Christ calls us to be and must seek forgiveness daily for falling short of His glory. My concern is that, as God's people, we agree that compromising biblical principle for the sake of self-preservation is unacceptable.

Any attitude that suggests otherwise is foreign to biblical Christianity. It is unworthy of the followers of our crucified Savior. Had it prevailed in the first century the church would never have suffered and, therefore, never have spread. Had it prevailed in the sixteenth century there would have been no reformation. If it had been universal in seventeenth century England there would have been no Puritan movement (and no Pilgrim's Progress!). Had it characterized Whitefield, Wesley and Edwards in the eighteenth century there would have been no Great Awakening. If it prevails today, there will be no lasting movement of God's Spirit which we absolutely must have if our churches and communities and nations in the west are to survive.

So, yesterday and this morning I returned again to Spurgeon for encouragement. He did not disappoint. The following quotes are from his sermon, "Three Names High on the Muster-Roll." It was preached in the last year of his life, in the midst of the downgrade controversy, in which Spurgeon stood boldly, uncompromisingly and often alone. The agony of such stands, some have suggested, resulted his premature death.

The sermon is worth reading in full. Fortunately for us, Phil Johnson has put it on his Spurgeon website. Here are some extracts to whet your appetite for the whole sermon. They are full of the kind of wisdom and encouragement that we need today. The emphases are mine.
Another excuse that they might have made was, "We can do more good by living than we can by being cast into that furnace. It is true, if we are burnt alive, we bear a rapid testimony to the faith of God; but if we live, how much more we might accomplish! You see we three are Jews, and we are put in high office, and there are many poor Jews who are captives. We can help them. We have already done so. We have always seen justice done to God's people, our fellow-countrymen, and we feel that we are raised to our high office on purpose to do good. Now, you see, if you make us bigots, and will not let us yield, you cut short our opportunities of usefulness." Ah, my dear brethren! there are many that are deceived by this method of reasoning. They remain where their conscience tells them they ought not to be, because, they say, they are more useful than they would be if they went "without the camp." This is doing evil that good may come, and can never be tolerated by an enlightened conscience. If an act of sin would increase my usefulness tenfold, I have no right to do it; and if an act of righteousness would appear likely to destroy all my apparent usefulness, I am yet to do it. It is yours and mine to do the right though the heavens fall, and follow the command of Christ whatever the consequences may be. "That is strong meat," do you say? Be strong men, then, and feed thereon....
Now; beloved friends, if any of you are in great difficulty and trouble, tempted to do wrong, nay, pressed to do it, and if you do what is right, it looks as if you will be great losers and great sufferers; believe this: God can deliver you. He can prevent your having to suffer what you suppose you may; and if he does not prevent that, he can help you to bear it, and, in a short time, he can turn all your losses into gains, all your sufferings into happiness. He can make the worst thing that can happen to you to be the very best thing that ever did happen to you. If you are serving God, you are serving an Omnipotent Being; and that Omnipotent Being will not leave you in the time of difficulty, but he will come to your rescue. Many of us can say with Paul, "We trust not in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us." The Lord has helped us in the past, he is helping us in the present, and we believe that he will help us all the way through. He will help you, too if you just follow his word, and by a simple faith do the right thing. I believe that we have reason to expect interpositions of providence to help us when we are called to suffer for Christ's sake....
They resolved that they would, obey God at all costs. Now, I knew a young man once, to whom a certain ordinance of Christ was made known as being Scriptural; but as far as he could see, if he followed that ordinance, every door would be shut against him. If he was bold to do as he thought he ought to do, according to his Master's command and example, it would be the ruin of everything. Well, he did it, and it was not the ruin of anything; and if he had to do such a thing again a hundred times over, he thanks God that he would do it. There is such sweetness in having to make some sacrifice for God; there is such a heavenly recompense, that one almost envies the martyrs. Rather than pity their sufferings, one feels an intense longing that such honor had been ours, and that we had had the moral courage and holy stamina to suffer for God even as they suffered. Who among the bright ones are the brightest in the land of light? They that wear the ruby crown of martyrdom most certainly lead the van; for they suffered, even to the death, for their Lord. O friends, it is a glorious thing when we make no calculation of costs, but with our whole heart and soul follow the Lamb whithersoever he leadeth us!
May God make us such men! Read the rest of the sermon here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A signed letter to an anonymous professor

