Some Observations About a Prisoned Bible

January 18, 2018

By Stephen Presley
Associate Professor of Church History and Director of the Center for the Study of Early Christianity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at Theological Matters and is used by permission.

It was the first day of my Bible Study Methods class … in prison. After passing through all the security checkpoints, I entered a musty room filled with 40 convicted felons in white jump suits, ready to study the Bible.

During my first few years at Southwestern, I was fortunate enough to teach in our prison degree program. It’s a four-year intensive program in Bible and Christian ministry that resides at the Darrington Unit, a maximum security state penitentiary south of Houston.

I began the first lecture with an introduction to the inductive method of Bible study, but I didn’t realize they were way ahead of me. From the first days of incarceration, the Bible is everywhere. I recall speaking with one student who described how, after sentencing, he was locked in a cell with only a Bible for three days. For the first couple of days, he just sulked in the consequences of his sin and questioned the justice of the system. Finally, by the third day, beleaguered by loneliness and too many nagging theological questions, he decided, like Augustine, to “take up and read.” And read, he did. For hours. Just the Bible.

This experience is not unique and, in many ways, captures the place of the Bible in the prison culture. Their seclusion affords them the opportunity to read the Bible alone—over and over and over again.

As I began teaching them the Bible, I was surprised to find that there was little need to rehearse the events or characters of Scripture. They knew most of them by heart. I can recall many proudly showing off their Bibles to me, pages tattered and note-scarred. Countless verses marked up with circles and lines crisscrossing in every direction, like the frantic white-board drawings of a football coach at half-time.

The inmates can certainly acquire other books, just not very easily. And even if they pick up the latest commentary or Bible study, they have little extra storage space to hold them. So they simply read the Bible.

In the free world, as the world outside of prison is often called, we love to read books about the Bible like commentaries, study guides, or Bible backgrounds. We devour Christian living books and read everything about “biblical” love, marriage, sex, parenting, preaching, teaching, small groups, and church growth models. All good things, but not the sacred words of divine revelation. If we are honest, I wonder how much time we spend reading and studying everything about the Bible, rather than the Bible itself.

Not only is Scripture cherished and valued by these prison students, but before the end of my first few lectures, I realized that their context had already prepared them for the first step of the inductive method: observation.

At a break in the class, one of the students approached the podium to introduce himself. He started the conversation, saying, “So, how long you been married?” Taken aback, I said “How did you know I was married?” He pointed sheepishly to the ring on my finger, and I laughed, “Of course.”

We talked a bit about my family and his family on the outside. Then I cautiously asked him what else he could tell about me just from observing. He described how, in a prison culture, careful observation is your best friend. When I walked into that classroom, every one of them was sizing me up, analyzing my clothes, shoes, the ring on my finger, and even the leather briefcase I carried. They knew more about me than I ever imagined. I will never forget the end of our conversation, when the student remarked that good observation skills keep an inmate alive and healthy. I shared this story with the whole class a few minutes later and implored them to take all the observation skills honed through their years of incarceration and apply them to the Bible.

With this habit of observation, these students were well on their way to good Bible interpretation. As Howard Hendricks was fond of saying, “The more time you spend in observation, the less time you will need to spend in interpretation.”[1] They understood implicitly the importance of reading Scripture closely. Every word, every term, every syllable. This kind of close observation of Scripture has been described as intensive reading, where Christian readers explore “countless scripture details with an eye toward assembling a full and complete picture.”[2]

This is not to say that the prison students understood everything in the Bible rightly. Far from it. Just like everyone else, they came to Scripture with unique presuppositions shaped by their context and experience. It would take years of listening to them, reading their papers, and hearing them interpret the Bible to understand the ways their isolation from society shapes their interpretation in both positive and negative ways.

But in my experience, their struggle was not biblical literacy, but good Biblical theology. They knew all the lyrics of Scripture, but they, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), needed someone to come along and teach the theological melody that tied all the words together in Christ. But we would get to all that later in the course.

I wrapped up class that morning and walked out of prison, astonished that I’d just entered a world where the Bible and the Bible alone was cherished and studied and where they implicitly practiced careful observation. I was amazed at the way that the prison culture reminded me of these important virtues of biblical interpretation and excited about the rest of the course.
But before I did anything else, I decided to head home and just spend a little time reading the Bible closely.

