Dr. Tom Ascol, Director of Founders Ministries, is presently doing a lengthy series1 of responses to the recent Traditional Statement (TS) released by Dr. Eric Hankins, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Oxford, MS. As indicated here and elsewhere many times since the initial TS release, Hankins' statement of faith generated a sizeable amount of criticism—both sober and vitriolic in nature--particularly but predictably from Baptist Calvinists. Even Al Mohler publicly lamented the document's creation and content; and thankfully, Mohler represented the more sober criticism to date even if TS supporters understandably took Mohler to task for couching his criticism in subtle superciliousness >>>
Ascol represents the largest and perhaps oldest2 network of Baptist Calvinists affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. And, since he represents the theology of a sizable portion of Calvinists among us3 we think it important to rebut at least some of Ascol's more glaring mistakes. In what follows, we'll focus on Part 8 in Ascol's series, a piece dealing with regeneration (Article 5) in the TS document. It reads:
Article Five: The Regeneration of the Sinner
We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.
We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.
Luke 15:24; John 3:3; 7:37-39; 10:10; 16:7-14; Acts 2:37-39; Romans 6:4-11; 10:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; 6:15; Colossians 2:13; 1 Peter 3:18
After quoting the above statement, Ascol asserts the article "seems to affirm a synergistic understanding of regeneration" which, for Ascol, is a "cooperative effort between an unbeliever and God." Before criticizing the article as synergistic, Ascol alleges the author(s) employ "imprecise language" because the phrase "any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit" is ambiguous and "can be taken two ways." According to Ascol, on the one hand, it could mean the gospel respondent "does so because he is a born again person" and on the other, the respondent "is by that response born again." This is a strange assertion in light of the explicit "We deny" in bold letters, specifically denying the first of Ascol's two options about what the author(s) supposedly could have meant; i.e., the basis of his charge of ambiguity. I confess the sheer pretension I perceive in this initial criticism.
Moving on to Ascol's concern about the TS's supposed "synergistic understanding" of the new birth, Ascol contrasts "synergism" and "monergism" in discussions about regeneration as "two opposing views of how regeneration comes to a person." According to Ascol, while synergism teaches that God regenerates a person "only if and after that person repents and believes," monergism perceives regeneration as a "sovereign work of God" with God alone as active and doing the rebirthing. Indeed, in monergism, God gives the new birth "without any cooperative effort on the part of the individual." Afterward, Ascol summarily dismisses the TS article as not only "biblically untenable" but also in "violation of the plain reading of Article IV of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) statement of the Southern Baptist Convention." And, while Ascol goes on to deal with one text in particular to demonstrate his aforementioned conclusion4, I'd like to first make a few observations about Ascol's focus on "monergism" and "synergism" and second, deal with Ascol's serious indictment that the TS violates the BFM.
First, Ascol's focus on "monergism" and "synergism" is specious at best. Nothing in the TS article mentions the two terms yet Ascol overlays the terms upon the document as an interpretative grid anyway. He justifies this by adding, "In the interest of clarity, let me note that when "synergism" vs. "monergism" is discussed in Calvinism/Arminianism debates what typically is in view is regeneration." Well that depends on who one is reading. I challenge Ascol to show how Southern Baptists have historically employed these two terms in their discussions on regeneration. I searched several systematic theologies from Southern Baptists but no discussion of monergism or synergism surfaced (including Boyce, Dagg, and Mullins). Interestingly, a focus on monergism did surface in the Primitive Baptist historical-theologian, C.B. and S. Hassell.5 In fact, like Ascol, Hassell makes "monergism" as opposed to "synergism" a key component in rightly understanding applied redemption. In addition, again it must be noted that Ascol presumptuously insists on making the discussion between Calvinism and Arminianism when not a single author of the statement claims to be Arminian. It appears, therefore, rather than attempting to understand the TS authors(s) on their own terms, Ascol a priori assigns the author(s) preconceived beliefs he has already predetermined to be suspect.
