Sunday, March 25, 2012

Calvinist, Arminian, Biblicist?

I don't know what to call myself.

I'm clearly neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian. I'm not the former because I entirely and utterly reject Limited Atonement and I am unconvinced of the absolute irresistibility of grace. I am not the latter because I affirm eternal security. It is difficult to state one's disagreement with Arminianism about, for example, election, because there is no one Arminian view of election (so far as I can tell). I believe that there is such a thing as individual election, and I believe that the relationship between individual election and foreknowledge (and there undoubtedly IS a relationship between these two concepts) is beyond my understanding.

Many of my friends would call themselves and someone like me a "Biblicist."

I can see the difficulty with the term. To call myself a biblicist on this particular question is easy to take as an insult. If my position is the biblical one, then where does that leave Calvinism and Arminianism? There is a ring of arrogance about it. It sounds like, "I'm biblical and you're not." It can feel like it needs a requisite "nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah" following close upon its heels.

But maybe that's not the only way for me to view myself as a biblicist. Perhaps, instead of claiming that I am a biblicist because NEITHER of you (my Calvinistic and Arminian friends) have the Bible on your side, I can be claiming that I am a biblicist because BOTH of you do, at least in substantial part. BOTH Calvin AND Arminius were trying to be good biblical theologians (as were Beza and Wesley and many of the whoever else among their myriad respective followers and embellishers). Neither of them were ENTIRELY unsuccessful. They cannot have been perfectly right, the both of them, but then neither is it necessary that they both were perfectly wrong.

And so, here I am, having been persuaded by your sermons and lectures, and books. Here I am, having nodded in agreement with 95% of what you have concluded about the operations of the gospel. Preach from Romans 9 or Hebrews 6, and do it just right, and you can make me squirm uncomfortably in either case. In neither case have I conceded entirely (I hold neither a Calvinistic view of Romans 9 nor an Arminian view of Hebrews 6), but one has to be blind not to see that either passage (as well as quite a few others) poses serious problems for the strictest adherents of one viewpoint or the other. Neither of you have done a good enough job of answering the biblical objections of the other. And that's after four solid centuries of effort. After so many people for so many years in so many books, sermons, lectures, and debates have poured so much effort into this endeavor, am I wrong to conclude that the failure hasn't been for a lack of intelligence, eloquence, time, money, daring, or opportunity? Am I wrong to suspect that the case hasn't been made fully on either side because neither side's case can be made? That the fault lies with the facts and not with the advocates?

I cannot help but do so.

And so, I think there's a GREAT DEAL of Calvinism that ought to be embraced as perfectly biblical, as well as some of Arminianism. The logical side of me—the Mr. Spock in my head—echoes E. Earle Ellis and tells me that, if I would be philosophically consistent, I must be one or the other. I see the philosophical need for that. I really do. Indeed, I don't just see it; I FEEL it.

And yet, I have seen the price of that logical consistency. Portions of the Bible I must bid farewell if I go in either direction. I must bid those portions farewell either by standing on my head hermeneutically to make them say something other than what they clearly seem to say or by relegating them to the category of those passages that I have sworn to my theological system not to preach or otherwise to acknowledge in public. I have seen the price, and I am unwilling to pay it.

Some Calvinists will call me an Arminian. Some Arminians will call me a Calvinist. They're both wrong. And they're both right, if I must abide by their nomenclature. I'm an inconsistent Arminian. I'm an inconsistent Calvinist. I admit it. I am inconsistent in both of those ways because my commitment to being consistently biblical has prevented me from consistency in these areas. That's why I call myself a biblicist.

And in doing so, I confess that I'm probably messing that up. Some Calvinists would say, "If you were really a biblicist, you would become a Calvinist." Some Arminians would say likewise about their position. You know, maybe you're right. Really, maybe you are. When I call myself a biblicist, I'm not attempting to describe some achievement of mine; I'm trying to describe an endeavor of mine. I'm speaking not of my accomplishment, but of my motivation. Perhaps I am not a Calvinist because I am interpreting the Bible wrongly, but what is preventing me from being a Calvinist is truly my attempt to interpret the Bible rightly (even if you think it is the imperfections of that attempt that are "at fault").

