Open Letter to Dr. Richard Land, President of Southern Evangelical Seminary

This letter was written on October 25, 2018 after last year’s NCCA conference.


October 25, 2018

Dr. Richard Land, President

Southern Evangelical Seminary

15015 Lancaster Highway

Charlotte, NC 28227

Dear Dr. Land,

            I want to thank you and SES for providing yet another informative and stimulating apologetics conference this year.  I especially appreciated the panel discussion on “Is the Age of the Earth a Matter of Biblical Authority?”  It not only showed a willingness to deal with a controversial topic in a discussion forum, but also relate the topic to more foundational issues like biblical authority and hermeneutics.  In other words, rather than a presentation of the facts supporting the different views, this discussion pressed deeper into the relations and implications of biblical authority and hermeneutics to the topic.  Discussing the topic at these more fundamental levels is important for getting us closer to the truth of the matter.  The panelists were assessing the topic in light of the implications of the authority of Scripture and the principles by which we interpret Scripture.

This integrative approach is a fine example of what is needed in our contemporary evangelical churches which, it is sad to say, rarely cherish or foster the life of the mind. But this approach is necessary if we are going to tease out the truth on the various questions and controversies facing Christians today.  One controversy that I contend must be addressed at a deeper hermeneutical level involves the question, “What is the biblical gospel?”  Given the importance of the gospel, please allow me to share some thoughts on this matter.

            An honest assessment of the Calvinist/non-Calvinist controversy reveals that there are two mutually exclusive soteriologies being preached and taught in our churches today.  In that the gospel just is the logical extension of one’s soteriology, there is therefore two mutually exclusive gospels also being preached and taught in our churches today. But good philosophical and apologetic thinking tells us that two logically incompatible soteriologies and gospels can’t both be true.[1]  That being the case, then one or the other (or both) is a false soteriology and gospel message.  The evangelical church is in denial about this problem and its seriousness.[2]  But denial is not an intellectually responsible position for the thinking Christian.  Most Christians are indifferent to this matter and are being taught to accept mutually exclusive gospels, which is just to embrace soteriological relativism – the very same type of relativism so pervasive in our culture that we as Christians should expose and reject.

            The gospel is at the heart of biblical revelation.  It is the raison d’etre of every Christian church, Christian ministry, Christian school (including SES) and the Christian apologetic enterprise, and yet we find that contradictory definitions of “the gospel” have become acceptable in Evangelicalism.  The word “gospel” is spoken in every church, Bible study, sermon, ministry, Christian book, etc., but its meaning is taken for granted.  With indifference to this problem of mutual exclusivity, “the gospel” is too often thoughtlessly left undefined.  The reality is that different preachers and teachers ultimately mean contradictory things when they speak of “the gospel.”  As such, the truth of the gospel is at stake in this controversy.  Therefore, I submit that if the proclamation of the true gospel is the central reason for our existence and our primary mission, then the question, “What is the biblical gospel?” is the most important question facing the contemporary evangelical church.  As we watch our world decline deeper into sin and despair, this is one issue that cannot be ignored or denied any longer because it is the only remedy for this human predicament.  Our confusion over the gospel, to the degree that it distorts its truth and hinders its proclamation, may indeed be a contributing factor in this decline. 

            I submit that with the resurgence of Calvinism the gospel as “good news” is being eroded, compromised or abandoned altogether.[3]  Where Calvinism is embraced, either openly or inconspicuously, disingenuousness and verbal legerdemain can be found.  Clarity, honesty and integrity regarding the gospel is lacking.  Therefore, all that is detrimental to the truth of the gospel needs to be checked and the true gospel restored.

            As apologists who believe that the canons of reason are non-negotiable and reliable for discerning truth, and as those engaged in the defense of the Christian faith, I believe we need a renewed application of our best efforts to get at the truth of the gospel message.  We need to do this for the glory of God in the salvation of the lost.  We need to recover and proclaim the gospel as the “good news” that it is so the Spirit can work through it in power to save the lost and encourage believers.  The Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of Truth, will powerfully affirm the truth of the gospel once it is consistently and accurately expounded.  As nonbelievers hear the biblically consistent, coherent truth of the gospel, the Spirit will witness to that truth and many will come to Christ.  If we are going to be faithful to our apologetic task and Christian duty – to search for truth and proclaim the gospel – then this issue needs to be pursued and resolved.  It truly is an eternal life and death situation.

