A Conversation with Dr. Bill Wagner
Introduction – Dr. Bill Wagner, a fellow Southwesterner who earned his doctorate in missiology from Fuller Seminary, serves currently as a pastor in California of both the Snyder Lane Baptist Church in Rohnert Park, and the North Bay Iranian Church in Novalto. He is also the president of Olivet University International in San Francisco.
It is difficult to impugn his conservative beliefs, especially considering his credentials within SBC life. He spent 31 years of service with the IMB, held a teaching post (evangelism and missions) at Golden Gate Seminary between 1996-2005, and also served as Second Vice-President of the SBC from 2003-2004. In the midst of the Conservative Resurgence he authored the chapter on Biblical Authority and Mission in Authority and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987). He is certainly not a Liberal by any means, and has the boldness to assert publicly that the only thing which should dismiss a current church from participation in SBC life is the acceptance of homosexual practice. He stated this publicly, mind you, living and working in the San Francisco area. Dr. Wagner has evidently prayed in earnest about being a candidate for the SBC presidency and has thought the matter out carefully, as demonstrated on his website. In my estimation, Bill Wagner is a bold yet humble minister who has a heart to reach the nations for Jesus Christ. In the “conversation” which follows, Dr. Wagner agreed to answer a set of questions I sent him via e-mail. Upon returning his anwers, he and I worked together to edit and present our finalized “conversation.” The interview may seem “overbearing” on my part, but please recall that all of the questions were posed beforehand. I trust you will find the “conversation” interesting and beneficial.
Dr. Galyon: Dr. Wagner, you pastor two congregations, one of which is ethnic – Iranian. Serving as the pastor of this congregation, and having served as both the Regional Consultant for Evangelism and Church Growth for Europe and the Middle East (1982-1986) and the Chairman of the European Baptist Federation Muslim Awareness Committee for Europe (1985-1993), you certainly understand the general nature of Islam and its persecution of Christians. Your book, How Islam Plans to Change the World (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), certainly points to the inevitable and ongoing spiritual confrontation between the Islamic religion and the Church. Iranian Christians certainly know of the bitterness brought about by Islamists in their nation. Several years ago you wrote an article, “How Persecuted Churches Grow: Iraq,” in Strategies for Today’s Leader (2001, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 20-23). You and I obviously come from different points on the spectrum of soterioloy – differing over the doctrines of predestination, election, and the nature and degree of free will – yet agree on the necessity of the need for the Gospel to be proclaimed to all peoples in all places and for their responsibility to respond in repentance and faith. We want to see individuals in Iran, for example, come to know Christ Jesus. Can you please tell us the relationship between persecution and Church growth in persecuted nations?
Dr. Galyon: For me, and others holding the classical “Calvinist” position, there is a strong connection between the doctrine of election and the perseverance of the saints in the midst of persecution. The classic text demonstrating this, of course, is Romans 8:28-39. This leads directly to the Apostle Paul’s declaration of having “great sorrow and continual grief” in his heart for the sake of his fellow Hebrews (9:1-5) before moving on to his discussion of the doctrine of election in Romans 9. Those of us who are “Calvinists” (and I really don’t like that label because we are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, not of John Calvin, and our convictions are drawn from Scripture, not from The Institutes) look at Romans 8-9 and see a vital connection between election and evangelism. Rather than believing election negates evangelism, we believe the two are intertwined. I think this thought ties very much into the matter of persecution and suffering as well, which is why the Apostle Paul declared, “I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). Coming full circle, so to speak, that brings us back to the Middle East. The first Protestant missionary to the Muslims, Venceslaus Budovetz, and the most efficient missionary to labor in the Middle East, Samuel Zwemer, held to Reformed Theology. It is my contention Budovetz was a “good Calvinist” who saw the great need for the Gospel to be carried where it had long been forbidden. It is also my contention Zwemer was “successful” because of his strong views on God’s sovereignty and his systematic approach to theology related to the disciplined lifestyle and mindset of Muslims. This seems to be confirmed, in some respects, with the January (2008) issue of Christianity Today. The cover is entitled “Jesus in Turkey: Rebirth of a bloodied church.” A pastor highlighted in the cover story, Turgay Ucal, is a former Muslim who finds the best way to reach his Islamic neighbors is with “emotional Calvinism.” What are your thoughts?
Dr. Wagner: As you know the whole issue of the resurgence of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention is real. I must admit that for me it is only a side issue. I was brought up thinking that those who did not believe as I did were wrong at the best and false teachers at the worst. As I have worked intensively in the Muslim World I have come to appreciate all who lift up the Name of Jesus. I do not see my enemies as the Calvinists or any other theological position. To me we have two real enemies. One is secularism and the other is Islam. We must work together to go against these two dangers. I have been quoted as saying that I do not believe that Calvinists are as missional as Arminians. I must admit that I have received many letters saying that I am wrong. I have reviewed my notes on this issue and still hold to this view but I sincerely hope I am wrong and that the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC will also bring about a renewal of missionary fervor. Let’s pray that this happens.
