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Playing God in the Womb

GodIn a recent article, NY Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof discussed the concept "When we play God with our own species." Kristof brings back to the forefront the ever-changing status of medical technology for genetic screening of embryos.

The opening premise of the article was a trip that Kristof took to India where he encountered Americans looking for potential surrogate mothers. The potential savings is tremendous to have an international surrogate, even if a little questionable. The money quote follows the opening context. Kristof writes, "Ultimately, that kind of surrogacy could be mixed with genetic screening of embryos—to weed out babies of the ‘wrong’ gender or with the ‘wrong’ characteristics—to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance. Yes, all this gives me the willies, too."

I for one am glad that Kristof gets the "willies" from the idea of combining surrogacy and genetic screening "to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance." I hope the rest of us get the willies at that idea as well. Kristof then presents one of the most pressing issues in ethics today as he writes, "So some of the most monumental decisions we will face in the coming years will involve where we draw the line making some genetic tinkering legal and some illegal."

At this point in the article, it looks like Kristof is quite in touch with ethical issues, especially for a newspaper columnist. My problem is that he moves from description to prescription as the article unfolds. Kristof presents one of the newest ethical challenges in the realm of the unborn as he describes preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This procedure "allows a couple to test embryos that have been created in vitro when they are roughly 3 days old. PGD is now used principally to test for serious genetic diseases, including Down syndrome and Tay-Sachs. But it could equally be used to test for milder risks." While this procedure is exclusively for in vitro embryos, similar types of tests exist for babies in utero. Such tests can also determine the gender of the baby and potentially other genetic predispositions. The end result is that some parents might "opt out" of continuing the life of the child in hopes of getting a "more suitable child" the next time.

Near the end of the article, Kristof offers his vote for the role of PGD and other genetic screening. He writes, "As for genetic screening, I would accept PGD to cull embryos at risk for medical problems. And my vote is to allow parents to use PGD to choose the sex of a child in the United States, although I would feel differently in countries like China and India where the son preference could create a huge shortage of girls. What should cross the line into illegality is fiddling with the heritable DNA of humans to make them smarter, faster or more pious—or more deaf. That is playing God with our species, and we should ban it."

I appreciate Mr. Kristof’s effort in establishing some sort of ethical standard in this controversial realm; however, I believe he has missed the mark in a few of areas. Let’s first look at the rationale used in the argument and then draw some biblical perspective into the debate. First, I get the "willies" when I read the words "I would accept PGD to cull embryos…." Wow! Are we to the point of culling humans? Merriam-Webster defines "to cull" as "to reduce or control the size of (as a herd) by removal (as by hunting) of especially weaker animals." I did not realize we had reached that point with the human race. To Kristof’s benefit, I do not believe he meant it entirely in this sense, but the other definitions of the word do not fit the context. On the other hand, he very well may have intended exactly what he said.

Second, the PGD test and others basically can only tell that the child is "at risk" of having a certain condition—they cannot confirm the existence of that condition. Thus, "well-intentioned" parents could end the life of a perfectly healthy child who only showed signs of a certain disease but did not actually have it. Again, this is a tragic situation.

Third, why is it right to end the lives of children who have certain medical conditions? Is a child with Down syndrome more likely to have medical issues and learning disabilities? Certainly. Does that mean that such children cannot live productive lives? By no means! We recently reconnected with some friends from North Carolina after having moved away 7 months ago. They have a child with Down syndrome. I only got to see him in the church setting, but my wife was able to observe him in a preschool setting during the week as well. Having not seen him in over 7 months, I fully expected him to be the same, hard-to-control but loving child I knew before we left. To my surprise, he had advanced significantly in the span of several months. He was able to feed himself without difficulty and perform simple tasks without immediate supervision. I was astounded. Even though his parents were encouraged to terminate the pregnancy upon finding out that he would probably have Down syndrome, he has proven to me that children with serious medical conditions can lead fairly normal lives. It may take extra work and a few more tears, but isn’t that what parenting is all about?!

