Mohler and Patterson: A Debate or Discussion?


Quite a buzz has been generated about the prospect of Drs. Patterson and Mohler debating Calvinism at the 2006 Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in Greensboro, NC. Anytime you find a topic being discussed on both the Puritan Board and the Fightin’ Fundamentalist Forum, you can be pretty sure that there is widespread interest.

Some are already upset because of what they are certain will or will not happen at this event. Others have speculated on whether or not there will even be such an “event.” And, of course, the question of exactly what to call it has come up. According to a comment left on this blog a few days ago, Dr. Patterson has adamantly denied that there will be a debate about Calvinism, though he did go on to confirm plans for a “forthright discussion” between Dr. Mohler and him on the subject.

Debate or “forthright discussion?” I don’t think it matters that much. The great hope that I have for this planned event is that it will provide a context for Southern Baptists pastors and others actually to think about and talk about theology. Some have taken the announcement as an opportunity to start rallying support for “our side” in hopes that, by a means of a debate, we might defeat “their side.” This strikes me as theological pugilism and I think it is wrongheaded and misses the real point–SOUTHERN BAPTISTS ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO HAVE A THEOLOGICAL CONVERSATION ON A NATIONAL PLATFORM!

I, for one, greatly appreciate Drs. Patterson and Mohler for their willingness to participate in this. As the blogosphere has already demonstrated, they are both going to be subjected to much scorn, ridicule and mischaracterization for doing so before either one of them utters the first “forthright” word in the “discussion.”

Let’s take this for what it i–a tremendous opportunity for Southern Baptists (and others) to see the legitimacy and importance of engaing in theological discussions beyond inerrancy. And let’s not be disillusioned by what it is not and never could be–a theological showdown that will end all doctrinal disagreements and/or “prove” once and for all time that one view is right and the other is wrong.

Reformation will come through a recovery of not only the authority of God’s Word but also of its teachings. Anytime a forum is provided to consider publicly those important but neglected and often-caricatured teachings of God’s sovereignty in salvation, truth-lovers should rejoice.

Rather than setting odds, predicting victory or castigating the men involved, what we should be doing is expressing our gratitude to those who have been willing to put historic Southern Baptist theology on the agenda of the SBC Pastors’ Conference. As I mentioned previously, twenty years ago this kind of event could not even have been imagined.

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21 Responses to “Mohler and Patterson: A Debate or Discussion?”

  1. Amen Tom. It is a rare occasion that the opportunity for any type of substantial theological discussion to take place at an SBC Pastor’s Conference, and although it may not be the type of exchange that everyone would hope for, it is a step in the right direction. We should be thankful to God for any type of meaningful theological discussion that would take place in such a forum.

    Rather than forming opinions before the debate/discussion/or whatever you want to call it, we should pray that God would use the exchange to bring glory to His name and His Word. We should also pray that God uses it to be the catalyst for other meaning theological discussion at the denominational, seminal (seminary), and local church level.

  2. More theological discussion is something the Convention definitely needs. I’ve always felt it rather odd that we fund seminary education for our people coming from within the denomination at 1/2 the rate for out of denomination students and subject them to some very rigorous academic standards and then leave them behind and never give them an opportunity to stretch their legs. Instead, we put them in churches where the people think treating everybody in Sunday School like they are new Christians each and every Sunday of the year is a virtue and not a vice. Within a few years, some of these guys feel like we do when we talk to kids all day everyday…”Is there an adult in the room! Aagh!” Give them some interaction that is commensurate with their education. I’ll say this for our bookish Presbyterian brothers, they have always done this extremely well. We could learn a thing or two from them. Right now, we seem to think that’s something we pay seminary professors to do, and, even then, it’s not something to which we pay attention.

    The end product of the current approach is this kind of high frustration. I, for one, would find theological presentations stimulating and quite interesting. It would also keep us all accountable to each other for our doctrine. I tire of the pep-rally formula at the Pastor’s Conference (not to mention the fixing of the Presidential election before we vote, but I digress…) I can attend my state evangelism conference if I want that.

    I’d like to see some ministry workshops and theological papers discussed and some real, substantive debates or presentations. When I was in public health, our national conventions were always extremely engaging, and we were all encouraged to attend multiple workshops as well as the plenary sessions. It gave us a chance to work together and exchange ideas. Sometimes, we were panned by our peers, and that’s fine, because I’ve heard my share of bad ideas.

  3. I think the shock and surprise of the idea that this would actually take place has invoked strong emotion from both sides and encouraged those who have become disillusioned that the SBC could discuss theology beyond inerrancy.

    I totally agree that this is more than theological one-upmanship, and Calvinists are once again susceptible to triumphalism. It was that very attitude that for so long drove me away from the precious truths in the doctrines of grace. It was unfortunate that those who esteemed grace so much had so little of grace in their conversation. I consider myself foremost of all in danger of that, and I hope to be especially sensitive to turning this potential turning point to an inverting point.

