All these Prodigal Sons…

Does it not make sense that reformed theology is prevalent among young adults in American culture today? Consider with me the connection between the 5 Points of Calvinism and other rubrics by which things are measured. In science there is a process called the Scientific Method by which anyone can judge if a hypothesis is true or not. In mathematics a mnemonic device is learned for the order of operations of numbers, PEMDAS. In an equation one knows which numbers to compute first based on their relationship between each other, causing someone to multiply X by Y before adding Y to Z in the following equation: X * Y + Z = unknown. Even in literature there are grammatical rules dictating the order of a normal sentence: subject, action, direct object, and indirect object.

Though simplistic in nature these are three examples of how a student in his or her formative years learns the basics in education. All three of these devices do not impose upon the matter that is being considered; rather they better allow the student to formulate a proper outcome based on the problem/issue/hypothesis.

I do not think I am in the minority of Southern Baptists when I say I did not leave high school with the ability to systematize my thoughts on theology and the Bible in a clear and concise manner. To be honest with you, I knew enough to know I needed to be saved, was indeed  saved, and knew I ought to follow the teachings of the Bible for the rest of my life because they were good and true. In general terms I could tell you that man was fallen, man needed a Savior, Jesus is the Savior, Jesus died for my sins, was buried and rose on the third day, is in Heaven right now, and will return for his church a day in the future. Tied to these generalities were a string of likely out-of-context, possibly misguided, and not fully understood set of Scripture verses that I was taught and picked up through years of Sunday School (though I likely thought John 3:16 covered all matters of theology). 

Here is where I interject the plausibility of Calvinism through 5 points. Calvinism offers to (even young) readers of the Bible a system to interpret Scripture through. Much like the Scientific Method, the Tulip offers a well thought out system on understanding issues in the Bible that are ambiguous to a casual reader, offers confidence in the interpretation of Scripture, and provides common ground among a community of friends reading and studying the Bible together. Ambiguity is found in the word, election. It is a biblical word so it must be important. The book of Romans most prevalently uses this word but one may still have trouble when coming across a verse like 2 Peter 1:10b (…. give diligence to make your calling and election sure). The Tulip provides the term Unconditional Election to understand how this word functions in the overall picture of salvation. According to Calvinism, some are elected to be saved from the foundation of the world from a collection of people who are altogether Totally Depraved. Much like a puzzle, pieces begin to fit together and make sense. This ‘making sense’ of Scripture leads to confidence in interpreting Scripture. It is good to test what we believe about the Bible with something in order to know whether we are interpreting correctly. Without something (or someone) as a guide, the likelihood of errors in our biblical thought increases. So first the Tulip provides a rubric, then gives confidence, and now what makes more sense than to share what you have come to know with a group of like-minded people! Suddenly, a Bible study is formed with a common rubric that everyone is in agreement with.

What I just described is happening on a phenomenal scale in evangelicalism today. Students are leaving high school without a solid, systematized, scripturally based theology; this leaves them without a desire for a deeper understanding of the Bible because the big picture is just not clicking. Certainly, preachers in churches all around them are preaching based on Scripture, out of Scripture, and with an emphasis on holy living, but the typical SBC church is not providing a rubric by which all of Scripture makes sense. I am not implying that upper high school and college age young adults are dumb or ignorant concerning theology, only that they have not learned to own what they know based on Scripture. The Bible is a daunting piece of literature; 66 books and each letter is inspired, inerrant, and infallible (yikes! Don’t wanna mess up).

The Tulip provides a way to make concrete decisions of Scripture based upon an agreed rubric.

Why is this so important now? There is a great rustle among Southern Baptist feathers about the influence of Calvinism among our six seminaries, particularly concerning Southern and Southeastern. It is my contention that more strides are being made among student-to-student relationships in favor of Calvinism than in the classroom between the professor and the student toward Calvinism. Learning is fostered in the classroom but it is made personal outside of class as students collaborate on the finer points of the lectures and the implications of what is being taught. Unless he or she is a research professor teaching limited classes, it has been my observation that each professor teaches at least four classes a semester in our seminaries. Of those four, at least two would be considered general classes and the other(s) is based on the professor’s specific field of expertise. One example of this is Dr. Dongsun Cho at SWBTS. In the Fall of ’11 he was responsible for teaching Systematic Theology I, Church History I, and Theology of Augustine. If there were any other classes they do not come to mind. Both the systematic theology and church history courses are considered general courses where Dr. Cho is responsible for presenting to the class an overview of the subject. Both subjects are so massive that there is little time for personal views in the midst of presenting all the material adequately. Where Dr. Cho did elaborate extensively was in the course that I participated in, the Theology of Augusitne. Dr. Cho is an Augustinian scholar and a fine theologian. His opinions/views were well grounded in research and challenged me intellectually, spiritually, and physically (you should have seen the reading list…) to deepen my faith.

