Interview with Dr. David Dockery: Part Four

Tim Brister —  January 25, 2007 — 14 Comments

Continuing from where we left off in SBC cooperation and controversy, we pick up with questions regarding resolutions, the Cooperative Program, and Calvinism in the SBC. 

Resolutions

Brister: One of the most talked about moments during last year’s annual Convention meeting was the voting on resolutions.  As you know, the 58th resolution on alcohol was passed, and many Southern Baptists expressed a differing opinion on the matter.  On the other hand, Tom Ascol’s resolution on “Integrity in Church Membership” didn’t even make it to the floor for a vote.  First, do you believe a person must hold to the abstentionist in order to serve in any capacity in our Convention?  Second, were these events indicative of the future of the SBC, or do you believe there is hope of recovering the Baptist distinctive of regenerate church membership? 

Dockery: I am not sure that these two things are necessarily related. Having served on the SBC resolutions committee, I can tell you that it is not an easy task. The number of resolutions considered that can’t be addressed are many. On top of that, the committee often has its own matters that it wants to formulate. The fact that Dr. Ascol’s motion was not presented by the committee does not mean that Baptists are not committed to a regenerate church membership. I would go so far as to say that it has been and must continue to be one of our key distinctives. That being said we have to ask hard questions about church discipline, “inactive” and “non-residential” church members, and the practice of baptizing children before they are old enough to read. These are complex questions that are often easier to deal with in theory than in practice, but the hallmark belief of a regenerate church membership must remain a priority for Baptists.
        The alcohol issue has been discussed enough, I believe, over the past few months. I think it is enough to say that Baptists, at least throughout the 20th century in the South, were, without hesitation or reservation, abstentionist. That position, as normally articulated, has both biblical reference and a long accepted tradition across the SBC. I doubt if that tradition will be modified in coming years.

Brister: What do you foresee as being the greatest threats or dangers to the future of the SBC?

Dockery: Dangers exist on the right and the left. The Apostle Paul challenged wrong-headed thinking on the “right” in the book of Galatians. He challenged wrong-headed thinking on the “left” in other places, particularly Colossians and the Pastorals. The SBC is not in any danger at this time of falling into liberal revisionism. Southern Baptists, as a whole, still, however, tend to have an uncritical acceptance of culture, which can cause a variety of challenges. Postmodernism, secularism, relativistic pluralism – all of these are serious challenges to the churches.
       We must also be aware of the danger of a mushy anti-intellectualism, misunderstandings of the church, and a kind of fundamentalist reductionism. Our biggest challenges could well come from internal fragmentation. We need to pray that the virtues identified by the Apostle Paul in Eph. 4:1-2; Phil. 2:1-4; Rom. 12:9-21; and Gal. 5:22-23 will become characteristic of Southern Baptists, who can be a bit cantankerous at times. We face huge ethical challenges, particularly dealing with societal pressures on things like sexuality. We must pray that God will give us great wisdom and great boldness. Our confidence cannot rest in ourselves, but in Christ and His Holy Word.

The Cooperative Program

Brister: Some have said that the year 2006 was the year of the Cooperative Program.  More money was given to the CP than ever before, and it is clear that at Greensboro, the definitive issue, both in messages given and the messengers who voted, was a renewed emphasis on the Cooperative Program.  In light of this reality, there is a growing trend of churches who are seeking to do missions on their own, fueling the majority of their mission budget to their own enterprises.  First, do you have any comments on the renewed commitment to the Cooperative Program?  Second, what advice would you give to pastors or church leaders who are wrestling with how to best invest the Great Commission?

Dockery: I am thankful for the Cooperative Program. This ingenious program came into being in 1925, under the guidance of Union University graduate M. E. Dodd. The Cooperative Program has been a unifying factor for the convention. It has helped build some of the finest seminaries, colleges, and mission programs in the history of Christianity. People need to be re-educated about the importance of the Cooperative Program and help their churches understand the good that it has done before reverting back to some “semi-societal” model. The duplication of effort that comes when churches attempt to carry out their own mission programs does not seem to me to be as wise or effective as the Cooperative Program. Baptist churches, however, are autonomous. They can and should seek to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, through Holy Scripture, in the way that they deem to be most faithful. My fear is that many discount the importance and strengths of the Cooperative Program before they really understand how it works and how God has blessed the SBC through this means. I believe a strong commitment to the Cooperative Program can help ensure a strong SBC in coming years.