"Biblicist" need not be a term that divides us. Maybe, instead, it could become a term that unites us. Yes, there are people on both sides who are so committed to a human theological system that they would consider it betrayal even to consider that the Bible might, in some places, teach things that undermine the absolute certainty of their tenets. But I believe that there are people of good will from various points along this particular theological spectrum whose commitment is to the Bible above any theological system. I believe that there are people who would, when pressed to do so, generally describe themselves as a Calvinist or a Classical Arminian or an Amyraldian, or something else along the continuum, but who would nevertheless humbly concede, "…but there are a few passages in the New Testament that make me really uncomfortable with my position sometimes, and I wish I understood the Bible more clearly about these matters." I believe that many of these are people who can recognize the attempted biblicism of many of their sisters and brothers whose struggles have led them to a different place than their own. Such people deserve to be called biblicists. Certainly this seems to be true of the many people—the enormous number—who have found both the strict Calvinistic and the strict Arminian answers to be insufficient in respecting the whole of the biblical witness and have attempted some sort of a hybrid or a tertium quid in order to make their favored theory more compatible with their understandings of the Bible.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why the Southern Baptist Convention Must Exclude Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church

Christ Tabernacle Misisonary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, has called sex-predator Darrell Gilyard as a pastor. The Jacksonville Baptist Association besought the church to resign its membership from the association, and apparently the church has agreed to withdraw from the JBA (see story in the Florida Baptist Witness).

Southern Baptists are non-connectional. The actions of the local association have no automatic impact upon Christ Tabernacle's relationship with the Florida Baptist Convention or the Southern Baptist Convention. It is imperative that both of these bodies act quickly to encourage this errant church to correct its mistake or to leave Southern Baptist life at all tiers. Following are several reasons why:

  1. Withdrawal of fellowship is the only punitive action open to Southern Baptist cooperative structures. We have no authority to remove Gilyard, to replace the church's leadership, to seize the church's property, or to end the church's existence. Local churches in Southern Baptist life are autonomous. We do, however, have the authority to determine which churches are those with whom we walk in cooperative fellowship. Unless they repent, Christ Tabernacle must be removed from that fellowship.

  2. Church action is the appropriate subject matter for the withdrawal of fellowship. In most cases of sexual misconduct, the congregation is more of a victim than is the association, the state convention, or the SBC. Of course, the actual individual victims have suffered more than the congregation has suffered, but usually the entire congregation has been deceived and wronged. In most cases, the congregation will mourn, grieve, and suffer for years to come for the way that they all have been betrayed. Sister churches should assist and encourage one another in such situations rather than excluding one another.

    In this case, however, the church is not being deceived. with full knowledge of Gilyard's past, Christ Tabernacle is deliberately placing this man in a position to continue his predatory ways.

    Historically, gross error in the selection of pastors has been among the most widely recognized grounds for disfellowshipping churches from Baptist associations. The first Baptist Association in this country, the Philadelphia Baptist Association, gave on the day of its formation this reason for its existence:

    It was then agreed, that a person that is a stranger, that has neither letter of recommendation, nor is known to be a person gifted, and of a good [moral lifestyle], shall not be admitted to preach, nor be entertained as a member in any of the baptized congregations in communion with each other.

