Originating From a Secret Bunker Dug By William Hosea Holcombe and J.B. Gambrell Somewhere Off the Square in Oxford, Mississippi
In 1986, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was the largest seminary in the world with over 4,000 students. At the time, the inerrancy of Scripture was the hot-button issue in the Southern Baptist Convention. Southwestern benefited in no small measure because it was viewed as the most conservative of the six SBC seminaries. Consequently, many students went to Southwestern because of its perceived commitment to inerrancy, at least in a relative sense.
Fast forward 32 years, and all six SBC seminaries are now considered conservative – they all have an extremely high view of Scripture. So the hot-button issue today is no longer inerrancy, but rather a bubbling conflict between two doctrinal statements with two markedly different soteriological positions. The first statement is the historic Abstract of Principles, which is the confessional statement at both the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The second statement is Dr. Eric Hankins’ Traditional Statement (TS). Although it has no official status, the TS has been signed by both Paige Patterson*, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary mentioned above and Chuck Kelley, president of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. The issue in this controversy is the soteriological direction of our denomination. Shall we return to our roots (the Abstract) or shall we progress in a new direction (TS)? Dr. Hankins, in his 2017 speech at the Connect 316 Banquet made his position clear. He said unequivocally, “I believe that we need to call for the removal of the Abstract of Principles as the confessional statement of Southern and Southeastern.”
But why the concern? In 1986, Southwestern was perceived as the best seminary and students flocked to it because it was the inerrancy school. Today, however, both Southwestern and New Orleans are viewed differently. They are now seen as the TS friendly schools while Southern and Southeastern are seen as the Abstract seminaries. So what do the 2017-18 enrollment figures tell us. Well, according to the Association of Theological Schools’ most recent statistical report, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, is now the largest seminary in the world with 3,157 students. That’s a 36.3% increase from 1986. Southeastern’s enrollment has also climbed an impressive 99.4% in the same period. But Southwestern’s enrollment, while still large, is considerably smaller than it was 32 years ago. It’s enrollment has dropped 36.8% since 1986; New Orleans’ has fallen 17.2%.
So then why are students now flocking to Southern and Southeastern? It’s definitely not because it’s cheaper. In 2017, the estimated price for a married student to attend Southern was actually the highest of all SBC seminaries (74% higher than Southwestern). So what is the attraction? 32 years ago students went to Southwestern because of inerrancy, and inerrancy won the day. Could it be that students today want a school where historic Southern Baptist doctrines (the Abstract) are actually believed and taught? If so, then the Abstract could possibly win the day. No doubt about it, if Southwestern and New Orleans were growing like Southern and Southeastern, the Hankinists would not be nearly as alarmed.
*It’s interesting to note that Paige Patterson also signed the Abstract of Principles when he was president at Southeastern. What mental gymnastics he used to affirm two irreconcilable statements is anyone’s guess.
At last year’s Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Eric Hankins spoke at the annual Connect 316 Banquet which was held in conjunction with the convention. See http://sbctoday.wpengine.com/loyal-opposition/. While discussing Calvinism in general, Hankins at one point focused directly on Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Without any context, he told the audience that Mohler “said right to my face in front of a gathering in a lecture hall at Southern that he thought my soteriology was deficient.” At first blush, that sounds ominous. But what Hankins did not convey is what Mohler said next. He [Mohler] explained,
“It is simply because I think my soteriology is ‘righter’ than yours, more correct, that’s why I hold to it. . . . I’m playing around just a little bit in order to say we have two people who disagree. If you actually believe what you believe then you believe the point of disagreement is a deficiency in the other person’s thinking. In other words, you also believe that my soteriology is deficient.”
To which Hankins clearly responded, “Correct.”
So for the sake of full disclosure, Hankins likewise told the lecture hall at Southern that he thought Mohler’s soteriolgy was deficient.
Ergo, Mohler’s words take on a much more benign meaning in light of the full context.
To see the full Hankins/Mohler exchange, see https://vimeo.com/78882127. The quotes above start at the 15:16 mark.
