On December 21, 2007 Ergun Caner sent me an announcement about the name change of Liberty Theological Seminary to Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. I gave it only passing notice. From all that I know, Liberty may be the finest Fundamentalist seminary around and I don’t care how many times they extract and reinsert the name “Baptist” on their letterhead.
When Caner became dean of the seminary in 2004 he took the name “Baptist” out. The rationale given for reinserting it I found mildly amusing, but again, not worth much more than a raised eyebrow. He wrote,
[S]ince 2004, much has changed, both here at Liberty University and in the Southern Baptist Convention. Too many schools have Baptist in their name but not in their doctrine. Some have drifted into liberalism and cultural relativism; still others remain orthodox, but have drifted toward non-Baptist reformed doctrine and cultural isolationism. For us, this was our line in the sand. We want to build bridges to a lost world without burning the bridges of our doctrinal heritage. We are putting Baptist back in our name, and taking back a term that has been misused [emphasis added].
He further explained their vision:
We want to train students from across the evangelical spectrum, in the classic Baptistic stance of our Anabaptist tradition and Sandy Creek revivalistic heritage.
I remember thinking at the time that if Caner is the one defining the “classic Baptist stance” of our heritage at Liberty then any student there who wants an accurate understanding of Baptist history should definitely make sure he has access to the internet so he can verify what he is taught by reading primary sources that are now readily available online.
I was content to keep these thoughts to myself and had forgotten about them until Wednesday night. While sitting in the Newark airport due to weather-related flight delays I took the time to listen to an interview with Caner conducted by Wes Kenney over at SBC Today. It is a very good interview. Kenney does a good job of raising issues pertinent to Southern Baptist life in a very brief span. The whole interview lasts about 17 minutes. I encourage you to listen to it.
Some of what Caner says is encouraging and informative, such as the story of his conversion and the account of how Dr. Falwell “tricked” him into becoming the Dean of the seminary at Liberty in 2004. He describes the recent transitions of leadership at Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church how smoothly they have been due to Falwell’s clear instructions that his sons were to take over responsibilities upon his death.
Caner then explains the reason behind the recent reversion to including “Baptist” in Liberty’s name.
I am a classic Sandy-Creeker-Anabaptist-history-Baptist and there just didn’t seem to be a voice for that on the east coast. There is a great [voice for this view] in Southwestern Seminary….But on the east coast we had guys building bridges toward Geneva.
This is an obvious slap at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s co-sponsorship with Founders Ministries of the Building Bridges conference last November (get the audio here). I suppose this means that I could claim to have a hand in the renaming of the largest Fundamentalist seminary in the world. 🙂
Commenting on the Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism Conference, Caner commends Malcolm Yarnell for doing a “masterful job of defining the rest of us,” by which he means those who are not part of the “small” and “tiny” portion of the SBC that are not committed to the doctrines of grace but who are the “stump-winders”(?) and “saw-dust-trail boys.”
Dr. Caner both hates and misrepresents historic Calvinism. He is concerned with the undeniable resurgence of evangelical Calvinism among Baptists. I can certainly understand that and have no quarrel with his desire to debate renounce it. I do regret, however, that he consistently handles the historical data so poorly.
He can call himself a “Sandy-Creeker,” but at some point he must deal with the abundant evidence that within the Sandy Creek, Separate Baptist tradition there is a significant regard for Calvinistic doctrines. Even his mentor, Dr. Paige Patterson, publicly acknowledged this fact in the dialogue he held with Dr. Mohler at the 2006 Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference.
Caner further muddies the waters and exposes both a pugilistic demeanor and untrustworthy historical assessments when he makes this observation about the current resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC:
The whole fight started when they started saying, ” …we’ve always been Calvinists, both strands [presumbably he means both Charleston and Sandy Creek traditions].” That’s a lie. That’s not just a misstatement. That’s just an outright historical fallacy….To say that … Southern Baptists have always been in one way or another, Calvinists, is not only short-sited, it is just poor theology and poor history.
First, who is fighting? There are some in the SBC who are drooling for a fight over Calvinism. That tends to be endemic to certain strands of Fundamentalism. Without some boogeyman to battle they are without a raison d’etre. I am hopeful that a growing number of Southern Baptists are seeing through this tendency to demonize those with whom we disagree and not allow those who are itching for a fight to dominate the denominational dialogue. That was a large part of the motivation for the Building Bridges conference.
Second, who has ever said that Southern Baptists have always been Calvinists? This is a very unhelpful misstatement at best and gross misrepresentation at worst. Of course Southern Baptists have not always been Calvinists in a universal sense. No one believes that. But the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that this convention was founded by those who affirmed the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation.
Timothy George has noted that each of the 293 delegates who met in Augusta, Georgia in 1845 to establish the Southern Baptist Convention came from churches or associations that embraced the Chaleston/Philadephia/Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. Caner may not like this fact, but it will take more than gratuitous assertions to make it go away.
The final excerpt from Caner’s interview illustrates the cautions that one ought to have in following his historical assessments. When asked about whether Calvin would approve the so-called 5 points of Calvinism, Caner made the following historical gaffes while trying to distinguish Calvin from the Calvinists.
During the life of Calvin a guy named Amyraut…Moise Amyraut said Calvin believed in general atonement. And his fiercest opponent was Theodore Beza, the guy who took over for Calvin.
So historian Caner would have us believe that Amyraut disagreed with Calvin during Calvin’s lifetime and was fiercely opposed by Beza. Calvin (1509-1564) died 32 years before Amyraut was born and Beza (1519-1605) died when Amyraut was 11. Those must have been some fierce debates between the octogenarian Beza and the pre-adolescent Amyraut!
It was Shakespeare who wrote, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In the final analysis I do not care much whether an educational institution calls itself Baptist or not. What matters to me is that those who lead and teach in such institutions be honest with their subjects and not try to rewrite history simply because they don’t like the way it happened.