Fourth, Kristof offers a situational approach to gender selection that is based upon regions of the world. Gender "culling" would be appropriate, in his opinion, in countries like the US where parents are typically open to having both boys and girls. However, it would be inappropriate in China and India where girls would almost always be eliminated due to the population controls already in place from those governments. Now why in the world would this be right in some parts of the world and wrong in others? I propose that Kristof sees it this way because he employs some form of consequentialist ethics in all areas. In essence he is saying that our decisions regarding right and wrong should be based on the circumstances at the time and how the consequences of that decision will play out. In this case, the consequences of gender selection in the US would be minimal (he assumes); however, the consequences of gender selection in China would be devastating to the subsequent generations because there would not be enough females to continue the Chinese population into the next generation. While this may seem reasonable on the surface, let us turn the question around. What if it were determined that a certain abnormal gene predisposed someone to be a journalist? Since we know that journalists (especially of the blogging type) do little more than stir up trouble, it is in the best interest in the US to cull out children who are predisposed to be journalists because we already have plenty to keep the profession going. However, China is lacking journalists to stand up for freedom of speech; therefore, it would be wrong to cull out those children. You say that’s ridiculous! Of course it is. But there is little more logic in Kristof’s reasoning. If we apply a consequentialist approach to ethical decision-making, then we could justify almost anything we want.

What does Scripture say about PGD, genetic screening, and gender selection? Well, not really anything. Suffice it to say that such technological advances didn’t hit the streets during the times of the prophets or apostles. Scripture does speak, however, to the issues of life and death and speaks specifically about life in the womb. In Psalm 139:14 the psalmist says, "I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well." The prophet Jeremiah records God’s proclamation, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer 1:5).And in Isaiah 49:1, the prophet states, "Listen to Me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb; from the body of my mother He named me." These passages clearly speak to God’s knowledge of the child in the womb and His handiwork in crafting them together. Thus, it is not man who forms the child, but the Father himself who does the handiwork. Who are we to play God in the womb (or in the Petri dish)?

For those who would consider following the advice of Mr. Kristof and being open to the idea of gender selection, then admonish you to consider who is the author of life. Is it man or is it God? If it is God, then let Him do His job.

*While not the point of this post, there are also issues related to in vitro fertilization that should be taken into consideration as a part of the argument. I will attempt to address those issues in a later post. Suffice it to say, we need to be grateful for technological advances in modern science and medicine; however, not all things are profitable.

MADDY’S 1ST BIRTHDAY

Maddy

Maddy2A year ago my wife Ashley and I sat in a hospital room looking at an ultrasound of our little girl who was due in 7 weeks. The doctor came into the room and told us something that brought us to tears. She said, "Your little girl needs to be delivered in the next 24 to 48 hours because if you carry her to term she will be stillborn…" There is no describing the fear that set in. My mother-in-law and I took turns holding my wife's hand and putting cold washcloths on her forehead as the tears streamed down her cheeks. This was a little girl who already had a name, Maddy! This was little girl that my wife had carried for 7 months and we couldn't wait to meet. How could this be happening? Maddy was born on July 28, 2006, seven weeks before her due date. She was all of 3 pounds! She stayed in the hospital NICU for 2 weeks growing, maturing, and getting stronger. As we held this little girl (literally in the palms of our hands) we were grateful to God for his provision and protection.

Today is Maddy's 1st birthday! She is a growing, healthy girl who is the delight of her mother and father. She is crawling, playing, walking, and doing all the things 1 year olds do. Ashley and I speak often of how good God has been to us. He has shown us in the face of our little girl His strong arm to provide, protect, and sustain. We are grateful to all who prayed for her.

One of the things we gave her was a Children's Bible that shows how each of the stories of the Bible point to Jesus Christ. We pray everyday that she will grow up and meet the Man of the Book. He is the one who says to her, "Let the little children come to Me and don't hinder them!" He is the one who says, "to these belongs the Kindgom of God." We pray for the day she bows her knee to the king and has a birthday of a new kind.

Jon Akin 

Harry Potter: What Think Ye?

