Dr. Malcolm Yarnell, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, had a lengthy exchange on Dr. Ascol's "widened the divide" article, the last comment of which was so insightful, I arranged to have an amplified version of Professor Yarnell's comment posted as a main article at SBCTomorrow.
Below is Professor David Allen's rejoinder to Dr. Ascol's provocative assessment of the Calvinist debate in the SBC.
A REJOINDER TO TOM ASCOL
By: David L. Allen
In a November 24th post on his blog at Founders.org, Dr. Tom Ascol has responded to recent events concerning the issue of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention, including my review of the book Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue and my presentation at the John 3:16 Conference. In light of Dr. Ascol’s blog post, both in terms of tone and content, and in the hopes that my response will not be interpreted by him or anyone else to be of a personal nature, perhaps it would be helpful for him and for my readers to know something at the outset of my own attitude in all of this.
Dr. Ascol and I not only differ and disagree on the subject of Calvinism, but in fact, our disagreement in certain areas is quite strong. However, for the record, let it be known that I do not view Dr. Ascol’s critique of my words as an attack on me personally. Nor does our disagreement in any way mitigate my love for him and my genuine appreciation for his ministry. Tom Ascol is a Ph.D. graduate of SWBTS, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida, and Executive Director of Founders Ministries.
Though to my knowledge Tom and I have never met, we are fellow believers who happen to labor in the Southern Baptist corner of the Lord’s vineyard, and his church is one of over 40,000 SBC churches that owns and operates, through the trustee system, the Seminary where I am employed.
The Charge of Anti-Calvinism
One of the overriding concerns throughout Ascol’s blog post is evidenced by the four times he identifies me (indirectly each time but clearly I am included) as “anti-Calvinist” (emphasis mine). This is simply false. I am not anti-Calvinist.
During my first pastorate, where I served over fifteen years, I had at least three people along the way who were Calvinists who served on my church staff, not to mention deacons (at least two of whom also taught in our Sunday School) and a few Sunday School teachers. Among those invited to lead Bible Conferences at our church during my tenure were Calvinists as well. Dr. Curtis Vaughan comes to mind immediately. During my second pastorate I hired as an intern a young man who was a recent graduate of one of our Baptist Colleges, and he was a Calvinist.
Also, after my resignation as pastor to accept the Deanship at SWBTS, I recommended a man to the pulpit committee of this very church who is moderately Calvinistic in his own theological approach. The church later called him as pastor. During my twelve year tenure on the Board of Trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I served on the Academic Administration Committee for ten of those years. This is the committee that receives recommendations from the President for new faculty, interviews those prospective faculty members, and then recommends them to the full board for approval.
During my years on that committee, I recommended without reservation some men who were Calvinists. Dr. Greg Welty immediately comes to mind.
To my knowledge, during my years of Board service, no one who was recommended by the President and who was also a Calvinist was not recommended to the full Board by the Academic Administration Committee upon which I served. In my four and one-half year tenure as Dean of the School of Theology at SWBTS, I have promoted to Assistant Dean the only five-point Calvinist in the Philosophy and Ethics Division, and this in spite of the fact that others in that division had a longer tenure at the Seminary.
In 2008 I recommended to the president of one of our sister SBC Seminaries a man to fill an administrative and faculty position whom I have known for twenty-eight years and who is a Calvinist (He was up until a few years ago a five-point Calvinist, but came to reject limited atonement as unbiblical). This man had been a local church pastor for many years. He was hired for the position at the seminary.
Also in 2008 I hired a new graduate assistant in my office, a fine young man of whom I am very fond, and who is a new student at the seminary in our M.Div. program. He is a five-point Calvinist. Incidentally, he assisted me in my research for the John 3:16 Conference. I could continue, but I think this will suffice to show anyone that my track record indicates I am not anti-Calvinist.
Neither is it accurate to portray my recent review of the book Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue or my John 3:16 presentation as “anti-Calvinist.” One must distinguish between being against people who hold certain theological views and disagreeing with the views those people hold. I am not against any Calvinist in the Southern Baptist Convention. I do believe that Calvinism, especially five-point Calvinism, is biblically and theologically flawed at certain points.
