An Attempt at Self-Identification

An Attempt at Self-Identification

Tom Ascol

“Who are they?” This question, or a variation of it, is often asked when interested parties are first introduced to the Southern Baptist Founders Conference or Founders Journal. It is a question which, on one level, defies a quick and simple answer–largely because of the difficulty of identifying the “they” being asked about. Since there is no official Southern Baptist Founders organization which can be joined, there is no membership roll to determine who “they” are.

Are “they” the people who attend or have attended the annual conference? If so, then the answer would need to be broad enough to include the peculiarities (and idiosyncrasies) of several hundred men (mostly pastors) and women. Most share a deep interest in doctrinal and devotional Christianity. Within this number, however, would be found a variety of theological convictions and church affiliations. One need not pass a confessional litmus test in order to attend.

Any attempt, therefore, to draw a profile of the typical attendee (a sort of “Founder Fred”) would inevitably tend toward caricature.

Moreover, there are those who appreciate the ministry of the Founders conference and journal who would object to being closely identified with either. This must be understood when trying to ascertain exactly who it is that has become involved with or supportive of the conference and/or journal.

On another level, however, the question, “Who are they?” suggests a desire to understand the rationale and purpose behind the efforts of those who plan the conference and publish the journal. This concern can be decisively, though not simplistically, addressed by considering the beginnings and abiding concerns of both efforts.

Historical Background

The conference, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary, was born in a prayer meeting on November 13, 1982. On that day seven men gathered in a motel room in Euless, Texas, to consider the feasibility of planning a conference which would be based upon the doctrines of grace as historically articulated by our Southern Baptist forebears.

After spending half of the day in prayer, it was agreed to attempt such an effort. A Statement of Principles was drafted, assignments were made, and the result was the first Founders Conference.

That original statement still obtains. It describes the “Motive” of the conference as follows:

To glorify God, honor His gospel, and strengthen His churches by providing encouragement to Southern Baptists in historical, biblical, theological, practical, and ecumenical studies.

The conference’s “Purpose” is also clearly stated:

To be a balanced conference in respect to doctrine and devotion expressed in the Doctrines of Grace and their experimental application to the local church, particularly in the areas of worship and witness. This is to be accomplished through engaging a variety of speakers to present formal papers, sermons, expositions, and devotions, and through the recommendation and distribution of literature consistent with the nature of the conference.

In keeping with this stated purpose the decision was made in 1990 to begin publishing a quarterly journal. The Founders Journal is currently being mailed to 36 states and 8 foreign countries.

Abiding Concerns

This historical background gives some information about how we began, but it does not adequately address who and what we are. The following attempt at self-identification is perhaps better understood as a set of goals toward which we continually strive rather than ones which we have attained with finality.

We desire to be orthodox without being obnoxious. Surely such is possible. We believe that truth matters. There is such a thing as objective, absolute, unchanging, and unchangeable truth. God has revealed it. Through his Word and his Spirit, men can come to know it. Such knowledge is both desirable and necessary for genuine, vibrant Christianity. Therefore the Bible should be studied, proclaimed, and applied with a deep sense of submission to its authority.

This does not mean that we believe that wisdom ends with us. Neither do we make any claim to have a corner on the truth. Therefore we renounce theological pride and spiritual haughtiness. We are willing to learn from those with whom we disagree. Our goal is to contend for the truth of the gospel in that spirit of the gospel which recognizes that if one understands all mysteries and possesses all knowledge yet has not love, he is nothing (1 Cor. 13:2).

Secondly, we want to be confessional, yet contemporary. Our faith is unashamedly consistent with the great, time-honored confessions of our forefathers. It consciously arises from the historic stream of that “exalted system of Pauline truth which is technically called Calvinism” (to borrow John Broadus’s description).

