St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.


The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.


The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, like Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.


What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.


Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.

River Baptism -


There has been a lot of discussion about the recent Pew study on the “US Religious Landscape.” The report from Christianity Today puts a wee bit of a positive spin on it for evangelicals, just as Jonathan Merritt puts his own spin on it for RNS. I will briefly respond to some of Merritt’s points at the end. But first, I was struck by the percentages of those who stay within their denominational family or tradition. The Baptists are the highest at 57%. The least likely are Congregationalists (31%), Holiness (32%), Reformed (34%), and Presbyterian (34%) — that includes three “Reformed” denominations (Holiness is Wesleyan).

The Baptist Difference

If I may be so bold, I think I know why the Baptists are at the top in this regard. I will have to be partly autobiographical in order to answer this. I was raised in a devout, loving evangelical Baptist home and church. My parents were not Christians when they began dating in the late 70’s, except in the sense that every Southerner at this time would still claim to be a Christian. They were indifferent to the church and not attending anywhere. But when another couple, friends of theirs, invited them to their large Baptist church in Florence, South Carolina, everything changed for my parents and, unknown at the time, their future sons. They were taught the gospel in a very Billy Graham-ish sort of way, for which I praise the Lord. It was this same gospel that they taught me.

Here is the point. When I was born, my parents did not see me as a Christian. My parents saw me as an object for evangelism! I may have been cute as a button, but I was still a rebellious sinner, separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ. What this meant for me and my brother, and all of my fellow Baptists, is that we were evangelized by our parents. I repeat, we were evangelized by our parents. This begins usually at four or five years old and continues long thereafter. I still vividly remember my mom telling me about the gospel in my bedroom when I was five. Did I have a full grasp of what it meant to be a sinner or that there is a God who intervened? Of course not. I still don’t. The important thing is that it was made real and personal for me, by those who I loved the most. The struggles, questions, doubts would come, but there was an anchor.

I am still amazed when I encounter other Protestants (and Catholics) who did not have this experience. Their parents assumed that they were Christian. They never had “the talk” — no, not the sex talk, but the gospel talk. And is it accidental that Baptists would never do such a stupid thing as forget the gospel talk? No, because Baptists reject infant baptism. With infant baptism came a lot of problems, like forgetting the gospel talk. I will not discuss baptism here, and I am a paedobaptist now. So, obviously, I think that paedobaptism is compatible with the above concept of evangelism, but it is not normative. That is a tragedy.

So, that is my proposal for why Baptists do a better job at keeping their kids. It is evangelical piety at its best and most necessary. I am fully aware — more aware than most — of the problems that come along: an overemphasis on the individual, emotional manipulation, doubts about salvation, re-baptisms and endless re-dedications. I get it. That’s where Reformed theology is a salve for so many, even with its own problems.

The Pew Survey

According to the Pew study, evangelicals have declined at 0.9%, the mainline at 3.4%, and Catholics at 3.1%. The time frame is only between 2007 and 2014. The new thing is the evangelical decline (or plateau-with-slight-decline), whereas the mainline decline is just compounding a decades long problem. If you look at page 21 of the full report, you can see the percentage breakdown for each denomination. The Southern Baptists are down from 6.7 to 5.3 percent of the total population, but the independent Baptists have remained the same as in 2007. Nondenominational evangelicals have increased from 3.4 to 4.9 percent. These are Baptists in all but name but without some of the restrictions that are found in the SBC, which frowns upon charismatic expressions and has a more tightly defined confessional basis (the Baptist Faith & Message).

So, as I mentioned above, the CT article has a fairly positive outlook for evangelicals, bolstered by Ed Setzer’s article for CT, “Nominals to Nones.” Jonathan Merritt has a sort of rebuttal, with four bullet points that you can read for yourself. I guess because evangelicals invest in proselytizing but are still struggling, that means something. In his second bullet point, he says that the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church in America “failed to grow at all,” which is not true. The PCA was 340,736 in 2007 but 367,033 in 2013 (the latest denominational report). The AG went from 2,863,265 in 2007 to 3,127,857 in 2013, not counting outside of the US.

