Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reflections on the dust-up over Calvinism at SWBTS

Last week the otherwise catatonic SBC corner of the blogosphere erupted when Wade Burleson wrote that the administration of SWBTS planned to purge Calvinistic faculty in the name of economic cutbacks. I received numerous questions via facebook, twitter, email and old-fashioned phone calls about that accusation and the resultant denials and counter-denials it provoked in a flurry of blog posts and comments. In response to many requests, I actually drafted a post with my own take on the situation. However, after seeking counsel from trusted advisors (who were split in their judgment), I decided not to post it. In light of the brouhaha that followed Pastor Burleson's post, I am glad that I didn't get involved in what quickly became public mudslinging. One brief comment that I sent in a private email in response to a direct question did get posted in a comment thread (without my permission), but otherwise, I have merely watched, listened, and done a bit of checking on the sources for some of the information that became public.

Here are some relevant links that chronicle the debate:

Wade Burleson's 1st post: Forcibly Removing All the Tulips at SWBTS
SWBTS Professor Greg Welty's response
Bart Barber's Response
Wade Burleson's 2nd post: Forcibly Removing All the Tulips at SWBTS (Part II)
Wade Burleson's 3rd post: Are Southern Baptists Blind or Blindfolded?
Wade Burleson's 4th post: The Big Picture: Resisting Separatist Ideology
Wes Kenney went to the source and interviewed Paige Patterson
Ken Silva also weighed in with thoughts and research
Aaron Weaver also gave his take on the events

Some have used my silence about the events of last week as evidence that there was no truth to the charges. Others have considered my silence to be a failure of nerve. Neither conclusion is warranted. I didn't post about it because of the method by which I handle information that comes my way.

Let me try to explain.

I was contacted by a couple of Southwestern folks two weeks ago who voiced concerns about what they perceived to be threats against Calvinistic professors on campus. I was not the only one to receive such information. Because I could not verify all of the information I chose not to go public with any of it. I have no reason to doubt any of the folks with whom I have communicated, but I also recognize that perceptions sometimes can deviate from reality in ways that make accurate reporting of events problematic. In the absence of an eyewitness who was willing to "go public," I limited my comments to private communications with the exception of a brief expression of hope that what I had heard was not true.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, there seems to be a consensus that there will not be any faculty at Southwestern removed on the basis of their Calvinistic soteriology. Those who believe that Wade was right in breaking this story see his actions as securing that outcome. Those who believe that he was wrong in breaking the story see this outcome as proof that there was no truth to the story to begin with. Who knows if either of these conclusions is true? Well, obviously there are some who know, but they aren't talking.

What can we learn from all this? Several things, no doubt. But here are 3 lessons that quickly suggest themselves to me.
  1. The Bible's wisdom about discernment and judgment should be heeded at all times. "The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him" (Proverbs 18:17). "He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him" (Proverbs 18:13).
  2. The divide over Calvinism in the SBC is significant and will not go away by pretending it is not there. Thankfully, there is a growing number within the convention who are serious about building bridges over this divide that will enable us to work together on the basis of uncompromising Gospel convictions to which no Pelagian or Hyper-Calvinist could ever agree. Unfortunately, there remain some (namely, a coalition of old guard Fundamentalists and avant-garde self-styled defenders of Baptist Identity) who do not want to see such a Gospel consensus unite Baptists who might not see everything eye-to-eye on the doctrines of grace. It appears to me, however, that these naysayers are increasingly marginalizing themselves.
  3. The SBC is in desperate need of leaders who refuse to put their fingers to the political winds before determining what steps to take. We need leaders who are willing to cooperate with all those who are confessionally committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are determined to see the Gospel shape our churches and impact our world. We need leaders who are willing to talk to those with whom they disagree instead of merely talking about them. We need leaders who aren't satisfied merely to defend the Bible but who are devoted to living under its authority. From where I sit it is apparent that such leadership is emerging from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Danny Akin and those with him seem intent on showing Southern Baptists a healthy way forward into the 21st century.
This will certainly not be the last opportunity for Southern Baptists to get up-in-arms over reports about questionable plans or actions of one of our agencies or institutions. Hopefully, we will learn from last week's experiences and will determine to respond by speaking accurately, plainly, truthfully and lovingly about any legitimate concerns that arise. The days when heads of our agencies could take actions and expect not to be questioned publicly about them are over. And that's a good thing.

