Archive for December, 2006

A Journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem

Have you ever wondered what the few days before the historical event that initiated Christmas would have been like for Mary and Joseph? Walk through them with me.

From Nazareth they would have crossed over the mountains through Cana to the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee. There they would have rendezvoused with others going south.

It was the norm for people to travel these routes in groups to avoid robbers. Usually a self-appointed guide/protector was paid a fee in order to go along with his group.

There is no donkey in the Bible account for Mary to ride. Walking, though drudgery, might have been easier for a woman nine months pregnant than riding a donkey. Mary would have been a teenager at the time and doubtless a hardy one as most people of the time had to be to survive.

The route started on the west shores of the Jordan River. Just south of Beth Shean parties crossed the river into what is now Jordan. The route was easier and safer from there to Jericho where they crossed back. The temperature in this fertile green valley would have been more mild than would be found on the mountains around Bethlehem.

To this point the route would have traversed mostly smooth terrain. From Jericho to Bethlehem would have required going through the barren Wilderness of Judea. Here especially the protection afforded by group travel would have been essential. It was along this road the Good Samaritan encountered the man who had been beaten and robbed.

Once they arrived in Bethlehem it afforded them no Regency. An “inn” was simply a caravansary. There was one in Bethlehem which King David named for one of his generals. Such consisted of a plot of ground cleared of most stones out of which a perimeter “fence” would have been made. It restricted animals within it.

An inn was in no way anything like a hotel or motel. It was an outdoor walled off place where people and their animals slept together as they often did in the field. Within they were protected and had a bit of shelter.

The mountains around Bethlehem are porous providing many caves. Some of these caves were used to shelter livestock. Often a cave would have more than one chamber. The animals were kept in the outer chamber and provided warmth for the family deeper within. This is similar to what Eskimos allegedly do with their dogs in their igloos. Such caves were called mangers. There is no innkeeper in the Bible narrative but there must have been some proprietor to allowed Mary and Joseph to use the manger. It afforded more privacy than would have the inn itself.

I have visited that cave in Bethlehem more than fifty times. It is a humbling thing to stand there and think here, right here, the Word became flesh and came and dwelt among us.

Just outside that night an angel appeared with a special message that was good tidings of great joy. It entailed the potential for what we all long: “PEACE ON EARTH GOOD WILL TOWARD MEN.”

Hail Mary

One of my all time favorite teens was a little country girl from a town with a population of less than 150 residents. Even more intriguing she was a cave dweller in a primitive area. Her home town was so insignificant that in a listing of 250 towns and settlements in the area it was not even included. Josephus was the historian making the list.

We know that young girl by the simple and beautiful name to which she added honor, Mary. Just Mary. If applications had been taken for virgins Mary probably would never have been found.

She was one of only two Bible character to have seen an angel in over 400 years. When one did show up he brought an unimaginable message. She was going to have a baby without conception. Yeah, right. Later secular records say she was at the well getting water when the angel came. The Bible doesn’t say where she was. That is not important;  what message was conveyed was important.

Now she was “betrothed” to Joseph the son of a carpenter. I have read all sorts of prose and poetry about his work as a woodworking craftsman. Few trees grow in the area of Nazereth. It was a settlement of cave dwellers. The caves can still be visited today. Does it make sense that in that environment a wood worker could have made a living. The word translated “carpenter” is understood by us to mean one who works with wood. The word was also used to refer to a stone mason. Very probably Joseph was a worker with stone not wood.

Historians calculating all the variables conclude that at the time of the annunciation Mary was between 13 and 16 years of age. That was not an uncommon age for marriage in that era.

The law of the day said a woman pregnant out of wedlock was to be stoned. She and Joseph both knew this. The firestorm about to come down on them is unimaginable.

First, there must have been at least one gossip in town to start the rumors flying. Think of what it must have been like for Mary to tell her parents of the embarrassing news that was sure to disgrace them. After all, Mary, your cover story of an angel and the Holy Spirit causing the pregnancy isn’t very pragmatic. You have got to do better than that.

All of this happened during the time they were “betrothed.” That defined a period of about one year between when a couple became engaged and the marriage was actually consummated. During this time though single and never alone together they were considered as married. It was a time to prepare for life together.

Against such a backdrop this teen stepped on history’s stage and said to God, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

That took faith. Faith that it could happen and faith that God would see her through the ordeal. It was faith not knowledge that motivated her.

It must have been an inspiring moment when the angel appeared and she made this commitment. Remember this, “commitment is the capacity to carry out the intention of a decision long after the emotion that inspired it has faded.”

The historical Christmas narrative inspires courage and gives hope to all. Mary believed the angel when he said, “With God nothing is impossible.”

