Friday, June 15, 2012

Is the "Statement on the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation" Semi-Pelagian?

There seems to be much debate regarding the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation" and the charge of semi-Pelagianism. Albert Mohler wrote on his website, "I fully understand the intention of the drafters to oppose several Calvinist renderings of doctrine, but some of the language employed in the statement goes far beyond this intention. Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will." Of course, Mohler's comments have been met with strong denials. Jerry Vines wrote, "I strongly disagree with Dr. Mohler's assertion that 'some of the statements appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings.' I wonder if Dr. Mohler thinks some of us aren't theologically astute enough to recognize semi-Pelagianism when we see it!"

So is it semi-Pelagian? Herman Bavinck writes in his Reformed Dogmatics (Vol. 3, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2006, page 486), ". . . the teaching of Pelagius, who did not deny grace but understood it as a universal gift to all people enabling them to choose the good and refuse evil. Grace is emptied of its real meaning since our appropriation of grace depends on our own will: God helps those who help themselves. The great gift of Augustine to the church was his definitive repudiation of all forms of Pelagianism. According to Augustine, our wills are bound, from beginning to end being redirected to God's good and preserving in it; it is a matter of gift not of merit, of grace not of works. Objectively and subjectively, from beginning to end, the work of salvation is a work of God's grace and of his grace alone." Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin and the concept of "inherited sin." Since human beings are not corrupted by original sin we are capable of choosing good without any special Divine aid.

While Pelagianism rejected any idea of original sin, semi-pelagianism softened the Pelagian position by asserting that human beings are affected by sin but can still choose the good apart from Divine grace. Arminians have further softened it by adding the concept of universal prevenient grace; a grace given to all men thus making faith possible in all--the determining factor being the act of the will. Arminius rejected the semi-Pelagian position stating that while salvation is a cooperation between God and man, grace is essential.

So does the "Statement" border on semi-Pelagianism? I think it comes right up to the brink of the precipice. Article 2 states, "We deny that Adam's sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person's free will. . ." In other words, they are saying that the human will may be affected by sin but not incapacitated by sin. Perhaps the Article is just poorly written, but this is clearly the semi-Pelagian position; that Adam's sin did not result in the incapacitation of any person's free will. Dr. Mohler's statement is simply stating the grave concern over the wording of their statement.

By the way, Roger Olsen, author of "Against Calvinism," a book criticizing Calvinism, wrote on his blog, "It may very well be that the majority of Southern Baptists have believed and do believe that Adam's fall did not result in the incapacitation of anyone's will to respond to the gospel apart from supernatural grace. I have argued for a long time that semi-Pelagianism is the default theology of most American Christians of most denominations." Regarding the "SBC Statement" he writes, "I am not accusing the authors or signers of semi-Pelagianism. But, as it stands, the statement affirms it, whether intentionally, or unintentionally."

Just as we are offended at the "Statement's" misrepresentation of Calvinist soteriology, we must be careful not to misrepresent their position. Reformed theology has been written on voluminously and is clearly defined so that there should be no misunderstanding if one takes the time to read and study our position. If they are to deny the charge of semi-Pelagianism, they too need to do a better job of clearly defining their position.

Friday, June 1, 2012

SBC Statement Against Calvinism

As I read the recent "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation" I was filled with both disappointment and dismay; disappointment because these brothers feel the need to go on the attack, dismay because of their misrepresentation of Calvinistic soteriology. Either they don't understand the Calvinistic position or they are purposely and dishonestly seeking to malign a large segment of Southern Baptists. I hope and trust it is the former. As a Southern Baptist and a Calvinist I want to address some of the elements in this statement.

From the very beginning, with the preamble, the misrepresentations begin with the suggestion that traditional Calvinism is plagued by "anti-missionism" and "hyper-Calvinism." They also downplay the Calvinistic roots of the SBC. A look to history reveals a substantial influence of Calvinism. The first president of the Convention, W.B. Johnson, was a Calvinist. Basil Manly, Patrick H. Mell (who held the office of SBC president longer than any other man), John Broadus, William Williams, etc. etc. -- all Calvinists. James Petigrue Boyce, SBC president and founder and first president of Southern Seminary drafted the Abstract of Systematic Theology, a solidly Calvinistic statement. While the majority of Southern Baptists today may hold to Arminian soteriolgy, it would not be accurate to declare this to be the "traditional" position when even our first seminary was solidly Calvinistic. In addition, B.H. Carroll, founder and president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was a Calvinist. And while they stress that their "traditional" view of salvation is stated clearly in the Baptist Faith and Message, "Article IV," the truth is Calvinists also agree with this statement. And while, as I will point out below, they claim to hold to this statement, they in fact do not. Allow me to make some comments on the articles of their statement. Again, the Calvinistic view is often misrepresented. There is so much to be said, but I'll try to keep my comments brief.

