Calvinism and the SBC: The Case for Consensus, Part 2

Calvinism and the SBC: The Case for Consensus, Part 2

By Alvin Reid and Nathan A. Finn

Several weeks ago we began a little “exercise in bridge-building” by writing two different “open letters” to Southern Baptists. After an introductory article, Alvin wrote an open letter to his Calvinist friends in the SBC. The next day Nathan wrote an open letter to his non-Calvinist friends in the SBC. The issues we raised in those letters animate our own conversations with each other. In a follow-up article, we began making a case for consensus within the SBC among those on all sides of the Calvinism debate. With this article, we conclude our thoughts on bridge-building, at least for the time being.

We believe there are four planks around which virtually all contemporary Southern Baptists can unite in a common platform. None of these priorities are new; all of them have characterized the SBC during our better moments. But there are tensions within each commitment, and navigating those tensions is the key to building a healthy consensus among our churches. We are convinced both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can unite around the following.

Plank 1: a commitment to a confessional center of cooperation. In 2000 Southern Baptists voted overwhelmingly to adopt a revised version of the Baptist Faith and Message. That statement is the confessional fruit of the Conservative Resurgence. It articulates the full truthfulness and sufficiency of Christian Scripture. It affirms our foundational doctrines and most cherished priorities, some of which we will discuss below. It guides the selection of our elected, appointed, and employed denominational servants.

We think most Southern Baptists are comfortable with the BF&M, even if they have minor quibbles with terminology, emphasis, etc. This is to be expected with any confessional statement in a network of autonomous churches. Like all confessions, ours is an imperfect document that summarizes particular biblical teachings. But we believe it faithfully represents a confessional center around which both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can cooperate, even if some churches opt to embrace different confessions for their personal use and/or choose to enunciate some secondary or tertiary doctrines differently than the BF&M.

Plank 2: a commitment to a basically evangelical understanding of the gospel. We agree with David Dockery that there is a gospel center among Southern Baptists that is non-negotiable, even as we debate second and third order matters that flow from that center. All Southern Baptists need to be committed to such truths as humanity’s utter sinfulness, the sinless law-keeping of Jesus Christ, his penal substitutionary atonement, justification by grace through faith, the imputed righteousness of Christ, and the necessity of repentance and faith as the proper response to the gospel. We believe the BF&M clearly communicates these doctrines, despite its neutrality on election and silence on the extent of the atonement.

We think the vast majority of Southern Baptists believe these truths, though at times we could stand to make them clearer in our evangelism and discipleship. (The theological jargon isn’t as important as the truths communicated, especially in an evangelistic context.) The Calvinism debate isn’t a debate about the gospel qua gospel, but is rather a debate about the best way to further define and articulate aspects of the gospel. We can debate which view of election and the atonement is more consistent with the gospel than others, but these debates shouldn’t preclude our cooperation as Southern Baptists.

Plank 3: a commitment to a basically Baptist ecclesiology. We believe that the Baptist vision of the church closely follows New Testament teaching and example and best represents the consistent application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. Because we are a Convention of Baptist churches, we need to be united in our advocacy of regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion alone, congregational church government, local church autonomy, and liberty of conscience. We believe all of these principles, when applied in a biblical manner under the lordship of Christ, are non-negotiables for Southern Baptists. The BF&M speaks with clarity about the Baptist view of the church.

We also think almost all Southern Baptists affirm these core Baptist convictions in principle, though there are threats to each of them (that’s for another time). We also think, however, that there is room for debate about how to best apply some of these ecclesiological distinctives. For example, should a church follow a single-elder or a plural elder form of congregationalism? What is the most biblical understanding of liberty of conscience? At what age should an apparently believing child be baptized? Which immersions are alien to biblical faith and practice? These are all worthwhile questions, but differences of opinions on these points that are not addressed in the BF&M shouldn’t hinder our cooperation.

Plank 4: a commitment to evangelism and missions, both in North America and abroad. While this cannot be said of all Baptists, Southern Baptists have always championed the spread of the gospel and the planting of healthy local Baptist churches. The SBC was organized as a network of “missionary” Baptist churches in the South. This was to distinguish them from the “antimission” Baptists who rejected cooperative missions (and sometimes any missions).

