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.
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.
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.’”
In the preamble to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of
God’s Plan of Salvation, Dr. Eric Hankins writes:
While some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism, the clear trajectory of the BF&M since 1925 is away from Calvinism. For almost a century, Southern Baptists have found that a sound, biblical soteriology can be taught, maintained, and defended without subscribing to Calvinism.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Eric Hankins’ first premise above is correct, namely, that since 1925 “the clear trajectory” in the SBC has been “away from Calvinism.” But what else was going on in Southern Baptist life during the last century? Hmmm . . . it was something that began in approximately the 1920’s, came to a head in the early 1960’s, resulted in the election of Adrian Rogers as SBC president in 1979, and sparked a nearly two decade war within the Southern Baptist Convention. What was it? A “clear trajectory” away from the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture in the collective lives of Southern Baptists.
But now, post Conservative Resurgence, the Bible has been theoretically restored to its proper place in Southern Baptist life. Consequently, what was present before the drift away from the Bible has returned – Calvinism (thus the supposed need for the Traditional Statement). Could it be that, maybe just maybe, something akin to the Doctrines of Grace are actually contained in the Holy Book? And now that Southern Baptists are again focusing on what the Bible actually teaches, could that be a reason why a growing number of these Baptists profess to be Calvinistic? Inquiring minds want to know.
Despite having been circulated almost everywhere Southern Baptists congregate, the Traditional Statement certainly has not generated a groundswell of support. As of today, May 3, 2014, signatures are still being solicited on the website Connect 316, yet the total number of signers is a meager 898. If you believe there are 16 million Southern Baptists, that means over 99.99% have not signed the statement. This in spite of the fact that supporters have been soliciting signatures for almost two years.
However, among the signers listed, a sizable number list Oxford, Mississippi as their hometown. Yet all but one of those Oxford signers appear to come from four area churches – First Baptist, North Oxford Baptist, Yellow Leaf Baptist, and New Prospect Baptist. Noticeably absent are names from the Anchor Baptist Church, which I believe is the largest Southern Baptist church in Lafayette County outside the Oxford city limits. Their pastor, Gerald Shook, is the dean of Southern Baptist pastors in Lafayette County, having served there for over 30 years. Why hasn’t he signed it? Surely he was/is aware of it.
I certainly don’t speak for Pastor Shook, but I’ve heard him preach on numerous occasions and strongly doubt he would be in agreement with the Traditional Statement, kind of like non-signer David Rogers (son of the legendary Adrian Rogers). In fact, speaking of the Calvinist acronym TULIP, David Rogers has said:
I simultaneously affirm 4 1/2 points of TULIP and 3 1/2 points of the non-TULIP, all depending on which perspective you are looking at it from. I also read from and am edified by writers (and listen to speakers) from many different theological camps. I have been especially edified by some of the teaching from some of the Gospel Coalition folks. – See more at: Victims of Soteriological Dishonesty (comment section).
The point here is that whatever Southern Baptists believe, there is no evidence that any massive number adheres specifically to what’s contained in the Traditional Statement. Rather, I suspect most have views that don’t correspond exactly to either the 5 points of Calvinism or the 10 Articles of the Traditional Statement but nevertheless fall neatly within the parameters of the Baptist Faith and Message. At SBC Open Fourms, Ken Hammrick has posted a helpful chart showing this full spectrum of Southern Baptist soteriological views. (By the way, I think this chart also shows why Calvinist-leaning Southern Baptists call their Traditionalist brothers Arminians, a label which the Traditionalists, of course, deny.)
Update: As of April 18, 2015, the number of signatures stands at 973, which still means that 99.99% of Southern Baptists have not signed the Traditional Statement.
Another update: As of February 28, 2018, the number of signatures is up to 1,311 – but that’s still less than .01% of all Southern Baptists. If by collecting signatures Connect 316 is trying to prove that the Traditional Statement represents the views of most Southern Baptists (or even a large minority), the evidence simply is not there.
