Semi-Pelagianism and the Southern Baptist Convention

Before I unpack the point of this post, a few definitions are in order.

Pelagianism, a view named for the ancient heretic Pelagius, is a heresy that affirms that Adam’s sin has not affected the human race in any way other than offering a bad example.  After Adam, human beings remain fully capable of obeying God’s law without the assistance of any internal grace of God.  This view has clearly been regarded as heresy by all parts of the church since the fifth century.

Semi-Pelagianism is a view that I like to say was represented by Pelagius’s brother, Semi-Pelagius (ba-doom-zing!).  Okay, not really.  Semi-Pelagianism is a theological position that arose in the wake of Pelagius’s controversy with Augustine over the nature of free will and predestination.  Semi-Pelagians affirmed that Adam’s sin has affected us all, rendering us incapable of keeping God’s law, but they nevertheless affirmed that there remains a remnant of good in us.  If we will make the first move toward God, he will respond by stirring up the good that is in us by his grace.  The key idea here is that the initiative in salvation lies with us.  Semi-Pelagianism has been tolerated as one stream of Christian theology, though it was condemned at the Second Council of Orange.  It made a resurgence in the late Middle Ages, and in various forms has remained with us to this day.  However, it has never been well-received in official Protestant theology.

Calvinism and Arminianism are both theological views within the Augustinian stream that affirm that man is completely dead in sin and incapable of doing any good on his own.  Our free will to obey God has been incapacitated by the Fall of Adam.  The initiative in salvation must come from God.  Calvinists and Arminians differ in their understanding of how God draws men to faith for salvation.  Calvinists affirms that God draws effectively based on his election of some to eternal life in eternity past.  Arminians affirm that God’s drawing unto salvation is insufficient on its own to produce faith, for the sinner can always resist it.  But a key idea for both Calvinists and Arminians is that man has been rendered incapable of taking any initiative in salvation on his own, and thus God must take the initiative.

A group of Southern Baptist leaders who are concerned about a resurgence of Calvinism in our convention, but who nevertheless refuse to call themselves “Arminians” (likely because they deny the Arminian doctrine of falling away from the faith) have recently published “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of Salvation,” including ten affirmations and denials.  Baptist Press ran a story covering some of the responses to the document, and some of the more prominent bloggers on both sides of the issue have begun to weigh in.

I have been following Tom Ascol’s excellent pieces on this document.  Today he posted a response to Article Two of the statement.  The article reads as follows:

Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Genesis 3:15-24; 6:5; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 6:5, 7:15-16;53:6; Jeremiah 17:5,9, 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:19-20; Romans 1:18-32; 3:9-18, 5:12, 6:23; 7:9; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 6:9-10;15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-15

Obviously, there is much in this statement that is good, but the devil is in the details.  Ascol has drawn attention to a response to this statement written by Roger Olson, a Baptist who identifies himself as a classical Arminian.  I have significant disagreements with Olson, but I have long appreciated his ability to bring clarity to the discussion.  Furthermore, it was through reading Olson’s book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities that I came to understand how close to each other Calvinism and Arminianism are with respect to the doctrine of humanity and the effects of the Fall.  This has led me to conclude that a robust, thoughtful Arminian theology is more faithful to Scripture than what is proclaimed from many evangelical pulpits today, a theology that has failed to take into account the radical effects of sin on us.  Although I am certainly not an Arminian, I would consider it an improvement if many evangelical churches moved toward a more thoughtful Arminian theology.  In fact, it might just be one stop along the way toward a biblically faithful Calvinism! 😉

Olson is no Calvinist, to be sure, but he has a very significant disagreement with the non-Calvinist statement that has recently been published.  He writes,

A classical Arminian would never deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.  Classical Arminianism (as I have demonstrated in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities) strongly affirms the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from prevenient grace’s liberating work.

Now, perhaps this is the point of the statement’s mention of “the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” But that, too, can be interpreted in a semi-Pelagian way. Semi-Pelagians such as Philip Limborch and (at least in some of his writings) Charles Finney affirmed the necessity of the gospel and the Holy Spirit’s enlightening work through it for salvation. What made them semi-Pelagian was their denial or neglect of the divine initiative in salvation (except the gospel message).

The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly. And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin.