In my life, I’ve been a member of six Southern Baptist churches in three states – from urban to rural, from small to First Baptist size. And all of these churches had or have a contingent of former United Methodists (UMC). Why is that important? Because Eric Hankins’ so-called Traditional Statement, if anything, reflects what many Southern Baptists believed in the 1950-70s, which I might add was also a time when many Bible believing Methodists in the southern United States (with much of their Arminianism intact) were abandoning the liberal United Methodist Church and were often being received into the more conservative Southern Baptist churches. In fact, the United Methodist Church was still the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in 1964. But 1964 is also the year it began its precipitous decline. In 1967, the Southern Baptist Convention overtook the Methodists and now is more than double the UMC in membership. So how many Methodists “converted” to the Baptist churches? We can’t know for sure because Southern Baptist church records show such additions as baptisms not transfers. Yet the anecdotal evidence suggests that the incoming Methodist wave was large. Also, the ones who left Methodism over the issue of the Bible were probably the more zealous type. So would such a large influx of Bible-believing, zealous Methodists affect Southern Baptist thought? If so, maybe what Hankins is calling “Traditional Baptist” doctrine reflects more of Wesley’s soteriology than Spurgeon’s.
Of course, many Hankinists would demur by saying that they are neither Calvinist or Arminian. Okay, but that’s where the “hybrid” qualification comes into play. A mule is neither a donkey or a horse but the offspring of both – it is a hybrid (with an entirely distinct number of chromosomes). So then could Hankinism actually be a Baptist/Methodist hybrid – not historically one or the other but the offspring of both? I wonder.
While some may acknowledge that Molinism is a kind of election, they may also believe that their personal salvific choice still plays a significant role as to who is in fact elected unto salvation (including and especially their own salvation). Below I will attempt to show why this is blatantly false.
The closest U.S. presidential race in modern history occurred in the year 2000 when George W. Bush edged Albert Gore by a few hundred votes in Florida, which in turn gave Bush the victory in the Electoral College. While that vote was extraordinarily close – triggering a recount in the state – it is important to remember that if any single voter in Florida had changed his/her vote, the outcome would have been exactly the same. In other words, no single vote determined who was elected President of the United States.
Of course, we sometimes hear of local elections decided by extremely narrow margins. I remember years ago a local election in Lafayette County (Mississippi) that wasn’t decided until the absentee ballots were counted, and even then the incumbent won by less than five votes. Still, the changing of one single vote in that election would not have changed the outcome. In fact, it is stunningly rare to have an election of any type decided by a single vote. And when you are talking about elections involving millions of people voting – the U.S. Presidential race, for example – it just doesn’t happen. This is because the larger the number of people voting in an election, the less likely that any one vote will make the difference.
As referenced in a previous post, Molinism teaches that God actualizes the one possible world where He foresees the largest number of people with libertarian free will choosing salvation for themselves. In essence, it is an election involving billions upon billions of people choosing (or voting) within a nearly limitless number of possible worlds. So what’s the chance that my one choice would determine the outcome? Well, if we were talking about just the number of people alive at this moment in this one actual world, the chance of an election being decided by one vote out of 6 billion votes cast is something like 0.00000003 percent, which statistically speaking is a zero percent chance. Now add on the billions of other people who have existed but are now deceased and multiply that by myriads upon myriads of possible worlds – a number so large only God can comprehend it – and you begin to see the utter hopelessness of your choice deciding the outcome. You would have a much greater chance of winning the lottery a thousand times per second every second of your life. That may sound absurd, but that’s the point – we are talking about something that is utterly absurd and impossible.
Without Jehovah ordaining the outcome of all free will salvific choices, then we’re left to chance. And make no mistake, with Molinism, there is no chance whatsoever that one libertarian decision for or against Christ determines anything at all. Period. Not a chance.
According to an article published by the website, SBC Today, Dr. Eric Hankins, made the following statement in 2013 about a belief system called Molinism. He said “We need to be able to account for the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and His predestination, and we need to be able to account for how freedom does not impinge on God’s glory or His sovereignty. I think Molinism gives the best account to date for these things.”
So what’s Molinism? Briefly, Molinism is a philosophical system, a Christianized version of modality, that attempts to harmonize the concept of God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation with libertarian freewill while bringing salvation to as many people as possible. It is extrapolated (not exposited) from Scriptures like Matthew 11:21, which reads, “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Molinism rests heavily on counterfactuals like the phrase “if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon . . . they would have repented long ago . . .” From this Molinists postulate that there is not only a possible world where Tyre and Sidon would repent, but more importantly there are myriads of possible worlds, too numerous for us to comprehend, that God in His omniscience knows all too well. So Jehovah, before creation, looked at all these possible worlds – using something called middle knowledge – and in His sovereignty actualized the one possible world where the largest number of people would freely choose salvation. And make no mistake, with Molinism this actualized world will come to pass – it is predestined.
