A Reply to Dr. Mohler

Adam Harwood, PhD
Assistant Professor of Christian Studies
Truett-McConnell College
Cleveland, Georgia

Dr. Mohler,

I am thankful for you and find myself in agreement with most of your comments in your June 6 article entitled, “Southern Baptists and Salvation: It’s Time to Talk.” The impact of your service to the Lord and leadership in theological and cultural conversations is immeasurable. Your words carry significant weight both inside and outside of our convention. It is precisely because of the influence which God has granted you that I offer a preliminary reply to your comments regarding the newly-released document, “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” Although I am grateful that you chose to engage in the public discussion of this important issue, I offer for your consideration my observation that certain comments in your post prompt a variety of concerns among fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who have signed, or might sign, the statement in question. May I share with you three specific concerns? Full disclosure: I signed the statement.

The first area of concern regards your comment that some statements appear to affirm semi-Pelagianism. You write,

“Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will — understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied.”

The charge of semi-Pelagian is a serious indictment. In fairness to you, your statement falls short of a charge. Your position seems to be that some portions “appear” to affirm the view. Even so, words fail me in describing the far-reaching implications if such a charge were actually sustained. If this charge were true, then the implications would be as follows: A heterodox doctrinal statement has been affirmed by sitting seminary presidents, former SBC presidents, and hundreds of other Southern Baptist pastors, professors, and denominational leaders. I don’t mean to claim that churches in our convention should learn to simply count votes to settle doctrinal differences. But surely those votes should be weighed.

Orthodox doctrinal statements rightly emerge as the result of careful study of the biblical text which is informed by a keen awareness of church history as well as the theological and practical implications of all the statement’s claims. But if the charge that you have leveled proves to be true, then the list of signatories on this statement should cause every Southern Baptist to consider this question: When and how did all of these leaders within our beloved convention begin to adopt semi-Pelagianism? Further, is semi-Pelagianism the only heresy by which they have been deceived? If the charge of semi-Pelagianism is eventually sustained, then is it possible to overstate the seriousness of the ramifications for our entire convention? These questions, and several others, arise if this charge is actually sustained.

To be clear, Semi-Pelagianism is a charge that has not been sustained and it is a charge I flatly reject. The label was first applied by a small band of bloggers, some of whom are Southern Baptists but others who are not. In one conversation in the comment section of a blog, I engaged a charge of semi-Pelagianism. The charge was based upon a particular line in Article 2 of the statement. In defending that line, I explained that it was a phrase lifted from Article 3 of the BFM 2000 in order to guard against that very charge. Ironically, the line in question was affirmed twelve years ago by the BFM study committee on which you served. I don’t mean to imply that either you or Article 3 of the BFM 2000 appeared to affirm semi-Pelagianism. I tell that story to illustrate how some people have confused what the statement affirms and denies about our inheritance from Adam. The statement rejects imputed guilt. This particular claim, as you well know, is allowed (but not required) by Article 3 the BFM 2000. What the statement affirms, employing the words of the BFM, is that all people inherit “a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.”

That conversation came to a friendly conclusion when the commenter acknowledged that he was not a Southern Baptist and he had never read the Baptist Faith and Message. I don’t mean to imply that all who have concerns about the statement are unfamiliar with the BFM. All serious concerns should be carefully considered. And I don’t begrudge people expressing their opinion on the internet. But it has complicated matters that some Calvinistic brothers and sisters outside the SBC are already inserting themselves into a discussion which has barely commenced among the family we call Southern Baptists. The charge of semi-Pelagianism made by some Calvinist-leaning, non-Southern Baptist blogs should eventually be addressed, but is not my immediate concern. When you, however, mentioned this possibility in your blog post, I knew that attention must be paid. It is your reply which has prompted mine.

The first concern raised by your article is this: Your assertion, Dr. Mohler, fails to cite any actual evidence, such as a particular theological claim or a direct quotation from the statement in question. I have been an avid reader of your books and articles for years. Typically, your articles are punctuated by direct quotations which drive home the point of your essay. But this article, when asserting semi-Pelagianism, provided no such quotation. This causes me to wonder if it would have been more prudent for you to have gathered such evidence in order to present it at the time you leveled this weighty theological indictment of fellow Southern Baptist leaders.