Olson is exactly right.  If the framers of this statement want to avoid the charge of semi-Pelagianism, they need to rephrase their statement.  I, for one, do not believe that any of those who have signed the statement would formally affirm semi-Pelagianism.  Nevertheless, I fear that in their zeal to spell out their differences with Calvinism, they have moved the pendulum too far in the other direction.  This is sloppy theological work, pure and simple.  It represents the formalization of sloppy theology that has been a cancer in Southern Baptist pulpits for decades now.  I agree completely with Olson when he writes,

It doesn’t matter what “most Baptists” believe or what is the “traditional Southern Baptist understanding.” For a long time I’ve been stating that most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.

Calvinists and Arminians stand together, with Scripture, against semi-Pelagianism. (Romans 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 4:7 to name just two passages.)

If Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC want to pursue greater unity, then let us join hands against the common foe of semi-Pelagianism, which has become the unofficial theology of evangelicalism today.  Let us not issue affirmations and denials meant to marginalize Calvinism while leaving plenty of space for semi-Pelagianism.  That is most assuredly a step in the wrong direction, which will, if left unchecked, lead toward an obscuring of the gospel.

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6 Responses to Semi-Pelagianism and the Southern Baptist Convention

  1. descriptivegrace says:

    Pelagius didn’t really teach that grace is not necessary. He taught that infants are not damned by original sin to the point of having to be baptized or going to hell when they die. In other words, he was a BAPTIST. He was strawmanned as being against grace, but that’s only because in the mind of the ROMAN CATHOLICS like Augustine “grace” meant “infant baptism!” Let’s not be stupid and believe the non-sense the Calvinists spout. Pelagius was condemned by Roman Catholics for being a Baptist and that’s all there is to it.

  2. Hello,

    I think there are a number of problems with your claim here, but I will just note two:

    (1) Pelagius was certainly no Baptist. He too affirmed infant baptism, though his doctrine of the sacrament was different from Augustine’s. Furthermore, the Baptist doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone would have been unrecognizable to him.

    (2) It is anachronistic to say that Augustine was a Roman Catholic. He was catholic in the broad sense, but Roman Catholicism was something that emerged gradually throughout the Middle Ages and was finally codified at the Council of Trent.

    • descriptivegrace says:

      “(1) Pelagius was certainly no Baptist. He too affirmed infant baptism….”

      How do people get themselves this screwed up in the head? In which of Pelagius’ surviving writings does he affirm infant baptism? It is a claim by Augustine after Pelagius’ death, after Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by a council called together after his death, that Pelagius said infant baptism was all well and good just that it was for something other than remission of sins. But this is a lie. This is the standard Roman Catholic tactic used by a host of ‘fathers’ going back at least as far as Tertullian, if not further, where they claim their opponent who didn’t agree with them at all as a witness in favor of their view by lying and pretending he half-way believed it. Take a staunch opponent of infant baptism like Pelagius, say he believed infant baptism half-way, convince all the half-wits who don’t require actual evidence, and viola, infant baptism is saved!

      “(2) It is anachronistic to say that Augustine was a Roman Catholic. He was catholic in the broad sense” No. Romans Catholicism was established when one of the various catholic sects (catholic in the broad sense) merged with Rome, kissed Constantine’s ring, and used the secular sword to kill off the other catholic sects (catholic in the broad sense). The problem is you lack historical sense.

    • descriptivegrace says:

      “Furthermore, the Baptist doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone would have been unrecognizable to him.”

      Have you read his commentary on Romans? Pelagius was the first writer to even argue for justification by faith alone. Grace alone, not in Augustine’s perverted sense of the word grace to be sure.

      • descriptivegrace says:

        I almost went to pick up my copy of his commentary on Romans and mine those out for you. Instead, just refer to this link for now, then buy a copy of the commentary on Amazon and read it for yourself. Pelagius teaches justification by faith alone, but not ultimate salvation by faith alone. He makes a distinction between the two in the same way the New Perspective on Paul does. But he certainly doesn’t deny the need for grace, which he affirms several times in the commentary on Romans. And, of course, when he speaks of baptism there is no question that ONLY beleiver’s baptism is in mind. Augustine is in hell for his lying tongue and all the crap he made up about this BAPTIST.

  3. Descriptive Grace,

    I will be glad to have an honest and charitable exchange of ideas, but the tone you have chosen to employ so far is one I do not care to entertain on this forum. If you want to continue, the personal insults (against me and against figures from church history) will need to stop. It’s up to you.

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