by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.
So much about the way we envision the First Christmas distances us from the reality and message of Jesus’ birth. Our Christmas cards and crèches are bathed in soft light, framed by friendly farm animals, drummer boys, and earnest shepherds all focused on the little Lord Jesus, “no crying He Makes.” We are simply more comfortable with a Savior born “inside,” quietly occupying a warm nook somewhere on the margin of our lives, a lullaby playing while He sleeps on the hay.
This picture, however, bears little resemblance to what happened that night. In fact, Luke is at pains to contrast the humiliation of Christ’s arrival with the power, prestige, and privilege of Caesar Augustus and the security of Rome. Jesus came into the world squalling, naked, and covered in afterbirth. His parents had no place to stay because news had already come to Joseph’s ancestral home (which would have been filled with relatives obligated to take them in) through the tightly woven gossip system of Judea that the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy were too shameful to warrant any hospitality.
So, Jesus was born outside, on the ground, with the warm, pungent smell of manure hanging in the chilly air. Mary delivered her first child with no anesthesia, no skilled midwife, so the night was probably not “silent,” “calm,” or “bright,” and it completely redefined the word “holy.”
The first recipients of and witnesses to the glory of the Advent were shepherds, men whose reputation as liars and thieves was so ubiquitous that they weren’t allowed to give testimony in court. They lived their whole lives outside— geographically, socially, morally, religiously.
So, Jesus was born outside, to outsiders, for outsiders. He ministered outside, observing that while even animals had homes, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). He died outside between two outsiders, fulfilling the destiny foreshadowed in His birth. How, then, do we celebrate Christmas in a manner faithful to the First One? The writer of Hebrews tells us: “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13.11-12). Let the Christ Child call you away from the cozy Christmas of our own creation and out into the Adventure of mission to those still outside.
by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.
For years, I have loved re-reading Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” during this time of the year. It opens with a line so evocative of my own memories of Christmas:
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
As adults, we spend a great deal of energy trying solve the puzzle of our longing for the past, trying to recapture wholly those experiences that return to us only as a fleeting glimpse or a whisper just between our waking and sleeping. For me, these moments of “homesickness” are never more acute than at Christmas. I believe the reason for this is that these memories are uniquely imbued with the reality of my ultimate home, heaven. Christmas in a Christian home weaves the best of life (faith, hope, and love) around the deep reality of the gospel: God in Christ for us.
Thomas closes his poem with these words:
“Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
It is the desire to connect to “the close and holy darkness” to which our lives are drawn, around which our memories orbit, that guides us to the solution of the puzzle of our past. The only way home is not backward, but forward, is not in the futile attempts to recreate what has disappeared, but in the faithful decision to believe and to share with others that the best is yet to come, that there is a Father, a Brother, a family, a feast, and a home prepared for us.
by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.
Speaking recently at Southern Seminary reinforced some observations that have been coming clear to me during the last year of my involvement in the Southern Baptist discussion of Calvinism. As I interacted with a number of faculty and students who consider themselves Calvinists, it was apparent that they believed exactly the same thing I do about who needs the gospel: every single person. I believe this conviction characterizes the vast majority of Southern Baptist Calvinists, and it is deep, wide, and glad-hearted. Certainly, there are a few who shuffle their feet when asked if they can say to any person “God loves you and wants to save you,” but those Southern Baptist Calvinists really are the minority, best I can tell, and I get the sense that most Calvinists hope they remain a minority. Therefore, it does not help to make bald accusations that Calvinists do not believe that God loves and wants to save every sinner. It is inaccurate to charge them with believing that God causes people to go hell or that He is the cause of evil.
But that does not mean there is not a significant problem.
While I do understand better than ever that most Southern Baptist Calvinists believe exactly as I do about the extent of God’s love and saving desire for sinners, I am just as convinced that they cannot hold those shared soteriological convictions without falling into contradiction and putting themselves at serious theological, exegetical, practical, and apologetical risk. This is because their entire system demands a particular and quite problematic presupposition concerning the relationship between divine and human action called “determinism.” Now, Calvinists prefer the term “compatibilism” and, technically, that is correct. But to the uninitiated, compatibilism appears to communicate the very welcome and biblical idea that God’s sovereignty and human freedom are compatible. This is what every Southern Baptist believes, including me.
But that is not the meaning of compatibilism. Compatibilism is the view that divine determinism (not merely sovereignty) and human freedom are compatible. Compatibilism asserts that God is the cause of all things, including the “free” decisions of humans. This claim is made by redefining God’s permission and human freedom in highly unusual and suspect ways. For the compatibilist, God causes some things and permits others (like sin). But this permission is “efficacious” so that things could not have happened any differently from the way they do. God’s decision to permit specific events is in no way affected by human choices because those choices are determined by God. On this view, there is no, I repeat, no difference between God “causing” an event (like the Holocaust) and God “permitting” it.