We do not have to agree on every jot and tittle to live together harmoniously in the SBC family, but we do have to remember that loyalty to Christ trumps loyalty to any "cause" or party. Our Lord calls us to honor Him in speech and conduct, regardless of how strongly we may disagree with those whom we address.


Dave Miller said...

A wonderfully balanced and well-reasoned argument. As one who got involved too much in that firestorm, I appreciate your words and respect your decision on your involvement.

volfan007 said...


Just who are you talking about in your statement....

"Unfortunately, there remain some (namely, a coalition of old guard Fundamentalists and avant-garde self-styled defenders of Baptist Identity) Unfortunately, there remain some (namely, a coalition of old guard Fundamentalists and avant-garde self-styled defenders of Baptist Identity) who do not want to see such a Gospel consensus unite Baptists who might not see everything eye-to-eye on the doctrines of grace.

Who is this? And, if BI means Wes, Robin, Bart, Dr. Yarnell, etc., then what about Scott Gordon being a part of that group? He's a five point Calvinist.

I'm just interested in who are these BI guys who are "avant-garde self-styled defenders of Baptist Identity) who do not want to see such a Gospel consensus unite Baptists who might not see everything eye-to-eye on the doctrines of grace."


downshoredrift said...

Otherwise catatonic SBC corner of the blogosphere?

Admittedly, things have calmed down over the past year or so. That is good, I think. It is a shame that now that more SBC bloggers are writing about ministry and Jesus (or I at least hope they are), the SBC corner of the blogosphere is considered to be catatonic. It seems that controversy and arguing drives our readership far more than posts about Jesus or the Christian life. That says more about us than whether or not SWBTS fires Calvinistic professors.

Tom said...

Thanks, Dave.


Point well-taken. Thanks for making it.

downshoredrift said...

Sure, Tom. That came off stronger than I meant for it to, unfortunately. I knew what you meant when you said it, but I am also aware that the only thing that really gets us going is a good controversy. That is to our great shame, IMO.

Thanks for giving a balanced take on all of this, by the way. Sorry to highlight just one line.

heath lloyd said...

Aren't you thankful for men of God like Dr Danny Aiken?

I remember as a seminary student at SEBTS, Dr Aiken was out Systematic prof. One day another theology professor had invited the late Stan Grenz to our campus. Dr Aiken graciously agreed to allow Dr Grenz to speak to his 8:00 AM class. The day before Dr Aiken told us, his students, that we were to treat Dr Grenz with the utmost of respect, courteousy and kindness. He was a Christian brother and a guest. I have never forgotten Dr Aiken's lesson that day.
I thank the Lord for Danny Aiken, and pray that we will follow his gracious lead.

Greg Alford said...


You guys are so afraid that someone is going to leave you out…

Quit fretting… Your name is on the list too. Actually you made the front page of “Who’s Who in Baptist Identity”. (insert warm smiley face)

Seriously David, I don’t think anyone from either side of this issue has written with a more gentile spirit on this issue than Tom has in this article. Clearly he is not going to take the bait and get into an argument with you about any of this here on his Blog, so just be at peace… after all you already know the answer to your question.

Grace (and Peace) Always,

Darrin said...

'loyalty to Christ trumps loyalty to any "cause" or party'

Just wondering whether upholding the doctrines of grace is a "cause" or part of our loyalty to Christ.

Tom said...


I don't think you were too strong. You were right on target. It is a commentary on us (I am including myself). I look forward to the day when to think of Southern Baptists means immediately to think of matters related to the Gospel.

J. Randall Easter said...

Thanks for your comments Tom. I know firsthand that some professors were confronted about their soteriology and their church affiliation, but at this time they are not loosing their jobs. Things at SWBTS will be evaluated in July. However, tension remains on campus over this issue. Thanks again.

Bart Barber said...

Count me as one already on-record more than once both in favor of all that one might regard as "Baptist identity" and in favor of not dividing over soteriology.