I posted the following comment on SBC Outpost in response to an anonymous letter posted there, purportedly by a professor at one of our 6 SBC seminaries. The author accuses Drs. Al Mohler and Paige Patterson of actions that he believes have dispirited faculty and administrators at Southern and Southwestern seminaries. Perhaps some of what he writes is true. Perhaps it is not. Here is what I wrote there in response.
I agree with the author of this letter on one point: His anonymous letter is an act of cowardice. What he has admitted is that he values his salaried position more than he values integrity and truth. if his accusations and charges are true then they are serious enough to declare openly and honestly. Sign your name, friend. Show your fellow Southern Baptists that you value truth and integrity more than money. Continued anonymity discredits everything you say and I, for one, refuse to put any credence in anonymous accusations.
It is time for those who care about the SBC to play the man, speak truth in love and leave the consequences to God. Boyd Luter says that this kind of anonymous post over at the Outpost is "barely even a work in progress" and calls it "a new idea" that he does not quite yet know how to handle. For what it is worth, I recommend that the Outpost handle anonymous letters by encouraging the authors of them either to man up or remain quiet in order to keep your paycheck while realizing that you are a part of the very problem over which you profess concern.
I have more to say on this issue and so I will express my thoughts in a letter of response to the anonymous professor.

Dear Sir or Madam:

After reading and rereading your letter what has become sadly obvious to me is that it demonstrates little understanding of biblical integrity and boldness. The accusations that you make under the cover of anonymity lack courage, plain and simple. You admit your reason, as if doing so justifies your action and alleviates your cowardly action.
I am writing to you anonymously because I do not want to lose my job as a seminary professor. Not that I feel worthy of being fired for what I am doing, but because I am concerned my president might do so for exposing these matters. No doubt some will equate my anonymity with cowardice. But of one thing I am sure: doing this has required more nerve than my years of silence watching good people--and the SBC--being hurt.
Your admission is an indictment of your failure of nerve. You have decided that maintaining a paycheck is more valuable than directly engaging the issues that cause you concern. So, rather than honor Jesus Christ in handling your concerns the way the Bible says to handle them, you sit in the shadows, under the cover of darkness and work like a sniper. Galatians 6:1, Matthew 18:15-18, and Paul's example in Galatians 2:11-21 all rebuke your way of handling your concerns.

While it may have required more nerve for you to write an anonymous letter than to sit back for years in silence while watching good people being hurt, your present action is nothing to applaud. In fact, it is to be greatly lamented by everyone who not only affirms inerrancy but is simple enough actually to believe that our inerrant Bible ought to be obeyed, even when doing so jeopardizes one's job.

You liken your actions to those in the conservative resurgence years ago who informed Southern Baptist church members of problems in our seminaries and institutions.
In the past the SBC was spared disaster when rank and file Southern Baptists became informed of how truly liberal our seminaries had become. Courageous trustees did not simply rubber stamp the presentations of liberal seminary administrations. Instead they investigated the concerns of Southern Baptists and took appropriate action when needed. Thank God! Though the issues now are different, courageous trustees are still needed for the long term health of our seminaries and ultimately our convention.
Courageous professors are also needed. But your method of informing Southern Baptists is far different from those who led out in the resurgence decades ago. Jerry Johnson did not make his accusations of problems at Southern Seminary anonymously. Tom Nettles and Russ Bush did not make their accusations anonymously. Paige Patterson did not make his accusations anonymously. They signed their names on their charges and were willing to endure the consequences, regardless of what they might be.

