On The GCR Declaration, Part 1

Lord willing, over the next few days I will be blogging through the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the first article in what I hope will be a series. As you read, please remember that while Between the Time is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

I apologize in advance: most of my articles will not be this long. But I wanted to begin with some preliminary thoughts, some presuppositions, if you will, that inform my thoughts about the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR). First, you need to know that I was in favor of and blogging about the ideas associated with the GCR back when few were using GCR language. Although my old personal blog has been defunct for nearly a year, anyone who has been reading my writings since June 2006 will know that I have, at one time or other, addressed nearly every topic covered in the GCR Declaration. So my articles this week are not “off-the-cuff”, but rather represent issues I have given substantial thought to over the past three years.

Second, you need to know that I was using GCR language for months before last year’s SBC, when that language (and the presidential candidate who owned it) electrified most of the messengers. Following the Convention, it seemed everybody was for a GCR, especially in the blogosphere. Some folks even made not-so-subtle attempts to co-opt and define a movement that they had either ignored or opposed just the day before yesterday. I know for a fact that a fellow blogger has extensive documentation that this took place, and I hope he decides to post his findings in the near future (you know who you are-hint, hint).

Third, you need to know that I participated in helping to define the GCR movement by contributing to the BtT blog series “Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence”. That series is pretty much obsolete now that there is a GCR Declaration, but the Declaration clearly reflects the same ideas that were articulated in the “Contours” series (as it should, considering the role that Danny Akin played in both the series and the sermon that inspired the Declaration).

Fourth, you need to know that I was present in Binkley Chapel when Akin preached his “Axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence,” which of course provided a blueprint for much (though not all) of the GCR Declaration. I had never been more excited to be a part of the SEBTS family. Our students are still talking about that sermon.

Fifth, you need to know that I was one of the first dozen or so people to sign the GCR Declaration, and I did so without any caveats. While I respect the opinions of those who have signed the document with caveats (after all, no such statement is infallible), I am in agreement with the Declaration and was so before any of the language was softened (though I understand why the language was altered).

Sixth, you need to know that, though I have not been blogging much about this topic, my absence should not be confused with ignorance about the issues. I have read others’ blogs. I have read lots and lots of editorials in state papers and articles in Baptist press. I have listened to numerous podcasts. I think I have a handle on what’s going on, who the players are, and what tactics are being used to attempt to distract from the GCR agenda.

Finally, you need to know that I personally believe the GCR vision is the best way forward for Southern Baptists, period. That will be true even if the messengers to the SBC Annual Meeting next week refuse to embrace the Declaration. Let me say it another way: I am 100% convinced that the GCR is right, even if it doesn’t “win” in terms of denominational politics. The fact is the healthiest churches in the SBC are already characterized by the values embodied in the Declaration. So is my seminary (and I’m pretty partial to my seminary). So are some of the other parachurch ministries within our denominational family (within every “layer” of our polity). So as much as I hope and pray the GCR is “owned” by the Convention next week, to be perfectly candid at one level I don’t give a rip how the vote goes. When the dust settles, I will still be me, my church will still be my church, and SEBTS will still be SEBTS. It’s that simple.

So now that you know exactly where I am coming from, let me talk through some of the articles in the GCR Declaration. I hope you’ll understand if they don’t all get equal treatment in terms of space.

The Preamble

The Preamble does a fine job of speaking to the SBC’s historic Great Commission identity and tying the GCR to the Conservative Resurgence. I think few would argue that the proclamation of the gospel at home and abroad and the planting of healthy baptistic churches all over the globe have been the twin fundamental priorities that have led our myriad autonomous churches to voluntarily cooperate with each other. Everything else we do together (including theological education) ultimately comes back to the Great Commission.

(Please note my use of the word “baptistic” in the above paragraph is deliberate. The doctrines a church holds to are infinitely more important than the name on the church’s sign or in its bylaws. Nobody wants to plant churches that do not hold to our vision of what a local church ought to be. And in North America in particular, nobody is arguing we should plant new churches that do not cooperate with our Convention. But whether a church self-identifies as “Baptist” or not is of little significance. Doctrine is what matters.)

