I was feeling small the other day, reading an exchange about brilliant scholars who read 5 or 10 books a week. None of them was me! I’m so far behind on my reading that it is a source of constant guilt. In May of 2013, my friend Mike Leake gave me a copy of his excellent book, “Torn to Heal” to review. It’s on my list. Trevin Wax, that same year, asked me to review “Clear Winter Nights.” I’ve read both and plan to publish the reviews before the books get remaindered. I’ve linked to and promoted Alan Cross’ excellent “When Heaven and Earth Collide” but never got around to the formal review. Odd that any of these guys still consider me a friend.
My high school buddy Chucky Dickens has a new book out – a tale about two cities – and I said I’d get a review written on that one too.
I have a plethora (yes, I know what a plethora is, amigos) of excuses – the Pastors’ Conference, pastoring a challenging church going through some turmoil and tumult, being grandad to 6 precocious kids, and twice-yearly trips to villages in the Casamance. Being terrible at time-management doesn’t help.
Recently, though, I came across a book that piqued my interest, “Anyone Can Be Saved: A Defense of Traditional Southern Baptist Soteriology,” edited by David L. Allen, Eric Hankins, and Adam Harwood. It was published in 2016, so it is cutting edge, hot-off-the-presses in my reading program. I received a copy from WIPF & Stock, promising them that I would review it, and decided I’d actually try being a man of my word. I read the book and then wrote my thoughts by the light of a solar lantern in the village of Dioher in Southern Senegal. With that kind of time on my hands, I got a little more into it than I might have here and the result is that what was intended to be a simple review has become a three or four part series of interactions with this book and with Traditional soteriology in general.
Should You Read the Book?
The book is an easy, informative, and worthwhile read. Dr. Howard Hendricks told us many years ago that we should not fall into the trap of reading only those authors with whom we agreed because that would reinforce our prejudices. The foundation of productive theological debate is a genuine effort to understand what the other side of any debate believes. Having observed this debate since before the Traditionalist Statement was published, I believe there is precious little of that attitude in the Baptist World. We are poor listeners. If you cannot state the beliefs of your “opponent” in a way that your opponent recognizes, then theological debate will devolve into mudslinging and divisiveness When Calvinists or Traditionalists hear their beliefs described in ways they do not even recognize, or when we rush to label one another with pejoratives such as “hyper-Calvinist” or “Semi-Pelagian” we will make no progress.
I was, in my college days, something of a firebrand Calvinist – never really settled on the L, my passion for the T, U, I, and P overflowed. I’d argue anytime, anywhere. In the years since my passion for Calvinism has cooled for two reasons. First, I began to see that the Bible was much less dogmatic on some things than I was. I am now an “Antinomist” a variation of Molinism. I hope that maturity and sanctification played a role as well. I’m grateful social media did not exist when I was a 20-year-old college senior.
I was not a fan of the Traditionalist Statement, but I’ve not been a relentless critic either. My battle has been with some elements within the Traditionalist movement which I found divisive and slanderous rather than with the theology, though I have some concerns there.
If you are a Calvinist or even a non-Calvinist who does not embrace the Traditionalist view, you ought to read this book. Make a good-faith effort to understand what the Traditionalists believe. Traditionalism is a significant part of the SBC landscape and it is important that we allow the more noble voices of Traditionalism, men such as Dr. Allen, to define it.
Format of the Book
This book is comprised of fifteen essays by ten different authors. They range from “must-read” essays such Dr. Allen’s opening article on the “Current SBC Calvinism Debate” (one of the best things I’ve read) to highly informative essays such as Dr. Lemke’s discussion on the Five Models of sovereignty and freedom and others by both Dr. Eric Hankins and Dr. Adam Harwood, to more homiletical harangues which will convince the convinced but have no impact on those who are not already Traditionalists.
There are three introductory essays, the one by Dr. Allen mentioned above followed by two from Dr. Eric Hankins – one on “Savability” which he considers to be the root issue of the discussion and the other being the Traditionalist Statement (TS) that was released in 2012. Ten essays follow, each dealing with one of the ten articles of the TS, followed by an essay by Dr. Harwood interacting with the accusations made by many Calvinists that the TS was Semi-Pelagian and Dr. Steve Lemke’s Five Theological Models essays.
Having way too much time to reflect on this book in Africa, what started as a review has turned into a series. My church members would not be surprised – that is my modus operandi. I’d like to make a few observations here, then come back in a future post and examine Dr. Allen’s opening essay, which I wish could be added to the Baptist Faith and Message (only a slight exaggeration). I also intend to have brief interactions with some of the chapters.
1. Personal Relationships
Writing a review is more difficult when you have personal relationships with the authors and editors, whether those are good or bad. Dr. Allen led the colloquium last year for the speakers selected for the Pastors’ Conference and was a great support. I hold him in the highest esteem. I’ve had limited interactions with Dr. Harwood and Dr. Lemke through blogging and my interactions with them were positive.
Of course, convention events put Dr. Eric Hankins and I together in a more confrontational way. I ended up running for Second Vice President against him the year the TS came out and it was considered the most tumultuous aspect of the convention. In the years since I’ve had several conversations with Eric Hankins and I have grown to appreciate his transparent honesty. There is no pretense with him. I often disagree with him, sometimes forcefully, but he makes his position clear. I respect that and him.
2. Quarrels with the term Traditionalist
I am not a fan of the term Traditionalist.