Well, OK, technically, that last point is one that none of us Southern Baptists can easily make, since we've already long ago divided from those who reject perseverance. And I never hear any complaints over here about that (it does indeed matter whose ox is gored). And, of course, one can push Calvinism into hyper-Calvinism and wind up on the outs as well. I've proven that I actually AM in favor of dividing over soteriology, but just not in any manner that would exclude anyone like, for example, Dr. Mohler. So in the sense of being on some purgative mission to drive five-pointers out of the SBC, no such thing here ongoing.

And, as David has pointed out pretty well, Scott Gordon is both a Baptist Identity guy, a five-point Calvinist, and pretty doggone snazzy and avant-garde! ;-)

Your thesis tying Baptist Identity to anti-Calvinism is thus, I think, flawed from the outset. Which is disheartening because I'm guessing that the forging of a false link between the two was precisely Wade's intent, and I hate to see evidence that he is succeeding.

I do think that it is clear that Dr. Patterson does not intend for SWBTS to become Southern or Southeastern. Neither, it seems to me, is he at work to obliterate Southern or Southeastern, or to change the nature of those schools. Can't we live with a little diversity here? And to achieve that, doesn't it make sense to think that SWBTS, without purging any Calvinists from its ranks, might have a strategic vision to build the heart of the seminary around something non-Calvinistic? Not with regard to total bans or purgings, but simply as a matter of hiring many more non-Calvinists than Calvinists?

I have no way to know whether that is the intention of the seminary, but that seems to be a reasonable direction for SWBTS in my opinion. If SWBTS intended to become a Calvinistic school, one might reasonably wonder why we need so many seminaries that are merely clones of one another.

But you're right, Tom. This topic has been a source of much tension among our ranks. All the more reason to quell false rumors. Thanks for contributing to that this week. Both those who call Calvinists hyper-Calvinists and those who call anything less than a five-pointer a Pelagian are essentially people stirring up division among the brethren, and I hope that we all can leave them without much of a voice

Darby Livingston said...

I have a question based on this point from brother Bart.

"Can't we live with a little diversity here? And to achieve that, doesn't it make sense to think that SWBTS, without purging any Calvinists from its ranks, might have a strategic vision to build the heart of the seminary around something non-Calvinistic?"

Would it be wrong for SWBTS to build a seminary on non-Calvinistic grounds? I'm asking this as an avowed Calvinist. The reason I'm asking is because it seems Southern is built to deliberately lean Calvinist (as though that needed said) especially due to adherence to the Abstract of Principles. Anyone feeling qualified could answer, and it's a genuine question that came to mind as I read the above quote. It's not a setup. :)

Tom said...


Thanks for your comments. I didn't intend to "tie Baptist Identity [or anyone else, for that matter] to anti-Calvinism." What I asserted is that some in that group are opposed to the efforts to unite across the Calvinism divide on the basis of gospel unity.

The trustees elected Dr. Patterson to lead SWBTS and I think it is only reasonable to expect that his vision for theological education should shape the school at every level, including the faculty. So, your hypothetical description of what SWBTS's vision could be seems reasonable to me. I might not like it, but I would not suggest that such an approach is illegitimate.

Since we are speaking hypothetically here, would it seem reasonable to you for administrators of a seminary whose confessional basis is the BF&M to individually question long-standing, faculty members (who have signed the BF&M) about their local church affiliation and soteriological convictions? Would it be reasonable for such administrators to threaten the termination of established faculty if they did not use in their evangelistic efforts, language that is found in neither the Bible or the BF&M?

I have no way of knowing if this has actually happened in any of our seminaries, but if it were to happen, I, for one, would find it unacceptable.

I am increasingly hopeful that the future SBC belongs to those who are willing to unite over sincere commitment to the gospel and treat fellow believers with respect and honesty. That certainly includes refusing to mischaracterize those with whom we disagree.

Thanks again, for your comments.

Tom said...

Heath: Amen.


I think it can become a "cause" rather than merely an expression of loyalty to Christ. Where that happens, the doctrines of grace tend to be espoused without much regard for the grace of the doctrines--and that is a travesty.

