NBBC: Unequal and Opposite Reactions

I count Bob and Ben as friends. Our theology and philosophy of ministry are strikingly similar—so much so that we’re often surprised at our like-mindedness. We’ve fellowshipped a bit in person and quite often online. We’re quite close, I think. Perhaps that’s one reason why their angst over Matt Olson’s recent talk at NBBC surprises and disappoints me. I don’t understand why what he said has elicited such a strong response from them. I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t address the issue or that I agree with everything Matt said. They should, and I don’t. But I’m disappointed at the heat with which his off-the-cuff comments have been met. The responses haven’t been proportional to the original statement.

First off, let me say that I disagree with Matt’s assessment of the importance of Calvinism. It certainly is worth talking about. Understanding the inability of man to save himself-or even to respond to Christ’s invitation without divine intervention-is no small matter. Students should have drilled into them the fact that “salvation is of the Lord.” They should understand that conversion is a miraculous thing requiring the direct intervention of God’s Spirit to open blind eyes, not something sinners can simply come to their senses about or evangelists (small e) can produce. It’s vital stuff! I agree with Bob and Ben on that score, and I’m glad they brought the issue up. If educational institutions exist to serve local churches, interaction and accountability to local churches is a good thing.

That said, whereas the people whom I pastor would readily affirm God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s complete inability, not all of them would describe themselves as Calvinists. That’s fine with me. It may even be healthy. I’m not arguing for a head-in-the-sand, non-committal “Biblicist” moniker, but I’m more concerned that they understand the biblical data and conclusions than that they embrace a particular label-especially because such labeling does indeed lead too often to pride and unnecessary wrangling among younger believers. So in that sense, I can see where Matt was coming from, though I wouldn’t have stated it the way he did.

While his 10-second sound byte about “no-point Calvism” (which should be shelved) has garnered the most attention, I was actually pleased by the vast majority of what he said. He complemented Calvinists from history and said that “anti-Calvinists” are divisive. (When’s the last time a fundamentalist Bible college president did that? I’ve too often heard the opposite.) He warned against pride and hyper-Calvinism, which, unfortunately, he didn’t define, leaving hearers to assume that a hyper-Calvinist is anyone more Calvinistic than they are. Nonetheless, I’ve heard even Michael Barrett do that.

Was he shooting from the hip a bit? Sure. He was having a “chapel chat” in which he urged young people not to be sidetracked by a number of issues which he apparently believes are distracting them. I have no problem with that sort of casual conversation. Broadcasting such “heart-to-heart” thoughts on the internet as some sort of official philosophy statement was probably a bad idea. Still, I appreciated what he said about being separated to God and not just from something, about versions, about modesty, about music and worship, about the centrality of the gospel, about  changes regarding non-essentials from generation to generation, about the baggage of the term fundamentalist, about having more in common with conservative evangelicals than with many fundamentalists, etc. Indeed, he said much that was quite critical of the way things have been in fundamentalism, and rightly so. Good for him. Now, I wouldn’t put our understanding of salvation on the same level as non-essentials like versions and dress, to be sure, but I do understand that college dorms and snack shops often breed discussions on Calvinism that amount to shared ignorance and treat the doctrines of grace like a football to kick around for recreation or self-aggrandizement. If Matt wanted to curb such nonsense, I get it.

Another reason I’m disappointed with the strong reaction to Matt’s comments about Calvinism is that they were really quite tame compared to what has been said by respected men in the past. What Matt said is similar to (but more cautious than) statements made about Calvinism by Doug McLachlan in Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism, a book and author for which both of my friends have high regard. McLachlan makes the following statements in the book:

“The second stifling factor, which has contributed to the suffocation of evangelistic zeal in our churches today is an excessive Calvinism. Without doubt, the matter of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility has boggled theologians from the beginning of time. Anyone who thinks he has all of the answers on this matter simply has not yet heard all of the questions!” (RAF, 61)