We think that almost all Southern Baptists still care about evangelism and missions, though there are clearly differences in strategies. Some churches knock on doors and host tent crusades, while others emphasize servant evangelism. Some churches use evangelism programs like FAITH or GROW, while others forego formal programs. Some churches think about contextualization, while others choose not to. The list could go on, and these are of course generalizations.

We appreciate these differences, but we believe they reflect style more than substance. Virtually all Southern Baptists want to see their cities evangelized, unchurched areas in North America reached, and the gospel preached and churches planted to the ends of the earth. That central conviction matters infinitely more than particular strategies. We believe that methodological diversity in evangelism and missions is a good thing rather than a bad thing in a Convention that prizes local church autonomy. As long as the gospel is not compromised, our shared confessional commitments are not scuttled, and the churches we plant are Baptist in practice (though not necessarily in name), we would suggest our methods can vary as much as Scripture allows.

There are of course other secondary planks around which we can unite. Theological education has long been a priority (we’re all for it!). So has Christian engagement of the public square. Ministries like disaster relief are crucial. So is providing sound curricula and other materials to local SBC churches. But while we believe these ministries are important, they should be driven by the four consensus-building commitments of confessional cooperation, gospel faithfulness, healthy ecclesiology, and bold witness.

As we conclude our thoughts, we want to offer some practical suggestions concerning how Calvinists and non-Calvinists in particular, and different types of Southern Baptists in general, can better facilitate cooperation, especially at the personal and local church levels.

First, we should pray for one another. We should pray that our fellow Southern Baptists would enjoy blessed ministries and enjoy much gospel fruit, even if they have a different view of the doctrines of grace. We should pray that our sister churches would reach their communities with the gospel, even if their strategies vary somewhat from ours. Our prayers are infinitely more beneficial to the kingdom than our criticisms.

Second, we should seek out friends with whom we differ. Our friendship began in a doctoral seminar where it was clear we disagreed about Calvinism but shared a common vision for the Convention’s future. After two years of conversations, we are convinced that our agreements vastly outnumber our differences. Alvin recently wrote a book with a Calvinist colleague. Nathan is currently reading the draft of a book (on the doctrine of salvation!) written by a non-Calvinist friend. We have to get out of our theological ghettos and make some friends who will challenge us and sharpen our thinking.

Third, we should avoid all caricature and misrepresentation. Nathan has often written and spoken about erroneous understandings of SBC Calvinists. Alvin has been misunderstood by more than one “cage-stage” seminarian or rabidly Reformed pastor. We cannot be truth-defenders if we are not truth-tellers. Too many Calvinists arrogantly dismiss many non-Calvinists as Arminians at best and Pelagians at worst. Too many non-Calvinists inappropriately brand Calvinism as hyper-Calvinism, “extreme” Calvinism, etc. This will not build a consensus, but it may destroy the Convention.

Finally, we should commit to disagree agreeably. We still have differing views of Calvinism, and that may be the case until we pass into the next life. But we genuinely appreciate each other and have each benefitted from our friendship. We do not think the other is a threat to the gospel or the Convention. We look forward to the day when both of our respective theological errors are forever left behind, but until that day we labor together despite our differences over secondary and tertiary issues.

We do not have to agree about Calvinism. But we also do not have to divide over Calvinism. Our prayer is that Southern Baptists will not become distracted by our differences, but rather will cooperate in our shared priorities: the gospel lived out in Baptist churches that share common core theological convictions and a passion for the Great Commission.racer mobile game

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 21: The Role of Prayer

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series addresses biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist. The author of this post is Amanda Aucoin, who serves as adjunctive professor of history at Southeastern Seminary, where she primarily teaches courses in the undergraduate program. Dr. Aucoin is married to Brent, who serves as associate professor of history and associate dean of The College at Southeastern. The Aucoins are members of the First Baptist Church of Durham, NC.

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The Role of Prayer in a Great Commission Resurgence

By Amanda Aucoin

When first approaching this topic, I wondered whether or not I could adequately assign a “role” to prayer. When taken a certain way, saying that prayer plays a role in Great Commission work is like saying that a mother plays a role in childbirth. That is, it’s a bit of an understatement. It seemed to relegate the intercession of the saints to a position of importance somewhere around tithing, which also plays a role in the Great Commission. After giving it further thought, though, I determined a different perspective. As Oswald Chambers said, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work, prayer is the greater work.”