In my book review and presentation at the John 3:16 conference, I was at pains to show this. It is apparent to me that some Calvinists within and without the SBC simply will not brook any criticism of Calvinism. To do so in their minds is to be anti-Calvinist.
Let me also say that there are occasions where I am against what Calvinists do or don’t do because of what they believe. I referenced one or two such incidents toward the end of my John 3:16 paper as well as in my book review. Why should this be a problem since Calvinists likewise reciprocate here? In fact, is not this rejoinder the result of Dr. Ascol’s own criticism of my criticism whereby he takes exception to what I have done or have not done because of what I believe? I consider this to be an example of being too thin-skinned.
Also, would it be possible for anyone reading Ascol’s blog to come to the conclusion that he is anti-non-Calvinist or anti-Classical Arminian? I suspect some could, some would, and I know of some who have. Sauce for the goose.
The Charge of Condescension and Suspicions to Calvinize the SBC
In response to my defense of Lemke’s study of Founders churches, Dr. Ascol does not disagree with my assertion that “some brands of Calvinism (hyper-Calvinism and other extreme forms of five-point Calvinism) are in fact less than evangelistic,” but offers the addition that some brands of fundamentalism and Arminianism are likewise “less than evangelistic, as is evidenced by the general state of churches across the SBC, most of which are not Calvinistic.” I agree here and don’t think this is in dispute.
I will give Dr. Ascol the benefit of the doubt that by his reference to “Arminianism” he means “Classical Arminianism” since modern Arminianism does not hold to eternal security of the believer, and thus virtually all Southern Baptists cannot be Arminian in that sense. Southern Baptists certainly cannot be modern Arminians and affirm the BFM 2000.
Dr. Ascol says he has applied Lemke’s methodology to churches I have pastored and “if I had a mind to, I could publish those results and, with no less authority than that which Lemke and Allen claim, conclude that ‘Southwestern and New Orleans seminary administrators’ are a threat to evangelism and healthy church life.” I don’t quite know what to say to such a statement. I certainly wish I and the two churches I pastored had done more in the area of evangelism.
Dr. Ascol says I “repeatedly” write with a “condescending tone” and then cites two examples from 34 single-spaced pages. I doubt this qualifies as “repeatedly.” If he has in mind other examples, I would be interested in seeing them. Although I don’t think either statement (referencing Dr. Nathan Finn as “young Finn” and speaking of Dr. Tom Nettles’ “characteristic brusqueness”) qualifies as condescending since both are true and neither statement was intended to be such.
Nevertheless, upon reflection, I can see how such phrases could be, and indeed have been, interpreted as condescending. Therefore, I have taken the steps to have them removed from the book review on BaptistTheology.org.
Dr. Ascol says my treatment of Dr. Yarnell’s chapter “borders on hagiography.” This is, of course, a gross overstatement. Ascol cites me for not even quibbling with Dr. Yarnell’s “identifying a heretical anti-trinitarian [Servetus] as part of the Baptist family.” This is one I simply missed and should have cited! Yarnell no doubt would agree, for he would never identify Servetus as a “Baptist” in the usual sense of what we mean by the term. “Anabaptist” or “antipaedobaptist” would have been more apt.
However, that said, Dr. Ascol uses a cannon to kill a mosquito when he says “Any vision of Baptist identity that consciously welcomes heresy into the DNA is dangerous and I would think that other Baptists, regardless of their views on the doctrines of grace, would as well.” Now here is an example of how injudicious over-zealousness can produce a statement that not even the author himself really believes. Does Dr. Ascol really think Dr. Yarnell or I would “consciously welcome heresy” into Baptist DNA? Of course neither Ascol, Yarnell nor Allen would do so, and all three know it. However, that said, Ascol is right to point out I should have caught this one.