Calvinism in the SBC

Brister: Over the past two years, we have come to see many leaders in the SBC come out against Calvinism in the SBC.  From megachurch pastors such as Jack Graham, Bobby Welch, Dick Lincoln, Frank Page, and Johnny Hunt to scholarly papers by Steve Lemke and Malcolm Yarnell to SBC political leaders such as Nelson Price, Lonnie Wilkey, and Bill Harrell—the charges of hyper-Calvinism and killing churches are being made to diminish the influence of Calvinism in the SBC.  In spite of this, Calvinism continues to be on the rise.  The first Together for the Gospel Conference (distinctively Reformed) was not only filled to capacity but thousands had to be turned away.  Founders Ministries is amassing a large-scale network of ministers who believe in the need for church reform, doctrinal fidelity, and ecclesiological integrity.  Christianity Today recently came out with an ever popular piece entitled “The Young, Restless and Reformed,” highlighting the resurgence of Reformed theology.  Finally, thousands of young men and women are graduating from colleges and seminaries seeking to serve our Convention in the ministry and mission field who are Calvinists.  The warning has been sounded from numerous leaders in the SBC that Calvinists are either not wanted in local churches or they are not permitted to seek reform.  Dr. Frank Page, the current president of the SBC, recognized this “problem” and believes that the Southern Baptist churches are headed for “tumultuous days” in the future.  As a Convention, how do you believe we can address the differences we have, whether Calvinist or non-Calvinist, and work together to cooperate for the sake of the gospel, reaching the lost for Christ?  Should there be a formal forum or meeting to settle the matter and call an end to the mischaracterizations and rhetoric so that we build a better future for the SBC?

Dockery: I don’t think I would encourage a forum. I do think we should recognize that Calvinists and non-Calvinists have been a part of the SBC since 1845. When I was at Southern Seminary as a faculty member and administrator I developed a great admiration for the Boyce, Manly, Broadus tradition. That tradition was consistently Calvinistic. A person who was a hero and mentor of mine was H. H. Hobbs, who advanced the “arminianizing” of the SBC throughout the second half of the 20th century. I was able to spend a lengthy amount of time with him shortly before his death in the fall of 1995. I served on the staff at First Baptist Dallas when W. A. Criswell was still going strong. Dr. Criswell was a moderate Calvinist – or better, an Amyraldian. Amyraldianism probably represents the largest sector of American Evangelicalism and is well represented across the SBC. I think we can respect and learn from the various traditions that have shaped our convention.
        Recognizing that H. H. Hobbs, Paige Patterson, and Adrian Rogers, all of whom are definitely not Calvinists, have or have had vital leadership roles in the SBC, we can say that Southern Baptists have included a strong non-Calvinist emphasis. But we can also look at what is sometimes called the “Charleston tradition” and see the influence of Richard Furman, Basil Manly, Sr., and others who shaped Baptists in the South in the 19th Century. All of these believed in a consistent Calvinism just like Charles Spurgeon and William Carey in England.
        I think we must recognize that hyper-Calvinism has never been accepted as part of Southern Baptist life and today we should reject all forms of hyper-Calvinism. The same can be said for Pelagianism. It should be dismissed as well as consistent Arminianism and its teaching regarding apostacy. And, of course, all forms of Universalism are out of bounds.
        By recognizing that there is a place and has been a place for Calvinism, I am not under any circumstances suggesting that there should be a Calvinistic agenda in Baptist life. I do not think the Southern Baptist Convention should be a Calvinistic convention. That being said, I think if we understand our history rightly, we will recognize that there has been a place for Calvinists to live out their Baptist expression, which has been the case since the days of W. B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC.  I suggest that we reject any agenda that seeks to convert the Southern Baptist Convention to Calvinism and also that we ask those who say that Calvinism is not Baptist to take a fresh look at our history. It would help us to learn to respect those with whom we might have disagreements. In doing so I pray that we can move beyond confusion and controversy to a new consensus focused around the Gospel. This Gospel centered consensus, I trust, will help us develop a renewed appreciation for developing a theologically, historically, and biblically informed identity of what it means to be a Southern Baptist. We must do so because the programmatic and cultural identity of what it means, or has generally meant, to be a Southern Baptist since the 1950s has now basically disappeared.