As you are probably aware, Harry Potter is all the rage these days. In the last couple of weeks, the final book in the series and the fifth movie have been released. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has, as of July 23, grossed $207,866,865 at the box office. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 10 million copies in its first weekend. In other words, both are enormous financial successes and bona fide cultural phenomena. 

Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have enjoyed a somewhat awkard relationship with the world's most famous boy wizards. There are some who are huge fans of all things Potter. Others are afraid that the books and movies are spiritually dangerous, mostly because magic plays such a central role in the stories.

I am curious what you think about Harry Potter. Are you a fan, or are you uncomfortable (or even opposed) to the books and movies? I would love to hear your opinion, no matter what they are. A few ground rules are in order:

1. Keep it above-board. Although there is a lot of debate about Harry Potter among Christians, I am assuming that strong believers hold to all opinions on this issue. So if you are pro-Potter, please do not label others as ignorant or fundamentalist. Likewise, if you are anti-Potter, please do not assume those who differ from you are spiritual compromisers (or worse).

2. Please do not make an anonymous comment. I want names–at least handles–on this one. If you make a fly-by, idiotic comment, I will torch it. You have been duly warned.

3. Please tell me whether or not you have read and/or watched any Potter books/movies. Just to keep us all honest.

I will see how much discussion is generated, then will offer my own opinions in a few days. Promise. 

HEROES OF THE FAITH: PART 1, NOAH

Evan AlmightyOur church began a series on heroes of the faith, examining different persons in the Bible commended as heroes in Hebrews 11. I have so enjoyed the opportunity to look at the heroes of the faith and how they point us to THE HERO of the faith, the "author and finisher" of our faith, Jesus Christ! The first hero we preached on was Noah.

The story of Noah has been popularized again and again and again. From Bill Cosby's comic routine to the newly released "Evan Almighty," the Noah story is everywhere, including YouTube. An agnostic girl who calls herself "Hellbound Alleee," posted an entire video talking about Noah's Ark. She explains how ridiculous it is that Christian parents are so concerned with TV content and ratings systems. They buy vchips to censor what their children watch. Then, they decorate their kid's room in Noah's Ark themes and let them play with Noah's Ark toys. She says, "Don't these people have a clue? Noah's ark is not a cutesy children's story about having a bunch of sweet cuddly pets in a big boat. Noah's ark is a horror story. There are dead bodies floating in the water. God is wiping out the human race in judgment. Parents might as well put "Saw II" posters on their kid's walls…"

One of the problems that I have with what this agnostic has to say is that she understands the story better than some Christians do! Now, she hates the story and will not submit to what the Spirit of Christ is teaching her, but there were dead corpses in the water. Noah's ark is a horror story. It is a story of judgment. Unfortunately the world has seen a taste of this kind of devastation in recent years with the Tsunami in 2004 and the Katrina in 2005. We have seen firsthand the carnage of a flood, but imagine it on a global level.

The story of Noah's ark is a story of God's judgment against human sin. God created the world and it was good, but the fall of Adam brought on the realities of sin and death. Human sin increased to the point that God decided to release his hand of judgment in a global flood. One man finds favor in God's eyes, Noah. Too often we see the Noah story in black and white. Noah is the guy in the white robe with the halo around his head, and those who do not heed his sermon are the wicked villains dressed in black with twisted mustaches. That helps us not to be as upset about this story as Hellbound Alleee is. It helps us pass by the fact that a lot of people that many would have felt were basically "good" people drowned, gasping for air as the waters covered them and their families.