Merritt notes, “The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC, is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.” True, but why? The UMC still has a strong evangelical contingent, whereas evangelicals in the other mainline denominations have largely fled, especially in the last tens years. The UMC gives voting privileges to its African bishops, which is a blessing for the evangelical minority in the UMC here, and this is why the UMC has not seen breakaway denominations like the NALC, ACNA, ECO, and more. Also, the SBC is a unique body for evangelicals. It was once the equivalent to the mainline in the South, and (prior to the 80’s) its seminaries were not much different from other mainline Protestant seminaries. Like the mainline, it suffers from demographic changes, as much of the population shifts from small factory towns to major urban metropolises.

But Merritt notes another demographic change: “population data has always indicated that the mainline decline was mostly attributable to birthrates.” Alright, let’s set aside whether “mostly” is warranted, I am happy to grant it as a big factor. But that’s a problem, not a neutral determinant, as Mary Eberstadt has persuasively argued.

Lastly, I have to challenge Merritt’s comment: “Roman Catholics — also theologically and politically conservative — are also declining significantly. This, despite these groups’ evangelistic zeal, orthodox theology, and conservative political stances.” Really? The RCC in America is a different beast entirely, and to say that it has “evangelistic zeal” is downright laughable. There is, of course, a vibrant contingent of evangelically-minded, Vatican-loving, conservative Roman Catholics in America. But you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an average Catholic and an average mainline Protestant. There are complicated historical and cultural reasons for this, which I am perfectly willing to discuss, not the least of which is the “mainline” mindset of Rome’s past cultural privilege.

A Proviso

In closing, we have to ask ourselves about the importance we attach to these surveys. Numbers matter, as any dying church can testify. I’ve heard enough of these testimonies from mainline Protestant congregations — where sometime in the ’80’s or ’90’s, they realized that they didn’t have any kids in the sanctuary. At that point, there was no turning back.

Yet, it is also the case that Christians should have a basic expectation of cultural marginalization, which may translate into a loss in numbers. I am not convinced (not in the slightest) that this is why the mainline has declined so precipitously. I think the mainline decline has much to do with lethargy, privilege, and an anemic theology. Even so, the evangelical churches may indeed experience an increased decline over the years, not because of their lack of gospel but precisely because of their gospel. I am not saying that we have lacked privilege or that evangelicals do not have our own self-inflicted wounds. We harbor a neo-fundamentalism that is scared and irresponsible and lacking in basic integrity. If this were to dominate and overwhelm us, then we deserve what we get. We are also responsible for a capitulation to American ideals and social expectations, though this is an enormously tricky thing to parse. Is this why the evangelicals have fared better, as my liberal Protestant friends think? To some extent, sure, but it does not have the exhaustive explanatory value that they think — far from it. But to the extent that this is true, it just means that evangelicals will return to the marginalization that we once enjoyed.

One More Thing that Baptists Do Right!

Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and many more — all Baptists.

Thank you, Baptists, for country music.

“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” Johnny Cash and the Carter Family


Image: A river baptism in Appalachia (source: Southern Visions)

Evangelism idea!

March 4, 2014

The headline alone caused me to laugh hysterically:

Kentucky Baptists Hold Gun Giveaways as ‘Outreach to Rednecks’

No, this is not the Onion. I love the South, but this is ridiculous!

Goodbye, Original Sin

June 4, 2012


A group of self-styled “traditional” Southern Baptists have issued a statement articulating their view of salvation (the “traditional” view) in contrast to the Calvinism of Southern Seminary faculty and other Calvinists in the SBC. I have my own specific set of complaints against the “new Calvinism” of Piper, Mohler, and the ever-recurring same group of people at half a dozen conferences each year. However, their classical Reformed doctrine of election is not really one of my concerns, despite significant modifications I would make. I actually agree with Mohler that Reformed theology in the SBC is nearly the only place that young evangelicals can go (in the SBC) to find depth and substance. A good example, proving Mohler correct, is this recent statement by Southern Baptist “traditionalists.” Roger Olson has rightly pinpointed this curiosity, in Article 2:

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.

Free will remains intact after the Fall? We are born without guilt? The specter of Pelagius is near. This is well-beyond anything an Arminian would say, and it demonstrates a sloppy theology that is far too common in “traditional” Baptist circles. There is nothing traditional about this, at least not for those who have broadly followed in the Augustine heritage (including Arminians). On the first point, if a person’s free will is not incapacitated, then how is it that “every person who is capable of moral action will sin,” as the previous paragraph states? If we are bound to sin, then we are not really free. On the second point, if we are not born guilty, it follows that infants (or the severely mentally handicap) do not need Christ’s atonement. If we are only guilty when we have “personally sinned,” then only at that point are we in need of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. To be clear, I do not think infants (or the mentally handicapped) are damned. I think they are saved, or at least I have good reasons to hope that they are saved, but they are saved by the atoning work of Christ because they (along with all humans) are born sinners and in need of salvation. The logic of this “traditionalist” statement is that some people are innocent and are, thereby, without any need of the Cross.

