UPDATE: tragically and sadly, William Birch's blog has been removed from the internet. One may find the obvious reason here.
On Thursday, February 9, The Christian Index, denominational paper for Georgia Southern Baptists, published an editorial opinion by its chief editor, J. Gerald Harris. Entitled, “The Calvinists are here” SBC Tomorrow had sought permission to post the editorial as a guest contribution to our site and permission was granted. One stipulation was, SBC Tomorrow could not post the editorial essay until it was posted online. Agreed. Our posting would be a day later than The Index’s >>>
Even so, Tom Ascol, Executive Director of Founders Ministries, not only offered a confusing “critique” posted on the Founders Ministries director’s blog, but also reproduced the entire editorial as well.1 But since we’ve already dealt with Ascol’s reservations about Harris’ editorial—twice--the second of which is a playful rendition, we wanted to move on and deal with another critique, still emotional, but possessing more substantial commentary than Ascol’s.
William “Billy” Birch2
William Birch is a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and one of the minuscule young few who not only disagrees with Calvinistic theology, but also publicly and unashamedly professes himself to be a genuine Arminian believer. Nor is Birch the caricatured Arminian Christian so often portrayed by typical internet Calvinists as doofy, ignorant Finnyites who believe in self-initiated, humanistic salvation. Rather he is quick-witted, biblically intense, theologically informed, and has a superior advantage typical internet Calvinists do not—Birch actually studies historical Arminianism, especially James Arminius himself. The truth unfortunately is, too often internet Calvinists typically open their mouths about Arminianism only to fill it with their own foot.
Nonetheless, Birch was one of the first protesters logged concerning Gerald Harris’ editorial posted by Tom Ascol. On Ascol’s comment thread, Birch wrote:
I’m sure many of Birch’s Calvinist critics were taken back by his remarks (including the many non-Calvinist Birch supporters). As one Reformed commenter on SBC Tomorrow suggested: “I think William Birch says well in his comments on the Georgia Christian Index article, "But this article is slightly short of ridiculous”; a comment to which I replied, in part: “Logging on and crying "ridiculous!" is not one of Birch's finest moments were one to ask me.”
The next day, William Birch posted an extended commentary beyond his short but emotive summation of Harris’ piece on Ascol’s blog. Entitled, “The Calvinists have been here…” Birch takes further aim at Gerald Harris’ editorial:
My first thought was, "The Calvinists have been here; where have you been?" Indeed, the history of Baptists have included Calvinists from its beginnings. Calvinists have not just arrived in the SBC either; they have been here since its inception.
Birch first points out what he senses is a glaring absence from the Georgia editor’s data bank and proposes to give Harris a history lesson: Calvinists have been among Baptists “from its beginnings,” he retorts; and further, Calvinists are not just new to the SBC. Rather Calvinists have been here since its inception.
The difficulty with Birch’s piece is the gratuitous approach with which Birch begins his dissent. What makes him think Harris assumes Calvinists have not always been among us, or being a lifelong Southern Baptist, a denominational statesman, and an accomplished senior editor of a Southern Baptist denominational paper, that he’s just now getting around to noticing Calvinists in our midst? There is not a single line in Harris’ piece which implies Harris is ignorant of Southern Baptist history, including Calvinism as a major theological stream within Baptists of the south.
Birch’s gratuity aside, Harris made it perfectly clear the issue he raised. Rather than existing among Southern Baptists the mere presence of Calvinists like Birch falsely and gratuitously observes, it is the permeation of Calvinists among us which Harris clearly questions: "apparently the Conservative Resurgence and the Great Commission Resurgence has been joined by a Reformed Resurgence" (embolden original). And every single example3 Harris offers suggests it’s not about whether or not Calvinists have been either present or absent among Southern Baptists, as if in the classic false dichotomy Birch portrays and commences to correct.4 It’s about resurging Calvinism, an aggressive Calvinism--a “Calvinization of the SBC,” a phrase with which Birch is quite familiar.
Birch moves on to criticize the “tone” of the article offering two “main complaints”:
If I may criticize the tone of the article… 1) the author appears baffled that Calvinists are in the SBC to a large degree… 2) the article appears as little more than random thoughts against Calvinism
As to the first complaint, it has nothing to do with “tone” but stems from Birch’s unsubstantiated gratuitous presumption that Harris is apparently ignorant of SBC history, an assumption hardly observable much less demonstrable from anything written in Harris’ piece. Why a normally careful writer like Birch chooses this literary cow to milk may be one of the strangest observations I’ve gained since blogging.5
And, while Birch’s second main concern appears to address tone (“random thoughts”), his critical emphasis is obviously on “random” in contrast to “thoughts” (random italicized in his original). Birch suggests he had a “difficult task” finding a “central theme” since the article was “all over the place.” Of course, not only is this complaint not about “tone” but concerns the literary structure of the writing itself, Birch arguably botches why Harris was allegedly “all over the place.”
Recall if Harris was rehearsing factual observations to demonstrate his conclusion that Calvinism is permeating the SBC in proportions unobserved in perhaps a century or more—a proposition I think Harris was proposing--why would his piece necessarily imply he was “all over the place” recording little, if anything, other than "random thoughts"? Why would Harris' thoughts necessarily be random thoughts? Indeed if I am correct about Harris’ proposition concerning the permeation of resurging Calvinism, why wouldn’t one expect a broad sweep of evidences, covering several different spheres in Southern Baptist culture? Indeed this is specifically what we find as Harris goes from one citation of resurging Calvinism after another in Southern Baptist life.