On a website called SBC Voices, in an article dated April 11, 2014, Dr. Eric Hankins wrote the following about the Traditional Statement:
There was never a strategy to have the SBC formally adopt the statement as a litmus test. Never. Two Conventions and almost two years have passed and no attempt has been made at any level (not even at the local church level as far as I know) to adopt the statement formally.
If anyone should know, it would be Eric Hankins. He has traveled all over the country talking to Southern Baptists about the Traditional Statement, Calvinism, the Sinner’s Prayer, etc. But considering that Southern Baptists have long been a cantankerous bunch, you would think that some group of Traditionalists somewhere has whispered in Hankins’ ear the hope that the Traditional Statement could be pushed as a formal doctrinal statement. Yet Hankins insists “no attempt has been made at any level (not even at the local church level as far as I know) to adopt the statement formally.”
Then on April 22, 2014, at a website called The Crescent Crier, a trustee of Louisiana College named Jay Adkins published a letter he wrote to Dr. David Hankins, the Executive Director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention and father of Eric Hankins. The entire letter is worth reading, but one section is particularly relevant to Eric Hankins’ statement above. Adkins addresses Dr. David Hankins directly. He says:
It has been rumored that you had hoped to have LC adopt the “Traditional Statement” as a guiding doctrinal document. Although I do not know how widespread your thoughts were on this matter, I do know that you made that desire known to the Executive Committee (EC). Again, there is evidence from the EC meeting on the morning of September 17, 2012 that you desired to replace the resolution prepared by the EC with the Traditional Statement stating, “I would be happy if we would take something like this traditional statement and just say this is what it is.” For almost 45 minutes you went on about your concerns over Calvinism and even came to the point of suggesting that the Baptist Faith and Message might need to be changed to “tighten up” the soteriological portion by saying, “I think the statements on salvation in the Baptist Faith and Message are fine unless people are using them to give themselves permission to teach things that Baptist generally do not believe.”
Add this to the March 15, 2014 article published in the Shreveport Times, which also suggests the Traditional Statement was being pushed at Louisiana College, and the questions begin to mount. What kind of questions? How about the questions asked in the comment section of another Eric Hankins’ post on SBC Voices. Someone posting under the name Chuck Quarles* (comment number 260) asks Eric Hankins the following:
Are you denying that a very serious effort was made to impose the Trad Statement on the Christian Studies Division and Caskey School of Divinity at Louisiana College? Such an effort was most certainly made. This is not merely the topic of rumor. Abundant and persuasive evidence of this effort exists. What evidence, in your opinion, would be necessary to confirm that an effort to impose the Trad Statement at Louisiana College occurred and in what forum would the evidence need to be presented? Are you claiming that you were not aware of this effort?
Especially pertinent to this discussion is a letter written by Chuck Quarles to the Trustees of Louisiana College dated March 4, 2014.
*Regardless of the author in the comment section, these questions need to be answered.
We may invigorate our faith and renew our courage by reflecting that divine power has always attended the preaching of doctrine, when done in the true spirit of preaching. Great revivals have accompanied the heroic preaching of the doctrines of grace, predestination, election, and that whole lofty mountain range of doctrines upon which Jehovah sits enthroned, sovereign in grace as in all things else. God honors the preaching that honors him. There is entirely too much milk-sop preaching nowadays trying to cajole sinners to enter upon a truce with their Maker, quit sinning and join the church. The situation does not call for a truce, but for a surrender. Let us bring out the heavy artillery of heaven, and thunder away at this stuck-up age as Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, and Paul did and there will be many slain in the Lord raised up to walk in newness of life.
– J.B. Gambrell
J.B. Gambrell was a student at Ole Miss and served as pastor of the Oxford Baptist Church (First Baptist) in Oxford, Mississippi for five years. He also served as editor of the Baptist Record, president of Mercer University, and president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Source: http://www.sbhla.org/bio_gambrell.htm