Olson is right: “For a long time I’ve been stating that most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.”

I’m re-posting a comment left on Bobby’s blog, at his suggestion. The general topic of discussion was on the parameters of the Reformed label. Bobby asked me if I considered myself, “Reformed.” Here’s my trajectory-laden response:

I usually describe myself as Reformed or Calvinist to other people, if they have any idea what that means. Otherwise, I just say “evangelical.” I always qualify my use of the Reformed label, since a lot of people instantly think about TULIP. I’m not entirely opposed to Dort. In fact, I think the Canons of Dort are rather oustanding in many respects: e.g., the problem of leaving the expansion of God’s kingdom to the contingency of human free will. As I’ve mentioned before, Barth is firmly within the Reformed scheme when it comes to omnicausality (the term he uses, and which John Webster uses) and a rejection of Molinism. This aspect of Reformed theology is where I’m in quite a lot of agreement, as long as it is adheres to a synchronic (or non-competitive) double agency of God and man. That was Barth’s view, and it appears to be the view of the 17th century orthodox. So, in this regard, my only real problem with TULIP is the L, along with rationalist presentations of the U and I. In other words, if we interpret U and I in regard to synchronic agency and replace L with universal atonement, then we’ve got a form of Reformed theology that I am happy to call my own. That’s a good example of working within the Reformed confessional tradition, pushing the boundaries, and not making the confessional standards on par with Scripture.

I do like the label, “free church.” Barth himself was both Reformed and free church in his approach to theology and his view of the church. His understanding of confessional subscription (vis-a-vis Scripture) is virtually identical with a lot of Baptist theologians, including Southern Baptist theologians. The Southern Baptist confessional heritage begins with the London Baptist Confession (17th century), then the Philadelphia Confession (18th century), then the New Hampshire Confession (19th century), and then the Baptist Faith and Message (20th century), now in its third revision in order to add complementarian gender roles and to affirm God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. This continual revision of confessional standards is a very good thing, and it is something I greatly admire about the SBC. Interestingly, the London and Philly confessions were strongly federal — essentially rewrites of the Westminster Confession — but this Calvinism was then mitigated with the New Hampshire Confession and then the BFM. If you read the BFM, you will see that it still stands within a broadly Reformed confessional tradition. Here is the article on election:

“Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility. [paragraph break] All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. ”

That’s pure Calvinism, if you ask me. The whole point about how election “comprehends all the means in connection with the end” is a classic Reformed qualification, going back to the Westminster Confession (article 3) and before that. This sort of revision and updating is exactly what the PCA, OPC, URC, etc. need, but I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

Unless you are a true theology nerd, you probably didn’t get half of that.

Baptism, latest musings

November 15, 2010

As some of you know, I’ve been working through the doctrine of baptism, off and on, for the last year or so. I’ve read all or parts of some of the most well-known treatments of the subject: Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament (credobaptist), Jewett’s Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (credobaptist), Cullmann’s Baptism in the New Testament (paedobaptist), Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations (paedobaptist), Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.4 (credobaptist), Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church (credobaptist), and the relevant portions of Calvin’s Institutes (paedobaptist) and Thielicke’s The Evangelical Faith (paedobaptist). As I’ve noted before, I’m most interested in the alternatives within a broader Reformed and evangelical soteriology.

With all that learning under my belt, you’d expect that I would have a fixed and certain position on the subject. I wish that were the case. I do have a much clearer understanding than previously. Most especially, I’ve come to see the importance of secondary results or consequences which arise from a church’s baptismal practice. For many people, these secondary consequences are the deciding factor in choosing between credobaptist and paedobaptist communions. So, what is the best illustration?

