In November, fellow Southern Baptist Pastor, Dr. Tom Ascol, will celebrate his thirty year anniversary as Executive Director for the Founders Ministries, an organization “committed to the recovery of the Gospel and the reformation of local churches.” By this, they clearly mean to influence churches toward the acceptance of Calvinism, as is their right, just as it is my right to oppose their efforts if I believe that both the Gospel and the churches they seek to influence are better left alone, as is, of course, the case.
Nevertheless, congratulations are in order for this thirty year anniversary. While I cannot wish upon Dr. Ascol that his tribe would increase, I can acknowledge the three decade existence of this tribe and commend his diligent leadership, especially compared with the fledgling clan I do not lead, but merely serve. I only pray that, in like manner, my new fellowship centered on John 3:16 traditionalism will be around in thirty years.
I am especially grateful for Dr. Ascol’s comprehensive discussion of A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation. Although I disagree with his conclusions, the attention he has shown by taking this document seriously and interacting with it carefully only confirms the need in our convention for this conversation to take place, and is certainly commendable and praiseworthy.
Unfortunately, in Part 5 of his series, dated June 5, 2012, Dr. Ascol concludes by admitting his fear that an Arminian is actually correct, and that Dr. Roger Olson may have been right to claim that “most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian.” For a Calvinist and an Arminian to join forces and suggest that most Baptists are guilty of heresy seems, on the face of it, to be a much more divisive action than it would be for hundreds of Baptists, for example, to sign a simple doctrinal paper without accusing anyone of any kind of heresy at all.
It would also seem to me that if one were going to suggest the error of others, one might wish to be found in complete agreement with the confessional statement currently embraced by one’s own denomination. Dr. Ascol possesses no such standing. His position that guilt precedes sin rejects both the 2000 and the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message versions and must go all the way back to 1925 for support. Before describing the Traditionalist position that sin precedes guilt as an incorrect view, Dr. Ascol must first place a copy of the document in a DeLorean and then allow the flux capacitor to whisk it back to 1962, the last time The Baptist Faith and Message contradicted it.
Although such a fictional journey back to 1962 would indeed render this one portion of the Traditional Statement outside the boundaries of The Baptist Faith and Message of that time, the trip would have its share of unintended consequences. While gaining his preferred doctrine of imputed guilt, Dr. Ascol would in return lose a much more valuable Calvinist asset through this direct denial of unconditional election:
“The blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel. It is the duty of all to accept them by penitent and obedient faith. Nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner except his own voluntary refusal to accept Jesus Christ as teacher, Saviour, and Lord.”
Furthermore, the 1925 version explicitly places faith before regeneration, which is described as a “free grace conditioned upon faith in Christ.” One wonders if these are truly trades Dr. Ascol would be willing to make. We cannot help but sympathize with him in his time travel quandary. He can remain here with a neutral position on election, a neutral position on the order of faith and regeneration, and the clear placement of man’s transgression before his condemnation, OR he can step into the DeLorean in order to place man’s condemnation before his transgression, but in the process, he must then deny unconditional election and place faith in front of regeneration.
The irony should not be lost upon anyone that Dr. Ascol, who opposes at least part of the current Baptist Faith and Message, dares to suggest the existence of heresy among those who embrace it in its totality! Objectively, and I am making no such charges at all, but would it not make much more sense if things were the other way around?
His insinuations grow even more inexplicable when one considers that the President of the Convention who appointed the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message Committee, along with 27% of its membership, has already signed the Traditional Statement. While the Traditional Statement enjoys complete compatibility with the BFM 2000 and is strongly supported by those who drafted it, one cannot help but remain perplexed that Dr. Ascol would make such an effort to distance himself from our current confession.
Further evidence of Dr. Ascol’s disapproval of both the 1963 and the 2000 versions of The Baptist Faith and Message is found in the following tweet:
tom ascol (@tomascol)
Why was it necessary for Jesus to be born of a virgin if, otherwise, he would only have inherited “a nature & environment inclined toward sin?”
