Archive for April, 2008

Race or Ethnicity?

April 20, 2008

At the Together for the Gospel conference last week, Thabiti Anyabwile delivered a message on identity in relation to race and ethnicity.  In it he argued that we should adopt a new paradigm for thinking about personal identity, one rooted in theological teachings about humanity found in Scripture. 

The new paradigm is this: instead of delineating identity in terms of biologically determined race, we should instead think in the fluid categories of ethnicity.  “Race” is genetic, biological, and unchangeable, but “ethnicity” embraces one’s culture, values, and behavior.  “Race” is something that is determined simply by the circumstances of birth.  “Ethnicity” is certainly affected by those circumstances, but it is also something that involves our ongoing participation and/or rejection of the cultural patterns that we have come to know.  Anyabwile argued that we should dispense with the idea of race altogether, for there really is only one race, and that is the human race (we are all one in Adam, sinners before God).  It is simply arbitrary to categories people based on skin color.  An African American living in Mississippi has little in common (in terms of human categories) with a black man in Jamaica, in England, or in Africa.  So it is simply arbitrary to place the all-encompassing label “black” over them all and use that as a primary marker of identity.  That kind of categorization locates identity in biological differences that may have very little relation to the way our lives are ultimately shaped.  

Instead, he argued, we should think in terms of the categories of ethnicity.  Ethnicity is a fluid category that is not inextricably bound up with biology.  Certainly, biology often contributes to the majority make-up of a particular ethnic group, but there is no biological determinism.  The “hip-hop” culture, for example, is primarily a movement among African Americans, but a number of whites and Hispanics have joined in as well.  By the same token, no one should assume that simply having dark skin in America automatically makes a person part of the hip-hop culture.  The category is more fluid than that of “race.” 

One of the most helpful things Anyabwile said was that if we think in terms of race, then our statements will always be ad hominem.  Racial discussions are always loaded with a level of discomfort because of the potential that someone will say something that will slander and, therefore, offend an entire group of people simply because of their biological make-up.  So, for example, let’s say that a white man says the following: “I have little regard for the hip-hop culture.  I think it has serious moral problems and little to offer in the way of creative artistry.  I believe it is a corrupting influence in America.”  If we think in terms of race, then we will think that such a person has just slandered African Americans as a whole.  If hip-hop is linked to biology, then one cannot discuss hip-hop objectively; it will always be in relation to real people who are who they are simply because they were born that way.  However, if we change the paradigm and think in terms of the fluid concept of ethnicity, we can separate the hip-hop culture from the particular biological features that African Americans share.  We can lower the tension in such a discussion by divorcing biology from lifestyle and behavior, and we can subject hip-hop to a (well-deserved) critique without lambasting an entire group of people.

This seems to be what Paul did in Titus 1:12-13, where he affirmed the saying, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  That is a stereotype, pure and simple.  Paul affirms a blanket statement about an entire group of people, and he does so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  If all Scripture is God-breathed, as Christians have long affirmed (2 Timothy 3:16), then not only does Paul affirm a stereotype, God himself affirms a stereotype.  But it is not a stereotype based on biology.  Paul does not say that Cretans are biologically determined to be this way, as though they are worse by nature than anyone else.  Paul’s doctrine of sin would not cohere with such a judgment (see Romans 5:12-19).  Our unity in Adam precludes any such assessment.  But Paul does attack the Cretan ethnicity as a social-cultural reality.  For whatever reason, the island of Crete had developed a culture that was less than promising, morally speaking.  There is nothing wrong in making that observation.  If we are so afraid of stereotypes that we cannot acknowledge widespread patterns of immoral behavior among people who share similar cultural features, then we are lost in a fog of politically correct confusion. 