[After arguing that both “divine election” and “an authentic exercise of (human) wills” are biblical]: “This can only mean that there is in the matter of personal salvation an inscrutable synergism, a mysterious working together of the divine and human wills. For my part, I have been content to say that God has devised a plan which insures the fulfillment of the divine will without intersecting the integrity of the human will.” (RAF, 61-62)

“Neither Calvinism nor Arminianism will do, for both tend to be reasonable or logical systems.” (RAF, 62)

“For the authentic Christian witness neither stoic Calvinism nor its antonym, frantic Arminianism will do. Instead, a balanced Biblicism must prevail.” (RAF, 64)

These statements surprised me when I first read them, especially in light of the stout reformed soteriology taught at Central, where McLachlan served as President. I don’t agree with him, especially regarding the point on “synergism.” (Yikes.) But I find it odd that this man and his book are so widely appreciated by my friends and other young Calvinists while a more reserved statement from Matt in a much more casual setting has been met with disgust and ridicule.

Another reason why I think the reactions to Matt’s talk were harsher than necessary is that, throughout history, whether one has been more or less Calvinistic has indeed been de-emphasized for the sake of unity and ministry, as Ben pointed out a while back in this post. Here is Ben’s summary of Mark Dever’s post on the topic:

“Mark Dever thinks these theological differences [Calvinism and Arminianism] are less important than how we put our theology into practice.”

History is filled with men who cooperated despite their different understandings on the finer points of soteriology. I think it’s unwise to minimize the importance of those differences, but Matt’s efforts to minister to or with people on both sides of the issue aren’t unprecedented.

It’s clear that fundamentalism is trending toward a reformed soteriology. In fact, I don’t think it’s even debatable. I’m encouraged by that fact. The fundamentalism with which I’m accustomed has been quite opposed to Calvinism over the last few generations. But Arminian-leaning institutions (like Pensacola, Ambassador, and Baptist College of Ministry) have stepped away from institutions like BJU, where their leaders once held great sway. In the main, reformed soteriology isn’t disdained as it once was in the BJU/NBBC stream of fundamentalism (not to mention fundamentalist seminaries, which tend to be even stronger in their promotion of a God-centered understanding of salvation). That’s not to say I’ve not heard messages from pastors and presidents that have made me cringe. I have, and I’ve been frustrated by them. But whereas Matt urged students not to be divided by Calvinism, fundamentalists of previous generations misrepresented it and blackballed it as unbiblical. Thus, with an eye on recent history, Matt’s spirit was quite refreshing (as even perpetual pot-stirrers Joel Tetreau and Jason Janz observe), though I would prefer that he go ahead and endorse a humble, thoughtful reformed soteriology.

Some have ascribed the movement of fundamentalists toward reformed soteriology to the influence of men like Piper and MacArthur (whose teaching ministries have been a great help to me and many others), but it has more to do, I believe, with men like Barrett, Minnick, Davey, Doran, McCune, Bauder, and the many men they’ve taught. Call me “exhibit A.” I grew up in a setting (outside of separatist fundamentalism) in which Calvinism was looked upon with distrust and passages on election were dismissed via interpretational gymnastics. Yet, I learned to appreciate and submit to God’s sovereignty in a fundamentalist university long before reading conservative evangelicals. Are there people on faculty at that university who are less reformed than I am? Yes, and I’d love to see them alter their positions. (Indeed, I’m confident they will eventually, as Spurgeon comically noted.) But fundamentalism didn’t push me away from reformed soteriology. Quite the contrary.

Christian colleges and their leaders aren’t perfect. They, like the rest of us, should grow (as Matt said). It’s perfectly right to hold them accountable for what they say and do, especially because they’re influencing young people from our homes and churches. But sometimes the criticism they receive is unfair and even contradictory. I hear college presidents criticized for not being accountable to local churches—for being laws unto themselves. But then when they address concerns of their constituency with a public statement, I hear them accused by the same people of pandering. So which is it? Do they not listen to local churches, or do they listen too much? Sometimes it seems as if guys in Matt’s position can’t win.