Our notions of the biblical characters shield us from the sting of God's Word too often. We think to ourselves "those wicked idiots didn't get in the boat. I would have got in the boat for sure." Yet, these were real people, living real lives, working hard to provide for their families, and all of a sudden it is all swept away! Jesus says that is exactly what judgment was like, like the days of Noah. People were eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. They were living life and all of a sudden "boom" the judgment of God fell! Jesus says in Matthew 24 that is exactly the way judgment will be again. People will be living life, doing what they normally do, totally unfazed by the warning of disaster. People will be falling in love, getting married, having children, climbing the corporate ladder, and then BAM! We say, "These people are fools" for not heeding the warning of Noah. Yet, these people had some very good reasons for not getting in the boat, the same way it seems very reasonable to people today not to avoid the judgment to come. After all, we hear the doomsday messages of movies like "The Day After Tomorrow" and Al Gore's documentary on Global Warming, but we don't switch out the Styrofoam coffee cups in Sunday School. We don't trade in our SUV for a Prius. That's exactly what is happening here. It seems reasonable to many not to fear global judgment. In the same way we don't lose sleep at night wondering if the Ozone is deteriorating, most people don't wake up in sweat fearing impending judgment…  We don't live as if the "Ark" is our only hope of rescue! Jesus says these people were just living life, and then like a thief in the night that you don't expect judgment fell. The same is going to be true again! Noah heard the warning and he changed everything.

Noah is righteous, but he is still a sinner (seen clearly by the end of his life in Gen. 9). The writer to the Hebrews tells what was different about Noah, faith! Because of Noah's faith God is going to save one family through the ark and bring a new creation out of judgment. God gives this warning to Noah. Noah is faced with a choice to take God at his word or doubt because this is something he has never seen before. He aligns his life with the coming judgment. Also, Noah preaches (2 Pet. 2:5)! There is a global judgment coming and he is the only one with the message of salvation, so he must share it. We are given the same task. There is a global judgment coming that is going to wipe away every man, woman, boy and girl on the face of the planet. We know it is coming and it is our job to share that warning with others in love hoping they believe and are rescued.

The flood comes. From the flood, to the destruction of Pharaoh's army, to the fish who vomits Jonah, to Jesus' statements that his cross is a baptism, water is pictured as judgment throughout the Bible. 1 Peter 3 tells the church that Baptism is the anti-type of the flood. It pictures the fact that in Christ we have been drowned in the wrath of God and raised to walk in newness of life. That is the message of Noah's ark. Judgment will come, but there is an "Ark" that drowned under the wrath of God outside the gates of Jerusalem gasping hour after hour after hour for one last breath. Three days later the Ark of our Salvation stood up and walked away from death because the message of Noah is that "God is not willing that any should perish" (2 Pet. 3).

Hellbound Alleee is right! The Noah story is a story about judgment. It is horrific. But, it is about a lot more than that! We should weep at this story. We should never contemplate the wrath of God against sinners without tears. But even as it causes sorrow, Noah's story should bring rejoicing on the other side! What Hellbound Alleee misses about this "horror" story is exactly what she needs! It's the side of the Noah story that is captured by the Ark of our Salvation when he said, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved!" Let's say a prayer tonight for Alleee that she will one day seek refuge from the coming flood in the Ark that's already drowned in it!

 And as for my little girl playing with Noah's ark toys I'm all for it, because my prayer everyday for her is that Noah's ark will point her to the reality of judgment and the hope of rescue. As she plays with the boat, the animals, and the guy with the long white beard I'm going to tell her exactly what this story is telling her, John 3:16!

Jon Akin  

Hell: It Is Real!

On July 13, ABC aired a special on their program 20/20 dealing with the subject of hell. A little over a week ago, I posted about the upcoming program and promised a review/critique of the program in a forthcoming post. Well, here it is.

I watched the program last Friday and recorded it with the intention of watching it a second time prior to writing a response. However, after watching the program, I didn’t find any real necessity in watching it again. There was one obvious agenda in the program, and it came through loud and clear. The agenda was to affirm that hell is real—sort of. The overarching message was that hell exists on earth. We have all experienced, witnessed, or at least heard about horrendous circumstances that show the apparent inequitable distribution of pain and heartache around the world. As a result, the producers of the program were hoping to show that we can all agree that hell exists in one form or another right here among us. The two goals surrounding this "reality" should be to avoid it if possible and provide relief for those who are suffering through "hell on earth" whenever appropriate.