Dr. Galyon: Dr. Wagner, I’m glad you don’t view “Calvinists” or other brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to other theological positions as your enemies. We are brothers in Christ, and, I hope, friends. Speaking of friends and speaking of a resurgence of Calvinism bringing about a renewal of missionary fervor, I would like to point out that Budovetz was a close friend of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. That city became a center for training evangelists, church planters and missionaries under Calvin’s leadership. In 1561, a peak year of sending missionaries, no less than 142 individuals were sent out from Geneva for the sake of the Gospel. There were tremendous results from church planting efforts in Calvin’s homeland. In 1555, there were only five organized Evangelical congregations in the nation (in Paris, Meaux, Angers, Poitiers, and Loudon). Nearly four years later, in May 1559, when the first National Synod of Reformed Churches in France secretly convened in Paris, there were 100 churches. In 1562, there were 2,150 congregations and it is estimated Evangelicals in France numbered well over 100,000. Other church planting and evangelistic ventures took place in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and several other European countries. Evangelistic opportunities outside of Europe were shut down in the sixteenth century. The boundaries to the east and south were closed by Islamic forces and the navies of Spain and Portugal denied access to overseas ventures. Despite such opposition, missionaries from Geneva were sent to Guanabara, Brazil, in 1556. This has become the classical example of active Protestant mission work of the Reformation era. With these things in mind, what lends to your belief that the evangelistic activity in Europe was negated by predestinarian belief?
Dr. Wagner: You have some very good arguments. Some of your examples are excellent and also correct. As you know, neither the Calvinists nor the Lutherans saw their mission field as being outside of Europe. They did not spend much energy in going to the Muslims as you know. Of course they were more interested in bringing Catholics into the Reformed church. This included much evangelism. I am thankful for all they did. I only wish that they had more of a world view. This is one of the reasons for my statement. Also I have had many discussions with Reformed professors from Europe on this topic. After these discussions I am even more convinced of the correctness of my view. Maybe I am too much influenced by Europeans. I might add that very few European Unions in Europe are growing so this does not say much for the non-Calvinists in the churches.
Dr. Galyon: I disagree that neither the Calvinists nor Lutherans saw their mission field as being outside of Europe. I would argue they saw Europe as their primary mission field, as their “Jerusalem.” What I pointed out above, about the Islamic forces and navies under Roman Catholic control, prevented greater mission activity. It still didn’t prevent Calvin from sending missionaries to South America, as noted. Some, however, might argue that even if Calvin were missions-minded, the generation following him would be numbed to evangelistic fervor, yet the earliest Protestant missiologists were Dutch “Calvinists” from the Netherlands. Hadrianus Saravia, a theologian who engaged in the practical work of evangelism, penned On the Various Levels of Ministers of the Gospel as They have been Instituted by the Lord (1590). He argues that ecclesiastical bishops have been given apostolic authority to send out Christians in evangelistic service. His pleas for commitments had considerable influence upon Justus Heurnius and Gisbertius Voetius, as well as the Danish-Halle Mission and the English Puritans, especially John Eliot in North America. Justus Heurnius published An Exhortation to Embark upon an Evangelical Mission among the Indians (1618). It sets forth a biblical foundation for missions, discusses methodology, and describes the Great Commission as a mandate for all Christians. This work significantly advanced mission activity, played a role in the establishment of the Danish-Halle Mission, and had some formative influence upon William Carey. Heurnius was also instrumental in establishing a special seminary in Leiden for training missionaries. The school was under the direction of Antonius Walaeus, who had been a delegate to the Synod of Dort. Gisbertus Voetius, a leading figure at Dort, gave lectures on missiology at the University of Utrecht. Johannes Hoornbeeck, a pupil of both Voetius and Walaeus, authored four books on missiology. He envisioned a world-wide missionary network and called for universities to establish seminaries for training them. From a historical standpoint, what lends to your belief that evangelistic activity is blunted by Dortian Calvinism?
Dr. Wagner: You give many good examples of Reformed theologians that have had a missionary heart. I could give you even more of Arminians who also had a missionary heart. In fact I could create even a longer list than you can, but that is not the question. I do not like trying to say one is more dedicated than another or that one is more missional than another. I wish that the whole idea of Calvinism was never brought up. We are all in this together. We have a world to win and we need not argue who is doing a better job. We need to look to the future and find more effective ways for the future. This is why I am running for the office of President of the SBC. Not to put Calvinists down but to try to unite all Southern Baptists to be more involved in our task of winning our world to Jesus Christ. It is my hope that Calvinists will not vote against me because of my view. I welcome all Calvinists into the fellowship of the SBC. I might add that in my History of Missions class I do not spend any time in trying to divide missions in the different theological persuasions.