            If my assessment is correct, as successful as we are in defending the Christian faith against the assaults of atheistic science and culture, it is disturbing to think that we, as evangelicals, are not able to discern the truth regarding the central message of Scripture and come to a consensus on it.  Given the mutually exclusive nature of this matter, I submit that the pursuit of the truth of the gospel is incumbent upon us as Christian philosophers, apologists and theologians.

            How important is this matter of salvation and the gospel?  As the panel discussion on the age of the earth brought to light, the matter of salvation was considered essential by all who participated.  The conclusion was that the disagreement over the age of the earth was not an essential salvation issue and therefore it was not a matter of orthodoxyThe implication was that matters involving salvation are matters that rise to the level of orthodoxy.  Dr. Geisler proposed a test for orthodoxy by asking whether or not a doctrine is directly or indirectly essential for salvation.  The point is that the panel recognized that matters pertaining to salvation are essential to what orthodox Christians are to believeSurely the gospel is essential to salvation.  But the Calvinist/non-Calvinist controversy leaves us with the question, “Which gospel?”  And since we are embracing two incompatible gospels, Dr. Guliuzza’s comment that we need to be concerned about the credibility of the church applies.  Our soteriological language and definitions of the gospel can’t be so malleable so as to be inconsistent and contradictory. 

            The philosophical, apologetic, and evangelistic implications of this soteriological controversy are profound.  And although it is long-standing and full of complex problems, I submit that the essential matters can be identified and a resolution attained.  In short, the Calvinist/non-Calvinist controversy tenaciously persists, not because the Bible teaches both, but because there is a violation of fundamental reasoning inherent in the Calvinist hermeneutic.  When the contradictions Calvinism generates are pointed out (e.g., deterministic sovereignty and human responsibility), the Calvinist dismisses these as irrelevant for determining the validity of their interpretations.  They summarily dismiss the need for rational and moral coherence by prematurely or incorrectly asserting “mystery,” “the Bible teaches both,” “antinomy,” “paradox,” “incomprehensibility,” “seeking human autonomy,” etc.  Once this is done nothing more can be said.  Calvinism remains successfully insulated from the only means we have to judge its validity, that is, logical and moral coherence based in the canons of reason.  This is how Calvinism survives, not by a convincing exegesis, but through a faulty hermeneutic that puts rational and moral coherence out of court as reliable determiners of the validity of that exegesis and its subsequent doctrinal interpretations.  In contrast, the non-Calvinist incorporates rational coherence as a part of their hermeneutic, that is, they believe it is an indispensable factor in exegesis and for determining the biblical truth of proposed interpretations and theologies.  This is the hermeneutical divide that separates the Calvinist from the non-Calvinist and is at the heart of this controversy.  I can give many examples of this. Once the proof-texting is over and we are still left with incompatible interpretations of the same texts, this then becomes a matter of hermeneutics.  Dr. Howe rightly landed on this point in the panel discussion.  Moreover, what you wrote in “Whosoever Will” also supports this point.[4]  Your emphasis on congruence, non-contradiction, non-confusion, explanatory scope and avoiding disingenuousness in message and preaching need to be heard today.  I contend, along with SES, that a biblically sound hermeneutic must incorporate the rigor of philosophical reflection, the laws of logic, moral intuitions and apologetic principles to the end of achieving rational and moral coherence in our soteriological interpretations and gospel message.  These are indispensable elements in a sound hermeneutic.  They are essential for discerning what constitutes an accurate interpretation of the biblical texts.[5]

            We could gain soteriological and gospel clarity here if each position were pressed to honestly state what they believe about God’s sovereignty, human freedom and the gospel, and then examine their responses for coherence and non-contradiction with other clear biblical/theological themes and experiential realities and not dismiss incoherence or contradiction so as to avoid division at any cost.  If a position is incoherent and contradictory (which is an objection raised against Calvinism), we must then grapple with whether this is hermeneutically significant, that is, whether the presence of incoherence and contradiction are reliable indicators that something is amiss exegetically.  If the answer is that these are not significant because that is what our exegesis tells us despite the incoherence and contradictions generated, then this seems to be both question begging and the forfeiture of the canons of reason in this matter.  It is to espouse a hermeneutic of incoherence. And we can see that without common ground as to the essential role reason plays in hermeneutics all discussion ceases.  It ceases because the only grounds upon which thought and discussion have meaning have been dismissed.  This is the intellectual and hermeneutical “no man’s land” the evangelical church finds itself in. This is of course unacceptable and therefore crucial matter that needs to be hashed out by the best philosophical, apologetic and theological minds within Evangelicalism.