    In a matter of weeks, I think the initial hype will pass, and we will continue to have to deal with the need for reformation as Nettles has been describing in his book – a reformation that won’t be embraced in a debate but through prayer, humility, and an unwavering commitment to the truth for the sake of the glory of God.

    Should Mohler win the debate, it is possible we could lose much more. What is at stake is more than being right or Calvinistic – it is being Christian.

  4. Tom is true.
    But the fleshly, Tim the Toolman Taylor in me says, “Let’s get ready to rumble!”

    I personaly would be happy to see a forum where these anti-calvinist SBC leaders are challenged to be honest and ethical in representing calvinism.

  5. Tom has the right perspective on this, however…

    …’Hashman’ has a point.

    My hope is that Dr. Patterson will at least give a honest and ethical representation of Calvinism.

    If he doesn’t, I think it is something that MUST be pointed out by Dr. Mohler, speaking the truth in love.

    The DOGpreacher

  6. Does Mohler or Patterson represent the ‘calvinist side’?

    I also think that Patterson’s rejection of a ‘debate’ in favor of calling it a ‘forthright discussion’ shows the mindset of the average person. It is not that talking and discussion about these topics is always bad (post-moderns love discussion), it is that ‘debate’ has been demonized.

    Therefore, you can have a ‘debate’ call it a forthright discussion and everyone will gladly go. But call it a debate and people will shun it and avoid it like the plague.

    Just my opinion though.

    awaiting the hope,

  7. I appreciate what you’re saying here, and you make a very good point. I like many have reservations about the participants.

    My reservations about the debate though are about whether this will actually help. I know it’s a good thing for them to talk about theology…but only if it’s going to bring clarity to the issue.

    If either or both muddy the waters out of a desire to be conciliatory and avoid disagreement then I fear that it will only make our job more difficult.

    It is already quite a challenge trying to help people understand what the church teaches given the kind of re-defining of terms that goes on with men like Patterson. If Mohler doesn’t provide a clear picture of reformed theology it will only get worse.

    Regardless, I pray that this will have a positive impact, and will be a good start on the road to more open and honest discussion of these issues than we have seen in the past.

  8. (quote)If either or both muddy the waters out of a desire to be conciliatory and avoid disagreement then I fear that it will only make our job more difficult.

    No one who knows Mohler or Patterson believes that this is even remotely possible.


  9. I couldn’t agree more with substance, tone and spirit of what you have said.

    It is so important for Christians to be able to enter into respectful discussion on disputed matters of scripture and theology. So much of the time, there is not discussion, but aggression, not respect, but disdain. I think these two leaders have what it takes to model how Christians ought to treat one another in matters of diagreement.

    Further, they can model that it is worthwhile and important to talk about theology.

    People in the Christian academy regularly are exposed to respectful discussion of differences. People outside of Christian higher education rarely get such chances: they usually are exposed to discourse that is waged in defensiveness and fear that “the opponents” false theology will win if allowed a hearing.

    I have high expectations of this event. I hope it might be the beginning of a more thoughtful way of speaking about theology in the church at large.

  10. I see the debate/discussion going one of two ways. Patterson will get dirty and make emotional appeals against calvinism (“They say babies go to Hell, Irresistable grace means that people are dragged kicking and screaming into heaven etc.) and cause greater controversy going forward by inflaming the Fundies against calvinists. Or Patterson will live up to his name as a gentelman and have a decent conversation with Mohler. Either way it will be good for the reformed folk. Especially if the latter happens. I say that the tone and lasting effects of the debate rest squarely on the shoulders of Patterson, Mohler will not get dirty and make emotional appeals, but will stick to Scripture and “fight fairly.” To be honest, if the Fundies want to “win” this one Patterson has got to get dirty, because Mohler will not reciprocate in the same way, and if they have a decent conversation it will open up the door for calvinists to be tolerated. If Patterson tolerates Mohler, the floodgates will open. That’s my two cents on this whole issue.

  11. The following is from a B.P. article Nov. 7, 2005 titles “Sandy Creek: Tributary of Baptist life celebrates 250 years”

    “I am a Sandy Creeker. If I could manage to have honorary church membership in any church in the Southern Baptist Convention, it would be Sandy Creek,” Patterson said, adding that he fully appreciated what the church has carried on throughout the years. “We Sandy Creekers still believe we are in the era of evangelism, missions and great revival.”

    I think this is pretty much what we can expect from Patterson… Yes, he is a devoted Southern Baptist Leader and will conduct himself as a proper Gentleman… I do not think anyone expects otherwise.

    However, his basic preconceived prejudices against Calvinism (which most of the Southern Baptist Leaders of his generation share) will be at the heart of this debate. This generation of leaders take it as an undeniable FACT that Calvinist do not believe in evangelism and missions.

    Here it is from Paterson himself speaking just last Sunday. He said Baptists usually describe the “Southern Baptist river as flowing from two tributaries, one having its beginning in Charleston, S.C., the more Reformed tradition of Baptist life, and the other at Sandy Creek.” “I am a Sandy Creeker…” Paterson said, adding “We Sandy Creekers still believe we are in the era of evangelism, missions and great revival.”

