Friday, June 15, 2012

Is it time to Pick Luter’s Successor? (Does Anybody Have a Light?)

SBC politics are very interesting and sometimes quite disheartening to me.  I wonder who the boys in the smoke-filled-room (cigars are coming back into vogue you know) are going to put up for president post-Luter.  Does this sound premature? Cynical?  It isn’t intended to be – just observant.  In case you didn’t know it, there really is the equivalent of the smoke-filled-room in the SBC.  I don’t know if Joel Gregory’s description of early 90’s power brokers meeting in a hotel room to agree on the next pick for President still applies literally or not (it may).  Regardless, the equivalent of the smoke-filled-room happens today virtually if not physically. 

There is little doubt that SBC insiders compare notes before the annual meeting.  There is little doubt that a consensus pick for President is arrived at.  There is little doubt that directional agreements about the Convention are made beforehand.  The part that is most unclear is who gets included in the discussion.  Last year, the consensus pick was announced well ahead of time in order to head off any competition.  When, before the 2011 annual meeting was even vacated, Danny Akin tweeted his expectation of voting for Fred Luter at next week’s 2012 annual meeting, it was clear that the smoke-filled-room had already been in session.

I do not ever remember hearing a succeeding candidate announced before the term of the current year even started.  Why did this happen?  I know that a group of SBC leadership believes the SBC to be still tainted with past racism.  Changing our image is behind the SBC name change, and it also explains the timing of the announcement of Fred Luter’s candidacy last year.  Luter’s candidacy appeared to be arranged in such a way as to preclude any other name.  No viable Southern Baptist is going to run or nominate anyone else to run for fear of appearing racist.  The name change timing seems to be for similar reasons and handled in a similar way.  This year, 2012, is the year that the SBC power brokers determined to be the year we are going to shed our racist past in an overt and grand way. 

It was interesting to watch what happened politically when Richard Land made his unfortunate (and wrong-headed) remarks.  Every SBC insider spewed their coffee through their noses when they heard what Land said.  Talk about a way to derail the year the SBC ends its racism!  Land got pressure from every quarter until he had sufficiently repented.  I have no doubt that Land’s ERLC job was hanging in the balance (not just his radio show) as the plan from the smoke-filled-room was at risk of coming apart.  In fact, I expect to hear any day of Land’s retirement and replacement with another “insider”.  Never mind the fact that Land was an insider himself up until his ill-conceived comments.  I bet he will have plenty of space at his lunch table in New Orleans next week.

Why am I talking about all this?  Do I want the SBC to hang on to its racist past?  Am I a closet racist?  Absolutely not!  There’s no denying that the genesis of the SBC could have been under better circumstances.  I want the SBC to do whatever is necessary to demonstrate Christ’s love to the world regardless of race – just as Christ does.  Does changing our name help that?  I don’t know.  I never heard people associate “racist” with the SBC until the SBC started talking about it.  If it does help, then I’m all for a name change, but I remain unconvinced. 

What about the presidency of Fred Luter?  Will that fix our image?  It will certainly help.  I didn’t know much about him until his name was tweeted as the presumptive candidate last year.  He seems to be a very well respected, well qualified and Godly man.  He’s got great pastoral credentials and he’s been very active in SBC life for a long time.  He seems to be a steady and thoughtful pastor.  I’ll be honored to have him as our next SBC President based on what I know – which isn’t really that much.

So if I don’t necessarily have any real issue with the actions themselves, what is my issue?  My issue is with the way these things are done; the smoke-filled-room itself whether virtual or real in space.  I do not like it.  I do not like a self-selected group of people assuming they know what is best and working behind the scenes to orchestrate an outcome.  I do not like power-brokering, good-ole-boy networks and having an “inside crowd”.  If you’ve got an agenda, say so, and then let the Convention decide what to do with it.  Let opposition speak.  Manipulation is not leadership.  I want to see our Convention trust the body of Christ to do the right thing –  to trust that God will speak through it.  I want to see our leaders step forward and make their case to persuade.  Then I want them to step back and listen to the response.  I want them to accept what the messengers decide.  I don’t like stealth agendas.

Does this quiet cartel of power exist anywhere except my mind?  I am convinced it does exist, and not just in my imagination, but I suspect it could be about to fracture.  The new wild-card is going to be what happens between the “Traditionalists” and the Calvinists.   I know there won’t be a new pick for the 2013 President announced next week since it will be assumed that Luter serves his maximum two years – that’s normal.  It’s the year after that I want to watch.  Who will the candidate be?  In the smoke-filled-room, names put forth by either side may now be contentious.  The problem as I see it is that any serious candidate will come from one of the warring tribes, and the other tribe may not be easy to persuade.

