Tensions regarding soteriology, within the Southern Baptist Convention

I am not a Southern Baptist, but I am a Baptist, and I watch with interest theological developments within the Southern Baptist Convention. Like many other Baptist associations, they have not clearly identified themselves as either Particular or General Baptists, that is, as Calvinistic or Arminian in their theology. This has caused significant tension in recent years, some of it possibly growing out of the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement because of the large number of enthusiastic Calvinists being graduated from Southern Baptist Seminary and finding their way into pastoral roles within the SBC.

Adam Harwood 2A new item which could become an issue was recently drawn to my attention by an interesting paper read at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Association in San Diego on Nov 21 by Adam Harwood, who teaches at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Harwood has carefully compared the second and third editions of Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology and he discerns a change in Erickson’s position regarding the possibility of salvation for people who receive only God’s universal revelation (“Did Millard Erickson Revise His View of General Revelation and Human Responsibility in Christian Theology, Third Edition (2013).”

Millard Erickson on the salvation of the unevangelized

Millard EricksonIn the 2nd edition of Christian Theology (CT2), Erickson wrote: “General revelation evidently does not enable the unbeliever to come to the knowledge of God” (p. 195), but in CT3, he added a word to that sentence, so that it now reads: “General revelation evidently does not ordinarily enable the unbeliever to come to the knowledge of God” (emphasis supplied by Harwood, p. 5). In the 2nd edition, Harwood detects “arguments for the possibility of general revelation inclusivism” (p. 5) but he notes that Erickson goes further in CT3. Harwood writes (p. 7):

In this section of his chapter in CT3, Erickson makes five statements which affirm the possibility of general revelation inclusivism:

1) A person might be “accepted as were the Old Testament believers. The basis of acceptance would be the work of Jesus Christ, even though the person involved is not conscious that this is how provision has been made for his or her salvation” [citing p. 138].

2) “(Some evangelical theologians) are simply not sure that the biblical witness excludes the possibility. They are willing to leave open the possibility that God has not told us everything on the subject” [citing p. 138].

3) “Is it conceivable that one can be saved by faith without having the special revelation? Paul seems to be leaving open this possibility” [citing p. 140].

4) “That there is a possibility of somehow entering a relationship with God on this basis seems to be required by Paul’s words, ‘So that [they] are without excuse’ (1:20)” [citing p. 141].

5) Erickson quotes Harold Netland, who explains that “we cannot rule out the possibility that some who never hear the gospel might, nevertheless, through God’s grace, respond to what they know of God through general revelation and turn to him in faith for forgiveness.” Erickson states that Netland “sums up well the position that I find most adequate in dealing with the several lines of evidence”[citing Erickson, p. 141, who refers to Netland’s Encountering Religious Pluralism, p. 323].

Harwood then offers this helpful analysis of changes made by Erickson in his 3rd edition of Christian Theology:

Erickson, Christian Theology (3)Of the five claims above which affirm the possibility of general revelation inclusivism, only Statements 1, 3, and 4 appeared in CT2. Statements 2 and 5 were added in CT3. Statement 2 indicates that inclusivism should not be ruled out and appeals to a lack of information on the subject. Statements 3 and 4 affirm the possibility of general revelation inclusivism. Statement 5 seems to be the strongest point at which Erickson self-identifies with the possibility of salvation through general revelation. In Statement 5, Erickson describes and identifies with the possibility of general revelation inclusivism. Also, a concluding statement which rules out inclusivism appears in CT2 but does not appear in CT3. That sentence reads: “Thus in effect the general revelation serves, as does the law, merely to make guilty, not to make righteous” [citing CT 2nd ed., p. 198]. The sentence could have dropped out of CT3 for any number of reasons, but it should be noted that the sentence ruled out general revelation inclusivism. [pp. 7-8]

In conclusion of his analysis, Harwood says: “In neither CT2 nor CT3 does Erickson affirm that some will be saved via general revelation. In CT2, Erickson repeatedly ruled out the possibility. In CT3, however, Erickson affirms that salvation via general revelation is possible. This seems to indicate a change in his view between CT2 and CT3” (p. 9).

In the 2nd edition, Erickson had replied to some objections which might be raised to the possibility of salvation via universal revelation. He retains that material in the 3rd edition but then adds a third possible objection, namely, that “everything has changed so radically with the coming of Christ that comparisons to the situation of OT believers no longer apply.” Erickson posits that this objection has been “insufficiently argued,” and he notes that those who make the objection do not adequately account for the question of infant salvation, nor do they state “how much must be believed in order to be saved, especially as applied to the young who are not old enough to exercise saving faith” (p. 11, citing CT3, pp. 129-40).