As for the ties between the two “resurgences”, make no mistake about it: most of the GCR proponents I talk to believe the GCR represents the logical successor to the Conservative Resurgence (building upon, of course, not replacing-lest I be misunderstood). That Conservative Resurgence, though a particular manifestation of the ongoing “Battle for the Bible” was, at its core, a battle for mission. You don’t believe me? Read Paige Patterson’s “Anatomy of a Reformation” (esp. p. 8.) or about half the chapters in Paul Pressler’s A Hill on Which to Die. Those two brothers argued that the Conservative Resurgence was ultimately about spreading the name of Christ to all nations (and they would know).

This is the short of it: the GCR agenda is nothing new; only the nomenclature is recent. If you want to read a couple of fine articles that articulate the GCR vision and were written almost two decades ago, see Paige Patterson’s “My Vision of the Twenty-First Century SBC” (Review and Expositor 88 [1991]: 37-52) and Timothy George’s “Toward an Evangelical Future” (Southern Baptists Observed, ed. Nancy Tatom Ammerman [University of Tennessee Press, 1993], 276-300). Several of the essays in David Dockery’s forthcoming Southern Baptist Identity: The Future of an Evangelical Denomination (Crossway) also articulate a GCR-like vision and were written before that language was common. (Though, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that my essay was written with a GCR in mind, as will be evident if you read it.)

Article I: A Commitment to Christ’s Lordship

Some have wondered why this particular article is included in the GCR Declaration. Others have wondered if this is a revisiting of the whole “Lordship Salvation” controversy. Still others have claimed that arguing for Christ’s lordship is an exercise in the obvious.

First of all, you should know that a commitment to Christ’s lordship-including (especially?) in ecclesiological matters-has always been a driving force among Baptist churches. We have a long history of using this terminology (sometimes in unhelpful ways, as when some progressive Baptists have argued for following “Christ’s” leadership, even when he allegedly leads in ways that contradict his Scripture). Simply put, Baptists have always argued that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, so we ought to consciously submit to his lordship in every area of our lives and churches. Insofar as we do so, it is a “foretaste of glory divine”.

This is my perspective: though few would deny Christ’s lordship, we obviously aren’t getting it or we wouldn’t need any type of resurgence (which implies, of course, that a crucial thing has been neglected). Attempting to follow the Jesus we claim to love is at the heart of this movement. The GCR Declarations says it well: “Christ’s Lordship must be first and foremost in a Great Commission Resurgence or we will miss our most important priority and fail in all of our other pursuits.” This is about our people, churches, and yes, our denominational parachurch ministries, taking up their crosses and following Jesus. If we do that, you can bet we’ll experience a Great Commission Resurgence.

So whatever you do, don’t buy the red herrings that keep getting thrown out there. I’ve seen plenty. For example, this movement is not a “Trojan Horse” to hide the real agenda: a denominational restructuring (much more on that in a later post). This movement is not some whipper-snapper rebellion against our elder statesmen. (This claim is pure blog malarkey-I don’t hear any “young leaders” griping about “seasoned leaders”. I do hear complaints about things of substance-from people of all ages. And I hear responses to those complaints, also from people of all ages.)

This movement is not about improving on all our statistics (baptisms, number of churches, CP giving, etc.). Most of the GCR guys I know don’t care about our statistics; they care that too few of our churches are having a meaningful gospel impact on our culture-which includes baptizing new converts. This movement is not about a Calvinist takeover of the SBC (though it most assuredly rejects any attempts to block Calvinists-or any other conservative Baptists who care about the gospel and the Great Commission-from meaningful Convention participation). This movement is not about squandering our Baptist identity-you will notice there is a clear section on Baptist distinctives, meaning attempts to argue the GCR is not “Baptist” enough are absurd.

So you may be wondering what exactly, in my opinion, the GCR is about. Please stay tuned for future posts.

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 8): The Danger of Missing Out

This series arose out of extended reflection on the Scriptures, out of which the Lord has made clear to me some of the perils of seminary, many of which I have succumbed to or been tempted by over the past decade and a half. I have attempted to communicate these perils to those of you who would read this post and might benefit from it. Although I have interjected humor at several points, I could not be more serious about the dangers I mentioned. After having written on those dangers, however, I would be remiss not to include one final danger: the danger of missing out on all that a good seminary has to offer.

