A person or two has noted the absence of my signature on "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation" and has contacted me to learn my thinking. I am planning to produce something more substantive in the days to come as a collaborative effort with several of my peers, but in the interim, I thought it might be beneficial for me to give some of the reasons why I am not among the signatories
I take the signing of documents very seriously. Among the greater evils of the pre-CR Southern Baptist Convention was the flippant or downright disingenuous affirmation of statements of faith. Although, if I were to sign the statement, it would not be as any condition of employment or denominational service, I still have come to regard the placement of my signature upon a statement of faith as a matter of personal integrity.
I'm trying to know the limits of my own knowledge and intelligence. Tom Clancy once said that the most difficult sentence for a Ph.D. in anything to utter is "I don't know." I think that Clancy has an insight there into human nature, and I concur with the timeless wisdom of Harry Callahan that "A man's got to know his limitations." It's embarrassing for me to admit this. Somebody will doubtless use my words against me. So be it.
In some elements of the debate over Calvinism I feel some sense of certainty from my own study of the Bible and of Church History. At points I agree with certainty with the Calvinists, and at other points I disagree with certainty with the Calvinists. A third category of doctrinal elements are those for which I am not certain in one way or the other. I may have leanings, but leanings alone will not bring about my signature on a doctrinal statement.
I freely confess that the certainty of other people in areas where I am uncertain may very well indicate that those people are more intelligent and more informed than I am. When I read debates over the philosophical grounding of truth claims related to middle knowledge in Molinism, my head hurts. Other people consider this to be light reading.
And so, upon reading the statement, I encountered statements that I felt went beyond my own level of certainty and comfort. I'm not smart enough to be a participant in some of these discussions. For this reason, among others, I have not signed the statement.
Although I do not believe that Calvinism has adequately comprehended the relationship between election and God's foreknowledge, I do believe that election is personal. The statement seems to me to emphasize the plan of salvation and the person of Christ as that which was elected. I acknowledge this as a mainstream option held by people whom I respect who are precious and valuable to me. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the usage of "the elect" as a noun in the New Testament seems to point toward the conglomeration of individuals who have been redeemed. And so, although my view of election is not Calvinistic, I do not know that this particular statement articulates it well. Or perhaps it does, and I misunderstand it (see the previous point).
Although Article Two has received the most criticism, that article does not pose a difficulty for me. Allow me to elaborate. First of all, as prophesied in Jeremiah 31, I believe that it is a feature of the New Covenant that people face condemnation for their own actions and not for the actions of any others (explicitly not because of their ancestry). This same principle is reiterated by Christ Himself in John 3:18-21, where Jesus identified the grounds of judgment for condemned humanity as their rejection of the Light, the only begotten Son of God. The rejection of Christ is something that each person does for himself, and in the New Covenant, I do not believe that anyone's teeth are set on edge by the sour grapes of his or her father.
What about Romans 5? Well, I do believe that all die in Adam. The consequences of the Fall are ubiquitous. Death itself, the very thing mentioned in Romans 5, is among them. Romans 5:12 does seem to say that death spread to all men because all men sinned. It seems explicitly to contradict those who deny that "we are all sinners because we all sin." Romans 5:12 tells us that death has spread to us all because we all have sinned.
Frankly, I've never heard or read an explanation of Romans 5 that made sense to me. Consider, for example, the way that Romans 5:15 seems clearly to indicate that the spread from one to many of the death in Adam is inferior to—less abundant than—the spread of the free gift from the one to many. And yet the spread of death from Adam is ubiquitous, while the spread of the gospel is not…is lesser than the spread of death in extent. There are portions of Romans 5 that read much like universalism, and yet universalism is clearly not the teaching of the New Testament. If you wanted to make a Calvinist of me, I think a great starting place would be for somebody to give me a coherent, convincing analysis of Romans 5, but I've certainly not seen one yet that wasn't more convoluted than a half-hour game of Twister (and that goes for non-Calvinist analyses, as well). There's no clear statement in Romans 5 that eternal damnation comes to infants because of the sin of Adam. Death? Yes, and that certainly because of Adam's sin. Eternal damnation to Hell? Romans 5 doesn't say so explicitly, and in light of Romans 7:9, I think we have reason to believe that Paul held a view of moral accountability similar to my own. I don't think that Romans 5 necessitates the eternal damnation of infants. If it says anything like that, it doesn't say it very clearly.