I found this analysis by Adam Harwood quite encouraging, and I thank him for sharing with me a copy of his ETS paper. In my chapter on the question of whether people can be saved if they only receive universal revelation, I had cited statements from Millard Erickson’s 1996 book, How Shall They Be Saved? The Destiny of Those Who Do Not Hear of Jesus and from his article “Hope for Those Who Haven’t Heard? Yes, But . . .” (Evangelical Missions Quarterly 11 (April 1975). These had led me to think that Erickson was what I now call a “universal revelation accessibilist,” so I was quite surprised to hear from Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson that Erickson identified himself as “agnostic” on this issue when they were preparing their valuable book which lays out the case for gospel exclusivism. Perhaps Erickson still prefers to claim agnosticism, but I think that would be a misnomer for someone who so clearly affirms the possibility of people being saved without an opportunity to hear the gospel, and Harwood’s analysis indicates to me that Erickson has moved even more firmly in an accessibilist direction in his most recent work.

Erickson’s position as it compares with the Southern Baptist Faith and Message 2000

At the end of Harwood’s paper, he considers “some implications for Southern Baptists,” and he avers that if his “assessment is accurate and Erickson now affirms the possibility of salvation via general revelation, then such a view would run contrary to the views expressed in the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM). Article 4 of the BFM states, ‘There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord’” (p. 12). That sentence had not appeared in the 1963 of the BFM but was added in 2000. When I read it in Harwood’s paper, my response was that accessibilists would not necessarily have difficulty with this statement, if they affirmed, as I do, the likelihood that all people (not only believers) meet Christ at the moment of death. At that time, those who had been saved through the appropriate believing response to the revelation God had given them would respond to Christ in the same manner, recognizing him as the one for whom they longed.

Albert MohlerIn commenting on Article 4 of the BFM 2000, however, Albert Mohler, a member of the Study Committee that had formed the article, explained that the Committee had been concerned about universalism within mainline denominations and the inclusivism that had been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. So they

took this challenge very seriously, and a clear, concise, and unambiguous sentence was added to the opening paragraph on salvation: “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” This sentence clearly precludes any form of inclusivism or universalism—any suggestion that a sinner can be saved apart from a conscious response of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ prior to the sinner’s death. (“Article IV: The Doctrine of Salvation,” in Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues, p. 40; cited by Harwood, p. 13).

Given this clear intention by the SBC to exclude inclusivism from the denomination’s essential beliefs, Harwood posits that Erickson now appears to be “contrary to the views expressed in the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith.” I wonder, however, whether this position can possibly be maintained without tension. I have elsewhere argued that accessibilism is the logical position for synergist theologies, and the SBC includes a significant number of synergist congregations and theologians.

The possibility of salvation for infants and the cognitively disabled

In his treatment of the third likely objection to the proposal that the unevangelized can be saved, Erickson observed that gospel exclusivism “fails to adequately account for the question of infant salvation” (Harwood, p. 11), and it does not articulate “how much must be believed in order to be saved, especially as applied to the young who are not old enough to exercise saving faith” (Erickson, CT3, 139). That is an issue that Erickson has addressed quite explicitly and in an intriguing fashion, and I assessed his proposal in Who Can Be Saved? (pp. 77-78). On this point, however, Erickson takes a position which coheres very well with both the 1963 and the 2000 revisions of the BFM. I considered this matter in a previous blog post and a section of that post is germane to my current discussion so I will cite part of it here:

In 1925, [the BFM] said that man “was created in a state of holiness under the law of his Maker, but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.”

In 1963, they revised that statement as follows: “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence; whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin, and as soon as they are capable of moral action become transgressors and are under condemnation.”

In 2000, in another revision of the statement, they said: “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”

I observe an interesting change here. It is most notable in 1963, but its intention is made even more clear in 2000. The statement in 1925 is quite compatible with the affirmation of original guilt . . . . One could hear in the final words quoted above no more than a distinction between original and actual guilt, between the sin in Adam and sins committed personally. But notice how the words “and are under condemnation” moved, in 1963, to a position after “as soon as they are capable of moral action.” The further change in 2000 is slight – different punctuation and the addition of “therefore” – but it now sounds very clearly like a creedal affirmation of the doctrine of the “age of accountability,” which regards any who are incapable of moral action to be not under condemnation.

Adam Harwood expresses his own position which also fits very well with the current stance of Article 3 of the BFM, as Harwood is careful to observe (p. 12, n29). Speaking of the question of infant salvation, Harwood writes:

When working to untangle this theological knot, it is important to distinguish between those who have not heard the gospel from [sic] those who cannot hear the gospel. Infants and the mentally incapable fall into the latter category. If condemnation comes only after people attain moral capability and after committing their first act of transgression, then the morally incapable are not yet under condemnation [p. 12].

This doctrine of the “age of accountability” is common among Baptists, but as it is stated in article 3 of BFM 2000, I think it is seriously problematic. Given the very large number of human beings who die in their infancy, or even before their conception, this doctrine entails that a large percentage of the population of the new earth are there because they were never under God’s condemnation as transgressors. They were not saved by the death of Christ, for they never needed justification. Much better, I suggest, would be the classic Arminian proposal that all human beings are conceived guilty in Adam but are forgiven for that guilt on as a universal benefit of Christ’s atoning work and blessed with God’s universal enabling grace. From that perspective, children who die before “the age of accountability” are saved by grace. The many soteriological synergists in the SBC would do better to adopt this tenet of Arminianism than to assert that infants do not need to be saved, as the BFM states. I recognize, of course, that this would create another tension because so many synergistic Baptists are committed to the doctrine of “eternal security.” For theological consistency, the Armininian belief that Christ’s work universally remits original guilt must be accompanied by the affirmation that apostasy is possible, or universalism inevitably results.