    It is a late, flawed idea in Baptist life that a local congregation's decision to call a pastor is no business of the other congregations in fellowship with that church. The PBA later wrote a lengthy essay on "the authority and power of an association of churches" in which they said, in part:

    Independent churches…entering into an agreement and confederation…must be agreeing in doctrine and practice, and independent in their authority and church power, before they can enter into a confederation, as aforesaid, and choose delegates or representatives, to associate together; and thus the several independent churches being the constituents, the association, council or assembly of their delegates, when assembled, is not to be deemed a superior judicature, as having a superintendency over the churches, but subservient to the churches, in what may concern all the churches in general, or any one church in particular; and, though no power can regularly arise above its fountain from where it rises, yet we are of opinion, that an Association of the delegates of associate churches have a very considerable power in their hands, respecting those churches in their confederation; for if the agreement of several distinct churches, in sound doctrine and regular practice, be the first motive, ground, and foundation or basis of their confederation, then it must naturally follow, that a defection in doctrine or practice in any church, in such confederation, or any party in any such church, is ground sufficient for an Association to withdraw from such a church or party so deviating or making defection, and to exclude such from them in some formal manner, and to advertise all the churches in confederation thereof, in order that every church in confederation may withdraw from such in all acts of church communion, to the end they may be ashamed, and that all of the churches may discountenance such, and bear testimony against the defection.

    Such withdrawing from a defective or disorderly church, or that ought to be towards a delinquent church, is such as ariseth from their voluntary confederation aforesaid, and not only from the general duty that is incumbent upon all orthodox persons and churches to do, where no such confederation is entered into, as 2 Cor. vi. 16, 17. Now, from that general duty to withdraw from defective persons or churches, there can no more be done, than to desist from such acts of fellowship as subsisted before the withdrawing, which is merely negative, and in no wise any thing positive. Churches, as they are pillars of truth, may, and ought to endeavor to promote truth among others also; which endeavors, if they prove fruitless, as they are but mystico modo, they may be withdrawn; the withdrawing, therefore, must be accordingly; which is only to cease from future endeavors, leaving the objects as they were or are. But if there be a confederation and incorporation, by mutual and voluntary consent, as the Association of churches must and ought to be, then something positive may and ought to be done; and, though an Association ought not to assume a power to excommunicate or deliver a defective or disorderly church to Satan, as some do claim, yet it is a power sufficient to exclude the delegates of a defective or disorderly church from an Association, and to refuse their presence at their consultations, and to advise all the churches in confederation to do so too…

    -Benjamin Griffith, "Essay," adopted by the Philadelphia Baptist Association on September 19, 1749, in Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, form A.D. 1707, to A.D. 1807; Being the First One Hundred Years of Its Existence, ed. A. D. Gillette (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851; Reprint, Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer), 60-63.

    What any individual member does is a matter for church discipline within the local congregation. What a congregation does is a matter for associational disfellowshipping. The church's action to hire Gilyard is precisely the sort of thing to which Southern Baptist cooperative bodies can and must respond.

  3. Gilyard is not qualified to serve as a pastor-elder-overseer in a Southern Baptist church. Yes, he can be forgiven. Yes, the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient even for gross, detestable sin (indeed, all of our sin is gross and detestable to God). Yes, he needs to be a MEMBER at some church somewhere, and that church needs to help him by keeping a careful watch on him and guiding him toward restoration and spiritual growth.

    However, he is not qualified to be a pastor and will NEVER AGAIN be qualified to be a pastor. He is not above reproach. He is not prudent. He is not respectable. He does not have a good reputation with those outside the church. He does not meet the biblical qualifications. To call him as a pastor is to sin flagrantly against the will of Christ Jesus, the Lord of the Church. Any church that does such a thing and refuses to repent of their action is no church with which FBC Farmersville enjoys or wishes to enjoy fellowship.

  4. Disfellowshipping in this case has started with the local association, and that's how it is SUPPOSED to work. Too many of our local associations are compromised dens of iniquity who can't see their Bibles for having covered it up with the financial statement. The Southern Baptist Convention has had to take the lead in withdrawing fellowship from too many local churches in recent years. State conventions have courageously taken the lead in some circumstances. Local associations need to be the leaders in cases like this. Praise God for Jacksonville Baptist Association. They have done the right thing. The Florida Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention need to act quickly to affirm them in this.

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.