Second, Ascol's definition of "synergism" is suspect. He contends synergism means that "God regenerates a person only if and after that person repents and believes" insisting to the contrary "that no cooperation on the part of the individual in securing his new birth" is monergism, the biblical view. In response, Ascol seems to completely misunderstand synergism. For example, while scholars propose more than one kind of synergism, Ascol convolutes all synergism into one single belief. Richard Muller, writes:
"A distinction ought to be made between the Melanchthonian and Arminian forms of synergism. Melanchthonian synergism, as debated in sixteenth-century Lutheranism and excluded by the Formula of Concord, argues a coincidence of the Word, the Spirit, and the human will not refusing God's grace. This form of synergism emphasizes the coincident work of the Word and Spirit and the openness of the will to the Word and Spirit but does not set will prior to grace as an active power or faculty capable of applying grace to the individual (facultas se applicandi ad gratium, q.v.). Melanchthon's teaching is synergistic, but does not deserve to be called semi-Pelagian. The Arminian view, however, not only supposes the cooperation of the will with the Word and Spirit, but the ability of the will to apply or attach itself to grace. In the Arminian view, the will is the effective ground of salvation. This perspective is not only synergistic, but also fully semi-Pelagian"6
The author(s) of the document in question continually and clearly concend that unless the Holy Spirit both moves initially and convincingly, a person cannot savingly respond to the gospel. No matter, however. For Ascol, all synergists are the same—semi-Pelagian. Yes, and what if non-Calvinists insist all Calvinists are the same? Or, what if non-Calvinists suggest all monergists (i.e. Calvinists) are the same, and since some Calvinists believe in eternal justification, all Calvinists believe in eternal justification? A Calvinist is a Calvinist is a Calvinist is just as meaningful as arguing as does Ascol a synergist is a synergist is a synergist, is it not? We agree with Ascol on the "importance of exercising care and precision when discussing fine points of biblical theology." Unfortunately, Ascol hardly lives up to this worthy ideal when criticizing his non-Calvinist brothers. Supposing one employs Muller's categories, the author(s) of TS could very well be confessing a view of the human will consistent with or closer to Melanchthon than developed Arminianism. However, Ascol does not give them a benefit of doubt. Instead he wrongly not to mention naively cooks all synergists into the same semi-Pelagian pot.
Nor does Ascol get the possibility—indeed probability-- that no one who authored the TS denies monergism but rather embraces it! Ascol admitted he saw no relationship to the texts TS author(s) cited and the article on regeneration. Perhaps some of those texts are key in understanding the TS author(s). For example, the author(s) cite John 16:7-14 as evidence of their position, a text which includes our Lord's prophetic summation of the coming Holy Spirit's work, "He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (v.8, NKJV). Perhaps the framers have an understanding of the Holy Spirit's convicting work not dissimilar to Lewis Sperry Chafer who believed the Holy Spirit did synergistic work of convicting lost sinners prior to His monergistic work of bringing about the new birth—"Within the whole divine enterprise of winning the lost, there is no factor more vital than the work of the Holy Spirit in which He convinces or reproves the cosmos world respecting sin, righteousness, and judgment."7 In addition, perhaps the TS author(s) would agree, in substance, with James Oliver Buswell, Jr., who though a convinced Calvinist, argued that prior to "either regeneration or faith, the Holy Spirit does convict the lost sufficiently so that those who reject God's grace are wholly to blame for their lost condition..."8 If the author(s) of TS is expressing an idea of Holy Spirit conviction similar to either Chafer or Buswell (both of whom are Calvinists by the way), then they are certainly not arguing that regeneration is less than monergistic. In their view, the experience of salvation would look something like this:
- Synergism (the Holy Spirit employs the gospel to convict unbelievers; unbelievers respond)...
- Monergism (the Holy Spirit alone effects the New Birth upon the believing responder)...
- Synergism (the believer works in cooperation with the Holy Spirit in effecting sanctification)...