In conclusion, I’m eager to see fundamentalism improve. I think adjusting our understanding of God’s sovereign work in salvation and a stronger commitment to a reformed soteriology would be a great place to start. But changing the tone of discussions with those whom we disagree would be a step in the right direction, too. If we young guys aren’t careful, we can continue the mean-spirited diatribes which were a blight on previous generations. Perhaps fundamentalists’ manners need to be reformed along with our soteriology.

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8 Responses

  1. Bro. Anderson,

    I think the bottom line is that these are not neutral bystanders. Many of the younger guys feel that they have been hurt and betrayed.

    These guys are in a difficult position. They feel it is right to stand up against abuses in Fundamentalism and seek to do it with a good spirit, but that is difficult because of the long history of abuses and the distrust they have fostered.

  2. Chris,

    When you suggest that there’s a lot of heat in my post, could you clarify what you mean? When I’m being sarcastic, as I have been, I pretty much always know it. As I wrote that post, I thought I was deliberately editing that out and offering a pretty even-keeled, though direct, critique of an argument. Maybe it reads different from how it wrote.

    Not surprisingly, we agree on much. For example, you agree with my argument, which is a really big one, that MO didn’t articulate his point well at all.

    You imply that I want MO to embrace the Calvinist labe, but I’m not asking anyone to do that. I don’t wear that label myself. That’s one reason I think your quote from my old post is not germane. Dever is making a point that I wouldn’t back away from at all. But I know even you don’t think for a moment that Dever would ever say “there’s no point talking about” Calvinistic theology. It wouldn’t enter his mind to say that, no matter what point he was driving at. For my part, I’m always going to have more respect for a serious-minded Arminian than some atheological mush-head who thinks what you believe doesn’t matter all that much. (As I said more than once in my post, I don’t seriously think for an instant that MO is atheological, but for whatever reason that’s the message he sent.)

    You say he didn’t define hyper-Calvinism. I absolutely think he did: people who are always trying to figure out the mind of God. I suppose he didn’t define what that means, so maybe I have to concede your point, but the ambiguity of that definition is troubling to me.

    I agree with you (and Olson) that soteriological jousting can cultivate pride, and I acknowledge in my post that cautions on this point are worthwhile. I wish he’d made an argument that addressed that concern directly rather than minimizing the whole topic.

    I also agree that soteriology is a much bigger issue than the helpful things he said on other issues, which is why my reaction to the labels/systems/divisiveness comments eclipsed those tangential issues. I think I need to write another post to expand that point. Maybe tomorrow.

    On the RAF quotes, the only one that really troubles me is his synergism comment, though I wouldn’t totally agree with all the rest. Yeah, I think synergism is a really bad term to describe the relationship between divine election and human will. I read the book 10 or 12 years ago when I’m not sure my theological glossary was well-developed enough to recognize the significance of that comment. Or maybe I knew the term and just missed it. Though I’ve referred to the book in recent years, I don’t think I’ve read it cover-to-cover in that time.

    Finally, I don’t think I’ve ever blamed a college president for not following the leadership of local churches. (I have expressed frustration when presidents strong-armed churches—that happens all the time and I’m talking about now, not 10 years ago.) Rather, I think the responsibility falls to local church pastors, especially Baptists, for not practicing their polity of local church autonomy, instead letting the fundamentalist bishopric run their ministries.

    Chris, your response is welcome. I value your criticism. I do not dismiss it, even when I disagree with it. I look forward to the day when more men like you are in positions to articulate clear, exegetically-based, well-reasoned
    arguments to people in need of leadership.

  3. I really don’t this squabble is over Calvinism. I think the broader issue is that one side is happy with baby steps and the other side is sick of ’em.

