A Call for Christ-like Rhetoric

On this side of Genesis 3, we all need to regularly check ourselves for weeds of sin and temptation that ever-grow in our souls. A recent chapel message at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary stood as a clear example to me that we all need to remember the commitments that were made by both Calvinists and Traditionalists. I write this as an unashamed Calvinist who has been ashamed by the comments made by some who claim the name “Calvinist.” For example, social media has proven to be a tempting outlet for vitriolic mud-slinging on both sides.

This post is meant to serve as a reminder of the commitments that Southern Baptists on both sides of the debate were called to make. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Calvinism Advisory Committee’s statement was a great document laying out the foundational agreed upon truths, the remaining tensions, and proposed several ways of cooperating as we move forward. The statement was wisely crafted and endorsed by many; indeed, the leading men from each position put their name at the bottom of the document. Below I would like to remind us of some foundational truths found in the statement, truths which I call us to remember as we work together for the cause of Christ.

  1. Our argumentation needs to be Christ-honoring.

One disappointing aspect of the Traditionalist-Calvinist dust up over the past couple weeks has been the disturbing manner in which many on both sides have acted. For example, rather than honoring the other party by interacting with the best of their scholarship and thought, some have decided to instead latch on to some lunatic fringe of the opposing party and caricature the whole tribe as believing as such. This tendency is warned against by the committee’s statements, like: “We must also remember that labels, though often necessary, are often misleading and unfair. They must be used with care and assigned with charity.” Such behavior is poor scholarship, poor debate, and not Christ-honoring. In order to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” especially in theological debate, we must make a concerted effort to not caricature our opponents position and erect straw men.

Similarly, another fallacy that I’ve seen over the past week is what logicians call the “genetic fallacy.” This fallacy is committed whenever a position is affirmed or denied simply because of its origin. For example, a Traditionalist might be tempted to dismiss an argument made by a Calvinist simply because of who is making the claim. Likewise, a Calvinist might be tempted to reject some truth simply because it was spoken by Hobbs or Rogers. This manner of interaction is, like erecting straw men, poor scholarship, poor debate, and not Christ-honoring.

If you believe your position to be the truth, then you need not stoop to erecting straw men and committing fallacies in your argumentation. The truth, when well argued and studied, will prevail; the darkness will be overcome by the light, without the help of sub-Christian argumentation.

  1. Our rhetoric needs to be loving.

The Advisory’s statement affirms that it is the responsibility of “all Southern Baptists to guard our conversation so that we do not speak untruthfully, irresponsibly, harshly, or unkindly to or about any other Southern Baptist.” This is exactly what it means to apply the 9th commandment as we interact with our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. At the most basic level there is a call for complete truthfulness, not deception or coarse jesting, when we are interacting. We don’t seek to drum up support for our tribe by bashing each other; rather, because we love Jesus and his flock, we seek to honor him by speaking kindly about everyone, including our debate partners.

Furthermore, the committee stated that, “We deny that issues related to Calvinism or non-Calvinism should alienate or estrange Southern Baptists from each other. Instead, we will extend to one another the mutual respect befitting the bonds of fellowship that hold us together.” Our rhetoric should seek to encourage our brothers and sisters to engage the biblical truth, instead of making the SBC a hostile environment for the other side. One of my fears is that Patrick’s message unnecessarily alienated those that might even be open to the doctrines of grace (indeed, Patterson’s comments encouraged denominational departure). If I were attending Southwestern, I would not have even felt comfortable in that chapel service. This type of rhetoric is exactly why many young men are tempted to avoid the SBC channels for church planting (i.e., NAMB), and instead choosing to serve/plant through other networks where they feel welcome (e.g., Acts 29, Sojourn Network, ARBCA). Rhetoric like Patrick’s and Patterson’s do nothing but undermine the long-term stability of the very denomination that they seek to protect. I am aware that Paige Patterson did write a post to clarify his statements but has not yet (to my knowledge) apologized or retracted his chapel remarks.

  1. Our devotion needs to be apparent.

From the very beginning of the New Testament church, tribalism has been an issue. Paul rebuked the Corinthians for the divisions in their church as some claimed to “follow Paul,” or to “follow Apollos” (1 Cor 1:10–13). My call at this time is that our interactions with one another would always reveal a devotion to Christ and his truth, not merely a tribal loyalty. Calvinists must check themselves that their theology is worth defending not merely because Calvin taught it, but because it is biblical. Likewise, Traditionalists must believe that their position is Christ-honoring because it aligns with scripture, not merely because Hobbs and Rogers believed it. In all things, even important doctrinal debate, our actions must proclaim to all onlookers that we value truth, that we defend doctrine, but most of all that we love our Savior.

I believe, along with the committee, that: “If we stand together in truth, we can trust one another in truth, even as we experience tension. We can talk like brothers and sisters in Christ, and we can work urgently and eagerly together.”

Jon English serves as a Pastor of Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He has earned an undergraduate degree in Microbiology from Auburn University Montgomery, a Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Systematic and Historical Theology from SBTS. Jon English is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a fellow for the Center for Pastor Theologians.
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