Our identification with historic Calvinism does not mean that we use the designation pridefully or require it as a test of fellowship. It is a mere tag; a nickname which says nothing other than “God is sovereign in creation, providence, and salvation.” C. H. Spurgeon’s sentiments are our own:

We only use the term “Calvinism” for shortness. That doctrine which is called “Calvinism” did not spring from Calvin; we believe that it sprang from the great founder of all truth. Perhaps Calvin himself derived it mainly from the writings of Augustine. Augustine obtained his views, without doubt, through the Holy Spirit of God, from diligent study of the writings of Paul, and Paul received them from the Holy Ghost and from Jesus Christ, the great founder of the Christian Church. We use the term then, not because we impute an extraordinary importance to Calvin’s having taught these doctrines. We should be just as willing to call them by any other name, if we could find one which would be better understood, and which on the whole would be as consistent with fact.

Neither does our identification with historic, orthodox, evangelical Calvinism mean that we embrace the caricatures and misrepresentations that have often been associated with the designation. Specifically, John Calvin is not our final authority. We affirm the supreme and final authority of the Bible.

We do not deny or de-emphasize human responsibility in salvation. We affirm the absolute responsibility of man and insist that it be held as fervently as the absolute sovereignty of God. We do not deny or de-emphasize evangelism. Though we do challenge the legitimacy of much that parades under the banner of evangelism today, we strongly affirm the necessity to be zealous, bold, and compassionate in evangelistic efforts. Let it be clearly said that we are not Hyper-Calvinists. We strongly believe in the duty of all men to repent and believe the gospel, and we renounce Hyper-Calvinism as deadly, pernicious error.

If we must be labelled, call us evangelical Calvinists. Personally, I prefer the moniker, “Historic Southern Baptists.” It is an appropriate designation because the truths that we hold dear were held historically not only by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, Edwards, and Whitefield, as well as by the English Baptists Fuller, Pearce, Ryland, Carey, and Spurgeon, but also (and, for the purpose of denominational identity, more importantly) by great early Southern Baptist statesmen such as R. B. C. Howell, R. Fuller, W. B. Johnson, B. Manly (Sr. & Jr.), J. A. Broadus, J. P. Boyce, J. L. Dagg, P. H. Mell, B. H. Carroll, M. McGregor, J. B. Gambrell, and J. M. Frost–to name but a few! Hence the names “Southern Baptist Founders Conference” and “Founders Journal.”

These names do not suggest that we are trying to live in the past or that we have been overtaken with wistful nostalgia. Rather, they demonstrate that, in our belief and practice, we are standing in the historic stream of orthodox Christianity. What we are trying to do is proclaim and apply the old gospel in a new day. After all, if what our forefathers believed was true in their day, it is still true today.

We are Southern Baptist, though not sectarian. Much that is of spiritual value is being done in and through the Southern Baptist Convention. We want to affirm and encourage such efforts. We are consciously Southern Baptist and recognize the propriety of serving within the SBC borders. At the same time, we adhere firmly to the autonomy of each local church. Therefore, we have no political agenda which we are seeking to have implemented in the convention.

As Southern Baptists, we have great appreciation of and fellowship with those of other churches and denominations with whom we share fundamental, biblical convictions. We desire to maintain a genuine catholic spirit toward all who believe the gospel.

Finally, our goal is to be doctrinally and devotionally balanced. The doctrines of grace are intellectually satisfying. Spurgeon noted that one evidence of Calvinism’s being truth from God is the fact that even simple believers without formal theological training can grasp its teachings.

With this advantage, however, comes an everpresent danger. There is a temptation to embrace the doctrines of grace intellectually without being embraced by the grace of the doctrines experientially. May the Lord deliver us from “intellectual Calvinism” and grant us in its place what older writers have called, “experimental Calvinism.”

God’s truth was never intended to illuminate the understanding while leaving the affections and the will untouched. To be properly received it must reach all three. Doctrinal precision and devotional warmth are equally important for balanced, vibrant Christian living.

This sheds some light on who we are, where we have been, and where we hope to go. We long to see a widespread recovery of the old gospel which was known and loved by our convention’s founders. We long to see a real revival of true religion which that gospel is calculated to promote. We long to see churches strengthened, members and pastors encouraged, and men, women and children soundly converted to Christ. To this end we work and pray.