So clearly with Molinism, the doctrine of election still exists, but there is no special electing love for me individually. Rather God elects people based on their future choices in relation to the choices of every other person who has ever lived or will live. So to be elect according to Molinism, my right choosing must also occur in the one possible world where the largest number of other people make that same choice, that is, I must be on the winning team. Why? Because God’s electing purpose is not my salvation per se, but to save the largest number of people possible. In fact, I might have made the salvific choice in most possible worlds. I might have even made the salvific choice in all but one possible world, but if the one world God actualizes is the one where I choose wrongly, then I’m completely out of luck just like the residents of Tyre and Sidon mentioned above. You see, Molinism’s election is really not about you or me specifically. It’s about maximizing results.
So why is understanding the Molinist idea of election important? Because while many Southern Baptists reject the doctrine of election, their reason for doing so is not because they seek to defend libertarian free-will as a concept. That’s not the issue. Rather, they see free-will as the vehicle whereby fairness (or justice) is preserved in the actual world, not in a plethora of possible worlds. Consequently, Molinism, when rightly understood, would be no better in their eyes than Calvinism, maybe even less so. At least with Calvinism your destiny is determined by the all-wise counsel of an infinitely good God alone. With Molinism, you are predestined by the winning team.
Blog Note: Dr. Eric Hankins has left First Baptist Church in Oxford, and our prayers are with him and First Baptist. His leaving does not appear to have any direct connection to the Traditional Statement pro or con. So for the moment, as opportunity arises, the Oxford Baptist Underground will continue to interact with Hankins’ public comments and the comments of others who support the Traditional Statement.
At the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, the pastor of Oxford’s First Baptist Church, Dr. Eric Hankins, presented a resolution in favor of what is called the sinner’s prayer (a revised version of that resolution was adopted by the convention). For those who may not know, the sinner’s prayer is an evangelism technique (sometimes called drawing the net) used by Evangelicals, including many Southern Baptists, whereby a person is led to repeat a certain prayer, often word for word. Strangely, the exact wording of the prayer is not really that important so long as it contains language whereby the “convert” admits to being a sinner, says that he/she is sorrowful because of sin, and conveys a desire that God would forgive. Of course, there is nothing wrong with someone praying that God would have mercy on them. What is wrong is to equate praying the sinner’s prayer or any prayer with conversion. In Romans 5:1, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therein lies the danger – it is faith in Christ, not prayer that saves, and we must not conflate the two. Granted, prayer is the breath of saving faith, but words can be uttered even when there is no faith in the heart. As our Lord said in Matthew 15:8, “This people honoreth me with their lips; But their heart is far from me.” So if we give people the impression that they are justified because they have mouthed some prescribed words we thereby undermine the Gospel itself.
As alluded to above, there is certainly nothing wrong with someone asking God to have mercy on them because of Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners on the cross. But the idea that it is helpful to lead people in a specific prayer and then call that receiving Christ is wrongheaded. Why? Because, at best, it is unnecessary. At worst, it deceives.
We know that such a prayer is unnecessary simply by looking at the example of Christ and the Apostles. In Luke 18:18, the rich young ruler asked Christ, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In Acts 16:30, the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Then in Acts 2:37, those present on the Day of Pentecost who were convinced they were guilty of crucifying Christ asked Peter and the other Apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” While the responses to those questions differ, especially the one made by Christ, it is important to note that no one was told to pray any type of prayer. This would be extremely odd if prayer is in any way necessary for conversion.
Regardless, some may argue from Romans 10:10 that prayer is still necessary in the conversion process. That passage reads, “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Clearly, the confession mentioned in this passage is predicated upon first believing with the heart. But more to the point, the word translated “confession” does not indicate that it has to be a prayer. For example, if a man were to sincerely say, “I am a great sinner, and my only hope is that the blood and righteous of Christ avail for me,” he has thus confessed with his mouth what he believes in his heart and is saved. That is what the Bible calls a “good confession” (1 Timothy 6:12). Granted, this verbal confession could be made in the form of a prayer as was the case with the publican in Luke 18:13, but even there the publican’s prayer was a spontaneous expression of what was already in his heart. It was in no way a prescribed prayer.
Please note, however, that since true faith prays, prayer then is a necessary consequence or fruit of conversion, meaning those who are truly converted will pray, sometimes even without intelligible words (Romans 8:26). This is altogether different from saying that prayer is a necessary component of conversion itself. Prayer is not what brings us from death to life (conversion or regeneration). And it is exactly at this point that the danger of deception lurks. If a man believes he is justified because he prayed a prayer, regardless of the prayer, he has missed Christ and is deceived. Prayer in this case, like the brazen serpent of old (Numbers 21:8-9; 2 Kings 18:4), has been misused and has become an idol.
