Thursday, January 9, 2014

Helping Heretics Come Home

This year's SBTC Empower Evangelism Conference features at least three former heretics as a part of the official program. These are men whose previous spiritual affiliation was theologically deficient and—according to the teachings of scripture and the consensus of orthodox Christianity for two millennia—accomplished their damnation to eternal hell.

The three men in question are Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore, and Fred Luter.

In fact, after looking a bit closer, every name on the program represents someone who was formerly a heretic, a blasphemer, a rebel against the rightful rule of God, and a soul damned for all eternity without hope of reprieve. Without hope, that is, until Jesus Christ came to save them. And it is fitting that the program should consist of such people, since it is the design of an evangelism conference to feature the fact that Jesus Christ came into the world to save heretics, which all lost people are, including the very worst among them.

Oh, there have also been questions asked about three other participants in the conference: Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean, who together comprise the CCM group "Phillips, Craig, & Dean." Like every other participant in the program, these three have a history that includes a period of error and rebellion against God. Unlike the other participants (as far as I know the histories of the other participants), their pasts include affiliation with (so-called) churches that do not affirm the Trinity but are instead adherents of the ancient heresy called modalism. Indeed, members of this group have family members who remain among the proponents of modalism to this day.

I have looked through the data about Phillips, Craig, & Dean, at least as far as it is presented online, and the material that I have seen to date I would characterize in this manner: (a) the members of the group have never publicly claimed to be modalists or publicly espoused modalist teachings, (b) the churches of which they are members have not been found to claim to be modalistic or to teach a modalist interpretation of the godhead, but they have been found to have statements of faith that are not clearly written to exclude modalism. Mark Lamprecht, author of "Here I Blog" and one of the most careful and helpful contributors to the conversation about Phillips, Craig, & Dean, has written here that the status of these churches is "unclear and questionable." Because Mark is a careful and conscientious blogger, he has called not for Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean to repent of modalism but to obtain from them a "clear, explicit statement…of their position on the Trinity."

This is a reasonable request.

And so, before the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention ever booked PC&D to sing at this year's Empower Evangelism Conference, the convention required from them precisely that: a clear, explicit statement of their position on the Trinity. They provided it gladly. I have it in hand with all three of their signatures in place at the bottom. In the text of the statement they say, "Phillips, Craig, & Dean fully acknowledge their past denominational affiliations and are grateful for their heritage; however, they reject the teaching of modalism, a.k.a. Sabellianism." But they go further than that. They additionally say, "Although none of the members of PC&D are affiliated with any denomination, collectively, the ministry of Phillips, Craig, & Dean affirms the statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention—http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp."

Now, in light of this, I pose these questions to you:

  1. Does the statement by PC&D amount to a "clear, explicit statement…of their position on the Trinity"? The first quote that I gave above admittedly is not. That is, although it certainly is a clear, explicit statement of what the group's position on the Trinity IS NOT, it does not provide any clear, explicit statement of what the group's position on the Trinity IS. When you add the second statement, however, things change. At that point the answer to the question depends upon whether one considers the Baptist Faith & Message to amount to a "clear, explicit statement" regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. Having read our statement of faith many times and having affirmed it myself, I do consider the Baptist Faith & Message to meet this standard of clarity and explicitness.

  2. How ought those of us who have been concerned in the past about whether PC&D are modalists to respond to this statement? Does this statement change things? I think we can choose one response among several possibilities:

    1. We can determine that they are lying. In which case, I submit that they are not modalists. They may not be Trinitarians if they are lying, but they certainly are not modalists.

      Look at it this way: you show me a politician who tells people in Massachusetts that he is pro-choice on the question of abortion and tells people in Texas that he is pro-life on the question of abortion. If he is doing both of those things at the same time, then perhaps you might ask me, "Bart, which do you think he is, pro-life or pro-choice?" My answer would be, "I don't think he's either one; I think he's pro-I-want-to-be-elected-and-will-say-whatever-it-takes-for-that-to-happen." In other words, it is clear that he holds no convictions on either side of the issue.