In 1980, when I was still a seminary student and just coming to understand the issues at stake in the denominational struggle, Dr. Patterson gave me a few hours of his time at his study in Dallas. When I asked him what he had learned thus far in his efforts to bring these issues to light, he said, "I have learned what I would never have imagined to be true--that so many Southern Baptist pastors are cowards." He went on to explain that a common refrain he was hearing went like this: "I am with you, brother. I believe in inerrancy and think we need to take a stand, but because of my position, I am not able to come out and speak on this openly."

I was young and idealistic then and shuddered at the thought of trying to minister with that kind of pressure. Now I am old and realistic and I realize that such pressure is self-imposed and arises from unbelief. I am not suggesting that I am in any way above those temptations. Rather, I am saying that they are temptations to sin and must be fought vigorously.

You also distance yourself from the "insensitive presentations and even coarse language" of some bloggers who have raised concerns similar to your own. I agree with you that some of the things that have been written on blogs have been over-the-top and are regrettable. But one thing that can be said about the bloggers who have done this--they signed their names to what they wrote. Some have readily provided substantial documentation for claims they have made. They didn't shoot from the shadows.

You obviously wrote this letter because you believe that in doing so you are bringing to light some serious problems in our SBC seminaries. The kinds of things that you mention ought to be addressed and not swept under any rug. What you have also unwittingly done is to display a far more urgent and serious problem than concerns me greatly. Simply stated, it is this: our future generations of pastors are being trained by professors who care more about their salaries than they do God's truth and honor! That, my brother or sister, is a problem of staggering magnitude.

I trust that you are in the minority among our Southern Baptist professors. You write, however, as if you would have us believe that that is not the case. I hope you are wrong. I hope that most of the professors whom we are employing to teach future pastors are made of stronger stuff than either to turn a blind eye to serious problems or to address them from the cover or anonymity.

You make this appeal to your readers:
My prayer is that you will consider whether the message is true rather than the praiseworthiness of the messenger.... I hope you likewise will not turn a deaf ear to me and other seminary professors who might find the courage to speak up.
If your message is true, then sign your name to it. It is hard to imagine a servant of the crucified Savior being unwilling to endure repercussions for speaking the truth openly in pursuit of His glory and honor. Follow the Scripture that you teach. Be an example to your students and your fellow Southern Baptists in demonstrating how to handle such serious matters in a biblical way.

Finally, I assure you, I and others will not turn a deaf ear to you and your colleagues if you ever do find the courage to speak up about sinful matters that need to see the light of day. Keep looking for such courage. Thus far, it has eluded you.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

John Broadus' advice on reading

John Broadus offers this excellent advice on the reading habits of ministers (from his Lectures on the History of Preaching, 230-31).
I think that young men should be specially exhorted to read old books. If you have a friend in the ministry who is growing old, urge him to read mainly new books, that he may freshen his mind and keep in sympathy with his surroundings. "But must not young men keep abreast of the age?" Certainly, only the first thing is to get abreast of the age, and in order to this, they must go back to where the age came from, and join there the great procession of its moving thought.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Olsen, Piper, tragedy and theodicy

John Piper pastors Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, whose main campus is about 1 mile from the I35 bridge over the Mississippi River that collapsed August 1. His reflections on that tragedy has been distributed far and wide and helped provide a biblical perspective on such events. Piper also responded forcefully and helpfully to the awful, God-dishonoring, soul-destroying and comfort-robbing words of Rabbi Harold Kushner on that tragedy. Both articles are worth reading and passing along to anyone and everyone who wonders "why bad things happen to good people." They are models in pastoral theology and ministry.

Roger Olsen used to live in Minneapolis before becoming a professor at Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas in 1999. He has taken issue with Piper in the August 28, 2007 edition of The Baylor Lariat. The article he writes is entitled, "Calvinist view of bridge collapse distorts God's character." Without naming Piper he refers to him as a "Christian determinist" who adheres to "a form of Protestant theology called Calvinism."