Dr. Galyon: I’m convinced we could both come up with very long lists. Included on my list would be the names of Edwards, Whitefield, and Spurgeon. They are often brought up by “Calvinists” in this discussion as well as the names of notable missionaries – Carey, Paton, and others. Of course, having served in Germany, you are no doubt very familiar with that German Baptist who was a friend of Spurgeon – Johann Gerhard Oncken. Like Calvin and the early missiologists, however, these men are all from a bygone era. We must now deal with the present. The late D. James Kennedy, author of Evangelism Explosion, created a wonderful and well-used tool for helping Christians advance the Gospel. John Piper, author of Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), has had a tremendous impact on the 40-under crowd. He is a frequent speaker at missions conferences (e.g., Urbana) and writes often for missions publications (e.g., “Frontiers”). It seems, from my perspective, that men such as these have sharpened the edge of evangelistic and missionary activity. What are your thoughts on these men and their impact on the current scene? Do they tend to sway your thinking at all on this issue?
Dr. Wagner: Again, your list is impressive. I am happy that you are so well versed in the history of missions. I hope you can be used in teaching many others. I might add that I am the President of a Presbyterian University – Olivet International University. Many have asked how I could be in a Presbyterian school with my view. No problem!!! They accept me as I accept them. I am really a pro-Calvinist, but am not about to change my theological positions that has served me well these 50-plus years. I might add that I have written much on Johann Gerhard Oncken. He is the reason for the existence of Baptists in many of the Continental European countries. He was truly a great missionary.
Dr. Galyon: I’m glad to hear you are “pro-Calvinist” even if you aren’t a “Calvinist.” My aim is not necessarily to change the theological convictions you’ve held all these years, but to work with you for the sake of our Lord. I hear you saying something very similar to that, and I appreciate it. You served in Europe for 31 years as a missionary with the IMB and retain contact with current missionaries, including your son, Mark. Please tell us about the types of things you hear that bring you concern regarding missionaries who are “Calvinists.” You mentioned elsewhere they tend to be “less missional.” Can you elaborate on that? I’m especially curious, because friends of mine – who would be classified as “Calvinists” – serve in a Muslim dominated area and are what I consider very “missional.”
Dr. Wagner: I hope that in the Convention we do not beat this horse to death. I am not interested in trying to put a scale on who is the most missional. It is really a side issue. If it would help I could make a statement that Calvinists are more missional than others. It would not change a thing. By the way I have spoken with many now serving missionaries in the world (not including my son) and I come away still holding to my view. Again let the Calvinists prove me wrong.
Dr. Galyon: I think we’ve probably beat this horse to death as much as it needs beating. Personally, I want to take this opportunity to call upon my Reformed brothers and sisters within the SBC to prove you wrong. While I think you are right on many, many things, I believe you are wrong in this area and hope to see that demonstrated on the mission field – whether here in North America or abroad. With that in mind, what advice would you give to “Calvinists” in the SBC? How can “Calvinists” improve relationships with their non-Reformed brothers and sisters in the SBC?
Dr. Wagner: I really do not see the problem. When I heard that there was a resurgence in Calvinism in the SBC my attitude was, “So what?!” They are brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s work together. I would not recommend someone not go to a school because of a heavy Calvinist influence. It would not occur to me. I still recommend to students who are doing post graduate work to go to Southern. My advice is to stop making this an issue. As I said, I was surprised that so many have taken me to task for my statement. I wish that more would be concerned with the 5 billion lost people in the world. Let’s find a way to work together.
Dr. Galyon: I agree, let’s work together as brothers and sisters in Christ for the sake of our Lord and His Gospel. Are there any other matters you would like to add to this discussion?
Dr. Wagner: Some have asked me what will be my emphasis if elected. It is very simple – missions. My hope is that in the next fifteen years we can have 40,000 of our SBC university students out doing missions for two years. This is realistic. If you study most of our SBC statistics you will find that we are either stagnant or decreasing. We must do something to change this direction. I hope to help. Thanks for asking my advice. I need to add that if elected I will call a sacred assembly where we will ask all Southern Baptist to spend a three day weekend in fasting, prayer and confession of sins. I will name a weekend and all will be encouraged to participate. We need spiritual revival first. May God richly bless you in your service to Him.
Dr. Galyon: Dr. Wagner, I want to thank you for the time and effort you have placed into our discussion. May the Lord bless you as you continue to serve Him in the pastorate, in the academic classroom, and on the mission field!