Et Cetera

Affirmations of Ignorance: SBC, LCMS

Well, this was intended to be some “Quick Shots” from the hip, but I rambled as usual.  No clever introduction.

The debate over Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention is a good thing, though I doubt (from experience elsewhere, more on that below) that greater unity will result.

Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern and a thoughtful, outspoken Calvinist, has written an irenic response to the oddly titled “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.”  With great respect, however, I disagree with Dr. Mohler when he says that “The presence of more than one tradition and stream of doctrinal influence has been healthy for Southern Baptists.”  That cannot be the case unless the felix culpa, as it were, is the heresy that leads to a clearer confession of faith.  Dr. Mohler’s  response is magnanimous, a trait not evident in his opponents’ statement.  But I think his emphasis on the dangers of tribalism hits the wrong note, considering what’s at stake is soteriology itself.

Then again, this multitude of “streams” is one reason why the SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

I am neither a Calvinist nor a Southern Baptist, though I once was both.  Looking back, I cannot imagine “walking together” under a synodical umbrella with folks who disagree on such fundamental doctrinal issues.  I understand the plea for unity (our Lord prayed for it) over against contentious tribalism.  But the “Doctrines of Grace” are more than esoterica.

I can’t help but think that the very title “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” must irk the author of By His Grace and For His Glory.  My old professor Dr. Tom Nettles knew a thing or two about Baptist history (understatement of the year), and the notion that the “traditional” view of Southern Baptists is Arminianism represents, at best, a degradation of language, or what C.S. Lewis called the “death of words.”  Every Baptist should read Dr. Nettles’ book.

There is no nice way to say this, which I regret: The “Statement of the Traditional SB Understanding” is an affirmation of ignorance.  Dr. Mohler indicates as much, taking a cue from Luther’s Small Catechism and putting the best construction on its signatories, who, he insists, undoubtedly know better.  For example, the Statement’s attack on Calvinism as being by nature “anti-missionism” (what a word) simply doesn’t stand up to the witness of history.

Mohler also refers to a tendency toward Pelagianism in the document, and surely this is one example:

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Now the bit about “free will” is standard fare from Arminians and Roman Catholics, though perhaps for different reasons.  But the rest of the first sentence is nothing short of a denial of Original Sin—which, by the way, seems de rigueur for the Orthodox today, for whom the words “Augustine” and “Anselm” cannot be spoken without a disapproving sigh.  It is also interesting that the same folks who insist that “all” means “all” when it comes to the atonement can so vigorously deny that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18) includes children.

I say “affirmation of ignorance,” though, because of the tone of the statement, and here’s where the current state of my own denomination, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, comes in.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Yet typically the non-traditional, non-confessional side in these sorts of debates pretends that the doctrines at stake are at once nonessential and nefarious.  They make a remarkable claim, then include a bevy of bare Biblical references, as if the length of the list of chapter and verse indicates a right interpretation.

These things in current contention have been discussed and debated before, many times.  And in the past, both sides knew of the existence of each of those verses and had much to say about all of them.

Similar claims about “anti-missional attitudes” are being made by the self-described “moderates” in the LCMS.  As we approach our Synodical Convention, we’re seeing thinly veiled political messages disguised as appeals for compassion for unbelievers.  One of our district presidents recently sent out a letter stumping for the Rev. David Maier for Synodical President, whom he describes (circuitously) as

  • “seeking to engage the culture in conversation in an effort to introduce more people to the love of God in Jesus Christ – making a witness for the Gospel to those who don’t know Him yet”
  • “looking for points of contact with the culture in an effort to initiate conversation”
  • “invested in opportunities”
  • “follows a paradigm of empowerment”

Whereas the current, conservative President Harrison he describes (though again, circuitously) as one who

  • “sees the church as reacting against the culture—making a defense for the Gospel before those with whom we disagree”
  • “depends upon an approach that attempts to contain the influence of the culture on the church”
  • “is invested in setting limits”
  • “has the challenge of missed opportunities and communicating a message of judgment”
  • “paints the picture of the church doing battle with the culture in the public square”

Here as with the SBC, the LCMS is embroiled in a debate, but one side is not actually addressing the issues at hand.  Instead it makes assumptions about the sinister motives of the other side, then argues against those obviously evil intentions—all the while bracketing the non-discussion with the Wonder Bread of innocent differences of opinion.  “To be fair, there are pitfalls and blessings involved in both [sides].”  Yes, and to be fair, Mussolini made the trains run on time.

The “engage the culture” folks in the LCMS, with their screens and monitors and relevant everything and “practical messages” and strategies and ministry coaches and undisguised contempt for liturgy simply assume that their program as a whole is, de facto and de jure, Biblical evangelism.  Therefore, anyone who denies their program (whether because of taste in pop music or a persnickety need to keep doctrine pure, like a Φαρισαῖος) will “miss opportunities” to preach the Gospel and, most likely, “communicate a message of judgment.”

That is a serious, serious charge.

Which reminds me of my original point: If such is the belief of the anti-traditionalists, why do they not want to separate from the traditionalists?  Why not secede, so as to lay aside the weight of the “anti-missional” doctrine-obsessed curmudgeons?  Unless, as with other secessionist movements, the enemy is deemed too evil to be allowed to exist and remain?

One Comment

  • Jeff Anderson

    Hegel’s children, it seems, like their places in church pews as much as their podiums in lecture halls. Of course, as long as “synthesis” means “my side wins.” A loss of appreciation for the meaning of words and the innate value of history is a hallmark of the Church in our time. That is a tough go for a faith based on a text like the Bible.

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