In a post delineating his thoughts on the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans, Dr. Al Mohler spoke what very well may be the most disturbing words to date concerning the Calvinist debate in the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, his words deserve full exposure not only on Baptist Press but in every denominational paper of each state convention. Entitled, "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight: The 2012 Southern Baptist Convention," our seminary president writes these words, words which rightfully ought to outrage every Southern Baptist:
"The 2012 SBC was marked by talk about theology, and the issue of Calvinism in particular. At this point, the reality is more like talking about talking about theology, but the talk will become more organized, partly through a process to be led by the SBC Executive Committee. In the meantime, Southern Baptists need to be kind, open, generous, and truthful. We should expect the best of each other, and extend understanding in every possible way. The three weeks prior to this year's SBC did not find Southern Baptists at their best in terms of this kind of discussion, but we can and must have the right conversations in the right way. This conversation will marginalize those whose influence should be marginalized — those who have a party spirit, who play into tribalism, or who want to divide Southern Baptists from each other. We will stand within the "Baptist Faith & Message" and we will learn how to talk in a way that will help each other to be more faithful and biblical, not more hardened and bitter."
These words coming from an employee accountable to the Southern Baptist Convention raise a number of concerns that must immediately be placed upon the table.
First, to suggest the conversation is to be led—partly or otherwise—by the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (EC) remains completely upside-down so far as Baptist polity goes. Last year, the EC went along without hesitation with SBC President Bryant Wright and his "name-change study task force." Once again the EC apparently desires to lead in areas where their delegated authority is questionable at best. Of course, nothing prohibits Dr. Page from appointing a committee. The question is, why would he think the President of the EC should officially get into a theological controversy in Southern Baptist life? It's true Dr. Morris Chapman raised the issue of Calvinism more than once during his tenure leading the EC. However, so far as we are aware, Dr. Chapman never considered officially forming a committee to explore and offer solutions toward Southern Baptists' doctrinal divide1. Supposing the Moderates had implemented a strategy like this at the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence (CR) in 1979, I remain quite sure the outcome of the CR would have been entirely different.
One may well argue that since Frank Page is not a Calvinist, he will be unbiased. I'm afraid the conclusion does not follow from the premise. It doesn't follow that only those who embrace Calvinism will be sympathetic to Calvinists. I happen to know Calvinists who are more sympathetic with my point of view than with those Calvinists who want to impose Calvinism on the Southern Baptist Convention. Nonetheless, even if it could be proved that the EC would be entirely unbiased in implementing a strategy for organizing a conversation, it still doesn't answer the question as to whether the EC ought to do so or whether it is prudent to do so.
Second, while Dr. Mohler rightly exhorts Southern Baptists to be "kind, open, generous, and truthful" with one another, he confesses that just three weeks prior to New Orleans, Southern Baptists failed to be "at their best in terms of this kind of discussion." Presumably, Mohler is referring to circumstances surrounding the Traditional Statement released on the SBC Today blogsite, a confession attached with hundreds of signatures including pastors of small churches and pastors of mega-churches; seminary presidents and college presidents2; college professors and seminary professors; state convention leaders and associational leaders; evangelists and church staffers; local church deacons and local church "lay" people; signatories with PhD degrees and presumably signatories with no degree. In other words, while this confession possessed only a minuscule portion of the gargantuan 16 million members claimed for the Southern Baptist Convention, it remains historically significant—and arguably even statistically significant--because of the broad swath of representation the signatories bore. Almost every level of denominational life in the Southern Baptist Convention was represented. Indeed the broad representation indicated by the signatories is perhaps one reason Al Mohler perceived the need to publicly respond to the statement.