The compatibilist’s definition of freedom is equally specious. Freedom is not one’s ability to choose between two qualitatively distinct options but the ability to act on one’s desires. This sounds fine except the compatibilist believes one can’t freely choose his desires. Only those who are given the desire to trust Christ will be able to respond to the gospel. God gives the desire to trust Christ to some, and He withholds it from others. The giving or withholding of the faith to respond has nothing whatever to do with the individual. As philosopher Jerry Walls points out, God could just as easily have given the desire to trust Christ to every sinner rather than just a few, but He doesn’t. This undeniable implication of compatibilism raises tough problems for the basic morality of God.
Compatibilists simply cannot effectively obviate the charge that their view makes God the cause of evil. Again, compatibilists are convinced they can (by insisting on things like “permission” and “secondary causes,” etc.), or they think they can just declare it a mystery how God is the cause of all things and not the cause of evil. But it’s becoming clear that these solutions don’t work. That’s why it’s hard to find compatibilists in any philosophy department of any school not already committed to Calvinism. Now, it is easy to find determinists in philosophy departments, but they tend to be atheists. Most world-class Christian philosophers (including several who are Southern Baptist) think compatibilism is a huge problem. Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Thomas Flint, William Lane Craig, Ken Keathley, Bruce Little, Jeremy Evans, and John Laing, just to name a few, are thinkers who have an appreciation for Reformed theology and are serious about God’s sovereignty but view compatibilism as riddled with insurmountable logical problems. Moreover, it is a disaster when it comes to engaging skeptics about the truth-value of the Christian worldview.
Before Southern Baptist Calvinists start getting upset, let me say again that I understand better than I ever have that they truly don’t think they are at risk. They really believe compatibilism works biblically, philosophically, and theologically. They believe it gives them a good way to speak of God’s love for and desire to save all, real human freedom, and the significance of personal engagement in the Great Commission. They believe it provides an intelligible response to the problem of evil. Ken Keathley argues brilliantly that infralapsarian Calvinism is actually engineered for the purpose of providing a basis for all the things we all want to say theologically, but it just can’t get it done logically.
If it is the case that there are serious problems with compatibilism, then why do Calvinists maintain their commitment to it? Calvinists will say they insist on it because the Bible insists on it, then they reel off a zillion verses about God’s strong sovereignty. But none of these verses, individually or collectively, demands determinism, which is a complex, post-biblical philosophical system. And there are a zillion verses that allow for libertarian freedom, unless compatibilism is presupposed. The main reason that Calvinists insist on compatibilism is because it is essential to their theological system. Augustine was a determinist, and the Augustinian-Calvinist theological synthesis demands it. To abandon it would be to abandon classical, consistent Calvinism.
Before the eyes of non-Calvinists begin to glaze over at the prospect of another abstruse, terminologically dizzying discussion of metaphysics, they need to grasp the concept that their fundamental problem with Calvinism is compatibilism. Let me burn some straw men and fry some red herrings. Southern Baptist Calvinists aren’t demonstrably worse than non-Calvinists at evangelism and missions—we’re all in need of significant improvement. Calvinists aren’t cavalier about certain Scriptures. Calvinists don’t think that prayer, evangelism, and faith don’t really matter. They just have a very problematic philosophical basis for affirming those things. In a real sense, the salient critiques of Calvinism that I’ve read lately are simply criticisms of compatibilism. Olson’s Against Calvinism could just as easily (and perhaps more helpfully) be called Against Compatibilism. The “ROSES” of Keathley’s Salvation and Sovereignty is “TULIP without compatibilism.” Allen and Lemke’s Whosever Will could have been entitled Whomever He Wills in the Libertarian Sense. I might even just start calling myself a “Non-Compatibilist” rather than a “Non-Calvinist.” With complete integrity, I can speak of the utterly ruined and ruinous sin nature of humans, the unconditional sense of election, the limitations of Christ’s atonement, the absolute necessity and power of initiating grace, and the guarantee of salvation for them that believe. I just do so while rejecting compatibilism.