Will said...

Some random thoughts...

1. We are either in or entering into the age of post-denominationalism.
2. The SBC will not exist in 20 years at all or will be operating at such a different level that we won't recognize it.
3. The discussion is not, and should not be about "saving the denomination". It should be, and must be about "saving the gospel".
4. Each of us will answer to God as to whether or not, from His perspective, our energies, bridge building efforts, and concerns were all focused correctly or incorrectly, and whether they contributed to Kingdom expansion or irrelevant arguments.
5. May He in His mercy give us His wisdom.

Cedar Hill Texas

Bart Barber said...


Good questions, I'm sure, and I'm guessing that there's some back-story to which I'm not privy. That makes me reluctant to shoot out answers in the dark, but I'm just brash and foolish enough…

I think church affiliation is a legitimate matter on the table for talking to faculty. For example, if there were faculty members at SWBTS who were members at the local SBC-affiliated church where the recent controversy was over how to photograph their openly practicing homosexual members who were serving in church leadership roles, then I should hope that their church membership would be a legitimate item of discussion. Thus, having thought of at least one case where such questioning seems appropriate, I'll affirm that entire category.

Questioning people about their soteriology? Well, as I established above, I do think that there are extents in both directions on the soteriological scale (and perhaps positions that don't fit on the scale at all) that fall out-of-bounds. I see no harm in the asking of questions, because the subject matter is germane and there are possible bad answers.

If, instead, the implication is that the answers fall within the boundaries that I mentioned above, and yet the activity goes beyond questioning, then I guess that I already answered that question above in stating clearly my belief about the soteriological breadth that the SBC should encompass.

Finally, with regard to language employed in evangelistic efforts, I suppose that you are referring to the "Christ died for you" phraseology. Do I guess correctly?

As a side note, I do find it interesting to watch the ubiquity of the phrase in its usage when people aren't looking. For example, Dr. Mike Kear, a Calvinist himself and one who defended Wade's assertion that no consistent Calvinist could say in general to a person that Christ died for him, had this to say in a January 31 post about Starbucks:

"Thank goodness for Starbucks. A freshly ground and freshly brewed cup of Guatemalan Casi Cielo is a wonderful thing. But it is made even more so when we discern the Hand that created the bean that was picked by the farmer whom God loves and Jesus died for, the Hand that made provision for me to buy the bag of beans and the cream I add to the cup." (emphasis mine, HT: Wes Kenney)

To read people uncomfortable with this assertion (while in dialogue with non-Calvinists) making the assumption nonetheless (when nobody's watching) shows, I think, how deeply the idea is ingrained into our soteriological milieu.

In general, I think that soteriology is important enough that a seminary ought to know thoroughly what its faculty believes about the gospel.

Finally, I'm thankful that you're not linking those who have been labeled "Baptist Identity" with anti-Calvinism. It read that way upon first consideration of your original post, perhaps because of a certain defensiveness lingering from the events of the week. The OP still looks that way to me, but I am not an objective reader of it.

Well...the final chapter of "The Magician's Nephew" awaits with my son. Have a good evening.

Wade Burleson said...


You wrote: . . . Wade's assertion that no consistent Calvinist could say in general to a person that Christ died for him.

Is it my assertion to which you are referring, Bart, or is it your boss's assertion? My article was in response to what your boss has asserted, so I think you need to acknowledge that your boss believes the same thing.

Dr. Allen wrote:

“A consistent five-point Calvinist cannot look a congregation in the eyes or even a single sinner in the eye and say: “Christ died for you.” What they have to say to be consistent with their own theology is “Christ died for sinners.” Since Christ did not die for the non-elect, and since the five-point Calvinist does not know who the elect are, it is simply not possible in a preaching or witnessing situation to say to them directly “Christ died for you.” Dr. David Allen, Dean of SWBTS School of Theology, SWBTS Center for Theological Research, November 2008.

GeneMBridges said...

If I may interject my thoughts:

As to the discussion with respect to the terminology "Christ died for you," I think the problem here is the looseness with which this terminology is thrown about. What does it mean that Christ died "for you."

