Thursday, June 07, 2012

Semi-Pelagianism? A Plea for Clarity and Charity


Recently, the charge of semi-Pelagianism was leveled against the signatories of the statement on the traditional Southern Baptist view of salvation. Please allow me to respond with a clear denial of the charge and an appeal for anybody entering this conversation to, first, clearly substantiate any inferences and claims, primarily appealing to Scripture, and, second, rise above inflammatory rhetoric.
            First, regarding “semi-Pelagianism.” What is it? It is a postbiblical issue. According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd edn), the semi-Pelagianism of the 4th and 5th centuries “maintained that the first steps toward the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later.” It is worth taking a minute to reread that definition. (Did you read it again? Okay, let’s continue.) Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the second Council of Orange in 529. While such a council does not carry ecclesial or theological authority whatsoever for Baptists, I believe most Baptists, including the Statement’s signatories, would agree with that council’s condemnation, which is later called “semi-Pelagianism.” Moreover, it is very instructive that the same council also condemned the doctrine that God predestined men for evil. I would agree with the council’s condemnations on both of these counts and invite all Baptist theologians to join me in agreement. (By the way, all Baptists are theologians.)
            Note here that we doubt the comments of Herman Bavinck, who has been cited as an authority on semi-Pelagianism by a group known as “The Gospel Coalition,” are particularly helpful in this free church conversation. Bavinck scorned Anabaptists, Pietists, Methodists, and, yes, Baptists for being too pious and for, inter alia, taking such biblical passages as the Sermon on the Mount literally. Bavinck, moreover, said Baptists erred in shifting the focus “from baptism itself to the believer’s acceptance.” (Guilty! See chapter two of my The Formation of Christian Doctrine for more interaction with Bavinck.) Finally, Bavinck argued that the Baptist idea that original sin does not entail original guilt is part of semi-Pelagianism. The Baptist Faith & Message itself in article three then would likely be classified a “semi-Pelagian” document under such a partisan definition. Our confession states clearly that Adam’s “posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” If our common Southern Baptist confession is “semi-Pelagian,” then we are all “semi-Pelagian,” whether we are Calvinist or something else, at least according to Bavinck, the Dutch Reformed self-professing opponent of Baptists.
            Second, the authors and signatories of the statement have made it clear that they affirm the priority of divine grace in nearly every article of the statement, including article two. Indeed, article two itself states, “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.” Moreover, article four, on “The Grace of God,” states, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement, in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.” A careful reading of the document thus indicates that the signatories believe that faith comes to human beings as an act of divine grace, just as the cross and the proclamation of the gospel are acts of divine grace. Personally, I have always taught my students that divine grace has the priority in salvation, from beginning to end, and I will continue to do so.
            We do not claim to know all the details of how divine sovereignty relates to human responsibility, because we do not believe Scripture reveals all those details. We do claim, however, that God is sovereign and gracious and that man is simultaneously responsible to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, because these things are revealed in Scripture. We approach theology this way because we are satisfied that the Word of God is the sufficient and unique authority for Christian theological reflection. Church history is helpful as a laboratory for the exposition of Scripture, which is our authority, but the Christian tradition with its condemnatory councils and burnings of human beings does not carry any authority for us “traditionalist” Baptists. (Honestly, for this reason, I don’t really care for the term “traditionalist,” and prefer “Biblicist” or “Baptist,” but others object to our use of those terms.) Systematic theology is also helpful, but it is a human response to divine revelation, and not authoritative in and of itself, as I recently discussed elsewhere.
            Now, the appeal for clarity: Please, as you enter this conversation, whatever position you take, clearly substantiate your claims. Substantiation helps with clarity in definition and discussion. Feel free to use tradition as part of your substantiation, if you must, but please join it primarily with direct appeals to Scripture. The statement cites plenty of Scripture and we are ready to engage those texts and any biblical text from a Christ-centered perspective. I would covet your engagement with me in the holy writ. I am more comfortable and happier there than anywhere, for the Bible is God’s Word and He talks to me there deeply in my heart (Romans 10). Please also clearly state where you stand on an issue. I have stated my position, and I would like to hear what you believe Scripture says. We can learn from each other that way.
            Alongside this appeal for clarity, I ask you to join me in a commitment to charity. Paul says that we should be at peace with all men, “as much as is in you” (Romans 12:18). I know that my sinful flesh is at war with the spirit in me, and I hope you will join me in committing to letting the Holy Spirit, who brings joy and peace within, reign within. As part of this commitment, it would be helpful if all of us refrain even from the appearance of speaking evil of our brothers, including the use of inflammatory words like “heretic,” “hyper-Calvinist,” and “semi-Pelagian.” This will only be possible as a work of grace, but I still hope we will respond responsibly to His grace. Peace to you, my brothers in Christ, Calvinist or otherwise.

