To Nicaea or Not to Nicaea?—That Is Not the Question

Mark DeVine

On Bringing a Fire Extinguisher of Creedal Affirmation to a Liberal Resurgence Flood

Malcolm Yarnell’s last-minute effort to see the Nicene Creed (A.D. 381) added to the SBC’s confession of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, recalls the advice offered by senior demon Screwtape in his 25th letter to junior demon Wormwood: “The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.” 

Even so, I do love the Nicene Creed. 

My first real-time confrontation with the importance of the Council of Nicaea and the creed that bears the council’s name occurred in the plush office of Robert L. Millett, Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. It was there that Brigham Young professor and Mormon Stephen Robinson appealed to the anti-creedal sensibilities of the three Baptists in the room, one of whom was me—“Like you Baptists, we believe in the authority of Scripture, not in the statements of popes and councils.” 

That 1997 meeting was one of several set up between the two Mormons, Millet and Robinson, and three representatives from the SBC. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was on a mission to shed its cult status in the minds of Americans and join the ranks of protestant Christianity—more specifically, of evangelicalism. The Southern Baptist Convention was set to convene in Salt Lake City in June of 1998. LDS officials viewed the upcoming convention as an opportunity to advance their goals, perhaps to hold a presser or make a joint statement with Southern Baptists. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. 

I told Robinson that if he meant that Southern Baptists do not recognize Nicaea as the inspired, inerrant word of God, he is correct. I chose Nicaea because, of course, Mormon teaching does, in fact, reject the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of the full deity of the second person of the trinity—Jesus Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.” But, I continued: If Robinson doubts that Nicaea has provided needed protection against the Arian heresy Southern Baptists repudiate, he is mistaken.    

So, what’s wrong with the proposed Nicene Creed amendment? First is that the Convention has not been properly prepared for it. That does not mean the messengers will not vote for it. Remember Resolution #9? But there are more problems still. 

The Center for Baptist Renewal, now renamed for two of my favorite people in the world, David S. Dockery and Timothy F. George, is doing fine work in their niche focus areas and has thrown in behind this last-minute effort from Yarnell. Education of Southern Baptists about the rich inheritance that belongs to all Christians from the early church is much needed. Recovery of a robust doctrine of the trinity has been underway for at least a century. Southern Baptists owe a debt of gratitude to various scholars for their contributions to this effort. Yarnell (and others) are correct that the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son of God to God the Father (ESS) is an errant view that Southern Baptists should reject.

Along with the strange timing, Yarnell is wrong that “the greatest challenge facing Southern Baptists today comes not from confusion over church offices but from teachers who distort the entire and equal divinity of Jesus Christ.” He is wrong because signs that the rejectors of eternal subordination are winning this debate are strong. He is also wrong because rank-and-file Southern Baptist pastors and lay leaders lean upon the already strong trinitarian and Christological affirmations of the BF&M 2000, The Abstract of Principles (1858), and the Baptist Confession of 1689 that are themselves rooted in the Nicene inheritance. 

While it is true that surveys of evangelicals reflect widespread and profoundly heretical beliefs about just about every major doctrine, evidence that some dearth of sufficient and formally affirmed doctrinal standards is the culprit cannot be found. To the extent that ESS is a problem, the confessional standards now ubiquitous among Southern Baptists are more than sufficient to reject that view. 

To try and launch this effort now is indeed to bring a fire extinguisher to a flood. Or rather, it’s a solution in search of a problem. So what’s the real problem? And, we might ask, why isn’t Yarnell and the Center for Baptist Renewal crowd focusing their attention on the main issues at play in the SBC?

The Yarnell amendment recalls attempts by SBC elites for the last decade to respond to various complaints by affirming the BF&M 2000 or the Abstract or by having accused professors do so. Such public affirmations sidestep concerns raised, such as the promotion of critical race theory (CRT), the use of so-called “soft complementarianism” to smuggle in women pastors, the platforming of a same-sex attracted, non-practicing homosexual Anglican priest who wants our churches to provide safe-spaces for gays to tell their stories, or cancellation of un-woke black Southern Baptists. 

The wrong medicine is being prescribed for the SBC’s presenting ailment. That ailment is bound up with the application of Timothy Keller’s seeker-sensitive approach to blue communities as our culture lurches left, as I have examined in more than two dozen articles, including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and elsewhere. The threat we face is due to the efforts of people who don’t like us much and want control of our institutions, as I shall now briefly survey. 

Presbyterian Kevin DeYoung’s 2021 comments and two recent interviews—one with Southern Baptist Daily Wire reporter Megan Basham and the other with Florida SBC pastor Willy Rice—offer useful windows into what the SBC is facing. 

In March of 2021, Kevin DeYoung said this about the state of that stream of evangelicalism associated with Timothy Keller and The Gospel Coalition, that stream of evangelicalism I once championed: “On the other side of Ferguson (2014), Trump (2016), MLK50 (2018), coronavirus (2020–2021), George Floyd (2020), and more Trump (2020–2021), the remarkable coming together [of reformed evangelicals] seems to be all but torn apart…We won’t be able to put all the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

President of SBTS, Albert Mohler, left the TGC Council years ago. The decidedly non-woke, conservative PCA pastor Harry Reeder left the TGC Council because, in his words, “I got tired of being asked to defend liberal and woke material on the [TGC] website I could not defend.”

Yet, as I type, these three Southern Baptists and one former Southern Baptist serve on the Council of The Gospel Coalition: Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Seminary; J.D. Greear, three-time President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor to many in the SEBTS community; Walter Strickland, professor at SEBTS; and Russell Moore, eight-year head of the ERLC of the SBC and now Editor of Christianity Today Magazine.