If it means Christ died in your place, and the doctrine of atonement held is "general," then the question becomes "Why not universalism?" In short, Scripture does not differentiate between universal atonement and universal redemption. So, if the concept expressed is theological qua theology, then, no, no 5 point Calvinist can say "Christ died for you." Indeed, that's ONLY a meaningful statement if one begins with the notion that the atonement impels the gospel in the sense that the atonement provides the warrant to believe. If so, then that gets to hyper-Calvinism...but consistent Calvinism does NOT involve us assuming that the atonement impels the Gospel. Rather, the command compels the Gospel; sin generates its own warrant to believe, etc. That is "consistent" Calvinism with respect to our atonement theology.

2. However, there is also the language of pastoral charity. We need to differentiate between theological language qua theology and theological language qua pastoral language. Why not assume that the person with whom one shares the Gospel is a person for whom Christ died...the problem arises not in the hope of the person presenting the Gospel but the use of this terminology to manipulate the sinner into thinking Christ died for him.

It's also bad philosophy. In addressing this issue, we're asking an epistemological question: How does one know Christ died for him, in particular. The answer isn't found in the scope of the atonement; rather it's found in whether a person exercises saving faith in Christ. So, on that level, that language strikes me as careless, and careless language is just a bad habit best to break. The fact that it is inculcated in modern Baptist parlance does not justify its usage.

3. With respect to Tom's statements David questioned, while Tom can defend himself, I read that statement with reference to the High Churchmen of the SBC who seem to begin with an a priori idea of what constitutes a true Baptist and then proceed to judge all others by that yerdstick. The reason that's "high churchy" is because it smacks of the Roman Catholic propensity to appeal to T/tradition either in place of or alongside Scripture. Scripture is either interpreted in the light of tradition or as a supplement to Scripture, on the same level as Scripture. When we see arguments that "historically Baptists....insert here" we're sometimes seeing folks rule out certain viewpoints...for example, statments like "Baptists have never been Dortian, eg. five point, Calvinists." If we deny that has been stated, we're denying reality. It has, indeed, been stated, and, it gets even worse when such persons (perversely in my opinion) start labeling others as Presbyterian sympathizers, as if they are part of some sort of WW2 Underground or McCarthyesque "list" of persons that need to examined and purged, if not purged blackballed. It's this sort of ecclesioloatry (and that's precisely what it is) that will destroy Baptists, whether SBC or otherwise,, from the inside out. I'm sure the enemy takes great joy in that. It needs to stop, and, while I do know of some Calvinists who behave thusly, I see far more often from the other side of the aisle. We Calvinists aren't, as a rule, running around the pulpits of larger churches with large audiences trotting out Geisler and Hunt. We're the ones responding to that sort of thing. As a result, we get charged with two contradictory objections:

1. We're not honest.
2. We wear our Calvinism on our sleeves.

I see this all the time at Tblog when Roman Catholics, atheists, and Orthodox epologists visit us. This is what they do. The fact that some Baptists do it is unseemly.

YnottonY said...

I believe this would be a more accurate or precise way to understand the meaning of Dr. Allen's words. I have put my qualifications in brackets:

"A consistent five-point Calvinist cannot look a congregation [indiscriminately] in the eyes [where unbelievers are known to be present] or even a single [unbelieving] sinner in the eye and say: Christ died for you [i.e. suffered for your sins]. What they have to say to be consistent with their own theology is "Christ died for sinners." Since Christ did not die for [i.e. suffer for the sins of] the non-elect, and since the five-point Calvinist does not know who the [unbelieving] elect are, it is simply not possible in a preaching or witnessing situation to [consistently] say to them [i.e. to the unbelievers present] directly "Christ died for you" [i.e. suffered for your sins].

All of the above (with the qualifications added) is absolutely true.

Douglas Shivers said...

A fine assessment Tom.

I received similar information the last week in January from some folks at SWBTS about professors being interviewed and the key point in the interview was over their willingness to affirm to non Christians "Christ died for you."

Wade's post came afterwards and pretty much lined up with what I was told. Now, whether this is a rumor run amok or a travesty averted, only those directly involved know.

Jeff said...