[Part 5 tomorrow: blogging, worship, and a concluding word]

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14 responses to Interview with Dr. David Dockery: Part Four

  1. Very interesting series of interviews. I would be interested to know if he felt that such a consensus around the gospel will be practically possible with such vocal opposition to Calvinism from the current leading voices in the SBC. Thanks for the work that you have done in creating the interview. I have thoroughly enjoyed them.

  2. I have enjoyed reading the interview thus far but today I came away disheartened. I can appreciate the fact that the Resolutions committee has a “full plate”. I can also appreciate that they have their own agenda that they would like to see get to the floor. But I have a hard time accepting the fact that they thought it more important that a vote on alcohol take place than on regenerate church membership. This, in my mind, illustrates the divide that is widening in the SBC. Clearly, regenerate church membership should be a primary matter but evidently it is not. It is hypocritical, in my mnd, to call for total abstinence from alcohol but turn a blind eye to the morbid obesity that plagues our congregations and is encouraged by the fare offered at any church gathering in the name of “fellowship”. (Don’t misunderstand, I love the fellowships and the food offered, but how about MODERATION!)

    The other matter I found disturbing was the remark that intimated that those who could not read, could not be baptized. I know he was speaking about children but does he really believe that reading is a prerequiste for salvation? (I am assuming that he would not want to baptize anyone who was not saved.) Dr. David Sills has a heart renching story about how this thought process affected the lives of millions, evidenced in the life of one whose story he relates. His website is http://www.davidsills.blogspot.com

    As I said, I have enjoyed the interview Timmy and it has proved to be more illuminating than I had first anticipated. Thanks for your hard work.

  3. One more tiny thing. His remarks on Calvinism in the SBC. . . well how should I say this? His call for us to remember our history is laughable. Does he really believe that the average Southern Baptist knows even a little bit about their history. I would venture to guess that they (the average member, and yes this is a generalization but I would argue a fair one) could not even begin to tell you who Manly or Boyce were, let alone care. To get people to read their history, you first have to get them to care. Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think they care.

  4. Todd,

    I think you asked a valid question. Obviously, as you can see in the context of my question, there appears to be a contra-consensus agenda among those who do not want to work with Calvinists in the SBC. More articles and examples could have been documented. This sprinkling of documentation simply serves to show that (at least in my mind), if there is any systemic agenda in our Convention it is NOT to Calvinize it; rather it is to castigate Calvinism. If I could but tell you the stories from pastors and ministers who have been kicked out of Southern Baptist churches because they believed the same doctrines as the first president of the SBC as well as the founders of our Convention. I don’t think I have heard of one pastor forced to leave because of his Arminianism.

    That is why I was led to start the blog Strange BaptistFire (www.strangebaptistfire.com). The purpose is not to push a Calvinist agenda but rather seek to confront and correct the mischaracterizations and caricatures of a now defunct and nonexistent (yet influential) website called BaptistFire which sought to kick all Calvinists out of the SBC. 11 days after we started the blog they disappeared never to show up again. Its amazing what happens when the truth gets out.

    Dr. Danny Akin did a very noble thing when he addressed his faculty and student body about the “ill informed and sloppy” theology. I wrote about it here:
    http://timmybrister.com/2006/12/03/dr-akin-is-a-brave-man/

    I think gospel consensus is greatly hindered when the beliefs of our Calvinist (or Arminian for that matter) are not fairly and accurately presented. As long as the barrage of articles, white papers, and sermons (such as Jerry Vines’ recent series of “baptist battles”), I have to ask myself the question, “Are we really wanting unity in our Convention or another fight?”

    I am totally content to labor in the harvest fields with an Arminian who is passionate about the gospel. I am not content to have a rosy-eyed optimism about the future of the SBC when leaders in the SBC who know better falsely label Calvinists as hyper-Calvinists, that evangelical Calvinism is an oxymoron, that Calvinism kills missions and evangelism, ad nauseum.

