The Gospel Project:
Not for Calvary Baptist Church
Ralph Green is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Bel Air, Md.
His personal blog post below has been edited, with Pastor Green’s permission, for brevity and clarity. Pastor Green may check in on this post occasionally, but he will not be available for continual interchange with commenters due to his pastoral duties.
When I went to seminary, Dr. Paige Patterson, my seminary president, challenged all of us studying for pastoral ministry to always be vigilant against doctrinal error and remain faithful to the Word of God. He knows well the dangers, pitfalls and ramifications of doctrinal error and the high cost of ensuring our denomination would stay true to our Lord Jesus Christ and His inspired, inerrant and infallible Word.
Dr. Patterson assembled a team of professors at SEBTS who faithfully taught myself and many others like me that we must take seriously our responsibilities before the Lord to guard the sacred trust of Scripture and to “contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
I’m sharing this with you because our church was about to implement the use of a Sunday school curriculum from LifeWay Christian Resources called “The Gospel Project.” This is the new flagship curriculum LifeWay has been advertising for months. It is a curriculum that would provide Bible Study resources for preschool, children, and youth, all the way through senior adults in our Sunday School/Bible Study classes. Upon hearing of this new curriculum, Pastor Mike and I were encouraged and excited about it, as the advertised aim of the curriculum was to show that the message of the Gospel is woven throughout the Scriptures. Dr. W. A. Criswell, the great long time pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas called it “The Scarlet Thread of Redemption” in a famous sermon he preached through the entire Bible.
Pastor Mike and I were under the impression this curriculum would take a systematic theological approach, would tackle tough issues and give Christians tools to use in sharing the Gospel in everyday life. The concept as we understood the aim of The Gospel Project is a great one. However, we’ve uncovered a big problem with this curriculum. The advisory council, many of the writers and much of the supplemental sources cited throughout are from people who are Calvinists or Reformed Theologians who teach at Reformed seminaries.
In short, Calvinism or Reformed Theology is a theological system that elevates the sovereignty of God and His grace to a point that the free will of man is of no consequence. On the other end of the spectrum is what is called Arminianism, which elevates the free will of man and espouses among other things that you can actually lose your salvation. Those adhering to these theological systems have been arguing about these ideas since the 1600s! Yet the Scriptures teach that God is sovereign, a God of grace, as well as the truth man has a choice to make to accept or reject the grace of God and His provision for salvation.
This understanding of Scripture is one among many reasons we exist as Baptists. Historically, we are happily in the middle of these polar extremes as we consider ourselves to be “people of the Book,” embracing both biblical truths of God’s sovereignty and grace along with man’s choice. As Baptists, we have historically seen problems with both extremes and the dangers of using a theological system of belief as the lens to interpret Scripture. Many Calvinists and Arminians use their systems as a filter of Scripture. However, Scripture should be the filter for the system of belief one adheres to. Typically this debate has been mostly confined to seminary campuses and is not something the average person in a Baptist church hears much about.
After becoming aware of this Calvinistic/Reformed theological approach of the curriculum, Pastor Mike and I have spent literally hours and days digging through this curriculum once we received the shipment to see for ourselves. We found it to be biased in how it explains and interprets the study themes. There are numerous subtle seeds of the Calvinistic approach to Scripture and many that are overtly obvious. The more we read and studied the curriculum, the more convinced we have become convinced that this curriculum is not suitable for use here at Calvary. I am greatly disappointed because there is nothing wrong with healthy dialogue and wrestling with theological issues. But when a curriculum is designed to teach only one side of the issue, it is no longer a healthy debate but indoctrination; and we cannot allow that indoctrination to take place here at Calvary.