I will never forget the first day of Systematic Theology with Paige Patterson. I had decided to take Systematic during my first semester and the opening class period would be the first experience I would have in a seminary environment. I sat on a row with J. D. Greear, Keith Errickson, and Chris Thompson. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.” At this point, Keith raised his hand, was acknowledged by the teacher and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” I’m not joking. Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.” The professor, however, insisted that I should put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. So I did. I proceeded to unload my theory that syllabus was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, –buses are things that children ride to school, and since you know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?

In all seriousness, I loved Systematic Theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than asking the really big questions about God, man, salvation, the church, and last things. First and foremost, we studied the text of Scripture, drawing upon the resources of the entire canon to answer each question. Along the way, however, we investigated what the church fathers and the Reformers had to say on any of these doctrines, and learned to defend and apply those same doctrines. I was forced to write my first bona fide research paper. I had never written a paper in Turabian style and had no idea how to argue a thesis. I chose to argue for the divine inspiration theory of Scripture (vs. human constrictivist and human response models). After having mustered all of my bibliographic, analytic, and stylistic resources, I managed to complete my paper. I received it graded the next week. At the end of the paper, Dr. Patterson devoted several paragraphs of red ink to the shortcomings of my paper, gave me a few words of encouragement, and then ended with this sentence, which I will never forget: “Mr. Ashford, we will make a real scholar of you yet, if it kills us both in the process.” Hmmm. Even though I had just been informed that (1) I was not a real scholar, and (2) that to make me one might actually kill my professor in the process, I found myself encouraged, oddly enough, that I might one day make a decent theologian. There was light at the end of the tunnel. From Dr. Patterson, I learned not only theology and research, but also how it is that a teacher really challenges those whom he is teaching.

My biblical languages and biblical studies courses were of inestimable value. One of those courses was book of Isaiah with Gary Galeotti. It was one of the most worshipful experiences of my life, as we studied Isaiah, line by line, for an entire semester. I realized that Isaiah understood Christ 800 years before the Lord’s coming better than I did 2000 years after. In addition to learning the book of Isaiah, I learned what it meant to be a godly preacher and teacher of the Word. Day after day, he opened the text of Scripture, expounded it, applied it to our lives, and challenged us to embrace and obey the words of God. He aimed not only for the mind, but for the heart.

I took Christian Philosophy, Apologetics, Christian Faith and the Modern Mind, and several other courses with L. Russ Bush. In these courses, I learned to give a defense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Dr. Bush was a man who had thought deeply and broadly and was able to speak cogently on any issue across the range of the disciplines. At his fingertips were theology, philosophy, history, world religions, and current affairs. It was in this class more than any other that the Lord distilled in me a love for reading widely across the disciplines.

Alvin Reid was my professor for Introduction to Evangelism. I had never been around a man with such a contagious enthusiasm for the gospel. His courses were an extended argument for evangelism, missions, and revival. He argued from the text of Scripture, illustrated from the annals of church history, and applied it to our contemporary milieu. Between his evangelism course and Keith Eitel’s missions courses, I found myself under conviction every week. They continually impressed upon me the fact that a love for God and His Word necessarily issues forth in a desire to commend Him to a lost world.

John Hammett was my professor for courses such as Ecclesiology and Baptist History. Not only was I forced to study the doctrine of the church in depth, but I encountered a man who was the consummate scholar. In presenting his own views, we recognized that he was rigorous in his research and unflinching in his argumentation. In presenting views that differed from his own, he was unfailingly even-handed. He did not need to misrepresent his opponents in order to refute their views. One of the things that most impressed me about Dr. Hammett was that one could be a tough-minded theologian and at the same time have a gracious demeanor.

From Andreas Kostenberger, I encountered not only the New Testament but also a man who embodies the severe discipline necessary to “leave no stone unturned” in the study of the Scriptures. From Steve McKinion, I imbibed not only the writings of the church fathers but also learned that one could be a missionary to the academy; he could research and write and speak in such a manner that he reaches an audience extending far beyond the bounds of the evangelical world. From Dan Heimbach, not only did I learn Christian Ethics, but also observed the life of a man who had advised the President of the United States and gave lectures at the Naval Postgrad School and the Marine Corps University Staff and Command College and who was willing to leave all of that in order to teach ministers of the gospel. And this is just the short list of men from whom I have learned.