But here’s what we must keep in mind through it all: even though some stereotypes are legitimate, they must never be affirmed from a standing of prideful superiority.  That is not what Paul is doing in Titus 1:12-13.  He is not poking fun at people who are different from him, laughing with his buddies at their ignorance and moral confusion.  Nor is he thanking God that he is not like them (see Luke 18:11).  He is instructing Titus on how to care for the young churches that have recently sprung up on that island.  His concern is redemptive, and he believes it is better that Titus be clear on the truth about the situation he is facing than to leave a legitimate stereotype unsaid for fear of being politically incorrect.  There is nothing wrong with a frank acknowledgement that particular ethnicities (not as biologically determined groups, but as fluid concepts of culture and behavior) are sinful in particular ways, especially when your aim is to address their sin with the redemptive message of Christ.  If we can disentangle this discussion from pure biology, we can make a great deal of progress, I believe. 

We are united in Adam, sharers in the same guilt and depravity.  Believers are likewise united in Christ, sharers in his righteousness, no matter what stereotypes may have been true of them before.  So let us, as believers, be united in the church, with inter-ethnic congregations who build unity on the gospel in anticipation of the great eschatological unity that will come when we join our diverse voices around the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 5:9).      

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Together for the Gospel 2008

April 19, 2008

This week I had the privilege of attending the Together for the Gospel 2008 conference in Louisville.  It was wonderful.  I got to spend some time with my younger brother, Andrew, who flew in from Texas.  I met Kevin DeYoung (whose name tag Andrew happened to spot on an elevator), one of the authors of the new book Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), a book that I read a few weeks ago and found very helpful.  I sang rich hymns about the gospel with 5,500 brothers and sisters, often moving me to tears.  Andrew and I got a picture made with John Piper.  We also got about 15 free, theologically substantive books.  And I heard some wonderful teaching, preaching, and discussion.

Ligon Duncan gave the first address by stressing the importance of systematic theology for the church and for preaching.  Thabiti Anyabwile deconstructed the idea of biologically determined race and argued, based on theological truths from Scripture, for a new way of relating to people whose skin is a different color from ours (more on that address in a future post).  I missed John MacArthur’s message on total inability (I was in class at the time), but I heard that it was wonderful.  I did get to hear the panel discussion with MacArthur afterward.  Mark Dever spoke on contemporary attempts to improve the gospel, and he exhorted us to ensure that we never try to do such a thing.  Instead, he called us to be clear on what the gospel is and to keep it distinct from legitimate implications that may flow from it, lest we generate confusion and ultimately lead people away from the gospel.

R. C. Sproul delivered what may be the best sermon I have ever heard in my life.  It was on the curse motif of the atonement, based on Galatians 3:10-14 but drawing from the blessing/curse teachings of Genesis 3, Deuteronomy 28ff., and Numbers 6 (the Aaronic blessing), as well as from the Day of Atonement ritual of Leviticus 16.  Unable to stand for a long period of time due to his health, Dr. Sproul preached sitting down from the depths of his soul and vividly communicated to us the horror and wonder of the cross.  I will never forget that message. 

Albert Mohler followed Sproul’s sermon with an address on contemporary rejections of the doctrine of penal substitution, and he (as always) brought clarity and strong biblical-theological reasoning to the discussion.  John Piper passionately exhorted us to embrace a radical ministry of suffering as we look to the ultimate reward, namely, Christ himself.  By treasuring Christ above all, he said, and enduring suffering and loss for his sake, we show the world his glory and value in a way that would not be shown were we never to experience suffering in his service.  C. J. Mahaney ended with a call to pastors to shepherd their flocks joyfully, exhorting us from Philippians 1 to pursue ministry with gratitude, faith in God’s promises for the future, and deep affection for those under our care.  In between these sessions were panel discussions with the four leaders of T4G (Mohler, Dever, Duncan, and Mahaney) together with whatever speaker had previously given his address. 

This week was a refreshing oasis.  It was like church camp for Calvinist pastors, only without goofy recreation time, goofy youth speakers, or goofy music.  No, I take that back.  Very little of it was like church camp.  It was much too rich for that kind of an analogy.  This week I saw 5,500 brothers and sisters of mine who are passionate for the gospel of Jesus Christ celebrating that passion together and drawing energy to go back to their churches in order to proclaim that gospel more faithfully.  Gatherings like these give me great hope for the future of the church.