Therefore, as the discussion moves forward, it would be helpful to establish as often as possible one’s position on compatibilism and libertarianism rather than merely Calvinism and non-Calvinism. This will bring order to some of the terminological confusion in the debate because, while there are still a variety of opinions about what specifically Southern Baptist “Calvinism” and “non-Calvinism” mean, there is virtual unanimity about what compatibilism and libertarianism mean. Second, this moves the discussion away from biblical proof-texting, which quickly becomes both circular and emotionally charged. Third, this reframing requires everyone to acknowledge that theology involves philosophical presuppositions in service of systemization. Frequently, I’ll hear people say, “I don’t believe in a system, I believe in the Bible.” That is actually a false and unhelpful dichotomy. Everyone is working from a systematic grid based on an extensive set of presuppositions. The question is, then, what are my presuppositions, and are they justifiable biblically, theologically, and philosophically? In this debate, the choices are pretty simple: you are either a compatibilist or a libertarian. Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists arrive at most of the same important soteriological destinations, but the Calvinist route takes a path that I believe most Southern Baptists are unwilling to go, and for good reason.
 As the T5 states: “. . . we agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone . . . .”
 Jerry Walls, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be A Compatibilist,” Philosophia Christi 13 (2011): 98-99.
 I also understand that Calvinists will respond by saying that my libertarianism makes me vulnerable to an over-inflated view of human freedom and even to the charge of Open Theism. This sort of response is not only quite difficult to demonstrate, it also does not suffice as an argument for compatibilism.
by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my visit to Southern Seminary last month. I had the honor of preaching in chapel, and I delivered a sermon called “A Great Commission Hermeneutic,” an idea that had been developing in my mind ever since I engaged another debate in the SBC concerning “Christ-centered preaching” (CCP).
CCP is of a piece with the Calvinism discussion mainly because it tends, of late, to be the bailiwick of Reformed Bible scholars and homileticians. “Gospel-centeredness” and “Christ-centeredness,” as opposed to “man-centeredness” is typical of the terminology and trajectory of this movement. So, when LifeWay’s The Gospel Project (TGP) rolled out, it caused my ears to prick up. The wording, the focus on seeing Christ in all of Scripture (which, while crucial, can be exegetically unwieldy), the personalities used in its promotion, and an advisory team that was mostly Reformed, all contributed to the concern that TGP might be a new “Reformed” SBC Sunday School literature.
The coup-de-grâce for me was the promotional video by Matt Chandler that appeared to lay out the general shape of TGP’s hermeneutics, which, as I made clear in a blog post, were incredibly problematic, causing me to be concerned about the content of TGP. That post touched off a spirited discussion, eliciting a series of responses from Jon Akin and resulting in an invitation from Ed Stetzer to participate in a panel discussion at the SBC in Houston to talk about CCP.
In order to prepare for my part on the panel, I did a bit more study of CCP, which only further convinced me of the problems with the hermeneutics of Clowney, Greidanus, Goldsworthy, Chappell, Johnson, et al, the main one being that Reformed theology was presupposed in the exegetical process. I also, however, began to see some problems with Walt Kaiser’s approach (and my default position) along the same lines: a tendency to cram some texts into pre-suppositional molds ill-suited for them. I’m now probably closest to Darrell Bock, who advocates for a single meaning for texts but calls for a great deal of latitude and amplitude for how New Testament texts fulfill the Old.
The study of this whole subject gave me a greater appreciation of and, frankly, a better hermeneutic for OT narratives. As I shared in my chapel sermon, it’s easy to fall into therapeutic, deistic, moralizing (especially when preaching OT narratives) and forget the gospel. CCP has done evangelical preaching a great service in raising this criticism. Still, I felt that something was missing from CCP. Because of the emphasis on Reformed theology, I noticed a tendency in CCP to have too little to say about preaching for response and for how the paraenesis of Scripture functions to instruct believers in holy living.
During this study period, I taught through a couple of installments of TGP in a Sunday School class for university students. Not only did I not find any Reformed bias in it, I was helped by the missional trajectory of the biblical interpretation. TGP bridged the gap between moralism and mission so that obedience stayed Christ-centered and others-oriented rather than me-centered and performance oriented.
When I preached on the subject of election for New Orleans’ Seminary’s chapel in September, I utilized this missional approach to avoid the strictures of Reformed exegesis in order to see the Bible-wide and world-wide trajectory of election. Trevin Wax listened to the sermon and heard in it a lot of what TGP was trying to do with its missional component. He also heard in it one of Stetzer’s favorite thinkers, Christopher Wright, who, in The Mission of God lays out a “missional hermeneutic.” I got a copy of Wright’s book, and the last piece of the hermeneutical puzzle clicked into place.
Wright’s proposal “proceeds from the assumption that the whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.” Wright’s critique of CCR is that, while correct about many things, it tends to neglect mission, an insight that, after reading a number of works on CCR, I believe finds its mark. Supporters of CCP are fond of quoting Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” but Wright points out the payload of Christ’s “hermeneutics” comes just a few verses later in the conclusion of the gospel: “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’” (45-47). Wright’s point is that both Jesus and the proclamation of Jesus to the whole earth are the interpretive keys to the Scriptures.