A Review of Calvinism and Southern Baptists

The Way We Were is a well researched work by Dr. Fisher Humphreys on trends in Southern Baptist theology through the years. This is a review of the portion of the book dealing with “Calvinistic Belief,” a current hot topic among Southern Baptists.

He dates the initial encounter between the emerging Baptists movement and the synod of Dort in the Netherlands (1618-1619) and the five articles crafted there. From the beginning the Baptist made it clear they opposed the confessions adopted there by the Dutch church. The five Canons of Dort are summarized by the acronym TULIP standing for:

Total depravity
Unconditional grace
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace and the
Preservation of the saints.

The last of these is the primary one with which the original Baptists agreed as do most present day Baptists. The other four tenants are held by a vocal minority of Baptists.

Calvinists point out various Christian leaders who adhered to their beliefs. A far larger number can be noted who disagree with them. It is not a matter of who believes what but the validity of what is believed that matters. These held by an articulate minority of Baptists are presented with viable objectivity.


Calvinists believe in what is known as “double predestination,” that is God predestined how people would respond to Him and foreknew they would respond. Baptists cannot reconcile this idea with such texts as II Peter 3:9 “the Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance…” and I Timothy 2:4 stating God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”

In general Baptists believe God chose to save those who would of their own free will put their faith in Christ. They do not believe God in His sovereignty arbitrarily decided who would be saved and who damned. They believe God wants all people to be saved but will not override their free will given them by God.

Southern Baptists in general believe that to hold the Calvinistic view would result in their loss of evangelism and soul winning missions efforts.


Calvinists believe in “penal substitution” regarding Christ’s death. They believe that Christ died for only the elect. This is called “limited atonement” in that they believe the atonement is limited in that it was intended only for he elect.

Baptists believe in “general atonement,” that is Christ died for all sinners and by their free will they determine whether to respond to it receptively in faith. Only a minority of Baptists believe Christ died just for the elect.


Calvinists believe that since all persons are spiritually dead they cannot repent and respond to God. They hold that a person must first be born again then they can respond to God in faith and repent.

Most Baptists agree no one can save him or her self. They believe salvation is all by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Repentance and faith are held by them not to contribute to salvation but are the means whereby the all sufficient grace of God is received. There is no merit in receiving grace. All merit is in grace being given by God.


Calvinists believe God’s grace cannot be resisted by those chosen by God to be saved. Calvinists believe that if this is not true God is not sovereign.

Southern Baptists in general believe that God’s grace can be resisted and this results in a person not being saved. They also believe in the sovereignty of God and that He sovereignly gave man a free will with which to respond or not respond. They believe that for God to give such freedom and then respect it does not constitute a diminishment of the sovereignty of God but a recognition of the way in which the sovereign God has chosen to relate to human beings.


Southern Baptists are in general agreement on the concept of the security of the believer known as “once saved always saved” or preservation of the saints.

There is a slight semantic difference in what Calvinists believe on this topic. They believe in the perseverance of the saints.

(The following two paragraphs are a sidebar to the book review.)<
Put side by side the difference becomes clear.

Preservation of the saints
God does it
It is based on God’s promises
It is absolute
Perseverance of the saints
Man does it
It is based on man’s performance
It is relative

Contrary to the concept of “it is all about grace” this last point actually means the Calvinists position on the subject is works based. This leaves some Calvinists hoping they have done enough good work. Baptist know for sure God has done a perfect work.

When the Southern Baptist Convention was organized in 1845 five traditions were represented. One was known as the Charleston tradition, which was Calvinistic. The Sandy Creek tradition discounted Calvinism and emphasized evangelism. The Georgia tradition represented the Southern regionalism of the Convention. The Tennessee tradition emphasized the distinctiveness of Baptists churches. The Southwest tradition stressed evangelical-denominationalism. The Convention sided against the Calvinist tradition and with the evangelical persuasion. The Sandy Creek tradition prevailed. That is the doctrinal foundation of most Southern Baptist churches. Their heritage is other than Calvinistic. There have always been some in the ranks of Southern Baptists with Calvinistic leanings. Some are people of note. However, the denomination in general has always supported the position of its founders who sided against the Calvinistic tradition.

Humphreys concluded that in light of this Southern Baptists who resist Calvinism may be called traditional Baptists in the sense that the first Baptist resisted Calvinism, and in the sense that today most Southern Baptists resist it.

THE WAY WE WERE, by Fisher Humphreys, Smyth & Helwys, Macon, Georgia, revised 2002, pp. 67-73.

Covert Calvinists

There is more growing in the garden than a TULIP.

This is not about the doctrine of Calvinism it is about the tactics of many Baptists who are Calvinists. I don’t want to paint with a brush too broad. Not all Calvinists act alike and virtually everything said about them is denied by others among them.