  4. Chris — Thanks for this post. My thoughts exactly, especially your point about manners.

  5. I’m in correspondence with Ben and Bob via email. That doesn’t make for very interesting reading here, but there it is. I may try to address Ben’s comments here, as well, but I don’t want it to seem that I’m ignoring them.

    Jason Janz, I agree that the issue is bigger than Calvinism or this particular address. I think Matt took the brunt of broader frustrations regarding fundamentalist institutions and leaders. That’s why I think the response of my friends isn’t proportional to what he actually said, much less what he has since said that he meant.

  6. Chris,

    You called me a “pot-stirrer.” Hey, that’s the old Joel Tetreau. I’m now 40, which means I’m more into calming than stirring. Just an FYI. Please pass the word around there in the Mid-West. I’ve settled down Chris. I’m about shalom now. My new mantra, “can’t we all just get along!” I’m wanting to help us just talk to each other. I’m back in my lawn-chair, just trying to encourage koinonia.

    As to your post and the issue at hand.

    Nothing happens in a vacuum (except storage of yesterday’s dirt). Sometimes that which has been stored over time, comes to the surface when a certain itch is scratched.

    Perhaps our brothers who have experienced the Wisconsin version of fundamentalism have had experiences that come-alongside Matt’s comments and “influences” extra feelings that you and I simply don’t understand.

    This might be because fundamentalism has been historically much healthier in Ohio and Arizona. Just don’t tell any of our friends in Wisconsin I said that. I want to remain on their special-occasion chapel speaker list. I’m near the top of those lists now. Would hate to loose that slot now!

    Straight Ahead bro…..My best to the OBF brethriem!

    jt

  7. Chris – I think you do a good job here on this post. Your people are lucky to have a wise man like you leading them. Let me point something out that may be helpful. Fundamentalists and Calvinists (even young ones) have one big thing in common: We love the Bible and we are not liberal. Let me tell you my story: I am a member at an awesome Sovereign Grace Church in New Jersey. It was one of only a few choices left for me when I began looking for churches two years ago. Sadly, many of the “formerly fundamentalist” churches in my area bought into the “seeker-sensitive” movement, and they have gradually become liberal over time. The few churches that have remained “fundamentalist” seem to just teach morality. They seem to resist any and all change, and they are not reaching younger believers. My other choices when I was looking for churches were a couple PCA churches in the area. But… I am still Baptist and was not sure how I would adjust and hows the elders would accept me. It just seemed to me that churches like 10th Presbyterian in Philly have a higher view of the word and expository preaching than the drifting Baptist churches. This breaks my heart, as I grew up a fundamentalist Baptist. I miss the old days of Wednesday prayer meeting and Sunday evening service. I am happy now to refer to myself as a “Reformed Baptist”. It would appear that the Lord is using men like Piper, Dever and MacArthur to engage a young base of strong Christians. A 15-minute sermonette will not feed them, nor will a 50 minute rant from a conservative fundamentalist that simply points out the world’s ills each week. Anyway… my point here is to say that people like you, me, non-hyper Calvinists, and gracious fundamentalists have so much to rejoice about. By God’s grace we are loving truth and standing firm. With liberalism on every corner, we need to be very careful how we sort through our own differences. I hope that this makes sense.

  8. How much do current fundamentalists study the foundational documents of “reformed theology”? I’m not referring to the Westminster Confessions here. Nor am I Dort. How much time is spent in study of the Augsburg Confession, its defense, and the rest of the Concordia? Often among fundamentalists, Luther (and St Augustine even) is just a footnote. Much of lutheranism gets swept away (or easily dismissed) as too Catholic (it’s not). Its adherents as as apostates (especially if they come from a “fundamentalist” background) Luther did have much to say regarding this very issue (please re-read The Bondage of the Will), and he wasn’t a calvinist nor arminian. Just a thought.

    Loved the post, Brother Chris. I love your refreshing spirit. Yours is a “thinking man’s” website. I love it. Continued blessings to you.

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