Jeremiah 31:29-30, on the other hand, couldn't be clearer, neither in its frame of reference (the New Covenant) nor it its declaration about it (that people will not longer die for the sins of their fathers). I do not deny that we are born dying in the physical sense. I do not deny that we are born with a sin nature. I do not deny that we are born into a sinful, fallen world. I do not deny that, because of these factors, it is a safely foregone conclusion that all of us who live long enough to do so commit actual transgression. All of these truths I affirm. I do, however, deny that there is a single soul in Hell who was not first on Earth an active transgressor against God. Many forms of Calvinism, of course, assert a Hell filled with infants who have never transgressed personally, and the explicit justification for this belief is the notion that Jeremiah 31 somehow does not apply to them and that they die for the sin of Adam and Eve. Since Jeremiah 31:30 is clearly a declaration about those who will perish for sin, I do not see how it can refer only to the elect. I believe that it applies to all people. Those who die, die for their own iniquity. I believe this because I believe in the inerrancy of scripture.
As far as the freedom of the will goes, I do believe that it has been impaired by the Fall for all people. This is at least part of what it means to have a sin nature. I do not, however, believe that it has been totally incapacitated forever. This is at least part of what it means not to be a Calvinist. With Augustine I would urge us all to "put [our] faith in the meanwhile in the inspired word of God, and believe both that man’s will is free, and that there is also God’s grace." I am happy to affirm that man can only choose to respond favorably to the gospel when he is the beneficiary of the prevenient grace of God, even if I believe that he can also choose not to respond favorably to that grace. No one can come to Christ apart from Holy Spirit conviction, for even with free will, "without [God's] help man’s free will can neither be turned towards God, nor make any progress in God."
I believe that the viewpoint that I have articulated here is biblical and is compatible with Article Two of the statement. I know that some of you differ with me on this point. I love you anyway.
Although I do harbor some concerns about the "New Calvinism," I would articulate those concerns differently than this statement does. Indeed, I would articulate them in a way, I think, that would win the affirmation of many Calvinists who are Calvinists of a different sort (viz., those who have managed, while finding Puritan soteriology, to find the Puritan doctrine of sanctification along with it).
Finally, this statement raises some trust issues in me. I was reluctant to sign because I didn't trust what some virulent anti-Calvinists might try to do with it. Dr. Hankins is not of that ilk, but such creatures exist in our convention. I was also reluctant to sign because I didn't trust (I don't know how else to say it) the maturity of some Calvinists in the convention to permit anyone who is not a Calvinist to dare to articulate a soteriological viewpoint. For this very reason (the latter one), there is probably a need for people to dare to make statements like this one and to teach our Calvinistic brethren to get over it, but some of my best friends signed this statement, and some of my best friends despise it, and I feared that this would be a big mess, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a part of it. Call me a coward. Perhaps that's what I am.
None of these are major areas of disagreement. Some of them are perhaps hardly worth mentioning. Certainly none of them prevent me from maintaining a spirit of cordiality toward the statement and its signatories. But, cumulatively considered, they are enough to prevent me from signing the statement. I hope that answers the questions of anyone who cared in the first place.
Because of the indisputable truth of the second point, it is possible that you, my readers, will come into this comment stream and show the pure foolishness of every other point listed. But it will take more than your showing me that I'm wrong to get me either to sign the statement or to condemn it. You're going to have to show me why you're right, and to do so in a manner that convinces me so thoroughly as to get me over the hurdle of the first point.