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.

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.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

2nd VP of SBC, Eric Redmond, to speak at Founders Breakfast

Eric Redmond, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Maryland, was elected 2nd VP last year at the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, Texas. Eric is a former professor of Bible and theology at Washington Bible College and currently is a member of the Council of Reforming Churches and the board of trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also author of the forthcoming book from Crossway entitled, Where Are All the Brothers? He also writes a very informative blog called, A Man from Issachar.

Eric will be speaking on Tuesday morning before the opening session of the SBC in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 10, 2008. His theme will be, "The Reformation that Must Come!" We will have registration information available very soon on the Founders website and I will update this blog when that happens. EDIT: Here is the registration link.

Pray for Eric and for his ministry among us in Indianapolis.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Radio Interview on the resurgence of Calvinism

Bill Feltner of Pilgrim Radio interviewed me for 30 minutes recently about the resurgence of Calvinism in Baptist life. The station is non-commercial and is based in Nevada. I love their mission statement:
Our mission is to establish and operate radio stations and related media facilities for the purpose of advancing a program of Christian education using an artful blend of music and Scripture, stimulating instruction, interesting guests, and great books, all done in the public interest.
The interview is scheduled to be broadcast over the airwaves and with internet streaming 3 times today: 5:04am; 3:04pm and 12:04am (on the 20th). All times are Pacific.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Pray for Al Mohler as he anticipates surgery

A press release from Southern Seminary announces Dr. Mohler will be scheduled for surgery to remove a pre-cancerous tumor from his colon. This has necessitated his withdrawing his name from being nominated for the SBC presidency in June.

Pray for Dr. Mohler and his family as they face this medical trial.

Full text of the announcement:
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, will require additional surgery after a scheduled colonoscopy on February 11 revealed a tumor in his colon. An initial biopsy indicated that the tumor is pre-cancerous and further tests are to be scheduled, along with surgical options.

Mohler, 48, underwent major abdominal surgery in late December 2006, complicated by the development of bilateral blood clots in his lungs. Doctors will take special precautions to prevent a recurrence of the blood clots with this new surgery. Specialists are consulting on the case, and a decision on the date and location for the surgery is to be made in the very near future. The procedure is likely to require an extensive period for recuperation and recovery.

Mohler expressed gratitude to God that medical personnel found the tumor this early. "Sometimes we take it for granted that we live in an age like this one, in which God has given us the blessing of medical technology," Mohler said. "For most of human history, a tumor such as this one would have gone unnoticed until it was too late. I am thankful for modern medicine, but I am even more thankful that we live in a world in which our God hears us when we pray, a Father who listens to his children."

Mohler said that Southern Seminary "would not skip a beat" during his recuperation.
"I have absolute confidence in the seminary leadership team. We will move forward with momentum," Mohler said. "God has blessed and is blessing Southern Seminary. We do not take that for granted, and we pledge to be good stewards of that blessing, even through this time."

Mohler said that his time of recuperation would necessarily alter some of his plans as he gives first priority to his health and his family.

"Some have asked how this new development affects my nomination to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis this June," Mohler said. "I have decided to give my greatest attention right now to addressing this new challenge and to ministering to my wife and children. This is clearly not the right time for me to accept this nomination. I have asked my good friend Robert Jeffress not to proceed with nominating me for president of our Southern Baptist Convention this year.

"Frankly that decision is made much easier by my knowledge that there is at least one strongly conservative, committed pastor who intends to be nominated in Indianapolis," Mohler said.

Southern Seminary will release additional information as it becomes available. The Mohler family has expressed appreciation for all concern, prayer and encouragement.

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.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Pray for Union University

Tornado strikes Union University
By Staff

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--Union University in Jackson, Tenn., sustained heavy tornado damage Tuesday evening at approximately 7 pm when a line of heavy thunderstorms rushed through the area.

At 8:15 central, news and information director, Tim Ellsworth, reported that students were still trapped by debris in their dorms. At least four of those students have been rescued. Dorms in both the men's and women's areas have been destroyed.

"We currently have no serious injuries that we know of and rescue operations are still continuing," Ellsworth said. "Many buildings sustained heavy damage."

The Union University Web site is down and Ellsworth said the school is trying to find an alternate means for posting information. Currently Ellsworth said the school is working on an alternative means of trying to provide parents with information but that power was completely out on campus.

Ellsworth reported that many cars on campus sustained damage. The roof on Jennings Hall was nearly completely gone as well as other buildings having sustained damage.

Classes have been cancelled at least for the rest of the week.

More information will be released as it becomes available.
Compiled by Chris Turner, media relations manager for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Fathers and Sons: Desiring God's Pastors Conference

I am looking forward to getting on an airplane in a few hours with my son, Joel, for a trip to Minneapolis for Desiring God's annual Pastors Conference. This year the theme is "The Pastor as Father and Son." Sons of pastors are encouraged to join their dads for the conference and Joel was able to work it out with his professors to miss a couple of days of class to take this trip with me.

The DG conferences are always excellent and I am delighted that my son will be joining me for this one. Not only is he missing some classes, he is also missing a basketball game with his homeschool team in order to go with me.

It is not supposed to get above freezing while we are there, so our Florida-thinned blood will undoubtedly be in for a shock. But the opportunity to share with my son in receiving the ministry of God's Word by men like John Piper and D. A. Carson will be worth it.

In honor of the theme of the conference here is a great quote by Thomas Fuller, chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, that hangs in my study and has often given me hope for my son:

A Father's Hope and Warning
Lord, I find the genealogy of my Savior strangely checkered with four remarkable changes in four immediate generations. (1) Rehoboam begat Abijah; that is, a bad father begat a bad son. (2) Abijah begat Asa; that is, a bad father begat a good son. (3) Asa begat Jehoshaphat; that is, a good father a good son. (4) Jehoshaphat begat Joram; that is, a good father a bad son. I see, Lord, from hence that my father's piety cannot be entailed; that is bad news for me. But I see also that actual impiety is not always hereditary; that is good news for my son.