Numerous examples were cited during the program, including Nazi extermination camps in World War II, military torture at the hands of unjust captors, genocide in Sierra Leone, and other horrific events. Certainly these events and others mentioned in the program could be considered hell on earth. Perhaps some would even believe that a literal hell could be no worse than these actual events experienced on earth.

Three extended profiles of individuals and their views of hell were striking. The first involved Ulysses Handy, a man convicted of a triple homicide that involved an unpaid debt. Upon his arrest he pled guilty and was sentenced to three consecutive life terms, avoiding the death penalty due to his guilty plea. At his sentencing, he stated, "I know there are people up in here that are hurt. Pain is a part of life. Deal with it. Get over it." Interestingly, he grew up in the Catholic church and remembers being taught about hell. He has since dismissed the teachings of Roman Catholicism and denies the existence of hell. In addition, if there were a hell, he said that he is not afraid to face it.

The next profile was about a man, Matthew Dovel, who claims to have been to hell and lived to tell about it. Actually, he claims to have experienced two near death "voyages." The first one as a boy took him to heaven where Jesus told him that he needed to return to earth. The second experience took him to hell where he experienced pain and burning until he was lifted up out of hell by the back of his neck. The second experience changed his life, and he shares his experiences with anyone who will listen.

The final profile featured Carlton Pearson, a former charismatic minister who shared pulpits with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. While watching a news report about atrocities in Rwanda, he had a crisis of faith and could not understand why a loving God would eternally punish sinners in hell. The final step came with the death of his grandmother. At that point he gave up on the doctrine of hell. "I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that’s customized for unbelievers," he said. "You can't be happy. And how can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother?" He sums up his new view of hell by stating, "People who believe in hell create it for themselves and others. Religion won’t let you love yourself. Religion is the accuser of the brethren…. It’s religious dogmas that tell you [that] you are not good enough—not God enough." As a result of his new understanding of hell, and ultimately his endorsement of universalism, Pearson lost his congregation of 6,000 and now ministers to a congregation of 300 in space leased from the local Episcopal church.

So what should we believe about hell? Revelation 20:11–15 gives the most vivid picture of final judgment and unbelievers being cast into the lake of fire. Jesus referred to hell and judgment a number of times, including in Matt 25:30, 41, 46; Mark 9:43, 48; and Luke 16:28. Wayne Grudem defines hell as "a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked" (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1148). The argument laid out in the program against a literal hell of eternal punishment was that a loving God could not send someone to an eternal hell. This is probably the most common argument against a literal hell. Ultimately, such an argument pits the love of God against the justice of God as if the two attributes were mutually exclusive. So how do we affirm both God’s justice and his love when it comes to hell?

The question of simultaneously affirming God’s love and justice warrants no simple answer, but we do not have time to write a book either. In essence, both love and justice are communicable characteristics of God that are further defined by his perfection. Thus, both love and justice (or righteousness) are perfect in God. Grudem defines God’s attribute of love as "God eternally gives of himself to others" (Grudem, 198). He defines God’s justice as "God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right" (Grudem, 203). Looking at these definitions, we see that God’s love manifested itself in the most perfect way through the sacrifice of his Son for our sin (Rom 5:8). His justice is most clearly manifested in his hatred of sin and his love of holiness. But how do these work together? B. B. Warfield offers an interesting description of the work of God’s justice in relation to his love:

While reiterating the teaching of nature as to the existence and character of the personal Creator and Lord of all, the Scriptures lay their stress upon the grace or the undeserved love of God, as exhibited in His dealings with His sinful and wrath-deserving creatures. So little, however, is the consummate divine attribute of love advanced, in the Scriptural revelation, at the expense of the other moral attributes of God [e.g., justice], that it is thrown into prominence only upon a background of the strongest assertion and fullest manifestation of its companion attributes, especially of the divine righteousness and holiness, and is exhibited as acting only along with and in entire harmony with them. God is not represented in the Scriptures as forgiving sin because He really cares very little about sin; nor yet because He is so exclusively or predominatingly the God of love, that all other attributes shrink into desuetude in the presence of His illimitable benevolence. He is rather represented as moved to deliver sinful man from his guilt and pollution because He pities the creatures of His hand, immeshed in sin, with an intensity which is born of the vehemence of His holy abhorrence of sin and His righteous determination to visit it with intolerable retribution; and by a mode which brings as complete satisfaction to His infinite justice and holiness as to His unbounded love itself. (Warfield, Studies in Theology, 111–12)

