The Absurdly Ridiculous and Profoundly un-Christian Accusation of Heresy against the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention1
Last week was the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. Some 16,000 were present. I watched on-line most of the meeting, even though I am no longer affiliated with the SBC.
My reason for writing this article is to respond to the accusation of heresy brought against Ed Litton, the new president of the SBC. I’ve never met Ed Litton. But he does not deserve the derogatory and derisive statements made about him by certain so-called “discernment” bloggers.
What is he charged with affirming? The answer to that is found in the statement of faith of Litton’s church. In the paragraph dealing with God, the statement used to read:
“We believe God is the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. He has existed eternally as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are co-equal parts of one God.”
Make no mistake. Referring to the three persons of the Godhead as “parts” is inappropriate and misleading. It makes it appear as if God is comprised of separable, impersonal parts, as if he could in some way be divided. The use of the word “parts” elicits the image of a jigsaw puzzle in which a person attempts to fit the various parts of the puzzle together.
In the aftermath of public criticism, Litton and his church removed that final sentence from their statement of faith. I have a couple of comments regarding this.
First, Litton has been charged with what some are calling “partialism.” Perhaps I’m ignorant and uninformed, but I have never in my life heard of any such thing. I have some 22 books on the Trinity in my library and not one of them makes any reference to “partialism.” I have 38 systematic theologies, each of which spends considerable time discussing the Trinity. Yet not one of them makes any reference to this thing called “partialism.” I don’t know if the critics just invented the term and applied it to Litton, but as best I can tell there is no precedent for the use of this word to describe a view of the Trinity.
To affirm something as “partial” either means it is incomplete or piecemeal, or that someone is prejudiced, either for or against something or someone. To say that you are “partial” toward your favorite university football team means you cheer for their success ahead of all others. To say that your book project is only “partially” complete means you haven’t finished it.
If these internet critics want to be theologically rigorous, they should have charged Litton with affirming “part-ism,” not “partialism.” But as I said, neither word has ever been used in the history of the Christian faith to describe a particular deficient view of the Trinity.
Second, is it wrong to speak of the persons of the Godhead as constituting “parts” of the Trinity? Yes. And I applaud Litton for removing that language from his church’s doctrinal statement. Be it noted that in the second sentence Litton affirms the personality of each member of the Godhead. If you read a bit farther down in his statement of faith you will find clear and unequivocal affirmations that the Son and Spirit are both equal with the Father. That doesn’t sound like a heretic to me!
Third, as I just pointed out, that Litton does not aim to “de-personalize” the Godhead or reduce Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to mere “parts” of the divine being is evident from the second sentence in his statement. There he clearly affirms the co-equal personhood of Father, Son, and Spirit. So why did they make use of the word “parts”? Without speaking directly with Litton, I don’t know, but I have a guess. My sense is that this was an inadvertent, unintentional theological oversight. Perhaps someone more theologically sophisticated could have caught this at the start, and the controversy would never have occurred. But I do not believe that Litton or his church made use of the term because they consciously wanted to affirm a view of the Godhead that is explicitly unorthodox, or heretical.
Fourth, while we’re on that last point, do you really think that Litton sat down to write this statement on the Trinity and said to himself: “Well, the time has come for me to lay all my theological cards on the table. They may call me a heretic for this, but I don’t believe in the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity, so I’m going to describe God as consisting of three parts.” Seriously?
Fifth, those Southern Baptists who railed against Litton for this slip of the pen should look in the mirror. In the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message there is a doctrinal misstatement. It speaks of the Holy Spirit as baptizing believers into the body of Christ. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t baptize anyone into anything. It is Jesus who baptizes us with or in the Holy Spirit and by doing so incorporates us into the spiritual body of Christ (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5; 11:16; 1 Cor. 12:13).
I’m not suggesting that this error in the Baptist Faith and Message is as serious as referring to the persons of the Godhead as “parts,” but it simply demonstrates that even the most careful and well-educated people can come up short in their articulation of biblical truth.
Finally, shouldn’t we as Christians give the benefit of the doubt to our brothers and sisters in the faith? Can we not first communicate with them and ask what they mean by their words, before we go viral and spread accusations of heresy all across the body of Christ?
You may not be happy that Litton was elected president of the SBC. Others of you are delighted at the outcome of the vote. But in either case, he is not a “rank heretic” as one arrogant and ill-informed blogger described him.