The ETS, the AP & the BFM

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


The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) met for its annual meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on November 14-16, 2012. ETS bills itself as “a professional, academic society of Biblical scholars, teachers, pastors, students, and others involved in evangelical scholarship” (www.etsjets.org). Its membership is currently 4,000 people worldwide. I do not know the breakdown of denominations but it includes a variety of evangelicals, from Lutherans to Presbyterians to Wesleyans to Bible church to interdenominational colleges and seminaries. Their peer-reviewed journal, JETS, is one of the premier conservative, biblical-theological journals in the world.

I have been a member of ETS since 2003, attended some of the meetings, and presented papers at five regional or annual meetings. The annual ETS meeting is a three-day marathon of paper presentations in the areas of biblical studies, biblical archaeology, systematic theology, ethics, and philosophy. In addition to the academic stimulation, it was refreshing to meet some of the people whose writings sit on my shelf in the form of commentaries, biblical studies, and systematic theologies. Like the annual meeting of the SBC, the annual meeting of the ETS is a chance to see old friends, make new friends, and overspend my book budget.

The number of fine papers was plentiful and I benefited from hearing several of them. Of particular interest to me was a presentation by Dr. Tom Schreiner entitled “Original Sin, Original Death: Romans 5:12-19.” The subject was central to my Ph.D dissertation (http://goo.gl/MZtrZ) and I plan to address it at a conference next Spring (http://goo.gl/GnwOd). Schreiner currently serves as James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary and has published widely in the field of biblical studies. (The students in my General Epistles course use as a textbook his volume on 1, 2 Peter and Jude in the New American Commentary series.)

Schreiner’s paper was prepared as a chapter for a forthcoming book which argues for the historicity of the first Adam. Schreiner provided no further details about that project but it might be related to a Fall 2011 panel presentation at Southern Seminary in which he participated, “Adam and the Gospel: Is a Historical Adam Necessary?” (http://goo.gl/WQnwm). I look forward to reading that forthcoming volume.

Because the paper is pending publication, Schreiner did not provide copies at ETS. But as he spoke, I scratched out two pages of notes and recorded the audio of his presentation on my laptop. Schreiner has since provided a copy of the paper on the conditions that I neither quote nor distribute the paper.

Schreiner’s view is basically as follows: Romans 5:12-19 presents Adam as the covenant head of humanity. Schreiner stakes out a slightly different position on a clause in Romans 5:12 than he advanced in his 1998 commentary on Romans (http://goo.gl/a7s0I). But the nuance on that minor point does not change his basic view that all people enter the world as sinners and under condemnation due to Adam’s sin. Schreiner describes and rejects the view of Henri Blocher. In Original Sin, Blocher taught that people do not inherit Adam’s guilt. Schreiner rejects that view. Instead, Schreiner affirms the view of John Murray, the long-time Presbyterian seminary professor. In The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, Murray taught that people inherit Adam’s guilt. Schreiner affirms that view.

There is much more to Schreiner’s argument. He deals with each of the verses in Romans 5:12-19 in detail as well as several other Old and New Testament texts. Schreiner makes careful distinctions between similar topics, such as between personal sin and Adam’s sin as well as between spiritual death and physical death. There is much to commend in the paper and I am thankful for Schreiner’s reflections on this difficult topic.

But Schreiner’s paper raised a question in my mind as I listened in Milwaukee. So I raised this question in the customary Q&A following his presentation: “Dr. Schreiner, Is the view you presented consistent with the statement of faith of your denomination?”

Article 3 of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states clearly that people inherit something from the first man. But the BFM does not state that we inherit guilt or condemnation. Instead, we “inherit a nature and environment inclined toward sin.” According to the BFM, people do not begin life under condemnation. Rather, “as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors.”

The pertinent section of the BFM reads as follows: “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity 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.” (See http://sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp.)

But Schreiner’s view, which is standard fare in Reformed confessions and many systematic theologies, is that people come into the world under condemnation due to Adam’s sin. That is contrary to the BFM 2000.

There are several possible objections to my brief essay. Below, I will attempt to anticipate and address some of those possible objections.

Objection #1: Harwood has either misunderstood or misrepresented Schreiner’s view. Because Harwood was unable to quote Schreiner, readers are not able to verify certain claims.

