Monday, March 5, 2012

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

The Gospel Project is a new Sunday School curriculum produced and marketed by Lifeway. Ed Stetzer is the General Editor and Trevin Wax is the Managing Editor. Prior to its official launch, the curriculum has been the subject of some measure of controversy, primarily with regard to disputes over the curriculum's relationship with Calvinism. Is The Gospel Project a new Particular Baptist curriculum? Not enough data is available to come to any hard-and-fast conclusion, but from the data presently available, here's what I would answer:

I suspect that The Gospel Project is indeed a Calvinistic curriculum, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Here's what I mean when I say that The Gospel Project appears to be a Calvinistic curriculum:

  1. I would consider people who affirm four points and people who affirm five points to fit alike within the broader penumbra of Calvinism. John Calvin, I think, only clearly affirmed four points. If you're only as Calvinistic as John Calvin was, I consider you a Calvinist, not that there's anything wrong with that. Not at all.
  2. I find convincing the detailed case made by Peter Lumpkins and others (see the comment by Jim G giving details of the authors' writings and affiliations) that the proportion of Calvinists (as defined above) creating this curriculum is far higher than the proportion of Calvinists in the SBC population at-large.
  3. I believe that the curriculum is poised to gain a welcome reaction and to succeed among Southern Baptist Calvinists and probably among some non-Southern-Baptists who are Calvinists. I'm not suggesting that ONLY Calvinists will purchase and use this curriculum, but I am opining that it will be more popular among Calvinists than among non-Calvinists.
  4. I will be surprised if the content of the curriculum gives much attention to the role of the human believer in one's becoming a Christian. A gospel-centered curriculum is going to have to focus on conversion, faith, justification, regeneration, and the like. Calvinism is, after all, an approach to soteriology. It seems to me (and perhaps I am wrong, here) that this curriculum has only four options available in talking about soteriology: (a) It can approach it Calvinistically, teaching almost exclusively about the role of God in salvation; (b) It can approach it from an Arminian perspective, focusing upon the role of the human believer in salvation; (c) It can reject both Calvinism and Arminianism and find a third way; or, (d) It can avoid the controversy by staying shallow in these topics. The historic Baptist Sunday School Board approach (as well as the approach of our statements of faith) has been d (staying shallow enough to avoid these controversies), but that seems to be the outcome that this curriculum is deliberately trying to avoid (in the quest for a theologically robust curriculum). The list of contributors so far are people who would die before they took approach b. I guess that c is a possibility, but I find it unlikely. Considering these four approaches, I think that a is likely the inevitable outcome, not that there's anything wrong with that.

So, I'm surmising, opining, and deducing that the contributors, consumers, and product of this curriculum will all have a Calvinistic bent to them (as defined above). That's what I think, now how do I feel about that?

First, I think that it is a good thing for us to have Lifeway-produced curricula that are more theologically robust. I want to affirm this decision and encourage the cultivation of this kind of thinking at Lifeway. If The Gospel Project is the first-fruits of a new kind of product that we will see coming out of Nashville rather than the final accomplishment of a total package, then I give Stetzer and Wax my enthusiastic amen.

I think it would be appropriate for Lifeway to develop theologically robust Sunday School literature representative of other perspectives in our convention as well. Of course, if you're not a Calvinist you can't use the words "Gospel" or "Grace" to describe your materials (said all in fun, folks!), but even if all of the good titles are taken, I think that the many of our churches that are not Calvinistic could have something theologically robust to offer as well, don't you?

Second, there's really not anything wrong with that: I really don't think that there is anything wrong with the idea that Lifeway would produce Calvinistic materials. We have Calvinistic folks in our convention. Our entities exist to enhance the ministries of those local churches, too, even if there are fewer of them. Especially at Lifeway, where the money comes from market forces rather than from the CP, it is no skin off non-Calvinist noses for Calvinistic churches from within or without our convention to be able to purchase Calvinistic curricula from Lifeway. So long as the produced materials are not so highly Calvinistic (or lowly Arminian) as to violate the Baptist Faith & Message, I'm not bothered by the existence of The Gospel Project.

Third, in an aspect that I haven't seen being discussed, this curriculum strikes me as an invasion by "senior pastors" (and I hate that term) into what has been previously the turf of "education pastors." To put it another way, How many MDivs are contributing to this curriculum versus how many MAREs? I don't know how to comment on this without being controversial, other than to note that I have an MDiv and a PhD, so my colors are clear.