Regardless of the factions, I want to see agendas come out into the open.  Light truly is the best disinfectant.  If you can’t be up-front about what you are doing, there may be something wrong with your plan.  If your positions can’t stand the scrutiny of the whole group, then you may want to reconsider them.  Maybe we need to get back to something like 2006 when for the only time since the conservative resurgence, the messengers rejected the insider, spanked the power-brokers, and chose Frank Page.  I think that worked out just fine, as well as sending a clear message to the occupants of the smoke-filled-room:  “Open the windows and let the smoke clear!”

Will a candidate from the smoke-filled-room for 2014 President be announced at next year’s convention?  I don’t think so, but time will tell.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Dead Man Walking

The soteriology wars are heating up as Southern Baptists react to the document released May 31 titled: “A Statement of the TraditionalSouthern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”.  It’s been interesting to watch the back and forth.  It was one of these discussions that prompted this post.  One commenter on a blog asked an honest and insightful question of Calvinists:  Is there one lynch-pin that you see for your soteriology that is critical and upon which the system would fall if it were removed?  There were various answers, but I think there is at least one lynch-pin to Calvinism that I want to talk about in this post.

I believe the understanding of exactly how the word "dead" is to be interpreted in Scripture is a core concept in Calvinism.  How you understand particularly Paul’s usage of “dead” impacts your view of sin and atonement.  How many times have I heard a Calvinist brother say to me, "Paul tells us we are completely, spiritually dead.  Dead men don't give themselves life!  Dead men don't do anything!"  What did Paul mean in Ephesians 2:1 when he said, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world…”?  I believe there is a risk in Calvinistic interpretation to dive right in to understanding certain words – like “dead” – in light of their systematic theology rather than stepping back and seriously looking at the context.

How much can really be said about what Paul intended about being dead in Ephesians 2?  What did Paul mean?  Who was he writing to and what was he trying to say?  He was writing to Ephesians, gentiles most of whom had come from a pagan background.  But these gentile believers were also influenced by the Jewish converts around them.  That was the occasion of his writing.  In Chapter 1, Paul is explaining to them that it is no accident that God is accepting gentiles – on the contrary, it was a part of God’s plan from the beginning of the world!

Paul continues on in Chapter 2 to give them more understanding of how and why they have been saved.   I find it interesting that he said “…And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world.”  How could they be dead while they walked (translated "lived" in some versions)?  I believe, as in other places, he’s using death to speak metaphorically to describe the effects of their sin and transgressions on their life. 

What can be said confidently about this verse?  Only that Paul is drawing a sharp distinction between the condition of being a believer as opposed to being separated from God.  He’s saying that before they were in Christ, they did not have real life.  What did that entail?  Paul does not tell us.  We get no details of what he means by the use of “dead” in 2:1.  From this point, each of us has to build our Biblical case for what Paul meant.  Paul does tell us that we are raised up with Christ and he talks about being saved - implying that while we are still dead in trespasses and sins we are lost.  That's obvious enough, but I see no hint of the Calvinist idea of total depravity. The Calvinist fits this verse within his system and states that there was no God-given spark, no ability to sense God’s drawing, no spiritual capacity whatsoever prior to regeneration.  The Calvinist excludes metaphor altogether here, and appears to fit the verse to a systematic theology.

Why?  Why do Calvinists ascribe elements of “death” to this verse that Paul never delineates?  Why do they not do the same in Romans 6:2 where Paul tells us we are dead to sin?  Why not use the same characteristics?  These would necessarily include the inability to respond to sin, a life of sinless perfection to be consistent with a Calvinist view of death as used in Ephesians – why isn’t this interpretation correct?  Maybe because it is clear that Paul uses death as a metaphor there to show a truth.  Why cannot Calvinists even fathom that death as a metaphor may apply in Ephesians 2?   It appears that it’s because metaphor doesn’t fit the system.  If Total Depravity means not one molecule of our being has any goodness remaining due to the fall, then “dead” must mean complete lack of any spiritual content whatsoever.  It’s proscribed, not derived.  I know, I know – the Calvinist will flip to Romans 5 and show me we are all born guilty because of Adam’s sin. 

But is that what Romans 5 says?  Not when I read it.  All I can say for certain is that sin entered the world with Adam and the result is that we all now participate in it.  That’s all the Scripture says.  Doesn’t say I’m born guilty.  Doesn’t say every thought, action and motive is wholly, completely depraved.  All this passage tells us without question is that we are all sinners, we are all guilty, and it all started with Adam.  In fact, if you are going to take these verses in a Calvinistic understanding of total depravity, you’ll have to wind up as a Universalist!  That should make some Calvinist heads explode about now! 

In Romans 5:15, Paul says “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”  To be consistent, if “many died” here means every single human being is automatically guilty of Adam’s sin by lineage (not by action), then why wouldn’t “abounded for many” in the latter part of the verse mean every human being as well?  There is no basis to make a distinction here defining “many” as “all” in the first part of the verse and as “some” in the latter.  In context, it seems clear to me that we are on shaky ground when we go beyond three things in these verses:

1) Adam brought sin into the world,
2) We are all guilty of it and
3) Christ has paid for it! 