And respond he did by implicating the confession as smacking of semi-Pelagianism. He wrote:
I could not sign the document. Indeed, I have very serious reservations and concerns about some of its assertions and denials. I fully understand the intention of the drafters to oppose several Calvinist renderings of doctrine, but some of the language employed in the statement goes far beyond this intention. Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will — understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied. Clearly, some Southern Baptists do not want to identify as either Calvinists, non-Calvinists, or Arminians. That is fine by me, but these theological issues have been debated by evangelicals for centuries now, and those labels stick for a reason. (//link)
In response to Dr. Mohler's claim not only did several bloggers respond to his allegation of semi-Pelagianism (including me), but several professors responded, including Dr. Eric Hankins, Pastor of the First Baptist Church, Oxford, MS and apparently the chief "architect" behind the confession's literary-theological formation. Included also was a response by four vice-presidents of Truett-McConnell College, an institution affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention. Truett-McConnell had perhaps the most signatories attached to the TS, signatories which included the president, Dr. Emir Caner3. And, while the vice-presidential response was arguably strong, it nonetheless was in perfect harmony with the seriousness of Mohler's indicting implication—heresy. Adding insult to an already injurious indictment as the vice-presidential response strongly noted, Dr. Mohler suggested, in an around-about way, that many signatories must have been oblivious to the content of the confession when they placed their name on it. Mohler wrote: "I do not believe that those most problematic statements truly reflect the beliefs of many who signed this document." The vice-presidents predictably fired back:
The implication is clear: 1) either the signers signed their names to affirm theological documents they did not read; 2) or they are theologically ignorant of the meaning of the document to which they are signing. If we had to choose between the two options we would choose the latter because of the integrity issues the former implies. Thus, we will assume he is implying the latter. Even so, we reply that is almost as offensive as the first insult. Two seminary presidents are theologically ignorant of the meaning of theological documents they sign? Dozens of Southern Baptist pastors (shepherds of the flock of Jesus) are theologically ignorant of the theological documents they affirm? Southern Baptist state executives are theologically ignorant of the theological documents to which they affix their names? Has such an accusation ever been laid at the feet of so many Southern Baptists by a sitting conservative seminary president?
Even so, if Dr. Mohler were referencing primarily his own failure to remain kind, open, generous, and truthful while extending understanding in every possible way toward the signatories of the TS, we applaud him for his open confession. Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure if his statement refers to himself or not (unless, of course, he openly explains in the future). What we do know is the implication of heresy toward the signatories of the TS was needlessly and provocatively inflammatory and, hence, a strange way to display the type of kindness, openness, and understanding Dr. Mohler exhorts every Southern Baptist to abundantly exude.
Nor are any of the signatories with whom I am knowledgeable moved because Arminian theologian, Roger Olson, finds himself in agreement with Mohler on the charge of semi-Pelagianism. Who is surprised at Olson's agreement? He has said for years classic Arminianism and classic Calvinism have almost identical views on the doctrine of total depravity, a claim often vehemently denied by Calvinists like Mohler. Now, perhaps they will believe him. In addition, perhaps now Calvinists like Mohler and Arminians like Olson will believe many traditional Southern Baptists when they say, neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists. Though now I suppose traditional Baptists are also destined to edit their identity and deny yet a third theological label our critics inevitably but wrongly impose—neither Calvinists nor Arminians nor Semi-Pelagians but Baptists.
Third, Dr. Mohler suggests the conversation led by the EC (at least, partially by the EC) will "marginalize those whose influence should be marginalized." I must confess: these words send a cold chill down my spine. As a Free Church tradition, Southern Baptists historically stand tall on personal religious freedom, a freedom mind you not just for those who believe like us. We will stand for the Mormon's free right to be wrong regarding his or her religious belief. Baptists have bled for the universal right of all religious persuasions. We do not compel belief. With Paul, knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade people to believe the gospel we preach in an open market of competing ideas. If the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, then compulsion remains unnecessary anyway.
Standing historically parallel but contrary to the Anabaptist-Baptist free church contour is the Augustinian-Reformed credal trajectory wherein, broadly speaking, religious freedom meant freedom "for us" but not "for them". The truth is, the Reformed community historically has a fairly visible track record when it comes to officially marginalizing those with whom they disagree.