The second area of concern relates to the first. This concern centers on a qualifying statement which was surely intended to soften the blow of your theological indictment. Instead, it probably had the opposite effect. In referring to the signers you know and love, you write, “I do not believe that those most problematic statements truly reflect the beliefs of many who signed this document.” Here is my concern: Although unintended, such a claim will likely engender the irritation of many of the signatories which you attempted to console. How so? Some readers of your post may draw the implication that you are claiming to know better than the signers the parameters of their own theological commitments. In other words, those signers either failed to read what they signed or they read it but failed to understand the implications of the doctrinal statement to which they attached their both name and their reputation.

Unfortunately, another comment affirming the signers for being “doctrinally careful and theologically discerning” may have worked against your good intentions. In what way? You close the paragraph by extending to the signers the following invitation: “We should be honored by the privilege of a serious theological conversation with one another, and we will all speak more carefully when we are respectfully questioned by those with whom we disagree.” Because you repeated the admonition that the doctrinal discussion within the SBC should proceed “more carefully,” the impression remains that the theological conversation until now has been neither serious nor careful. But I am confident that was not your intended message to the hundreds of Southern Baptist pastors who have already affixed their names to the statement in question.

The third area of concern relates to your comments about “theological tribalism.” I am in agreement with the direction of your comments. They are well stated. As an example, you write, “We must all repent of the sin of building a tribe when we are called to serve the Kingdom of Christ.” You explain that Gospel work must not be hindered by tribalism and that both sides in this discussion have been guilty of the sin of tribalism. I agree completely.

What, then, could be my concern about your tribalism comments? My concern is that you seem to establish your case for unity by appealing to “our confession of faith,” the Baptist Faith and Message. I affirm every word of the BFM 2000. Nevertheless, our convention faces this structural anomaly: Although we have an outstanding document in the BFM 2000, our own seminaries (and many of our churches) affirm additional doctrinal statements. I affirm your declaration, “Every Southern Baptist is free to believe more than the confession affirms, but never less.” But a seminary is not a Southern Baptist.

It is because of these doctrinal statements beyond the BFM, such as the Abstract of Principles, that Southern Baptists are tempted to engage in theological tribalism. I’m not denying the document’s significance for our Southern Baptist history and heritage. But the Abstract of Principles, rightly cherished as a founding document, nevertheless goes beyond the carefully-drawn boundaries of the BFM 2000. Because of the autonomy of the local church under the Lordship of Christ, we don’t tell churches which doctrinal statements to affirm. But a seminary is not a church.

Dr. Mohler, you were able to affirm the BFM 2000. Having served on the study committee, you oversaw its very adoption by our convention. Yet you find yourself unable to sign this new statement. The statement was drafted as an effort to articulate a Southern Baptist doctrine of salvation which is distinctly not Calvinistic. Your inability to sign the statement is understandable because it describes the parameters of a doctrine of salvation which rejects certain theological tenets affirmed by our “more Calvinistic Southern Baptists.” You are at home in that rich, evangelistic theological tradition among Southern Baptists, but others are at home among the other tradition. The descriptor “Traditional Southern Baptist” has not been well received. Although I sympathize with the objections, a better name has not presented itself. I join you in rejecting theological tribalism while affirming both Southern Baptist theological traditions.

The new statement has already resonated with the other tradition in the SBC. While you find yourself unable to sign it, this is not the case for some other members of the BFM 2000 study committee. How so? As you note, “Every Southern Baptist is free to believe more than the confession affirms, but never less.”

If that is the case, then problems arise for this new statement only if it affirms something less than the BFM 2000. I hope that Southern Baptists will heed your admonition to “carefully” examine whether or not this is the case. If a charge of semi-Pelagianism can be sustained, then the statement should be rejected and the theological acumen of all its signers should remain in doubt. But if the charge of semi-Pelagianism is not sustained, then any claims to the contrary will rightly be dismissed as wrong-headed and divisive. Thank you for suggesting such a conversation.

In Him,

Adam Harwood