Do we as Southern Baptists recognize the preeminent place of prayer in bringing the gospel to the nations? Taking even a brief look at Baptist life, it would seem we do. The terms “prayer meeting” and “corporate prayer” ring familiar to us. Speaking only partly in jest, I can think of no surer mark of a Southern Baptist family than missionary prayer cards on the refrigerator. These pictorial reminders to pray for a family we may or may not know in some part of the world we may or may not be able to locate on the map sometimes get lost in the mix of appointment reminders and pictures of family and children’s artwork. But our intentions are evident. We intend in the midst of our busy lives to pray for missionaries.

And there are lots of helps available to us in this area as well. Resources exist to aid churches in developing a Great Commission prayer ministry complete with strategy booklets and ideas on making prayer more foundational in our churches. North Carolina Baptists will hold a Great Commission Prayer Conference for both ministers and laymen in just a few weeks. Without even mentioning the number of books that have been published to help us focus our prayer, it is clear Southern Baptists do not relegate supplication to the sideline of ministry. This is a good thing, and we would all do well to avail ourselves of these aids when building a prayer life or energizing one that’s grown cold.

A.W. Pink said prayer is not so much an act as it is an attitude-an attitude of dependence on God. Yet is our utter dependency on He who wills, whether we recognize it or not, evident in the way we as individual believers pray for a Great Commission Resurgence? It’s so easy, even ritualistic, to pray that God’s will be done in this or that area. There is nothing wrong with making a habit of asking for this, so long as we continue to mean it. The fact is, if we believe in a God that is sovereign and omnipotent, then we approach prayer from the belief that His plans will come to pass. He will bring His people into His church in His time using the means of His choosing. We needn’t pray as though we are trying to persuade God to bring about His kingdom and glory on this earth. To paraphrase my college students, God is “all about” His own glory. Our role is to pray that He would change us, that He would give us willing hearts to do the wonderful but sometimes hard work of taking the gospel to the nations.

In II Timothy 1:9, Paul calls on us to join with him in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God who “has saved us and called us to a holy life-not because of anything we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace.” We should seek this holy calling, through prayer, and ask the God of mercy to anoint our efforts and our missionaries with the power of His Spirit, to open the eyes of the lost. races mobile game

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence (Part 9): The Exclusivity of the Gospel

I have a confession to make. I think that the title to this article stinks. I hate the label “exclusivist” when it is applied to the Gospel. Hate, hate, hate, HATE, HATE it. Missiologist Harold Netland observes, “It is probably safe to assume that the term ‘exclusivism’ was not first introduced into the discussion by adherents of that perspective, but rather it is a perjorative term first introduced by those who did not accept that view, who wished to cast it in a particularly unappetizing light. Unfortunately, by default, we evangelicals have allowed others involved in the debate over religious pluralism to define the category of ‘exclusivism,’ and to do so in unacceptable terms.” (quoted by Charles VanEngen, Christianity and the Religions, 1995).

Pluralist Alan Race coined the term in his Christians and Religious Pluralism (1982), and he is no friend of the biblical understanding of the Gospel. He invented the terms exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism to denote what he understood to be the three major positions of the relationship of Christianity with the other religions of the world.

An important principle in any debate is that whoever gets to assign the labels generally wins. By calling his position “pluralism” and its close ally “inclusivism,” Race was able to portray his views as welcoming, inviting, and enlightened. “Exclusivism,” in contrast, portrays the historic position on the Gospel as something akin to a Jim Crow country club. Exclusivists are reactionary, mean, small-minded people devoid of the milk of human kindness. The label should be ditched because it is misleading and perjorative. It was designed specifically to paint the evangelical understanding of the Gospel into a corner. Why is the label “exclusivist” misleading? Because it insinuates that the message of Christ slams other doors shut when in reality no other doors have ever existed. The Gospel “excludes” no one. On the contrary, it gives hope where there was no hope before (Eph 2:12 “without hope and without God in the world”). How can showing condemned prisoners the way of escape somehow be exclusive?

I propose that rather than using the term “exclusivity” we should be speaking of the “essentiality” of the Gospel. The hearing of the Gospel is essential for morally responsible persons to be saved. (I do not view the mentally handicapped or infants as morally responsible individuals.) In order to be saved, one must place his faith in Jesus Christ. But one cannot believe in whom he has not heard (Rom 10:14). The Gospel is not exclusive; it is essential. The Gospel keeps no one out, but it is the only possible way in.

