As the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention convenes this morning in Houston, theological issues will be ever close at hand. This is as it should be, for Baptists are a theological people. The history of the Southern Baptist Convention has been a legacy of significant doctrinal debates and controversies — most of them over issues that matter. There is no embarrassment in this, for the only way to avoid doctrinal debate is to assume a lowest-common-denominator level of doctrine that is unworthy of a people committed to the Gospel of Christ.
In other words, doctrinal controversy and debate can be a sign of denominational vitality, rather than an assured sign of denominational trouble. The key word in that sentence is can. There is no assurance that doctrinal controversy will stay healthy and vital. It is up to the participants in a controversy to keep it healthy and the entire denomination has the responsibility to urge participants to be respectful, honest, and Gospel-centered.
In recent years, Calvinism has been the focus of intense debate within the Southern Baptist Convention. There are influential figures within the SBC who fervently desire the denomination to move in a more explicitly and comprehensively Calvinistic direction. There are others who are just as fervently committed to prevent that from taking place. This debate is partly generational, partly theological, and, more recently, intensely personal.
A year ago, SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page announced his intention to form a Calvinism Advisory Task Force to advise him about this issue. He also hoped that the task force, made up of figures on all sides of the debate, could model the way such a controversy should be handled and discussion should be conducted. Just prior to the convention meeting, that task force released its report, a statement entitled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.”
That report, excerpted and linked below, was unanimously adopted by all members of the task force. I, along with Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi, were the primary drafters of the statement. We worked together at the request of Dr. Page and Dr. David S. Dockery, President of Union University, who were co-chairmen of the committee. Eric and I worked for several weeks, and spent intensive time working on the text of the statement. Eric and I come from different positions in this controversy. I am publicly known as one committed to a Reformed soteriology. Eric is well known as one who would not hold to a Reformed soteriology. We are both very committed to our theological convictions. They are indeed convictions, not just convenient positions. We believe our convictions to be deeply grounded in the Bible and in biblical theology. We disagree on many issues.
At the same time, we are both Southern Baptists. We are also Southern Baptists by conviction and long heritage. Eric and I are both committed to the heritage of the SBC, and to its future. We worked together because we were assigned to do so, but also because we were both willing to do so. Our willingness grew out of those very convictions.
We had to work with intensity in writing this statement. The experience of working together meant that we had to work hard to understand what the other was saying, and what he was meaning to say. We were then able, on behalf of the larger task force, to compose a statement in a sincere attempt to state what we believe together, where we disagree, and how we intend to work together despite disagreements.
We started out committed to a great core of doctrinal convictions. We worked together to state accurately and honestly our commitment to our own doctrinal convictions and concerns. Throughout the process we were committed to the Southern Baptist Convention and to the work of the Great Commission for which this denomination was formed and for which it exists to this day. As we did so, we were also committed to each other. In the end, that was absolutely crucial. We both thought better, expressed our convictions more accurately, and sought to respect each other, precisely because we were committed to each other as theologians, as ministers of the Gospel, as Southern Baptists, and as friends.
Our sincere hope is that Southern Baptists will be served by this statement. It is an honest statement of great common agreement, and of significant disagreement. That ground of vast agreement on the Gospel and Baptist convictions, mixed with disagreement over specific doctrinal questions, puts us right back where the SBC was founded.
The statement’s title is not accidental. The words are sequential. Truth comes first, then trust. We speak from deep conviction, based upon a common commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture and to the faith once for all delivered the saints. We trust each other, not because we agree on everything, but because we agree where it matters most. We also trust each other because we know each other, not just as participants in debate, but as friends of truth and co-laborers in Christ’s kingdom. We also trust each other because we know each other, learn from each other, and like each other. We are brothers in Christ, not just figures in a great debate.
Out of truth comes trust, and that trust produces a common testimony — even a common testimony about where we disagree. We are thankful that the Southern Baptist Convention is engaged in this debate, and not the debates over core doctrines and biblical morality that are shattering liberal Protestantism.
One symptom of a toxic theological debate is the tendency to write about one another rather than to talk to each other. I am committed, especially after the experience of working together on this statement, to pick up the phone before I pick up my pen.
The statement is now released to the Southern Baptist Convention, and the only authority it bears is the authority of a compelling message. We sincerely hope it is compelling. Given the Great Commission task assigned to us by Christ, we dare not waste one moment in a swamp of unhealthy debate. Based on our common commitment to truth, we can trust each other. Trusting each other, we can bear testimony together. And, by God’s grace, we can gladly serve together, even in a time of tension.
From the statement:
Southern Baptists are Great Commission people. We are also a doctrinal people, and those doctrinal convictions undergird our Great Commission vision and passion. We are a confessional people, who stand together upon the doctrines most vital to us all, confessed together in The Baptist Faith and Message.
Within this common confession, we sometimes disagree over certain theological issues that should not threaten our Great Commission cooperation. We recognize that significant theological disagreement on such issues has occurred with respect to Calvinism. It is, therefore, our responsibility to come together with open hearts and minds in order to speak truthfully, honestly, and respectfully about these theological and doctrinal issues that concern us, threaten to divide us, and compel us into conversation. Such engagement is appropriate at every level of Southern Baptist life including local congregations, associations, state conventions, and the Southern Baptist Convention.
This spirit of conversation has been the hallmark of the meetings of the Calvinism Advisory Committee. We have spent hours together in fruitful, respectful, and candid conversation. We entered these conversations as brothers and sisters in Christ and as faithful and thankful Southern Baptists. Our purpose was neither to resolve centuries of doctrinal disagreement nor to consume ourselves with doctrinal debate. Our purpose was to suggest a course for moving forward together while taking seriously and representing fairly the theological diversity that exists in and has been the strength of Southern Baptist life.
Four central issues have become clear to us as we have met together. We affirm together that Southern Baptists must stand without apology upon truth; that we do indeed have some challenging but not insurmountable points of tension; that we must work together with trust; and that we must encourage one another to testimony.
The entire statement may be found here: http://www.sbclife.org/Articles/2013/06/sla5.asp
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R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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