            On the other hand, Calvinists are inclined to jettison their Calvinist soteriology to some degree and become non-Calvinists when teaching or preaching on the gospel.  It is an obvious fact that most Calvinists, when they preach and teach, speak incoherently with their underlying deterministic soteriology.  I think that is one reason why non-Calvinists are willing to ignore the issue of Calvinist incoherence.  As long as Calvinists are inconsistent and preach a non-Calvinist gospel the inclination is to “live and let live.”  But that is to ignore the disingenuousness of Calvinism at its fundamental soteriological level.  It is to ignore that truth matters.  It is intellectually and morally unacceptable and only confuses people who respond by discounting the life of the mind in favor of a “what’s true for you” theological and soteriological relativism which in turn discourages the study of theology and disparages the discipline.  But when Calvinists attempt to maintain their soteriology in ministry, the gospel becomes muddled, if not lost.  The “good news” is replaced by mere information about a group of unknown people whom God has unconditional elected to salvation for reasons beyond our understanding other than “for his own glory.”       

            Of course all things are to be done with love and respect.  That should go without saying.  But fears of criticism, division or being unloving should not preclude the search for the truth here.  There is no need to be critical, divisive or unloving.  The NCCA panel discussion demonstrated that.  Pursuing and speaking the truth is always ultimately loving, not unloving.  It is unifying, not divisive.  And if we can present good arguments, we need not quarrel. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “People quarrel because they don’t know how to argue.” Our churches need to learn to engage, discuss and present sound arguments for why a certain position is biblical and therefore warrants our belief. But whether or not well-reasoned arguments will be acknowledged as essential to a proper hermeneutic is the key question. 

            I think an in-depth inquiry that goes beyond proof-texting and asks serious logical, hermeneutical and existential questions like whether we can discern a real contradiction when we see one; whether two contradictory propositions can both be true; whether the sovereignty/free-will debate fits into the category of genuine Christian mystery; whether it can be that “the Bible teaches both”; whether the Calvinist “gospel” really is “good news”; whether this has implications for the nature of God and our knowledge of God; whether it impacts the authority and inspiration of Scripture; whether we can all know God loves us, that he is kindly disposed towards us and we can be saved; and which apologetic arguments completely lose their force on Calvinism and whether this matters or not are needed at this time.  The truth of the gospel, which is quickly disappearing from our churches, requires it.  Raising and answering these more fundamental questions would be productive in moving the evangelical church towards a final resolution to this controversy so the truth of the gospel would be set free and proclaimed in Holy Spirit power.

            This matter should be of concern for all Christians who call themselves “evangelical.”  To be evangelical is to bring “good news.”  As such we need to come to grips with what makes this news “good.”  As apologists, by definition, we must be about defending the faith in this regard.  Intellectual and spiritual integrity demands it.  Scripture demands it.  The apostle Paul demands it.  Given his passionate warnings in Galatians 1 and 2 regarding distorting the gospel of Christ (1:7), preaching a gospel contrary to the one he preached or to the one they received (1:8), and preserving the truth of the gospel (2:5), I would suggest a rigorous inquiry into whether one or the other of these incompatible gospels falls under the “anathema of Galatians.”

            Sober leadership is needed to raise Christian consciousness and promote clear thinking on this issue.  This would be the first step to removing the intellectual relativism and personal indifference that grips the church.  This will open the way for productive discussion and debate in more structured and formal settings – perhaps in a forum like the NCCA – on the hermeneutical issues involved.  Since the resolution of this controversy will require an interdisciplinary approach, SES is perfectly suited to play a key role in this much needed restoration of the gospel.  Perhaps SES might lead the way in resolving this matter through classes dealing with this specific issue in an interdisciplinary manner and then the introduction of this topic into a future apologetics conference?[6]

            Thank you for taking time to read this long letter and for your kind consideration in this matter.  It has been on my heart and mind for many years now.  The enclosed papers are for your reference as you have time or common interest in this issue.  I know you are a busy man.  Any and all feedback is more than welcome.