Following Warfield, God’s love works within the bounds of his other moral attributes and is accomplished through their perfection as well. Thus, God’s love does not trump his justice, nor vice versa. Millard Erickson notes the infinite nature of sin that deserves infinite punishment because sin raises "a finite will against the will of an infinite being" (Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 1247). As a result, we can hold to a literal, eternal punishment for sin in hell and a perfectly loving God at the same time.

One point that the commentator of the 20/20 program correctly asserted was that when you pull hell out of the equation for religions that believe in it, the rest of the religion unravels. This is very true of Christianity. If we dismiss hell, then we might as well dismiss the substitutionary atonement, the righteousness of God, heaven, the nature and value of suffering, the value of life, and a handful of other doctrines. The remaining "religion" would be a man-made system of beliefs with little need for divine revelation. Those that dismiss hell have created a religion in their own image.

I, for one, acknowledge a literal hell, described in Revelation as the lake of fire. I believe that Scripture teaches this doctrine, and that we do not have the right to pick and choose which teachings of Scripture we will believe. For those who dismiss the doctrine of hell, I point you to Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Tim 4:3–4, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths." May we not be ear-ticklers in an age that doesn’t want to believe in hell.

On the Atonement: Some Recommendations

Although I am an historian by trade, I enjoy reading theology. Of the classic "systematic theology" categories, the doctrine of salvation, and more specifically Christ's atonement, is the area in which I am most interested. My interest is both academic and experimental (or, for all of your whipper-snappers, "experiential"). I want to make some brief recommendations for those who are interested in studying the atonement, whether academically or devotionally (or even better, both!).

J. I. Packer, "What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution," available here 

J. I. Packer, "Penal Substitution Revisited," available at Reformation21

John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity, 1986/2006)

Charles Hill and Frank James, eds., The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Perspectives (InterVarsity, 2004)

Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1965)

Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (InterVarsity, 1984)

James Beilby and Paul Eddy, eds., The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (InterVarsity, 2006)

Also, like many of you, I look forward to the forthcoming US printing of Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (InterVarsity, 2007)

Finally, our friends at Southern Seminary have dedicated the most recent issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology to the topic "The Atonement in Focus." You can read more here [HT: Jim Hamilton].

Landmarkism Revisited

 Speaking of Landmarkism, if you haven't heard, last Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI (a.k.a. Joseph Ratzinger pictured here doing his Dr. Evil impersonation) has "reasserted the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released Tuesday that says Orthodox churches were defective and that other Christian denominations were not true churches." Click here for article.

This is a return to form for the Catholic Church which has again denied the "modern" reforms made at the Second Vatican Council which took place in the 1960's, commonly known as Vatican II.

“Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one church,” the document said. The other communities “cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense” because they do not have apostolic succession — the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ’s original apostles.

In other words, if you're not Catholic, you're headed to Hell.

This is interesting given the fact that former Evangelical Theological Society president, Francis Beckwith, recently switched from Evangelicalism back to his roots of Roman Catholicism.

One wonders if this move by the Pope is one of simply solidifying the church's stance, scaring Christians back into a "right relationship" with the Lord, or both.

Either way, it always fascinates me to see how some Christians of all stripes, be it traditional Roman Catholics or Landmark Southern Baptists, believe in no distinction between the local and universal church when it comes to one's salvation.

