“Studied Ambiguity” and the Slow Slide of the Evangelical Church

R.C. Sproul was one of God’s gifts to the church. Stephen Nicols’ recent biography R.C.Sproul: A Life, goes into great detail on the life of Sproul, and the contributions he made to the life of the church. Nichols’ biography is well-written, and spends a large amount of time in delving into those forces that shaped R.C. Sproul. It is not my intent here to give a detailed review of the biography except to tell you that it is long and very well written. What I would like to examine are two different aspects of the life of Sproul that stood out.

First, the sovereignty of God leaps out of the life of R.C. Sproul. R.C. Spent his entire career pointing others to the holiness and glory of God. God is entirely “other.” He is not like us. He possesses a holiness that is completely pure, entirely light, and inviolable. With that holiness, God is sovereign. He is over all. Nothing escapes His plan. R.C. Sproul attended a liberal seminary in Pittsburgh, PA, a school that had only one theologically conservative professor. Yet somehow, Sproul emerged with a strong theological conservatism that would drive his entire future ministry. This can only be attributed to the sovereignty and grace of God.

The second aspect of the life of R.C. Sproul that jumps of the pages of his biography is what he called “studied ambiguity.” Studied ambiguity is the practice of intentionally leaving terms that are being used as unclearly defined so as to allow varying definitions. In the mid-1990s, Chuck Colson, J.I. Packer, Bill Bright, and some other evangelical leaders got together and formed what would come to be known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). When Sproul was asked about the document, he replied that it appeared that ECT was trying to undo the Reformation. The document did not contain justification by faith alone as part of the gospel. When Sproul challenged Packer on this, Packer stated that justification was only “central” to the gospel, while Sproul argued that it was “essential.” This one difference leads to massively different understandings of unity and of the very gospel itself. If something is “essential,” then it draws a boundary around something. To reject that boundary is to reject the gospel. If something is “central,” then it simply gives a centering point, with no boundaries around the gospel. While both men were seeking unity, only one fought for unity around the actual gospel.

You may not care at all about ECT. But you should care a lot about studied ambiguity. This is a key tool in the box of those who seek to dilute the theology of the church. Progressives did it with the phrase “biblical inerrancy.” ECT did it with justification. Now we see it occurring in Southern Baptist and other evangelical circles. What does the word “racism” mean? Not what it has meant for decades. Things like “privilege” and “whiteness” are being added to the vocabulary, but added in a way that is very ambiguous (just ask Ibrahim X. Kendi to define racism).

The fact is that words matter. Definitions matter. I believe we need to talk about race and the ethnic divisions that have occurred in our nation over the decades. But we can’t talk if we’re not speaking the same language. We saw this in a recent speech by Ed Litton to the Executive Committee of the SBC. He used catch phrases like “remove the stain of racism” in the SBC. How? He referred to “repenting.” Of what? He doesn’t say. He leaves it ambiguous. Brothers and sisters, we need to do better. Speak truth. Speak clearly. The bride of Christ deserves at least this much.