David Dockery presented a series (I believe it was at a Kentucky Baptist Convention meeting) showing that Calvinism and non-Calvinism have always been two streams within the SBC river, flowing at different strengths at different times. I oppose exclusivist names – those that communicate that “we are more SBC than you are.” All our “Founders” were not Calvinists and our traditions are BOTH Calvinist and non-Calvinist. I understand that they are looking for a name that doesn’t define themselves in relation to Calvinism. They don’t want to be anti-Calvinist or non-Calvinist, or one-point Calvinist, or anything like that. I get it. But I wish there was a better name.
Does the Traditionalist Statement represent Baptist non-Calvinism? I am not a historian, but there are aspects of the statement that were unfamiliar to me. Most telling, with all the publicity of the TS, the vast majority of Baptist pastors and others who eschew Calvinism chose not to sign the document. Why is that? Perhaps they just wanted to stay out of the fray or perhaps the document did not represent their views. But since most Baptists chose not to sign the document can Traditionalists lay claim to speak for all non-Calvinists? Frankly, of the first 1000 or so signers, the majority came from about 3 churches in which the pastors got their membership to sign up en masse. I do not know what the latest count is, but I question whether “Traditionalism” is an accurate designation for all of Southern Baptist non-Calvinism.
Traditionalism is a significant part of the SBC but is it fair for Traditionalists to speak as if they represent all non-Calvinists?
Until a better term is coined, I continue to use “non-Calvinist” to describe the general body of those who reject Calvinism. I use the term Traditionalist in the technical sense, to refer to those who identify with the TS.
3. This is NOT a binary issue
In the more extreme Traditionalist circles, you will only hear two viewpoints mentioned – Calvinism and Traditionalism. Middle ground viewpoints are dismissed as illogical – they want to push us to Traditionalism or 5-point Calvinism as the only options. But there are so many stops along the spectrum. How many Calvinist varieties are there? And non-Calvinism is not monolithic as well.
I understand why Traditionalists want to do this. They believe they win the argument with most people if the only options are 5-point Calvinism and Traditionalism. But the vast majority of people in the SBC don’t accept either of those options. We are 4-pointers and Molinists and various forms of non-Calvinists. Variety is an SBC soteriological spice.
4. The fundamental problem with Traditionalism is seen in the first two essays.
The first two essays in the book by Dr. Allen and Dr. Eric Hankins reveal the root of the problem.
Dr. Allen’s essay, as I have said before, is one of the finest I’ve read on the Calvinism debate. It makes eight points, each of which needs to be heard. Dr. Allen’s tone is conciliatory and inclusive. He sees Traditionalists and Calvinists as (disagreeing) partners in the SBC. His first point highlights the common ground between the two sides. He says, “our agreements outnumber our disagreements.” He says that the BF&M is “sufficiently broad in latitude that we can all live, work, and breathe under its umbrella.” Then, he asserts clearly, “In fact, Calvinists and Traditionalists have, for the most part, been doing that already for quite a number of decades.” In the David Allen vision of the SBC, the two sides have significant differences but both are fully Southern Baptist and can partner under the BF&M and work together. He tells how he works with Calvinists, has recommended them at his and other seminaries, and how he intends to continue partnering with them.
Then comes the second essay, by Dr. Eric Hankins, “Savability: Southern Baptist’s Core Soteriological Conviction and Contribution.” It is the fundamental assertion behind Traditionalism, that “anyone can be saved.” Hankins’ view is that Calvinism is outside the pale of Southern Baptist soteriological thought. Allen’s view was more similar to Dockery’s, that the Sandy Creek and Charleston traditions were both integral to SBC history. But Hankins defines “Traditionalism” as the core of SBC thought and paints Calvinism and Calvinists as on the outside. He does not call for the disfellowshipping of Calvinists, but makes it clear that they are less SBC than Traditionalists. Look at the subtle wording of some of his statements.
“The TS was written to make clear the places where Southern Baptist thinking departs from Calvinism.”
See how he puts Calvinism outside of Southern Baptist thinking?
“The TS simply makes explicit what has always been the case for Southern Baptists.”
“Therefore, what is fundamental to Calvinism is quite problematic for Southern Baptist soteriology.”
We have seen this division played out in the blogging world. There are those who follow the Allen path. “We disagree but we can work together as Southern Baptists.” There are others more in the Hankins mold – Traditionalists are the true Southern Baptists and Calvinists, while tolerated, are not really “of us.” Calvinists should feel no threat from the Allen wing of the Traditionalist camp. They should interact with them and cooperate for the gospel. But anyone who is not a card-carrying Traditionalist has every right to be a little worried by the Hankins wing of the movement.
5. An Admonition to my non-Traditionalist Friends
Traditionalism has sometimes gotten a bad name because of the populist advocates who have been less than noble representatives. But Traditionalism should not be judged by the worst of its proponents.
I have some dispensationalist tendencies in my theology and nothing torques me more than when people assume that the populist crazies in the movement are mainstream. There are scholarly, academic dispensationalists and they are horrified by the folks that you guys ridicule.
There are some well-known Traditionalists who have done a good job of giving the movement a bad name, but you should read this book to know what the movement actually believes. You do not have to agree with it, but it should be judged by its highest proponents, not by its populists who may tend to turn people off to it. Read Dr. Allen’s essay, and those by Eric Hankins, Dr. Harwood, and Dr. Steve Lemke.
- Make a real effort to UNDERSTAND what they are saying, not just to refute it.
- Respond with the spirit of collegiality and brotherly love that Dr. Allen showed in his opening article.
- React graciously.
Next Time….I want to interact with Dr. Allen’s article that I’ve praised so highly.