 

On “Landmark” Doctrines and Historical Ignorance

I spent a good bit of time today reading Baptist periodicals from the nineteenth century. One of the papers I read was The Baptist, based in Memphis, which was published by that most colorful of Landmarkers, J. R. Graves. I did find a couple of articles related to the perpetuity of Baptist churches, which constitutes a core conviction of all Landmarkers. But I also read other papers where I found articles about other doctrines that are often associated with Landmarkism, some quite erroneously. These allegedly Landmark doctrines were the topic of literally dozens of articles in at least seven periodicals covering a seventy year period of time. More than a couple of the articles predate Graves's birth, let alone the height of his ministry from the 1850s to the 1880s.

These articles got me to thinking: it is ridiculous how many contemporary Baptists have no clue what Landmarkism is but fashion themselves as experts on the subject. All one needs to do is perform a Google Blogs search of the word "Landmarkism" to be staggered by the ignorance of a great many Baptists who are otherwise quite intelligent.

To be fair, many Southern Baptists were handicapped on this issue from the beginning, especially those who graduated from an SBC seminary prior to the mid-1990s. Progressives carried out a systematic plan to redefine Baptist identity beginning in the early 20th century; by 1950 or so, most of the doctrines associated with traditional Baptist theology (save immersion, sometimes) were castigated as "Landmarkism," all in an effort to move the SBC in a more hierarchical direction. Interestingly, these were the same progressives who accused conservatives of rewriting Baptist history and redefining Baptist distinctives in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But that's another post for another day.

The point is, much of this ignorance can be chalked up to a poor theological education. This is just another reminder that it's incumbent upon every seminary graduate to educate himself or herself after walking across the stage; even seminary professors with doctoral degrees can get things wrong. Sometimes remarkably so.

Before I go any further, let me lay my own cards on the table. I am not a Landmarker. I do not agree with Graves or even a more "moderate" Landmarker like James Pendleton. I do not believe there have always been Baptist churches. I do not even believe (gasp!) that there is a biblical-theological necessity that there has to have always been Baptist churches. So while I am a convinced Baptist, I am not a Landmarker. Ask any self-confessed Landmarker.

Cards out, I want to dispel several myths about doctrines often associated with Landmarkism:

Myth 1: Closed communion is a Landmark doctrine. This is perhaps the most common myth, particularly in our present context where open communion is all the rage among many Southern Baptists. But the fact is closed communion (also called strict, close, and restricted communion) has been the consenus, though not unanimous, conviction of most Baptists since at least the mid-17th century. So while it is likely true that all Landmarkers affirm closed communion, it is not true that closed communion is a Landmark doctrine.

Myth 2: A rejection of so-called "alien immersion" is a Landmark practice. Wrong again! As with closed communion, a majority of Baptists (at least in America) have always been troubled by immersions that did not reflect the apostolic pattern. Pick up the minutes of virtually any association between 1707 and 1950 and you will be astounded at how often Baptists have debated what constitutes a valid immersion. Please note that J. R. Graves was not born until several years after 1707. 

Myth 3: Landmarkers deny the universal church. This is not true of all Landmarkers. As near as I can tell, Graves did not affirm the church universal. Pendleton did. B. H. Carroll affirmed the universal church in at least the eschatological sense (similar to the "all the redeemed of all the ages" phrase found in the BF&M). There is no uniform Landmark position on the universal church. That's right–Landmarkers can be diverse too!

Myth 4: Landmarkers invented the doctrine of the perpetuity of Baptist churches. Nope. There have always been Baptists who believed that there have always been Baptists (pun very much intended). Baptist stalwarts from Andrew Fuller to David Benedict believed that there had always been Baptist churches, which they understood to be New Testament churches. Primitive Baptists in the 1820s affirmed the perpetuity of their types of Baptist churches. Even perpetuity, the theological heart of Landmarkism, was not invented by the movement–it was adopted and propogated by Landmarkers.

Myth 5: Landmarkers do not believe in allowing non-Baptists to preach from their pulpits. Like the universal church issue, Landmarkers differ among themselves on this one. I know at least one Landmarker who would not object to a Presbyterian preaching to his church, though he would obviously ask his pedobaptist brother not to preach on his view of the ordinances. I also know of Landmarkers who would only allow Baptists–sometimes only Baptists in their particular group–to ascend the sacred desk.

