Goodbye, Original Sin

June 4, 2012

SBC

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.”

Alight, I can’t put this topic to rest. It’s not my fault; Dr. Mohler really enjoys discussing this, with “urgency,” and I can’t help responding. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, hosts a panel discussion at said seminary on the historicity of Adam (which I don’t deny necessarily, so that’s not my concern). My concern, once more, is his articulation of how knowledge works. Here we go again:

…Scientists by their very nature, by the very nature of their work, are doing the best they can with the data that’s accessible to them. They’re not looking to the Scriptures for that data; they’re looking at the natural data coming from the world. But what does Scripture tell us? Scripture tells us that that world is not going to tell us the truth. I mean, Genesis 3 tells us that that world is showing all the effects of the Fall. That world is showing all the effects of the flood. That world is showing all the effects of the ravages of human sin and God’s judgment upon that sin.

[emphasis mine; 43 minute mark in the video]

He continues with the qualification that the scientists are not lying to us, because the scientists are just following “as best they can” what nature is telling them. Yet, the scientists cannot be believed. Why? Nature itself is not trustworthy; we really can’t believe the empirical data…because of the Fall.

What does this amount to? It’s an overthrow of the whole scientific process — a fundamental dissolution of the basic epistemic foundation required to do empirical research. What is that basic epistemic foundation? That the natural world is not lying to us. We can actually trust our senses. We have access to the real world. I don’t exist in a dream state. I’m not subservient to mental representations of a reality I can’t know. Oddly enough, Mohler is more extreme than Kant.

My last post on Dr. Mohler’s article on evolution needs further clarification. Thanks for the feedback on that post. Mohler’s framework should be roundly rejected, and here’s why:

Dr. Mohler wants to frame the issue as a matter of naturalistic presuppositions in a systematic worldview: “The entire intellectual enterprise of evolution is based on naturalistic assumptions, and I do not share those presuppositions.” This is one of the most careless — and surely one of the most harmful — statements I’ve ever read on this issue. When geneticists discovered the cell degeneration in cancer victims, did they do this on “naturalistic assumptions”? Of course. When physicists discovered the speed of light and applied it in astronomy to gauge the distance of galaxies, did they do this on naturalistic assumptions? Of course. So, when these same geneticists measure the variations in the genetic code and determine enough variables that point toward hominid origins of millions of years past, are they working on naturalistic assumptions? Of course. When the astronomers measure the time it takes for light to reach us from distant stars (billions of years), are they using naturalistic assumptions? Of course. When geologists measure the substrata of the earth and create models (billions of years) to account for the accumulation, are they using naturalistic assumptions? YES!

I trust that you see where I’m going with this. Mohler discredits evolution because evolutionary conclusions arise from naturalistic assumptions, but Mohler would have to discredit all of natural science. The work of the scientist always follows upon naturalistic assumptions: that’s the whole point of what they’re doing — discerning properties and effects in nature. This has absolutely nothing to do with a belief in the reality of supernatural occurrences or divine governance: some scientists believe, some don’t. Whether they believe or not has nothing to do with their calculations as geneticists, astronomers, and geologists. Every example I provided in the previous paragraph stands regardless of whether you believe in supernatural agency.

Mohler’s epistemology of science is the quintessence of what we call “fundamentalist,” “sectarian,” or “anti-intellectual.” It is deeply harmful to the church. It creates suspicious and closed minds in the pews, and it forces any congregant, who wishes to pursue the great calling of being a scientist, to reject his or her faith. More importantly, the lordship of Christ in our lives does not require an Ancient Near-Eastern cosmology, nor does a modern cosmology harm our witness to his mighty works in Israel and the Church.

Yes, evolution, again.

January 11, 2011

I keep on promising myself that I’ll just let this topic go, but Al Mohler keeps on stupefying me. There is so much wrong with this paragraph from his latest article attacking Biologos:

As I have stated repeatedly, I accept without hesitation the fact that the world indeed looks old. Armed with naturalistic assumptions, I would almost assuredly come to the same conclusions as BioLogos and the evolutionary establishment, or I would at least find evolutionary arguments credible. But the most basic issue is, and has always been, that of worldview and basic presuppositions. The entire intellectual enterprise of evolution is based on naturalistic assumptions, and I do not share those presuppositions. Indeed, the entire enterprise of Christianity is based on supernaturalistic, rather than merely naturalistic, assumptions. There is absolutely no reason that a Christian theologian should accept the uniformitarian assumptions of evolution. In fact, given a plain reading of Scripture, there is every reason that Christians should reject a uniformitarian presupposition. The Bible itself offers a very different understanding of natural phenomena, with explanations that should be compelling to believers. In sum, there is every reason for Christians to view the appearance of the cosmos as graphic evidence of the ravages of sin and the catastrophic nature of God’s judgment upon sin.