      Likewise, if you have someone who tells one group of people that he is a modalist and another group of people that he is a Trinitarian, what you have is neither a modalist nor a Trinitarian but a liar who doesn't think that theology is all that important and doesn't hold any real convictions on the question of God's nature. Such liars are sinners and such lying is wrong. We'd all have good reason to doubt the salvation of anyone who could not bring himself to make an honest confession about who God is.

      But I find it difficult to put these three men into this category by way of anything resembling evidence. I've never seen any evidence that any of the three of these men have ever taught, affirmed, encouraged, or supported modalism in what they have personally said or done. They admit that they grew up in the midst of modalism. I do not doubt that at some point along the way they subscribed to modalism. But any such subscription or affirmation happened before these men were in the public eye and no public record of it remains. So, on the side of evidence to suggest that they are presently teaching, affirming, encouraging, or supporting modalism, either publicly or privately, the basket it empty.

      On the other hand, we have before us their signed statements claiming that they are Trinitarians. Perhaps I would like to have seen it sooner (like, years ago). Perhaps I would like to see it stronger (like, video of the three of them burning some sort of modalist flag or something). But the fact remains that everything Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean have ever said publicly about the nature of the godhead has been Trinitarian in its nature.

      The only way I know to conclude that they are lying is to do so by intuition, unless there exists somewhere more evidence than I have seen.

    2. We can state that we do not have enough evidence to conclude one way or the other and can continue to hold these men at arm's length as potential heretics until they provide something more to our liking. And yet, would we be just in doing so? This ministry has affirmed the BF&M 2000. Have all of the speakers and singers at YOUR state evangelism conference done so? Dare I ask whether all of the full-time ministry employees of your state convention have done so?

      There's a fine line between discernment and skepticism. I have to watch out for that line myself. But when I step back and take a look at the situation with these three men, I've heard more Trinitarianism from them than I have from most of the bloggers whom I admire and read. I've heard more Trinitarianism from them than I heard from a number of my college and seminary professors. I've heard more Trinitarianism from them than I find in the content of a year's worth of sermons from a lot of our Southern Baptist churches. Unless I'm prepared to sally forth to war against all of those folks, I have to ask myself whether I'm right in asking these three men to affirm Trinitarianism yet again in a yet another way.

    3. We can celebrate their conversion to Trinitarian Christianity, which is the Christianity of Christ, the Christianity of the New Testament, and the only true Christianity that there is. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention takes doctrine seriously. The churches of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, if they did not find doctrine to be important, could have found plenty of a-theological Baptist associationalism…elsewhere. That's why weeks and weeks ago this question was settled before Phillips, Craig, & Dean ever earned a spot on the program. We are a biblically-based, confessional fellowship of Southern Baptist churches. That's who we are, and that's how we conduct our ministries.

      But we are also a fellowship of churches who believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead people to all truth. We believe in the gospel. We believe in redemption. We believe in affirming people who confess the true faith and in receiving them as brothers. After all, apart from that kind of a reception, we know we would all still be on the outside.

      We're not afraid to ask anybody any question about the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. We're also not unwilling to accept their good answers at face value apart from evidence to suggest that we should not do so. After all, if we would not do that, how on earth could we ever help heretics to come home? And wouldn't we rather win them to the truth than to defeat them?

9 comments:

Tim G said...

Bart,
Thank you for writing this. You have, as always, been very gracious in your post. As I shared with a few today, PC&D are on my iPod and will remain. I think their contributions to the Conference will be spot on! Common sense and decency is always better than skepticism and destruction!

Well done!

Jordan said...

In a Convention where salvation can be had by saying a prayer, I suppose it's not too far-fetched that years of heresy can be renounced by signing a doctrinal statement to play a gig. Thanks for stellar discernment.