Reply: Perhaps I have misunderstood or misrepresented his view. If so, then I look forward to being corrected. But I heard, recorded, and took notes on the presentation. Also, I have a printed copy of the paper provided by the author. Further, a cursory reading of any Schreiner book will reveal his presupposition of covenantal theology, which typically entails an affirmation of the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity. When the chapter finds its way into print, closer scrutiny can be given to Schreiner’s precise claims.

Objection #2: Harwood has either misunderstood or misrepresented the BFM 2000. Article 3 is compatible with the view that all people inherit Adam’s guilt.

Reply: In exactly what way have I either misunderstood or misrepresented the BFM 2000? It makes no mention of inherited guilt. Rather, it affirms clearly an inherited sinful nature and states that people “become transgressors and are under condemnation.” In what way is that compatible with inherited guilt? Is a person under condemnation before he is a transgressor? Reformed theologians hold this view but it cannot be sustained from the language of the BFM 2000.

Objection #3: Although the BFM does not affirm inherited guilt, other earlier Baptist confessions do. We should interpret these vague statements in the BFM with clearer statements in earlier confessions.

Reply: Some earlier confessions do make particular affirmations that are not found in the BFM. But I am not bound by any of those confessions. As a faculty member at two institutions, I have signed an affirmation of the BFM 2000. Also, I reject the following notions: that the BFM is unclear on this point; and that we should interpret the BFM by earlier confessions. The BFM clearly affirms an inherited sinful nature over any mention of inherited guilt; and while historical perspective is helpful, the BFM is a summary of our understanding of the Bible, not a summary of our understanding of previous statements of faith.

Objection #4: Schreiner’s view may not be in line with the BFM but it is consistent with Southern Seminary’s other statement of faith, the Abstract of Principles. In that way, it is consistent with a founding document of Southern Baptists.

Reply: The Abstract of Principles is a founding document of our first seminary and a fine historical document, but it is not a founding document of our denomination. The entire statement on “The Fall of Man” is as follows: “God originally created Man in His own image, and free from sin; but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” (See www.sbts.edu/about/truth/abstract.)

Compare the AP and the BFM on the fall of man:

Abstract of Principles (1858)

The Baptist Faith and Message (2000)

Observations

…through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God, Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, To this point, the two documents are basically the same.
and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; and fell from his original innocence Notice the different original condition of Adam: holiness and righteousness (AP) rather than innocence (BFM).
whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Notice the different inheritance: a nature which is initially opposed to God and His law (AP) rather than a nature inclined toward sin (BFM).
are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Both affirm that people become transgressors as soon as they are capable of moral action. And both refer to condemnation. But the AP places the statement of condemnation before moral capability.

With the verbiage of the Abstract of Principles available to them, the BFM 2000 committee, which included SBTS President (and AP signer) Albert Mohler, chose to retain the language of the BFM 1963 when describing our inheritance from Adam.

I am not asking two seminaries (Southern and Southeastern) to abandon the Abstract of Principles, an historical Baptist document. But are there differences in the documents (see above)? If all six SBC seminaries train pastors and leaders for all 40,000+ SBC congregations, then should the professors teach according to the statement of faith that has been affirmed by our convention of churches (the BFM 2000) or according to a statement which has not been affirmed by our convention of churches (the Abstract of Principles)? By asking this question, I am not faulting any person who has signed both documents. There is a great deal of consistency between the documents. It is not the fault of anyone at either institution that at that particular points their two statements of faith conflict. The covenantal view of inherited guilt/condemnation is a point at which I see a contradiction between the two statements. But if seminary faculty teach according to the BFM, then all is well.

Tom Schreiner’s ETS presentation causes me to wonder if some seminary professors at Southern and Southeastern Seminaries are in an impossible situation when they address our inheritance from Adam. If they affirm inherited guilt, then their view is consistent with the Abstract of Principles but inconsistent with the BFM 2000. If they affirm a view of inherited sinful nature, then the reverse is true and they have taught a view which is inconsistent with the AP but consistent with the BFM.

I am not attempting to cause trouble for Schreiner and am not requesting that he reply. He is a gifted scholar and I am thankful for his work. But no scholar is infallible. His academic presentation prompts two clarifying questions:

1. Is Dr. Schreiner’s view of inherited guilt/condemnation contrary to the BFM 2000?

2. Do we expect SBC professors to teach according to the BFM?