A Response to Dr. Al Mohler
Regarding “A Statement of the Traditional Baptist
Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”
I am appreciative of Dr. Mohler’s willingness to reply to our Statement, and I agree with much of it. He is a statesman whose influence on Southern Baptist life is inestimable, and he is owed a debt of gratitude for his tireless work for the cause of the kingdom. His involvement in this debate is crucial to a God-honoring conclusion. I am thrilled over Dr. Mohler’s affirmation of the necessity of this discussion and his agreement that “it’s time to talk.” The most ubiquitous criticism of the Statement over the last several days has been that it is unnecessarily divisive and that our concerns about Calvinism are contrived. We are thankful that Dr. Mohler acknowledges that it is good, right, and healthy to have a robust discussion of these important and very real issues. Along with him, we wholeheartedly affirm that The Baptist Faith and Message forms the sufficient boundary for our collective theological interests and should continue to be our principle guiding document.
Although most of what Dr. Mohler has stated is quite helpful, I am afraid that much of it will be ignored because of two very unfortunate charges he levels concerning the Statement. These charges, especially in light of the more vitriolic responses to the Statement in the blogosphere, are likely to fuel the rancor that will foreclose upon the very discussion Dr. Mohler feels is so important have. The two serious charges to which we strenuously object are (1) that the Statement appears to be heretical and (2) that the Southern Baptist leaders (former presidents, seminary presidents, state executives, seminary professors, evangelists, and pastors) who signed the statement were not sharp enough to recognize the heresy. To these charges, I offer the following reply:
First, we will never concede the charge of Semi-Pelagianism; it is patently false. Semi-Pelagianism is the view that man initiates his own salvation and that grace attends subsequently. Even a cursory reading of the Statement reveals that such an understanding of salvation could not be further from our intention. The language of the affirmation in Article Two is drawn almost verbatim from the BF&M. Most of the criticism has been directed at the “denial,” which is often divorced from its connection to the affirmation and criticized without respect to the rest of the Statement. Here is what we mean and what we will be glad to debate: We are all ruined by Adam’s sin. We are born with a sin nature. We all persistently, perniciously, and at every opportunity want to be Lord of our own lives. We cannot save ourselves. The power of the Gospel through the initiative and drawing of the Holy Spirit is our only hope, and it alone is sufficient to pierce our spiritual darkness and rescue us. But our real response to the Gospel of Christ in the power of the Spirit matters to God.
Now, there is no doubt that we are calling into question the Calvinist-Arminian grid that sets the parameters and defines all the terms of the debate. It matters little to us that such discussions are centuries old. These abstrusely medieval, exhaustingly philosophical, and theologically troubling categories have never been comfortable for most Southern Baptists, and we have never felt bound by them. We don’t refer to them when we preach and teach, and we have been moving away from them confessionally for well over a century. Baptists weren’t afraid to walk away from Augustine and Calvin on issues of infant baptism and ecclesiology, and we have not been afraid to walk away from their soteriology, which demands that most people will not be granted the capacity to respond to the Gospel. We are calling the Augustinian-Calvinist synthesis into question not because we are spiritually immature, biblically illiterate, doctrinally cowardly, or erroneously humanistic. We are calling it into question because it is a post-biblical lens that too often distorts crucial biblical texts.
Do the authors and signers of the Statement think that people can save themselves? No! Do they think people can do anything to merit their salvation? No! Do they think anyone can trust Christ apart from the initiative of God and the drawing of the Holy Spirit? No! But they also don’t think that most people are predestined to an eternity in hell no matter what. And they do think that every person has the opportunity to respond to the Gospel under the leadership of the Spirit who is willing to move upon the heart of anyone. In this debate, the charge of Semi-Pelagianism is little more than a “bogeyman.” It’s a label that intimidates and confuses, and we emphatically reject it.
Second, while Dr. Mohler admits that Calvinists often appear “elitist,” is not a bit of elitism on display in his negative assessment of the theological acumen of the signers of the document? Before expressing his love for the group, which is commendable, Dr. Mohler makes the following statement: “I do not believe that those most problematic statements truly reflect the beliefs of many who signed this document.” Surely, Dr. Mohler understands that this can only offend the signers of the Statement. He implies that they signed a doctrinal statement containing assertions which they did not fully appreciate. Seminary presidents and professors, renowned evangelists and preachers of the Gospel can’t recognize Semi-Pelagianism? Some of the most effective soul-winners in our history inadvertently agreed that people can procure their own salvation by their own initiation and their own effort? Were several of the individuals who helped revise the BF&M not able to see that they now stand in clear violation of it? How does Dr. Mohler think that “doctrinally careful and theologically discerning” people came to sign this theologically deficient document? “Doctrinally careful and theologically discerning” people, by definition, are not easily duped or reckless with endorsements.
If Dr. Mohler intends for his words to engender an irenic but honest debate of these issues, opening with a charge of apparent heresy and chiding its signers for being too ignorant to know it is a strange way to begin. It is important for him to understand that, though he would certainly reject this characterization, he is often considered a principal force behind the very tribalism he is seeking to disavow. Charging us with being heterodox and obtuse doesn’t help. We will hope for his better instincts to prevail as our conversation continues.
I conclude by returning to the question at the center of this entire discussion. Dr. Mohler states that he “rejoices in its statement that ‘the proclamation of the Gospel is God’s means of bringing any person to salvation.’” I would like to know how such an affirmation comports with his self-avowed Calvinism. It is likely that he means salvation is for any person who has been pre-temporally chosen out of the mass of humanity, the rest of whom will be passed over for salvation, never to be granted the ability to respond to the Gospel, no matter what. This is not what we mean. We mean that every person who hears the Gospel has the opportunity to respond in repentance and faith, and we will continue to insist that this is what most Southern Baptists believe.