Indeed marginalizing an opponent remains a significant strategy still used today by political opponents running for office and dictatorial regimes attempting to hold on to their political power. The strategy is almost simplistic to the core but continues to bear fruitful effects to those who know how to maximize its powers. Here's how it works: when paupers raise questions, laugh; when peasants raise questions, ignore; when princes raise questions, threaten. And, how will princes be threatened? By making them out to be peasants. Simple put: marginalize them. Categorize them and their ideas into the community of the crazies. Chilling words for Baptist believers—marginalize them. But these words come from the most visible, influential Calvinist in the Southern Baptist Convention, a sitting president of one of our seminaries calling for Southern Baptists to marginalize many of those who sacrifically give, I'm told, to make him a millionaire about every three years.
And, just who runs the marginalizing process about which Mohler speaks? Most of us are aware of the marginalizing process which has gone on at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary over the last 20 years or so, a process spearheaded by Dr. Mohler. Now, to hear him explain it, one would think all that he did he was charged to do by those who put him in office—take the seminary back to its "confessional roots." I'm afraid his idea of "confessional roots" and theirs were two ships passing in the night, however. Our concern in the early nineties in "cleaning up" Southern seminary had zero to do with taking it back to the mid-19th century High Calvinistic soteriology of James P. Boyce. Rather, if anything, it was to take it back to its "confessional roots" so far as Scripture was concerned. Calvinism was definitively not on the radar screen for Southern or any of our seminaries. Rather, it was inerrancy and inerrancy alone. Even so, non-Calvinist scholars and theologians have been purposely marginalized at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary so as to give Reformed scholarship an elitist theological advantage. And, the primary tool Dr. Mohler has weilded has been the Abstract of Principles not the Baptist Faith and Message he so continues to tout.
The truth is, if Mohler had honored the Baptist Faith & Message, the confession around which he now wants all Southern Baptist to rally, not a single Calvinist would have necessarily been hired at Southern. Indeed not a single five point Calvinist would have necessarily been hired by his using the Abstract of Principles since that confession is at most a four-point Calvinist confession! Hence, for Dr. Mohler to start touting that we all look to the Baptist Faith and Message when he has systematically marginalized non-Calvinists at Southern seminary by appealing to the Abstract of Principles remains patently absurd. In fact, if Dr. Mohler wants us to rally around the Baptist Faith and Message as our sole doctrinal confession, let's don't talk about doing it, let's do it! And, we can start by dropping the Abstract of Principles from Southern seminary and using only the Baptist Faith and Message.
What is more, Dr. Mohler now desires to do for all Southern Baptists what the trustees allowed him to do at Southern seminary--marginalize those whose influence should be marginalized in the Southern Baptist Convention. And, just who decides who is worthy to make the marginalization cut Dr. Mohler offers no clue. Again, I'm wondering how the CR would have fared had we allowed not only the EC to handle the theological discussions, but also turned over the discussions on inerrancy to our seminary presidents.
Southern Baptists cannot afford again to be bullied by our seminaries. It happened before 1979 when Moderates and Liberals were in control, and it's apparently going to happen again with Calvinists like Dr. Mohler in control. But just as we spoke out then when our seminaries were almost exclusively teaching what the majority of Southern Baptists didn't believe, it's time for Southern Baptists to speak out once again when seminaries like Southern insist on teaching almost exclusively what the majority of Southern Baptists do not embrace. Then, it was the errancy of Scripture. Now, it's the Reformed understanding of the doctrines of grace.
Southern Baptists better stand up and be counted fast. The window is slamming shut for grassroots people to salvage their beloved denomination from theological despots running our convention. I do not know how long we have but I do know time is running out. Provocative, divisive words like Dr. Mohler's are coming more frequently. It's just a matter of time till vocal dissent will be marginalized and censored from convention affairs. Dr. Mohler just publicly announced it, for heaven's sake! All in the name of "unity" and "peace."
Jeremiah may very well be applicable here:
They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace (6:14; 8:11)
1keep firmly in mind I have no intention of making Dr. Page out to be our enemy. Rather I'm questioning the wisdom for and even authority of the EC getting officially involved in this doctrinal issue
2at least one college president, Emir Caner
3i.e. signatories coming from a single institution