Charles Finney, Cooperation, and the GCR

Tim Brister —  November 17, 2009 — 14 Comments

Over at Between the Times, Drs. Danny Akin and Bruce Ashford have continued their excellent series on “Seven Crucial Aspects of Our Mission” (which is broken down in true Puritan style of multiple sub-points and cases) with an article focusing on cooperation between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  As you know, this issue has been with us for a very long time, and during the more heated moments in recent SBC life, I was documenting all the events, articles, and commentary that was taking place.

Having been involved in Southern Baptist discourse for the past 6-7 years (I know, I’m young), I would argue that the relations between Calvinists and non-Calvinists is the best that it has been.  The rhetoric and caricatures are rare, and the conversation between those with soteriological differences has increased, especially with the advent of Twitter.  I know it’s crazy, but Twitter as a social-networking platform has interconnected Southern Baptists in a form of internet community that would otherwise not exist in real life.  I’m not sure as to why or how this has happened, but perhaps “following” each other has allowed us to see that those with whom we disagree are not as bad as we think they are.  They love Jesus, desire to honor Him in faithfully preaching His Word, and are genuinely seeking to make a difference for the glory of God.  Having the opportunity to see glimpses into the lives of people who otherwise would be a faceless name or distant interlocutor makes you think twice before lobbing bombs at one another.  We are not enemies.  We are brothers in the trenches seeking to advance the kingdom against our common enemy, the devil.

Over the years that I have been blogging, I believe it can be said that I have matured, those with whom I have disagreed have matured, and hopefully my fellow Calvinist friends have matured as well.  That maturity does not mean a compromise in our convictions but rather a more gracious disposition to hope all things in love rather than criticize all things in spite.  The appeal that Akin and Ashford make for Southern Baptists to cooperate is one that I urge all my Calvinist friends to heed.  At one point when I was a convinced non-Calvinist, I had a determined Calvinist friend who sat me down at a state convention and said, “Unless you become a five-point Calvinist, you will never be effectively used in ministry.”  I won’t ever forget that, and God by His grace drew me to an understanding of the doctrines of grace in spite of, not because of, such comments.  To my Reformed friends, don’t be that guy.

On the other hand, if I may, let me speak to Ashford, Akin, and my other “non-Calvinist” friends about cooperation with Calvinists.  In numerous ways and at various times, the call has been made for Calvinists to “put their theological cards on the table” and be up front with churches with what they believe.  (While all Calvinists should be transparent and clear with what they believe, this assumes that those with whom they are talking about understand exactly what Calvinism is.  But that is besides the point.)  I want to encourage my non-Calvinist friends to do the same.  You are defining yourself in the context of cooperation with a nondescript label.  You are what you are not.  Okay. That could mean anything.  Arminian? Amyraldian? Semi-Pelagian? Biblicist? “Cal-minian”? Who knows?

If there is to be genuine cooperation, let’s put the expectations and responsibilities on both sides.  You call for Calvinists to cooperate with non-Calvinists, but that could very well mean to cooperate with anyone in the Southern Baptist who is not a Calvinist without soteriological or confessional warrant.  You might argue the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as the confessional parameters, but how many churches and pastors of the 50,000 that exist in the SBC could articulate even a superficial understanding of what it says?  Even worse, should there be given an opportunity to query about what is the gospel and how one becomes a Christian, is there an assumption that non-Calvinists would have a consensus to say the same thing?  I have reason to think not.  Therefore, the premise that Calvinists should prima facie cooperate with non-Calvinists is fraught with difficulty, much of which could be eliminated if the same standard and expectations would be applied to non-Calvinists in the manner it has been for Calvinists.

Akin and Ashford argue,

It is our opinion that the areas of disagreement between Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists are usually not even secondary, but tertiary. Calvinists should be able to recognize that non-Calvinists are preaching “the gospel” even if they disagree on the particulars.

Questions regrading the extent of the atonement, predestination, and the like I agree are tertiary, but there are some doctrines intricately related to the gospel that, should they be given up, would alter the gospel altogether.  Primary doctrines that address the questions of  “What is the gospel?” and “How does one become a Christian?” are essential and fundamental, “particulars” where disagreement we should all be able to recognize as unfortunately jeopardizing cooperation.

