As I mentioned in my last post I am very grateful that Dr. David Allen has given so much time and energy to critique two chapters in Whomever He Wills. Thoughtful engagements like this can serve to promote serious dialogue about one of the most serious theological issues confronting Southern Baptists today. By doing so he is serving Southern Baptists well as one of our seminary professors and administrators. Even when such critiques badly miss their mark the attempt can be helpful if it leads to further clarification and encourages more careful exegesis of the biblical text and communication of exegetical results.
I want to make a few observations about Dr. Allen's criticisms in the same spirit in which he offered them. By doing so, I hope to promote the very things mentioned above without fueling any fires of animosity that may be smoldering on either side of this doctrinal divide.
First, I propose that as we engage brothers and sisters in theological debate that we do so with a reasonable assumption in place. Let's grant that each of us knows that we come to our doctrinal positions through interpreting Scripture. Dr. Allen takes exception to John MacArthur's provocative statement that "Jesus was a Calvinist" and my attempted explanation of his meaning. He protests that MacArthur (and Spurgeon) should have said "something along the lines of 'Calvinism derives its views from a particular interpretation of the teachings of Jesus.' Otherwise, this is nothing more than a classic example of begging the question." This strikes me as unnecessarily (and unhelpfully) pedantic. Is not every doctrinal assertion of what the Bible teaches based on a particular interpretation? If, in order to avoid hurt feelings we must always qualify our assertions as being based on our interpretation then I fear what we might possibly gain in protecting feelings will not be worth what we lose in plainness and clarity.
It will not surprise Dr. Allen to learn that I find many of his arguments in his critique to be unwarranted, erroneous or otherwise unconvincing. I recognize, however, that they are indeed, his arguments and that he has derived them from his own study and reflection on the subjects at hand. I do not expect him to qualify all of his assertions as being based on his particular interpretation.
I also find it helpful to believe that when my disputant makes pointed assertions about me, my positions or my arguments, that he does not mean to be personally hurtful. Granted, this is easier to do with some disputants (like Dr. Allen) than others (like...well, use your imagination), but love hopes all things and refusing to take criticism personally can help keep the dialogue from degenerating into incessant mud-slinging or one-upmanship thereby obscuring the the subject at hand.
Sometimes the best way to make a point is to do so sharply. When brothers are debating matters of grave importance we should not be surprised at occasional barbs. For example, Paul prods the spiritually immature Corinthians by comparing them to babies (1 Corinthians 3:1). Sometimes plainness demands a sharp tone.
In my chapter of Whomever He Wills (WHW), I respond to what Dr. Allen sees as one of Calvinism's "problems for evangelism." He finds it seriously problematic that a Calvinist "cannot look a congregation in the eyes or even a single unbelieving sinner in the eye and say 'Christ died for your sins'" (Whosoever Will [WW], 97). This "untenable" position, according to Allen, cannot help but "undermine one's evangelistic zeal" (WW, 97). I point out that nowhere in Scripture do we find unbelievers being told that "Christ died for your sins" and that to insist on such language is to betray allegiance to a canon beyond the written Word of God. Furthermore, I elaborate, "Allen's criticism impresses only those whose consciences are bound by something other than the inerrant, infallible and sufficient Word of God" (WHW, 275). Dr. Allen calls this an "unnecessarily disparaging comment" and erroneously charges me with leveling it against "those who disagree with [me]." He further asserts, "Such a statement is unworthy of theological discourse and needs no ink spilt in refutation."
Perhaps he simply misunderstood that my criticism was directed not at those who disagree with me but exclusively at those who are impressed by his insistence that a phrase which the apostles never used in their evangelistic preaching nevertheless must be used in our evangelism or else evangelistic zeal will necessarily be undermined. Be that as it may, my intent was not to be disparaging or hurtful but rather, to be pointed in refuting an unwarranted, unbiblical, and unjustifiable criticism made by Dr. Allen. Rather than taking offense, Dr. Allen's critique would have been strengthened had he taken the question seriously, "By what authority does he cast aspersions on those who are hesitant to use non-biblical language when engaging in biblical evangelism?" I find it ironic that Dr. Allen avoided giving a simple response to my concern given the fact that he spilt so much ink castigating those who confess that "Christ died for sinners" for using a phrase that is not found in the Bible. In WW he criticizes the doctrinal statement of Together for the Gospel (T4G) for its declaration that "Christ died for sinners." He charges the use of this phrase as being "studied ambiguity" that employs "sinners" as a "code word." Further, Dr. Allen emphatically states that this language of the leaders of T4G "is not biblical in the denotative sense that no explicit form of words 'died for sinners' appears in the NT" (WW, 108; cf. 97; emphasis in the original).
Here is the irony clearly delineated:
Here is the irony clearly delineated:
- Dr. Allen criticizes the T4G confession (that is not imposed on anyone) for using a phrase ("Christ died for sinners") that "is not in the NT."
- Yet, he insists on the use of a phrase that is not in the NT ("Christ died for your sins" to unbelievers), criticizing those who do not use it.
- When his insistence is challenged as rooted in something other than the Word of God he shows none of the scruples that governed his criticism of the T4G statement but rather dismisses it as "unworthy of theological discourse."
I would be helped by further clarification at this point by Dr. Allen.
I take Dr. Allen's use of sharp language in his critique as designed to underscore what he judges to be an important point. In his multi-part review of two chapters of WHW he repeatedly makes charges of logical fallacies and failure to deal with the biblical text as well as finding fault for not dealing with matters that were beyond the scope of the chapter being reviewed. At one point he states of my dealing with the biblical text, "There is more eisegesis than exegesis at work here." His language is pointed but it would be counter-productive to take it personally. Instead, I have tried to understand his concerns and weigh carefully his arguments, going back to the biblical and historical texts that he says I have misconstrued (or neglected completely). It has been a profitable exercise for me.
Much good can be gained if brothers are willing to discuss points of serious theological differences plainly, kindly and charitably. This goes for both how we speak/write and how we hear/read. Being thick-skinned in this arena is simply another way of demonstrating the kind of love that covers a multitude of sins.