Tom Ascol is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, Florida. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University and and M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Tom serves as the Executive Director of Founders Ministries and editor of Founders Journal, a quarterly publication of Founders Ministries. Tom also regularly blogs at the Founders Ministries blog.
Scripture Reading: Psalm 44
This is the 25th year of the gather of the Founders Conference. We thought it would be wise to take a look back to see where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. There is a denominational context to Founders. We are Southern Baptists, but we are sectarian. There is a proper ecumenical nature to Founders. I want to recommend a few resources to you:
By His Grace and For His Glory by Tom Nettles (this has become a watershed book; it has never been refuted)
Ready for Reformation? by Tom Nettles (a program for what SBC must be willing to do to go in the right direction)
Timmy Brister’s compilation of the current controversy of Calvinism
In 1983 when this ministry began, we realized that the theological convictions we held were the same convictions of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention. I was a student at SWBTS and Fred Malone was a Ph.D. student there as well. One of the professors invited was Curtis Vaughn. When Russell Dilday, president of SWBTS stood against the conference, Professor Vaughn came to their defense, and the conference commenced.
We believe that the SBC was rocked in the cradle of Calvinism. However, there has been significant theological breakdown in the 20th century. The consensus of Calvinism broke down around 1910-1920. One breakdown is theological (liberalism), and the other is practical (pragmatism). The theological breakdown came through the influence of E.Y. Mullins. He opened the door to liberalizing tendencies (though himself not a liberal) by his emphasis of the priority of religious experience over biblical authority. His influence was significant, and he was weary of the theological method predominant in evangelical and Southern Baptist life. He heightened the role of personal experience in Christianity. He became a great champion of soul competency and was distorted into the view that every tub must sit on its own bottom. Everyone must determine for himself what is right or wrong, jettisoning any role for the authority of Scripture. The seeds of neo-orthodoxy and even liberalism thus crept into the SBC.
Along with the theological influence, there is the influence of unprincipled pragmatism. The SBC came out with the “75 million campaign” which to raise $75 million for education, missions, and benevolence. I.E. Reynolds wrote a song to promote this campaign to be sung to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” called “When the Millions Come Pouring In” (Ascol erupts in singing this little ditty). $92 million was pledged, $12 million actually came in by that time. What happened was soon discovered, namely that much of the pledges were exaggerated. During that time, confidence in the denominational agencies wavered with money being embezzled, depression was beginning, and the SBC was in severe crisis. Many denominational leaders made bringing the money in the number one priority, with doctrinal fidelity subjected even to this goal. The emphasis of “we’ve got to get the money coming in” made it such that the SBC could not afford theological disagreements. The triumph of pragmatism continued for the next 30 years. Neo-orthodoxy is the kissing cousin of liberalism, using the same terminology of conservatives but a liberal dictionary. The Christian Life Commission advocated a woman’s right to abortion when it became the law of the land. Southern Baptists were in desperate need of a reformation.
Under the leadership of Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, a strategy was developed to win the SBC presidency and appoint conservative trustees at all SBC entities. That plan worked to bring about the Conservative Resurgence over the past 25 years. We have much to thank God for because of this. We now have all our seminaries and their professors holding to the inerrancy of Scripture. Praise God for that, and for those who would lay their lives on the line to make this possible. We were quickly heading to the wastelands that other denominations had landed. It was in that early context of the inerrancy movement that the Founders Ministries began. Ernie Reisinger and Tom Nettles were two of the leading proponents of the doctrines of grace during this time. Movements were also being made on seminary campuses among the students.
One of the unintended benefits of the inerrancy controversy was an emphasis on the sufficiency of Scripture which revealed a theological matrix and confessional grounding of the sovereignty of God in salvation. What should we believe about the nature of God in salvation? As the inerrancy movement gained momentum, exposure to the historical Reformed roots of the SBC surfaced. Richard Land, in a counter-point debate, argued that Baptist prior to the SBC argued that they were distinctively Reformed. Bill Leonard on the left then critiqued Land’s presentation. Leonard argued, “How can you not emphasize the Reformer’s emphasis on inerrancy and yet hold to their doctrines such as unlimited atonement and unconditional election? For the Founders, it was a total package.” Leonard was right. Those not committed to Reformed teaching have had a difficulty accepting the reality the coextensive realities of the absolute sovereignty of God and the total responsibility of man.
Well, twenty-eight years later, a lot has changed. Denominational pride has been left in the wake of the Conservative Resurgence. Malcolm Yarnell in his paper “The Heart of the Baptist” asserted that the SBC is the healthiest part of the Baptist family. The lack of church discipline, superficial evangelism bringing about spurious converts, and the unregenerate church membership reflects a denomination that is not healthy. Moreover, bureaucratic inertia has set in, and Timothy George’s prophetic declaration that “one bureaucracy replaced by another bureaucracy does not a reformation make” is ever true.
The formal principle (inerrancy) has been recovered, but the material principle (what does the Scripture say?) of reform has yet to be recovered. There are many hopeful signs of this time. There is a re-theologizing of the SBC. Theology is becoming a point of dialogue. We now live in a day where denominational leaders are not able to get away with foolish doctrinal assertions. For instance, in the last year there have been two state conventions have sent anti-Reformed messages to pastors of their respective state. However, contrary to years past, these leaders of the state conventions have not been able to get away with their agenda without being held accountable. I am also encouraged by public calls and emphasis of non-Calvinists for theological integrity in the SBC. Two examples include Dr. Danny Akin in his letter (“A Plea for Theological Integrity”) to the SEBTS family, and Bill Curtis with his open letter of response to Bill Harrell, the chairman of the Executive Committee. My point is this: when theological foolish statements are made, they are being held up to accountability, and that is a good thing.
There have also been a growing involvement and engagement over the issue of Calvinism. There has been the discussion of Drs. Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson last year in Greensboro, the confluence of the Baptist Identity Conference, and the most promising meeting later this year at Ridgecrest, “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism.” On a smaller yet continual level, discussion and interaction over the doctrines of grace is occurring every day on the Internet and blogosphere.
Today, we are assuming too much. We assume the gospel. We assume our churches are healthy. We assume we are preaching biblical, Christ-centered sermons. When we have recovered the inerrancy of Scripture, there are major pulpits today which are preaching Christless sermons. We must come back to understanding that all of Scripture is about Jesus Christ. We must get back to doctrinal preaching and gospel-driven churches. We evangelism that does not leave out the evangel.
The kind of Southern Baptists we need today are those who understand that we do not need the SBC. There are some wonderful things about it, but the kingdom of God is not hinged on the SBC. With that attitude, the denominational leaders and power brokers do not have one thing we want, and we do not have one thing that they can take. We must continue to work for reformation within and without the SBC. Go and read Revelation 2-3. Recommit yourselves to the local church. We do not need to count ourselves as better evaluators of churches than Jesus Christ. We must labor for the recovery of the gospel and the reformation of the local church.
This message contained a ton of historical references, quotes of Spurgeon, and documents that I was not able to recount. With that said, I strongly encourage you to make sure you get a copy of this message. Let me just say that Tom’s message was full of optimism and encouragement, shedding light on recent developments within the SBC. For a young Southern Baptist sitting under the tutelage of men committed to the truth and persevered for decades in laboring for the gospel and Christ’s Church has been especially significant for me. In the pulpit and more-so in the pew are men and women who have for labored for reform in the church and stood for the gospel longer than I have been alive. I am indebted to their efforts, and I hope that in my generation and for those that follow, I can be found faithful and enduring in the work they have so sacrificially left behind.