Christian spirituality hasn’t always been a topic of interest for me. Despite the breadth of spiritual depth found in historic Puritanism, my exposure to Reformed theology focused mostly upon doctrine and, sadly, overlooked a tremendous amount of excellent resources from the Reformed tradition. I think this is somewhat related to how the Reformed tradition’s founding father’s each articulated their own faith. For example, there is a noticeable difference between the Westminster Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism. As I read these two catechisms, and appreciate both, one reads with a warm spirituality and the other as a doctrinal statement. Yet both are as “reformed” as one can get.
As near as I can tell, the Reformed tradition is far more diverse in how it approaches spirituality than some would like to argue, something that James K. A. Smith articulates well in his Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition. The Reformed tradition is rich doctrinally and spiritually. Those who are either in this form of Protestantism or those who, like me, are influenced by this tradition, have a rich tradition to turn to.
But there are some, as I noted above, who seems to understand the Reformed tradition to be an exclusive club that includes only a small select group of people and a very narrow approach to theology and practice. One of the most notable examples of this, I think, is Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This isn’t the first time I’ve found his ideas troubling. Back in 2011 I wrote a post on his comments on the Vineyard movement, which were absolutely incredibly inaccurate and uncharitable.
Which brings me to another point of frustration.
BaptistNews.com has a piece up, “SBC leader: Baptists, don’t let your babies grow up to be Catholics,” that is troubling for a number of reasons. The piece essentially comments on a Wall Street Journal article, “When We Leave One Religion for Another: How two brothers, raised Baptist, found their way to two different faiths.” The original article chronicles how two twin brothers went from being raised in a Baptist church to becoming Roman Catholic and Anglican, respectively. Mohler finds this “conversion” story problematic enough to comment on. He states:
“[This story is a] judgment upon all those who missed the opportunity and failed in the responsibility to ground these young boys as they were then in the Christian faith, in the truth and the beauty of evangelical Christian doctrine, in the theological principles that based upon long biblical consideration and the long argument of the church have meant the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity — the differences between the understanding of a Scripture-centered Christianity and one that is centered in the sacraments, as is the Roman Catholic system, and at least much of Anglicanism.”
According to Mohler, because the church failed them, they went on “to be led by their senses” instead of “a theological understanding grounded in the explicit teachings of Scripture.”
Argh. Where do I start?
First of all, while Mohler acknowledges that Anglicanism isn’t as concerning as the conversion to Roman Catholicism, the aforementioned quote surely leaves much to be desired. How can Mohler so easily slight Anglicanism? Could someone please remind him of the late John Stott (not to mention many of the historic Reformed forefathers!)?
Mohler also sets ups a concerning red herring when he contrasts “a Scripture-centered Christianity” with “one that is centered in the sacraments.” Uh… could someone also inform Mohler that one does not need to choose Scripture over and against the sacraments? The Reformed tradition has a rich history of emphasizing Word and Sacrament. The problem, quite frankly, is that Mohler’s own Baptist tradition has often had such a low view of the sacraments that this theological mistake is understandable, though wrong-headed. This is not to mention that Mohler’s decision to have a “Scripture-centered Christianity” isn’t just a bit concerning to me! I’d much rather have a Jesus and the kingdom centered framework to work from, knowing full well that this framework is articulated in Scripture. Maybe it’s just the Barthian influence (or Moltmann?).
What really caused me to write this post, Mohler’s spirituality is really, really, really concerning to me. There are just far too many red herrings or dualistic fallacies! I already mentioned the foolishness of pitting Scripture against Sacrament. The other issue that stands out to me is that Mohler’s spirituality is, well, really shallow. It’s like we have to choose between a stodgy doctrinally-driven form of evangelicalism or… everything else. But here’s the truth: we can embrace a Christ-centered, biblically-informed, theologically-rich, doxologically-creative approach to the evangelical ethos. Not only is it a far healthier approach to our spiritual journey, it’s sanctioned under the Reformed tradition! I guess that’s to say that I wish Mohler’s Reformed influence was a bit wider than a few Reformed Baptists. His theological method concerns me, along with his pastoral emphasis, which comes out next…
While Mohler states that he’s unaware of any “specific failing” of the Baptist church that raised two boys who became Catholic and Anglican, his true colors show when he asks:
“Who was there to guide them? Who was there as an evangelical thinker, apologist, theologian, friend, pastor and guide to help them to understand these questions?”
Uh… is it possible that these two boys grew up reading evangelical thinkers, apologists, and theologians while listening to friends, pastors, and guides (not to mention their parents) and just disagreed and weren’t convinced? Is it possible that no one failed two baptist boys?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggestion that Mohler’s challenge for us to parent, pastor, and theologize well doesn’t matter. It does. But there appears no nuance in what he writes, no awareness of the pastoral concerns related to a story such as this. All we really get is “Baptist equals good” and “Everyone else equals bad.” Tsk tsk, Dr. Mohler. You should know better.
I’m not Catholic. I’m not Anglican. I probably agree with a lot of Mohler’s theology in certain respects. But his soundbite theologizing sure seems to raise more problems than provide help.
What would be far more helpful, I think, is to provide parents and pastors a richer spirituality than just checking doctrinal fact sheets. Might a richer spirituality be grounded in Scripture, experienced by the Spirit, and centered on Christ? Might Word and Sacrament work together to shape us in the image of Christ, remind us of the gospel, and provide a place to encounter God? Might our senses, emotions, and reason experience the transformative power of the gospel of the kingdom?
I sure hope so. I might not be Anglican, but I sure love that tradition! I mean, John Stott, N. T. Wright, Christopher J. H. Wright, and Mark Cartledge! And I might have some serious disagreements with Roman Catholicism, but I sure find Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner intriguing.
So if you are a young (or old) Calvinist, please read widely in your tradition and widely outside. Thicken your theology.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
Luke thanks for this piece, as you know Mohler as been an irritant to me in how narrow he is about the body of Christ and as I did in 2011 by sending him your piece I’ll be sure to Se this to his circles.
I was in a Vineyard in New England for a number of years before moving to the South. We’ve attended a Southern Baptist church for a number of years. There are many good things in our particular expression, such as a focus on missions/great commission, a heart for the poor and downcast, helping shepherds who fall morally, etc. At the same time, and I’ve commented on this in a round about way in the times I’ve been able to teach Sunday school, one of the main ideas is that the pastor interprets the Bible, and people go along with that, without question. Sound Catholic at all? I’ve commented that it’s not enough to believe it because the pastor says it; we must know the Word for ourselves. Combine that with a biblicist view, some major proof-texting on various topics (e.g., drinking alcohol), eisegeis to beat the band, a rigid externalism at times, and other things. Yet, we are brothers and sisters, and I’ve got my own logs to deal with. I do agree, such narrowness on Mohler’s part needs to be called out. It’s disheartening at best. Blessings.