Myth 6: Landmarkers believe only Baptists are genuine Christians. Try to find one Landmarker who believes this. Seriously. I bet you could round up all the Landmarkers who have ever claimed this and fit them in my living room. Maybe my coat closet.

The point of all this myth-busting is to clear up some popular misconceptions about Landmark doctrines. None of the doctrines associated with Landmarkism, whether accurately or inaccurately, were invented by Landmarkers. Rather, these doctrines converged in the Landmark movement. And with the possible exception of perpetuity, since the Landmark movement began there have been millions of Baptists who have held to so-called Landmark tenets who were decidedly not Landmarkers, and in some cases vocal anti-Landmarkers.

As Southern Baptists continue to debate important issues like alien immersion, closed communion, and the validity of planting self-consciously Baptist churches abroad, let's do our best to play nicely. Those who are uncomfortable with the above doctrines are welcome to their opinion, and they will surely find many Baptists from history who shared their convictions. But these critics should not disengenuously malign doctrines they do not like as "Landmark." That tactic failed progressives two decades ago. And it will fail again today.

 

On Church Planting versus Church Reforming

Nine Marks Ministries has recently launched a new group blog called "Church Matters." Not surprisingly, it has been a very active blog in the three weeks or so that it has been up and running. I have particularly enjoyed a recent discussion that took place at Church Matters concerning whether it is better to plant new churches or attempt to reform existing churches. See the posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I am torn on this question. On the one hand, I am a huge fan of church planting and have several good friends who are planting churches in various places. Furthermore, I teach at Southeastern Seminary, where we put a great deal of emphasis on North American church planting. I have heard Dr. Akin remark on a number of occasions that his advice to seminarians is to plant churches where there are few rather than pastor existing congregations, especially close to the area where you grew up. So I greatly appreciate church planting, particularly in areas that are in great need of a gospel witness like New England and the Pacific Northwest (see Greg Gilbert's post, which is the final link above).

On the other hand, as an historian I appreciate churches with longstanding traditions of gospel faithfulness, even if some of those churches have strayed from that heritage in recent days. The church I am a member of was an absolute mess as recently as 15 years ago, and it took two different pastors and several explosive business meetings to get the church to the place it is today. We are now a gospel-driven, Great Commission congregation. If the lay leadership of our church, circa 1988, had succeeded in making their agenda normative, we could have become a gospel-denying, leftist social justice outpost. So I have a great appreciation for reforming local churches according to God's Word.

What think ye? As you formulate your response, try not to equate "reform" with Calvinism. Though Nine Marks is committed to Calvinism, I understand many (perhaps most) of our readers would not consider themselves "five point" Calvinists. So in regard to planting versus reforming, consider the latter to represent whatever you believe constitutes proper church order and a biblical approach to gospel ministry. Unless of course your convictions look a lot like Nine Marks, in which case it is perfectly acceptable to equate "church reform" with "Reformed church!"

Hell: Is it real?

ABC will be airing an interesting story called "Hell: The Fear and Fascination" this Friday, July 13 on their 20/20 program. It will include interviews with an assortment of people including an unrepentant murderer who says he is not afraid of hell and a United Church of Christ minister who says that people who believe in hell create it for themselves and others.

The UCC minister is Carlton Pearson, and he once shared pulpits with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. According to Pearson, his study of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures led him away from a belief in hell and the substitutionary atonement. "I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that's customized for unbelievers," he said. "You can't be happy. And how can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother?" He also believes that the Bible is not "the literal word of God, but a book by men about God, with primitive men prone to mistranslations, political agendas and human emotions." His current efforts include promoting his new book, The Gospel of Inclusion, which is his take on universalism. A quote from his website reads, "The closest to knowing God you will ever get in this life, is knowing the innate divinity of your own Self and Soul."

ABC’s website has a teaser story that ran on Good Morning America Sunday morning. The full 20/20 story will run Friday, July 13 at 10:00 EDT/9:00 CDT. I hope to run a follow-up after the program airs.