For instance, if Charles Finney were alive today and working as an itinerant revivalist in the Southern Baptist world, I (and I would imagine most Calvinists) could not cooperate with him.  His understanding of the gospel, conversion, work of the Holy Spirit in salvation, and the nature and state of man would all be particulars that are not secondary or tertiary but primary.  You might respond, “Well, of course.  Finney was semi-Pelagian.  That would be an extreme example.”  Okay. Now let me put it into contemporary vernacular because I believe that spirit and methodology (that flowed from his theology) is alive and prevalent today.  If the response to the gospel message is to “ask Jesus into your heart” or “pray this prayer after me” or “walk down this aisle” rather than repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus, then that is a primary difference in how one becomes a Christian.  If the gospel is truncated, watered down, or altered so as to not offend, then we have a real problem.

The younger generation of Southern Baptists in the Biblebelt is in a modern-day burned-over district which some have called “the boneyard of the South.”  How did this happen?  In these places where the churches are so many and the culture so lost, how did we get here?  Where there is no marked difference in the lives of Christians than non-Christians, the problem is not sanctification or a discipleship process.  It is justification.  It is the gospel.  If Southern Baptist churches are going to rise from the ashes, and if Southern Baptists are going to embrace a Great Commission Resurgence, then we must not assume the differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinists are merely on tertiary grounds.

The future of Southern Baptists in cooperation around the Great Commission will not only be determined by how far we go on mission but also how well we know our message.  When we are not saying the same thing and are not handling the souls of men in the same way, this is no small matter.  I’m not talking about the finer points that are debated in coffee shops.  I’m talking about the essence of the gospel and what it means to be a Christian that is demonstrated in our rescue shops to reach a lost world.

My heart’s desire is to see exactly what Ashford and Akin are calling for–genuine cooperation of Southern Baptists with Calvinists and “non-Calvinists” alike–who teach the gospel, preach the gospel, live out the gospel, and plant the gospel in the areas where Christ is not named.  There is much work to be done, not only in expanding the mission but also expounding on our message.  May God help us together to get it right.  May God help us together to shine as lights.  May God help us together to fight for the souls of men and the advancement of the kingdom of Christ.

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  • Excellent post, Timmy. This paragraph bears much meditation upon and it is something that everyone needs to take note of:

    “The younger generation of Southern Baptists in the Biblebelt is in a modern-day burned-over district which some have called “the boneyard of the South.” How did this happen? In these places where the churches are so many and the culture so lost, how did we get here? Where there is no marked difference in the lives of Christians than non-Christians, the problem is not sanctification or a discipleship process. It is justification. It is the gospel. If Southern Baptist churches are going to rise from the ashes, and if Southern Baptists are going to embrace a Great Commission Resurgence, then we must not assume the differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinists are merely on tertiary grounds.”

    I think that you are absolutley right. Southern Baptists preside over a dying culture of our own making and until we realize that the gospel that we preach has been a truncated message that has innoculated people against the real thing, then we will not begin to see renewal. But, I do not draw the distinction at Calvinist/Non-Calvinist, but rather at the point of Christ-focus or human-focus. Calvinist churches that carry as their main message having good families and living good lives are just as prone to participating in the “burned over” state that we presently experience as much as Arminian churches. But, churches who proclaim and live out “Jesus is Lord” and make Christ the focus of their lives are consistently refreshed and renewed.

    I agree with you that “how” you are saved is vitally important. But, even if we get that all right, we can still make it all about us and therein lies the danger. Could it be that the vast majority of what passes as Christian ministry actually seeks to use God as a “means to an end” of gaining a happy, successful life for ourselves? If so, then isn’t that the problem that should be addressed? Jesus is Lord means something. He is the well that never runs dry.

    Nothing that I have said is meant to take away from your main point, which is good. It is just to say that even if we all make the distinctions that you are calling for, there is still the danger of being human-focused, even in that. Of course, to be God-focused means that the outflow of that finds us loving and valuing people (as Schaeffer said, we are sinners, but we are not nothing), but we must start with God and not ourselves for things to be in their proper order.