[1]Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks, Living By the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 39.
[2]John J. Okeefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 45.

Born Haters of God? The Calvinists View of Humanity is Too High

January 16, 2018

By Leighton Flowers
Director of Apologetics for Texas Baptists

Editor’s Note: This article appeared at soteriology101 and is used by permission.

Calvinists teach that all of humanity are born God haters due to their fallen condition and can do nothing except reject the good news brought by the Spirit because of their innate animosity toward their Creator. Even God’s own appeals for reconciliation are insufficient to enable a fallen person to respond freely according to this particular kind of “Reformed Theology.”  For instance, Calvinistic scholar Albert Mohler gave his exposition on Romans 1:18-32 by teaching, in part:

“Paul’s story of universal human sinfulness and depravity is our story. In these words, we discover the explanation of how it is that we find ourselves in this condition of sinfulness… Every single human being is part of the intellectual activity described here. All descendants of Adam are involved in the suppression of ‘truth in unrighteousness’… This text is about humanity. The verb tense in the phrase ‘God gave’ is past tense — this has already happened. God has given humanity over. The apostle Paul includes everyone in the indictment as he describes the giving over of all of humanity to sinfulness”…

Theologically, this is referred to as the noetic consequences of the fall. The phrase ‘noetic effects’ refers to the intellectual consequences of sin. John Calvin said there were three great causes of this noetic disaster…<link>

Mohler continues in this message to describe Calvin’s doctrine of “Total Inability,” the belief that all of humanity is born morally incapable of responding positively to any appeal of God unless they are first regenerated by an “irresistible” or “effectual” work of grace (i.e. the “T” and “I” of the “TULIP” soteriology).

In other words, Mohler believes people must be born again (regenerated) before they can believe in God’s own appeals to be reconciled through faith in Christ (i.e. pre-faith regeneration). Mohler and other Calvinists are convinced that God’s gracious work in sending His Son, the Spirit, the Apostles, the Scripture, His Bride and the Gospel appeal needs yet another gracious work (an “irresistible work”) to be sufficient to enable a positive response.  Does God’s gracious work need more grace to work? And must God’s gracious gifts be irresistibly applied for Him to get full credit for giving them? Apparently Calvinists believe so.

What Mohler and Calvinists in general fail to recognize is that Paul is contrasting “the righteous who live by faith” in Rom. 1:17 with those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” in vs 18. Paul is not attempting to say that every human has continually suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, traded the truth in for lies, been given over to their defiled minds, become homosexuals and approve of all who do these sinful acts.  Paul is attempting to demonstrate how all people (both the Jews with the direct revelation of God’s law and the Gentiles with only their inborn conscience) have broken the commandments of God and thus may only attain righteous by grace through faith in God and not by meritorious deeds.

KEY POINT: Proof that no one is morally capable of attaining righteous by works of the law is not proof that no one is morally capable of believing in God so as to be credited as righteous by His gracious provision through Christ.

A common objection against our Traditional free will theology is that “it exalts mankind” because it maintains mankind’s moral ability-to-respond to God’s appeals (i.e. “responsibility”).  We regularly hear Calvinists accusing our view of “stealing God’s glory and exalting humanity,” but is this a fair accusation?  Let’s objectively examine the natural (lost/un-regenerate) man of each system and you decide which perspective really has the “lower” view of the natural man:


The Non-Elect Unbelievers (“reprobate”) who die in rebellion:

? Were born hated and rejected by God (speaking salvifically)

? Were born incapable of morally accepting God’s own appeals to repent

? Were born with a nature that could only hate God, just as he was first hated by God

? Live their entire lives incapable of willingly repenting in response to God’s revelation

The Calvinistic view of God in relation to those (“reprobate”) who die in unbelief:

? Hated and rejected the reprobates before the creation of the world

? Refused to grant the reprobates the ability to repent to His own appeals and then judged them for their unwillingness to repent in light of Christ’s word

One can only feel pity for the non-elect reprobate of the Calvinistic system. They are born victims of God’s eternal decree and without hope of salvation. The only thing more devastating than a lost soul is a lost soul without anyone looking for her or providing her hope of being found.

On Calvinism the reprobate (most of humanity) are born in a hopeless and helpless condition which is beyond their control. They are born rejected and unloved by their own Creator. How devastating is this!? This is not good news! This is horrific and terrible news!