Oh my! He really thinks the issue is as neat and tidy as choosing “supernaturalism” or “naturalism.” In case you missed it, here’s the thesis statement: “Indeed, the entire enterprise of Christianity is based on supernaturalistic, rather than merely naturalistic, assumptions.”

No, Christianity is not “based upon” the flow or suspension of physical properties and laws. Christianity is based upon the love of God in Jesus Christ. This love was revealed in covenants and promise-keeping which involved a new creation. I don’t deny that God’s self-revelation from Abraham to Pentecost, before and after, involves a series of supernatural occurrences. But, this hardly requires some “supernatural” criteria for understanding biblical cosmology as normative for revelation and, thereby, for dogmatics. That’s an assumption which Mohler never proves and can’t prove. It’s an all-or-nothing “worldview” game for Mohler, requiring massive intellectual blinders.

Also, what the heck does the last sentence mean? “In sum, there is every reason for Christians to view the appearance of the cosmos as graphic evidence of the ravages of sin and the catastrophic nature of God’s judgment upon sin.” That’s how Mohler accounts for the incontrovertible evidence for an old earth? Really? How on earth does the “ravages of sin” have anything to do with the light-year span of distant galaxies or the decay of radioactive uranium?

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.

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!]

SBC

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.

The chapel at Beeson Divinity School (Samford University) is definitely one of the more interesting chapels I’ve ever seen (not personally, just pictures). I don’t know of any other chapel that utilizes the church art/architecture of the Italian renaissance as its basic form and then fills it with images and motifs from the Reformation and subsequent Protestant history. I’m a fan! But I’m sure that there are a lot of people who are not fans…including, if he were alive to see it, my beloved Barth, who was very much in-line with traditional Reformed sensibilities on this topic.

Here’s a nice video tour of the chapel:

FYI: Beeson was founded by Dr. Timothy George as an interdenominational evangelical seminary within Samford University, a Southern Baptist school.

Also, it’s hard to see in the video, but the dome of the chapel includes portraits of various important church figures: Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Bunyan, Wesley, etc. — even Lottie Moon! You can view the official guidebook here.

The Bible or science?

February 7, 2009

ky-southern-baptist-seminary-louisville

The Baptist Standard has an interesting and sad article on Kurt Wise — one of the very, very, very few “scientists” who have received top-notch advanced education in the natural sciences yet have rejected the evolution paradigm of any sort. So, what moment was decisive in Kurt’s decision? Here it is:

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Wise, a Harvard graduate who studied under paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, gave up his dream of teaching at a major university because he could not reconcile claims of science with his faith.

At one point, Wise took out a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors. Beginning at Gen. 1:1, he cut out every verse that would have to be removed in order for him to believe in evolution.

Months later, he cut out his final verse and one of the last verses in the Bible, Rev. 22:19, which read, “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”

Wise describes what happened next: “With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong, or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible.”

Dawkins called Wise’s story “pathetic and contemptible.”

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Dawkins is right. Well, maybe “contemptible” is a bit strong, but “pathetic” is right. I truly cannot imagine a more lame account of someone struggling with reconciling their faith with science. Dawkins puts it well: “All he had to do was toss out the Bible or interpret it symbolically or allegorically as the theologians do. Instead, he did the fundamentalist thing and tossed out science, evidence and reason….” Interestingly, Wise has long noted that the science indeed does support evolution and that Creationism has yet to yield a sufficient counter-thesis. In the meantime, he has to reject the intelligibilities of the world as it presents itself to us.

Sad. So sad.

