Friday, November 07, 2008

John 3:16 Conference, Steve Lemke, and the Importance of Christian Scholarship Done Well

Andrew Lindsey, guest blogging at, is liveblogging the John 3:16 Conference, sponsored by Jerry Vines Ministries. Here's a description:
Did Jesus die on the cross for every person? Are believers eternally secure? Can grace be resisted? These and many other questions will be addressed. This conference is not going to be a ‘Let’s bash the Calvinists’ conference. This conference is going to be a biblical and theological assessment of and response to 5-point Calvinism. It will be helpful for lay people as well as preachers.
It caught my attention that one of the speakers at the conference is Steve Lemke, provost of, and professor of philosophy at, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

I recently read Steve Lemke's essay, "What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians," published in The Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (vol. 5, no. 2, Fall 2008): 10-38 (available online at the link above).

Lemke is the editor for this journal. I don't think it's peer reviewed, but it is commendable that Lemke included responses in this issue to his essay.

Among the first things I noticed about the article is the sheer number of factually incorrect statements. For example:
  • Lemke claims Together for the Gospel 2006 was held at the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (it was actually held at the Galt House, a hotel in Louisville)
  • Lemke claims there were many Presbyterian signatories to the T4G document (in fact, there was only one Presbyterian signatory: Ligon Duncan)
  • Lemke claims the Westminster Confession of Faith was written in 1664 (it was actually written in 1646)
  • Lemke claims that "popular Presbyterian author" R.C. Sproul wrote a 1996 article in World Magazine about children and salvation (it was actually Sproul's son, R.C. Sproul Jr.)
  • Lemke claims that Presbyterians believe that paedobaptism removes original sin (that is actually the Roman Catholic view; Lemke also mistakenly implies that Presbyterians believe in baptismal regeneration)
  • Lemke claims Bethlehem Baptist Church "enacted an amended policy" about baptism and membership in August 2005 (it was proposed but not enacted).
  • Lemke claims that Richard Muller teaches at Calvin College (he has never taught at the college; he actually teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary)
Now we all make mistakes, and some of these are more significant than others. But it concerns me that a published journal article would have so many factual errors--things that could easily have been avoided given more care and/or peer review (or use of Google, for that matter!).

Here are a few more things I noted when reading it:

Unconditional Election

On unconditional election, Lemke writes:
Many Calvinists understand "unconditional election" to mean that salvation is provided by God without any involvement or free choice on the part of the sinner, counting any human response (even assent) as a work.
I'd be curious to see Lemke's documentation of these "many Calvinists" who think that "salvation" can come without any human involvement, or that a human response (including "assent") is a work. I know of no Calvinist who believes that. Calvinists believe that God's choice is not conditioned on anything in the sinner—but that his calling produces a human response that is an essential part of the salvation process.

Timothy George on Election

In the course of his argument, Dr. Lemke turns to Timothy George's book, Amazing Grace. Dr. George--whom Dr. Lemke rightly calls a "Calvinist," offers an alternative acronym to the traditional TULIP--called ROSES. Dr. George explains why he prefers certain terms (e.g., Radical Depravity instead of Total Depravity). He is not critiquing the best representatives of those who use the TULIP nomenclature, but rather explains what the TULIP terms could be--and have been--misunderstood to imply.

Some of Lemke's restatements of George's views are quite far off of the mark. For example, here is Lemke's restatement of George on unconditional/sovereign election:
Sovereign Election -- In contrast to the double predestinarianism of unconditional election, God sovereignly elects those whom He foreknows will respond to Him.
But this would make Timothy George a classical Arminian! George, quoting from J. I. Packer, refers to God having "foreseen [us] as fallen." He explains that this is a reference to a technical intra-Calvinist debate on the order of the decrees. But it has nothing to do with foreknowing who will respond to him. Lemke, in restating George's position, fundamentally reverses and misrepresents his position.

Paul's Deadness Metaphor

Lemke does not offer much by way of exegetical critique of the Calvinistic understanding of soteriology. But he does attempt a rebuttal regarding their understanding of Paul's "deadness" metaphor in Ephesians 2:
One can raise two questions about the Calvinist interpretation of Eph. 2:1-3. First, if one takes being "dead in trespasses and sins" literally, i.e., if "dead means dead," then one can neither accept or reject Christ. Dead people cannot accept, but on the other hand, neither can they reject, either! Second, the language of spiritual deadness is not the only description of lostness used in Ephesians 2. This description should be balanced by the "aliens and strangers" metaphor (Eph. 2:11-22). Aliens are alive; they simply do not have the proper relationship as citizens in the Kingdom.
But you don't have to jump ahead 10 verses to see this point—you just need to read Eph 2:1-3 closely! Paul says "you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the prince of the power of the air . . . among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body" (my emphasis).

