Of Statements and Signatures
Recently, a group of pastors, professors, and other leaders posted “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” at www.sbctoday.com. Signing their own names to the statement, the authors encourage other Southern Baptists to read and also sign. The statement aims to “reflect the beliefs of the majority of Southern Baptists, who are not Calvinists” by outlining, in some detail, an approach to the doctrine of salvation from a non-Calvinist point of view. Obviously, any Baptist or group thereof may freely compose doctrinal statements, given their nonbinding nature on any other Baptist or group of Baptists. The statement’s articles of biblical interpretation and historical portrayal are sure to be debated extensively. Beyond its bare convictions, though, the statement raises other—perhaps larger—issues concerning the manner in which Christians agree and disagree with one another within the bounds of evangelical, Baptist orthodoxy.
The statement’s preamble specifically targets a group it labels “New Calvinists,” bemoaning their “aggressive insistence on the ‘Doctrines of Grace’” and their “goal of making Calvinism the central Southern Baptist position on God’s plan of salvation.” In this manner, the document becomes as much an open rebuke to another group as it is a declaration of belief. By signing the document, one not only affirms his or her agreement with its doctrinal articles, but also places himself or herself against another group’s perceived aggression. To sign is to take a side. Such an effort poses problems.
First, no side of the SBC doctrinal conversation has a corner on aggression. I am as frustrated as anyone by insistent, angry young Calvinists and, undoubtedly, some in the “New Calvinist” movement have needlessly injured non-Calvinist brethren. But the road goes both ways, and those of Calvinist convictions have withstood similar misbehavior from Non-Calvinists. I do not refer to myself as a Calvinist, and Calvinism was not a point of controversy in either church I pastored. Yet, I was sometimes labeled—even chastised—simply because I attended a seminary with a Calvinist-friendly reputation. “Heretic,” “unbiblical,” and “hates lost people” were among the terms used, even when my church led our local association in baptisms! These experiences, on both sides, provide anecdotal evidence that our symptom may be theological disagreement, but our disease is divisiveness—sinful and unnecessary divisiveness. God help us.
Second, it appears unwise to sign a document–and encourage others to do the same–that openly castigates another Christian, Baptist persuasion that isn’t heretical. This statement is much, much more than a simple confession of doctrinal convictions by a group of Baptists. If it were, then the preamble (which sets the tone & trajectory) would only state “these are the convictions of traditional, non-Calvinist Southern Baptists,” without directly addressing another group—especially a group whose convictions fall within Baptist boundaries, both doctrinally and historically. Theologically speaking, it is an error to befriend the gospel’s enemy, but it is also wrong to detest the gospel’s friend. Let’s discuss our differences openly, even vigorously, but let’s keep the fight where it belongs—in the trenches, engaged in the battle for souls.
Third, the articles of the statement go too far in their attempt to specify an inherently mysterious area of theology. The gospel is simple, but the doctrine of salvation is complex (and often tricky!). Christians have debated these issues for millennia. This statement tries to settle that which isn’t settled–it desires to close a debate that isn’t closed. Indeed, the apparent antinomy between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility gives reason for the Baptist Faith & Message (and most historic confessions) to leave wiggle room on these matters. A mentor once told me, “the moment you think you have these doctrines all figured out, you can rest assured you’ve made a mistake.” The most freeing moment of my own theological journey occurred when I found myself comfortable within biblical tensions, refusing to extend human logic beyond the evidence of Scripture.
Charles Spurgeon said, “That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.”
Southern Baptists already have a consensus statement on the doctrine of salvation—The Baptist Faith & Message. The BF&M leaves room for both sides to coexist and cooperate as they have for centuries. To affirm our already-affirmed statement is to maintain the essentials and allow for lively, fruitful conversation within the bounds of Christian, evangelical, Baptist orthodoxy. Drafting and signing more specific, polemically charged statements only robs resources from our real fight.