Monday, November 24, 2008

SBC and Calvinism: Three events that widened the divide

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

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

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

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

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

2. David Allen's review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Grace Baptist Church website

Grace Baptist Church recently launched a new website that contains a lot of material in a user-friendly format. Embedded in the site is the Grace Blog that will be a place to exchange ideas not only about current issues related to the church but also to the culture and broader Christian world. Audio files of sermons, archives of webcasts, articles, book recommendations and helpful links are available on the site, in addition to other resources.

As the opening picture on the home page surely indicates, I didn't get a vote in everything that wound up on the site, although I did have some input on the staff profiles. :)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

National Day of Listening

James writes, "let every man be swift to hear" (1:19). Five years ago StoryCorps launched what has become the largest oral history project in the world. Their mission is to "honor and celebrate one another's lives through listening." This Friday, November 28, 2008, has been declared by StoryCorps the first National Day of Listening.

The idea is to record and interview someone about his or her life. StoryCorp even has a place for you to upload clips of your interview for others to hear.

This is a great idea for people of all ages, but especially for children and grandchildren. In our times of family worship we recently started reading through Ecclesiastes. I was struck by 2:16 which says, "For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten."

Oral histories will not prevent this from happening completely, but they can provide wonderful ways for stories to be passed down from one generation to another. For Christians, the stories of God's grace in our lives may prove to be encouragement for our children and our children's children to "set their hope in God" (Ps. 78:7).

Check out StoryCorps. They have helpful tools that can assist you in recording the stories of someone you love and respect.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Whatever happened to the English language?

A lot of debate has been generated over the last few years about English as the official language of the USA. The concern is that if [we] don't force immigrants to learn and speak English, then it may eventually get eclipsed as accepted language of communication in our nation.

According to Wilson Watson, a recently retired college professor, it may be too late. During his 35 years of teaching, he began to collect sentences used by his native speaking students. His archive includes some humorous misstatements and malapropisms, such as:
  • Some people use bad language and is not even aware of the fact.
  • Romeo and Juliet exchanged their vowels.
  • A very good thing for your health is the Arabic exercise.
  • My brother and I took a fairy across to Martha's Vineyard.
Perhaps there needs to be a movement to multiplay English as First Language (EFL) classes. You can read the whole list in the Baltimore Examiner.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Matt Chandler, mortification and the sins of fathers

I have never met Matt Chandler. After reading some of his thoughts, I want to. He is pastor of The Village Church, located north of Dallas, Texas, and is headed for an evangelical culture shock of major proportions in a few months (he is scheduled to speak at the Desiring God conference, Feb. 2-4 and the FBC Jacksonville Pastors' Conference, Feb. 6-10).

Matt blogs at Dwell Deep and his insights are worth reading. In a post from a couple of months ago he exposes the folly of trying to gain a "platform" for broader ministry through church growth, preaching, blogging or publishing. When this becomes the goal rather than Jesus Himself, it is, as Matt writes, "hollow" and "dangerous." That is a much-needed word that transcends theological and generational divides.

More recently he has written about mortification and resolving, by God's grace, to take to our graves the peculiar sins of our fathers that have been passed down to us. Anyone who has been in pastoral ministry very long, or anyone who has thought very deeply about his or her own spiritual pilgrimage and heritage, knows that some pernicious patterns of sin tend to be generational. This is not a denial of grace, it is an acknowledgment of reality.

I identify with the conclusion of Thomas Fuller's insights into God's grace and heredity. The chaplain to Oliver Cromwell wrote,
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.
Grace assures that my children are not condemned to repeat the sins of their father. Grace working in a father's life empowering him to mortify sin is one of God's blessings to his children.

Go check out Matt's blog and be challenged to think more carefully and live more intentionally.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Proposed amendment for the ETS constitution

Ray Van Neste and Denny Burk are once again trying to get the Evangelical Theological Society to amend the society's constitution. I support the amendment and encourage all ETS members to vote in favor of it. The ETS meets this week and consideration of the proposal is on the agenda. The odds are stacked against it since it will require a super-majority to pass.

For an update on the effort, check out Denny's blog. For background info, go the the Amend ETS Blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

ESV Study Bible going digital...including iPhone,

I tried to link to an announcement from Crossway regarding the coming digital versions of the ESV Study Bible on my twitter account, but the link would not work. So, in the interest of spreading this good news, I am posting the email news release that I got today from Michelle Bennett of Crossway here. As an Accordance and iPhone user, this is good news.
November 12, 2008

ESV Study Bible Widely Available via Personal, Portable Devices

Wheaton, IL--After just four weeks on store shelves, the ESV Study Bible has sold more than 140,000 copies, immediately becoming the best-selling study Bible in the marketplace today. Now Crossway is pleased to announce the forthcoming release of the ESV Study Bible on a wide spectrum of digital platforms, including Mac, PC, Windows Mobile, Palm, iPhone, Blackberry, Google Android, and Symbian.

To achieve the widest possible digital distribution, Crossway has partnered with the leading digital software providers, including Accordance, Biblesoft, Laridian, Olive Tree, and WORDsearch, to make the ESV Study Bible available with all of its notes, articles, and features.