Calvinists—with the apostle Paul's explicit wording—believe that unredeemed man is very much "alive" to sin (walking, following, living, carrying out, having passions and desires, etc.), but "dead" in terms of being able to respond positively to God. The fact that the unredeemed respond negatively to Christ is hardly a valid argument against the idea that they are dead in terms of a positive response.

Mohler's Theological Triage

Lemke takes a fair bit of space to criticize aspects of Al Mohler's proposed scale of theological priorities. He writes:
[S]ome modern-day Baptists understand believer's baptism to be a secondary or peripheral issue or deny it altogether. Just how important is this issue? Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. has provided a helpful rubric for considering this issue. In "A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity," Mohler calls for a more careful delineation of first-order, second-order, and third-order theological issues, urging Christians to be more unified around the first-order beliefs. His distinction between first-order doctrines and second-order doctrines is that "believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues." Mohler clearly appears to be applying the old medieval dictum: "In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity." Of course, all Christians should affirm oneness in Christ, as Jesus called us to practice (John 17:20-23).

The key issue is, however, which doctrines are essential and which doctrines are nonessential? The first-order beliefs listed by Mohler include such "essential" and "crucial" doctrines as the Trinity, the full humanity and deity of Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. Among the issues Mohler lists as secondary is "the meaning and mode of baptism." While noting that Baptists and Presbyterians "fervently disagree over the most basic understanding of Christian baptism," Mohler asserts that "Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians."

The doctrine of salvation must obviously be listed among the "essential" beliefs. However, might not Mohler's proposal be enhanced by adding believer's baptism (or the age of accountability) as a first order belief, since it is so closely tied to a Baptistic understanding of salvation? Clearly, Baptists deny belief in baptismal regeneration – that baptism is required for salvation. Baptism is a symbol of a salvific event that has already taken place. Nonetheless, the point is that for Baptists, persons are not viewed as saved (and thus candidates for baptism) until they have repented of their sins and placed their faith personally and consciously in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. This is impossible for infants. The question at stake is whether Baptists would recognize Presbyterian infants as saved Christians on the basis of their infant baptism. So while the mode of baptism is indeed an important but secondary issue, do any of Mohler's "essentials" rule out declaring that a Presbyterian infant who has been sprinkled is saved (or, for that matter, that the infant was lost before the age of accountability)? If Mohler's "essentials" were applied literally, could not these guidelines imply that we should not recognize as a Christian a fervent, mature Pentecostal Christian who affirms Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord but has a defective view of the Trinity, while we would "eagerly recognize" a sprinkled Presbyterian infant as a Christian? Most Baptists would not recognize the salvation of those sprinkled as infants, and would be very reluctant to relegate the meaning of baptism as only for believers to be merely a secondary issue, because what is at stake is the doctrine of salvation. Modern day Baptists should not compromise this soteriological issue and count it as merely a peripheral issue. Baptists in prior generations suffered persecution and even martyrdom from Calvinist and Catholic authorities in defense of their beliefs. Clearly, their convictions were that believer's baptism was an essential rather than secondary issue. . . . [I]t it would enhance his proposal to add believer's baptism (or the age of accountability) to his list of first-order doctrinal essentials.
I don't think this response is coherent. He seems to be suggesting the following: (1) Presbyterians believe that an infant is "saved" through baptism. (2) The doctrine of salvation is a first-order doctrine. (3) Therefore if a Baptist does not put "believer baptism" in the essential, first-order doctrine category, than he cannot rule out declaring that a Presbyterian infant is saved through baptism.

The first premise is false—Presbyterians believe that baptism puts the infant into a covenantal relationship with God, but one that does not automatically entail final salvation. And the conclusion clearly doesn't follow: one does not need to declare something to be a first-order essential in order to declare its denial to be wrong.

Lemke also seems to misunderstand what Mohler means by "first-order doctrine." Mohler writes that they "represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself." Does Lemke really want to suggest that denying believer baptism represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself?


I could go on and on. (For those who want more detail, Timmy Brister has now written 9 blog posts responding to the various errors in Lemke's piece.)

What's the point of posting on this? There are at least two points of application here.

First, we all need to redouble our efforts to practice the Christian virtue of representing others correctly, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. It's wise to invite counsel and criticism from those who don't see eye to eye with us. Again, I commend Lemke for inviting and printing responses to his essay. But inviting critical engagement before publication would have saved him from numerous embarrassements.

Second, given that Lemke is one of the speakers at this conference, and given the level of scholarhip and thinking on display in this article, I don't have high hopes that it will be a meanginful engagement with what Calvinists actually believe. But we shall see.