Olsen laments the growing resurgence of Calvinism. His observation, as one is who is a stated opponent of the doctrines of grace, ought to encourage those of us who believe those truths to be biblical. He writes,
This theology is sweeping up thousands of impressionable young Christians. It provides a seemingly simple answer to the problem of evil. Even what we call evil is planned and rendered certain by God because it is necessary for a greater good.
I met Roger Olsen in the Fall of 2000 when he invited me to speak to his theology class at Truett. He wanted his students to "see a real, live Calvinist in person," something, which, he assured me, most had not experienced. Originally, I was invited to speak in chapel, but, due to factors beyond his control, that part of the invitation got rescinded. I guess a real, live Calvinist behind a lecturn was scary enough; letting one stand behind the pulpit might have pushed some over the edge.

Dr. Olsen was nothing if not cordial to me. He was wonderfully warm in welcoming me to the class. Though we were and are polar opposites theologically, he treated me with grace and kindness. Other students were invited and several faculty members also showed up. I spoke on what Calvinism is and why I believe it. The dialogue following was spirited, to say the least. One young man discreetly whispered to me on the way out, "Thanks! I am the only one here," before quickly walking away. It almost made me wish that Calvinists had some sort of secret handshake that we could have used!

Olsen and I had some time before and after the lecture to talk. He described himself as a "true Arminian" in distinction from the "Tom Oden kind." He also said that he was "open to open theism" at that time. From what he has written in The Lariat, it seems like his openness has morphed into embrace. He writes,
In this world, because of our ignorance and sinfulness, really bad things sometimes happen and people do really evil and wicked things. Not because God secretly plans and prods them, but because God has said to fallen, sinful people, "OK, not my will then, but thine be done -- for now."
Why pray, then? It is a question that open theists struggle to answer in a satisfactory way. Olsen offers a response by once again putting words into God's mouth rather than quoting the words that God has actually spoken in Scripture.
God says, "Pray because sometimes I can intervene to stop innocent suffering when people pray; that's one of my self-limitations. I don't want to do it all myself; I want your involvement and partnership in making this a better world."
Recognizing that some of his readers might find his thoughts uncomfortable, he admits,
It's a different picture of God than most conservative Christians grew up with, but it's the only one (so far as I can tell) that relieves God of responsibility for sin and evil and disaster and calamity.
This is the exactly wrong approach to theodicy. God has not asked to be let off the hook for the presence of sin and evil in His world. He tells us plainly that He cannot be tempted by evil and does not tempt anyone (James 1:13). He also tells us that He is absolutely sovereign over even the most seemingly insignificant events in His world--such as a sparrow falling to the ground (Matthew 10:29).

What then are we to do about evil in the world? How are we to respond to it? We are to go to the cross where God delivered up His own Son for sinners. The death of Jesus is the greatest tragedy, the greatest display of injustice, and the greatest evil that has ever occurred on the stage of human history. Yet, Scripture unmistakably teaches that God was not merely standing by or out of control when it happened. He orchestrated the death of His Son according to His preordained plan. Peter said it: "this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death" (Acts 2:23) and prayed it: "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur" (Acts 4:27-28).

If God was sovereignly involved in the planning and executing of that horrible event, and He did so in order to accomplish His deepest work of mercy and grace, should we not, then, trust Him in the face of and wake of other grievous but necessarily lesser horrors that occur in His world?

Recently, I preached on 1 Peter 2:24 and ended the message with this well-known poem by Edward Shillito, who ministered during WW I outside of London. As he reflected on the ravages of war and the toll that it took on soldiers, he penned "Jesus of the Scars."
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Olsen writes that the "God of Calvinism scares" him because he is "not sure how to distinguish him from the devil....In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he must have limited himself."