Credit Dr. Ascol with persistence in refusing to affirm The Baptist Faith and Message 2000! Clearly he prefers the definition of original sin from earlier confessions, in which man was said to inherit “a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin” that is already “under condemnation.” It is curious he would argue about the effects of the fall by considering the only man who did not participate. Jesus, born of a virgin, did not possess original sin regardless of how it is defined. I believe in the necessity of the virgin birth, but not the necessity of the necessity. Our Sovereign God was free to send us His Son in whatever way He chose, regardless of how it might fit in some system of man’s reasoning.
Who is in alignment with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000?
|“Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”|
|“We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin.”|
|“Why was it necessary for Jesus to be born of a virgin if, otherwise, he would only have inherited ‘a nature & environment inclined toward sin’?”
– Tom Ascol tweet, 6/9/12
Time does not permit me to deal at length with Dr. Ascol’s treatment of the Abstract of Principles, a document which, like the Traditional Statement, narrows the doctrinal parameters of the BFM 2000, and has garnered the signatures of hundreds of Southern Baptists, at two of our seminaries in particular.
In the interest of fostering Christian unity, I will also bypass Dr. Ascol’s charge that the denial of imputed guilt found in the Traditional Statement (also found in the BFM 1963 and the BFM 2000) is much closer to the Mormon view of sin. This is a very weak attempt at guilt by association, and is the classic ad hominem rhetorical fallacy.
In the hope that our discussion might rise above such tactics, I would invite Dr. Ascol to turn his attention neither to a non-Christian religion like Mormonism nor to confessions that were written in 1925, but rather to the post of June 8, 2012 by Dr. Danny Akin, entitled Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: How Should Southern Baptists Respond to the Issue of Calvinism?
Perhaps because Dr. Akin’s stated desire is not the “recovery of the Gospel” or the “reformation of local churches,” he possesses greater liberty than Dr. Ascol to meet Traditionalists halfway on the major soteriological issues and to demonstrate a very statesman-like effort to bridge these gaps and foster unity. One wonders how Dr. Ascol might address these solutions offered by Dr. Akin:
- A statement strong on Total Depravity but stripped of Total Inability.
- A statement on Unconditional Election admitting human freewill and concluding that “Southern Baptists will likely debate this point until the Lord returns, but there is certainly no need for division or ill will over it.”
- A statement on Limited Atonement admitting its rejection by most Modified Calvinists, and describing the atonement as unlimited in its “provision” but only limited in its “application” by the free acceptance of salvation received by those who place their faith in Jesus. Frankly, one would be hard pressed to offer a weaker endorsement of Limited Atonement.
- A statement on Irresistible Grace rather truncated, redefined and softened, so as to permit, in the words of Dr. Timothy George, the “creaturely freedom” to respond to the God who “beckons and woos…pleads and pursues…waits and wins.”
- A statement on Perseverance of the Saints conflating classic eternal security with the Reformed emphasis on perseverance of good works in order to prove one’s salvation sure.
I cannot help but wonder about the willingness of the Founders to come to the table with the Traditionalists and seek some type of common ground such as that suggested by Dr. Akin above. If they sincerely desire to achieve the goal of greater unity, they might begin by refusing to appeal to the views of Arminians and Mormons, and instead engage other Southern Baptists seeking a middle way such as Dr. Akin and Dr. George.
On the other hand, one must consider that such a compromise may in fact conflict with the stated ambitions of the Founders Ministries. Having spent nearly thirty years trying to turn churches like mine into churches like his, Dr. Ascol cannot possibly object to the existence of a Traditionalist strategy now inviting churches like his to become churches like mine. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Although in this race, the Founders may have the advantage of a thirty year head start, at least we Traditionalists are running the race with a copy of The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 in our pockets, which is more than can be said about Dr. Ascol as he leads the Founders Ministries.