Friday, June 01, 2012

Response to "A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation." Part 3

[Part 1 of this series]
[Part 2 of this series]

Preamble (part B)

Though I am tempted to work through the Preamble statement by statement I do not want to get bogged down in this part of the document to the neglect or deemphasis of its theological affirmations and denials. Neither do I want to miss the forest for the trees and thereby fail to understand the stated concerns that spawned the document. So I will first try to summarize overall rationale for the document and then try to offer some constructive critiques of the Preamble.

Summary of the Rationale


In essence, I believe that those who have published it are concerned by the rise of Calvinism among Southern Baptists at all levels of convention life, from local churches all the way down to various institutions and agencies. They think that Calvinism represents the views of only a small minority  while their own views represent the vast majority of Southern Baptists. They are concerned to be identified positively by what they do believe rather than negatively by what they do not believe ("non-Calvinist"). They have offered this document as a testimony to their beliefs and invite other Southern Baptists to sign it to show just how many agree with their views. By doing so, they do not want to intimidate or exclude Southern Baptist Calvinists, but rather are interested in asserting what they are convinced that most Southern Baptists believe on the doctrine of salvation.

Critique of the Rationale


In no particular order I will list several points that I find problematic with the rationale for the document as stated in the Preamble.
  1. The authors authoritatively set themselves up as spokesmen for the "majority" of Southern Baptists, stating 1) "the majority of Southern Baptists do not embrace Calvinism," 2) "the Southern Baptist majority has fellowshipped happily with its Calvinist brethren while kindly resisting Calvinism itself" and 3) "asserting that the vast majority of Southern Baptists are not Calvinists and that they do not want Calvinism to become the standard view in Southern Baptist life." My short response to this is, "Prove it," the impossibility of which highlights a problem that I could wish these brethren were as concerned about as they are Calvinism. No one--not even the FBI--can even find the "majority" of Southern Baptists, much less authoritatively declare what they believe. More substantively, however, is the danger of trying to do theology by majority--something that sends an icy chill up my Baptist spine. Further, when well over 60% of Southern Baptists don't even show up for worship on Sunday, I'm not sure that I would take much pride in declaring that my views represent "the majority." Finally, I can more readily prove that the "majority" of Southern Baptists deny regenerate church membership, corrective church discipline, the necessity of holiness and the authority of Scripture than the authors of this document can prove that their views of salvation represent that same majority. All I have to do is appeal to the inerrant words of our Savior, who said, "By their fruits you shall know them" (Matthew 7:15-20; cf 21-23). The framers of this document will have to find the majority of Southern Baptists before they can ever hope to speak for them. Confidently asserting they can do so is disingenuous at best.
  2. The document makes confusing statements about Southern Baptist Calvinists. In a previous post I dealt with the accusations regarding the supposed goals of Southern Baptist Calvinists, but it also bears noting that the Preamble makes further distinctions among this group. After making the charge that the "New Calvinism" is marked by "an aggressive insistence on the Doctrines of Grace" the statement later says that "most Southern Baptist Calvinists have not demanded the adoption of their view as the standard." So has this document arisen out of concern for what the authors' admit to be a minority of a vast minority? If it is only a troublesome minority of Southern Baptist Calvinists who are in view, I think the framers of this document would have been well-served to include some representatives from among the majority of Southern Baptist Calvinists to help them address their concerns. 
  3. The document demonstrates historical myopia in its use of the label "traditional." Much like the desire to have the majority behind you, I can understand wanting to claim that yours is the "traditional" view on a subject. But doing so raises the question, "whose tradition?" This was one of the tactics that liberals used during the inerrancy controversy in their attempt to discredit the conservative resurgence during the 1980s. It is sad to see those who produced this document resort to the same strategy. The Preamble goes all the way back to 1925 to establish its framers' historical credentials. The problem is that the SBC began in 1845. The document does admit that "Calvinists have been present in Southern Baptist life from its earliest days" and "some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism." Nevertheless, it is the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925 that is treated as the benchmark for determining what is "traditional" Southern Baptist theology. In his book, By His Grace and For His Glory, Tom Nettles has persuasively argued that Calvinism was the theological consensus for the first 70 years of the SBC. The convention's first official confession of faith, which was written to provide doctrinal boundaries for our first seminary, reflects this consensus. So if we are going to take the complete history of the SBC into consideration, rather than an abridged version, this document would more accurately be called "A Statement of Modern Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation." The understanding of salvation that was prevalent throughout the convention at its inception and for many decades afterward was nothing less than historic, evangelical Calvinism.