More to come later.  I want to share with you first some of the things Thabiti Anyabwile argued about the concepts of race and ethnicity.  And I also plan to write a series of posts on the gospel based on thoughts provoked by this conference.   

Two Years Later…

April 6, 2008

It was early March, 2006, when I received a letter from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School telling me I had been accepted into their doctoral program.  I was still waiting on word from one other school, Southern Seminary.  I expected that Southern would accept me as well, and then I would have a decision to make.

But I was already about to be awarded the Master of Divinity from Southern, and I knew that a doctoral degree from Trinity combined with a master’s from Southern would probably look better on paper.  I also knew that Trinity was probably the most highly respected evangelical seminary in North America, that an education there would put me in touch with some of the finest scholars in the evangelical world, and that it would broaden my theological horizons and commend me to a wider pool of post-graduation careers than would Southern (though Southern would probably commend me more to positions at Baptist schools).  Two of my theology professors at Southern were themselves graduates of Trinity (though Trinity has, to my knowledge, never hired a Southern doctoral graduate to their faculty).  In addition, I had been offered a scholarship from Trinity (not much relative to the total cost, but still something), accompanied by a close working relationship with the department chair, including the opportunity to lecture for some of his classes in his absence.  For about a week after receiving the letter, I thought the decision had pretty much been made: we were moving to Chicago.

But somewhere in the middle of that week (March 16th to be exact), my world got turned upside-down (in a good way) when our first child, Benjamin, was born.  I cannot describe the level of joy mixed with anxiety that I felt that first night.  Major changes in life, whether for good or bad, always bring stress with them.  With my son being born at the same time that I was contemplating picking up my family and moving to Chicago, with little idea about how we would finance the next three years, I remember sitting in the parking lot of a Wendy’s across from the hospital, just letting the tears flow.  How was I supposed to make this decision? 

After that night, the plans proceeded much as they had before: Chicago would be our destination.  But a few nights later, I got a sudden moment of clarity.  I don’t remember which night it was, but I remember where I was when something suddenly occurred to me.  I knew that I could make this decision based on which school I thought would help me get a better career, but what I couldn’t decide was whether it would be better for me to seek out a career in the broader evangelical world or within the Baptist tradition.  So I pushed that criterion aside.  In any case, I thought trying to micro-manage steps toward a career was putting my focus in the wrong place.  As Kevin Vanhoozer, a professor at Trinity, wisely counseled me, I should pursue these decisions in terms of answering a call, not managing a career. 

Both schools had so much to offer from an educational standpoint.  But Trinity could not offer me two things that Southern could: (1) the ability to provide for my family while attending as a full-time student and (2) the ability to continue pastoring this church that I love so much while attending as a full-time student.  The cost of attending Trinity (even with the scholarship), combined with the cost of living in Chicago, combined with the cost of leaving a church that I loved and that would be able to provide our family with a home and a decent income (for a full-time student), thereby freeing my wife to stay home and be the mother that she wanted to be and that I wanted her to be, was too much to pay.  So I chose Southern.

I am two years into the program at Southern, and I have never looked back.  The experience has been wonderful.  Trinity is a great school with a well-deserved reputation, but I think Southern’s reputation will begin to rival it in coming years.  We have a great group of scholars here, and we are attracting more students than ever.  Furthermore, being at Southern has set me on a trajectory toward a dissertation that I probably would not have landed on at Trinity, and I will be assembling a committee ideally suited for it. 

But more than that, my call to shepherd this church at this time continues.  In the last two years I have seen people come to know Christ and have baptized them.  I have seen believers growing in the Lord and becoming actively involved in evangelism.  I have been with a family in the moments following the death of their loved one, a dearly loved member of our congregation, and I have preached his funeral.  I have prayed for healing for another member who may be now on the brink of death.  I have been given the privilege to perform two wedding ceremonies for two young couples starting their lives together.  I have shaken countless hands, preached countless sermons, said countless prayers, all for and with this particular gathering of people.  Of course, had I moved to Chicago, I would be part of a local church there, building up a different storehouse of memories.  But were that the case, I would have missed out on these exeperiences with these people.  I know I made the right decision.

