SBC New Orleans: A Convention of Clarification

July 3, 2012

By Dr. Eric Hankins, Pastor of the
First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi

As I have processed the proceedings of our most recent Convention, I believe one of the most exciting and promising aspects of those days were some terrific opportunities to converse about and clarify our views on some crucial matters.

First, the historic election of Rev. Fred Luter gave our Convention the opportunity to bring ever-increasing clarity to the issue of racial prejudice, an issue for which the SBC has had both a shameful history and slowness to correct. Now, I want to state firmly that Rev. Luter’s election is not, to me, primarily about race. Rev. Luter is deserving of this position for reasons entirely unrelated to the fact that he is African-American. His life of commitment to the Gospel, to the lost and hurting in the great but challenging city of New Orleans, to his twice-built work at Franklin Avenue, and to his precious family are more than enough to qualify him for the office. With respect to the SBC, his election is as much about grace as it is about race. Rev. Luter loved the Convention even when it must have been very difficult to love. He saw the SBC not for what it was but for what it could be and that is the mark of visionary leadership. His grace and faithfulness, thankfully, has afforded us the opportunity, even at this late hour, to affirm that we are worthy of that vision. In Alan Paton’s classic, Cry, the Beloved Country, which is set in South Africa in the 1940s, Pastor Msimangu’s greatest fear is that “one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” Rev. Luter kept on loving and wrought for the Convention the opportunity to say clearly to our culture that we are turning to loving as well.

Second, I was glad to see the Convention bring clarity to the issue of evangelism and the Sinner’s Prayer, although the length of the debate and level of opposition to the Resolution, even its final form, is quite sobering. Also, I was appreciative of Dr. David Platt’s willingness to clarify his views on the matter, ultimately affirming it in both in his Pastor’s Conference sermon and in a subsequent blog post. He has rightly communicated his understanding that, for a comparatively young man, he has been handed the tremendous responsibility of being heard as an authority by tens of thousands. A number of the challenges he has laid before us are helpful indeed. What he says, however, even in three-minute YouTube videos, has great influence, and many of the things he said in that video about the Sinner’s Prayer were quite problematic. Dr. Danny Akin wrote recently of his own appreciation for the Sinner’s Prayer and for Dr. Platt’s clarification. He does, however, take a little dig at a quote of mine as being “irresponsible.” I stated that I felt that the underlying criticism of the Sinner’s Prayer from New Calvinists is related to the fact that they do not believe that all people can pray that prayer because some people are hopelessly condemned, a criticism I stand by and will be glad to discuss. Indeed, Dr. Platt states, quoting me, “I definitively don’t believe that certain people ‘actually have no chance for life in Christ.’” I take Dr. Platt’s comment to mean that he believes that every sinner who hears the Gospel is the object of God’s love and the subject of the Spirit’s drawing and can respond in a prayer of repentance and faith. He goes on to state that “God loves all people in the world (John 3:16) and He desires all people’s salvation (2 Peter 3:9).” Because of the dynamics of this debate, I hope Dr. Platt will make clear that he does not mean that God has two kinds of love and two wills for “all people in the word.” When I say that God loves and wants to save all people, I mean, along with most Southern Baptists, that God’s love and will is the same for all people. It appears that Dr. Akin affirms this perspective. This is strikingly significant because, if both of these important leaders reject the idea that there are certain people who have no chance for life in Christ, then a decisive challenge to New Calvinism has indeed been raised.

Rather than behaving irresponsibly, it was my desire to take up my responsibility as a Southern Baptist pastor to raise legitimate concerns in the life of the Convention that were in need of clarification. I did not raise these matters lightly. I did not raise these matters because I thought it would be cool, popular, or fun (none of which it has been, I can promise you). I raised them precisely because I believed it was the right and responsible thing to do, and I will continue to do so.

