Who should do theology?

Is theology for everyone? R.C. Sproul has made popular the phrase “Everyone’s A Theologian,” even publishing a book by the same title. He’s right: everyone has thoughts and foundational beliefs about God that shape their lives. In asking the questions though, I have something more specific in mind: who should engage in theological discussion? Who should be part of the debates, write the blogs, and host the podcasts?

St.Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 330-390) answers:

Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

“…there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

Endemic to Evangelicalism, particularly the very-online Evangelical social circles, is what I have come to call “theology as sport”. Like the old show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. It may be that one of the worst effects of a Twitter and Facebook timeline is how serious theological claims are thrown into a stream as if they’re no different from the latest political charade or Hollywood fanfare. And so arguing over theology takes on all the gravity of a sports debate, or can be filled with all the competitive vitriol of a political fight.

We do well to heed this warning from Nazianzius about such people who use theology for their own entertainment, their own platform, or their own social ladder:

They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense… Such is the situation: this infection is unchecked and intolerable; “the great mystery’ of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment.

Sounds familiar.

Gregory of Nazianzus quotes taken from “On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius” Order a copy here.

Interacting with Trevin Wax’s 5 Observations About Younger Southern Baptists

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The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in America, with yearly reported rolls at nearly 16 million members [more on this later]. Over at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax has some really helpful thoughts on the next generation of Southern Baptists. I’m a child of the SBC. The Lord saved me at 8 years old and I’ve been a Southern Baptist ever since. My dad was a Southern Baptist pastor. I work at a Southern Baptist church.

The SBC is in the midst of a really crucial transitionary period. I attended the SBC this past summer in Houston. One of the things that I noticed at the Convention was crowds and entourages. I remember sitting at a coffee table with a pastor friend and watching Jerry Vines, Paige Patterson, and others in the older generation of Southern Baptists. About 15 people were gathered around. They spoke for a few moments and a few older pastors stopped to say hello. These are two former SBC Presidents mind you. About 30 minutes later, Mark Dever (Capitol Hill Baptist Church) walked by, not long after followed by Russell Moore (newly minted ERLC president). The amount of people wanting to shake hands and say hello was enough that it was clear it would be impossible for them to just ‘hang out’ in the hallway. My friend and I remarked about the changing of the guard and the waning influence of old heroes. It’s not that there is a loss of respect. It’s just that the SBC is changing.

Younger Southern Baptists and Political Engagement

Trevin thinks that younger Southern Baptist are drastically changing in regards to their handling of political issues. He writes,”Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon.” I think that is an important distinction. What Trevin doesn’t point out is how that affects their [our? I am one!] political engagement as a whole. Younger ‘so-called-Evangelicals’ have trended towards a sort of ascetic idealization of suffering (the cult of contrarianism) wherein they see the exercise of American rights as nationalistic, un-Christlike. To defend their legal right to religious liberty, given to them by the Bill of Rights, in cases such as the Hobby Lobby abortifacient case or the ‘bake-the-cake’ ordeal, is not what Jesus would do. This is a trend that I don’t see young Southern Baptists buying into. Instead of the separatist pushback against their father’s political interest, I think what we’re seeing is merely a shift in priorities. Religious liberties, not triumphalism. Social justice for the downtrodden (abortion, sex trafficking, etc.), not Moral Majority. It’s not that we have abandoned the moral cause. It’s just that it isn’t what we prefer to yell through a megaphone.

Are Younger Southern Baptists Reformed-ish?

Trevin is careful not to imply young Southern Baptists are all Calvinists. I agree with him. Though there are certainly thousands upon thousands more Calvinistic Baptists today than two to three decades ago, it’s still not the majority.

Trevin writes,”I’ve heard this comment (in multiple variations) from young non-Reformed pastors explaining why they frequent blogs and websites from Reformed guys: ‘The Calvinists are always talking about ministry and mission; the non-Calvinists are always talking about Calvinism.’ So, it seems to me that even among the young Southern Baptists who are not Reformed or even Reformed-ish, there’s an appreciation of this stream in Southern Baptist life.” 