"We are excited to make the ESV Study Bible widely accessible, initially in a wide range of best-selling print editions, and now in every possible digital format available," said Lane Dennis, president of Crossway Books & Bibles. "Our goal as a Christian publisher is to distribute the Bible and essential resources for understanding the Bible as broadly as possible around the world. It is a tremendous encouragement to me personally to see this goal become a reality as the ESV Study Bible will soon be available virtually anytime, anywhere in the world, by means of the new media revolution and our partnership with these digital software leaders."

First published in the fall of 2001, the ESV Bible is an essentially literal Bible translation that combines word-for-word precision and accuracy with literary excellence, beauty, and depth of meaning. The ESV has been widely embraced by churches, ministries, and denominations around the world, with unit sales growing by more than 250 percent in the past three years.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Radio interview on Pilgrim Radio

Bill Feltner, of Pilgrim Radio, recently interviewed me about my close encounter with lightning last summer. I mention it here because I continue to receive inquiries about my experience and many encouragements from people who have prayed for me. Bill asked me to describe what happened and give an update on how I am doing today. By God's grace, I am doing very well with very few residual effects.

The interview will be broadcast 3 times on stations reaching several western states. It may also be heard online at the following times:

Monday, November 10, 2008, Eastern Time
5:04 AM
3:04 PM

Tuesday, November 11, 2008, Eastern Time
12:04 AM

Friday, November 07, 2008

Justin Taylor on Steve Lemke's scholarship

Dr. Steve Lemke, Provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and featured speaker at this week's "John 3:16 Conference," recently published an article in The Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (vol. 5, no. 2, Fall 2008), entitled, "What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians." I read the article shortly after it came out and was greatly disappointed. Much of what he included in the article has appeared before and I have already interacted with it here, here, here and here. I resisted dealing with the new article for many reasons. Tim Brister has interacted extensively with the article.

Instead of writing about it, I emailed Dr. Lemke and asked if we could talk about what he has written. I am confident that Dr. Lemke has no desire to misrepresent anyone's theological position nor any historical record. But he has. Due to his busy schedule we have not been able to talk, yet, but I genuinely look forward to the opportunity--not to try to "win" an argument. I quit caring about that long ago. My desire is to understand how he and I can read the same sources and come to such radically different understandings of what they actually say.

Justin Taylor has offered a critique of Lemke's article that is both even-handed and cool-headed. He writes as an "outsider" to the particular SBC angst that exists in some sectors over the rise of reformed theology. He also writes as an accomplished and recognized scholar, whose recent editorial work on the ESV Study Bible will serve evangelicals for generations. Beyond that, Justin is a very well-informed, gracious Christian brother. He has no axe to grind.

His critique of Dr. Lemke's article, though far from exhaustive, is revealing. Upon reading it I was reminded of J.I. Packer's commendation of John Woodbridge's book, Biblical Authority, which is a critique of the popular "Rogers/McKim proposal" on biblical inerrancy. Packer wrote that "exposing shoddy scholarship" is an "unpleasant task" but that Woodbridge's book was "a nasty job nicely done." Justin's critique of Dr. Lemke's article was no doubt an unpleasant task, but it has been carried out in an exemplary manner.

Read it. First read Dr. Lemke's article. Then read Justin Taylor's critique.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Logos Bible Software for Mac now available

Finally...Logos Software announces that the Mac version of its Bible software is available. Orders are being taken and the rumor is that it will be shipped in time for Christmas. I have been in touch with folks at Logos for years about this project and look forward to seeing how it turned out. More information is available here.

Founders Podcast: Part 2 of an interview with missionary to Muslims

The second part of my interview with an IMB missionary working with an unreached Muslim people group is now available. Part 1 as well as Part 2 are available at the Founders Podcast Center.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Post-Election Analysis: True or False?

My friend, Dr. Wyman Richardson, pastors FBC of Dawson, GA. He sent the following "True-False Test" to me yesterday. It is timely and very helpful in giving us perspective on the presidential election. Take the test, then ask yourself how you should respond to the election results.
  1. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, Jesus will still be King.
  2. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, our responsibilities as Christians will not have changed one iota.
  3. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, the greatest agent for social change in America will still be winning the hearts and minds of men and women through the gospel, not legislation.
  4. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, my primary citizenship will still be in this order - (1) the Kingdom of God, (2) America, not vice-versa.
  5. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, the tomb will still be empty.
  6. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, the cross, not the government, will still be our salvation.
  7. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, our children will still be more concerned with whether or not we spend time with them than with who is President.
  8. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, my neighbor will still be my neighbor, and loving him/her will still be the second greatest commandment. (Do you know the first?)
  9. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, the only way to see abortion ultimately overturned will still be winning men and women to a high view of life through the gospel of Christ.
  10. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, the only way to see gay marriage ultimately defeated will still be winning men and women to a biblical view of marriage through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  11. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, my retirement will still not match my treasure in Heaven.
  12. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, "Jesus Is Lord" will still be the greatest truth in the Universe.
  13. True/False: The day after the election, regardless of who wins, we will still know that God is in control.