Last, but not least, I want to encourage seminary students to learn from those who God has put in leadership at their seminaries. It is God who has placed these men in such positions and we would be remiss not to learn from them. The lessons learned from each president will vary according to their personality, context, and relative strengths and weaknesses. Since I live and write from within a Southeastern context, I will mention our own President, Danny Akin. If I had to limit my thoughts to only one thing that I have learned from watching him, it would be that he has modeled for us what it means to hide behind the cross. I think it was James Denney who said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” Our president models this in his preaching, as he keeps the text of Scripture front and center, and puts himself in the background. The lesson here is that we should not allow our personalities or agendas or sense of humor to overtake the text itself. He also models it in his leadership. It is not often that one has opportunity to sit under a leader who is genuinely self-effacing, consistently willing to admit his faults and ask forgiveness when wrong, committed to visit and serve his missions students on the field (in less than ideal conditions), and willing to spend time with students in spite of his multiple responsibilities.

I was very, very close to eliminating this installment because I was afraid that it would seem like an extended piece of flattery. After all, in trying to give a brief exposition of God’s grace to me in a seminary context, I have focused on the faculty as much as (or more than) I have the curriculum. There are two reasons why, in the end, I decided to post this installment, First, at a good seminary, the faculty and curriculum are in a sense inseparable. That is the whole point of having a seminary community. We are drinking deeply from the well of the Christian Scriptures at the feet of men who have walked with the Lord and who have studied their chosen disciplines with more depth than we likely ever will. Theology, pastoral ministry, and leadership are caught just as much as they are taught. Second, with all of the emphasis on young leaders in our convention, I thought it fitting to focus on the benefits of listening to, and learning from, the older leaders whom God has set before us. Young men are most likely to become leaders by sitting at the feet of their elders.

In conclusion, let me affirm what I wrote in the first post, “I can say that life in a seminary context has been good in many respects. It is a place where I learned to study God’s Word and relate it to all aspects of His world. I was introduced to church history, systematic theology, apologetics, and much more. I formed friendships that will last for a lifetime, and was taught and discipled by men who had walked with God for many years more than I. It is easy for me to recognize God’s grace and goodness to me in this calling.” Let us live and study and teach and worship in a manner worthy of our calling.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 8: What Do We Mean by “Resurgence?”

The idea of a Great Commission Resurgence should call to mind at least two concepts with which many Southern Baptists will readily identify: mission and the Conservative Resurgence. My colleague Bruce Ashford has already done a fine job of explaining what we mean when we use the term Great Commission (see his articles here and here). My task is to define the word resurgence and shed some light on why we have chosen this particular word to help cast a vision for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a resurgence could be defined as “a continuing after interruption; a renewal.” Think about this definition in the context of the past thirty or so years of SBC history. The theological-political movement that began in the late 1970s has been called at least three things: a takeover, a controversy, and a resurgence. There is some truth to each of these descriptions, though we need to be clear just what we mean.

The movement was surely a takeover because conservative dissenters successfully replaced the denomination’s leadership by mastering the Convention’s polity, winning democratic elections, and selecting trustees who were sympathetic to the movement’s conservative theological aims. The movement was also undoubtedly a controversy-just ask anyone who was there. But neither of these phrases do the movement full justice; surely it was more than a mere political movement or just another denominational melee.

Despite the political means employed and the controversy generated by all parties involved, the movement that gained control of the SBC during the last quarter of the 20th century is best defined as a resurgence. Since at least the 1940s, SBC denominational leaders downplayed and sometimes rejected conservative theology. Our traditional Baptist distinctives were redefined so that they would be consistent with a hyper-individualistic understanding of the Christian life. This new understanding of Baptist identity fit neatly with a neo-orthodox view of Scripture and a pietistic de-emphasis on doctrinal commitments. Furthermore, it was shielded by a bureaucracy that was intent on defining cooperation as mere financial stewardship, with doctrinal commonality taking a back seat. The basic theological consensus that had existed in the SBC of 1850 had been gradually replaced with a commitment to theological diversity by 1950. Our commitment to conservative theology had been interrupted by pragmatic cooperation and a fascination with progressive theological trends.

Conservatives felt mostly shut out of SBC life and they feared for the future of the Convention, so they formed alternative schools, publications, and networks that functioned as alternatives to the denomination’s ministries. But by the mid-1970s, conservatives were galvanized by the discovery that the Convention’s polity was such that the face of the denomination could be changed through a strategic use of the appointive powers of the denomination’s presidency. Under the leadership of Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, a grassroots movement was launched in 1979 that consistently elected movement conservatives to the Convention presidency. During the next two decades, moderates increasingly disengaged from denominational life, conservatives restructured the bureaucracy, and in 2000 a thoroughly conservative revision of the Baptist Faith and Message was adopted by the Convention.