These authors have studied about and have written about theology. People are able to identify that the contributors to this curriculum are predominantly Calvinsts. What did you know about the contributors to the LAST curriculum that you purchased from Lifeway? Probably not nearly as much. I like the idea that Lifeway is enlisting well-known prominent authors who are theologically minded, substantively educated, and about whom we can know quite a bit.

In summation, I think that there's a lot to like about The Gospel Project. I don't have plans to use it at FBC Farmersville, but this KIND of project, associated with a different set of names and done in a way that was less lopsidedly Calvinistic, might be precisely the kind of thing that I would promote to our Sunday School classes here. For that reason, what I want to do, rather than try to get Lifeway to regret having produced this curriculum by complaining about the predominant Calvinism of the contributors to The Gospel Project, is to encourage Lifeway to double-down on their effort and produce yet another similar curriculum embracing other points of view.


Matt Svoboda said...

I do appreciate this post, Bart.

One thing I still have trouble with is that people seem to keep overlooking that Trevin Wax has consistently stated he is not a Calvinist.

If I was Wax and I was in his position I certainly wouldnt be aiming to publish such a robust calvinist curriculum that many seem to think The Gospel Project will be.

But as you said, even if it is- there is nothing wrong with that.

Bart Barber said...

Matt, Trevin says, if I understand him correctly, that he is an Amyraldian. That's a four-pointer. That fits into my definition of Calvinism. As I said, if you're only as Calvinistic as John Calvin was, I'm willing to call you a Calvinist! ;-)

D.R. said...


First, let me say that this is probably the most even-handed, respectful article written so far about the LifeWay material from a non-Calvinist viewpoint. I appreciate your irenic tone and your willingness to concede that even if this material is Calvinistic in nature, that it is really no skin off of the SBC's (or more rightly, LifeWay's) back to produce it.

However, I would like to see you clarify point #4. I believe as a Calvinist that we do speak differently about salvation from our perspective than do non-Calvinists. But I also believe that our definition of justification & the Gospel is essentially the same, with a few minor caveats that need not be addressed in SS material.

For example, one could deeply speak of what justification is without delving into how justification is applied to one's life. The same could be said of propitiation and imputation. We can certainly agree (I hope) on the BF&M's definition of election and deal with that from a legitimately deep level while at the same time disagreeing about how election is determined (conditionally or unconditionally).

So it seems that deep theological discussions could result without the necessity of addressing specific soteriological viewpoints.

Furthermore, my understanding of this material is that its theological depth comes not in the realm of soteriology, but rather in Christology and in Biblical theology (specifically how the Old and New Testaments point to and find fulfillment in Christ). Could it not be that on questions of soteriology where there could be disagreement between Calvinists and non-Calvinists the authors have chosen to be "shallow" as you called it, but where they focus in on Christology and Biblical theology, they force the participants into deep water, thus fulfilling the objective of the study. After all, LifeWay didn't say this was a Systematic Theology course, they said it was theologically deep SS material. One does not have to dive deep in every area of theology to go deeper than the current LifeWay material.

Bart Barber said...


Your points are well-taken. That could be a successful approach. Perhaps that is the direction that they have taken. It is not an approach that I anticipated in the original post. Thanks for adding that helpful possibility.

Anonymous said...

Good comments and all, but I just really appreciate the Seinfeld reference! -Adam

Scott Gordon said...


Thank you for your thoughtful non-accusatory, non-incendiary approach to discussing this new curriculum.

As you might guess, I am seriously considering we have classes utilize this material. Our newly called (like as of last night)Youth Pastor, who considers himself non-Calvinist (at this point O:-) ) has shared with me that he is interested in potentially using it in our youth SS. I truly believe this material has a broader purview than 'calvinistic' and will have a broader utilization as well.


From your Hyper (read that as 'Excited') Calvinist Friend :-D

Bart Barber said...


A shallow cultural reference, like most of my preaching.

Bart Barber said...


Bring your youth guy to the SBC meeting so I can spend some quality time with him! #innoculation

Wade Phillips said...

There could be one more option on how they can handle the issue. It's the one I hope they use, and the one I think I've read Trevin say they would use. That would be two try to lay out all sides fairly and let each person decide which makes most sense Biblically.

I'm a 4-pointer in a (mainly) 2 point church. When this subject comes up in the Sunday School class I teach, that's what I try to do. I emphasize what you must believe (God is sovereign and man is responsible to repent) and then let people in my class work through the rest of the issues by doing my best to show all sides. Maybe this is what you mean by finding a place that is neither Calvinist nor Armenian.