Such rationalism should submit to the revelation of God in Christ. No, Dr. Olsen, Calvinism does not offer a "seemingly simple answer to the problem of evil." Rather, it bows in humility to what God has revealed. And it gazes with faith and hope at the zenith of that revelation in the crucified Savior. When understanding fails and questions remain, we look at the Jesus of the scars and remember that our God--the only God there is--was wounded for us, and we let His wounds speak to ours.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Pope bans Founders blog

If you have not discovered Tom in the box, yesterday's post is a great one to read as an introduction. The Pope has banned my blog! Warning: if satire escapes you or deem it inappropriate in theological discussion, you might want to stay away from this site. If, on the other hand, you want to see how satire done right can be both entertaining and persuasive, go to school on these guys.

Interview with the Baptist Center

Last year Dr. Steve Lemke asked me to participate in a series of interviews he was conducting with various folks across the SBC. I submitted my answers to his questions in January of this year and they were published yesterday. Though it is amazing how much can change in the denominational milieu in 8 months, after rereading my responses this morning, I wouldn't change much of what I wrote back then.

Here are some excerpts. To read the complete interview go to the Baptist Center blog.

1. What do you see as the greatest strength of the Southern Baptist Convention right now?
The greatest strength of the SBC that I see is our unashamed declaration that the Bible is God's infallible, inerrant Word of God. Without commitment to this formal principle of reformation, the many other good things that the SBC does would be undermined and eventually eroded completely. The convention has in place a wonderful structure that is ready to engage many spheres of culture through various ministries (NAMB, IMB, ERLC, Seminaries, LifeWay, etc.). For that structure to serve kingdom purposes as faithfully as it ought, the doctrinal and spiritual advanced that have been taken place over the last 25 years must be strengthened.
3. What do you think is the greatest threat or challenge to the Southern Baptist Convention right now?
Pride. If you believe what many prominent SBC pastors and denominational leaders say then you would conclude that Southern Baptists are the greatest group in the kingdom of God. That kind of attitude is a breeding ground for a myriad of spiritually fatal diseases. Two of the most potent of these are the inability to be self-critical and spiritual presumption.

Too many of our conservative leaders in the SBC have repeatedly demonstrated over the last ten years an unwillingness to receive criticism of anything related to "the cause" (the conservative resurgence). Questions and warnings from fellow conservatives have been dismissed as disloyalty or worse. Too often pragmatic responses have been offered for actions which, according to the Bible, are inexcusable.

This mentality further calcifies the deadly assumption that we all know and agree on what the Bible means when it mentions the Gospel, conversion, and church. Many Southern Baptists see no need to reexamine these basic, essential ingredients of the Bible's message, yet it is overwhelmingly clear that the vast majority of our church members in the SBC have little if any biblical understanding of these life-and-death matters. Indeed, simply raising this issue is judged by some leaders to be a waste of time--time that could be better spent spreading the Gospel, seeking conversions and growing churches. But if we are mistaken in what these spiritual realities are, then it is disastrous to go on promoting them as if we are doing the Lord's will. I have written more on this here: http://www.founders.org/FJ63/editorial.html
5. Some have suggested that the Southern Baptist Convention is likely to decline in the near future. What is your assessment of the future of the Southern Baptist Convention?
I am fearful that it might become increasingly irrelevant to more and more churches and pastors. I do not think that this is inevitable, and I sincerely hope that it does not happen, but I do fear that the current trajectory we are on may lead us that way. God has given the SBC some leaders who are models of faithfulness in spirituality and integrity. If those leaders do not speak up plainly and loudly in calling for honesty and integrity throughout our denominational structure, then I do not think that we will find the spiritual strength to deal with our problems in a humble, Christ-honoring way.