Trevin isn’t the only one who has heard that comment. I also hear it regularly from my own crowd. I tend to think, however, that it’s not the whole picture. Of course, many young Southern Baptist pastors and laypeople hold to a form of Molinism like Southeastern’s Danny Akin (hearing I’m wrong on this. Prof. Keathley is, but Akin isn’t on the record), Amyraldianism like Russell Moore of the ERLC or are otherwise undecided. Each of the seminaries have a great deal of diversity in their thinking on this matter in their student body. At it’s core, Trevin is on to something. Of course there are more Reformed young SBC folk. Not only that, Calvinist ministries such as TGC, T4G, etc. have grown a great deal.

I think, however, that something bigger than Calvinism and non-Calvinism is at play here. I was at the T5 Presentation of the Calvinism Advisory Group at the Convention this past summer. There couldn’t have been more than 250 people there, if that, and many meandered in and out throughout. It seems to me that the Calvinism debate has been overplayed (mainly through SBC blogs like SBC Voices, SBC Today, SBC Tomorrow [What’s it going to take to get an ‘SBC: Back to the Future’ Site?]). Instead, it seems that the level of scholarship, of theological engagement has risen in each of the seminaries post-Conservative Resurgence. I don’t know that young SBC folks are merely Reformed-ish as much as they are comfortable with a wide range of Evangelical scholarship. Many young SBC men and women are reading N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, John Piper, James K.A. Smith, and Ross Douthat all together. It’s not that they are embracing a ‘new’ theology; rather, within the bounds of the BFM 2000 plus a firm Evangelical conviction, young SBC folk aren’t scared to branch out. With that has come a spirit that is less combative and more irenic. Perhaps the younger generation has learned from their fathers to read critically, without feeling the need to read polemically.

A Few Notes

I think that Trevin pretty much nails it in regards to the waning of teetotalism in the SBC. I myself generally abstain from alcohol, though I would never say that the mere drinking of it is a sin. I wish we could have a more robust conversation about wisdom with alcohol and ministry. I fear that too many, in their rejection of ‘legalism’, are decidedly ignorant the the damage alcohol wreaks in millions of households, including Christian households.

Likewise, Trevin has nailed it on the eschatology point. Younger Southern Baptists are all over the map. A former Left Behind devotee who now despises the series, I’ll have to exercise wisdom here and not comment further.

Finally, I think Trevin was also spot on in his analysis of the Convention. Part of the problem is that the Convention is so utterly foreign to younger men and women in the Convention that it seems pointless to go. Many young pastors I spoke to wondered aloud how the Resolutions were even formed. Why were they just now hearing about them? Why are so few of these talks encouraging and equipping? Why does it seem like this whole thing is about numbers? Don’t get me wrong. Numbers are important. It’s going to be hard to get young Southern Baptists excited, however, if Baptism numbers are followed by rebukes to pastors to baptize more people because our golden calf of baptism statistics are suffering. We would like to think that more baptisms means more salvations. But if younger Southern Baptists are going to become active in the Convention, the leadership is going to have to come to grips with the fact that we live in an increasingly secular society. During the Conservative Resurgence, there were upwards of 45,000 messengers at the Convention. Those days are over, never to return (which I’m not celebrating− don’t hear me wrongly). It’s time we stopped harping on tired pastors for lower baptism numbers. Perhaps if we encouraged churches to take the deceased and dechurched off their membership rolls, which was attempted and failed, we could find out who we really are numerically and put an end to the unrealistic expectations. Young Southern Baptists aren’t averse to the Convention, from what I’ve seen. They’re averse to ‘playing the game’. They love NAMB, IMB, ERLC…. all of the entities! The Convention, I think, they find wearying− though events like ‘IX Marks at 9’ and the ‘SEND luncheon’ were huge successes in Houston.

