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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?