SBC Today, the rising star among Southern Baptist blogs, has continued a helpful series of posts interviewing well-known personalities throughout the Southern Baptist Convention. Mentionables include Jim Richards, Fred Luter, Brad Whit, Bryant Wright, Mac Brunson, Emir Caner, Ergun Caner, Johnny Hunt, Frank Cox, Steve Rummage, Hayes Wicker, Frank Page, and the most recent, Jerry Vines >>>
Like many of the Conservative Resurgence leaders including Adrian Rogers and Paige Patterson, Jerry Vines remains a household name among those Southern Baptists who marched arm-in-arm through the 20 year+ battle over the Bible during the last quarter of the 20th century. Vines’ pastoral-evangelistic ministry spanned a full 50 years, the greater part of which was spent as Pastor of the historic Jacksonville First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida.1 Dr. Vines remains Pastor Emeritus since retiring from Jacksonville in 2006. And, from what I understand, his speaking schedule—in both conference and church settings—remains very tight.
In the interview at SBC Today, Vines was asked what has apparently become a “lead-off” question to most of those interviewed by SBC Today: “What do you think are the greatest challenges confronting the SBC?” Vines’ response indicated three challenges Southern Baptists face: theological (Calvinism), methodological (separatism), and missiological (cooperative structures). For Vines, the greatest theological challenge facing Southern Baptists (i.e. Calvinism) deserved more thorough explanation than did the other two. Hence, below is Vines’ full response on Calvinism being Southern Baptists’ greatest theological challenge:
Theologically, will the issue of Calvinism create further division in the SBC. I have been a SBC preacher over 50 years. I have worked quite well with my Calvinist friends, many of whom I invited to preach for me. I have no desire to run all Calvinists out of the SBC; I think it would be divisive and wrong. But, current attempts to move the SBC to a Calvinistic soteriology are divisive and wrong. As long as groups and individuals seek to force Calvinism upon others in the Convention, there will be problems. There is a form of Calvinism that is militant, hostile and aggressive that I strongly oppose. I have stated before, so it’s not new news, that should the SBC move toward five-point Calvinism it will be a move away from, not toward, the gospel. I agree with Dr. David Allen’s assessments at the end of his chapter on Limited Atonement in the book Whosoever Will.
Those who’ve followed Dr. Vines through the years will see nothing new in his position. He’s neither more pronounced nor less clear and pointed than he’s ever been toward aggressive Calvinism. On the other hand, his track record with having high-profile Calvinists in his church to speak as well as serving side-by-side with them on major denominational committees (BFM2K) demonstrates nicely that Vines practices what he preaches. Additionally, it is not without precedent that when Jerry Vines mentions Calvinism, Calvinists go to work attempting to discredit his comments. Perhaps the number one post on SBC Tomorrow which has more reads than any other--and it is still read regularly today--is a post I wrote in 2006 responding to Founders Ministries' Director, Tom Ascol, who penned what I believed was a scathing critique of Jerry Vines' sermon on Calvinism that Vines preached in his own home church.
So far as Vines' words above are concerned, he makes it crystal clear precisely what brand or type of Calvinism toward which he is particularly opposed: “There is a form of Calvinism that is militant, hostile and aggressive that I strongly oppose.” Furthermore, Vines indicates while it is dead wrong and even divisive for any attempt to be made in the Southern Baptist Convention to ostracize Calvinism per se, it is nonetheless just as wrong and divisive for any attempt to be made to “move the SBC to a Calvinistic soteriology,” attempts Dr. Vines appears to be convinced are currently taking place. And, as those who’ve followed this blog are aware, we routinely offer evidence which supports Dr. Vines concern about current and sometimes subtle attempts to move the SBC toward an exclusively Calvinistic soteriology.
For example, still the largest network of Baptist Calvinists in the SBC publicizes as its visionary purpose the “recovery of the gospel” in the SBC by pursuing a “reformation of local churches,” the reformation of which can apparently succeed only through the “promotion of the Doctrines of Grace.” Add to this not only a sitting seminary president making bold assertions indicating no viable theological paradigm exists other than Reformed theology, but also the most recent decision by Lifeway to produce convention-wide, theologically driven Sunday School curriculum composed entirely by Calvinists (without even publicizing the significant fact that virtually all were Calvinists), and it remains difficult to wash Dr. Vines’ concerns straight down the sink.
And, make no mistake: Dr. Vines does not stand alone in his concern about the divisiveness to which Calvinism contributes. The concern Dr. Vines expressed about Calvinism was similarly expressed in an earlier interview on SBC Today with Dr. Frank Page, President of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, responding. Reflecting upon the very same question as did Vines about current challenges Southern Baptists face, Page responded in part:
I think one of the issues which is a tremendous challenge for us is the theological divide of Calvinism and non-Calvinism. Everyone is aware of this, but few want to talk about this in public. The reason is obvious. It is deeply divisive in many situations and is disconcerting in others. At some point we are going to see the challenges which are ensuing from this divide become even more problematic for us. I regularly receive communications from churches who are struggling over this issue (all embolden added)
Even with the president’s remarks preceding Dr. Vines’ summation by only two months or so, from the criticisms posted, one would think Vines offered remarks no one has heard before. Or, as one young Calvinist, Joshua Breland, wrote in response to Dr. Vines: “This type of statement is beyond the pale…”2 In fact, I was alerted to Breland’s “lengthy response” to Vines via Baptist Calvinist blogger, Mark Lamprecht3.
