Thursday, February 26, 2009

Baptist Identity, Great Commission Resurgence and How We Read the Bible

Much has been written recently about "Baptist Identity (BI)" and a "Great Commission Resurgence (GCR)" As I previously noted, broadly speaking, those terms have emerged as representing two competing visions for the future of the SBC. However, it would be inaccurate to suggest those designations mean that the BI crowd does not care about the great commission or that the GCR crowd is indifferent to Baptist identity. The difference between the two lies at the point of emphasis and centrality. Perhaps we might say, the difference emerges from the way that one reads the Bible.

When Dr. Danny Akin called for a "Great Commission Resurgence" at the Building Bridges Conference co-sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (of which he is President) and Founders Ministries (and hosted by LifeWay) in November 2007, his words resonated not only with those present but with Southern Baptists across the convention who listened to the audio of his talk and heard about this call. Dr. Akin is widely known and respected as an outspoken proponent of expository preaching with a passionate commitment to getting the Gospel to the nations. Anyone who would question his devotion to either simply cannot be taken seriously.

The vision that Dr. Akin and those who stand with him are casting for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is one that arises out of a deep devotion to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. That devotion is what makes the Gospel central in the articulation of a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR).

Baptist distinctives are not ignored or forgotten by the vision that Dr. Akin has cast. They simply (and rightly) grow out of a primary devotion to Gospel. That is, after all, how Baptists developed in modern history. It was out of commitment to the Gospel that our 17th century forebears were led to form separate churches.

As I listen to and read what some BI guys are saying I come away with the impression that there is a lurking fear among them that a GCR-inspired future will lead Southern Baptists down an ecumenical path toward indistinct evangelicalism.

One of the clearest examples of the differences between the vision of the GCR and that of many identified with the Baptist Identity movement can be found in considering the issue that Al Mohler dubbed "theological triage."

Dr. Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an institution dedicated to training ministers for Baptist ministry, wisely recognizes "theological seriousness and maturity demand that we consider doctrinal issues in terms of their relative importance. God's truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis."

Mohler includes the Trinity, person of Christ and justification by faith as examples of "first-order truths" while the meaning and mode of baptism would be a "second-order" issue and eschatology a "third-order" concern.

What Christ-loving student of God's Word who is even mildly aware of the history of the church would not agree that belief in the deity of Christ is vitally more important than belief in believers' baptism? It is hard for me to conceive that any right thinking Baptist would disagree with this. As Dr. Mohler puts it, this is a matter of "theological maturity."

Contrast this way of reading the Bible, however, with that of one of the contemporary champions of the Baptist Identity movement. Dr. Malcolm Yarnell is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Theological Seminary. In an October 30, 2008 chapel message at Southwestern, Yarnell rejects of the kind of theological triage that Dr. Mohler says is necessary to theological maturity. He asserts,
You cannot perform theological triage on the lordship of Jesus Christ without severing His will into pieces and picking and choosing what you want to do. You will find out what he says and you will do it all because you know your life is totally dependent on Him.
Dr. Yarnell reads the Bible in such a way that there can be no allowance for theological triage. For him, making a distinction between first-order, second-order and third-order teachings of the Bible is a denial of the lordship of Christ. He says,
New Testament Christianity has no secondary doctrines when it comes to the lordship of Jesus Christ. That's why I say Baptism is not secondary nor is it tertiary. It is essential.
In Dr. Yarnell's vision of Christianity, baptism is just as essential as the deity of Christ or salvation by grace through faith. Nothing can be secondary if a person is truly committed to the lordship of Christ. He clarifies his meaning with the following words:
Now, does that mean that baptism saves you? No! But if you are saved then you will obey and you will be baptized according to Christian baptism not according to something of your own invention.
Note the distinction he makes. While believers' baptism does not save, "if you saved then you will be baptized according to Christian baptism." Do you see what he is asserting? If a person has not been baptized as a believer then that person is not saved, or at best, that person has no reason to hope that he or she is saved. Yarnell gives no room to the prospect that a brother or sister may be sincerely mistaken in their views of baptism and thus may fall short of complying with what is required, not out of rebellion or wilfull disobedience, but out of error.

That kind of narrow-mindedness strikes me as more than simple theological immaturity. It strikes me as dangerous to biblical Christianity. It makes no allowances for spiritual growth nor for the kind of apostolic charity that Paul displays in Philippians when he write, "Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you" (v. 15).

As a convinced Baptist I can fellowship with brethren who are right on the Gospel but wrong on baptism. While I wouldn't try to start a church with them, I can learn from them, respect them and rejoice in the grace of God in their lives while disagreeing with their understanding of the meaning and mode of baptism. I don't see how Christian love can do less.

There is a significant difference between the vision of those who believe that Baptist distinctives are just as important as Christian essentials and the vision of those who believe that Baptist distinctives are important precisely because they grow out of Christian essentials.

For the sake of the spiritual health and maturity of our convention of churches, pray that the latter vision prevails.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What will we be in the SBC?

Competing visions for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention are coming to a showdown. While I do not pretend to know all of the ins and outs of the efforts to promote these visions and certainly not all of the nuanced versions of those that are in competition, I think a person would have to be rather disengaged or willfully unobservant not to recognize that, broadly speaking, there are 2 opposing agendas at work to shape what the SBC will become in the near future.

On the one hand are those who are energized by being identified as Baptist--particularly Southern Baptist--and want to make certain that this identity is not diluted in the future. They regularly praise the conservative resurgence and those who led it, often expressing themselves in ways that make it seem that any criticism of that movement and its leaders is, at best, disloyalty to the Baptist cause. This group is fearful that Southern Baptists will lose (or at least loosen their grip on) their Baptist distinctives by honoring and working with other Great Commission Christians.