Having written on the subject the best thing I have been called in reactionary emails is sub-human. Bigoted, ignorant, untruthful, unlearned, and some not as nice terms have been in email messages. They have written long messages filled with numerous questions to which they demand answers. Failure to respond in detail is reason to be branded unenlightened. Some of their smarmy comments are degrading. They can’t be convicted of being laconic. Any attempt to respond lovingly and logically is met with a paroxysm. Efforts to be personally gracious result in a vitriolic cudgel.

I am sure that is not indicative of all Calvinists. As a matter of fact I have some warm and personal friends who are Calvinists. However, those emailing their defenses are not warm but hot. It seem strange that those who claim it is all by grace show so little grace. Where did civility, courtesy, and common sense go?

The biggest disagreement I have with a large segment of modern Calvinists is not just doctrine but spirit and style.

Many have worked their way into local churches as covert Calvinists. They seem to operate on a no ask no tell basis. If representatives of a local church don’t know what a Calvinist believes and how to ask questions subversion often occurs. Once a Calvinist pastor comes into a church his approach seems to be not to preach it from the pulpit but to mentor or if you prefer disciple cell groups until their base is perceived to be strong enough to go public. Thus, they precipitate confusion and division in the church.

My appeal to any Calvinist among Southern Baptist is to be open, honest, and above board. Don’t be subversive. Have the courage of your convictions and in being considered by a church acknowledge from the beginning what you believe.

Some furtively teach a “Baptist Catechism” by John Piper to the children of parents who would strongly object to the content if they knew what was taught. At least one such pastor has said he would have to free the children from the ideas of their brainwashed parents.

From among those they have indoctrinated they seek to establish elders in order that they might have a group of power brokers.

Even a truth can be a seed of discord. If Calvinism were true at all points bringing it into a fellowship not disposed to embrace it sows discord. God hates sowers of seed of discord.

If persons are Calvinists let them be proud and open about it. They should let a church know in advance what they are getting. To be a stealth Calvinist is deceptive and dishonest.

Some profess to be evangelical Calvinists. With rare exception Baptists churches where influence is gained have a dramatically reduced evangelistic ministry. An elemental observation of individual Calvinists indicated the expression evangelical Calvinism is meretricious. Many no longer conclude worship with an invitation or promote soul winning.

They profess to believe in missions but missions as defined by their actions means social work not soul winning. There are a rare few Calvinists who believe in witnessing to the lost. Such is by no means the norm. However, the few who do are held up as proof Calvinists are soul winners. Why should there be any urgency if God has already decided who He is going to save and His grace can’t be resisted?

In general most Calvinists are more concerned about converting people to Calvinism than to calling persons to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. They tend to have one theme —- Calvinism. Their argumentative temperament does little to attract people to Christ or encourage an open and honest dialogue.

Engaging in such repartee is not my calling.

Scholars such as educators can admirably debate the issue but the average congregation into which it is introduced engages in divisive conflict unfortunately. Theologians among our British predecessor would engage in heated debate over theological issues and when finished go enjoy a cup of tea together and socialize. That is not the mentality shown me by Calvinists within the Baptist community. Acidulous comments are not becoming of God’s children.

Caustic Calvinists attack others who profess to follow Christ with the same spirit with which they attack their own who are out of fellowship. They “treat them like the heathen.” In reality they treat them antithetically to the way Christ treated many heathen. Christ was so compassionate toward heathen He was accused of being their friend (Matthew 11:19 Luke 7:34). He never spoke of them as hopeless outsiders. On some occasions he even complimented them (Matthew 9:10ff; 11:19; 21:23; Luke 18:10ff). Matthew and Zacchaeus, two heathen tax collectors were drawn to Christ as friends.

My experience with many Calvinists is not what would attract me to them as friends. In relating I have found they interpret thoughtful gestures of a conciliatory nature and/or warmth as a weakness identifying you as a person vulnerable to attack and attack they do. A sulfurous attack is not likely to win friends or influence people in a positive way.

It has been my good fortune in recent years to be associated with faculty members and students from three colleges in Michigan founded on Calvinism. My relationship has been most cordial and enjoyable. They have manifested no combative spirit. Conversely they have been most gracious and friendly. I perceive a mutual love and acceptance. Their spirit is that which Southern Baptist’s Calvinists need to exemplify.

They evidence there are gracious Calvinists who practice civility. To them and other such Calvinists no offense is intended by this article. It is their opprobrious colleagues who as herein described who offend more people than they attract. They destroy any bridge of harmony. To the civil and gracious Calvinists I want to thank you for emulating the spirit of our beloved Christ to those of us who do not believe as you. Many of us who labor under the banner of the cross believe in the sovereignty of our loving and all gracious God without believing in all points like you yet respect and love you. Let’s not destroy one another and give the lost world reason to revel over our conduct.