I believe Southern Baptists are particularly well-positioned for this missional hermeneutic and need to articulate it with this kind of critical clarity. What has made our preaching and praxis great through the years is that we not only move quickly to the cross but to the need for the cross to be proclaimed in all the earth. Our passion for evangelism and missions is driven by the fact that such passion is in the heart of God on every page of Scripture. What Wright so elegantly demonstrates is that we don’t need to look for a biblical basis for missions, we need to recognize the missional basis of the whole Bible. Of course, Christology sits right at the heart of this missional basis: if there is no Messiah there is no mission. But when the Messiah is encountered, mission is the result. That’s why, in my message at Southern, I borrowed an insight from Wright and turned John Piper’s adage around: “Worship exists because missions doesn’t.” The flow in the Bible is from encounter to mission (i.e. Is 6). A select portion of every nation isn’t sitting around waiting for us to help them discover their election. Every person on the planet is waiting for Spirit-empowered followers of Christ to flood the whole earth with the proclamation of God’s Salvation in Christ, a proclamation that is the only thing that can save.
So, for instance, the David and Goliath narrative doesn’t only point us to the Savior who wins the battle for us, it gives us the purpose of the victory: “that the whole earth would know there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam 17:46). This victory is ultimately fulfilled in Christ not only to save a people, but also to put them in pursuit of the nations not now for judgment (because Christ has been judged in their place) but for surrender and submission to life-giving salvation. Moreover, CCP often puts us in the position of the quivering Israelites, but we really should identify first and foremost with the Philistines, a people outside the covenant, the un-chosen blasphemers, pursued now in Christ in the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, that “all the families of the earth would be blessed in you.”
I think this how Southern Baptists ought to think about the Bible. A Great Commission Hermeneutic (GCH) keeps mission at the core of exegetical outcomes, and I think this keeps us from getting lost in the labyrinth of Reformed exegesis before we get to the demand to respond to the gospel and the demand to be swept up into God’s gospel passion for the lost everywhere. I also think this GCH is what helps Stetzer and Wax to work “across theological lines” in TGP and in their wider ministries: because the mission of Christ is the point. People who are overwhelmed by God’s mission to them and through them to the world are people to whom they listen and with whom they want to work. Soteriological speculation certainly has its place in theological discourse, but not at the expense of God’s world-wide desire for the salvation of the lost, which sits right on the surface of the text from Genesis to Revelation. If TGP helps laypeople to read the Bible this way, then Southern Baptists ought to be for it, for, as I stated in my sermon at Southern, “You’re on message when you’re on mission.”
 I actually got the term from an email exchange with Ken Keathley, and I just straight up stole it—thanks, Ken!
 an address or communication strongly urging someone to do something.
 Chistopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 51.
 Trevin Wax, Gospel-Centered Teaching: Showing Christ in All the Scripture (Nashville: B&H, 2013), 97: “Teaching cannot properly be considered ‘gospel-centered’ unless it has a missionary shape to it. Unless the truths of God’s Word are leading us to mission, we are just studying the gospel as a closed-group of like-minded Christians, not an all-embracing group of fervent ambassadors for King Jesus. Miss the mission, and you’ve missed the point of gospel-centrality.”
by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.
Read Dr. Hankins’ previous post, HERE.
As I shared in my previous post, speaking recently at Southern Seminary pulled together several dynamics and discoveries I’ve made during the last year or so of my involvement in the Southern Baptist discussion of Calvinism. My participation has afforded me the opportunity to get to know a number of the leaders of our Convention, men of tremendous character, conviction, and vision. I’ve been able to dialogue at length with Frank Page, Paige Patterson, Danny Akin, Russ Moore, David Dockery, Mark Dever, Johnny Hunt, Jerry Vines, Ted Traylor, Thom Rainer, Kevin Ezell, Timothy George, Steve Lemke, Ed Stetzer, David Allen, Robby Gallaty, and so many others God is using mightily to shape the SBC. Certainly, of our leaders, no one has been more influential than Dr. Al Mohler, and my visit to Southern only reinforced that fact. Because he espouses Reformed theology, because he has strengthened that theological identity at Southern, and because his influence has played a significant role in the rising popularity of Reformed theology in the wider evangelical world, he is often considered to be the architect of a master plan to “Calvinize” the SBC. This argument typically includes the charges that this master plan has been executed unbeknownst to and against the will of most Southern Baptists. Often these arguments include supposedly covert activities of the leaders of other SBC entities as well.