Gresham Machen, Dave Doran, and Kevin Bauder all agree*: In theological controversies, those who deny the historic faith aren't the final arbiters in the direction a fellowship or movement takes. Neither are those who stand ready to defend biblical truth at all costs. No, the people who decide the direction are the great bulk in the middle—men who claim to be biblicists but whose slinky spines bend whatever direction seems to keep peace. When they refuse to take a stand, those who deny the faith win since there is no collective will to expel error. Bradley Longfield's The Presbyterian Controversy documents this thesis well.
Machen, Doran, and Bauder call these men in the middle "indifferentists." I've believed for some time that fundamentalism is saturated with its own forms of indifferentism. Matt Olson's recent sermon at NBBC, discussed here and here, is just the latest example of it, no worse than many others that preceded it.
Olson's attitude is summed up in the statement, quoting a previous NBBC President, "We're no-point Calvinists. There's no point in talking about it. Don't be on either side—hyper about it or hyper against it."
To be fair, Olson attempted to clarify his words in the comments section of Bob Bixby's post, saying, among other things,
I do place great value on theology and discussing systems like Calvinism. It is part of education and growth in the life of any believer. By [sic] burden for students is when it becomes a point of pride and arrogance and when a system becomes the standard over the Word of God - and hero worship.As much as I'm grateful for that clarification, I don't believe that he chose his words without purpose, just as I believe that spoke with purpose when he made the following comments:
I've found myself stymied in my attempts to find coherence in Olson's talk. In just 32 minutes, he struck two seemingly incompatible chords. First, he emphasized NBBC's ongoing identity as "an independent, fundamental, Baptist college and emphatically identified himself as a separatist Baptist.
Second, he outlined his opposition to adopting the Calvinist label and some imprecisely defined level of inquiry into Calvinist theology. His assertions include:
I am a little bit troubled when I get around people who are riding a system.I've never quite grasped why so many ministry leaders attack the Calvinist label when they would be horrified if their constituencies caught wind of some compromise on the systems and labels of fundamentalism, separatism, dispensationalism, pre-Tribulational Rapturism, cessationism, independent and Baptist. Why would men like Olson embrace some labels enthusiastically, even shaping their relationships and associations around them, and proceed to call other labels divisive?
When you start to use labels, I think you can get yourself into trouble on a number of fronts. It becomes confusing. It becomes divisive.
[It is not healthy to the body of Christ] to be hyper-Calvinist to where you're always trying to figure out the mind of God. The secret things belong to the Lord.
There comes to a place where you just have to leave it with God.
You have to come to that place where you are in awe of God . . . not in awe of your own mind or your own ability to process those things.
Notice, Olson's not arguing that Calvinism is wrong. He's arguing that it's not that important and creates unnecessary divisions. But why is Calvinism more divisive than so man other "-isms"?
What's even more curious about this address is that Olson notes in a caution to aggressive anti-Calvinists that Hudson Taylor, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, and John Paton all happily described themselves as Calvinists. Would Olson consider those men to have caused confusion or created division? Would he have been troubled to have been around them because they were riding a system? Does he really consider people who are trying to figure out the mind of God to be hyper-Calvinists? Who is suggesting that we should go beyond what Scripture affirms in order to construct a rationalistic, speculative theology? Are we not obligated to squeeze every ounce of biblical truth out the revelation we have? History is not on Olson's side, and he makes that case against himself.
I can't imagine that this sort of indifferentism is what Olson really means. But it is what he said, and the slice of the blogosphere that hears his clarifications won't include all the students who were conditioned to think in a certain way about certain dimensions of theology and the people who speak seriously about it.
It does seem that Olson used a certain style of rhetoric in an attempt to address another problem. He discussed in both his address and his comments on Bixby's blog that he was really trying to confront pride. I respect and appreciate that. I don't share his perspective that rhetoric is the right approach. Describing a theological position as "not worth talking about" is an ineffective way to address the destructive attitudes that my accompany it. That strategy may have worked in the past. It doesn't work now, and it undermines credibility among sincere, inquisitive theological minds.
The solution to proud Calvinists is not theological reductionism. A better solution would be to embrace authentic Calvinistic soteriology. Nothing could be more humbling than to grasp the depths of one's own depravity and hopelessness apart from God's sovereign work to create a new heart within us. Nothing impresses humility upon the human soul than grasping the reality that we respond to his effectual call in a way that we never would or could have apart from his unconditional election.
For that matter, why not recommend that students read C.J. Mahaney's Humility? If anyone can talk to young Calvinists about humility, he's the guy. Of course, he's not an independent-fundamental-Baptist-dispensational-cessationist. But does that make it too much to ask?
*One of my axioms for life and ministry is, when Machen, Doran and Bauder agree, I'd be an idiot to disagree.