In a credobaptist church and family, the child is an object of evangelism. The parent considers his or her child as an object of evangelism in a very similar way that the same parent may consider an agnostic co-worker to be an object of evangelism. The child needs to be presented with the Gospel, repent, and receive Christ as Lord and Savior. So, usually between the ages of five and seven, Baptist parents will sit-down with their son or daughter and ask about his or her thoughts on Jesus. After the child accepts Christ, he or she will receive a public baptism before the whole congregation during the worship service. Thereafter, the child is considered a member of the body of Christ and, therefore, a member of the Church (universal) and the church (local).

In a Reformed paedobaptist church, the child is considered, or “presumed,” as a member of the body of Christ and the Church, or, at the least, as a member of the covenant. As such, the child may not be, as of yet, converted and made new (holy), but he or she is “federally holy.” The child is taught the Christian faith and exhorted toward continual faith in Christ, but he or she is not considered as an object of evangelism in the same way as the Baptist child. As a member of the covenant, the child would have to actively break covenant in order to be considered outside of Christ and his Church. [Side note: The current controversy over the “federal vision” is precisely on the question of how, or to what extent, the child is united with Christ at baptism.]

There are clear advantages and disadvantages to both positions, which makes the issue all the more difficult to resolve. To my mind, there is an undeniable and praiseworthy connection between Baptist baptismal practice and the effectiveness of Baptist evangelism. The Baptist puts in the forefront the necessity of conversion: “you must be born again” (John 3:7-8). As such, the child is ever-conscious of the need to trust in Christ, just as all others are in need of being brought to Christ. [Side note: This intense focus on the work of Christ has done much to keep the Baptist churches, on the whole, from adopting aberrant liberal or existential Christologies.] However, the emphasis on personal conversion is problematic, especially from a paedobaptist vantage point. The paedobaptist rightly criticizes the Baptist over-emphasis on the emotional life as an indicator of conversion. A particular experience becomes the litmus test for true faith, and invariably as a child matures and enters adulthood the experiences of childhood are questioned and tested against further developments in understanding. This psychological burden is largely bypassed by the (Reformed) paedobaptist emphasis on an objective covenant and the antecedent work of God on our behalf. Presbyterians don’t typically worry about whether they are saved or not, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing insofar as a person’s feelings should not be made the measure of faith and obedience; it is a bad thing insofar as faith and obedience does require conversion and personal assent to the Gospel. The Baptist can tend to collapse the work of Christ into experience; the Presbyterian can tend to devalue experience and regeneration altogether.

So, these are the secondary consequences of baptismal practice; or, rather, baptismal practice is the consequence of a primary over-arching understanding of the covenants and faith. When the exegesis is not entirely persuasive in one direction or the other, these are the considerations that become the determining factor. Thus, the relative values ascribed to evangelism and experience (the credobaptist virtues/vices) or doctrinal excellence and catechesis (the paedobaptist virtues/vices) are of great importance in this debate.

[This post is prompted by Mike Cheek’s comment, in this thread, that the New Calvinism is not Barth-friendly, from what he could tell. This also addresses some of Matt Shedden’s concerns.]

What has Barth to do with the “New Calvinism,” or what does the New Calvinism have to do with Barth? Well, nothing…or close to nothing. I’m defining the New Calvinism as the resurgence, especially among young people, of Reformed doctrine within a broad array of evangelical churches, not just Presbyterian but especially Baptist and other free churches. Piper, Mohler, Carson — all Baptists. And in the music scene, Louie Giglio (founder of Passion) and most of the artists associated with Passion (David Crowder, Chris Tomlin, Steve Fee) are Baptists, to some extent. Crowder continues to do the music ministry at University Baptist Church in Waco. So, the New Calvinism is a cross-denominational movement within evangelicalism, but the Baptist contingency is especially important — why?

The New Calvinism is not primarily an academic movement with academic concerns. Rather, the New Calvinism has gained traction because of deficiencies within broader evangelicalism at the ground level, i.e., at the local church. My previous post on “Calvinism and Suffering” gives an account of this deficiency and the attraction of Reformed doctrine. Because this movement is largely taking place at the ground level, the Baptist influence makes a lot of sense. The Baptists have done far more to shape contemporary American evangelical piety and pathos than any other denominational tradition. Thus, in order for a broadly influential movement (like the New Calvinism) to gain traction within evangelicalism, the Baptists have to be at the forefront. The Presbyterians can do a lot of the academic heavy-lifting, which does trickle-down, but nothing like Passion or Desiring God or T4G could occur without the Baptists.

