Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Can Particular Atonement Sympathizers Survive in the SBC?

Let's be honest, the controversy between young Calvinists and old guard Southern Baptist leaders has been brewing for several years and continues to escalate. What I find interesting is that the hostile shots across the bow most often come, not from the aggressive, restless younger generation, but from older, and supposedly wiser, pastors, professors and seminary presidents. Though Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) said, "There's plenty of room under the [Southern Baptist] umbrella for anyone who is anything from a one-to-five point Calvinist," he has also expressed deep concern about the rise of Calvinism in the convention. Adrian Rogers, before his death, was an outspoken critic, not only of Calvinism (the doctrines of grace), but also of men who believe this doctrine accurately reflects the intention and meaning of Scripture. For the most part the criticisms have been well calculated, deliberate, and civil.

But the rhetoric coming out of Liberty University these days is anything but amicable, and very little is said in the spirit of cooperation as it relates to those who hold to a more Calvinistic soteriology. Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, which recently became affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convenation. Recently Ergun Caner, dean of the seminary at Liberty, compared Calvinists to "Muslims" in their zeal and equated the staunch dogmatism of Reformed doctrine by many believers to be similar to "Christian jihad", a characterization I personally found offensive and unnecessary. But Jerry Falwell raised the stakes this Friday when he labeled the doctrine of limited atonement (i.e., particular redemption), which states that Jesus' death on the cross was, in effect, only for the elect because only the elect will believe and receive the benefits of Jesus' work by faith through grace, a heresy (see the charge here). It is strange to me that Falwell singles out a doctrine that everyone must believe on some level or else you are logically a universalist. The atonement of Jesus does not apply to all people in all circumstances in the same way or else all people will go to heaven and enjoy eternal life. In this respect, if you deny universalism, you affirm some nuance of limited atonement.

We can and should applaud Falwell's boldness and courage to state unequivocally what he believes, but this is a serious charge. Heretics are individuals who deliberately distort the gospel and who are false teachers, likely individuals who are not even members of the Kingdom of Christ. With this claim Falwell is stating that John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, Charles Spurgeon, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Dever, Bryan Chappell, William Carey, John Owen, Al Mohler, and, yes, myself and more are heretics. But this is more than a label or Falwell resorting to school-yard name-calling; he is condemning those who believe differently than he does in regards to the atonement, even though this difference in belief has been widely accepted within historical Christianity.

It is this kind of rhetoric that is raising the stakes and creating unnecessary stress within the SBC. The Apostle Paul,when writing for the presevervation of unity in the Body of Christ, says, "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." The Baptist Faith & Message , which essentially serves as the doctrinal statement for the SBC, incorporates language that is intentionally inclusive of individuals and churches that fit within the full specturm of an acceptable understanding of Baptistic soteriology. However, recent responses to the doctrines of grace with rhetoric like Falwell's and Caner's threatens the unity of the Convention. Should the stakes continue to rise it won't be long before a motion is made from the floor, or perhaps even through a doctrinal committee, at a Southern Baptist Convention in the near future, that calls to exclude explicit or implicit Calvinistic doctrine from SBC articles, statements of faith, and eventually SBC churches in good standing. You may scoff at the notion that this could happen, but where else can condemning language such as the "H" word lead? If more people follow Falwell's lead and believe that Christians with a reformed perspective or understanding of the bent of Scripture are heretics, why would you tolerate what you believe to be heretics in your fellowship? God, help us to heed Paul's admonition in Ephesians 4:1-3 for the sake of unity and the spread of Your glorious gospel.


At 10:34 AM , Blogger Paul Cable said...

Well, about the SBC and unity, I agree that Rev. Falwell's comment damaged the official or stated unity of the convention, but it's really just a symptom of the already serious lack of practical, docrinal unity in the convention, based only on the professed beliefs of the various leaders of the SBC. If it's that kind of doctrinal unity that we're going for, we're a long way away. How doctrinally unified can a convention be with such divergent views on major doctrinal issues as Falwell's and Dever's/Mohler's being taught it's churches? It doesn't seem like, as a convention, we care much about real doctrinal unity, except on the most absolutely basic of issues (diety of Christ) and the most trivial (alcohol), little in between. Yes, Falwell's comment highlighted the disunity of the SBC, but are we really even striving for meaningful unity in those areas anyway?

At 10:35 AM , Blogger Paul Cable said...

sorry, "its churches"

At 12:23 PM , Blogger Aaron said...

I'm not sure that the SBC intends or even needs to strive for doctrinal unity on what have to be considered non-essential issues - with non-essential meaning those issue that are not central to the Gospel. Whether or not one believes that foreknowledge means "intimate knowledge and affection" which leads Him to set His affections on His elect according to His good pleasure or it is defined as God's ability and purpose to look into the future to see what His free moral agents will choose and then "elect" based on what He sees isn't essential to understanding, believing and living the Gospel that Jesus gave His life for sinners so that we, by faith, could become the righteousness of God. Now certainly serious theologians are going to recognize that how one defines and understands the issues of election, foreknowledge, the scope of the atonement, etc, is going to shape our soteriology, and rightfully so, but wherever we land in our understanding should impact the unity we share in the essential truths of the Gospel.

I think the latest revision of the BF&M reveals that SBC leaders are not concerned with an overall pure doctrine which could only come from unified theological statements or articles about important, but non-essential doctrines such as election, foreknowledge and the like. SBC leaders see room for cooperation, agreement and unity in the essential elements of the Gospel while disagreeing in interpretation over some non-essential issues.

However, what I think we are seeing is a deviation away from this spirit of cooperation. The recent rhetoric and concerns about Calvinism in the SBC are just one example. You could also point to the issues about private prayer languages as well as a sign that there are cracks in the broad theological foundation supported with ambigious theological and doctrinal statements upon which the SBC has been built. What we are seeing, to some degree,is a move towards doctrinal purity (as each camp sees it), and I'm not sure that this is a bad thing overall. However, the impact that it will have on the 16 million SBC'ers will be significant because it could lead not only to a split, but multiple divisions within the SBC.

At 6:49 PM , Blogger Paul Cable said...

Well said. So, how would you define the criteria for the essential-ness of a certain doctrine to the integrity of the gospel? I can't seem to get a good handle on this myself.

At 9:09 AM , Blogger Aaron said...

Doctrines central to the Gospel, in my opinion, are those that affirm: (1) the deity of Jesus; (2) the sonship of Jesus; (3) the Trinity; (4) the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus; (5) the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus; (4) the depravity and spiritual deadness of man; (6) the reality that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone; (7) the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God.

I hesitate to stop here for fear that I've missed something that I affirm as central and essential to the Gospel, but I think I've covered my bases, but I don't have much time to respond.

The criteria, as I see it, and as you can tell, all relate to our understanding and perspective of Jesus and the nature of His work and obedience to the Father. The reason for this is it is Jesus that separates Christianity from other world religions. What a person believes about Jesus determines whether or not they know the Father. Period. John 8:42 affirms this, as does multiple passages in John 5-8.

Now, as a caveat, I have to say that while I think these doctrines are the core elements of the Gospel, I do believe that how one views God's purposes and actions in the salvation and redemption of His people (election, foreknowledge, regeneration, etc) has a profound impact on our understanding of not only the Father, but the nature of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for all who would believe.

At 5:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13
The only Way God will declare anyone righteous is by the faith of obedience of a command. Some have been elected by God not to obey this particular command since they have falsely assumed to have been made righteous only by God's election.
Theodore A. Jones


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