    Dr. Dockery was correct to say that Herschel Hobbs “advanced the “arminianizing” of the SBC throughout the second half of the 20th century.” Did he not have an agenda? Where did the Calvinists then go out and say, “You cannot come to serve in our churches which are historically Calvinistic unless you tell us of your Arminianism.” Where were the sermons, articles, and papers that confronted the “arminianizing” of the SBC which was so contrary to the historical roots of our Convention?

    I think this younger generation which is so influenced by Calvinism is in part a response and rebuttal of that “arminianizing” of our elder generation as we have come to see how that theology has affected the local church and the individual believer.

    My prayer is that we can simply treat one another with grace and truth–gracious in our tenor and truthful in our presentation of one another’s beliefs. It is okay to disagree, so long as we can agree on the gospel and labor together with a clear conscience and hot heart to share the gospel with our lost world. Dr. Dockery is a great example (as you can see in his bio sketch of working with Hobbs, Criswell, Rogers, as well as serving as VP at SBTS) who has focused on the gospel and worked for its progress with both Calvinists and Arminians. For my Calvinist friends who are more concerned with theological one-upmanship than demonstrating the gospel, and for the Arminian friends who are more concerned with being gatekeepers of our Convention and churches, I pray that you consider the example of Dr. Dockery.

  5. Jeff,

    Having read the conversations about resolutions since Greensboro, I think your concerns and criticisms are shared among many. I have no idea what the Resolutions Committee goes through or how exactly they go through the choosing of resolutions to pass. It is interesting (to say the least) to see what resolutions did pass (among the many that were proposed). I highly doubt that a resolution on gluttony will make it to the floor in San Antonio. :)

    To be fair, I don’t think Dr. Dockery is referring to illiterate cultures but rather young children who are baptized at a very early age. As I heard Mark Dever once say, to be a denomination that is so against infant baptism, we sure are getting close to it! (my paraphrase) I am pretty confident that Dr. Dockery does not believe that literacy is a prerequisite for salvation. Rather, I think he is saying that a proper understanding of the gospel and what it means to be saved is necessary for baptism.

    Regarding our history, Dr. Dockery agrees with you. Earlier in the interview he referred to the “historicla amnesia” prevalent today. Dockery said, “We are a convention that hardly knows Furman, Manly, Johnson, Boyce, Broadus, Carroll, Moon, Armstrong, Robertson, Mullins, Conner, Scarborough, or Dodd. We barely know Criswell and Hobbs.” Indeed, anti-intellectualism is a real challenge today, and my hope is that my blog and in particular this interview will stimulate more Southern Baptists to take a look at our history. Obviously Dr. Dockery knows it well, and we would be much better off to follow his lead. I am optimistic to think that, though there are many who don’t care, they is a new and widening interest in the history of the SBC as well as the Church at large. Four years ago, I couldn’t tell you who Boyce, Manly, Broadus, or Furman was, nor could I share in the appreciation of the conciliar creeds of the early church fathers, such as Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedon. I still don’t think I know enough or have the appreciation of church history that I should, and as I continue to study where we have been and come from, I believe it will give me a helpful and historical perspective to address the issues we face today.

  6. In true Presidential form, he plugs his school! What a riot.

    Great stuff, Timmy. Thanks for taking the time to do it.

    I appreciate your questions on Res #5 and the Ascol Res. It still remains, as Paul Burleson immediately observed in Greensboro, that we are against drinking alcohol, but are ok with lying about the number of church members we have.

  7. Timmy, I think this is the best installment yet. Excellent choice of questions on your part. I love the way Dr. Dockery deals with the Calvinism issue. Had we more men of his thinking in our Convention, the “problem of Calvinism” would be no problem at all.

    I am in agreement with Dr. Dockery about the church membership matter of the SBC. As committed future pastors, all of us must strive to build upon the established Baptist distinctive of regenerate membership and lead our congregations to make the hard choices regarding discipline, membership admission, and baptism candidates. And, as Dr. Dockery said, it always sounds easier on paper than in practice.

    Personally, I believe that when God leads me to pastor a congregation, that the church membership issue will be one of the greatest challenges of my ministry (if not the greatest). Far too many church members blindly accept the old saying that “we can’t judge anyone” as a justification for apathy in regard to the status of non-active members. Convincing them otherwise will be a difficult task equivalent to the labor of Sisyphus… even when dealing with Christians who claim to hold to the authority of Scripture.