I do not believe extreme Calvinism accurately represents the truth of Scripture. We are not Calvinistic or Reformed or Arminian, but we are Baptists. I don’t appreciate LifeWay producing curriculum that promotes a flawed theological system to interpret Scripture. My biggest problem with extreme Calvinism is that it views salvation as deterministic where God divinely chooses who will be saved and who will not. It follows, then, that God is going to save some; He can and will do so without my personal involvement, so there is no need for me to be a witness for Christ. This idea clearly violates the commandment to be witnesses in our Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Great Commission then becomes more of a Great Suggestion, and only whosoever God chooses may come and have everlasting life! Yes there is a doctrine of election taught in Scripture, but God’s desire is that no one would perish but that all would come to repentance.
Honestly, I was in shock for several days as I wrestled with this curriculum. I feel as though the sacred trust has been violated because the publishing arm of my Convention seems to be embracing Reformed Calvinistic theology. You should know LifeWay does not depend on Cooperative Program dollars and they are a for-profit organization based on what they sell. They are guided by a president and trustees who’ve been duly elected by our convention, so there is accountability there. We are sending this curriculum back to LifeWay, and I’ll be writing letters to President Thom Rainer and the Board of Trustees expressing my disappointment over this curriculum and explaining why we’ve pulled the proverbial plug on “The Gospel Project” curriculum. I encourage all SBC pastors I know to examine this for yourselves and see the agenda within The Gospel Project curriculum. I hope you’ll send it back to LifeWay as well with your observations.
Interview with Pastor Green wherein he will cite specific concerns with TGP curriculum.
When SBCT re-posted a commentary that appeared first on your own blog, you said you never had any intent of that going so public.
Yes. Like many other pastors, I use my blog to communicate with our church members. I realize it was posted on the World Wide Web, but I never sought the level of attention that initial post has gotten.
Why did you allow SBCT to re-post it, then?
Well, it was already public for one reason. Second, I believe I have a responsibility to my fellow pastors and all Southern Baptists to ring the alarm bell when needed. I was alarmed at what I was reading in the Gospel Project curriculum. I want to encourage everyone not to take my word for this, though. Check it out for yourselves. See what you think. I know others have blogged about this and say they see no problem with the curriculum. But I have to wonder if they are not already Calvinists. If I were a Calvinist, I’d have nothing but positive things to say about the curriculum, too.
You realize that the blowback from this could be severe?
I do. I was shocked at some of the comments I read at SBCToday when the first article was posted. I expect there will be more of the same. After reading those comments, I discovered a couple of things: 1) I must be an unqualified, inept and uneducated moron; and 2) I must be an unqualified, inept and uneducated moron who can hit his target. I think it’s ironic that all these Calvinists are claiming there’s no Calvinism in TGP.
Do the ‘less-than-favorable’ comments bother you?
No. What bothers me is that some of those who write “Sola Dei Gratia” after their names have offered so little grace to you for re-posting my article or to me regarding my perceptions of the curriculum. But I don’t take that personally. My perceptions of the curriculum are exactly that: my perceptions. If a few want to condemn me for my perceptions, that’s on them. While I believe there are some black and white evidences of Calvinism on the pages of TGP, I say again that Southern Baptists ought not take my word for it. They should do the research for themselves.
When did you first become aware of the apparent Calvinistic overtones in the curriculum?
Actually, one of my deacons brought it to my attention. He also teaches Sunday school, and he had looked at some of the initial materials offered online by LifeWay. When he told me what he was seeing, that led to my own investigation.
What are the deacon’s issues with the curriculum?
He told me, “God’s love is not evident. This isn’t theology; it’s philosophy.” He also spent countless hours reading and researching the curriculum and gave me a multi-page report of his findings.
And he has some of the same perceptions I have, but many more of them. Speaking of perceptions, I think that poses a huge problem for LifeWay. People will have various perceptions about the curriculum. I get that. But what LifeWay needs to realize is that perception is reality.
What are some of the deacon’s findings?