If Dr. Allen is going to be consistent with his theology, he would have to deny that anyone would go to hell since Christ died for their sins. Unless, He limits the scope of Christ's death on the cross.

J.D. Rector said...

This past Sunday, we held a "Baptist Heritage Day" in our fellowship at Lakeview Baptist here in Auburn, AL. Dr. David Dockery, president of Union University, was our guest speaker. David did an outstanding job of presenting both the reformed and non-reformed traditions found within our denomination. He ended all of his presentations sharing with us the friendship that Whitfield and Wesley had many generations ago. Though Whitfield was reformed and Wesley, non-reformed, they both had love and respect for one another.

THAT is precisely what is needed in our SBC today! Respect and love between reformed and non-reformed.

Praying for love and respect between all members of the body of Christ in the SBC...

Will said...

I would really appreciate some inputs to this question-

Background: In essential things unity, in non essential things libery, and in all things Christian charity.

I believe in this. Dividing over non essential things is not only silly but probably a sin. But dividing over essential things is not only required but probably a sin if we don't (as long as it is done with charity).

But the struggle I have is, regarding ones understanding of soteriology, what is essential? If one believes that Christ's death only made possible the salvation of sinners with the final decision being left up tp the free will of man, and I believe that Christ's death absolutly secured the salvation of the elect, and that man's will had nothing to do with it, and that in fact if it were left up to man that would be a works based salvation, is that non - essential or essential?

Thank you for your thoughts.

Cedar Hill Tx

Pastor Jim said...

Dr. Ascoll,

Thank you for the wise discretion you showed in your original post. I am preaching through Nehemiah and read your post while I was taking a break from my study of 2:11-20. Your delayed action was a refreshing, concrete example of Nehemiah’s three-day wait and subsequent night survey.

We would all be well served to be purposeful in waiting, investigating and fully digesting information before jumping in with both feet. Unfortunately, when we fail to do that, both feet usually end up in a place we don’t want them—which is edifying to no one and is certainly not glorifying to Christ. Thank you for illustrating this text for me.


Andrew J. Nicewander said...

Will, your question is perhaps THE Crux-Question of the whole "reformed"/"non-reformed" debate, not just in the SBC, but as it stretches across the various denominations of Christianity itself. It could even be said that an answer to this question is what helped drive the Reformation.

As this question is answered, so should go the whole Calvinism Debate.

By the way, I struggle with it too at times and don't have a clear answer myself. :-)

Tom said...


Good question. I certainly believe that all theology is important and soteriology is of the utmost importance. I also recognize that one's experience of salvation may far surpass his understanding of it. I also think that fellowship is strengthened and can be preserved by a healthy confessionalism. I can have genuine fellowship with brothers with whom I could not unite to start a church.

While I would make substitutionary atonement a test of fellowship, I would not say the same for particular redemption, although I believe the latter is the best, most biblical expression of the former. In putting it this way I am acknowledging that there are brothers who also affirm substitution but who are not convinced of particular redemption. I believe that brothers who disagree at this point and in this way can experience genuine Christian unity.

I know that this does not specifically answer your question, but I hope it helps.

Thanks for your comments and raising the question.

Tom said...


I think that this is where confessionalism can play a helpful role. An institution should remain faithful to its doctrinal commitments as spelled out in its confession of faith. Within those parameters, the administration should be free to fashion a school as they see fit.

Tom said...

Pastor Jim, thanks and J.D., Amen!

Will said...

We still need to meet brother.

My Dad is with the Lord now. I have no doubts. A strong and devoted Christian for decades. He believed that salvation was dependent on man's decision but he would have strongly disagreed that it was a work.

So this is a not just an impersonal, academic discussion. Wonderful Saints have held this view.

Perhaps at the foundation of the issue is an imprecise or different understanding of the implications of what one believes? Perhaps another foundational understanding is that none of us, when we are first saved, understand theology. We feel like we are making a "decision" and later some us figure out that it was only because God had changed me first, and others don't?

That is why I have used the latin phrase before "condemnant quod non intellegunt", they condemn what they don't understand.

As I get older, I have to admit that all of this makes me long for heaven even more where not one us will care anymore.