This movement was a Conservative Resurgence because the conservative theology that had been eclipsed (or at least downplayed) by many denominational leaders during the mid-20th century was restored to a place of prominence in the Convention’s seminaries, commissions, and boards. There was continuation after interruption, and after years of focusing on other things-primarily financial stewardship, bureaucratic efficiency, denominational growth, and a more progressive approach to theology-the Convention’s elected and appointed leaders were again committed to a biblically and theologically conservative faith and practice. There was a renewal of historic Baptist theology in the halls of leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention.

The contemporary SBC is the product of the Conservative Resurgence. This is a very good thing. Every Southern Baptist agency head, missionary, professor, and other denominational employee who has been hired in recent years is a theological conservative. Our mission boards are appointing sound missionaries, our seminaries are educating sound students, and our publishing house is producing sound curricula, books, and other resources. Our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is contending for traditional family values. Southern Baptists should be thankful for the Conservative Resurgence because these things were not always the case two decades ago.

But there is at least a potential a downside to the Conservative Resurgence, albeit an unintentional one. A generation and a half of Southern Baptists was involved in a pitched battle for the future of the SBC. Many are still involved in such battles in their state conventions and associations. These battles are important because truth matters. Nevertheless, we must recognize it is possible to become so accustomed to fighting during times of war that one does not know how to live peaceably with like minded brothers and sisters once the battles are over.

The above scenario is not mythical. It actually happened to many of the separatist fundamentalists in the 20th century. After they lost the battles for their denominations and withdrew from those groups, they turned on each other. Within a generation, fundamentalists were shooting each other and often fracturing over matters such as cultural engagement, degrees of cooperation with and separation from other believers (even other conservatives), Calvinism, Landmarkism, the timing of the rapture, charismatic gifts, the age of the earth, and Bible translations. To this day, there are Independent Baptists who have as difficult a time getting along with some of their fellow fundamentalists as they do the liberal Episcopal priest down the street.

Though I hate to admit this, I sense a tendency toward this very type of infighting among some contemporary Southern Baptists. We are even fighting about some of the same issues over which our fundamentalist friends divided. Southern Baptists must be careful that we do not become too preoccupied with secondary and tertiary matters, lest these issues distract us from the task at hand. According to the original constitution of the SBC our Convention exists for the purpose of “eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.” Mission is in our denominational DNA. It always has been.

Conservatives frequently criticize the pre-1979 SBC for emphasizing mission work-and the financing thereof-to the exclusion of sound doctrine. This type of pragmatism created an atmosphere wherein aberrant theology was tolerated and at times even encouraged so long as missionary enlistment increased and the Cooperative Program kept growing. Conservatives rightly rejected this paradigm, arguing that one cannot do authentic mission without being committed to biblical theology and practice. This is a conviction that we must never surrender.

At our present moment in SBC history, it is important to remind ourselves not to confuse the ends with the means. If we are content with simply having theological conservatives leading our various ministries, then the Conservative Resurgence was only a half-victory. Our Conservative Resurgence must give birth to a Great Commission Resurgence. Our use of the word resurgence is deliberate. Just as our commitment to conservative theology was interrupted during the generation prior to the Conservative Resurgence, our commitment to the primacy of mission was interrupted during the Conservative Resurgence, at least in practice. There were important battles being fought within our denomination, battles that conservatives honestly believed would ultimately lead to theological renewal.

With the success of the Conservative Resurgence, that theological renewal is underway (though its completion is surely reserved for the eschaton!). The time has come for a missional renewal that flows from our doctrinal convictions. Zeal for the Great Commission needs to be restored to its place of prominence in Southern Baptist life, not just in theory and rhetoric, but in practice. No matter how much work still needs to be done to bring about further theological renewal in the Convention, we cannot lose sight of the “one sacred effort” that has united us since our earliest days. The interruption is over. The distractions must be set aside. God is at work reconciling the world unto himself, and Southern Baptists need to get serious again about making ourselves available to the Lord to use in his great work of bringing salvation to people from every corner of the earth. Theology and mission go hand in hand. One without the other is an incomplete agenda. One without the other is destined to fall short of what our Lord intends.