I hope that younger Southern Baptists will take the time to learn their history. I hope they will learn about the founders and fathers, like James P. Boyce, E.Y. Mullins, and the like. I hope they will learn about the heroes of the Conservative Resurgence, from their successes and faithfulness as well as their missteps and mistakes. I hope they will learn to honor them, nonetheless. I hope they will learn about SBC efforts towards racial reconciliation and making up for an ugly past. I hope they will learn to carry the banner of Christ from those who went before.

I could go on, but I think that’s more than enough. Thanks to Trevin for his thoughtfulness on young Southern Baptists. I consider Trevin a friend, and I hope that we can all work together towards a more cooperative, successful Southern Baptist Convention.

How I Ended Up At Southern Seminary, Pt. 2

Before you read this, make sure you read Part 1.

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The next few days after not getting into Beeson were some of the hardest of my life. I cried more than I expected to. What had this done to me? I began to see what it means to have one of the greatest idols I had ripped from my fingers. God owed me nothing. He was teaching me the lesson of Proberbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” I had been so arrogant. Only a week before I had met President Mohler at Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn, AL, and told him I would not be applying to Southern Seminary. I had better plans. What a fool I was!
As I contented myself with moping, certain that no one could comfort me, the Lord sent five people in my path. The first was a good friend of mine and one of the most encouraging believers I know: Garrett Walden. Garrett did two important things (which, hopefully, you will benefit from as you deal with people in extreme disappointment). First, Garrett turned me to the gospel. It may seem so strange to you since I am on the road to the pastorate, but I had a great deal of trouble preaching it to myself. He told me I could trust God not only because he is in control, but because he is good. He told me my approval and acceptance is in Christ, not in a letter of acceptance from a school. Then, he prayed for me. He didn’t give a short, trite prayer. He earnestly prayed for me that day and then continued to do so in the following days. I will never forget that.
The day after I spoke with Garrett, I went to discipleship with my pastor, Steve Scoggins. He prayed with me, just like Garrett. He hurt with me. Finally, he challenged me on some of my pride. Why was I so destroyed? Why had I not considered other schools?
“Are you going to be Southern Baptist?” he asked. Yes, I am.
“Are you going to turn into some Arminian?” he asked. No, I certainly am not.
“Do you love the church” he asked. He knew I did!

Pastor Steve Scoggins

“Do you really want to serve in the Convention one day?” Of course!
“Then go to Southern,” he told me. He helped me move through much of my strongheaded-ness that day. He explained to me that the SBC needs godly, Baptist trained men serving in its churches. He promised me I would get a superb, not merely passable, education at Southern. He comforted me. Again, the Lord was using another to soften my heart, bring me away from my pride, and teach me to trust Him.

The next person the Lord sent my way was the father of a friend of mine, a man named Bill Sanford. Long before, Bill had asked me to visit Southern Seminary with him. He told me he was a member of some foundation there and liked visiting. I had politely declined. After all, I had chosen where I was attending. Bill contacted me again with an offer to take me to Southern Seminary. This time I accepted. If he had not offered, I would not have visited. I did not have the money to drive 9 hours to visit a school I did not want to attend. What I did not know was what would come of this visit.

The next person that helped me was President Mohler. Down in the dumps, I sent a sad tweet in a weak moment. It follows:

Privilege? President Albert Mohler, privileged to welcome me? The seminary reject? What is this? I didn’t even expect him to respond. I regretted even sending the tweet in the midst of my pity part. Dr. Mohler was gracious, however, and encouraged me at a terrible time in my life. Not only that, after I got in he sent me this message:
A follow up tweet! From one of my heroes, at that! Why would he even take the time? I didn’t know. If nothing else, it made me happy to visit SBTS. If the people are this friendly, they are worth being around! 

Soon after, an Admissions Counselor at Southern Seminary by the name of Kody Gibson contacted me. Kody was friendly, helpful, and- providence!- had also considered going to the same school as I had and had a similar experience. He also pointed me to trust in Christ. Kody was there for me in every way possible, from being willing to just listen to me rant about how unhappy I was (How many admissions counselors at colleges/graduate schools will do that?) to praying for me. After the entire visit was set up, I got a confirmation email from Kody with my visit form attached.
You can’t see this picture to the right. If you can see the bottom line there, it reads as follows: “Kody filled this out. VIP student.”