I have his permission to share his information, so let me give you what he wrote as a summary statement of his investigation. His research has led him to conclude the following:
“Love is the Achilles heel of Calvinism. The Calvinists cannot explain it or fit it into their philosophical system. Therefore, they ignore it and substitute erudition, eisegesis and the like for it. Perhaps their weakest point is that they see no responsibility on God’s part to love us, only our responsibility to love Him. Therefore, in straight up, honest Calvinism, God hates His enemies and they go to Hell. Yet, we are commanded to love our enemies. Since God is love, if we do not understand His love, and especially if He does less than He commands us to do, we cannot know God well in spite of how much about God we think we know.
Calvinists do not know what to do with the love of God and the restraints it places on God. To the Calvinist, God’s sovereignty is somehow undone by His love in a way that the Calvinist cannot fully understand or accept. They cannot fathom that God’s love allows everyone the opportunity to choose to love Him or not. Part of this is the fact that their philosophical/logical view of ‘sovereignty’ is not biblical, but they are stuck with it. This is part of the philosophical system and approach that is driving the faulty ‘theology’ of TGP. This clearly begs the question: What to do about it?
Finally, [TGP’s] Advisory Board is virtually completely Calvinistic and only about half SBC. Yet, they are overseeing SBC materials for SBC churches. Apparently, the SBC is allowing LifeWay to pursue ecumenicity rather than Southern Baptist theological distinctives. Question: Is this the background/source of the Sunday school approach and material we want used and taught at [our church]?
Obviously, any pastor who received such observations from a deacon/Sunday school teacher would be concerned and would follow up with his own investigation. What were some of your findings?
First of all, I need to say that my associate pastor and I both earned M.Divs. from Southeastern Seminary. That means we have the training and resources to use in serving the members of our church. With these tools, we spent hours examining the curriculum and came to the conclusion that we, as a church, could not use it. We boxed up the whole order and shipped it back.
Next, my awareness that the advisory board is almost totally Calvinist, and many of the lesson writers are too – that gave me a predisposition toward the curriculum. So, I had concerns that every time I read the word “grace” I wondered, “Is this the Calvinistic ‘irresistible’ grace or the traditional Baptist view of grace?” This drew my attention to other theologically laden terms in the curriculum that were not defined. That, too, was another great concern to me. I was left wondering if there wasn’t a hidden theological agenda.
From lesson one (p. 14, Fall 2012 TGP Leader’s Guide), is this statement that I believe is a problem:
“It is also an act of grace that God would reveal Himself to us personally. God was under no obligation to pull back the curtain and let us see aspects of His character and evidences of His power. He could have spoken the world in existence and then never spoken again, leaving us in ignorance about our Creator and our purpose.”
The problem is that the last sentence of the above hypothetical statement is not true because it dismisses a major aspect of God’s character, His love. One thing God cannot do is to act in a manner contrary to His own nature. The Bible teaches that God’s love compelled Him to plan to reveal Himself to us to redeem us. But the hypothetical statement above means that God could have ignored man, who was created in His image and after His likeness, prior to any sin. However, the hypothetical statement in question provides no biblical evidence to support this view as part of God’s nature that is inclusive of love, mercy, compassion, and relational capacity. Man did not obligate God to act in love. God obligated Himself to act in love and to reveal Himself, according to both His nature and His plans. In order for this hypothetical statement to be true, God would have had to have turned from His own plan to communicate His blessings and His commands to man created in His own image, to forego His plan for redemption, and to decide to do all of this before man ever sinned. I find such a position unthinkable especially in light of the following passages: I John 4:7-9; Rom. 8:37-39; Deu. 7:9; Eph. 1:4 & 2:4; John 3:16; Micah 6:8; Matt. 25:34; I Peter 1:20, James 1:17, Mal. 3:6.
What other issues did you discover?