I see clear unlimited atonement here – Paul is making the case for sufficiency of Christ’s death in these verses.  Anything more is extrapolation.

So what does Paul mean when he says we are “dead” in our sins and trespasses without Christ?  What we can say with confidence is that we are like the proverbial death row inmates.  We are “dead men walking” in that though we are alive, a certain fate awaits us if we don’t find someone to pardon us.  Paul is telling us we are ultimately dead without Christ.  If the Calvinist interpretation of what Paul means by "dead" falls, then their concept of total depravity falls.  If total depravity falls, then the whole system falls.  Is the Calvinist wrong?  Only God knows, but I would certainly hold those views tentatively in light of what Scripture actually says.  There are too many blanks that have been filled in by the "system" from my standpoint.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Calvinist or Not - Could You Possibly Be Wrong?

Over the last five days since SBC Today released “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”, I believe we have witnessed a watershed moment in Southern Baptist Life.  As soon as I saw Tom Ascol’s attempt at a pre-emptive framing of the statement, I knew this was going to be big.  From the literally thousands of responses, it is obvious we have a big divide not just in how we view soteriology within the SBC, but also how we view those who don’t share our soteriology.  The reactions and counter-reactions have been swift, strong, and often vitriolic.  Sarcasm, straw-men and contempt have been the currency of the realm in much of this discussion.  I’ve been trying like everyone else to understand why.

On one blog written by David Miller at SBC Voices, he asked the question:  What do “Traditionalists” (as they have started calling themselves) want from Calvinists?  While I am not ready to call myself a “Traditionalist”, I am close enough that I felt I could answer that question.  I stated in a comment:

This is easy for me. After 20+ years of searching, studying, seriously considering, teaching and interacting directly with many, many people on this topic, I’d only like to see one thing. I’d like to see the general, normal response of Calvinists to the “Traditionalist” view (or anything less than 5 points) to be: “I still believe the stronger case is made for Calvinism, but I see how you can be consistent and Biblical and view it that way. Maybe you’re correct.” That’s all I want. 
If that became the standard response, any issues I have are solved. If that can’t be said, then it’s hard to cooperate.
I didn't give a lot of explanation as I thought the comment spoke for itself.  I've thought about it some more as I've seen the explosion of opinion and controversy on this.  I can genuinely reverse the statement above for my position - I really don't think Calvinism is the strongest Biblical view of soteriology, but I can see how Calvinists get there.  I don't agree, but I see they are working to be Biblical.  I think they miss the whole of Scripture, but I hear them.  I leave room to be wrong myself, but I don't see changing my views.  

Can my Calvinist brethren say the same?  Can you say that you see how I can be Biblical and not accept your view of soteriology?  Can you admit you may be biased and may be seeing things incorrectly?  I think if everyone could show some humility in their positions and a little respect for others, we might be able to get past some of the rancor.

Is it possible?  I don't know.  My fear after reading all these posts is that many on both sides don't even think it possible they could be wrong.  The truth is, Calvinism and "Traditionalism" are significantly different in their views of the ultimate purposes of God.  Calvinism sees every action, predestined as they are, designed in purpose to bring glory to God through his Sovereignty.  "Traditionalism" sees God's sovereign purpose as bringing human beings freely into relationship with Him.  I know, I know -- you can poke at these generalizations in a thousand different ways and show me how wrong I am, but stay with me on the point I'm trying to make:  this much difference in our views of ultimate purpose makes it difficult to admit the possibility that the other side could be right.

I call this statement a watershed moment because for the first time in my lifetime, I'm witnessing the non-Calvinist side show a significant level of organization.  I'll admit, there's a part of me that understands why.  The Calvinist side has been organized and methodically working to change minds for some time.  They've made enough progress that that the non-Calvinist side has taken notice.  In many ways, this is quite a victory for Calvinists.  In many other ways, it has led to a potential loss for us all.  I believe the organization and forming of tribes is just beginning.  This much effort snowballing this quickly into a new movement does not bode well for cooperation.

If we don't all put down our sabers soon, a battle may be inevitable.  If cooler heads don't prevail, we've got the late '80's on our hands all over again.  So Calvinist brothers, can you say it?  Can you even fathom that others could be right?  Same for you "Traditionalists" - is it possible God's sovereignty works in ways that your view of freedom can't conceive?  Better yet, can we all admit that we're probably all wrong about God's workings?    Can you or I take the high road when the other "side" takes what we think are cheap shots?  Can we follow Christ's teachings and forgive?  Can we show some humility, or should we just go our separate ways now?

If you really can't admit that the other side has a Biblically defensible and consistent view, I fear we're in big trouble.  That much dogmatism in this much Biblical ambiguity is just not warranted.