So, what does the essentiality of the Gospel mean? Six thoughts:

1. The other religions are not preparations for the Gospel. Some inclusivists, particularly within Roman Catholic circles, argue that the major religions of the world are sincere responses to the general revelation in nature, and as such prepare the adherents for when the Gospel eventually arrives. However, this is not the way the Bible presents the other religions (1 Cor 10:20-22). Simple question: why is the 10-40 window located where it is? What is it about that region that makes presenting the Gospel such a difficult slog? Answer: it is the region of the world’s other major religions. There is no evidence that Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism prepares or inclines its followers to the Good News. Just the opposite; their followers are the most resistant.

2. The other religions are not alternative avenues of grace. Yes, there is a significant amount of ethical teaching in the religions of the world. Their founders and followers are humans who reflect the image of God, even as fallen, so a certain morality should not be surprising. However, what is missing is any true notion of grace. Clark Pinnock has claimed that a number of religions contain enough truths to teach its followers to trust in the mercy of God for salvation. In a helpful article Win Corduan examines the religions Pinnock extolled and concludes, “I cannot think of one teaching of a major non-Christian religion that, given its own formulation rather than one imposed on it, is actually competent to open a person to the grace of God within its own framework” (p. 48).

3. The scandal of particularity will always be an offense. The opposite of pluralism is not exclusivism; the opposite of pluralism is particularism. The world has been and always will be scandalized by the notion that God called a solitary man, Abraham, in order to bring about a chosen people, Israel, in order to reveal His only begotten Son, Jesus, Who alone accomplished the redemption for the world. The Cross indicts the world, not only of its sin but also its self-righteousness, especially the self-righteousness of religious pretensions. But “blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Luke 11:6).

4. How one frames the question of the fate of the unevangelized greatly affects how we deal with it. All of us, at one time or another, have struggled with the fate of the unevangelized. If salvation is so crucial, then why did God chose such an ineffective delivery system as the Church to propogate it? Wouldn’t it be better if, say, each Sunday angels appeared in the sky and proclaimed the Gospel to every living human being? What about the multitudes who perish without the Gospel?

What is bothering us is that it appears only a small percentage of humanity has even had the opportunity to be saved. Or have they? Allow me to attempt to reframe the question of percentages. Like most evangelicals, I believe that life begins at conception. I also believe that those who die in infancy go to heaven. With those two thoughts in mind note that, according to Malcolm Jeeves and R. J. Berry, in the normal course of a pregnancy only about 80% of all fertilized eggs actually implant in the mother’s womb, 49% are still alive one week later, the number drops to 44% by the sixth week, and only 36% are delivered (Science, Life and Christian Belief, 1998, p. 161). As they put it, “Survival to birth is not the norm; it occurs in only a minority of conceptions…” Then, historically speaking and particularly in underdeveloped countries, only 50% of children born have lived to be old enough “to distinguish the right hand from the left” (Sanders, No Other Name? 1992, p. 288). So only half of the 36% concieved, i.e., approximately 18%, ever reach the age of accountability. Incredibly, over 80% of all humans conceived never see their fifth birthday. The bottom line: more than 4 out of 5 persons who have ever existed have gone to heaven! God has allowed only a remnant of the elect to reach the age of moral responsibility. This fact does not answer every question or remove every qualm, but it casts the mercy of God in a different light. It allows us to make a very bold statement: Even though most who achieve adulthood will not be saved (Luke 13:22-24), the vast majority of all humans who ever existed will spend eternity with God (Rev 5).

5. Our Lord is the Lord of the harvest. I am satisfied with the Molinist argument that God has ordained a world such that every one who would say “yes” to Christ will, in fact, have the opportunity to do so. This permits us to similtaneously affirm God’s universal salvific desire (2 Pet 3:9) and the essentiality of the Gospel in such a way that also affirms the sovereignty of God. The Lord of the harvest knows what He is doing.

6. We cannot let the question of the fate of the unevangelized detract us from our marching orders. Around the time our Lord was giving the Great Commission, Simon Peter wanted to know what was going to happen to John. Jesus answered him, “What is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22). Similarly, we have our orders. We are to give ourselves to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. As for the unanswered questions, let us remember He is the One Who decided to leave them unanswered. What is that to us? Let us follow Him.