Speaking of Danny Akin, perhaps no single development within the SBC better illustrates the subordination of our institutions to the whims of blue-community sensibility and Democrat party demands, as does the strange and embarrassing rises, disappearances, re-configurings, and re-emergences of SEBTS’s Kingdom Diversity initiative. Akin rushed out with his attempt to satisfy the emerging Democrat party’s demands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) regimes at every school, business, and institution in the land. So embarrassingly mimicking the secular language fed to it was Southeastern’s first attempt, an avalanche of criticism ensued. The webpage was taken down. 

Since then, several iterations have emerged as abortive attempts to justify its existence and aims with scripture continue. Today, as secular institutions of higher learning from Texas to Florida to the University of North Carolina abandon the DEI insanity, the SEBTS website limps along, serving up a bastardized leftover of its harmful, infantilizing diversity program.    

In her interview with Tom Ascol, Basham said three names kept coming up in connection with progressive dark money donors—Timothy Keller, J.D. Greear, and Russell Moore. In his interview with William Wolfe, Rice detailed numerous strongarm tactics by SBC elites to push him toward a “social justice” agenda rather than a biblical one. These included disgraced former SBC President Ed Litton and Greear, who infamously told Southern Baptists that sexual sin is whispered in the Bible. 

Rice reports elite fear of the so-called “survivor community” associated with Rachael Denhollander and pressure to back away from bestselling Southern Baptist author and theological educator, un-woke African American Voddie Baucham. Litton, whose wife was a trustee at SEBTS, was loudly endorsed by Akin.

In 2018, SBC elites, including Akin, hosted celebrity pastor Matt Chandler who on more than one occasion has expressed his view of rank-and-file Southern Baptists and evangelicals generally as fools and morons (Follow the links and listen for yourself. Chandler’s contempt for most of us is palpable). Despite his contempt for Southern Baptists, Chandler recognized, as the elites who hoped to keep this celebrity pastor in the SBC taught him, that “movements (like the ACTS29 Church Planting Network Chandler leads) are gonna come and go, but institutions stay.” 

Because of the “fool” and “moron” factors, Chandler expressed his fear that the young people he serves are starting to think it’s not worth it to stay in the SBC because “they don’t understand institutional power.” When asked what encouraged him about the SBC convention that year, Chandler could only note one thing, “that JD [Greear] was elected president.”  The institutional rootlessness and, thus, tenuousness that applies to ACTS29 also applies to the Keller Center and The Gospel Coalition. Those who head these entities realize this. They need the SBC to secure their future viability and influence. 

Must we not ask whether the SBC has a far more pressing Keller/Greear/Gospel Coalition/ Southeastern Seminary problem than a creedal problem? When I published a critique of professor Walter Strickland of SEBTS for touting liberation theologians J. Deotis Roberts and James Cone, Akin responded by having the seminary’s attorney send a letter to my employers accusing me of slander. Thankfully, attorneys at the Academic Freedom Alliance (ACC) associated with Robert P. George of Princeton University came to my aid, and Akin backed off—at least for now. But none of my SEBTS interlocutors during the Strickland affair evidenced the slightest desire to discuss the substance of my critique of Strickland’s views and how his white bosses are using him.

Shelby Steele describes this phenomenon in his watershed book White Guilt. A protection racket develops whereby whites hire blacks they deem fit to shield them from the charge of racism. Blacks deemed unfit to serve this purpose, no matter their theology, no matter their national profile, no matter their affiliation with the SBC, no matter how strongly they abhor and eschew the eternal subordination of the second person of the trinity, become personae non grata

This takes us back to the pressure Willy Rice received to retract his article defending Voddie Baucham after a yellow journalism hit piece from Baptist News Global. Both Voddie Baucham and Carol Swain have been “non-personed,” treated as if they do not exist and canceled in elite SBC life on the precise grounds Shelby Steele describes—both of them are too publicly un-woke to serve the protection racquet qualifications white male SBC elites demand. That is true whether Walter Strickland realizes it or not. That is why not one SBC elite has the courage even to speak the names Voddie Baucham and Carol Swain.

Again, in the words of Willy Rice—“We’ve got a problem.” However, that problem is not whether Southern Baptists affirm the Nicene Creed or not, for they certainly do. But I do not believe rank-and-file Southern Baptists realize how important the $9 billion in institutional assets they own really are to the cause of Jesus Christ and the spiritual health of this nation. But many who despise us, the rank-and-file conservatives, like the ERLC, Matt Chandler, J.D. Greear, and the TGC-influenced contingent in the SBC, do—and they want those assets to push their seeker-sensitive to blue-communities agenda. 

The Law Amendment that passed overwhelmingly a year ago reflects the conviction of rank-and-file Southern Baptists. Who opposes the Law Amendment? Malcolm Yarnell, for one, has certainly been less than positive about it, to put it nicely. J.D. Greear, Bart Barber, Ed Litton, Kevin Ezell, and Jeff Iorg, to just name a few, represent SBC elites who will do everything in their power to thwart the Law Amendments’ passage in Indianapolis because it rankles the blue sensibilities song to whose tune they dance.  

The most urgent question facing Southern Baptist messengers this summer is not whether we shall head to Nicaea to pay our respects. We can take that trip later if we decide to. 

The two questions before us in Indianapolis are these: (1) Shall we elect a president who has publicly acknowledged that “We’ve got a problem,” and (2) Shall we pass the Law Amendment that reflects the convictions and practices of our churches against the wishes of people who don’t really like us very much?

  • Mark DeVine

    Dr. DeVine teaches historical theology at a seminary in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of multiple books and has written extensively for theological journals. Mark also writes on the intersection of faith, work, culture, and politics for national online magazines and has served as pastor for churches in Indiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Alabama.