This group takes the Word and the gospel seriously but finds their identity as Baptists closely bound up to such commitment, often to the extent that they question the spiritual health or even the salvation of other believers who are not baptistic. Much like what some Calvinists mean when they say, "Calvinism is the gospel," some in this group seem to believe that "being Baptist (or even Southern Baptist) is being Christian." Hence, they denigrate any kind of theological triage that recognizes the primacy of essentials over distinctives and charge their Baptist brothers who do make such distinctions as stepping on the slippery slope of evil ecumenism. Many in this group have identified themselves as those wanting to protect Baptist Identity (BI).

On the other hand are those who are energized by being Christ-followers and want to make certain that the Gospel is not diluted in the future SBC. They appreciate the conservative resurgence and its leaders but realize that the best of men are men at best and not above criticism. They also believe that if the conservative resurgence becomes an end unto itself and not a means to a greater end, then the whole movement will turn in on itself and will ultimately defeat the very purposes for which it was engaged. Many in this camp are calling for a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) that focuses on the gospel and seeks to be zealous in spreading it around the world.

This group is unashamedly Baptist but they do not see that as a reason to dismiss other Christians who do not share their Baptist distinctives. They recognize that Baptist distinctives are powerless if they are not animated by Christian essentials. Some in this group do not hesitate to say that they find a greater basis for fellowship with gospel-centered non-Baptists than they do with Baptists who are weak on Christian essentials.

The BI vision for the future of the SBC has little or no room for cooperating with gospel-centered evangelicals who are "not us." For evidence of this see how they have recenty tried to chastise Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in general and Danny Akin, Alvin Reid and Nathan Finn in particular for their unwillingness to throw Mark Driscoll under the bus (here, here & here).

The BI vision seems at points more concerned with publicly advocating Baptist principles than actually living by them. Too often some in this camp give the impression that as long as one professes to believe Baptist distinctives it doesn't really matter if he practices them. For evidence of this simply check out the way that some (not all) of their most ardent spokesmen actually do church as opposed to what they say about church.

Anyone who does not measure up to the BI level of baptistness is judged suspect if not dangerous. If their vision of the future prevails in the SBC then I fear the denomination will go on in a triumphalistic spirit that continues to blind us to many of the real problems in our churches--problems that can only be solved by the gospel.

The GCR vision for the future of the SBC is one where unity is built on the essentials of the gospel while maintaining the distinctives of our Baptist convictions. It recognizes that there are different ways of being Christian Baptists and is not threatened by the diversity of those ways within our confessional commitments. This vision is willing appropriately to utilize the gifts that God has given to gospel-centered churches that are not Baptist and believes that Southern Baptists can do so beneficially and in ways that do not threaten their own convictions.

The GCR vision is not so concerned with appearing to be right as it is with living as those who have been rescued by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ. Advocates of this vision are not content with advocating Baptist principles but also want to see them implemented in local churches. Because of the gospel-centeredness of this view diversity is not feared but embraced as a God-given means of spiritual growth. This is the vision that believes bridge building is not only appropriate but essential for the future health of the SBC.

As I said, there are nuances to both visions and those who advocate them. I am sure that I have not adequately represented everyone in each camp. I do not see these two competing visions as a contest between the good guys and the bad guys. I do, however, believe that the future of the SBC will be largely shaped by one of these two visions.

As a reformed, Southern Baptist pastor, my feet are firmly planted in the GCR camp. I believe that it is time for Southern Baptists to come together on the basis of our commitment to the gospel. I believe that where this solid, authentic commitment exists, we can find ground for cooperation and fellowship that will enable us to serve the purposes of God better than if we hold each other at arm's length because of suspicion, fear or disdain.

I invite both my Calvnist and non-Calvinist brothers and sisters to join me in encouraging and working for this kind of future in the SBC. Let's work together to come to deeper understandings and applications of the gospel. We may disagree at points, but such disagreements, if handled with gospel grace, can work to strengthen our grasp of divine truth rather than to further divide us. That is my hope, and that is my prayer.

I also hope that my Baptist Identity brothers and sisters will see fit to join in the pursuit of this kind of vision. The concerns that some in this camp have rightly articulated can be served through a renewed emphasis on the Great Commission because the healthiest streams of our Baptist heritage have always been gospel-centered. We need not give up our distinctives to major on essentials. In fact, Baptists have never shined brighter than when they have majored on the gospel.

I really do believe that, despite our differences, Southern Baptists can work together if we can agree on the centrality and power of the gospel for all of life. I am convinced that a growing number of Southern Baptists believe this, too. Because of this, I anticipate better days ahead.

For excellent articles that touch on various issues related to all this, put the Between the Times blog on your rss feeder. More than any other SBC blog, the writers there understand the issues and address them well. Also read the Baptist21 blog [link fixed]. Younger SBC leaders contribute to it and bring helpful insights and perspectives to some of these matters.

Here are a few specific recent articles that I highly recommend:

Third Generation Conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention, Part 1 by Steven McKinion.
An Open Letter to My Calvinist Friends in the SBC by Alvin Reid (this is part of an exchange between Dr. Reid and Dr. Nathan Finn that will be posted in full on the Between the Times site).
EDIT: An Open Letter to My Non-Calvinist Friends in the SBC by Nathan Finn
I Have a Problem by Alvin Reid

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.