Bart Barber said...

Jordan,

Let me get this straight: If you encountered someone for whom you had never been able to find a single statement that he had made espousing modalism. All you could find was documentation that he had grown up in a family that espoused modalism, had friends who had espoused modalism, had attended churches that had espoused modalism, but you'd never found a single quote purporting to be from him espousing modalism. So, you encounter this person and ask, "Hey, are you a modalist?" In reply, this person denies that he is a modalist, affirms a Trinitarian faith statement, puts it in writing, and signs his name to it. Now, you're telling me that you would not be satisfied by that?

I see that you've given us only your first name. Is your last name Torquemada?

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, Tim.

Robin Foster said...

Thanks Bart for clearing this.

Robin

Jordan said...

Bart, I commend your research, but it's not complete. Please view the resources made available by AOMIN.org. To say that they've never made modalistic statements and the "assumption" that the group is anti-Trinitarian is pure conjecture is wholly inaccurate. Secondly, when dealing with Modalists, you need to understand that they will always use and embrace Trinitarian language (as TD Jakes did at Elephant Room 2) and still hold the Modalist heresy in subtle linguistic nuances. Until Phillips, Craig and Dean are no longer associated with Oneness Pentacostal churches, I've no reason to believe they've left Oneness Pentacostal doctrine. But eh...they signed a statement. I'm sure that settles it.

Bart Barber said...

Jordan,

Totally content for you to post a link to whichever is the most damning evidence you can find. If you've got them in their own words recently affirming modalism, then I will with sadness change my position.

My point is simple: They didn't just "use and embrace Trinitarian language"; they rejected "modalism, a.k.a Sabellianism." Q: What do you call someone who (a) explicitly rejects modalism and (b) explicitly affirms a Trinitarian statement of faith? A: I call them a Trinitarian.

Contemporary believers didn't want to believe that the Apostle Paul had been converted. After all, they had invested so much in being afraid of him or being angry at him. To accept his conversion amounted to taking a MUCH greater risk than you take by accepting PC&D's rejection of modalism and embrace of Trinitarianism at face value. But praise God people like Barnabas accepted him anyway. At moments like that you learn who really believes in the gospel and its power to transform lives.

If they're lying, if they start teaching modalism somewhere, then I'll anathematize them and condemn them and rebut them and refute them right alongside all other orthodox believers. And you know what, Jordan? Taking them at their word today will not make it one iota more difficult to condemn them on that day should it come.

But what it does accomplish here and now is (a) I don't run the risk of anathematizing someone who genuinely HAS embraced Trinitarianism, which is a risk that you are seriously taking right now, (b) I don't discourage other people who are questioning modalism and are considering the move to Trinitarianism by leading them to believe that they will encounter people like you who, I suspect, would not be satisfied if they got a tattoo of Athanasius on their right biceps and would never be accepted into Trinitarian churches because of their past, (c) I don't confuse fellow Trinitarian believers who might not be able to learn what the real line between Trinitarianism and heresy is if we move it every time someone of whom we are suspicious provides the latest demonstration of their orthodoxy.

The church fathers made simple tests of Trinitarian orthodoxy: Affirm this; deny that. They did not say, affirm this, and then if I'm not convinced by the way you affirm it, affirm this extra something I've made up.

chuck said...

I came out of this Oneness tradition. If you want to know what a person is, Trinitarian or modalist(Oneness folks all deny being Sabellians or Modalist, they really don't accept those labels,they don't believe they apply to what and how they believe.)Just ask them how is one to be baptized. In the name of Jesus or in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit? Also ask them if one can be saved without being baptized in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues? If they are oneness,in their definition of oneness, it will be in the name of Jesus and baptized in the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues to be saved. No Trinitarian person would ever answer this way.

Denilio Gorena said...

Grateful for the leadership of our SBTC. Thanks for this post, Bart!