    I am no Prophet, but it hardly takes one to know what the upcoming debate will really be about. Here is the link to the full article.


  12. A nice discussion – PERHAPS!

    A classical debate – NEVER!
    not at a national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention!

    It will NEVER occur.

    The NICE discusion will be much more historical and much less scriptural and theological. No fireworks!

    Very little “thus saith the
    Lord.” It would prove too
    embarrassing for Patterson!

  13. Alford, I’m soooo glad you brought up Patterson’s words, because they are a prime example of how muddled Dr. Patterson’s understanding of Baptist history has become.

    You noted:

    “Southern Baptist river as flowing from two tributaries, one having its beginning in Charleston, S.C., the more Reformed tradition of Baptist life, and the other at Sandy Creek.” “I am a Sandy Creeker…” Paterson said, adding “We Sandy Creekers still believe we are in the era of evangelism, missions and great revival.”

    Let’s compare this with, oh, the primary source material:

    Principles of Faith of The Sandy Creek Association – 1816

    1. We believe that there is only one true and living God; the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. equal in essence, power and glory; and yet there are not three Gods but one God.

    2. That Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, and only rule of faith and practice.

    3. That Adam fell from his original state of purity, and that his sin is imputed to his posterity; that human nature is corrupt, and that man, of his own free will and ability, is impotent to regain the state in which he was primarily placed.

    4. We believe in election from eternity, effectual calling by the Holy Spirit, and justification in his sight only by imputation of Christ righteousness. And we believe that they who are thus elected, effectually called, and justified, will perservere through grace to the end, that none of them be lost.

    5. We believe that there will be a resurrection from the dead, and a general judgment, and that the happiness of the righteous and punishment of the wicked will be eternal.

    6. The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful persons, who have obtained fellowship with each other, and have given themselves up to the Lord and one another; having agreed to keep up a godly discipline, according to the rules of the Gospel.

    7. That Jesus Christ is the great head of the church and that the government thereof is with the body.

    8. That baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of the Lord, and to be continued by his church until his second coming.

    9. That true believers are the only fit subjects of baptism; and that immersion is the only mode.

    10. That the church has no right to admit any but regular baptized church members to communion at the Lord’s table.

    Compare this with Dr. Patterson’s understanding of the Sandy Creek Association and his soteriology. Dr. Patterson asserts that the Sandy Creek folks were not Reformed. Folks, this is the same argument that “moderates” in the Convention make against Calvinism in the SBC when they appeal to “historic Baptist principles,” leaving out pertinent material. In plain language, this is called “historical revisionism.”
    Dr. Patterson is either ignorant of the primary source material or putting forth a false antithesis and then anachronistically reading his own preconceptions and theology back into Baptist history and concluding that, because the Sandy Creek Association was highly evangelistic, they must have been non-Reformed. Obviously, “that dog won’t hunt.” There were differences between Sandy Creek and Charleston, but not along Calvinist and Arminian lines.

    Tom, perhaps you could post about these 2 streams in the future to help educate us about our actual history in this matter. This particular canard gets repeated frequently, probably because Dr. Patterson repeats it frequently.

    If any of the state Baptist newspapers print stories that use it, it would be helpful if we had some ready to use responses to mail in to the editorial desk.

  14. Gene:

    Thanks for your comments and suggestion. I have taken it and posted some articles that shed a different light on the Sandy Creek tradition than that which is typically shed by those who would like to think there was a great gulf between the Separate Baptists and Regular Baptists.

  15. Thanks Gene,

    I hate to admit it but I had not actually read “The Principles of Faith of The Sandy Creek Association – 1816”

    The Truth is fast catching up with those SBC leaders who, in spite of the publication of the real theological history of the Southern Baptist by the Founders and others, are still willing to misrepresent those Baptist who have gone before us… as if our forefathers had never penned down what they believed and no one alive today could or would bother to read if for themselves. To think that they must one day face these men whom they have so misrepresented…

    Patterson and the anti-Calvinist of his generation would do well to head the words of John R de Witt in his small booklet “What is the Reformed Faith?” published by Banner of Truth.

    “We have always to remind ourselves that we do not theologize in a vacuum; that the science of theology did not begin with our coming into the world. One occasionally gets the impression from some who preach and who write that the whole of the Christian age awaited the advent of their ministries, that it is only with them and with the burden of what they have to say, that the Christian faith began to make sense and to be understood in all its implications.”

    How foolish they shall look against the backdrop of history in but a little while…


  16. I for one welcome any theological discussion within the SBC. As a Calvinist I’ve been called a knucklehead by those who disagree with me, accused of reading the Bible with one eye closed, and have heard countless sermons from pulpits across the convention in which Calvinism, or at least what they present to be Calvinism, is the “great threat” in our midst. I agree with hashman, that it’s time for these SBC leaders to be called to account in an open and honest forum.


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