    And I can’t wait for tommorow’s finale.

  8. Wow, this interview continues to be amazing, informative, and encouraging. The second half of this part is the most amazing and encouraging thing I have read thus far.

    I really, really wish he’d addressed the issue of regenerate church membership a bit more directly, but his answer is pretty succinct. This is an issue that I don’t think will go away, and it seems he is trying to be circumspect here, which is probably wise.

    I continue to be encouraged that highly respected leaders like him recognize and encourage the place in our convention for Calvinists, “almost-Calvinists,” and non-Calvinists. I also continue to be amazed that more and more leaders like him are stating unequivocally that “consistent Arminianism” has no place within the SBC. Does that mean we might see a return to the culture of the early SBC, which appears to be, if not Calvinistic, then as Calvinistic as humanly possible?

  9. Marty,

    You’re welcome.

    Adam,

    Thanks man. I agree. The very idea of calling Calvinism a “problem” reveals the biased nature of those who end up talking the most about it. I would venture to say that the majority of people who hear about Calvinism do so from people who are NOT Calvinists, if not militantly against it. Imagine trying to get the facts about the war on Iraq from Al-Jazeera. Now, I know that’s hyperbole here, but the point is valid nonetheless, which is, we must be careful to be accurate and fair in discussion of all things, especially matters of truth and the gospel. Calvinism is not the “problem”–fairness and truthfulness is.

    The challenge of regenerate church membership is a big one and one that we cannot shrink away from. I think part of the problem is demoninational pride. Are we willing to admit to ourselves that over half our denomination is functionally non-existent and unaccounted for? I hope and pray that we as a Convention will have the fortitude and focus to address these matters in this upcoming year rather than expecting to hear resolution number 59 on something entirely irrelevant.

    Stephen,

    The answer Dr. Dockery gave regarding Calvinism is a fair and reasonable answer. I don’t know any Calvinist in the SBC who wants it to become a Calvinistic Convention. Rather, we are just tired of having to feel like we have to wear a scarlet “C” on our chest (as we talked about earlier) as though we have committed some ecclesiological crime for believing in sovereign grace. It is interesting to note, as you have mentioned, that Dr. Dockery mentioned there is no place for “consistent Arminianism” but there is for “consistent Calvinism.” Some would call “consistent Calvinism” hyper-Calvinism, but this is a misnomer of course. The link I provided (for “hyper-Calvinism”) clearly reveals what hyper-Calvinism is, and contrary to the assessment of Lemke and Yarnell, hyper-Calvinism does not exist in the SBC today (and if it did, it should be denounced with as much candor and clarity as possible). In any case, we must center our attention on the gospel in exposition, in demonstration, and in proclamation.

    By the way, anyone wondering what consistent Arminianism is, it is called Open Theism–the hottest heresy in the past 10 years.

  10. Timmy,

    I just knew you were not a softball player!!!

    Thanks for the hardball questions. To be short, I liked some of the answers, but many were weak for such a scholarly man.

    Thanks brother for not dissappointing on the platform that God has providentially provided you to serve Him from.

  11. DOGpreacher,

    Well, I think my questions came they way they did because I am not a reporter or interviewer. Actually, this was my first interview, and I didn’t know what questions I was allowed to ask or not ask. That may be what makes the interview unique, and/or it may be what makes it weak. I don’t know. What I do know is that I am your average Southern Baptist sitting in the pew who is sincerely and geuninely interested in the future of our Convention and the progress of the gospel mission we are commissioned with and stewards of. If God can use me to further constructive dialogue around the mission and message of Jesus Christ among Southern Baptists, then I think all efforts are worthwhile.

    As you can see, Dr. Dockery was very generous with his time and answers. Regarding my thoughts on his approach to answering my questions, I will share that in my reflections coming Saturday.

  12. Timmy:

    You, my brother, are not an “average” Southern Baptist! And I too do not think Dr. Dockery was referring to illiterate cultures, niether was I. The choice of wording is unfortunate perhaps, “practice of baptizing children before they are old enough to read”. I understand Dr. Dever’s point and am sympathetic to it, nevertheless, an understanding of the gospel and confession of Christ as Savior is the prerequiste for baptism, not an ability to read. The two are separate issues.

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