Keep a Close Watch . . . On the Teaching: Tom Nettles Responds to Trevin Wax's Post

I think there has been a misunderstanding. Trevin Wax is concerned that I am writing off my non-Calvinist brethren as “on the same plane of theological degeneracy as man-centered liberals.” He then compares that to the non-Calvinist argument that all Calvinists have the seeds of hyper-Calvinism ready to blossom in their breast. Both types of argumentation are then chastised. Wax gives advice that we recognize how good for each other we actually are. Perhaps in another post, in a different context, I would argue exactly what he presents me as arguing here – that Arminianism and other types of non-Calvinism do harbor a philosophical stance that more easily invites a humanistic/naturalistic approach to religious studies, biblical studies, and doctrinal development.

That was not this post, however. His concerns about any purpose to “chase out brothers and sisters who are not of the same theological persuasion,” I would suppose, are more aimed at the non-Calvinist than the Calvinist. They certainly have more experience at that in the Southern Baptist context than do the Calvinists and exercised that option, in my opinion, in confessionally sound ways during the decades of the Conservative Resurgence. Even now, unless we want another situation of sign but don’t believe culture on our hands, by-laws at Southern Baptist institutions require certain confessional commitments; to ignore these would be a failure of stewardship before God and Southern Baptists. J. P. Boyce’s discussion of the three-fold level of confessional knowledge and responsibility that he proposed in his Three Changes in Theological Institutions has genuine relevance on this issue.

Wax, to return to the point, says, with my post in mind, “it is problematic to claim that a move away from Calvinism necessarily entails a move toward theological liberalism.” That is exactly what I have not done. I have described the kinds of evangelicalism that the twentieth-century theological changes produced. It is too much to hope that anyone would actually have read my extended historical discussion of this development beginning with the Judsons and ending with Joel Osteen? “How did that happen?” is the perplexity on which I sought historical light. My younger, more tech/savvy, communication/shrewd friends have warned me that my “blog posts” (I don’t even know if I am using those words properly) are not typical and make unreasonable demands of the reader. Each individual post is 2 to 2 ½ times too long (I am trying to do better), and the fully developed argument depends on a willingness to wade through about two-score and five of such posts. Wax has engaged the last one, and so could not necessarily know my view of the whole story.

My mention of liberalism in this final post was discreet and highly contextual. It arose as a reminder that the century in which a supposed non-Calvinist but “sound, biblical soteriology” dominated Baptist thought also saw the rise of a destructive liberalism engineered by the same people that had learned to hate Calvinism and nursed that hatred as elemental to their agenda. I had written about this earlier. This brought about a situation in which a strained unity was fostered in the context of the rising doctrinal commitment, for both parties (that is, the growing liberalism and the developing inerrantist evangelicalism among Baptists), to the preeminence of human freedom. But of course, it took a long time to develop that argument and I could not expect Mr. Wax to have followed the entire discussion.

To reiterate, however, my concern about “bad religion” had to do, not with a path to liberalism, but, with the kind of evangelicalism we as Baptists have adopted—a kind of evangelicalism that has justified and finds no way to remedy our bloated church membership, and has endorsed an evangelism that omits many a weighty matter central to gospel truth. Thus explained is my mention of Joel Osteen to whom I devoted an earlier lengthy blog post.

I am perplexed about what seems to me an ambivalence of Wax’s interaction with the large concerns that emerge in his analysis. He wants discussion and he doesn’t want an “artificial harmony where we say the differences don’t matter,” but he thinks it is dangerous and antithetical to “true common ground” when people on both sides “see dastardly consequences for either Calvinism or Traditionalism.” I have some brief responses to this concern and also would recommend a response to Wax by Jared Longshore.

First, I would be and have been quite willing to answer perceptions of Calvinism, even its dastardly consequences, presented by its opponents. The history of such answers is noble and informative, even edifying, and an opportunity to restate them is always welcome. Red herrings abound in these accusations, the differences between the theology of hyper-Calvinism and Calvinism are misunderstood, and doctrinal flaws in the objections themselves should be exposed. One response to the post suggested that I had not read the Remonstrant articles and was unfamiliar with Arminian teaching about the work of the Spirit on the unbeliever. I would like to be more astute in both areas, but I assure that concerned reader that I have given a good bit of energy to both of those.

Second, the goal of open and serious talk about differences is that minds might be changed and a more sound and productive unity be developed, not an “artificial harmony,” as he has well put it. Such discussions, however, are mere chatter and show an “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” (1 Timothy 6:4), if our concerns do not involve really important, and sometimes severe or dastardly, consequences. Merely to banter about ideas of no serious consequence is silly and ungodly; or to treat ideas that do have such consequences as if they did not is dishonest.

Three, the burden of my post largely avoided extrapolation but showed through clear confessional documentation that the Traditional Statement was out of accord with the confessional history of Baptists in the South. The “Trad” statement had disturbing internal contradictions that showed an unstable doctrinal foundation beneath their various assertions. After a summary, by citation of their affirmations and denials, on six different points I began a brief demonstration with the words, “While conservative Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree that,” and then supplied points of agreement on all six areas.

This was an attempt, I say, to make much of the areas of agreement and at the same time point out that the Traditional statement had settled on a greatly reduced soteriology hardly representative of early Baptist soteriology as stated clearly in the Charleston Confession of Faith, the Mississippi Baptist Association Confession of Faith, and the Georgia Baptist Association Confession of Faith. I believe the demonstration is beyond dispute, and the only response can be, “Yes, the Traditional statement does differ significantly on soteriology in areas that former confessions treated as vital to a complete and biblically sound understanding of the various facets of the doctrine.”

That Trevin Wax has engaged this discussion is a good thing. He has done it before, and done it well. That he has not understood what is going on in my development of the issue may be as much my fault as his. I hope this will help ease his concerns somewhat and encourage him to continue investigating the issue and purifying the nature of the discussion.