I am hopeful, however, that there is a growing number of pastors and churches who recognize that the SBC, for all of its good and potential usefulness, has some serious problems which must be addressed if we are going to move forward into the future with making a positive impact for Christ's kingdom. If those with these convictions can be united to deal honestly and forthrightly with our denominational problems, then there is reason to hope that our future can be full of greater blessing than we have seen at any time in our past. If the serious problems are ignored, I think the SBC will simply decline into kingdom irrelevancy.
7. The resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC has been a controversial issue in some ways. What is your perspective on the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC?
The resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC is a type of theological homecoming. It is beyond dispute that the theological consensus of the SBC our our founding in 1845 was Calvinistic. As Timothy George has noted, every one of the 293 delegates who attended the constitutional meeting in August, Georgia in 1845 came from churches or associations that held to the Second London Confession of Faith (in some cases in its Charleston or Philadelphia expressions). In the early decades of the 20th century that consensus broke down and soon was overtaken by strong emphasis on pragmatism, perhaps most notably demonstrated in the "Million more in '54" campaign. The shift of theological commitments from the center of our identity to the periphery resulted in denominational amnesia. We simply forget who we were.

The conservative resurgence was the first stage in our denomination's doctrinal recovery. With the reestablishment of a clear confession of Scripture's full authority as the Word of God written, it is inevitable that there should follow a recovery of the message of Scripture as historically understood by those who founded the Southern Baptist Convention. That is what is happening. We are witnessing a return to the faith of our fathers.

I see that as a very healthy thing, though, just as was true with the conservative resurgence, it has not been without its problems. Some have used their newly recovered understanding of the doctrines of grace as an excuse to become pugilistic in their treatment of those with whom they disagree. Others have mistakenly allowed their recognition of the absolute sovereignty of God to diminish their full commitment to the absolute responsibility of people. Still others have regarded commitment to truth as a license not to love. None of these are justified and all are to be roundly condemned as sinful. Fortunately, such follies have been a minority report among those who are returning to the evangelical Calvinism of our Southern Baptist forebears.

What is equally and perhaps even more troubling is the intensity and frequency of hostile opposition to those who have come to believe what James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, P. H. Mell. W. B. Johnson, R. B. C. Howell and other founders taught and believed. Some denominational employees at every level have misrepresented the views of many of their fellow Southern Baptists when speaking against Calvinism. Occasionally these misrepresentations have taken the form of attacks and have resulted in stirring up considerable trouble for pastors and members of local churches.

What I find most grievous and offensive are the inexcusable misrepresentations of historical and theological views on this subject that have come from many academicians in the SBC. Those is such positions should know better than simply to recite an old, erroneous party line about Calvinism. Fortunately, with the ready access to many sources of information today, church members and pastors no longer have to take theological and historical assertions as fact simply because they are cited by a reputed scholar. In fact, some supposed scholarship in this area has been exposed as being very suspect, at best.

Tom Nettles' newly revised book, By His Grace and For His Glory, forcefully demonstrates the preeminence of the doctrines of grace in our Southern Baptist heritage and convincingly argues for their biblical validity. His book, though first published more than 20 years ago, has never been seriously engaged much less refuted.

So I see the resurgence of the doctrines of grace in Southern Baptist life as a good thing and as a movement of God that is continuing to grow. I believe that it could well be the beginnings and foundation of the revival that we so desperately need.
10. What would you say is the most significant theological issue confronting Southern Baptists in this generation?
Well, as I have already said, I believe that in many respects we have lost the Gospel. Nothing is more important than that. Perhaps the most significant, observable manifestation of that for us is the large number of unregenerate church members that we have. In that sense, ecclesiology will be a vitally important issue for Southern Baptists to confront honestly in the next few years. We must be willing to define simply what constitutes a church on the authority of the New Testament. Then we must apply that definition to forty-two thousand assemblies that we call churches within the SBC.

John Dagg, the first writing Southern Baptist systematic theologian said that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it. If he is correct, then many of our churches are in far worse shape than most of us want to admit. Jesus' words to the churches in Asia from Revelation 2-3 give me reason to remain hopeful, however. He is a patient High Priest and, as Lord and Head of the church, has promised to build His church throughout history until the new heavens and new earth appear.