Birch moves on to criticizing Harris’ statement about John Calvin and Calvinism. Harris wrote: “[Calvin] is best known for his “doctrine of predestination,” which became the foundation of his theology – suggesting that God predestined certain individuals to be saved.” Birch corrects Harris’ statement:
“John Calvin wrote more about the Holy Spirit than he did about predestination or election…. he [Calvin] could just as easily be known as a theologian of the Holy Spirit as he could for his more infamous writings on God's decrees of election and reprobation
Birch then concludes, “So, for Harris to suggest that predestination was "the foundation of his theology" is a bit amiss, in my opinion.”
First, Birch’s correction depends upon the community Harris had in mind when suggesting how and/or where Calvin is best known. Perhaps among scholars Calvin is best known as “theologian of the Holy Spirit” as B.B. Warfield apparently popularized.6 But even then, this is both questionable and quite relative since scholarly communities have various descriptions of Calvin’s theology. Would one think Harris was thinking of the scholarly community when he wrote this line, or is it more likely Harris was thinking of his readership which is more likely to best know Calvin for his “doctrine of predestination”? Surely the latter Harris had in mind.
In addition, to deny Calvin’s hard theo-deterministic underpinnings as foundational to his teaching on predestination is plainly absurd. The difficulty I have at this point is, Birch knows this but nonetheless strangely criticizes Harris for suggesting this. Nonetheless, even if Birch refused to “suggest that predestination was the foundation of Calvin's soteriology,” nothing follows except Birch and Harris disagree. So, does disagreeing with Birch make Harris’ view “ridiculous”?
Birch moves on to criticize Harris on church polity noting “[Harris] cannot insist that "an elder system of church government" is unbiblical.” Well, yes he could, I’m afraid. And, I supect he would just about anytime he likes. Furthermore, if Birch desires to show how, from Scripture and reason, our Baptist Faith and Message is somehow supposed to affirm an elder system of church government, four centuries of Baptist polity is all ears.
Finally, Birch gets to the most confusing section of his rebuttal to Gerald Harris. Over the next section, he touches issues like:
- But what of the Calvinists in the SBC? Do they not fear a "non-Calvinist take-over"?
- Is [Harris] suggesting that Calvinists need to leave (or be forced to leave) the SBC?
- Am I a Calvinist sympathizer?
- I want to emphasize that Calvinists have performed in an outstanding fashion with regard to promoting a godly, biblically conservative theology.
- the growth of Calvinism in the SBC should not be a cause of alarm ecclesiologically or theologically
I’ll particularly deal with the remainder of Birch’s reaction to Gerald Harris in Part II.
With that, I am…
1Ascol apparently reproduced the editorial without permission from The Christian Index. One wonders if Founders Ministries would complain if, for example, another website reproduced their Founders materials online, materials they deem copyright in the same sense The Christian Index copyrights theirs. Georgia Baptists pay for their privilege of reading The Christian Index. Ascol apparently sees no problem with giving somebody else's material away for free. Perhaps this website can pursue the ethics of Founders in its weekly focus on ethical issues. For the record, Founders Ministries has employed aggressive but questionable means before in their goal to “reform” the Southern Baptist Convention. Note, for example, Founders exploited the web domain of the Southern Baptist Convention as their “secret weapon” (their term!) to drive unsuspecting internet traffic to their website, traffic surfing for information on Southern Baptists. After ten years of use, and after our public complaint (we’re not sure how much, if any, our expose contributed to Founders decision), they finally and reluctantly surrendered the SBC domain in late 2011. Their “secret weapon” was no longer secret. I’m told Nashville put fairly strong pressure on them to surrender the web name, not to mention Dr. Bart Barber’s strong implication that Founders was cyber-squatting
2I include “Billy” in his name since so many have known him by his abbreviated moniker. It looks as if he now just goes by William Birch. Perhaps age catches us all!.
3Harris rehearses contemporary phenomenon within certain SBC projects and entities—from 9Marks, Acts 29, SBTS, Lifeway, NAMB, to specific church plants to show the Calvinism’s resurgence in the SBC. Not a single phenomenon Harris listed did Birch challenge. Hence, it’s fair to say, either Birch didn’t read thoroughly Harris’ piece when suggesting Harris was unaware of Calvinistic roots in the SBC, or he ignored what Harris had to say, and proceeded to criticize him based upon questionable assumptions. We choose to believe it was a simple overlook
4in other words, Birch criticizes Harris based on the presence of Calvinists in the SBC contra Harris’ alleged presumption of the absence of Calvinists in the SBC. But, for Harris, it’s not about the presence or absence of Calvinists. Instead, it’s about the observable resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC.
5truth is, Birch has a fairly similar practice on sourcing his thoughts as do I. We both embrace making sure people know where we gain our sources from which we deduce our conclusions. It’s one of the positive traits I’ve highly respected about Birch since I’ve been following his blog. It’s odd, therefore, when Birch deals with Harris’ piece he shows not a single line from Harris’ piece showing how he concluded Harris’ supposed ignorance concerning Calvinism in the SBC. In my view, Birch has delivered unjust, half-baked, presumptuous criticism toward Gerald Harris
6”In an address on “John Calvin the theologian,” B. B. Warfield affirmed that Calvin’s interest “was most intense in the application to the sinful soul of the salvation wrought out by Christ ... Its effect ... has been to constitute Calvin pre-eminently the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” Reformation and Revival Volume 10 (Carol Stream, Illinois: Reformation and Revival Ministries, 2001). vnp.10.4.82. Another source indicates, "Calvin’s mode of thinking is much more varied and complex. J. Bohatec characterized Calvin’s theology as a “theology of the diagonal.”... F. L. Battles found in Calvin a true/false principle in the sense that the true constantly divides again into true and false (what he called “fractioning off”). Further research is necessary" The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999-2003). 1:330. Any number of scholarly sources could be provided to "characterize" the Genevan's theology. It remains questionable, however, to dispute Calvin's sure place as "best known" for his doctrine of predestination