This quote noting the temptation of Adam and Eve (p. 51, Fall 2012 TGP Leader’s Guide) says: “The point of the story is not about the type of fruit, as if the fruit juices would poison the minds of Adam and Eve. No, the poison of sin coursed through their veins before the fruit entered their mouths. ‘It was the not the nature of the tree that made it dangerous, the bearer of covenant curse and death, but what it stood for, obedience to the word of God.’”
Does this mean the first couple was fallen before they fell?
Some have voiced that observation to me. But, taken at face value, those statements make God the author of evil which is clearly contrary to Scripture. And the tree as the bearer of covenant curse? That sounds like Calvinistic theology to me. And how can it not be? The last sentence is attributed to Michael D. Williams, a writer for P&R Publishing.
How many Southern Baptists will know that P&R stands for Presbyterian and Reformed?
How many will know he is a systematic theology professor at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis? That’s not a Southern Baptist Seminary. However, he and other non-Southern Baptists are cited in the curriculum as “Voices from the Church.”
So you think that Southern Baptists in a Southern Baptist Sunday school class reading from literature published by a Southern Baptist entity would think “Voices from the Church” implies that the “Voices” are Southern Baptists?
It’s worse than that. The theological persuasion of some of these “voices” is not revealed.
Why is that problematic?
Well, one of these “voices” is Graeme Goldsworthy (p. 58, Fall 2012 TGP Leader Guide). He is an Anglican, who, if true to his church’s doctrine, holds that baptism and the Lord’s Supper impart grace. Southern Baptists reject that the “sacraments” are necessary for salvation. Also, Goldsworthy is a prominent figure on www.monergism.com. Monergism is the notion that the Holy Spirit is the only effective agent in regeneration and the human will cannot cooperate in regeneration. TGP recommends Goldsworthy more than once as an additional resource for study. I believe some of Goldsworthy’s theological convictions violate our Baptist Faith and Message.
I have similar objections to Stephen Lennox being cited as a “Voice from the Church” (p. 57, Fall 2012 TGP Leader Guide). He’s not a Southern Baptist. He’s a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University. And, if I understand correctly, Wesleyans also believe that the Lord’s Supper and baptism impart grace.
Two more “Voices from the Church” who are not Southern Baptists are Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen (p. 60, Fall 2012 TGP Leader Guide). Bartholomew is professor of philosophy at Redeemer University College that has Calvinistic leanings, and he is an ordained minister of the Church of England. Goheen is Professor of Worldview and Religious Studies at Trinity Western University, an Evangelical Free institution. Goheen holds a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, which has a Calvinistic foundation.
These two men have written a book called “Living at the Crossroads.” A review of the book at this web site, www.reformedreflections.ca, said: “Living at the Crossroads is a thoughtful book that draws on the rich tradition of Reformed thought.” Are Southern Baptists to believe that the contributions of these men to TGP will not also be influenced by that same “rich tradition of Reformed thought”? Well, the answer is no because Southern Baptists who use TGP will have no way of knowing the theological foundations of these two “Voices from the Church.”
Dorian G. Coover-Cox is cited on page 59 as a contributor to the Holman Christian Standard Bible. But she is not cited as a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary – another non-Southern Baptist institution with a Calvinistic foundation.
With the obvious theology of these “Voices,” how can Southern Baptist pastors and church members know that these contributors to TGP aren’t filtering Scripture through their T.U.L.I.P. colored glasses?
TGP also cites Andre Gide (p. 50, Fall 2012 TGP Leader Guide), who was born to a Huguenot family. He won a Nobel Prize, and nobelprize.org says of Gide: “… his work lived on the never resolved tensions between a strict artistic discipline, a puritanical moralism, and the desire for unlimited sensual indulgence and abandonment to life.”
A web search of Gide also reveals a few stunning quotes:
“There are admirable potentialities in every human being. Believe in your strength and your youth. Learn to repeat endlessly to yourself, ‘It all depends on me.’”
“Be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself – and thus make yourself indispensable.”
“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
Nothing in TGP warns that Gide is a skeptic and a humanist, who says people should totally transfer their allegiance from God to themselves. To cite Gide is to endorse Gide.
