Over the past week, I made an intentional effort to post some thoughts about the Southern Baptist Convention. Readers of my blog will know that I have neither blogged on Calvinism or SBC issues for several years, though I try to stay well-informed on both. I was greatly encouraged with the outcome of the Calvinism Advisory Committee commissioned by Dr. Frank Page and the statement they drafted in the spirit of theological cooperation despite having significant differences as various points.
On the heels of the T5 Statement and great work of CAC, I want to offer a constructive approach for the very theological cooperation the committee demonstrated and hope would continue throughout the SBC. Several weeks ago, I began mind mapping what I called theological identity and doctrinal convictions. I took that mind map and produced the diagram above. I believe it to be a healthy approach to robust, theology-appreciating cooperation that highlights the areas where we agree more than the areas we disagree.
When theological debates ensue, far too often I fear we begin with the tip of the triangle and assume or ignore the foundation. Let me be specific. When it comes to Calvinism, the thing people go to first is the extent of the atonement–the most easily debated topic among Calvinists and non-Calvinists. If we are hoping to forward theological cooperation, can our starting point not be the most contentious doctrine that divides us?
While in Houston last week, I shared my mind map and this approach to several of my non-Calvinist friends. Though they had some quibbles about the language or terms I used, they largely agreed with the approach, desiring to discover how much agreement we actually do have together. The perception, especially if you read SBC blogs on Calvinism, is the differences are far more significant than our agreements; therefore what gets highlighted are all the areas where we disagree than where we agree. I find this unfortunate, not only for the sake of potentially meaningful fellowship around theological cooperation, but also the amount of time and energy expended that could otherwise be redirected to forwarding a theology-appreciating consensus for the sake of Great Commission cooperation.
So whether you are a Calvinist or non-Calvinist, here’s my recommendation. Start the with the bottom–the doctrinal foundation of our faith–and work upward to discover just how far we find agreement. When we get together, let’s not start with the five points of Calvinism but rather the person and work of Jesus Christ. Let’s talk about our glorious Triune God who saves, how salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. Perhaps you are skeptical and think we could not get that far. But perhaps such an exercise could surprise one another and enjoy substantial theological discussion wherein we find much agreement. Danny Akin said at the Baptist21 luncheon last week he believes 90% of Southern Baptists are on the same team and on the same page. When you look at the triangle above, I would hope to believe this is true for at least the first three tiers of theological cooperation, if not more.
The breakdown or division in this triangle is simply a way to sort out my theological identity and doctrinal convictions. When someone asks me if I’m Reformed or a Calvinist, I simply cannot agree to a term or label without definition or qualification, and by using this diagram, I am able to show my doctrinal convictions with greater detail and specificity. Recognizing that not all Southern Baptists would not be where I am on the doctrines of grace, I still hope to enjoy theological cooperation at more foundational/fundamental levels without embarrassment or undermining the doctrinal convictions each person has come to embrace.
I suppose much more could be said about each level of theological cooperation presented in this diagram, about why I chose those terms, and why I positioned them in the manner I did. Perhaps you have alternative terms or tiers that could better serve the cause of theological cooperation. In any case, the point of presenting this here is simply to argue that we need a practical, constructive, and helpful approach to putting feet to the kind of theological consensus-building the Calvinism Advisory Committee modeled in their statement and support from both sides of the aisle.
As I have tried to emphasize in the past four years, my time and attention are devoted to the foundational tiers (Gospel, Trinity, etc.) more than the top tiers. I have not changed where I stand on the top tiers (or my appreciation of the doctrines comprising them); what has changed is the understanding that a five-point Calvinist in the SBC will serve my non-Calvinist brothers and sisters well if we could start with Jesus instead of Calvin, with substitutionary atonement instead of extent of the atonement, with repentance and faith instead of election and predestination. As we make progress upward, theological nuances and differences might surface, but let us no go there without first appreciating theological cooperation where agreements have already surfaced.
Whether your are a Calvinist or non-Calvinist, I hope you can find such an approach profitable. I am not asking for doctrinal uniformity in the SBC. If that were the case, I would demand that every Southern Baptist be a five-point Calvinist like me. Rather, I am asking for doctrinal unity in the SBC–a unity that unashamedly and clearly articulates the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our past has indicated that we have not been hugely successful here, but I believe we have been helped over the past year with a tone and atmosphere more conductive for doctrinal unity. Should God be kind to grant us gracious interaction that corresponds with our pursuit of truth, I believe we could see great good come of such constructive approaches for theological cooperation.
Regardless of where you land on the theological spectrum in the SBC, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. If you have delineated your doctrinal convictions and theological identity, I would love to hear about it and learn from you. Thanks for considering this approach, and I’d be happy to try to bring clarification or nuance in the comments of this post.