And to top it off, Southern Seminary, the flagship SBC seminary and one-time serious theological academy, hired Wise a few years ago to head their Center for Theology and “Science” (okay, there are no quotation marks). We’ve come a long way since people like David Mueller (Barth scholar) or even E. Y. Mullins (greatest Southern Baptist theologian ever) taught at Southern.

edgar-young-mullins

E. Y. Mullins, ora pro nobis

SBC

First, what does the Southern Baptist Convention get? Evangelism. Baptists understand far better than other Protestant traditions that the Protestant faith is a pietistic and revivalistic faith. As much as doctrine may be inscribed in confessions, as much as church order and discipline may be practiced, as much as the sacraments may be emphasized — Protestantism is not capable of sustaining these emphases without the balance of personal conversion in a new birth (yes, I mean, “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”). Otherwise, the result is a Catholic rationalism without the Catholic Christ and Catholic conversion-to-Christ required by the Catholic dogmatic structure. Lacking the “Catholic,” Protestantism without evangelicalism becomes rationalism, of the sort abundantly exhibited by the mainline churches and taking various synergistic forms. While there’s much more to be said, I just wanted to register the point that Protestantism requires the sort of characteristics popular to evangelicalism, rightly finding their origins in both the Reformation and the revivals of Whitefield, Edwards, Wesley, and Graham.

This emphasis on evangelism is what grew the Baptist movement with an almost shocking success, especially on the fertile soil of the Southern states. I say, “fertile,” because the South was far less attached to or dependent upon established societal structures, such as the state church in England or the mainline churches of the North. This autonomy and individualism in the South is very congenial to the tenets of Baptist faith, with its most recognizable tenet being the rejection of infant baptism for undercutting the requirement of personal conversion to be a Christian. So, the Baptists grew and grew, and alongside the Baptists, various independent “Bible churches” and “nondenominational” churches grew as well, sharing the same Baptist beliefs. Today, the SBC, the largest cooperative program of Baptists, is the largest Protestant denomination in America. But, now they are not growing (for the first time in the SBC’s existence), and the leadership of the convention has been incessantly pushing for a “Great Commission Resurgence” (yes, with capital letters and all). The GCR has been a popular topic on SBC blogs and magazines, including the latest issue of SBC Life, and the popular mantra has basically been that the problem is “you,” i.e., the Baptist in the pew who is not evangelizing (or “soul-winning,” as it was called in my church growing-up).

Surely they are right. The problem is that people are not evangelizing. Or, at least, this is the surface-level main problem. And the SBC should at least be applauded for recognizing this problem (as anyone who has spent time in a mainline church can attest, many churches are utterly oblivious to the basic need to witness to Christ, with both words and deeds). But, Southern Baptists have heard of the need to evangelize all their lives. After all, they are Baptists and this is what Baptists do. Baptists may not do much in the way of art (like the Anglicans), or great systems of theology (like the Presbyterians), or profound ethical and societal philosophies (like the Catholics), but they can at least do evangelism — that is where all the money goes (the domestic and international mission boards). There have been programs and resolutions for increased evangelization long before the official decline in baptisms of late. So, now there is a new acronym (the GCR), but nothing else is new.

That’s the problem. Nothing else is new. Telling Baptists that they need to evangelize is not enough. This is not really the problem; it’s a result of the problem. The problem is that far too many Southern Baptists could not evangelize even if they wanted to. They do not have the intellectual and social resources to evangelize to our current society. This is not to go off on a postmodern rant. The solution is not capitulation to current modes of thought (a mix of rationalism and relativism). The problem is that (most) Southern Baptists are aloof to this mix of rationalism and relativism, and they have no idea how to proclaim the Gospel to those with little to no Christian presuppositions. Much is made of how evangelicals have capitulated to society (in a sort of American-style Constantinian complex), which may be true to some extent, but the greater problem is a continuing fundamentalist and sectarian influence on Southern Baptist thought. In other words, they are not secular enough. If you believe drinking alcohol and subscribing to evolution are anathema for a proper “Christian” life, then you are not going to get very far with the average “non-churched” person. Until a holism is achieved in Southern Baptist life and thought, an intractable barrier will continue to exist between the faithful in the pew and their co-workers at the office. How exactly I would suggest this holism is to be achieved would take a whole series of posts, and I certainly do not wish to devalue the importance of the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin and other dogmatic matters. I simply question whether Southern Baptists, and similar evangelical bodies, have thought sufficiently whether their congregants have a depth of understanding about those issues which sustain the particular intellectual vision of their fellow men outside the church.