Wednesday, May 31, 2006

T4G: Observations and Reflections: (Part 2)

Al Mohler has been a convenient target of fundamentalist ire in the degrees of separation game ever since he chaired a crusade (that excluded Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants) for a prominent evangelist a few years ago. Through that decision and a conversation with a fundamentalist leader in which he is said to have claimed that he would do it again, Mohler became a nifty link in a chain that stretches between folks like John MacArthur and the Pope. This is important to the fundamentalist doctrine of separation because it enables everyone from the Mohler on down the chain to MacArthur and beyond to be labeled a "disobedient brother" from whom we must separate.

Now, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time can pretty well guess whether I think chairing this crusade was a good idea. Would it stun you if I said that there are plenty of non-(movement)fundamentalists who share that opinion? Nevertheless, this dead horse is hardly worth beating any more than it already has been.

What all this has to do with T4G is the fact that I gained a tremendous appreciation for Mohler and what God has used him to accomplish, as we gathered near his home turf. Never mind the fact that he's one of the most articulate speakers you'll ever encounter. Never mind the fact that he has an uncanny ability to distill abstract concepts into simple statements—a veritable walking sound byte. Never mind the fact that he's addressing the kinds of issues that only fundamentalists talked about for decades—except he's doing it much more thoughtfully and biblically than (most) fundamentalists were doing back then.

The simple fact that crystallized in my mind was that Al Mohler was 33 years old when he became the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993. In 1993, Southern was infested with rank theological liberalism in the faculty and the student body. What Mohler accomplished at that age in steering such a large ship back to theological conservatism is simply stunning. It made liberals so mad that they had to make a movie about it, levying all kinds of accusations of power politics and opportunism.

Now, I don't have any way to judge what Mohler's motivations have have been at any point in his life, least of all in 1993. I do know this: We're supposed to judge teachers by their works, not just their words. Maybe we who have not shed the blood and dripped the sweat that Mohler has in the spiritual battle of recovering a theological institution can find it in ourselves to grant a healthy recognition of what has been accomplished, even when we do find specific choices to criticize.

He was 33 years old. Just think about that for a minute.

12 comments:

Phil Johnson said...

Well said.

Keith said...

Amen and Amen

Dave said...

Two quick comments:

(1) I have and will again right now state without hesitation that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for what Al Mohler's did in turning SBTS back from where it was.

(2) Your reduction of the discussion to the summary in the first paragraph is hopefully intended to be sarcastic, because if not, then you have missed the point all along.

Chris Anderson said...

Ben,

Isn't it possible that Mohler could be articulate, thoughtful, wise, courageous and deserving of our respect for the good he's done...and still be disobedient in the area of separation?

He's a lot of noble things. He's done a lot of noble things. And he deserves recognition & admiration for those things. But if you'd like us to judge him by his works, you shouldn't be shocked when he's criticized for failing to separate from disobedient brothers. I agree that we shouldn't ignore the good, but does that good necessitate that we ignore the areas in which we believe he is failing to obey the Scriptures? What are you wanting our response to be?

BTW, your your tone seems to me to be condescending & dismissive of the fundamentalist position (e.g. "the degrees of separation game," "a nifty link...", "This is important...", etc.). Are you goofing off, or is that an accurate representation of what you believe?

Ben said...

Brothers,

Surely (Dave and Chris) you must not be operating under the impression that the kind of thinking to which I allude does not exist. Am I flippantly dismissing it as preposterous? Guilty as charged. Because it is.

But it does exist. I've heard the conversations. I've seen the hate mail.

Pretending that every fundamentalist's thinking is organized in the carefully-constructed categories of the DBTS family is simply inconsistent with reality. I think you both realize that.

As one fundamentalist said in complete seriousness (I'm not kidding), "It all starts when guys go to Shepherd's Conference." Maybe you guys are already on the slippery slope with me.

Chris,

To answer your questions:
1. yes
2. no
3. We need to examine our own associations within our own circles. We need to think outside the accepted categories and movements and give some serious consideration to what we have to learn from people outside our traditional comfort zones. We need to think about which issues are essential to the gospel and which are not. We need to think in terms of levels of fellowship and not the binary system that has characterized fundamentalism. Most importantly, we need to engage evangelicals who are contending for the faith and repudiating all or parts of the new evangelical mindset and strategy (as Mohler and Dever have) for the purposes of learning what we have to learn and advancing the convictions that have characterized rational and thoughtful fundamentalists.
4. I think I answered this one above.

I think you're asking some of the questions you do because you're anticipating that I'm saying things that I'm really not saying. You seem to be equating my words with an abandonment of all criticism and need for discernment, which is surely not the case.

Dave said...

Ben,

I will avoid stepping into the conversation with Chris and let you two work through that. However, I find the first part of your response very dissatisfying. You were not referring to some segments of fundamentalism in your original post. You made specific reference to "a fundamentalist leader" and implicitly to a set of conversations that have taken place in the last year. It won't work to now throw out generalities about the possibility of such thinking really existing.

Nice try, but unconvincing. Obviously, you are free to draw your own conclusions about what some of us think or do with regard to separation. I have not been concerned about who agrees or disagrees with my views. The real issue, at least for me, is that I have an obligation to apply the scriptures with a clear conscience regardless of whether that results in popular or unpopular decisions.

Apparently, there are no conscience issues at stake in this discussion for you. That's not the case for me.

The first paragraph of your original post was disappointing and the follow up didn't do anything to alleviate that. I guess that's where we will leave it. Life moves on.

Ben said...

Dave,

I think you're jumping to conclusions about the specific targets of my original post. I knew of this fundamentalist leader's conversation with Mohler before the past year, and I'm pretty certain I didn't hear about it from him.