  4. Though the Preamble refers to the Baptist Faith and Message, it glaringly does not quote it. Article IV is specifically mentioned but only in passing as expressing the authors' views in a "general way." I would have appreciated their engagement of paragraph A of that article, which states, "Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ" (emphasis added). When I examine "Article Five: The Regeneration of the Sinner" in a later post, I will have more to say on this.
  5. The Preamble leaves one with the unmistakable impression that, despite disclaimers, Calvinism really is to be feared and resisted. This sentence is the most egregious example: "Even the minority of Southern Baptists who have affiliated themselves as Calvinists generally modify its teachings in order to mitigate certain unacceptable conclusions (e.g., anti-missionism, hyper-Calvinism, double predestination, limited atonement, etc.)." Here the authors betray either their bias against or misunderstanding of historic Calvinism. Biblical, or what Andrew Fuller called "strict" Calvinism, needs no such modifications. Such terms as "anti-missionism" and "hyper-Calvinism" perpetuate the easily-debunked-but-never-dying myth that Calvinism undermines evangelism. Any honest reading of history will show that many of the greatest evangelists and missionaries the world has ever seen have held firmly to the doctrines of grace. Calvinists do have variations with regard to reprobation vs. preterition and exactly how to articulate the accomplishment of the atonement (sufficient for all, efficient for the elect vs. sufficient only for the elect, etc.) but those are intramural theological debates--not attempts to "modify" Calvinism. Granted, there are self-described "modified Calvinists" who reject one or more of the so-called "five points" but nowhere does this Preamble appear to have such people in mind. Furthermore, the authors seem to have forgotten the near apostasy of the SBC in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Consider the line of reasoning that the following statements reveal. "For almost a century, Southern Baptists have found that a sound, biblical soteriology can be taught, maintained, and defended without subscribing to Calvinism....Without ascribing [sic] to Calvinism, Southern Baptists have reached around the world with the Gospel message of salvation by grace alone through in Christ alone. Baptists have been well-served by a straightforward soteriology rooted in the fact that Christ is willing and able to save any and every sinner." This sounds as if the demise of Calvinism in the early part of the 20th century set the SBC's sails for smooth sailing doctrinally, evangelistically and missionally over the last 100 years. Anyone who lived as a Southern Baptist during the last two decades of the 20th century knows better. We almost reached a point of no return in our slide into neo-orthodoxy and liberalism. It should be noted that it was not on the Calvinists' watch that this happened. And to suggest that all has been well doctrinally in the SBC Zion during the last 100 years ignores that dramatic, historic era in Southern Baptist life and simply distorts the documentable record.
  6. Finally, as I worked my way through the Preamble I could not help noticing what can be properly described as a paternalistic attitude. The framers describe themselves and their phantom "Southern Baptist majority" as having fellowshipped "happily" with Calvinists "while kindly resisting Calvinism itself." Though less sanguine in their evaluation of "most Southern Baptist Calvinists" they nevertheless acknowledge that, "to their credit" those in this group "have not demanded the adoption of their view as the standard." Though this statement leaves me wondering who exactly is making such demands and what is the exact nature of such demands? Are Calvinists making threats? Or employing physical coercion? Or intimidation? The very next sentence, however, is the one that reveals a condescending attitude toward Southern Baptist Calvinists. "We would be fine if this consensus continued, but some New Calvinists seem to be pushing for a radical alteration of this longstanding arrangement." In other words, the authors and signers would be content ("fine") if Calvinists in the SBC would only maintain our supposedly minority status, being ever so grateful that "the majority" is willing "happily" to fellowship with us despite our theology, which that same "majority" so "kindly" resists. As long as Calvinists stay in their assigned place and don't wander beyond their boundaries, then the authors "would be fine." Unfortunately, as I suspect the originators of this document know full well, the doctrines of God's grace in salvation are spreading rapidly not only within the SBC but beyond it as well. There is a doctrinal resurgence afoot and those who would be "fine" if Calvinists stayed in their assigned corner have become alarmed by continued growth of this movement.
In the next post I will start addressing the 10 affirmations and denials.