Third, it seemed to me that, in general, there was a great deal of modulation of the rhetoric surrounding our present discussion of Calvinism in the SBC, raised by the Statement of Traditional Baptist Soteriology. At the Baptist21 lunch, Dr. Al Mohler made some very helpful (and customarily eloquent) comments about the usefulness of the Statement and the value of “arguing” without “fighting.” Those observations certainly brought a necessary texture and trajectory to comments he had made earlier about the Statement. Dr. Mohler’s observations were received quite positively by the other members of the panel including Platt, Akin, Luter, Paige Patterson, and J.D. Greear (the whole event celebrating the Conservative Resurgence was fabulous. Kudos to Jon Akin et al). When this whole conversation ramped up a month ago, the standard line seemed to be “we don’t need to talk about this because everything is fine and Calvinism is not an issue.” Well, 60 % of Southern Baptist pastors feel otherwise, and I am glad that key leaders are recognizing the need for the discussion. Moreover, the watchword now is “unity” between Calvinists and Traditionalists, and I think that’s a great thing, especially when it comes from Dr. Tom Ascol of the Founders Ministries, an organization whose stated purpose is “the recovery of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the reformation of local churches. . . .” believing that “. . . intrinsic to this recovery is the promotion of the Doctrines of Grace in their experiential application to the local church particularly in the areas of worship and witness.” That doesn’t sound much like “unity” with non-Calvinists to me. However, Dr. Ascol states in a recent post, “Our Baptist polity is such that those in the SBC should be able to work together with brothers and sisters who affirm the essence of the gospel as spelled out in our Baptist Faith and Message statement.” I agree completely, but I do wonder how this fits with the fact that “Founders Ministries takes as its theological framework the first recognized confession of faith that Southern Baptists produced, The Abstract of Principles. We desire to encourage the return to and promulgation of the biblical gospel that our Southern Baptist forefathers held dear.” Nevertheless, all Southern Baptists should be encouraged by this resurgence of unity in the essentials. I know I am.

Fourth, I think it should be noted here the clarifying significance of something that didn’t happen at the SBC. Despite all of the histrionics and hand-wringing, no attempt was made to alter the Baptist Faith and Message for the purpose of “ridding the Convention of Calvinists.” None. And I can testify with absolute integrity that there were never, ever any plans to do so. I am thankful for Dr. Frank Page’s leadership in forming a committee to study this issue. I think this is great way for the conversation to continue. While I could sense a lot of tension in the early days of the Meeting, it seemed to me that, by the end, most were satisfied that a productive conversation had ensued, that we all still love each other, and that we all are likely to benefit from dealing with each other in an open, honest, and gentle way, even when we disagree.

Finally, several helpful “hallway” conversations with younger guys who gracefully disagree with me gives me an opportunity to make something clear as well. Although I articulate in the Preamble of the Statement that Calvinism is a valuable part of our heritage and that the contents of the Statement are not intended to exclude anyone from the life of the SBC, I want to make clear here that my criticisms and concerns about New Calvinism are not to be understood as a repudiation of everything related to the movement or of those who have benefitted from it. There is no doubt that New Calvinists have promoted a revival of interest in all things theological. They are flat out prolific, and they have revealed a deep hunger for theology that for too long has been ignored. They are seriously committed to engaging and investing in the youngest generation of evangelical Christians in ways that the rest of us ought to be emulating. Piper’s work on passion for God and on biblical manhood and womanhood, Dever’s work on the church, Mohler’s work on everything, is part of a renewed emphasis on what one of my ministry brothers called a “big view of God, a high view of Scripture, a strong view of the church, and a sweeping view of the nations.” Those are crucial emphases, indeed, and I want to be committed not to being overcritical in my evaluations. At the same time, I want to encourage my exuberant (and often younger) brothers not be uncritical in their acceptance. The leaders of this movement are just men, after all. Not everything they say is right and some of what they espouse is deeply troubling to me and many others. A big view of God, Scripture, Church, and the Nations is quite possible without ascribing to the Five Points of Calvinism. Because of the unacceptable but inevitable conclusions of the system, I will continue to advocate for a better way, but I commit to doing so with a humble spirit.

I felt that the Convention clearly agreed that the four emphases mentioned above are central to our core values and the way we get there theologically can include some plurality, discussion, and debate. While we face what are certainly some of our most challenging days as a Convention, I believe that if we work diligently and honestly, we can face them together.