Benjamin is two years old now, big enough to run and play, climb and slide, kick and throw.  And there are few things I love more than watching him do those things right outside in our yard, here in Milton, Kentucky.   

Calvinists and Non-Calvinists in the SBC: A Proposal for Unity

April 4, 2008

It is no secret that Calvinism has been a hot topic in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years due to the rise of Reformed theology among (mostly) younger leaders, especially seminarians.  A number of non-Calvinist SBC leaders have responded in print and from the pulpit by putting forth arguments against Calvinism, and of course, some Calvinists have responded.  This post is by no means a call for the end of theological debate.  I believe that debating our views in a spirit of charity with our brothers is good and healthy, and no one should feel pressured to privatize his views on this subject.  Rather, the point of this post is to issue a call for protocol, so to speak.  I believe that both Calvinist and non-Calvinist Southern Baptists can live and minister together in the various entities of Southern Baptist life, including associations, state conventions with their various ministries, and the various entities of the national convention.  While the doctrines that surround the debate about Calvinism are very important theologically (even touching the heart of the nature of God’s grace, human sinfulness, God’s intention and accomplishment in the cross, and the nature of God’s love), I do not believe that either one side or the other has fallen away from the truth of the gospel.  I fear that theological conservatives, having won the battle for the SBC, have now turned to fight each other.  It would be a tragedy for the issue of Calvinism to create disunity at any level of SBC life.

So let us debate our views as we love one another and minister together.  Here are the rules of discourse that I propose for addressing important theological differences over our views on Calvinism:

1. Let us seek first to understand each other’s views.  This should really go without saying, but unfortunately, in our desire to refute theological opponents, we often respond too quickly before we have taken the time to hear their claims fairly.  Sometimes Calvinists accuse non-Calvinists of Semi-Pelagianism (the affirmation that God gives grace in response to some remnant of goodness left in sinners).  But this is not necessarily what non-Calvinists believe.  Those who stand in the Arminian tradition believe in total depravity, just as Calvinists do, but they affirm that through the cross God gives all people prevenient grace that enables them to respond freely to the offer of the gospel.  (Of course, I recognize that very few Southern Baptists are fond of the term “Arminian” because of its associations with liberalism and its doctrine of apostasy, but on the subject of conversion at least, many non-Calvinists would probably affirm the evangelical Arminian doctrine).  Calvinists should not paint their non-Calvinist opponents as Semi-Pelagians without sufficient evidence.  Similarly, non-Calvinists should not accuse Calvinists of teaching fatalism.  There are important differences between Calvinism and fatalism.  Calvinists affirm that God ordains all things, both the ends and the specific means to those ends.  Fate, on the other hand, is an impersonal force that compels us toward necessary ends, though without encompassing the specific means to them.  So a fatalist will say, “If I am destined to die today, there is nothing I can do about it.  So I might as well jump in front of a bus.  If it is my fate to die, I will die.  If it is not, then I will live.”  Calvinists do not say these things.  Calvinists affirm that both the ends and means fall under God’s sovereign decree, so that if God has decreed that I will die today, he has also decreed how that will happen, and it is a decree that incorporates decisions of free agents who are morally responsible for their actions.  So I will not, therefore, jump in front of a bus because I would be morally culpable for jeopardizing my own life and acting with stupidity. 

So, let both sides agree to do their best to hear what the other side is saying.  Not only does Christian charity demand that kind of fairness, but we also accomplish nothing when we argue against views that our opponents do not hold. 