Article One - Calvinists also affirm that "God has made a way of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ for any person." There is a genuine offer of grace to all who will turn from their sin and trust Christ as Savior. We also affirm, however, that no man "can come" unless it has been granted to him from the Father (John 6:65), and that "all that the Father gives" to Christ will come to Him (John 6:37).

Article Two - They grossly contradict themselves. On one hand they declare the depravity of man as rendering him unable not to sin, "that every person who is capable of moral action will sin."  But then they declare, "We deny that Adam's sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person's free will." Why doesn't the lost man simply "will" not to sin? The Calvinist also agrees with them that no sinner "is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit's drawing through the Gospel." One other comment: if no man suffers the guilt of sin until he actually sins why do innocent children die? "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned--" (Romans 5:12).

Article Three - We also affirm the "penal substitution of Christ." And we also deny that this atonement results in salvation apart from faith and repentance. But then they add: "We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved." Once again, they are demonstrating an inconsistent position. Did Christ really die as a "substitute" for all of the sins of those suffering in hell? Why is it that they are in hell?

Article Four - Calvinists also believe in God's free offer of grace to all men. We also affirm that the grace of God can be and often is resisted. Jesus told Paul, "It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14). While the Gospel can be resisted, the Bible teaches that ultimately saving grace will be efficacious - "All that the Father gives me will come to me" (John 6:37).

Article Five - This is where everyone who signs this document needs to make an honest declaration that they reject the "Baptist Faith and Message." They state, "We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel."
The BFM, Article IV: "Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ." They cannot honestly claim to hold to the BFM statement on salvation and then reject this clear statement that regeneration precedes faith and repentance.

Article Six - I don't even know what they mean here. Do they really believe that election is only a plan? Is that really what the Bible teaches about election? That election is only God's selection of a plan? What about the boundless passages that speak of God's election of individuals. And they seem to ignore the very passages they reference.
Ephesians 14-6 - Paul writing to the "saints" at Rome declares in Verse 3, "who blessed us," then in Verse 4, "Just as He chose us," then in Verse 5, "having predestined us," and finally Verse 6, "which He freely bestowed on us." Will a sound exposition of the text allow you to conclude that Paul is speaking of just a "plan" or that he is speaking of all men in general?
Romans 8:29-30 - Again, what about the context? In Verse 28 speaks of God working all things for the good of those called according to His purpose. Not to all men in general but to those He has called. Then, as he continues in Verses 29-30, he speaks of God's foreknowledge and predestination of these called ones. Foreknowledge implies events fixed in time. Events are fixed in time because God fixes them - "having predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His own will" (Ephesians 1:11).
OK, I promised to be brief.

Article Seven - Again, a contradiction. "We affirm God's knowledge of and sovereignty over every person's salvation." "We deny that God's sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause . . ." Sovereignty refers to God's absolute, independent, reign and governing of all things. Nothing is left outside of His sovereign reign. God is the first cause of all things. You really cannot claim to believe in the sovereignty of God while denying that He is sovereign over all things, including the hearts of men. Pharaoh can testify to this. So can Solomon, "The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes" (Proverbs 21:1).

Article Eight - This would take much space to debunk. Did Lydia open her own heart or did God open it? "And the Lord opened her heart to respond . . ." (Acts 16:14). Ephesians 2:8 can be debated endlessly as to whether "grace" or "faith" is the gift from God. Either way, we have to agree that it is "not of yourselves." Salvation is God's work. If the ultimate difference between heaven and hell is my act of faith, then salvation is an act of human effort, a work. Yet Paul continues, "Not as the result of works, that no one should boast" (Ephesians 2:9).

Article Nine - The Calvinist also denies the remote possibility of apostasy for those who are in Christ. But our belief rests in the full work of God in His redemptive purpose. Once again, they are inconsistent here. If  salvation is based upon the exercise of our free will in coming to Christ, then reason would demand that a person also has the free will to turn from Christ to his former way of life. Would God violate our free will by keeping us in the faith?

Article Ten - To this every Calvinist would also say Amen. And multitudes of Calvinist missionaries, both in the past and in the present, testify to God's saving grace and the power of the Gospel unto salvation. Are they honestly accusing us of believing that a person can be saved apart from faith and repentance? This is the maligning of Calvinists that is both unfair, and perhaps even dishonest.

If their misrepresentation of Calvinist doctrine is sincerely due to a lack of understanding, then there needs to be more serious dialogue between the two sides. I find this of particular concern since there are so many seminary professors and seminary presidents who are signing the document. Surely, they understand the doctrines and beliefs of historical Calvinism. If, on the other hand, this is a purposed effort to malign a group that disagrees with them by misrepresenting the Calvinist position, shame on them. This can only cause further division, particularly among the rank and file in the pews who read and listen to these leaders and conclude that all Calvinists are heretics who are anti-missions and who deny that the Gospel must be brought to all men.