Sincerely,

Stephen C. Marcy, M.A., M.A.


[1] I appreciate your essay in Whosoever Will that recognizes that John Leland’s claim of a tolerable reconciliation between “the doctrine of sovereign grace in the salvation of souls” (as referring to Calvinist unconditional election), and “what is called Arminianism” (with respect to “freedom of the human will”), is untenable.  Your concern to explain election as congruent with all the Scriptural data on human freedom is what is needed rather than accepting the superficial view “…that the eternal purposes of God and the freedom of the human will are both truths, and it is a matter of fact that the preaching that has been most blessed by God and most profitable to men is the doctrine of sovereign grace in the salvation of souls, mixed with a little of what is called Arminianism.”  Such a confused view is commonplace in the evangelical church today, but it is logically and morally impossible that “these two propositions can be tolerably well reconciled together.” – Richard Land, “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from a “Eternal Now” Perspective” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds., David L. Allen & Steve W. Lemke, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 47.

[2] I attempt to convey this seriousness in two papers I have recently composed which I have included with this letter.

               One paper, “Two Incompatible Gospels – A Serious Matter for the ‘Evangelical’ Church,” examines the fact that there are two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospels (Calvinist and non-Calvinist) being taught and accepted in our churches today.  In it I contend that the church is in denial of this fact and examine the logical and practical ramifications of this denial.

               In the other paper, “For the Gospel” – An Assessment and Critique of the Claim of Agreement,” I assess the recent “For Charlotte” (“ForCLT”) Missions Network “Unified Sermon Series” in which approximately 70 churches from various denominations participated.  In this paper I explain Calvinist soteriology and examine the “For the Gospel” sermons of Pastors Payne, Kallam (both Church at Charlotte), Maybry (Matthews Presbyterian Church) and Clifford (Myers Park Presbyterian Church).  I assess these in light of Pastor Kallam’s claim that “one of those things we agree on is the gospel.”  You may have heard about this “Unified Sermon Series.”  If not, I think you will be interested in its various implications, especially for the gospel.   As the “ForCLT” materials rightly state, “If we get the gospel wrong, we get everything wrong.” 

[3] See my paper, “For the Gospel” – An Assessment and Critique of the Claim of Agreement” for a recent example of this erosion and compromise of the gospel.

[4] That is, that the, “…Word of God does not contradict itself.”  That “Christians must always seek an ever deepening and widening grasp of a totality of doctrine that is as congruent with as much of scriptural revelation as possible.  What understanding of a doctrine of election is in accord with the entire body of revealed Scripture – not just with certain proof texts?”  And that “We must seek a conceptual understanding of each doctrine of the faith, including election, that allows us to preach on every passage of Scripture without contradiction, confusion, or hesitancy, and without ignoring some “problem” passages in favor of others more easily harmonized with our particular doctrinal model.”- Richard Land, “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from a “Eternal Now” Perspective” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds., David L. Allen & Steve W. Lemke, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 45-46, 51.

[5] SES affirms this by seeking to “integrate classical philosophy, apologetics, and theology for a comprehensive and coherent world view. We are convinced that one of these disciplines without the other does not adequately unveil the beauty that is the historic Christian faith. As such, every class at SES, regardless of the subject, builds upon the other to form a complete and systematic view of reality and essential Christian doctrine.”  And particularly in regard to our understanding of Scripture, “Given our philosophical distinctives, we believe sensible reality (i.e., general revelation) is the first truth man comes to know via his intellect. This knowledge is then combined with, and provides the tools for properly understanding, authoritative special revelation given by God (i.e., the Bible). Together, these two revelations, general and special, give us the understanding needed to see the truth of Christ’s work on the cross and the confidence to place our trust in Him as Savior.” – https://ses.edu/why-ses/our-philosophy/  Last accessed 10/22/2018.

[6] I hope to call for the involvement of Wheaton College, my alma mater, to host a conference on this issue in honor of Dr. Billy Graham and the gospel he preached for 60 years.  I believe Dr. Graham’s gospel, which was clearly non-Calvinist in its content, was not only the God ordained means through which a multitude of people were saved, but was a moral preservative in our culture and throughout the world in the past century.  A renewal of that biblical gospel message is necessary once again in the evangelical church in America as it moves into the 21st century.

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