"I delivered to you as of first importance"

SBCPaul’s initial message in new territory he summarized as “Christ and Him crucified.” He viewed this message as of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:3). Such a description of this message derives from its position as the identifiable, demonstrable, event in which the load of sin that lies as a damning burden on sinners was shouldered by Christ in such a way that he alone is the fountain of salvation for sinners and the object of faith. That our discussion in SBC life has made us zealous to be clear on the proclamation of these salvific events gives a hardy substance to this common commitment. The issue of “for whom was the work of Christ effectual” creates differences, and is not an unimportant discussion, but evidence of common affirmations are encouraging. A recent tacit denial of propitiatory, substitutionary atonement by the editor of a state Baptist paper led to an outcry against his position that demonstrated widespread unity on this foundational doctrine of the gospel. All efforts to keep it so are healthy.

Another dynamic, however, we could consider addressing in a more expansive way. I have in mind the kind of vocabulary that has emerged as part of that discussion that seeks a valid ground for rapprochement. Triage, an excellent image suggested by Al Mohler, served, as he intended it, as an effective analogy for the life or death threat of emergency situations. When the inspiration of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, and the omniscience of God are eroding from the soil of a denomination’s doctrine, then those who believe these truths must rally together to save the very Christian character of the denomination. In so doing, they suspend their differences on the larger picture of Christian truth, press them into a different sphere for discussion, and work together to salvage the individual truths threatened by the slowly creeping infidelity. Paul pointed out—no, argued energetically—that denial of the resurrection made the discussion of anything dependent on resurrection either before or after its occurrence, a moot point, and resigns helpless sinners into hopelessness as well. We get that, and speak with unity on it.

For the long-term vigor and robust health of an entire denomination, however, a second model should be added to the vital work of triage, so that we do not forfeit the advantages of such large-scale commonalties. A more encyclopedic consistency should operate simultaneously with emergency remediation, a more systemic attention to the vital connections of each part of the Bible’s doctrinal framework. Doctrinally frank interaction should not be viewed as divisive but as an effort to more profound unity. We must embrace con amor a consistent stewardship of engagement in serious theological discussion—the kind that can be gut-wrenching and can make blood boil because of its importance for the glory of God and the spiritual health of Christians and the passionate integrity of gospel proclamation.

An excellent analogy for crisis strategy applied wrongly tends to give permanency to mere short-term goals. Absolutizing a crisis method compromises the possibility of a more sustainable unity. In his pivotal address, Three Changes in Theological Institutions, J. P. Boyce implored, “God in his mercy preserve the instructors from the crime of teaching a single error, however unimportant, and grant unto all our Boards the grace necessary for faithfulness to the trusts devolved upon them, that false doctrine, however trifling, may receive no countenance.” Whether such a pristine and comprehensive precision of doctrinal clarity is possible begs attention; but, his conviction that all doctrines, no matter how deeply embedded in the entire system of Christian truth, and, as it were, obscure to many, influence all other doctrines cannot be shoved aside. One model operates effectively as a necessity in a time of crisis such as experienced by Spurgeon in the Downgrade Controversy; another should be the goal of consistent theological stewardship to sustain identity and integrity as a denomination. When the bleeding is stopped, maintaining the overall health of the patient is paramount.

Though not universally the case, some employ the vocabulary of secondary and tertiary tiers of doctrine to stigmatize the doctrines of grace as mere abstract appendages of little importance in the whole theological spectrum. Maybe that impression can be avoided by consideration of a different language, in fact, a different conceptual framework, for ongoing discussion. Maybe we can aid all participants in avoiding the impression that we are marginalizing the importance of doctrine—both those of differences and those of agreement. Our present unity focuses on the common effects of our common core of doctrine. The doctrine that flows immediately from the historical narrative of the inerrant Scriptures of Christ’s prophesied incarnation, life and death, resurrection and ascension followed by the apostolic obedience to his command for the proclamation of this saving action to the nations finds virtual unanimity across the denomination. That which we share is an acceptance of this historical narrative and the resultant effect that faithful proclamation of it should result in the glory of God and the salvation of sinners prior to the consummating return of Christ to judge the nations and all the bearers of the divine image that have ever lived. Such salvation and judgment, so all agree, reflects divine justice as well as divine grace manifest within the reality of human faith apart from any course of meritorious works done by us. What, then, causes our differences? I will seek to sort out my impressions of this in a future post.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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