Did you note any others cited as part of the curriculum?
Sure. Not everyone has Calvinistic convictions or is a professor at a non-Southern Baptist institution. I did find it curious that the late Adrian Rogers was cited as a “Voice from Church History” and not a “Voice from the Church.” He was a prominent Southern Baptist, and not a Calvinist. Go figure.
Your examination of TGP – was it only of the Leader Guide?
No. I reviewed the youth curriculum, too, and found it to be more problematic. It’s hard enough to gain and keep the attention of middle school aged boys. But TGP’s packaging and graphical design is slick. I am concerned that TGP will indoctrinate the next generation into Calvinism.
I understand you had a telephone conversation with TGP Editor Trevin Wax.
Yes, I did. Our conversation was straightforward, but it was also congenial. I shared my concerns with Trevin, and he said he took them seriously and would use them to inform the spring quarter literature for TGP. But when Trevin told me that he was a 4-point Calvinist — this only confirmed for me that I had made the right decision in returning the curriculum.
Trevin said he would try to achieve a more balanced approach in the future. But when I told him a balanced approach seemed impossible since every member of the advisory board holds Calvinistic views, he did not deny this.
I also told Trevin that I was initially excited to hear that LifeWay was writing a curriculum to deal with the tough issues and would essentially be a systematic theology for lay people. But I added that LifeWay ruined a great idea by stacking the theological deck with Calvinists as advisors and lesson writers. I suggested that, at the very least, TGP needed to clearly tell people up front who these lesson writers and commentators are. The footnotes just don’t cut it, and I shouldn’t have to spend time researching these men’s backgrounds.
I cited a passage from one lesson that was problematic for me and told Trevin I was taking it at face value. He told me I shouldn’t do that. And when I noted another passage I felt I couldn’t take at face value, he told me I should. Not only was that confusing, I concluded I had been hearing double-speak.
Did you ask Trevin why the lesson writers, recommended resources and advisory board were imbalanced to favor Calvinism?
Yes, and he cited a survey saying that about 30 percent of Southern Baptists claim to be Calvinists and 30 percent don’t. That means about 40 percent are in the middle. However, that also means that about 70 percent do not identify with Calvinism. If those numbers are correct, how does LifeWay justify a curriculum so heavily biased toward Calvinism and the repeated quoting of non-Southern Baptists? Why must we quote so many Calvinistic professors from non-SBC seminaries when we have six SBC seminaries with theology departments full of professors who are paid with Cooperative Program dollars? Of the materials I investigated, I recall only three SBC seminaries represented.
What are your sentiments at this point?
I’m frustrated. I’m extremely disappointed. I feel like I’ve been deceived, and I don’t appreciate that. I will never buy another LifeWay curriculum without inspecting it from stem to stern. And you know, I shouldn’t have to work that hard on materials my own denomination produces. I don’t have time to be looking for hidden meanings. That irritates me. It bothers me that I can’t trust what LifeWay sends me.
What kind of feedback have you gotten regarding your original blog post?
Overwhelmingly positive. Church members have thanked me for protecting the church and our doctrine. I’ve heard that at least three pastors in our association have decided not to use the curriculum. I also got a letter from someone in Valdosta, Ga., who had resigned a Sunday school teaching position because the church was planning to use TGP. This person had just left another church because there was so much emphasis on election.
What kind of problems did you envision if you had decided to use the curriculum?
One problem would have been this: I really do have rocket scientists in our congregation. Given their tendency to do research, they would have discovered many of the same problems I did and would have asked me why we decided to use that kind of material.
Also, it’s hard enough to get folks to witness. They come up with every excuse as to why they can’t. If we add to that the thought that God saves who He wishes, then we think we’re excused from witnessing, but are still acceptable to God for our lack of obedience to His Great Commission.
Why can’t we go back to being Baptists?