SBTS and the BFM

On November 29, SBC Today posted Dr. Harwood’s essay titled, “The ETS, the AP, and the BFM.” (Read it here.). Within three days, the essay generated more than 100 online comments, including this one from Rick Warren: “Adam reveals a very important distinction that I had not noticed between BF&M and Abstract.” Also, “This article was helpful, and so are many of the comments afterward.” (http://goo.gl/Xmggg). The following post reveals Dr. Harwood’s further reflections on the subject.

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“Does Southern Seminary have an institutional commitment to a theological position which is not affirmed in the BFM and excludes many Southern Baptists?”

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is comprised of churches with a variety of theological commitments. Among those groups are Calvinists, non-Calvinists, and others who refuse either of those theological monikers. This convention of churches cooperates in Great Commission work. That cooperation involves operating six seminaries. Faculty at these institutions train pastors, missionaries, and other leaders for SBC churches. Also, some seminary faculty publish biblical and theological works for SBC churches. Because Southern Baptists are a theologically diverse group, all the seminaries should allow for theological differences which are permissible within the convention’s statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM).

Thesis Question: Does Southern Seminary have an institutional commitment to a theological position which is not affirmed in the BFM and excludes many Southern Baptists?

1. Southern Seminary demonstrates an institutional commitment to a particular, published interpretation of the BFM.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) Interpretation of the BFM is available on its website as a document entitled “An Exposition from the Faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on The Baptist Faith and Message 2000” (http://goo.gl/BwuGN).

Old Testament Professor Daniel Block, who now teaches at Wheaton College, penned the interpretation of Article 3. Although Block is now employed by a non-SBC institution, it is reasonable to think that the interpretation articulated by Block and currently available on the SBTS website remains the institution’s accepted interpretation of the BFM.

One might object that the exposition is neither a binding document nor an official endorsement of the views presented. But the nature of exposition suggests explanation and interpretation of a text. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the document represents a current commitment by the institution to its faculty’s explanation and interpretation of the text of the BFM. (For the text of the BFM, see: http://goo.gl/07Yyo.)

2. The SBTS interpretation of the BFM:

a. omits what is affirmed in the BFM regarding our sinful nature.

b. includes what is not affirmed in the BFM regarding Adam’s guilt.

In a brief and well-written piece, Block describes “man’s noble status and man’s ignoble state.” The relevant section of Article 3 is addressed in this sentence: “In accordance with the biblical perspective of the entire human race as united in descent from Adam, the guilt of Adam’s sin falls on all, and estrangement from God in whose image we are made extends to all.”

In his essay on Article 3, Block fails to provide any direct quotations from the BFM. Instead, he includes a theological position not affirmed in Article 3 when he explains that “the guilt of Adam’s sin falls on all.” Neither those words nor that idea can be found in Article 3. Thus, SBTS has committed itself as an institution to this theological position not affirmed in Article 3 of the BFM: All people inherit Adam’s guilt.

Further, Block omits any interpretation of the theological position explicitly articulated in Article 3. The BFM explains that people “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” Block neglects to mention these key theological concepts: inheriting a nature inclined toward sin, becoming morally capable, becoming transgressors, or the attendant condemnation.

3. Southern Baptists hold two views of our inheritance from Adam. The SBTS Interpretation, not affirmed in the BFM, is denied by many Southern Baptists.

a. Many Southern Baptists affirm that because of Adam’s sin all people inherit a sinful nature, which the SBTS Interpretation neither affirms nor denies.

b. Many Southern Baptists deny that because of Adam’s sin all people inherit Adam’s guilt.

Christians throughout history have differed on how to understand the precise nature of our inheritance from Adam. (For a biblical-historical treatment of this topic, see: http://goo.gl/4sOun). Article 3 of the BFM explicitly refers to a nature “inclined toward sin” and states that people “become transgressors.” Thus, the SBTS Interpretation of Article 3 seems obligated to articulate the position that all people inherit from Adam a sinful nature. Instead, it imports this theological position which is absent from Article 3: all people inherit Adam’s guilt.