Continue to Part 4

21 comments:

Ben said...

Tom,

Frankly, it doesn’t matter much to me what these guys say as long as they're not hatching some scheme to block funding to the hordes of young Calvinists who are lining up to take the gospel to the furthest ends of the earth.

I do wonder if that's where we're heading. And though I have no idea whether that plan would succeed, it would certainly bring an ironic resolution to the problem of too many people wanting to go, and not enough money to send them.

Nate said...

Thanks Tom!

Matt Privett said...

Tom,

I couldn't have said it better myself.

David W. Bailey said...

Thank you, Tom! Good words, sound reasoning, biblical tone. An example for us all.

Lenwood Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lenwood Smith said...

You hit the nail on the head. I am surprised by the bullying spirit of this statement. Basically, as long as the Calvinists will shut up and sit in the corner (and give their money), then they are welcome in the big tent of the SBC. But if they start actually teaching others their views, and if local autonomous churches start embracing the doctrines of grace, this somehow means war or an unacceptable encroachment on the status quo. It's ironic that the authors charge the Calvinists of wanting to aggressively advance reformed soteriology upon the denomination when the authors of this statement are the very ones not content to operate within the parameters of the BF&M while the Calvinists are. Who's really being exclusionary here? Who are the true aggressors? Perhaps the same ones who are so utterly paranoid about what is going on in other autonomous churches...

Tom Hicks said...

Brother Tom, thanks for this wise, gracious, and accurate analysis. Looking forward to your dealings with the affirmations and denials.

Steve Doyle said...

Great job

Nate said...

Thank you, Tom! I was saved out of the cult (United Pentecostal Church International), and that happened by hearing John MacArthur preach the gospel. He preached the gospel offering security in the finished work of Christ; which was completely new to me. The more I listened and studied I found the doctrines of grace to be very solid Scripturally and God honoring. With all that said, I am very disturbed by this document. With all do respect, these guys sound more worried about some "conspiracy take-over", than Scriptural discussion and clarity.

Michael said...

Thanks, Tom. Excellent analysis. I appreciate that you pointed out the paternalistic attitude present in the preamble.
I find it frustrating that those who complain so loudly about Calvinism show such a shallow understanding of the history and textures of Reformed theology--even those who are well known theologians and historians! Thanks for bringing some clarity and light to the subject.

Bill0615 said...

Great observations, Tom. As John Adams said (1770), "Facts are stubborn things." Keep the facts coming.

Rick said...

Great post, Tom. This makes clear that there is a lot of fear in the SBC these days.
I think even the words used reveal the paternalistic attitude of the preamble. It pits the "traditional" vs. the "new" Calvinism (kind of makes Calvinism sound like a fad).
Keep up the good work.

Steven said...

I believe that it was Dr. Stetzer who made the comment during the SBC2011 that the same people complaining that Calvinists were going to have a detrimental affect on missions at SBC 2010, were complaining during sbc 2011 that the Calvinist were getting all the money for new church plants.

I appreciate Dr. Ascol's responses to this document, but think that the people behind this document are more concerned with their growing irrelevance than anything else.

T.A. Ragsdale said...

Thank you Tom. Your coverage of the preamble really has me enthusiastic about your upcoming posts on the affirmations and denials.