    • Alan,

      Thanks for your comment. I would not disagree with anything you said. Having a God-centered vision and trajectory to your philosophy of ministry and practice is crucial. I think both Calvinist and “non-Calvinist” can agree on that. I think we can all agree that salvation is the work of God, not man, though man is responsible.

      I have said it several times in the past, but I believe the greatest need in the SBC is the recovery of the gospel, and by that I am not talking about the five points of Calvinism. We need the gospel to animate our churches, define our ministries, and drive our lives on mission. I hope that in my generation the gospel-centered passion for life and ministry in the local church would be something that could bring a consensus and renewal for greater cooperation and kingdom impact for years to come.

      • Amen! Absolutely right. And with a focus on Christ and a God-centered gospel, we can all work together, I would think. I emphasized “God-centered” gospel there, because even if you are not a Calvinist, you can agree that God is the initiator in salvation and we are to simply respond, meaning that all of the focus is to be on Him and His glory.

      • Timmy,

        You said… “I think we can all agree that salvation is the work of God, not man, though man is responsible.”

        I often hear this comment, or something similar, and while this statement is true I have found that when dealing with the doctrine of salvation a statement like this can often muddy the water for those on both sides of the debate and lead to confusion about just what it is we are saying.

        Now, before I get into hot water with you over posting this let me just say that I am not looking for a theological squabble, I am pretty sure you can best me in just about any debate, and besides you and I from the same theological camp. No, want I want to do is pick your sharp theological mind just a little bit by asking the question; “What exactly is it that the Scriptures teach concerning man’s responsibility?”

        How one answers this question sheds a great deal of light upon their understanding of salvation and what they hear when someone says “Salvation is the work of God, not man, though man is responsible.”

        Grace Always,

  • Timmy,

    Thanks for this post and for articulating so well what others of us who are Calvinistic and in the SBC feel.

    I definitely want to be able to cooperate with any and all Southern Baptist churches, but I want to do so with a clear conscience. I am not troubled one bit by the idea of cooperating with a church that disagrees with limited atonement. However, I am troubled greatly by the idea of cooperating with churches who teach a non-Lordship, Finney-istic kind of gospel (i.e., a false gospel). I am even more troubled at the thought that some of the missionaries we SBCers are cooperating together to support are from such churches and may be teaching these false things on our dimes. Thankfully this seem to be changing, and these churches are becoming fewer and fewer. Sadly, the change is quite slow here in Eastern NC.

    Thanks again for the post!

  • Tom Hicks

    Hey Tim, good post! Question: How do you distinguish between secondary and tertiary doctrines? What makes baptism, for example, a secondary doctrine (I assume you’d follow Mohler in saying it’s secondary) and predestination and the extent of the atonement tertiary doctrines? Are predestination and the timing/order of eschatology (which is tertiary) in the same category?

    • Tom,

      To answer your question, I would say that matters related to the nature/essence of the gospel and what it means to be a Christian are first-level, primary doctrines. If you were to give them up or not have them, you would not be a Christian.

      Second-tier or secondary issues are not non-essential doctrines as some have attempted to argue but rather matters where Christians can disagree on, usually on an ecclesiological level (such as mode of baptism). In other words, Christians can disagree and still be Christian but not Baptist.

      Tertiary issues or those on the third-tier are doctrines that are within a confessional framework or denominational identity that people can disagree on. Those in your Sunday School class may disagree on certain eschatological issues such as the pre, a, or post regarding the millennial, or infra, subla, or supra lapsarianism.

      That’s how I would breakdown the theological triage. It is a helpful, though not perfect, theological tool to differentiate matters “of first importance” as Paul would explain in 1 Cor. 15 versus eating meat.

      • Tom Hicks

        Thanks Tim!

  • I agree completely. Excellent post. However, I believe Finney was a full-Pelagian, not a semi-Pelagian.

  • I agree Timmy. Our Brothers cannot define themselves simply be saying “I am not like you.” “Where are you not like us?”
    A weakness of the “reformation of SEBTS” when I was there (96-00) was that Finney was celebrated for his fire and methods of evangelism, but no one openly challenged his theology and ideas of the gospel but for a few students who were reading those nasty Banner of Truth, Sprinkle Pubs and Founders books.
    I hope that has changed greatly.

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  • Good thoughts Tim.

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