I really don't think " gospel-centerdness" is the exclusive domain of Calvinists, Nor do I think the so-called gospel centered movement is necessarily Calvinist. Most of it sounds like the same stuff my 2 point pastors have been saying for years, in slightly different language. When I teach or preach about being centered on the gospel in my church, I get nothing bu enthusiastic agreement from everyone, no matter where they land on the Calvinist-Armenian continuum.

Finally, I really think Ed Stetzer is too much of a "big tent Southern Baptist" to allow ss literature to move too far in either direction.

Bart Barber said...

Wade, a couple of things:

First, if the curriculum is going to do what you have suggested (show both sides and let the people choose), then I think under those circumstances it suddenly becomes MUCH more important that the panel of contributors be balanced pretty well between Calvinists and those who are not. A curriculum designed to tell both sides needs to be a curriculum intentionally using both sides to do the telling.

Second, I would like to propose a couple of thoughts about Dr. Stetzer's "big tent" sensibilities. I think it is fair to suggest that he is far more in-tune with young non-traditional church planters than he necessarily is with other segments of the convention's population. I think he would do a great job of heading off anything that would be offensive to young non-traditional church planters (and a much higher proportion of that population is Calvinistic). Also, I'm willing to stipulate that he wouldn't go out of his way to offend older Southern Baptists, more traditional Southern Baptists, or Southern Baptists serving in established churches. But I would assert that he would be less adept at identifying and preventing those sorts of issues.

Let me say also that I think that the more business-minded folks at Lifeway will quickly perceive that a curriculum that excites the passions of a dedicated small group can succeed better financially than a curriculum that merely avoids offending a disparate large group. Appealing to a base may be a better strategy than minding the sensibilities of the whole SBC universe.

Wade Phillips said...

Bart, I haven't seen a list of contributors, only the initial advisory council, which certainly leaned calvinist. Have you seen who will be writing the curriculum? Also, I think we're saying almost the same thing about Ed. Not willing to argue over that.

Bart Barber said...

Wade, the second link to the Jim G comment can give you some more direction about some of those who will be authoring the content.

I agree that we're not far apart.

Anonymous said...

Hey Bart,

Thanks for the post. We agree about more on this subject than disagree. Not that there's anything wrong with that ;^)

Grace, brother. Always appreciate your perspective.

With that, I am...

Bart Barber said...

Good morning, Peter! 1) Thanks for reading. 2) You're welcome for the link. ;-)

Have a great day!

Max said...

Bart writes "I would consider people who affirm four points and people who affirm five points to fit alike within the broader penumbra of Calvinism."

I've found the following perspective helpful in this regard: “Reformed pastor and author R.C. Sproul suggests there is confusion about what the doctrine of limited atonement actually teaches. While he considers it possible for a person to believe four points without believing the fifth, he claims that a person who really understands the other four points must believe in limited atonement because of what Martin Luther called a resistless logic.” (

Bart Barber said...


I'm well familiar with that line of argumentation, but it simply isn't tenable to suggest that all Amyraldians are merely confused about the actual content of the doctrine of Limited Atonement. In fact, not only is this Wikipedia quote not tenable, it is condescending and arrogant, suggesting "if you knew as much about Calvinism as I do, you would be a Calvinist."

Dr. Russell Moore is an Amyraldian, for example. He's the Dean of the School of Theology and the Senior Vice President for Academic Administration under Dr. Albert Mohler (a five-point Calvinist) at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (a Calvinistic school). I doubt that Calvinistic Al Mohler would have the confidence to hire as the top scholar at the seminary a man who couldn't even understand the content of the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

And there are hundreds of similar examples I could give, each of which disproves this Wikipedia entry, "truthy" as it may be.

volfan007 said...


I noticed that you made the comment box a lot smaller, in this new set up you've got. Did you make the comment box smaller for a reason. :)

Not that there's anything wrong with that.


Paul S. said...

Bart, great post!

Here are some of my thoughts, since it you have provoked them...

1. Why doesn't LifeWay just come out and say, "Hey, we wrote some Calvinist curriculum. Enjoy!" I have yet to hear someone from LifeWay admit that it is, they have simply scoffed at the question. I have yet to see anyone ask them a yes/no questions about it containing the five points. That would be interesting. I think that if they did, I bet there would be less SBC interest, but possibly more from outside.

2. Do you think this is a way to for LifeWay to make some money? They have been about the dollar lately with recent decisions, so is this an attempt to also be the printing arm of another Network/Denom? I know it's not, but seems like an angle...

Anonymous said...

A well written, even handed, encouraging article. Well done Bart