I recently posted F.H. Kerfoot's editorial correction to James P. Boyce's teaching that regeneration precedes faith in the Ordo salutis published in Boyce's first edition of the Abstract of Systematic Theology (1887). Kerfoot was recommended to the trustees by Boyce himself to take over the theology chair at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At first, Kerfoot became co-professor of theology alongside Boyce. However, that lasted only a short time due to Boyce's declining health. Thus, Kerfoot became the head of the theology department and served the chair of theology upon Boyce's death in 1888, approximately a year after Boyce published his Abstract of Systematic Theology. Kerfoot would serve as Southern's theology professor for the next eleven years. After the "Whitsett controversy" vacated the President's seat, and the trustees chose E.Y. Mullins to succeed the fallen Whitsett as president rather than Kerfoot, Kerfoot took a position as secretary of the Home Mission Board serving that role until his death in 1901.
So far as Kerfoot's personal legacy is concerned, his role in producing the first (and only) major edit of Boyce's Abstract of Systematic Theology, the standard theological textbook for Southern Baptist pastors, missionaries, evangelists, scholars, and other vocational ministers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cannot be minimized. "Kerfoot’s major contribution to his discipline was to reissue in revised form Boyce’s Abstract" says Timothy George, Dean and Professor of Divinity History and Doctrine at Beesen Divinity School. "Kerfoot, for example, advocated a general as opposed to a limited atonement, and held that conversion preceded regeneration, thus reversing Boyce’s Calvinist ordering."
The overall series I posted on Kerfoot understandably spawned some lively discussion. In the midst of the exchange, John 3:3 was mentioned as a prooftext for Baptist Calvinism's regeneration precedes faith doctrine. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:3, KJV). One perceptive commenter especially noted: "I read in John 3 that unless a man is first born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. Thus, without regeneration no one can see, perceive, understand, act towards, believe, exercise faith, concerning those essential matters of the kingdom of heaven, most centrally Jesus as the King." She remains in good company among Reformed thinkers. Commenting on John 3:3, popular Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul writes:
Once again we encounter the pivotal word unless. Jesus is stating an emphatic necessary precondition for any human being’s ability to see and to enter the kingdom of God. That emphatic precondition is spiritual rebirth. The Reformed view of predestination teaches that before a person can choose Christ his heart must be changed. He must be born again. Non-Reformed views have fallen people first choosing Christ and then being born again...How can a man choose a kingdom he cannot see? How can a man enter the kingdom without being first reborn?...Non-Reformed views have people responding to Christ who are not reborn. They are still in the flesh... This is the fatal flaw of non-Reformed views. They fail to take seriously man’s moral inability, the moral impotency of the flesh.1
But is Sproul correct in his analysis of Jesus' teaching to Nicodemus? Is the commenter correct in suggesting Jesus meant in John 3:3 that, apart from regeneration, "no one can see, perceive, understand, act towards, believe, exercise faith, concerning those essential matters of the kingdom of heaven"?
I had intention of pursuing this question again specifically focusing on John 3 (actually I've frequently dealt with it before focusing largely on other texts). But to be honest, Dr. Ronnie Rogers has a remarkably clear and concise exposition of John 3:1-21 just posted on Connect 316's SBC Today blog, an essay I encourage every SBC Tomorrow reader to consider.2
Entitled "Does Faith Precede or Result From the New Birth?" Rogers offers a contextually informed, exegetically-driven model of "doing theology" the historic Baptist way. Rogers notes of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus:
This discussion says nothing to indicate that one must be regenerated in order to exercise faith, but rather it places regeneration as an essential to becoming a citizen of the kingdom, experience salvation. What seems most clear is that revelation from God precedes trust and dependence on God to do what man cannot do for himself, thereby, placing man in a position to believe or disbelieve His revelation. It does not seem immaterial to note that Jesus said nothing about anything even remotely related to unconditional election or selective regeneration, which would have been exceptionally helpful if true.
Historically, Baptists have been incurable but competent, simple but not simplistic, true but not perfect biblicists allowing neither confessionalism, traditionalism, nor theologism to dictate to them what Scripture must mean. For my money, Rogers' essay should be downloaded and used in every adult Sunday School class in the Southern Baptist Convention not only for the truth it reflects, but also the model it remains as a healthy hermeneutic in better understanding the biblical text.
1R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986), 71–72.