So, as an intra-evangelical movement in the American scene, the influence of Barth is pretty much nil, and the vast majority of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” have never heard of him except maybe in passing. They know Edwards and Owen, not Barth. The situation is different if we look at the evangelical academy, where Barth is read and discussed, but the New Calvinism is primarily a populist movement. It is a reaction against the practical consequences of fundamentalism, revivalism, and prosperity preaching. Barth does indeed have some profound answers to these problems, but Barth is not really a figure of interest for the New Calvinism. In the academy, however, Barth is seriously engaged, but reaction to Barth is hardly monolithic. Colleges and seminaries like Wheaton, Trinity, Gordon-Conwell, and even Biola have an influential Reformed contingency, among teachers and students, where Barth is mostly treated with respect and even positively appropriated in theological thinking. At other places, like Westminster Philly, Barth is treated with far more suspicion and often as a danger to theological thinking (e.g., listen to this broadcast of the Reformed Forum or read Gregory Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy — Beale left Wheaton for WTS this year). Al Mohler at Southern would be another example of someone who considers Barth to be more of a source of ills than of vitality.

So, why am I writing this? Because I’m trying to offer some vindications of the New Calvinism, especially as seen on the ground level. When compared to the dominant ailments within evangelicalism — fundamentalism, revivalism, and prosperity preaching — then the New Calvinism looks pretty good. The benefits for the church, in preaching and catechesis, are undeniable, at least if you have any commitments (like myself) to Reformational distinctives. This is not to say that the New Calvinism is a comprehensive solution to all the ailments of the church. We can rightly complain about a narrowness here which is far too akin to that of the older fundamentalism. I’ve complained on this blog about an overly restricted form of inerrancy, to use one example, or superficial defenses of Creationism, to use another example, and both examples are prominent within the New Calvinism. Al Mohler is as representative of this movement as it gets, but this does not reflect the internal motives in the local church for the adoption of Reformed doctrine. That’s the distinction that I’m trying to make. If we look at the local church, the New Calvinism has been a great blessing.

I watched the report of the GCR committee given yesterday at the Southern Baptist Convention. The GCR passed, which is probably a good thing if it will result in some necessary fiscal and structural changes. As for the motives and rhetoric surrounding the GCR, I remain unimpressed.

The Good

Unlike the mainline denominations, the SBC is at least preoccupied with something worthwhile. I much prefer a committee report on evangelism over yet another committee report on human sexuality. The SBC can be thankful for that! The issues that currently dominate SBC energies are a far cry from those that are dividing the mainline and weakening the mainline’s unity with the worldwide Church.

The Bad

As I suspected would be the case, the urgency surrounding missions was heightened by explicit statements on the certain damnation of those who do not hear the Gospel. This urgency was then supplemented by an appeal to the conscience of those Christians who fail to evangelize or fail to fiscally support such efforts. The statistics are, of course, duly presented. The general rhetorical force intends to place the blame of pervasive “lostness” on those without a “heart” for missions. As such, salvation is contingent upon the work of those who bring the Gospel to the lost, both personally (e.g., witnessing to a co-worker) and through organizations (church plants, mission boards, etc.). Here, the operative doctrine of God implies a God who depends upon the initiative of his heralds. The salvation or damnation of any particular person or “people group” depends upon the resolve of those in the pews and those in the field. On this scheme, God’s electing purposes are limited by the reach of the visible Church.

My objection is that God could very well limit himself as such, but Scripture says nothing of the sort — because Scripture does not deal with the “how” of God’s call and regeneration of persons outside the Church. Scripture does not deal with this “how” because Scripture is concerned with the immediate situation of the Church where God has made covenant and the Gospel is being proclaimed. The lack of knowing “how,” apart from this explicit proclamation, does not entail a certain denial of the possibility. The internal work of the Holy Spirit, combined with the outer witness of a fallen but ordered creation, can very well be the means by which God reveals his promises to those outside the Church. That’s one possible understanding among others. We have to tread carefully here and perhaps not at all, but we cannot make the opposite error of treading confidently where God’s works and ways are not wholly revealed.

[By the way, you’ll have to forgive the picture. It was too funny not to use!]


The annual Southern Baptist Convention starts tomorrow and will be viewable via webcast from the SBC website. I cannot say that I’m very excited about it. The big issue for the past couple years has been the Great Commission Resurgence, and everything that I’ve read from promoters of the GCR has been dull and predictable.