The specific evidences of the kind of thinking I'm talking about in that first paragraph weren't all in the past year, and they weren't from him at all. The discussions to which I refer did use his report of the conversation as part of their argument, of course.

So I can understand why you would find justification for the conclusion that I'm playing some kind of bait and switch game, but there are no grounds for that conclusion. I hope that my more detailed explanation helps you to see where I was coming from in the first paragraph. You might disagree with my point, but I would prefer that you not leave this conversation with doubts about my honesty. Either way, I take no offense.

Chris Anderson said...

Ben,

What you mock in your first paragraph is described by you as "the fundamentalist doctrine of separation." The definite article is what got my attention, along with the derisive tone. If you meant to criticize extremists, you shouldn't have spoken so broadly. Your post comes off to me like a repudiation of the entire idea of separation. Whether or not that's not what you mean, that's how it reads, IMO.

BTW, I've urged fundamentalists to learn from the good these men are doing, sometimes taking lumps for the exhortation in the process.

One more question: in your estimation, is it a biblical necessity to separate from Mohler?

Dave said...

Ben,

I did not mean to question your honesty, but I can see where you would draw that conclusion from my response. That was not my intent. I meant to argue that you were not arguing fairly, i.e., stating specifics then defending it with generalities.

The question of Mohler's comment about the Graham crusade was discussed on this blog in May, so I thought we were talking in that context.

Please don't think that this is about you or me in any personal sense. My original and continuing concern is that your caricature in the first paragraph of the original post is very unhelpful and distorts the whole conversation.

Your follow up suggests that you genuinely believe what you wrote since the idea of someone arguing like that is not preposterous (which seems to imply that you have not actually heard this line of argument).

So, what have we accomplished here? (1) You were not targeting anyone specifically; (2) I was not intending to question your honesty, and (3) we apparently have radically different views on the real essence of the separation issue and the merits of addressing this question.

I think we would both agree that the real test of whether someone has understand another person's position is whether he can state that position in a manner acceptable to its holder. In this case, if your original first paragraph constitutes your re-statement of the fundamentalist view of separation, then I think you need to try again.

Ben said...

Chris,

Fair enough. There are variations on the fundamentalist doctrines of separation, and I'm dismissing what I believe is the majority view. As one example, Bauder's "levels of fellowship" view would be distinctly different from this majority view, even though Bauder's view is another "fundamentalist doctrine of separation." In other words, a rejection of the prevailing fundamentalist doctrine of separation does not constitute a rejection of the obligation to disassociate from willfully disobedient professing believers.

Separate from Mohler? Not in the all-or-nothing binary sense that is typical of fundamentalism. I think the level of fellowship would depend on the specific kind of ministry relationship.

Would you agree with my suggestion that fundamentalists ought to engage men like Mohler for the purposes I've delineated?

P.S. I have no doubt that you've taken lumps.

Dave,

I must be communicating really poorly, because I thought my second paragraph in my most recent post (before this one) was pretty clear that I have heard the Mohler-as-link-in-chain-from-Pope-to-MacArthur argument in recent years. I think I created the confusion in an earlier comment when I said that I was "flippantly dismissing it as preposterous." I didn't mean that I had never heard that argument made. I meant that I HAD heard it and it was ridiculous. Sorry for the ambiguity.

I don't expect you to see yourself in my first paragraph. Maybe no one would. Obviously, it's not an attractive picture. But that doesn't change the fact that it is my honest account of the kinds of arguments I've encountered fairly regularly. I don't think I'm alone.

Sorry, I don't remember the May conversation. Must be the steroids affecting my brain.

Ben said...

After all the tangential discussion, I would like to clarify and reiterate my central point. It is very easy for we happy plastic fundamentalists to get a little case of myopia and focus exclusively on the reasons why even the most conservative of evangelicals don't meet our standards of separational purity.

Would it not be a healthy step for us to take to evaluate where these guys have come from and what they've accomplished when we assess whether or not they're contending for the faith? (Kudos to both Chris and Dave for their testimony of recognizing this factor and to Chris for taking lumps over it.) Haven't fundamentalists made "Which way are your toes pointed?" arguments for years to skewer fundamentalists who've moved toward the evangelicals? Why shouldn't we apply the same logic to the evangelicals who are unquestionably moving their churches and institutions and denominations toward many fundamentalist ideals?

How many living fundamentalists have really paid the price for their convictions as Mohler has? There are some left, I know. My former pastor, who died last year in his 90s, certainly did to a large degree and in some very similar ways. But I think we fundamentalists come across as rather arrogant, condescending, and flippant ourselves when pretend that no one is really defending the faith until they've become just like us.

Keith said...

Ben,

I think you are very much on the right track here.

In the past, Dave has criticized my involvement in fundamentalist discussions, so I don't know if you will appreciate my weighing in supportively. If it's not helpful, just delete this post.

If you're still reading, I'll say again, I think you are on the right track -- especially by focusing on "binary separation."

This "You're either one of us or you're not" approach is the problem. Especially when the fundamentalist response to disobedience is too often different, depending on whether you're one of us or not.

Example One: For years, BJU was disobedient in its treatment of African Americans and other non-caucasions -- where was the separation?

Now, it's true that their disobedience began due to cultural blindness and honest mistakes. So, I don't think that total separation from them was biblically mandated. But where's the same concern for the blind spots and honest mistakes of those who haven't been tied to movement fundamentalism?

Example two: If paedobaptism is disobedient, where's the separation from Ian Paisley and other fundy presby's?

Some baptist fundamentalists do so separate, but others don't. Those that don't must allow some room for mistaken disobedience as long as one is a fundamentalist. Why is there not the same room given for guys like Mohler to make mistakes?