Dr. Ascol also noted I completely missed Dr. Yarnell’s “misunderstanding” of an article by Mark Dever where Dever, according to Yarnell’s reading of the article, supposedly requires his church elders to adhere to the 1689 Confession, while the rest of the church membership follow the New Hampshire Confession. Since Dr. Dever has indicated elsewhere, though not in writing, that he does not in fact require his leadership to adhere to the 1689 Confession, and I assume he never did, as Dr. Ascol points out, then, either Dr. Yarnell did misunderstand the article, or the article was unclear on the matter, or both. Since I had not read the article myself, I did not comment on this issue in my review.
Dr. Ascol turns his attention to my comments concerning his chapter in the book Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue and his involvement in the Building Bridges Conference. He correctly cites my “admitted suspicions” that there is an agenda afoot in the SBC to 'Calvinize' it. I referenced a comment Ascol made to the effect that he was not suggesting everyone need become a convinced Calvinist, “though you would hear no complaints from me were that to happen!” Ascol informs us that this was a “throw-away comment, intended to be humorous.” I can accept that.
Ascol continued: “Unfortunately, when Allen read it, it caused alarm bells to go off in his head confirming his already suspicious thoughts of the existence of a nefarious Calvinist plot to ‘Calvinize’ the SBC.” Here I want to analyze carefully the words Ascol uses to identify and explain my concerns. I do not think there is a “plot” and I do not think that it is “nefarious.”
I do, however, think there is an effort--an “agenda” to use my word--on the part of the Founders Ministries to “Calvinize” the SBC and I make no bones about it. There is quite a difference both in tone and meaning between the words “plot” and “agenda.” Of course, such an agenda is not proven by the comments by Ascol above, nor did I suggest such.
Nevertheless, in my opinion, as I stated in the book review, I do not see how anyone can dispute this “agenda” given the very mission statement of the organization, the publications of the organization (Dr. Tom Nettles’ article “Why Your Next Pastor Should be a Calvinist” being a recent example), and the comments of Dr. Ascol himself on his blog over the past few years.
Dr. Ascol queries why I “never raised an outcry over the dozens if not hundreds of attempts by denominational employees and others to tell churches that ‘your next pastor should not be a Calvinist.’” How would he know whether I have done this or not prior to my review of the book? Even if I had never done so, my clear statement in the book review that such should never be the case constitutes my outcry against such behavior, an outcry clearly voiced prior to his blog post implying I had “never” raised such an outcry.
Ascol continues: “It is ironic that Allen thinks my presence on the program of Building Bridges was problematic. I am the one who originally suggested the conference.” It is not ironic at all! In fact, this constitutes the very heart of my objection to Ascol’s presence as a speaker at the Building Bridges Conference: NO ONE SHOULD HAVE BEEN A SPEAKER AT A BI-PARTISAN CONFERENCE ON CALVINISM WHO BELIEVES AND PUBLISHES AN ARTICLE WITH THE TITLE “WHY YOUR NEXT PASTOR SHOULD BE A CALVINIST!” ARE WE TO ASSUME THAT GOD HIMSELF DESIRES ONLY CALVINISTS FROM HERE ON IN TO PASTOR SBC CHURCHES?
Imagine if Dr. Akin, as president of Southeastern Seminary, and one of the co-sponsors of the Building Bridges Conference, should have written on his website an article entitled “Why Your Next Pastor Should Not Be a Calvinist.” How could he have participated in any meaningful way in a conference such as Building Bridges? Even Dr. Yarnell, the most vocal critic of Calvinism among the Building Bridges presenters, made it clear there is and should be a place for Calvinists in the SBC at all levels.
It is this kind of thing that causes the vast majority of Southern Baptists, and even many Calvinists within the Southern Baptist Convention, to distance themselves from the Founders Ministries. Please note also for the record, I eschewed such thinking and advocacy from the opposite position as well in the book review. Here was my conclusion: “A church’s next pastor should be the man God leads that church to call, be he Calvinist or no” ( added).
The Charge of Despising Calvinism
Ascol goes off on a tangent when he speaks about SBC entities and those who serve them being answerable to all Southern Baptists, “including those of us whose theology they may despise.” (For the record, I don’t “despise” Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism is the only brand of Calvinism I despise as do virtually all Calvinists I know. Please note also I despise hyper-Calvinism, not hyper-Calvinists.) Of course I recognize that Founders Ministries is a Southern Baptist entity in the sense that it is composed of Southern Baptists. I did not suggest that an entity is not Southern Baptist because it does not receive Cooperative Program money.