For members of the SBC who are Calvinistic in their doctrine of sin, however, a different problem presents itself. I perceive a significant tension, for instance, between the BFM and The Abstract of Principles of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose Calvinistic position is well known. Article 3 of BFM 2000 states:

Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation. The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation. In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice. By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God. The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love. [emphasis added]

But notice how Article 6 of The Abstract of Principles of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary speaks:

God originally created Man in His own image, and free from sin; but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors [emphasis added].

The Abstract states that Adam’s posterity “are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” I would be interested in seeing commentary on that statement but I hear in it a declaration of universal guilt in Adam, along with a statement that everyone who becomes capable of moral action also sins “actually.” It sounds like the classic Calvinist distinction between original and actual guilt which I discerned in the 1925 version of the BFM, but very different from the current formulation of the BFM. There, Article 3 looks like an affirmation of universal corruption through Adam but not of original guilt.

In the summer 2006 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine, Dr. Albert Mohler, the president of the Seminary coauthored an article with Daniel Akin, entitled “The Salvation of the ‘little ones’” (pp. 4-5). With regard to the salvation of infants, they wrote:

Those who divide infants into the elect and non-elect seek to affirm the clear and undeniable doctrine of divine election. The Bible teaches that God elects persons to salvation from eternity and that our salvation is all of grace. At first glance, this position appears impregnable in relation to the issue of infant salvation – a simple statement of the obvious. A second glance, however, reveals a significant evasion. What if all who die in infancy are among the elect? Do we have a biblical basis for believing that all persons who die in infancy are among the elect?

We believe that Scripture does indeed teach that all persons who die in infancy are among the elect. This must not be based only in our hope that it is true, but in a careful reading of the Bible. [p. 5]

In their article, Mohler and Akin speak in a manner that conforms well with the Abstract but not, I think, with the BFM. They speak of an imputation of Adam’s guilt (which explains universal corruption and inability) while acknowledging that Scripture never identifies our sin in Adam as a ground for final condemnation. Presumably to explain when people become morally capable of committing actual sin “in the body,” they take us to the wilderness rebellion. But Numbers 14:29 excluded everyone under twenty from entering the land. These, therefore, must have been the ones who “have no knowledge of good or evil” (Deut 1:39). I wonder, do Mohler and Akin actually want to put the age of personal accountability at 20?

Mohler and Akin argue for the salvation of infants, not by denying original guilt, but by claiming that Christ’s atoning work covers the guilt (“stain of original sin” [p. 5b) of those who die in infancy. This is because all who die in infancy are elect. This does not look to me to be adequately justified by their reasoning in the article, but it is what they clearly affirm and it looks to me to be coherent with the Abstract. On the other hand, if BFM 2000 intended to reject original guilt, affirming only original corruption and actual guilt of those who reach an age of moral culpability, then Mohler and Akin’s position does not fit well with that statement.

I am aware that there are significant tensions within the SBC between some Arminians and some Calvinists, and it looks to me as though their authoritative statements of faith are formulated in a way which will complicate and exacerbate those tensions, rather than resolving them in a united front.

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2 Responses to Tensions regarding soteriology, within the Southern Baptist Convention

  1. John Johnson says:

    It seems to me that a position that holds that all infants are elect who die in infancy calls into question *unconditional* election. What are your thoughts?

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      John, I see no intrinsic incoherence between infant salvation and unconditional election. In fact, I think that it is easier to construct a soteriology asserting that all who die in infancy are saved, if one believes that God brings about salvation with a sovereign grace (hence unconditionally), than if one believes that God has chosen to save all who meet a condition that he establishes, but that individuals are libertarianly free to meet that condition or not to do so.

      There are a number of different ways of explaining how it happens within a monergistic framework. The route taken by Southern Baptists is to assert, as I construe their position, that infants don’t need to be justified because they have not become guilty of sin. A. H. Strong posited it on the proposal that faith is necessary for salvation and that it is God who efficaciously makes faith possible, but that in the case of infants it happens for any who die, at the moment of their meeting Christ. I have proposed that we do better to posit the possibility of infant faith. I urge that we should not equate the ability of the brain with the ability of the mind, that is of the body with the soul. Just because an infant lacks the means to give physical expression to faith does not mean that they are incapable of a personal relationship with God. I see this in the case of John (later “the baptizer”) when he leaped in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary when she was bearing Jesus. My reluctance to affirm that all who die in infancy are elect is because I do not see any clear teaching that says so. I believe that infants need to be saved and that they could be saved, and I am hopeful that the majority of those who die in infancy will be, but I can not declare this to be the fact, and I believe that any who are saved will be saved by grace, on account of Christ’s atoning work, and through a faith response to God’s self-revelation to them, made person-to-person.

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