- Monergism (God glorifies the believer in the age to come)
Hence, it's not that TS author(s) embrace a synergistic view of regeneration as Ascol wrongly asserts. They most certainly do not. What Calvinists like Ascol deny is the first step above which is likely to be synergistic in nature and based upon texts like John 16:7-14, a text Ascol admits he lacks understanding for inclusiveness in the TS citations.9 Rather the TS author(s)'s view of regeneration is entirely monergistic. That is, God effectually works the new birth without a single contribution from the person. Are there synergistic conditions that lead up to God's monergistic work in the new birth? Yes. But there are synergistic conditions leading up to the new birth in Ascol's position as well; namely, the preaching of the gospel which is definitively a human endeavor (or, at minimum, a divine-human endeavor, i.e. synergistic). Hence, to simplistically make the TS author(s) out to embrace a "synergistic understanding of the new birth" as Ascol does is both wrong-headed and, in my view, can only be viewed as theological sophistry since Ascol obviously tries to connect the TS author(s) with the so-called heretical notion of semi-Pelagianism. Perhaps Ascol needs to patiently understand what the TS author(s) mean in their statements before attempting to engage them.10
Incidentally, it's fairly easy to understand why Ascol refuses to accept any synergistic work of the Holy Spirit prior to the monergistic work of the new birth. His Calvinistic presuppositions prohibit such a work of the Holy Spirit. Not only does Ascol's view of total depravity (i.e. total inability) prohibit such a work, but also his understanding of irresistible grace will not allow a work of the Spirit prior to the new birth put a fallen human being in a position to freely choose Christ or freely reject Him. One could add Ascol's view that faith is a gift of God given only to the elect as also prohibitive of his accepting a synergistic but effectual work of the Holy Spirit prior to God unilaterally bestowing the new birth.
Third, Ascol's contention that the author(s) of TS is contrary to the Baptist Faith and Message is spurious on the one hand and just short of fabricated on the other.11 Calvinists continue to publicly assert that the Baptist Faith and Message is a Calvinistic document when it remains historically clear that the Baptist Faith and Message, beginning in 1925, was a definitive theological step away from the High Calvinism of Boyce, Manley, and Dagg. If Founders-type Calvinists like Tom Ascol, Tom Nettles, and Al Mohler want to decry the loss of Calvinism among Southern Baptists as a wrong theological turn in our history, they are free to do so. What they are not free to do, however, is reconstruct Southern Baptist history into their own liking. For Founders Calvinists to claim on the one hand that Calvinism sorely waned beginning during the first quarter of the 20th century and only began to be recovered during the last quarter of the same century but insist The Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963) remains a Calvinistic confession is as incredulous as it is unconvincing to anyone who reads Baptist history as any level.
Hence, to suggest not only that The Baptist Faith and Message reflects the view that "regeneration precedes faith" in the order of applied salvation (as Ascol does) but also that imputed Adamic guilt is explicitly affirmed can only be taken as wishful rhetoric. Southern Baptists must not allow Baptist Calvinists like Nettles, Ascol, and Mohler rewrite her confessional history into an exclusively "Reformed" faith.
1 As of the posting of this piece, Ascol is on Part 9
2 By “oldest” I mean age (Founders began in 1982) but not to overlook stability as an organization
3 I am fully aware of TS’s specific mention of “New Calvinism.” Thus, while it could be argued that Ascol represents “Traditional” or “Historic” Calvinism among Southern Baptists, we must not overlook two significant factors: a) Ascol chose to respond to TS offering a Calvinistic critique of its supposed theology; b) Ascol seems very much in support of ‘New Calvinism”
4 The text Ascol touches upon is John 1:12-13, a text he rightly wonders why the author(s) failed to cite in this particular article. Even so, I may later offer some correctives to Ascol’s less than conclusive exegesis on these two verses. I will say I find it highly presumptuous for an exegete to claim another view than his own is “impossible to reconcile” with the verses under consideration. The fact is, several scholarly commentaries I quickly scanned hardly offered the foregone dismissal Ascol did toward an alternate view. If anything, commentaries tended to dispute Ascol’s unshakable confidence in his interpretation. For example, D.A. Carson specifically says “these verses refrain from spelling out the connection between faith and new birth” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991). 126) while another concludes similarly not only of these verses but of the entire gospel, “John nowhere elaborates on the precise temporal relationship of these two aspects [i.e., faith and rebirth]” (Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004). 38)
5 Church History, pages 31, 34, 94-101
6 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1985). 294
7 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993). 88.
8 Quoted in Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: an Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation, C. Gordon Olson, Global Gospel Publsihers, 2002. 197 italics original
9 Just because Ascol finds no value in citing a particular text counts exactly zero toward whether a particular text remains significant to those expressing their confession
10 Interestingly, Calvinists like Ascol routinely slight non-Calvinists for their “misunderstanding” of the “doctrines of grace” and yet this piece Ascol composed reveals a fundamental disconnect of not only the way many non-Calvinists view the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in conviction of unbelievers, but apparently also of his lack of knowledge that some Calvinists view the convicting work of the Holy Spirit in similar ways as many non-Calvinists
11 Since Ascol made this wrong-headed assertion more than once in his series of complaints against the TS, I intend to deal with it in a separate post