Nearly every student earning a degree from Southwestern will take the Systematic Theology I and Church History I courses. The purpose is to introduce students to the subject matter and invoke learning by extensive reading and exams. With such vast material to cover, it was my experience in courses such as these that much learning was not done during the fifty minutes of a lecture. Instead, I wrestled with the concepts, gathered a group together, and collectively we learned the significance of the attributes of God and the importance of church counsels and the patristic fathers outside of the classroom. Anything we could not figure out we introduced to the professor in the form of a question and he best answered us. In this environment does one’s stance in the theological spectrum influence much of what is taught? I do not believe so. There is simply not enough room for it. The room to teach personal views is found in research classes such as the one on Augustine. The majority of students who are required to take this specific elective in historical theology is much smaller than the students required to take the more general systematic theology and church history. I hope to have portrayed how few students are influence by Dr. Cho’s personalized theology without putting anyone to sleep.

So where is the rub? Where is the friction that is occurring between a non-Calvinist church and their ‘wayward’ son who picked up and is running with Reformed Theology while at seminary? I would dare say the friction is found at home base, in the sending church. Too many up-and-coming pastors are being sent from churches without a theological framework by which to live and breathe while engaging in theological studies outside of high school. Without a solid framework these men are finding comfort in the Tulip and the subsequent teachings that accompany Reformed Theology.

Where do we go from here?

  1. Change the expectations you have toward your students while they are young. I heard it said once that kids today are ‘taking calculus in tenth grade and we are only teaching them how to be morally pure in Sunday School and Discipleship Training.’ In other words, students today can handle complex ideas; strengthen their mind in the field of theology by challenging them to prove their beliefs based on Scripture. Do you believe you are a sinner?  Prove it not by your actions but by verses in the Bible portraying God as a Holy God and man as embarrassingly a master manipulator (Jacob and Esau). Not all students are budding theologians, but every Christian is responsible unto God for interpreting Scripture.
  2. In my limited experience in ministry I have found that many parents and adults in general have missed proper theological training in their local church. There are too many reasons for this for me to address each one. My point is, how are adults expected to train their children and other students when they cannot themselves clearly articulate what they believe concerning Scripture and interpret Scripture properly. For teachers, more training is needed than sitting in the pews each Sunday. And btw, all parents of children are the children’s primary teachers concerning spiritual matters.
  3. To students finding themselves either in a college setting considering theology or a seminary setting considering theology: be quiet and listen. Those who know me well could tell you that I do not talk a lot but am in nearly every conversation that I can stand to be in concerning the Bible and theology in general. I love a good argument but recognize that I have so much to learn from others around me. As I listen to these conversations I am racking in my mind, on paper, or on my iPad questions that I have concerning the subject matter. Then I ponder on these things and attempt to come to a conclusion. If I cannot come to a reasonable/conservative/biblically true answer I take the question to someone who may know the answer: such as a professor, pastor, or teacher in the church. Never have things so figured out that you are unwilling to learn from others.
  4. When one enters seminary or college a transformation begins to occur. This is a transformation of the boy or the girl maturing into a man or a lady. At the end of the day each person is responsible to God for his or her beliefs concerning the Bible, Jesus, and theology. The responsibility is not on the university or the seminary; these agents are only instigators to a person’s thoughts, provoking the mind to make decisions on meaningful life and spiritual choices.
  5. Blaming the seminary, the university, or even certain conferences is not the answer. Ephesians speaks of individuals being tossed around by every wind of doctrine (Eph 4:14). How do local churches prevent this sway? Providing a theological framework while still in the care of the local church ministry does this. If not a formal document, at least provide students with biblical guides of how to interpret Scripture. Scripture, the Gospel, changes lives. Understanding Scripture is vital.
  6. There is an assumption that more Calvinists are found at Southern and Southeastern seminary than any other Southern Baptist seminary. I would agree that this is true, just as I would agree that there are more non-Calvanists at Southwestern and NOBTS than there are Calvinists. These are simply observations. The truth behind these observations is found in where local church pastors are encouraging their students to attend. I expect Reformed churches to send their students to these more reformed schools. Yet, I do not believe any school will let down a student of a different persuasion of theology no matter where he attends. Theological education is at an all-time high in the evangelical society today (this is due dramatically to the Conservative Resurgence) and it is a privilege to learn from any of the SBC schools.
  7. My final warning is for everyone to keep things in perspective. The battle over theological preeminence has waged for hundreds of years and will continue to go on until Jesus returns. It is important to realize that seminary students (including myself) are young in their theology no matter how logical their system is. Therefore, just as chicken needs time for the marinade to soak in and enhance all its flavor so too does a young theologian need to allow many voices and many views to come into his life through lectures, books, and journals so as to filter the bad and cling on to the good. Calvinism is a traditional soteriology and it is here to stay. Arminianism is a traditional theology and it is here to stay. The position(s) found in the middle of these two camps is traditional theology and it too is here to stay. A phrase that I have enjoyed hearing of late from a professor is simply, Semper Reformanda, meaning ‘Always Reforming.’ Truly, we are all learning daily how to live more like Christ.

**Please note this is not a critique of the Tulip. This article simply demonstrates the use of the TULIP acronym among Calvinists.

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About carlbasey

I am now in my second semester of seminary at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I enjoy learning, reading, fishing, baseball, ultimate, and occasionally watching an entire season of a tv show at one time. I believe Jesus Christ saved me when I was 8 yrs young and has called me into vocational ministry. My life verse is Colossians 3:17
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