The good news is that our God is good! Because He is good we know that no child is born unloved by their Creator, rejected by their Maker, or unwanted by their God.

“God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8)

“The Lord is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all, And His mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9).

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:3-6).

Our God loves and wants the aborted, abandoned and unwanted children of this earth. He saves the weak and humble because He is gracious and kind (Ps 18:27).

In many ways, the reprobate on Calvinism is like the clinically insane in our own judicial system. The unfortunate people born with mental illness who literally cannot control their behaviors due to tumors, chemical imbalances or other similar ailments may be declared “insane” and hospitalized, but our judicial system still recognizes their “innocence” due to their incapacities. The court’s ruling of “innocent by reason of insanity” relates to this contrast because it points to the true nature of what makes a man responsible and thus blameworthy.

How do you feel about a judge who sends a mentally ill criminal to the electric chair for committing a crime that he literally could not have refrained from committing? How do you view that criminal? In this scenario the judge is painted in a very bad light and the criminal is seen as a victim of sorts. In contrast, if the criminal is shown to have committed a premeditated crime with malice and full responsibility as a sane person, the judge seems much more just and the criminal far more guilty.

For this reason, a good District Attorney seeking a guilty conviction would vehemently argue that the defendant was of “sound mind” and “had the capacity to refrain from the criminal behavior” for which he stands trial.

So too, the Traditionalist, like myself, stands to make a parallel argument against all unbelievers who end up in Hell. The lost unbeliever cannot resort to the defense of “Total Inability.” Those perishing in Hell cannot rightly say, “I was born hated and rejected by my Maker, unable to choose otherwise,” or “The revelation of God, even through the powerful truth of the gospel, was insufficient to enable me to willingly respond in faith.” The lost do not have any excuses for their unbelief (Rom 1:20). And I cannot think of any better excuse than that provided by the teaching of Calvinists regarding the incapacity of man’s nature to respond willingly to God Himself.

Unbelievers are guilty of unbelief because it is their responsibility (read “ability to respond”) to believe God’s gracious and abundantly clear revelation. To remove that ability (moral or otherwise) is to undermine their guilt and God’s justice. So, let’s look at the condition of the natural man on Traditionalism in contrast to the Calvinistic worldview:


The Unbelievers who die in rebellion:

? Were born sinners under wrath, but loved and wanted by God nonetheless

? Were born capable of morally accepting God’s gracious appeals to repent

? Were born with a nature that could either respond in love or hatred to God’s provision of self-sacrifical love and atonement

? Live their entire lives freely rejecting God’s revelation though they have no excuse for doing so because they had the capacity to morally respond in faith

The Traditionalists view of God in relation to those who die in unbelief:

? Loved and provided the means of salvation for them all

? Graciously granted all the ability to repent to His own appeals and then judged them for their choice to rebel or repent in light of Christ’s word (see John 12:47-48)

Those who perish only perish because the refused to love the truth so as to be saved (2 Thess. 2:11).  The lost cannot claim they were rejected by their own Maker before they were born. They cannot say they were unloved or not provided the necessary grace needed to believe and be saved! They were not born haters of God who couldn’t have chosen to do otherwise because of a divine unchangeable decree prior to the creation of the world.

Watch the video below for a quick answer to the question, “Are all people born haters of God?”

NOTICE: This is not a new argument against deterministic views, by any means.  In fact, in the first and second century we have record of the Earliest Church Fathers making this same case:

Irenaeus (AD 120-202): (He was a student of Polycarp, who in turn was traditionally known to be a disciple of John the Evangelist.)

“God therefore has given that which is good, as the apostle tells us in this Epistle, and they who work it shall receive glory and honor, because they have done that which is good when they had it in their power not to do it; but those who do it not shall receive the just judgment of God, because they did not work good when they had it in their power so to do.

