This letter is a response to Dr. Ed Stetzer’s Christianity Today interview of Dr. Greg Strand, The EFCA’s Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Ed Stetzer is Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. The transcript of the interview can be read here.
Dear Dr. Stetzer and Dr. Strand,
I am writing in reference to your August 21, 2019 Christianity Today interview titled “One-On-One with Greg Strand on Premillennialism and the EFCA.” I would like to make application of the decision-making principles for doctrinal importance discussed in the interview to the Calvinist and Arminian soteriological differences which the EFCA has also made subject to those principles.
Granted, for the EFCA to require acceptance of premillennialism by their statement of faith would be to major in a minor. Yet, I would argue that the EFCA’s attempt to major in majors and minor in minors has failed when it comes to the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism. That is, the EFCA’s “significance of silence” approach is seriously flawed when applied to the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriological controversy. It results in the EFCA confusing and reassigning what they themselves affirm is a fundamental tenet of evangelical Christian faith – “the gospel” – to a minor category of belief in that these soteriological differences ultimately testify to very different gospels, let alone arguably a very different God.
By failing to acknowledge the nature and importance of the distinctions between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies, the EFCA minors in a major. Dr. Strand affirms this posture when he says, “You can be young earth or old earth, you can be Covenantal or Dispensational, you can be Arminian or Calvinist…, you can be baptistic or paedobaptistic, you can be cessationist or continuationist, but you must be premillennial.” (Emphasis mine) Hence, Arminianism and Calvinism are placed in the category of non-essential or secondary minor doctrinal beliefs where premillennialism should also be. According to the EFCA, Calvinism and Arminianism are like premillennialism. They are not beliefs of “first importance.”
I agree that premillennialism may be categorized as a minor doctrinal belief. But surely, especially in light of the EFCA’s claims about the centrality of “the gospel,” the Calvinist / non-Calvinist soteriological differences are not minor doctrinal matters because the very gospel is at stake in those differences. The EFCA holds that what constitutes “the gospel” are non-negotiable fundamental truths. Dr. Strand states, “Our SOF reflects a desire for unity in the fundamental tenets of the gospel. We are silent on those doctrines which through the centuries have divided Christians…” But what are these “fundamental tenets of the gospel?” The Calvinist / non-Calvinist soteriological differences bear directly upon the gospel. Therefore, in that the EFCA marginalizes these soteriological differences they are inconsistent with their own claims about the primacy of the gospel and end up embracing a theological and soteriological relativism. Two incompatible soteriologies and gospel messages cannot both be true.
Again, the inconsistency is evident in that while the EFCA’s statements rightly hold to the primacy of the gospel as a major central tenet of belief that cannot be compromised, they also embrace both non-Calvinist and Calvinist soteriologies, deeming their differences as “secondary” or “non-essential” doctrinal matters. They place these in the category of minor doctrinal beliefs. But if these soteriologies are mutually exclusive, and one’s gospel content is entailed by one’s soteriology, then we have two mutually exclusive “gospels” here. Therefore, the EFCA’s claims about the Calvinist / non-Calvinist differences being secondary or non-essential matters is inconsistent with their claim that the gospel is a primary or major essential of their doctrinal beliefs. I believe this shows a lack of discernment and/or denial regarding the implications of this controversy for the content and proclamation of the gospel.
Dr. Strand clearly talks about, “…our strong value of unity in the gospel in which we major on the majors” and the EFCA’s “professed and lived unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 17; Eph. 2:11-21; 4:1-6, etc.).” He gives an analogy of “the hall” of evangelicalism and denominational “rooms” stating that, “…If the hall is the place that represents evangelicalism—the place where Evangelicals gather—and if the rooms off the hall are the places where the denominations gather, the EFCA is unique in that we are between the large hall of evangelicalism and the denominational rooms off the hall. Although we are not to be identified as a denomination of the via media, those who are often fence-sitters regarding essential doctrinal matters, we do focus on first order doctrinal essentials and grant charity on non-essentials. We intentionally and purposefully exist in the space between the hall and the rooms and believe it is a strength because it reflects our professed and lived unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 17; Eph. 2:11-21; 4:1-6, etc.).” With respect to the “different denominational rooms” he states, “Rather, if a Wesleyan (Arminian) goes into the Presbyterian (Calvinist) room, they would know [the difference] quite quickly, and vice versa. Whereas in the EFCA, that would not be noticed as quickly…And this is, I believe, the uniqueness of the EFCA as a denomination. Our identity is not then described or explained by how we are different, but rather how we are the same, without compromising doctrinal truth.” (Italics mine)
But the failure to distinguish the difference between non-Calvinist and Calvinist soteriologies with respect to their implications for the content of the gospel is not a “uniqueness” but a weakness of the EFCA. To attempt unity with respect to the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies is at the same time to compromise doctrinal truth with regard to the gospel. If these are two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospel messages, then when the EFCA claims the gospel is a major doctrine that is central to their beliefs, which “gospel” are they talking about? Two mutually exclusive propositions cannot both be true. When the EFCA deems the Arminian and Calvinist differences a secondary or a non-essential matter, they are also deeming the gospel a secondary and non-essential matter. Dr. Strand states, “It is a unity centered on the truth of the gospel, even if and when there are differences on secondary and tertiary matters.” But the gospel stands or falls with one or the other of these mutually exclusive soteriologies. Therefore, there is an inconsistency in their claim of unity in the gospel and that the gospel is a primary and non-negotiable doctrinal truth when they refuse to recognize the mutual exclusivity of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and the incompatible “gospel” messages those soteriologies entail, labeling these differences a secondary matter that is non-essential.
