Dr. Eric Hankins is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Oxford, Mississippi. He is the author of the much-discussed Traditionalist Statement and was central to the Calvinism Task Force appointed by Dr. Page, which reported at the Houston Annual Meeting. Part 1 can be found here.
In my first post responding to Nathan Finn’s essay on the Traditional Statement (TS) in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, I addressed the things with which I agree. This post will focus on what I consider to be perhaps the most significant area of difference for further discussion. Again, Nathan was careful to be friendly, and I want to do the same, even as I focus on some tensions. Our difference centers on this single sentence: “While I agree that all people are ‘capable of responding’ to the good news, I also believe that sin has so blinded humanity that nobody will choose to believe the gospel without the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit” (65). This is such a critical quote for me because it so perfectly and compactly illustrates the fault line between Calvinists and Traditionalists, one that I think is missed by most Southern Baptists (SBs).
The only way Finn’s sentence works theologically is if the deterministic underpinnings of his Calvinism are presupposed. But, here’s the twist: if these underpinnings are presupposed, then the ordinary understanding of the claim that all people are able to respond to the gospel is nullified. That’s why Finn puts “capable of responding” in scare quotes. He is signaling that the phrase means something different to him than it means ordinarily.
Once, my young son Jake was left behind by his bike-riding friends. A neighbor asked him, “When are you going to learn how to ride a bike?” Jake responded, “I know how to ride a bike; I can’t ride a bike.” Of course, my neighbor did not mean that Jake needed to take a course on the general theory of biking. Because he assumed that Jake was capable of specifically acting on that theory himself, he was inquiring as to why Jake hadn’t started. But Jake was not answering the question my neighbor was asking. He was giving a “Calvinistic” response to my neighbor’s question, to wit: “I affirm and understand the existence of the phenomena of bike-riding that could, in principle, apply to any random boy. But I belong to a unique set of boys who, for reasons beyond my control, simply can’t ride bikes.” My neighbor, however, simply does not acknowledge the existence of that unique set of boys. He rightly assumed that any specific boy with Jake’s traits* could ride a bike and that Jake was simply unwilling. Jake’s attempt at a positive answer to my friend’s question was actually a negative answer.
Finn is giving the same rather unusual response to the question: Could anyone who hears the gospel respond in repentance and faith? He wants to say Yes to the question, but his answer, for me, is No because I reject his presuppositions. He cannot have it both ways. The only way to agree with me about the ordinary meaning of the phrase “anyone can respond” is to abandon his presuppositions. If he won’t abandon his presuppositions, then needs to say that he doesn’t agree with the phrase.** Or he needs to be clear that he holds contradictory (not mysterious) assumptions.
Please understand that I am not saying that Finn is being deceptive or coy. I am saying that he is hearing and answering the question like a Calvinist: “I agree that the phenomena of responding to the gospel could, in principle, apply to any random person. But I also believe that there is a unique set of persons that, for reasons hidden in the mind of God, simply cannot respond because they won’t be effectually called.”
The problem is that most SBs aren’t asking questions like Calvinists, and they would be troubled by this take on soteriology. That’s where so much of the confusion comes in. For most SBs, the import of the question is, “Is any person who hears the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit capable of responding in faith to Christ, no other conditions needed?” I believe their answer is Yes.
But Finn is not answering that version of the question. Again, he is answering a Calvinistic version of the question: “In principle, could any person be deterministically regenerated, effectually called (the presupposition he specifically inserts), and irresistibly drawn to respond to the gospel?” It is to this question that he says Yes. But Finn’s answer to the version of the question that most SBs are asking is actually No. No, he does not believe that any and every single person on the planet who hears the gospel could be saved, no other conditions needed, just the drawing of the Spirit in the preaching of the powerful gospel. Finn believes that only the people God deterministically pre-selects from the mass of the damned in eternity past have any hope of being saved. Only they will be foreordained to be in the hearing of the gospel. Only they will be regenerated. Only they will be given the gift of faith. Only they will be given grace to respond, grace they cannot resist. The rest have no hope, and they don’t deserve to have hope. Those in the group of the damned who hear the gospel over and over will never respond, not because they won’t but because they can’t. They will spend eternity in hell because they never had any actual hope of being anywhere else.
Now, I understand why Calvinists say No to the question most SBs are asking. If they are right about determinism, if they are right about the nature of the Fall, the imputation of guilt, Federal Headship, compatibilistic freedom, eternal decrees, Covenants of Work, Grace, and Redemption, etc., then, indeed, the answer is No. No, not everyone is capable of responding to the gospel. No, God does not intend to save everyone.
What I am hoping as the discussion moves forward is that Calvinists like Finn would take pains to make clear that they don’t believe that anyone could be saved in the sense that most rank-and-file Southern Baptists mean.*** Again, I am not accusing him of obfuscation here. He is clear in the sentence I quote above. He is clear in the essay that Traditionalists and Calvinists have different presuppositional starting points. But he assumes that most readers would understand the Calvinistic infrastructure upon which the sentence rests, that they would understand what the question means to him and how his answer fits it. I’m confident that most SBs really don’t. When I was a “Three Point Calvinist,” I assumed that we were all using words like “depraved,” “capable,” “free,” “respond,” “faith,” “all,” “world,” etc. in the same way. But with a bit of study, I realized that we were “using the same vocabulary but a different dictionary” and that Calvinism wasn’t at all what I believed. Making sure that everyone else understands these parameters as well is crucial as the discussion continues.
*Jake possesses the common and necessary physiology for biking. Two weeks later, his sister taught him to ride (Jake fired me from the job).
**Several Calvinist responders to my previous post made clear that they actually don’t believe that God desires the salvation of all because their theology prevents them from doing so.
***Indeed, I am not hoping that Calvinist perspectives be driven from the SBC. Another matter with which I took issue in the essay, frankly, was the fact that Finn was concerned about the widely circulated rumor that some of the signatories of the Traditionalist Statement wanted the SBC to formally adopt the statement as some sort of litmus test for our agencies and boards. Whether this was merely a blogosphere conspiracy or whether there was at least tentative talk of a litmus test is still very much in dispute, depending upon whom you ask (64).
I’m a bit surprised that he would raise the issue of a “widely circulated rumor” in a scholarly essay. If a claim is based at best on “tentative talk” and at worst on “a blogosphere conspiracy,” and if the verification of that claim “depend[s] on who you ask,” then I think it’s best not to repeat such a claim under any circumstances, certainly not in an academic journal. Moreover, Finn could have asked me since I am the originator of the document, and I would have gladly taken his call and gone on the record. There was never a strategy to have the SBC formally adopt the statement as a litmus test. Never. Two Conventions and almost two years have passed and no attempt has been made at any level (not even at the local church level as far as I know) to adopt the statement formally. Hopefully, we can move on from this concern and spend our energies on the content of the debate. I am certainly committed to doing so.