2. Let us not hold our opponents accountable for what we perceive to be the logical outcomes of their beliefs if, in fact, they specifically deny those outcomes.  I know that is a lengthy sentence, so let me give an example.  Many non-Calvinists cannot fathom why a Calvinist would ever practice evangelism.  To a non-Calvinist way of thinking, the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election renders evangelism useless.  It is fair enough for him to say, “I am concerned that unconditional election could lead to laxity in evangelism.”  It is not fair, however, for him to claim that Calvinists are not evangelistic, or that Calvinism by its very existence has killed evangelism wherever it has flourished.  These claims are simply not true.  The vast majority of Calvinists affirm evangelism as the church’s mandate until Christ returns, and they have stood alongside their non-Calvinist brothers faithfully proclaiming the gospel to a lost world.  Even if the non-Calvinist cannot make sense of that in his own mind, it is simply unfair for him to impute to Calvinists his perception of the logical conclusion to their theology if, in fact, that conclusion is something they specifically deny.  The same goes for Calvinists who cannot make sense of why a non-Calvinist would ever pray for a lost person’s conversion.  Just because Calvinists think such a thing is illogical (given the non-Calvinist theology), Calvinists would be unfair to impute timidity in prayer to non-Calvinists on that basis alone.  The point is this: just because I see someone else’s theology entailing something does not mean he sees it the same way.  Maybe he has a way of working it out that I have not considered, or perhaps he is simply logically inconsistent (but driven to that inconsistency by his commitment to the nonnegotiable truths of Scripture).  It is fair to say, “This is inconsistent with this.”  It is not fair to say, “You are not faithful in evangelism” or “You are timid in prayer” if, in fact, that is not the case.

3. Let us remember often and celebrate the important, weighty truths that we hold in common as conservative Southern Baptists.  Conservatives (whether Calvinist or not) in the SBC hold much more in common than they do in opposition.  Here is a list of our central beliefs: the inspiration, inerrancy, and supreme authority of Scripture; God as Trinity; God as sovereign over his creation (with differences in detail about how that works out); the divine-human person of Christ; Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross, whereby he bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners; the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead; the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church; the expectation of the visible, bodily return of Christ; the necessity of conversion for salvation; salvation by grace alone through faith alone (again, with some differences as to how that works out); the church as a body of believers who have been baptized as believers and by immersion; separation of church and state (though not in the ACLU sense); religious liberty; soul competency (meaning every individual is directly accountable to God); the priesthood of believers; congregational government of the local church; the church’s mandate to evangelize the world until Jesus returns; and a commitment to voluntary cooperation among churches for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. 

I could list more areas of agreement, but this list, taken as a whole, is sufficient to demonstrate my point.  Yes, how one conceives of the nature of God’s sovereignty, his decree of election, and the nature of saving grace in conversion is important.  But I do not believe these issues are important enough to overturn our unity on the weighty matters listed above.  So let us keep these matters in mind as we debate the issue of Calvinism and remember that we will be stronger together than we would be apart. 

4. Let us pray for each other.  I know this sounds so simple and basic, but oh, how much this simple practice could change the tone and nature of theological debate!  What would happen if, before launching a theological attack on the views of someone else, you took a moment to pray for that person?  What if you asked God’s richest blessings upon him, prayed that, where he does not see the truth, he would be given eyes to see it?  And what if, humbly before God, you prayed the same for yourself?  What if you prayed for the grace to be fair in your interactions with this other person, to represent him fairly in his views, to understand why he holds them, and to advance only the truth (and not a personal agenda) when you set forth arguments against him?  What if you imagined being with this person 10,000 years from now in Heaven, where theological controversy will be a thing of the past, and there will only be joy and unity in Christ?  How might this kind of prayer change the way you debate theology?

I am not proposing that we be any less vigorous in our commitment to the truth, or that we shy away from making arguments with deeply held conviction.  If there is anything we need in the church in this age, it is deep conviction.  We live in a sea of relativism, and I do not believe unity can be forged by pushing doctrine to the side.  Such a unity would only be superficial.  So let us hold our convictions deeply, debate them passionately, but do so prayerfully, humbly, and lovingly toward one another. 

Making this point prompts me to say this: I know I have not been a shining model of this kind of discourse in the past.  I have rarely committed myself to prayer for a theological opponent before seeking to blast his views into the stratosphere.  To all whom I have wronged in this regard, I ask your forgiveness.  And I pray for grace to do better. 

If we set these four rules of protocol in place to govern all of our interactions on Calvinism within the SBC, I believe we could debate the issue passionately and still join hands for the purpose of spreading the gospel to the nations.  The result will be a stronger, healthier Southern Baptist Convention with (we pray) stronger, healthier local churches.