Furthermore, I never suggested that SBC entities are not answerable to the churches. They certainly are. All of these points made by Dr. Ascol are beside the point. Dr. Ascol has apparently missed my point. If other SBC entities (those who receive Cooperative Program funds) are going to sponsor a bi-partisan conference, then a partisan organization even within the SBC family should not be a co-sponsor and the director of that partisan organization should not be a speaker. Clearly Founders Ministries is partisan on the subject of Calvinism.
Dr. Ascol proceeds to wonder why I have not raised my voice in protest over the “partnering” of SWBTS with Grace Evangelical Fellowship, “a non-lordship salvation entity that denies the necessity of repentance for salvation (their ‘Affirmation of Belief’ states, that ‘no sorrow for sin’ or ‘turning from one’s sin’ is necessary)?” He says that according to the Southwestern website, we are “hosting” this “antinomian” Fellowship on campus March 30-April 2, 2009. Again, my first question would be: “how does Dr. Ascol know whether or not I have said anything about this?” There is no way he could know for sure. He is making an assumption followed by an unsubstantiated claim.
Secondly, SWBTS allows groups to meet on campus who contract with us to use our Riley Conference Center. Sometimes we even allow non-religious organizations to use or facility. Third, this is simply a red herring and has no cogent connection to the issues at hand.
The Charge Questioning SWBTS' Joint Sponsorship with Jerry Vines Ministries of J316C
From this point, Dr. Ascol proceeds to question SWBTS’ joint sponsorship with Jerry Vines Ministries of the John 3:16 Conference, along with two other sister SBC seminaries. Ascol then proceeds to accuse Dr. Vines directly of spreading “anti-Calvinistic propaganda.” From all this, my participation supposedly causes my protest of Ascol and Founders Ministries in the Building Bridges Conference to “ring hollow.” Several points need to be made here.
First, Dr. Jerry Vines is a Southern Baptist with every right to express his theological disagreement with Calvinism through his own ministry. To refer to his stated disagreement as “propaganda” is incendiary and no doubt offensive to some. I assume Dr. Ascol would find it equally offensive if I were to use such terminology as “propaganda” to describe his attempts to purvey Calvinism in the SBC through his own organization.
Second, there is a significant difference in Founders Ministries partnering with SBC entities for a bi-partisan conference, and SBC entities co-sponsoring a partisan conference. Furthermore, since non-partisan SBC entities partnered with partisan Founders Ministries for the Building Bridges Conference, it would seem to me Dr. Ascol would have no grounds to question non-partisan SBC entities partnering with partisan Jerry Vines ministries on this or any subject.
The Charge of False Accusations about Hyper-Calvinism**
Additionally, the John 3:16 Conference was billed as a “biblical and theological evaluation of and response to five-point Calvinism.” Since the majority of Southern Baptists are clearly non-Calvinists, I see no conflict of interest here either on my part as a speaker at the conference or the part of the seminaries that chose to be co-sponsors. Dr. Ascol continues with this statement: “Although I must say that any conference that accuses James White of being a hyper-Calvinist loses credibility with thinking people.”
First, the conference did not make the claim; I did. If there is any credibility to be lost, it would be mine and not the conference. This single statement is the only statement Dr. Ascol makes concerning my comments about James White**. Given the evidence I presented during the John 3:16 Conference and my defense of this “accusation” on this very website on Monday, November 24, I find it impossible to swallow Ascol’s statement. He will have to provide some argumentation or evidence that the claim is false. He offers none.
In fact, Ascol seems to continue to miss the whole point of my bringing up James White in the first place**. I commendably quoted Ascol's affirmation of God's universal saving will (in addition to reading his own careful Calvinistic qualifications) and pointed out how White’s rejection of this orthodox Calvinist position on God’s revealed will places him in the category of a hyper-Calvinist on this point. White clearly disagrees with Ascol's universal aspect, i.e. that God desires the salvation of all men in His revealed will.