But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for such were they created; nor would the former be reprehensible, for thus they were made [originally]. But since all men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good; and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it, — some do justly receive praise even among men who are under the control of good laws (and much more from God), and obtain deserved testimony of their choice of good in general, and of persevering therein; but the others are blamed, and receive a just condemnation, because of their rejection of what is fair and good. And therefore the prophets used to exhort men to what was good, to act justly and to work righteousness, as I have so largely demonstrated, because it is in our power so to do, and because by excessive negligence we might become forgetful, and thus stand in need of that good counsel which the good God has given us to know by means of the prophets. … No doubt, if any one is unwilling to follow the Gospel itself, it is in his power [to reject it], but it is not expedient. For it is in man’s power to disobey God, and to forfeit what is good; but [such conduct] brings no small amount of injury and mischief. … But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will, in whose likeness man was created, advice is always given to him to keep fast the good, which thing is done by means of obedience to God.(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. IV, 37)

Justin Martyr (AD 110-165)

“But lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever happens, happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But that it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble, we thus demonstrate. We see the same man making a transition to opposite things. Now, if it had been fated that he were to be either good or bad, he could never have been capable of both the opposites, nor of so many transitions. But not even would some be good and others bad, since we thus make fate the cause of evil, and exhibit her as acting in opposition to herself; or that which has been already stated would seem to be true, that neither virtue nor vice is anything, but that things are only reckoned good or evil by opinion; which, as the true word shows, is the greatest impiety and wickedness. But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made.” (Justin, First Apology, XLIII)

Tertullian (AD 145-220)

“In order, therefore, that man might have a goodness of his own, bestowed on him by God, and there might be henceforth in man a property, and in a certain sense a natural attribute of goodness, there was assigned to him in the constitution of his nature, as a formal witness of the goodness which God bestowed upon him, freedom and power of the will, such as should cause good to be performed spontaneously by man, as a property of his own, on the ground that no less than this would be required in the matter of a goodness which was to be voluntarily exercised by him, that is to say, by the liberty of his will, without either favor or servility to the constitution of his nature, so that man should be good just up to this point, if he should display his goodness in accordance with his natural constitution indeed, but still as the result of his will, as a property of his nature; and, by a similar exercise of volition, should show himself to be too strong in defense against evil also (for even this God, of course, foresaw), being free, and master of himself; because, if he were wanting in this prerogative of self-mastery, so as to perform even good by necessity and not will, he would, in the helplessness of his servitude, become subject to the usurpation of evil, a slave as much to evil as to good. Entire freedom of will, therefore, was conferred upon him in both tendencies; so that, as master of himself, he might constantly encounter good by spontaneous observance of it, and evil by its spontaneous avoidance; because, were man even otherwise circumstanced, it was yet his bounden duty, in the judgment of God, to do justice according to the motions of his will regarded, of course, as free. But the reward neither of good nor of evil could be paid to the man who should be found to have been either good or evil through necessity and not choice. In this really lay the law which did not exclude, but rather prove, human liberty by a spontaneous rendering of obedience, or a spontaneous commission of iniquity; so patent was the liberty of man’s will for either issue. Since, therefore, both the goodness and purpose of God are discovered in the gift to man of freedom in his will, it is not right, after ignoring the original definition of goodness and purpose which it was necessary to determine previous to any discussion of the subject, on subsequent facts to presume to say that God ought not in such a way to have formed man, because the issue was other than what was assumed to be proper for God. We ought rather, after duly considering that it behooved God so to create man, to leave this consideration unimpaired, and to survey the other aspects of the case. It is, no doubt, an easy process for persons who take offence at the fall of man, before they have looked into the facts of his creation, to impute the blame of what happened to the Creator, without any examination of His purpose. To conclude: the goodness of God, then fully considered from the beginning of His works, will be enough to convince us that nothing evil could possibly have come forth from God; and the liberty of man will, after a second thought, show us that it alone is chargeable with the fault which itself committed.” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Bk. II, ch. vi)

HERE we also discuss the glory of God and the accusation that Traditionalism seeks to steal it somehow.

The Joyful Life of A Pastor’s Wife Part 6: Social Networking.

January 15, 2018

By Kara Barnette, Pastor’s Wife
Faith Baptist Church Faith, NC

My children have no idea how satisfying life was before the internet.  

They’ll never understand the grandeur of doing a research paper at the library, engulfed by the fragrant, musty odor of old books and surrounded by the sound of silence.  They cannot comprehend the anticipation one feels waiting to get home to play Pac Man on Atari rather than playing apps anywhere at any time. My children know not the splendor of spending a day shopping at the mall in your trendiest stonewashed jeans, culminating in a food court feast of Sbarro’s pizza… rather than just buying things on the couch in your pajamas and waiting for the stuff to show-up on your porch five to seven business days later. In a heartless cardboard box, no less. Continue reading

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