by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.
Recently I had the privilege of preaching the chapel service at Southern Seminary and participating in a Q&A with Dr. Al Mohler afterwards. In many ways, those events completed an arc that began for me almost two years ago. In January of 2012, my article, “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology,” was published in New Orleans Seminary’s Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, which, when turned into a series of blog posts at SBCToday, generated quite a bit of discussion. I argued that most Southern Baptists are neither Calvinists nor Arminians in the classical sense and that we have our own unique approach to soteriology. The article raised a simple question that I felt needed an answer: “If we aren’t Calvinists or Arminians, then what are we?”
So, in April of 2012, I engaged in a little thought-experiment to see if I could put into words what I had always thought most Southern Baptists believed about how people are saved, paying special attention to the places where we differ from Calvinists and Arminians. After interacting with some other respected thinkers and showing it to some Convention leaders who liked and agreed with it, “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist View of God’s Plan of Salvation,” hit the Internet, generating, well, no small interest. The “Traditional Statement,” as it came to be known, appeared just before the New Orleans Convention and was a motivating factor in Dr. Frank Page’s decision to form the Calvinism Advisory Committee to deal with the growing theological fractiousness he was observing in the Convention.
The committee included Dr. Mohler and me. Over the next several months, the committee met, and Dr. Mohler and I were tasked with giving shape to a statement that would present to the Houston Convention in 2013 the fruit of our deliberations, a document called “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.”
As a result of serving on the committee and writing the document together, Dr. Mohler and I had an opportunity to get to know one another better, and the respect that I had always had for him grew into genuine friendship. Because of that respect and friendship, Dr. Mohler invited me to speak at Southern. I couldn’t have been more warmly received by the faculty and students. Chapel was full, the worship time was powerful (it’s always fun to hear a room full of ministers sing), and I preached to listeners who were ready for and responsive to the Word.
Later, the Q&A was irenic and, hopefully, informative (Dr. Moher had just taken me to lunch at Jack Fry’s, where I consumed about a thousand calories. My contribution at the Q&A probably would have been improved by a quick nap or a lap around the campus). The essence of our interaction was an expression of our commitment to Christ-exalting excellence in gospel partnership within the sufficiency of the Baptist Faith and Message, even while maintaining and discussing our distinct views on soteriology as they relate to our collective kingdom impact.
I plan to take the next few days and unpack several implications of that expression of partnership, but let me briefly chart the course for what to expect.
First, the SBC has outstanding denominational leaders who really do care deeply about the gospel going out to every person. You can’t be on the campus of Southern Seminary for five minutes and not understand that it is an institution that has benefitted mightily from strong, focused, visionary leadership. But Dr. Mohler didn’t invite me to Southern because I agree with everything he thinks; he invited me knowing I don’t. I was glad to be given an opportunity to take my place at the table and speak from my perspective.
I believe that one major reason for the rise in interest in Reformed theology among Southern Baptists is because of sustained excellence in scholarship and communication from that point-of-view, excellence that is on display at Southern. For those concerned about the proportionality of Calvinist influence in the Convention (a concern I share), I don’t think it’s super fair to expect Dr. Mohler to be a less compelling, less influential leader and thinker who needs to field a less erudite, less prolific, less talented team, even if we think he should include more of our voices. It’s incumbent on those of us who see things from a different theological position to elevate our game. We’ve got to make better and better theological arguments. We’ve got to be more productive and constructive. We’ve got to break out of the cultural captivity that often encases the salient features of our soteriology under a thick rind of monolithic, monochromatic, platitudinous, and parochial forms and norms of expression that are simply becoming less and less meaningful to the next generation of pastors and lay-leaders.
Second, the journey from January 2012 to November 2013 means that the views of non-Calvinists* are legitimate, significant contributors to the Southern Baptist theological conversation. Dr. Mohler would not invite an arch-heretic to preach at chapel. He would not want to partner with someone who has aberrant theological views. We have real differences, and those differences are meaningful and worthy of further dialogue. But those differences fall within the scope of the Baptist Faith and Message. Those wanting to participate in the discussion as it moves into the future will need to operate within parameters that circumscribe both a Mohler and a Hankins. Within those parameters, both of us are fair game for critique, but we need to move beyond the slash-and-burn, Chicken Little, conspiracy-theory mentality that too often characterizes the debate.
Finally, as I hinted in my chapel sermon, I believe the next phase of the soteriological discussion needs to focus on hermeneutics, which demands that we critically engage the philosophical and theological presuppositions of our approach to the text. It is time to stop throwing Bible verses at each other. Inerrancy is the base-line position of both perspectives. Southern Baptists believe that every word of the Bible is true, and we need to quit accusing each other of not loving the Bible and the God of the Bible. We all want to say that the gospel is for every person and that salvation is a sovereign work of God. We need to quit acting like our opponents simply do not take the Scriptures seriously. The question is, what precisely can we understand about what the Scriptures teach about how individuals are saved? This question raises the issues of our articulated and unarticulated pre-understandings. Those who want to engage the debate need to be willing to engage it at this level, or we will be trapped forever in the vicious cycle of Scriptural one-upmanship from our respective troves of pet verses. The interpretation of texts is determined by our theological and philosophical assumptions that sit in abductive relationship to the Bible. So, to hermeneutics, theology, and philosophy we must go.
I believe the resources and identity of Southern Baptists uniquely prepare us to engage this debate in fruitful, mutually edifying manner, and I believe we are ready to listen critically and carefully to one another as fellow believers.
*As I stated in the Q&A with Dr. Mohler, I dislike the term “non-Calvinist.” It’s a rather insipid, apophatic moniker that reinforces the stereotype that we are clear about what we’re against, but hazy on what we’re for. I’m not surprised that anyone has difficulty getting excited about embracing “non-Calvinism.” As we get better at articulating our theological position, I hope a term will emerge. If “Traditionalist” isn’t it, that’s fine (I’m hearing some speak of a “Hobbs-Rogers Tradition,” which I do like). But until something better coalesces, Traditionalist is still the term I will try to use when possible.