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.


Anonymous said...

You can't oppose Calvinism without being labeled Semi-Pelagian, so I say its a trumped up controversy. Anyone who opposes Calvinism will be called a Semi-Pelagian by the Calvinist bullies whether they are or not. Its always been that way and always will. And so what if it is semi-Pelagian? The councils of the Catholic pedophiles are not binding on Protestants.

Dale Crawford said...

Dear Anon:
Just some thoughts:
First - there is certainly enough labeling on both sides. Those holding to Biblical Reformed theology often grow weary of being labeled "hyper-Calvinists."
Second - in order to be a "bully" one has to hold the position of strength. Calvinists occupy only 10percent of Southern Baptists. We aren't the one trying to force resolutions.
Three - Regarding the councils, error is always error no matter who exposes it. If it is semi-Pelagian it is error.