Dr. Hankins and others would likely argue that the sinner’s prayer is but a helpful tool in leading people to Christ. But if the tool can be deceiving and is actually unnecessary, why use it at all? To put it another way, pretend you’re a physician, and you have a patient with a terminal illness. Also pretend there’s a drug available that many believe might be useful in treating this disease, but there’s a problem. The drug itself can be lethal. Oh, and one more thing – this drug is completely unnecessary because there is another treatment that works just as well, if not better, without the dangerous side-effects. Why then would any doctor use the unnecessary, dangerous drug? And why would any preacher use the unnecessary, dangerous sinner’s prayer?
Sure, if a person wants to pray for God’s mercy, then by all means let them pray. But as a physician to their soul, do not prescribe a prayer. Rather, prescribe that blood-stained cross. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15).
First Baptist Church, Oxford, Mississippi, was “organized on May 8, 1842, by the first pastor, William Hosea Holcombe” – this according to an historical marker conspicuously displayed outside the church’s sanctuary. At the time of First Baptist’s organization, Rev. Holcombe was actually a member of a Baptist church in western Lafayette County, Mississippi, called the Clear Creek Baptist Church. That church (Clear Creek) still exists today and has its own historical marker indicating it was founded in 1836, six years earlier than FBC, Oxford. What is particularly interesting about that is that in 1842 Clear Creek Baptist Church was a member of the Yalobusha Baptist Association in northern Mississippi. That association included churches from what are now Yalobusha, Lafayette, Tallahatchie, and Grenada counties. According to the association’s records, William Hosea Holcombe actually served as a messenger from the Clear Creek Church to the association’s meetings in 1841 and in 1842, the same year he founded First Baptist, Oxford. Why is that significant? Because the statement of faith for the Yalobusha Baptist Association appears to stand in direct contradiction to Eric Hankins’ Traditional Statement, particularly Article 2. Below are some of the more relevant excerpts from the Yalobusha Baptist Association’s Statement of Faith:
VII. OF GRACE IN REGENERATION We believe that in order to be saved, sinners must be regenerated, or born again; that regeneration consists in giving a holy disposition to the mind; that it is effected in a manner above our comprehension, by the power of the Holy Spirit in connection with divine truth, so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel; and that its proper evidence is found in the holy fruit which we bring forth to the glory of God.
Please Note: It says that regeneration is necessary “so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel.” It does not say that regeneration is the consequence of our voluntary obedience to the gospel.
VIII. OF ELECTION We believe in God’s act of choice, or gracious purpose, according to which he calls, regenerates, sanctifies and saves sinners; that it is according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ; and that God, from the beginning, before the foundation of the world, chose His people in Christ, that they should be holy and without blame before him in love, having predestinated them to the adoption of Children by Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will; that it utterly excludes boasting, and promote humility, thankfulness, and trust in God; that it encourages the use of means in the highest degree; is the foundation of Christian assurance; and that to ascertain it with regard to ourselves, demands and deserves our utmost diligence; and that we can only ascertain this by the reception of and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Source for the quotes above: http://msgw.org/yalobusha/baptassochist.html
Granted, Dr. Hankins would likely argue that Baptists started moving away from such ideas in the early twentieth century, and he would be correct. But it also must be pointed out that it was in the early twentieth century that Baptists started moving away from the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture too (see here). Is there some correlation? Undeniably.
Hosea Holcombe is known as the Father of the Alabama Baptist Convention and is a legend among Alabama Baptists (see here and here). He is also the father of William Hosea Holcombe, the founding pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi (per the historical marker prominently displayed outside the church sanctuary).
The elder Holcombe authored a book entitled A History of the Rise and Progress of Baptists in Alabama (published in 1840). It that book he asserts:
The doctrine of election and predestination, is dreaded by many young preachers. They cannot reconcile those sublime points of doctrine with their views; and with the use of the means – the agency, and the accountability of man. But they should not condemn, as many do, because they are unable to comprehend this exalted subject.
He also writes:
We once heard a very popular preacher, who has preached much, in a number of the churches in Alabama, treating on the doctrine of election, “My hearers,” said he, “Jesus Christ is God’s elect; and when sinners believe in the Saviour, they are elected, and not before; this is all the election I read of in the holy Scriptures.” After the sermon was over, an older minister than himself remarked, “Well, my brother, I gave strict attention to your views, on the doctrine of election; now sir, you may judge which of the two it is most reasonable to believe, you or Paul; Paul says, ‘He hath chosen us in him, before the foundation of the world,’ and [you] brother, say ‘none chosen until they believe.’”