I read it and started to tear up again. Before this all started, I didn’t know I was going to become a crier again. It had been a while since I had cried that much. Now, obviously, reading a form where you get called a VIP is a huge opportunity for sinful temptation to creep in. I could have become full of myself. I could have felt awesome about myself. Instead, it was simply a blessing from God. Sweet relief! They want me! At the end of the day, throughout the whole fiasco wherein I had been rejected, what hurt the worst was the feeling of rejection. I had been rejected and the only consolation for it was acceptance. Garrett pointed me to this first in the Gospel. Kody helped me feel it again academically. I was going to go to Seminary. I was not completely unwanted. I was not a total failure. How easy do we sinners turn from Christ! How gracious is He to turn us back and to put people in our lives for just that purpose!

Little did I know what this visit would be. When Kody found out on the phone what Bill had set up, he was shocked. “This is not normal,” he told me. I had no idea.

I graduated from Auburn University on May 7, 2012. The next day, I got in the car with my dad and Bill Sanford, and we headed to Louisville. My dad and Bill are in the same profession (Bill owns a construction company and my dad owns a tile company). As you know, the construction industry is not doing too hot right now. My dad and Bill hit it off and were able to be encouraged together from the start. I think they both needed that. If nothing else, that made the trip worth it.  I knew then that this was going to be a good weekend. I had no idea how good.

Over the span of 3 days I met with Dr. Ware and Dr. Coppenger for coffee, Dr. Russ Moore, and had dinner with two donors for a great dinner (they gave me their  card and told me to contact them if I need anything. I have since found this to have been an earnest offer). The next day I had lunch with Dr. Donald Whitney, as well as with the head of Admissions, Mr. John Powell, and he answered every question I could have possibly had about the school. I was able to tour President Mohler’s library and office, both of which were a truly special experience. Finally, I met with renowned historian Dr. Tom Nettles and the Dean of Boyce College, Dan DeWitt. With every single one of these meetings, I found the professors and staff to be genuinely caring and kind. There was not a single man who met with me because they had to. All of these men met with me because they wanted to. They were gracious and wise, each offering me a great deal of counsel. I came away impressed with how much they cared, not just about me, but also about my family, how courteous they were to my father and listened as he regaled old stories from his time at Southern Seminary.

The last night I was there, I came back from dinner and a familiar face drove by. He stopped the car and rolled down the window. I stood there dumbfounded, in shock for a moment, as President Mohler rolled down his window, and he and his wife, Mrs. Mary, greeted me. He looked tired.
“I just got back from CNN,” he said.
I said,”Oh. That’s cool,” showing my powerful command over the King’s English in a moment of pressure. He went on to welcome me to the school, and he asked me how the visit was going. I told him it was going wonderfully. He talked with us for about five minutes more and then departed to his home. It was very special for me. As I came to find out later, he had not been to CNN for any old taping. Pres. Obama had just given his support on TV to gay marriage rights, and Dr. Mohler was giving the Evangelical response. I watched it later. It was powerful, wise, and exactly what needed to be said. Surely, it was exhausting for him. Still, he stopped for us! Why had he done that? His windows were tinted. I didn’t know his car. He needed not stop and talk, but he did. President Mohler stopped and talked to a guy having one of the worst months of his life, because he is a good man. His seminary reflects this; every single person I met on the trip reflected this.

As I left lunch with Boyce Dean Dan DeWitt on Thursday, I headed to the housing office with my dad. I told him I didn’t need to see any more. This was it. One hundred dollars of college graduation money in my hand, I signed up for a dorm. I was in. Southern Seminary had charmed and enchanted me. The Lord has turned my heart back to trust him, and, more importantly, he gave me peace. I had no rest. Christ gave me rest.

As is the common refrain, I had no idea how good this was about to get. I was “in” for Southern Seminary. I was about to find out that Southern Seminary was “in” for me. My preview day visit was not a flash in the pan. The Lord was about to move mightily. The story was not yet complete.

Fin Part 2.



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