I had hoped to attend the John 3:16 conference, but the vagaries of court dockets prevented me from being able to schedule any firm out-of-town plans in that date range. As things now stand, the aftermath of the conference, which I've discovered this morning, may have turned out to be as interesting as the event itself. One thing we bloggers have created within SBC life is that our great events are now akin to Presidential debates—immediately after the event itself we all enter the spin room, and the public remembrance of what happened is shaped more by the post-event interpretation than by the event itself. As bloggers, we'll have to decide for ourselves whether we've improved the SBC by that development.
I find that the warmest spot of contention arises between two men whom I know and with whom I have cooperated: Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and Dr. Thomas Ascol. As many of you will recall, Dr. Ascol, Dr. Yarnell, and I cooperated in a last-minute partnership to accomplish a good resolution on Regenerate Church Membership at the 2008 SBC Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, IN. The last-minute partnership in Indianapolis was the culmination of several weeks of emailing one another to work out some means of cooperation on this matter. I do not offer myself as the best friend or leading expert on the beliefs or temperaments of either of these men. I freely confess that I know Malcolm better and love him more than I do Tom, although I suggest that the latter truth is merely the consequence of the former, and not the result of any disfavor I have toward Tom. So now you know my biases, and now you know the basis of my observations.
And here are my observations:
Dr. Ascol and Dr. Yarnell affirm mutually incompatible ideas. If they offend one another, it is not because they are offensive people. Neither one, it seems to me, is trying to hound the other out of the SBC (some stupid comments from the sidelines to the contrary notwithstanding). But they are passionate thinkers thinking different things. I've watched close-at-hand while the both of them have shown their heart for Christian unity and harmonious fellowship. But although these men have the hearts of ecumenists, they have the minds of theologians. Unfortunately, most contemporary ecumenism boils down to ignoring the vast majority of other things that Christ said in an effort to obey His wishes for the unity of the church. These men want to be obedient to all of what Christ said, and therefore their differences in thought are their whiskers—possibly attractive at a distance, but scratchier the more firmly you hug.
Their mutually incompatible ideas are more than four hundred years old. These scholars have embraced two different streams that flow into the Baptist river: the English Presbyterians on the one hand and the Continental Anabaptists on the other hand. OK, perhaps it is a bad metaphor to call them streams flowing into our river, because each continued to flow on its own, although each is legitimately a tributary to seventeenth-century Baptist thought.
What's more, these are important ideas. Although Calvinism is not the gospel, it certainly touches upon the gospel and has implications for the gospel. Surely we'll all have to concede that the question "For whom did Christ die on the cross?" is at least an order of magnitude more important than "Those strange sounds that guy is making over there: Do you think that they are an utterance of the Holy Spirit, or just something that he made up?" The latter is not an unimportant question (especially to the guy who vehemently asserts that his made up something is an utterance of the Holy Spirit), but it is not nearly as important as the former.
So, I think we dishonor these men and deceive others if we pretend that they just have a personality conflict or a disagreeable spirit or that they are just arguing over trivial, unimportant matters.
Calvinism, in its essence, is offensive to those who are not Calvinists. Arminianism, in its essence, is offensive to those who are not Arminians. Both, in their essence, are offensive to those who are neither. So, should we really be that surprised that Dr. Ascol was offended by the John 3:16 conference or whatever else? If inclined to do so, I could take great offense at Dr. Ascol's most recent post around which so much of this controversy has centered:
Terminology matters, so let me quickly assert that what I mean by "Calvinism" is exactly what the great Southern Baptist statesman, John Broadus, meant when he wrote,
The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin's opinions or actions, but I do not see how any one who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches.
What we are talking about is the sovereignty of God in salvation including unconditional election, total depravity of sinful nature, definite atonement of particular sinners by the death of Christ, the monergistic work of the Spirit in regeneration and the preserving grace of God operating in the life of every believer.
Taken at its plain meaning, Dr. Ascol has asserted that anyone who is anything less than a five-pointer has rejected what is nothing more than Pauline theology. That's not only Dr. Yarnell, Dr. Vines, Dr. Allen, myself, but it is also, for example, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's Dr. Russ Moore (not so sure, last I checked, that Limited Atonement—"definite atonement of particular sinners by the death of Christ" in Calvinist-speak—is the plain and simple theology of the Apostle Paul).
I do not believe that Dr. Ascol misspoke, because I sincerely believe that Dr. Ascol believes precisely that. He believes that Limited Atonement is biblical. Personally, I don't know how on earth he comes to that conclusion, but I believe that he does. Now, here's my choice: I can take offense that Tom would believe such a thing or would say such a thing, or I can shed all of this twenty-first-century victim mentality, grow up a bit, and reconcile myself to the fact that people just disagree about these things. People aren't trying to offend me; it is just that their ideas offer me the opportunity to take offense any time I so desire.
But what if I don't so desire? I can give Dr. Ascol the right to articulate his beliefs clearly and accurately. I can acknowledge his right to gather around himself a group of people who agree with him and to enjoy fellowship with them. I can acknowledge his right and the right of his group to seek to promote their beliefs. And I can acknowledge that in doing so Dr. Ascol is not going out of his way to denigrate me. He's trying to promote his ideas. Where our ideas differ, a contest of ideas may well ensue. Ideas matter and are personal, so there will likely be some personal feelings involved. But Dr. Ascol does not advance his ideas in order to attack those who disagree. The attack upon those who disagree is merely a consequence of his passionate advocacy of his ideas.
Consciously to affirm the reception to the Lord's Supper of one not immersed as a believer is to act in disagreement with The Baptist Faith & Message. Long before I was alive and long after I'm in Heaven (if Jesus tarries) people will continue to argue about which position on the extent of the Supper is the biblical position, but the wording of the BF&M is pretty clear. Not everyone has paid close enough attention to realize that fact, but there's little room for debate as to what the BF&M actually says. I think that Dr. Ascol realizes that, and that's why he's understandably keeping his cards pretty close to his vest about the policy of the church that he pastors.
There's no way on earth that Malcolm Yarnell affirms Servetus's lapses from Christian orthodoxy. I think that this little twist is the height of irony, although it probably isn't that funny either to Dr. Ascol or to Dr. Yarnell. The false claim that people hurl willy-nilly against Dr. Yarnell is that he's a Landmarker…that he somehow equates "Baptist" with "Christian." This little terminology brew-ha-ha illustrates that Dr. Yarnell does not hold that point of view. You can be a Baptist and not be a Christian. Servetus, it appears, was one of those (and the category is a large one, my friends).
So, it just strikes me as funny that Dr. Ascol, and not Dr. Yarnell, is the one equating "Baptist" with "Christian"—asserting that since Dr. Yarnell called Servetus a Baptist he must have been regarding him as an orthodox Christian. Pardon me for putting words into Dr. Yarnell's mouth, but it seems to me that he was saying that Servetus shouldn't have been a Baptist, but nevertheless was one. In other words, he should have been put out of the church for his heresy, but he shouldn't have been burned at the stake.
I think that we all ought to leave room for mystery in our understanding of what happens when we are converted. I remain unconvinced by both Dort and the Remonstrants (because each strays, IMHO, from the plain teaching of the Bible). But each system does remind us of important biblical truths at certain points. As I have said before, I thank God for Calvinists, although I am not one. I love the many Calvinists I listed in that post, in the way that we can historically love someone whom we have never met. But in my love for them I acknowledge that the Bible leaves these many questions in some state of tension, and I choose to strive someday to understand what these great Calvinists-gone-by know now rather than slavishly devoting myself to what they thought that they knew when they were here.