You do lose points for misusing the phrase begs the question though. ;)

C. said...

Tom,
A good friend introduced me to your blog after I had a Facebook meltdown about the document. Thanks for putting a response so eloquently and graciously for those of us who happen to find the doctrines of Calvinism to be biblically sound! I do fear that if this document does pass, it could have catastrophic effects within the convention, to the point of more splits like we saw in Texas when the BF&M was updated, except on a much larger scale. What disturbs me more, are the "heavy hitters" of the convention that have signed this document. It will be interesting to see what the current convention leadership does with it. Thanks again! Will be following your posts on the subject!

Prophet Among Them said...

Brothers - I write with a genuine hope that what I say resonates with each of you.

My Premise - this entire issue is not about Calvinism or 'Traditionalism'. It is rather about exegesis done with integrity, grace and transparency.

The Law of non-contradiction proves that one may be correct, both incorrect but both cannot be correct when claiming that the texts yields two distinctly different messages.

It has been witnessed multiple times that those who embrace and signed the statement have not been willing to engage honest, open and irenic systematic exegesis/debate on the issues.

It matters not at all what someone says the text means. What matters above all is "What does the text say!" I pray we never lose sight of that fact.

Tim said...

Thanks for doing this series. I have a thought to offer regarding the concerns that this document
* is intended political use
* neglects local church autonomy
* is paternalistic
* and suggests a vague New Calvinist conspiracy.

The thought is: these things are fruits of the signers' Arminianism. They believe in the power of the human will. Therefore, they seek to operate in terms of that power, using human politics to achieve their goals. They do not rest content with the independence of men from men, and from human authority structures, that predestination implies. They further attribute their own sort of political conspiracy to their opponents, because they cannot comprehend another kind of power.

"Do not call a conspiracy, what these people call a conspiracy."

Gordon said...

Dr. Ascol, you failed to mention the ridiculous nature of SBC ministry that has plagued the 90's among many of the non-calvinist churches. The gimmicks and 'strategies' of outreach that became so prevalent among baptist churches. Only now many of them are seeing the futile nature of these efforts. When I actually came to grips with what has been happening I am almost ashamed to be baptist. Thank God for being able to connect with calvinists across the caribbean and in the US. I wouldn't know what to do otherwise. I felt so isolated.

Rob Willmann said...

Tom,

After I was first saved, I spent almost a year wrestling with what most Baptists tended to believe vs. what the Scriptures actually taught. I came to my reformed theology slowly, and I now embrace it.

I pastored a small Baptist Church in Mobile, AL for 3.5 years, and towards the end, when they wanted to run me out of the church (because I dared to suggest that elder rule was biblical), one woman asked me, "Are you a calvinist or a southern baptist?" I tried to explain that the two were definitely not mutually exclusive, but it didn't matter. I was run off.

However, I am now an elder in a bible teaching SBC church locally, and I love it.

Thank you for taking the time to work through this document. May the Lord bless your work and the spread of His glorious Gospel.

Grow Your Own - Food That Is said...

Love the "prove it" statement Tom. Not mean-spirited, but just the right amount of heat.

JC Hackler said...

Tom,
Thanks for the well though out presentation. When I read the "Prove it" section I first laughed so hard that I almost threw up breakfast. But then the more I thought about it it became very clear that this is no laughing matter. May God forgive us for not preaching the Gospel in a way that so profoundly shakes the soul and then allows the Holy Spirit to do His perfect work that the fall out would be minimal. It appears that we have reaped a harvest of tares that is greater than the wheat. I believe that the "Majority" should be disciplined for non attendance in their churches or at least not count them if you have not seen them in the last year. However, if churches did that they would not be able to have as many messengers. Which leads to another question, "Are votes more important than integrity or bearing false witness?" If we did not count church members who never show up would that increase the "Majority's" percentage or the Calvinist? Is that a fair way to judge either side? Unfortunately Tom Convention Politics are not always built on biblical truth.