Basically, Southern Baptists aren’t evangelizing as much as they used to — membership has dropped (slightly, relative to other large denominations) — so they need to start evangelizing. How do you get the people to start evangelizing or, at least, give more financially to domestic and foreign missions? Tell them that they’ve become complacent and deluded by postmodern cultural messages — oh, and remind them that, in regard to foreign missions, millions of people are dying and going to hell because they are ignorant of the Gospel. So, that’s what I’ve read over and over. Certainly there is much to commend in the GCR statements and reports. Surely we evangelicals are complacent and lack conviction, and surely we need to have a heart for those who have never heard the Gospel. (Although, I don’t buy into the “going to hell by ignorance” understanding of God’s works and ways; God’s electing purposes are bigger than the visible Church.) However, attacking complacency and blaming postmodernism is not a sufficient means for building a church culture that values personal evangelism and missions. Rather, Christians who delight in God, amidst all the secular forms that obscure his glory, will evangelize by transforming the secular, revealing its true telos in Christ, and telling others of this hope.

In other words, pinpointing the symptoms, such as complacency, is not enough, when the causes are rooted deep in the Southern Baptist psyche. The problem with the SBC’s emphasis on evangelism is that this has always and only been the distinct emphasis of the SBC. Southern Baptists have proven that they can do evangelism, but have they proven much else? Where is the catholic vision of an ecclesiology that reaches outward to include all forms of human life? Where is the discipleship that is sustained and secured, not by an intellectual sectarianism and emotional escapism, but by a disciplining of the entire scope of the human personality: reason, volition, and aesthetic? Where is the confidence, not in oneself but in the Lord’s work of a new creation, where we humbly attend to all of life (including the secular forms)?

Once these issues are addressed, the SBC may or may not have increased statistics, but she will have vibrant churches under the Lordship of Christ. She will have authentic witnesses to this Lordship.

If we define the church as “a free association of believers gathered by the Holy Spirit before the Risen Lord,” how would such independent communities ever come to the recognition of a canon of Scripture?

I was watching a fundamentalist Baptist preacher the other day — yes, I should spend my time more fruitfully — and he was harping on and on about how he didn’t believe in denominations because the church is nothing more than an independent, local assembly of believers. The only authority for his church — and other “properly constituted” churches — is the Bible. This pastor actually left the Southern Baptist Convention because of his convictions about the independence of the local church…yes, the SBC is too denominational for him! In other words, this pastor and this church doesn’t need “the church.” Thus, in principle, no church has ever needed a church other than itself, much less does it need synods, councils, assemblies, and other compromises to the independence of the local church. Therefore, no creeds and no confessions are necessary; moreover, creeds and confessions are illegitimate bindings on the local church. The Bible alone can bind the local church.

Of course, this raises one striking curiosity: the Bible itself, as a particular canon of texts, is a confession. The same justifications that give a denomination the authority to bind churches according to a confession (e.g., Augsburg or Westminster) are the same justifications that gave rise to a canon of Scripture. The local church needs other churches. It needs the witness of other churches to know “where to look” for the promises of God. It needs the discernment and accountability of other churches when it points to these texts, and not other texts, as the Word of God. As such, the testimony of the early church is given priority even as the Reformation re-evaluated the discernment of the early church in this matter, as in other matters. The Reformation churches, through her confessions, recognized the authority of the prophetic and apostolic texts as they have been handed to us, with the assumption that the Word of God was to be found there and, indeed, it was found there! From generation to generation, this assumption and this awakening sustain the church’s confidence in her Holy Scripture.

I have always liked the definition of the church that I gave above, which is roughly taken from Brunner’s very fine volume on ecclesiology (Dogmatics, vol. 3). However, I don’t see how such a definition can account for the authority of the canon. I don’t see how such a definition does not logically entail the clear absurdity of the above fundamentalist Baptist preacher, who speaks for vast swaths of evangelicalism (not just the fundamentalist wing) when it comes to this understanding of the church and the Bible. If there can not be, in principle, any confession other than the Bible, then we would not have a Bible. If the early church had operated with this “freedom” of independent churches, there would not — could not — have been a canon formation. Herein, the Reformed position, with the rest of the magisterial Reformation, has definite advantages and greater coherency.

[By the way, I am a member of the Evangelical Free Church of America, and I was raised a Baptist. So I am writing this as a criticism from within my own tradition.]