This “significance of silence” approach fails to recognize that the non-Calvinist and Calvinist positions have mutually exclusive gospel implications. If the gospel is essential, a refusal to acknowledge the incompatibility of these soteriologies fails of the claim of “unity in essentials.” It certainly seems false to state, “We are truly together by, with, and for the gospel of Jesus Christ” and to talk about “a unity centered on the truth of the gospel” and yet be silent on the Calvinist / non-Calvinist differences which entail very different gospels. If there is “a unity centered on the truth of the gospel,” then which of these two incompatible gospels is the EFCA referring to? Such statements smack of a denial of the intellectual and hermeneutical problem here within the EFCA’s thinking and documents. I realize there are motivating factors as to why the EFCA has adopted this “significance of silence” approach, and the requirement that members hold to premillennialism may be the perfect candidate justifying this approach. But I think it is a serious oversight to take this approach with the Calvinist / non-Calvinist differences.
Furthermore, to accept the “significance of silence” approach regarding mutually exclusive soteriologies is to cease searching for soteriological truth and the truth of the gospel. The Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and gospels cannot both be true. This approach also implies that both are valid interpretations of Scripture and are therefore legitimate evangelical beliefs. But this is to embrace not only a soteriological relativism but also a hermeneutical relativism. Although the EFCA will allow for debating these differences, the practical result of this approach is to abandon the search for the truth of the gospel. It is to leave it in abeyance, undefined and ambiguous. This approach, therefore, can have serious negative intellectual, hermeneutical and evangelistic implications. One implication of the marginalization and indifference to the fact that these soteriologies are mutually exclusive is that the true, biblical gospel message of “good news” is being eroded and lost in the “evangelical” church today.
Perhaps these issues would be a good topic for a further interview? For instance, perhaps Dr. Strand could answer what Article 10 of the Evangelical Convictions means when it states,
“The Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America is an exposition of the gospel – God’s gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And what is the gospel? It is the evangel, the good news that God has acted graciously to save a people for himself through his Son Jesus Christ. The gospel is the simple message that Jesus died for our sins and rose again so that we might have eternal life. This message of good news can be stated as concisely as this: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Our Statement seeks to unpack this gospel by organizing the essential doctrines of our faith – our critical Evangelical convictions – around this central theme.” (p. 234)
Surely in light of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriological differences and the EFCA’s claims about gospel primacy, this statement raises issues that need to be clarified. For instance, how do the non-Calvinist and Calvinist soteriologies reflect the gospel defined as “good news?” What is meant by “a people?” Who constitutes this “people?” How does a person become a member of this “people?” Who does the “our” and the “we” refer to? What is meant by “world” and “whoever” in John 3:16? How should the context of John 3:16 inform our interpretation of that verse? Does this verse contain a genuine and dynamic offer of salvation for all sinners on the basis of believing that God gave his Son for each of us, or is it merely informing us that there is a predestined number of individuals unconditionally elected to salvation in which God will irresistibly work belief and bestow eternal life? How does this bear upon “the gospel” as being “good news?” Do both non-Calvinist and Calvinist soteriologies contain “good news?” How so? Which of these is “the good news” or “the gospel” as referred to in the EFCA Statement of Faith and Evangelical Convictions? In light of these incompatible soteriologies and “gospels,” what is “the truth of the gospel?” Can Dr. Strand detail for us the precise content of the biblical gospel message the EFCA is referring to, and given that content, can he assess which of these two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospel messages is consistent with that content? If one is consistent and the other is not, would he still maintain the position that “We are truly together by, with, and for the gospel of Jesus Christ?” Given his definition of “the evangel,” what does it mean to be an “evangelical?” And most importantly, if logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction result from one or the other of these soteriologies, would this be hermeneutically significant in that these would be reliable indicators as to the interpretive validity, or invalidity as the case may be, of that soteriology?
I deal with these issues in more detail in two papers I have written – “Two Incompatible Gospels: A Serious Matter for the “Evangelical” Church” and “Agreement on the Gospel? – An Assessment of the Claim of the “ForCLT” Unified Sermon Series.” These papers are case studies that contain detailed sermon analysis to demonstrate more fully what I have argued above.
Finally, having attended and served in EFCA churches, as well as many other denominations, I’m concerned about the erosion of the gospel in our evangelical churches and the acceptance of incoherence in biblical interpretation. Any church denomination calling itself “evangelical” should maintain doctrinal consistency and a gospel that is truly “good news.”
All feedback, critiques, comments and opinions are welcome.
Stephen C. Marcy, M.A., M.A.