In his piece entitled, "A Response to Jerry Vines on Calvinism and Southern Baptists," Lamprecht acknowledges Breland’s response to Vines, and then offers a few rhetorical jabs himself. Posing questions to Vines’ assertion “that should the SBC move toward five-point Calvinism it will be a move away from, not toward, the gospel” Lamprecht queries:
Can those Calvinists who are allegedly further from the gospel than Vines actually be used by God to bring someone to repentance and faith? If one has moved away from the gospel can they still be a Christian? What exactly are Calvinist Southern Baptists calling people to if they have moved away from the gospel? (//link)
Precisely how Lamprecht connects his questions to Vines’ carefully worded response is not clear. He does not elaborate but merely confesses “I digress.” Nevertheless, if I may...
First, given Vines clear acceptance and endorsement of Calvinist preachers in his pulpit through the years as well as his concurrent, amiable, and successful service with Calvinists on strategic denominational committees (e.g. BFM2K committee), why Lamprecht would even mention this as an applicable rhetorical question makes little sense. If Vines thought Calvinism per se voided out the possibility of God's actual use of those embracing Calvinism to bring people to faith, what sense do we make of Vines' clear affirmations, endorsements, and invitations to Calvinists to preach in his church through the years? Contrarily, given Vines testimony, how does Lamprecht’s question make any sense at all?
Even more irrelevant, not to mention provocative, is Lamprecht’s second rhetorical question: “If one has moved away from the gospel can they still be a Christian?” If Lamprecht can show how any of the words Vines employed necessarily implies his rhetorical nonsense about “still” being a Christian, then he needs to produce the goods. While Vines clearly objects to the biblical-theological underpinnings of Calvinism, he nowhere uses language which raises the question whether Calvinists of any stripe are saved or not. Lamprecht is simply pulling rabbits out of a hat.
On the other hand, consider the rhetoric of the Founders Calvinists’ community, a community in which Lamprecht remains undoubtedly comfortable. As stated above, Founders proposes a reformation of local churches in the SBC by “recovering the gospel.” Questions immediately arise from the specific language used: If we need to recover the gospel, then is not the underlying premise we’ve some how lost the gospel? If so, when did we lose it? How did we lose it? And, if we lost the gospel, doesn’t that mean we have absolutely no reason to think we are a New Testament body of believers? How can a church be a church if it has no biblical gospel? If we lost the gospel, what have we been doing when we share the gospel (at least something we claim is the gospel), send missionaries, baptize, observe the Lord’s Supper, etc. etc. etc.?
And, just how does Founders propose we recover the gospel we’ve presumably lost? According to them, they believe intrinsic to recovering the lost gospel is the “promotion of the Doctrines of Grace.” And, for Founders, the Doctrines of Grace may be summed up in a simple acrostic—T.U.L.I.P.
Now, from my self-confessed, simplistic mindset, a new question arises: which phrase more describes a non-Christian status:
- a) a move away from the gospel; or
- b) a lost gospel?
From the language itself, it’s fairly clear that a move “away from” the gospel neither necessarily implies the gospel is absent nor implies people cannot be saved under its preaching. Though it may not be where it needs to be, the gospel nonetheless is present. It's very possible a blurred gospel could nonetheless be a genuine gospel. In short, Vines is describing a potential danger or step into spiritual unhealthiness. During the Conservative Resurgence, we often made it clear that we were not suggesting The Doctrine of Inerrancy was required as a belief in order to be saved, but it was a required belief in order to underwrite and guard ecclesial-spiritual health. Hence, a step away from inerrancy was a step away from biblical authority. Vines language about "stepping away" I think can be similarly viewed.
On the other hand, if the gospel is lost, it necessarily implies its total absence in some sense. In other words the gospel is either completely gone and therefore unavailable, or it is so covered over and buried, it cannot be detected. Either way, the gospel’s absence--its lostness--is real. This language is reminiscent of the magisterial Reformers. Did they not believe Rome had lost the gospel? And, was the Reformation not a studied effort to recovery the gospel? If I am correct, the rhetoric of "recovering" the gospel which Founders implies Southern Baptists have lost, makes us out to be analogous to the corrupted Roman church and them to be The Reformers!
Hence, I’m afraid Lamprecht’s own support of a community which thrives on pronouncing the gospel is lost and needs to be recovered—and recovered specifically through promoting high Calvinism--calls for much more explanation and raises far more rhetorical questions than does Vines’ clear statement on what he proposes is the theological challenge Southern Baptists face today.
With that, I am...
1 Dr. Mac Brunson presently serves FBCJax as Senior Pastor
2Baptist blogger and Louisiana College student Joshua Breland offered the remark specifically toward Vines’ statement “that should the SBC move toward five-point Calvinism it will be a move away from, not toward, the gospel.” In Part II, I deal with some of Breland's criticisms toward Vines' statement on the Calvinism issue
3though I have both bloggers in my feed-reader, Lamprecht’s title alerted me to a response to Vines whereas one would not know Breland was addressing Vines from the title of his post