Apparently Ascol is either 1) unaware of this difference between White and himself, or 2) does not believe there is a difference between his own views and White on this subject, or 3) is unwilling to conclude that such a difference makes White a hyper-Calvinist, or some combination of the three.
Incidentally, the attempts of Phil Johnson and James White at parsing words, nuancing or otherwise skirting the main issue at hand, have failed to show my initial statement concerning White to be false, in my opinion. I am willing to concede Johnson’s point that his Primer does not state what I interpreted it to state. He has every right to state what he as the author intended by his own words. This does not, however, remove the fact that, given the declarations and links found in the Primer, I had epistemic grounds for my interpretation--that is, my interpretation was a reasonable interpretation.
Nor does it remove the fact that, according to Iain Murray and Curt Daniels’ writings on this subject, both of whom I have read, James White’s categorical denial of God’s universal saving will positions him within hyper-Calvinism (editorial reference: consider Tony Byrne's helpful assessment of the present charges against Dr. Allen's conference paper/presentation) .
Tom Ascol's Concluding Accusations
Finally, Dr. Ascol concludes his post with eight final accusations: my book review and John 3:16 Conference presentation 1) “undermine true understanding,” 2) “sabotage” attempts by a growing number of Southern Baptists who want to build bridges, 3) engage in “mischaracterizations, inaccuracies, and false accusations,” 4) evidence my desire to run Calvinists out of the SBC, 5) “attack” Calvinists, 6) constitute “sin” on my part, 7) “misrepresent brethren” with whom I disagree, and 8) make me an “anti-Calvinist.”
I shall respond to each of these eight accusations by pointing out several things:
1) In my opinion, the presentations I offered will, I trust, aid in fostering true understanding of the issues at hand. This does not mean that I approach this subject with an entrenched “I’m right and your wrong” posture. My goal is to place the information on the table, admittedly from my perspective, and encourage each person to draw his or her own conclusions about the teaching of Calvinism. In fact, I stated this clearly in my presentation at the John 3:16 Conference where I said:
"There has been and is significant debate over who believed what on the atonement in Calvinistic history. We need to be just as honest with the historical data as we are with the biblical and systematic data. Baptists need to be aware of the many Calvinistic stalwarts who held to a form of universal atonement and rejected Limited Atonement.
As Baptists, whether Calvinistic or not, you need to be more historically self-aware, and at least know about the extent of the diversity on the point. You need to read the primary sources. There is a great deal of ignorance in this area, as revealed in many of the popular authors on the subject from a Calvinistic perspective and also from many of the blog sites of Calvinists. We must honestly listen to Historical Theology and the only way to do this is read carefully the primary sources. You need to have all the options on the table and all of them rightly represented before you begin to discriminate between them to see which viewpoint is true biblically. It is my goal to be totally fair to my Calvinist friends.
. . . I want to say a word to my young Calvinist friends out here. You say: “I can’t believe that. I’ve never read that” [that there were Calvinists at Dort and Westminster who rejected strict particularism (limited atonement) and held to some form of universal atonement]. I know you haven’t. Now don’t misunderstand what I am about to say. The reason you have never heard that is all you are reading are popular, modern Calvinist writers. All you read is Piper, all you read is MacArthur, all you read is Dever. You don’t read the guys who were Calvinists at the time. You are not reading them, and that’s why you don’t know this. You must read the primary sources."
It is important to note several things here. First, as others have falsely accused me of saying (not Dr. Ascol), notice I did not say anything negative of Piper, MacArthur or Dever here. I read them as well and profit from their writings. I have often used both Piper’s and MacArthur’s book on preaching as required textbooks in my own preaching classes through the years.
Second, the point I was trying to make, though I could have said it even more explicitly, is if young Calvinists have never heard about the debate within historic Calvinism over the extent of the atonement, it is probably because they spend most of their time reading popular modern Calvinists and not the writings of those involved in Dort and Westminster. Virtually all of the popular Calvinist writers today are high Calvinists (five-point Calvinists) and one could easily get the impression or draw an inference that this is the way it has always been in history.
