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Baptist/Jewish relations forum deals with gospel’s exclusivity

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leader rejected the exclusive nature of the gospel and a Baptist scholar expressed discomfort with it during a Baptist/Jewish relations forum Oct. 21 in Louisville, Ky.

“I certainly don’t believe that any one tradition has an exclusive corner on God,” said Ron Sisk, pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville. “I would never limit God’s salvation to those who share my own perspective or my own understanding. I would respect the traditions of others, both Christian and non-Christian, for the truth which they reveal. I would say Christ’s spirit operates in places where Christ is not named or known.”

Sisk, a former member of the CBF Coordinating Council and outspoken critic of the conservative movement within the Southern Baptist Convention, was one of three panelists who discussed relationships between Christians and Jews in light of the Jewish prayer guide issued recently by the SBC’s International Mission Board.

The forum, sponsored by the Kentuckiana Interfaith Community, also featured Carey Newman, a former New Testament professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, and Jewish rabbi Joe Rapport, who serves at The Temple in Louisville.

About 150 people attended the forum at Broadway Baptist Church, which is dually aligned with the SBC and CBF.

Sisk repeatedly objected to the biblical standard of an exclusive gospel, which means that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. He espoused a belief in “the cosmic Christ” who he said “goes beyond any name or any theology or any community and is found at work in the same way” that the universal God of Judaism is at work.

“To the degree that a person’s life puts them into touch with that spirit of Christ, they have a relationship with God as genuine as my own,” Sisk said.

Newman, who refers to himself as “a recovering Baptist,” for the most part took issue with Sisk’s position.

“As a historian and as a theologian, I kind of have committed myself to canonical reading,” Newman said. “Thus, when I assess the evidence and assess the arguments for and against positions, I wind up being a fairly strong exclusivist. … I think that Paul’s preaching an exclusivistic message. And if Christianity’s honest, it will say so.”

But, despite Newman’s stated belief that the gospel is exclusive, he admitted he has some problems with that.

“In the dark of the night, in the pit of my stomach I have a deep suspicion that God’s grace works in ways that I can’t finely articulate,” Newman said. “I have no ground for that textually. I like the text and I live inside of the text and I want that textual world to govern me. So, I have this kind of one suspicion. But then again, I have this other suspicion.”

Newman referred to a Jewish friend of his in making his point. “Would I be surprised to find him in the great kingdom of God? Nah,” Newman said. “Do I want him there if he doesn’t convert to Christianity? Yes, I do. Would I be sad if he wasn’t there? Yeah, I would be.” In dealing with this issue, Newman compared himself to the biblical character Jacob, who wrestled with an angel.

“I have a visceral, relational attachment to something that my historical and theological investigation can’t support. And so I walk with a limp when I try to answer this question. I don’t like my answer, but that’s where it is.”

In the absence of any representatives from Southern Seminary at the forum, all three panelists took the opportunity to criticize the seminary and its president, R. Albert Mohler Jr.

“The near papal-like pronouncements by some Baptists who are currently in very visible positions should never be construed as indicative of all Baptists,” Newman said. “These people do not speak for all Baptists any more than Baptists speak for all Christians.”

Rapport expressed “sadness” over the direction of Southern Seminary in the past few years. “I’ve lost some good friends at Southern, and I’ve lost some good Baptist friends because they don’t apparently fit in there anymore,” Rapport said.

Rapport noted that his predecessor at The Temple, Rabbi Herbert Waller, was a graduate of Southern Seminary and that Rapport’s wife at one time had considered enrolling in Southern’s doctoral program before the seminary’s change in theological direction.

Sisk, meanwhile, refused even to say Mohler’s name, instead referring to him repeatedly as “the seminary president.”

Mohler, who was not invited to participate in the forum, defended Southern’s commitment to conservative evangelical theology. “It is lamentable that the speakers at this forum used the opportunity to criticize the evangelical convictions held by Southern Seminary,” Mohler told Baptist Press following the forum. “Even more tragic is the evidence here of the abandonment of confidence in the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“We do not apologize for holding to the gospel as revealed in the New Testament — the gospel we are instructed to preach to all persons, whether Jew or gentile. This is basic to Christianity, and it is non-negotiable.”

Concerning Southern Baptists’ concern for the evangelization of Jewish people, Mohler said it did not come in the form of a “papal announcement,” but in a prayer guide.

“The deliberate misrepresentation of this guide is very revealing in itself,” he said.

Sadly, Mohler said, the forum demonstrated “that the issue of Christ’s exclusive atonement is now a dividing line.” He encouraged Southern Baptists to “hold the line on this essential biblical truth, no matter how politically incorrect it may be in our postmodern culture.”

The panelists stressed the importance of maintaining friendships with people who hold different views and expressed a unanimous opinion that the Louisville newspaper, The Courier-Journal, had blown out of proportion the prayer guide issue by making it the lead story of the day.

“I thought it was going to be one of those little fifth column things on the back page that you don’t read when you’re looking for which movie to go to on Saturday afternoon,” Sisk said. “I had no idea that they were going to make it the banner headline. … The story itself was overplayed in any number of different directions and really created a kind of crisis which was not only unfortunate, but to my mind also unnecessary.”

Likewise, Rapport called the Courier-Journal’s decision “inappropriate spreading of bad news on the front of the paper.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth
    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.Read All by Tim Ellsworth ›