At first glance, the BFM and the SBTS Interpretation of Article 3 may appear similar. (See the chart to compare the relevant sections.) Both documents teach that Adam’s sin falls to all people; rightly so. But the SBTS Interpretation goes further by adding Adam’s guilt. Sin and guilt are not synonymous. The Bible indicates that all people (except for Jesus) receive something because of the first man’s sin. Exactly what do we receive from Adam, a sinful nature or Adam’s guilt? The SBTS Interpretation declares that “the guilt of Adam’s sin falls on all.” (Note: The options “sinful nature” and “Adam’s guilt” are not meant to exclude other effects of the Fall, such as physical death. These two terms represent the two major views: people either become guilty of their own sin or they begin life guilty due to Adam’s sin.)

Affirming that all people inherit Adam’s guilt is not the same as affirming that all people inherit only a sinful nature. In the Adam’s guilt view, all people begin life guilty before God. From the moment of conception, they are personally under condemnation due to the guilt of the first Adam.

The affirmation that all people inherit Adam’s guilt is presupposed within the theological construct of covenantal theology. From the first moment of life, all people are considered to be guilty. The explanation is either that humanity was present and sinned with Adam in the Garden or that Adam’s sinful actions in the Garden represented humanity. The affirmation of inheriting Adam’s guilt is a theological commitment which falls squarely within Christian orthodoxy; that is not disputed. Some Southern Baptists affirm the view; that is not disputed. It doesn’t matter that some Southern Baptists affirm both inherited guilt and the BFM, claiming the former is implied in the latter. The salient question is whether one of the SBC seminaries has an institutional commitment to affirm a theological position not supported in the BFM and which many Southern Baptists deny.

4. Why does this matter?

Various interpretations are affirmed among Southern Baptists on every Christian doctrine. For that reason, it would seem necessary for the seminaries to include all interpretations which are consistent with the SBC’s only statement of faith, the BFM. If SBTS insists on an interpretation of the BFM (and, by extension, the Bible) that many Southern Baptists deny, then it could be asked: How do the faculty of Southern Seminary characterize the denial of inherited guilt? It would be contrary to their institution’s interpretation of the BFM. Would it also be contrary to orthodox Christian doctrine?

There are indications that such a view may be held among certain faculty members at SBTS. May 2012, a statement was released by Mississippi pastor Eric Hankins (MDiv, NOBTS; PhD, SWBTS) entitled “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (Read it here.). One line in the document which generated much discussion states: “We deny that Adam’s sin … rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.” (Disclosure: I am among the original group of Southern Baptists who provided substantive feedback for several months and offered to attach my name to the statement prior to its distribution to all SBC state executive-directors.)

Prior to the release of this statement, which explicitly rejects inherited guilt, others affirmed it with their name and reputation, including: former SBC presidents, current SBC seminary presidents, members of the BFM 2000 study committee, and a variety of SBC pastors and professors. This collection of leaders from a wide spectrum of the SBC provides an argument neither for nor against its content. Rather, the names attached to the Traditional Statement support the claim that many Southern Baptists deny that all people inherit Adam’s guilt. (Note: The claim is that “many Southern Baptists” deny inherited guilt. There is no attempt to quantify the number or percentage of Southern Baptists who affirm or deny the view. Based on the public affirmation of the Traditional Statement by that group of SBC statesmen, however, one could argue the view is widespread throughout the SBC.)

What has the Traditional Statement to do with Southern Seminary? The Traditional Statement was not warmly received by everyone at SBTS. The precise objection remains unclear. But other people (not on faculty at SBTS) cited as problematic its denial of inherited guilt. It is not the purpose of this essay to revisit the political or theological issues surrounding the Traditional Statement. But those events may reveal significant theological differences in the SBC. As with a family, differences within a convention of churches should be addressed openly and peaceably in order to resolve the issues. Ignoring those issues rarely resolves them.

