Saturday, June 9, 2012

“A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of Salvation: Initial Thoughts

Before I get started with my observations around this new manuscript, I want to point out that this document, while using language that leads one to believe it is the SBC’s official position on soteriology, it is not. It is a narrow statement drafted by a few men who seemingly hope to garner support for their particular view of salvation, or rather, their particular view of how the SBC has traditionally defined salvation. Specifically, it is a response to the “New Calvinism” emerging within the SBC. Clearly, the framers of this document consider the NC movement a threat to SBC soteriology so much so, that it merits a formal response. I am at a loss for why these men think they have the “right” to give the appearance of an official statement in the first place. One of my gripes with the SBC is their lack of deliberate narrowness in such areas. It would seem that the timing of the release of this statement is no accident. The framers no doubt intend to make an issue of the subject at the upcoming convention. We will watch and see what the SBC does with this new initiative.

In the preamble, the document contends that there is an aggressive insistence on the doctrines of grace with the goal being to make Calvinism a central SB position in soteriology. Of course, a Calvinist response would contend that this is simply an attempt to return to a biblical definition of the gospel within the SBC and such efforts are to be commended. Nevertheless, the document begins with the use of the term aggressive and this, it appears, is a scare tactic. It seems this small group has a desire to provoke passive onlookers to enter the fray while polarizing the NC movement within its ranks. The tactic is unfortunate, uncharitable, and unnecessarily divisive. One has to wonder if the NC “threat” merits this kind of attention. Do these SBC men have nothing better to do with their time? Maybe they should consider the health and wealth gospel making its way into the convention, or perhaps deal with the new mysticism that seems unchecked in its progress.

The second paragraph of the document details a Calvinism that is indeed not at all Calvinism. It describes it as anti-missionism, hyper-Calvinism, double predestination, and limited atonement. While there is some truth found in the sentence, the mixing of lies within the sentence is disingenuous and borders on malicious slander. The document then employs a specious argument when it insists, “opposing views” is enough to call into the question the validity of Calvinism and at a minimum ensure great humility on the subject. If this is true, then we may call into question every doctrine that Christianity has espoused. There has always existed disagreement on many if not all issues within the visible Christian community. Opposing views and different perspectives are not enough to generate doubt about a position. If that were true, we could have no certainty on any position, not even the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is also worth mentioning the framers of the document seem to display very little doubt about the error that is the New Calvinism as they frame this document. It would seem to me that they should consider taking their own medicine for consistency’s sake if for nothing else.

The document goes on to say the New Calvinists are pushing for a radical alteration of the atmosphere of passive tolerance that has existed for so long in the SBC toward Calvinist doctrines. However, the document furnishes no examples of such radical behavior, nor does it provide footnotes or an appendix where such documentation might have been made readily available.

The document posits that traditional SBC soteriology is anchored in decisionism. In other words, unregenerate men freely decide to place their faith in Christ without God’s divine activity of turning their heart toward him. The first question one must ask is; “is this document an accurate reflection of historic SBC soteriology?” Secondly, is it biblical? Even if we assume it is an accurate representation of SBC soteriology, and that is a major assumption, that alone is not enough to justify continued adoption of that view. What if further study proves this position is untenable with revealed truth? What then? Would the SBC insist on holding the view in preference for their tradition over Scripture? Didn’t this practice lead Jesus to sharply rebuke the Pharisees? Through their tradition, they made the Word of God ineffective. After all, many theologians agree that the SBC’s lack of focus, coupled with its broad theological approach has done more to threaten a true definition of the gospel than it has to spread it. The issues have been debated ad nauseaum at this point and to enter into yet another debate on the specifics is beyond the scope of this blog at this time. I mean, when Steve Furtick and Al Mohler can be in the same denomination, you have a real problem on your hands. Perhaps a more narrow emphasis is indeed in order.

More specifically, one has to ask if it is honest to claim that Calvinism has to be modified in order to engage in healthy missions work. There are no indications within the Calvinist system, properly so-called, that would lead anyone to think such an undertaking would be necessary. After all, Calvinism teaches that the preaching of the gospel is God’s means of regenerating the hearts of sinful men. Hence, this would make preaching indispensable for Christianity’s growth. Every Calvinist I know would defend this truth to the death. Secondly, the very use of the term “hyper-Calvinism” cannot go unnoticed. The term itself has extremely negative connotations and for it to be employed in this document seems a bit underhanded in my opinion. Hyper-Calvinism is as far removed from Calvinism as is Pelagianism and even Arminianism. It is unnecessary and unfair to bring it up in a document that purports to be concerned with Calvinism. The risk is guilt by association. Whatever is true of hyper-Calvinism runs the risk of being thought true of Calvinism as well. As it relates to double-predestination, many Calvinists hold this view. But the issue is far more complex than most Arminians care to acknowledge. In addition, there are a number of Calvinists who deny the doctrine of double-predestination. Therefore, one can hold the view or deny the view and still be a Calvinist. Modifications are not at all necessary. However, it is true that a Calvinist is one who does believe in particular redemption. Denial of this doctrine is the difference between someone being Calvinistic and being a Calvinist. Calvinists hold to a limited atonement, but so too do Arminians. Classic Arminianism teaches that Christ died only for those who place their faith in Him. Indeed, as will be demonstrated in a later post, the framers of this document go far beyond classic Arminianism in their view of the atonement.

The overall thrust of the document is to pave the way for a standard reference point in their soteriology. That reference point, according to the document should not be Calvinism because most Southern Baptists are not Calvinists and they do not desire that Calvinism should become the standard reference point in Baptist soteriology. This may be true, but is that the only question these men should be asking? Perhaps it is true that most Southern Baptists are not Calvinists. Does this mean the leadership should not move the denomination in that direction? Is the Christian community led by majority rule? What if most Southern Baptists did not believe in a literal hell, would that mean that the denomination should abandon it? The same could be said for the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the blessed hope, and on I could go.

I applaud the writing of the document along with its timing. I hope it generates a good deal of debate and dialogue at the convention. The egregious errors in several of the articles may force good men who have not really given the subject its due attention to do otherwise. Perhaps this will cause a number of pastors to realize the inconsistency in Arminian theology. I hope it leads to honest and open discussion. I pray the results produce a very large denomination that will finally begin to come to grips with the consequences of serious error in a soteriology that has permitted numerous and egregious errors in teaching, preaching, method, and strategy in its gospel proclamation. Maybe then, the consumer driven, seeker sensitive, emergent movements will all begin to be purged from her ranks. Perhaps? To be continued…

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