Note carefully I did not say nor am I saying that all these popular authors are themselves unaware of the historical debate. One of the key purposes of my John 3:16 presentation was to prove historically that there has been debate over the extent of the atonement among Calvinists themselves in the hope that this would foster a better understanding of the issues at hand.
2) With respect to my supposed “sabotage” attempts, please reread the last few pages of my review of Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue. I am one of those who genuinely want to bridge our doctrinal divides and live together with my Calvinist brothers and sisters in true unity and love. But this bridge must be truly jointly constructed by those on both sides of the issue with equal traffic going both ways, or else it will wind up being a bridge too far for one group within the convention.
Use of the word “sabotaged” clearly implies sinister intent on the part of those who disagree. Where have I “sabotaged” anything? Also, I do not feel “threatened” by Calvinism, but I do believe some of our churches face a threat of being “Calvinized,” whether overtly or by subterfuge. There is evidence that sometimes a prospective staff member or pastor accepts a position at a church without informing the church of his Calvinism. He then seeks to lead the church into Calvinism, usually against the desires of the church. This raises an issue of integrity for me. All potential staff members should put their cards on the table when they interview for a position.
An interesting historical side note of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Separate Baptists contains many examples of General Baptist churches in the South being targeted by Particular Baptist churches in an organized effort to move them into the Calvinist camp. This has been documented by William Lumpkin in his work Baptist Foundations in the South (pp. 60-71).
3) Please identify my mischaracterizations, inaccuracies and false accusations and I will address them for you.
4) I have already spoken clearly, both in my book review and at the John 3:16 Conference, to the fact that I do not want to “run Calvinists out of the SBC.”
5) Please identify where I have “attacked” Calvinists. My comments concerning James White were an effort at historical description rather than an attack. Also, I might point out that the labeling of non-Calvinists as “Arminian” can be considered an attack. At the very least, the term is inaccurate for Southern Baptist non-Calvinists since our affirmation of the BFM 2000 clearly indicates we hold to the eternal security of the believer.
The term “Arminian” is also problematic for many non-Calvinist Southern Baptists because, among other things, their views on election would be different from Arminianism which teaches that election is based on foreknowledge. This was made crystal clear at the John 3:16 Conference where Dr. Richard Land rejected the Arminian approach to election. I myself do not believe election is based on God’s foreknowledge as does Arminianism.
6) Please identify where my words constitute sin in your eyes.
7) Please identify where I have misrepresented you or any other Calvinist.
In conclusion, I encourage each reader to read my book review posted on BaptistTheology.org as well as listen to the CD’s of the John 3:16 Conference, including my presentation. I believe such an exercise will reveal that most of Dr. Ascol’s criticisms are unfounded. Let the debate within the SBC continue on this subject, and may God grant us all His grace in the process.
**For the record, Dr. Allen's conference presentation included two meticulously composed charts which were handed out to all participants. Those two charts clearly demonstrate precisely how Dr. Allen was using all of the theological terms in his presentation, a fact which seems to be conveniently overlooked in most Internet discussions, including Dr. Ascol's engagement. Moreover, the chart additionally served as a clear visual as to both how and why Dr. Allen concluded that James White's views fall into the hyper-Calvinistic theological grid.
Out of approximately 169 theologians identified on Allen's chart as either Arminian, Classic/Moderate Calvinist, High Calvinist, Hyper-Calvinist, only 18* theologians were identified as Hyper-Calvinist. Even more incredible--in light of Founders Calvinists' unchecked outrage at Dr. Allen's presentation--not a single, widely-known Southern Baptist was listed on Allen's chart as Hyper-Calvinist (editorial comment).
*It's been pointed out to me that this number is incorrect. The correct number is 20. I rechecked my count; I fully admit my mistake; and am happy to correct my mistake. More importantly, I am very sorry for my mistake.
My deepest gratitude to Dr. Allen for allowing this post to be placed here for further clarity on this significant dialogue in our beloved Southern Baptist Convention.
With that, I am...