If SBTS considers a denial of inherited guilt to be orthodox, then such clarification would be helpful. If SBTS considers a denial of inherited guilt to be unorthodox, then this clarification would be equally helpful. Either way, clarity is needed. An increasing number of blogging pastors and seminarians inside and outside the SBC now refer to the inherited sinful nature view (along with its corresponding denial of inheriting Adam’s guilt) as “semi-Pelagian.” The charge is both serious and baseless. Unity on Article 3 would clarify permissible theological boundaries within the BFM and foster greater unity and cooperation within the SBC.

Is it necessary that a Southern Baptist must affirm more than the BFM in order to repel charges of semi-Pelagianism? Surely not. If that were the case, then the previous study committee of the BFM left a gaping theological hole in Article 3. The current President of SBTS also served in 2000 on the BFM study committee. Article 3 and the SBTS Interpretation differ. They may not be in conflict, but the differences are causing confusion.

Some may consider this essay as misinformed because it fails to account for Southern Seminary’s other statement of faith, the Abstract of Principles (AP). The SBTS faculty are to teach consistent with the BFM and AP. Although the AP allows for a denial of inherited sinful nature, the BFM makes no such allowance. (See my recent essay on this matter: Read it here.) Because SBC seminaries train students from and for all SBC churches, any institutional pre-commitment (whether supported by the AP or the SBTS Interpretation) which promotes a theological viewpoint (in this case, inherited guilt) which differs from its convention-wide statement of faith is unacceptable. In other words, the BFM trumps the AP and SBTS Interpretation. If the SBC wants to consider amending the wording of the BFM, then there is a constitutional process for such an action. Until then, will an SBC seminary hold an institutional commitment to a theological viewpoint not affirmed in and (some argue) contrary to the BFM?

It would be problematic if any seminary faculty officially advanced a view which is both absent from the BFM and rejected by many SBC churches. But that appears to be the case at Southern Seminary. There may be times when going beyond the BFM is helpful. This is not one of those times. Do faculty teach students they must affirm that all people inherit Adam’s guilt? The view should be presented to students as one legitimate view among Southern Baptists. But it’s not the only view. Other Southern Baptists reject inherited guilt as affirmed in neither the Bible nor the BFM. SBC seminaries serve all Southern Baptists. This essay asks whether Southern Seminary has an institutional commitment which excludes many of its constituents.

5. Proposed Solution

President and CEO of the Executive Committee Dr. Frank Page recently formed a team of pastors and denominational servants to discuss Calvinism in the SBC. Open and honest dialogue is good and healthy; may God bless their effort. Even in healthy families, people sometimes differ. Southern Baptists are a family which is now discussing peaceably and openly their differences and planning steps for moving forward in taking the Gospel of Christ to every person on the planet. Baptists have been comprised of Calvinists and non-Calvinists for more than 400 years and we should continue working together. It is my hope that a member of Dr. Page’s team might find this post helpful in gaining clarity and moving forward with this important discussion within the SBC.

It seems necessary that SBTS clarify its position on Article 3 of the BFM. Why? If a denial of inherited guilt is unorthodox, then SBTS needs to be clear. If that is the case, then its interpretation of the BFM should remain and the BFM should be amended to reflect that view. If a denial of inherited guilt is orthodox, then clarity from SBTS is equally important.

Perhaps the faculty of Southern Seminary will consider revising its published interpretation of the BFM. If they regard a denial of inheriting Adam’s guilt to be fully orthodox, then amending their published interpretation would resolve this dilemma. Their view would no longer exclude certain Southern Baptists. If the faculty were unwilling to amend their published interpretation of the BFM in order to more accurately reflect Article 3, then perhaps they will suggest an amenable resolution to this dilemma.

In the inherited sinful nature view, however, people become guilty. At what age or stage of life will people become guilty? Article 3 of the BFM explains: As soon as we are capable of moral action (which implies there is a period of time in which we are not capable of moral action) then we become transgressors (which implies there is a period of time in which we are not transgressors). Upon becoming a transgressor, we fall under condemnation (which implies there is a period of time during which we were not yet under condemnation).

SBCToday editors desire to give ample time for readers to consider and thoroughly digest the content of Dr. Harwood’s essay before offering any observations. Therefore, readers are invited to post their comments beginning at 8 a.m., Wednesday, Dec. 12.