19 comments:

  1. Thank you for your clarification on "semi-Pelagianism." This pejorative is no more helpful to the conversation than if someone referred to Calvinists as "semi-fatalists."

    I continue to hope the primary participants in this discussion maintain the spirit of charity they have displayed thus far.

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  2. Thank you for for this article Dr. Yarnell. I have found lately that there are more definitions for semi-Pelagian out there than mounted animals in Dr. Patterson's office: a lot. This makes it very clear. I appreciate your work as a scholar.

    PS I read your Formation for fun! I loved it but my brain still hurts from all the thinking. That's a good thing!

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    1. Thank you, Paul. I apologize for the complexity of that book. I will try better on the next one.

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  3. Dwight McKissic1:51 PM

    Dr. Yarnell,

    Thanks for the clear definition of semi-Pelagianism. I have a better understanding of the "controversy" after reading your post. My thinking and beliefs clearly fall in line with the traditional view.

    Dwight McKissic

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    1. Thank you, Dr. McKissic. You are a gracious Christian leader.

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  4. Very helpful clarification of terms! I agree whole-heartedly with your plea for clarity and charity in this discussion as well.

    Blessings - Stan Meador

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    1. Thank you, Brother Meador. And blessings to you.

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  5. Dr. Yarnell,

    I am very appreciative of your explanation and find it very helpful. I am thrilled that this issue is being adressed, and I wholeheartedly agree with the statement. I believe it fully expresses what the Bible says, not some man-made theological framework. Amen!

    Brandon Ware, Morganton, NC

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    1. Thank you, Brandon. That is my goal.

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  6. Rick Patrick4:17 PM

    For many years, I have suspected that I was not a heretic, but I am nevertheless overjoyed to have it in writing. Thank you.

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    1. "Heretic" is a word used too often and too loosely. Thank you, Rick.

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  7. Somebody named David left the following comment. The iPad problem again, so I repeat it here:

    Dr Yarnell,

    the definition you provide says that "the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later."

    I suppose the question becomes what exactly those "first steps" are. If you turn in that same dictionary (I have the 3rd edition) to the article on Faustus of Riez, St. who is mentioned in the article on semipelagianism, you will see that:

    "He adopted a semipelagian position , insisting more strongly than John Cassian on the necessity of human co-operation with Divine grace, and on the initial free will of men, even when in sin, for the acceptance of that grace."

    Apparently, semipelagianism affirms that even the "first steps" are seen as being a response to grace. In this case, the "first steps" are referencing man's ability in his natural state though he is inclined towards sin still to be able to make a free will response of acceptance of God's grace.

    In this case it would seem that "the traditional statement" would seem to be in line with semi-pelagianism.

    Am I way off? help me understand. how do you understand what is meant by the "first steps" according to semi-pelagianism? And how is it distinct from the position stated in article 2?

    thanks for taking the time,
    David

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    1. Interesting question, David. First, the further clarification of these issues really demands a careful reading of Faustus and Cassian, among others. You are welcome to sign up for one of our seminaries' patristic courses at the PhD level if you would like to pursue this question. It will, of course, demand a good dose of Latin to get to some of these texts. Second, please recognize that John Cassian was himself the founder of semi-Pelagianism, but who was still canonized a saint by the Eastern church. (Go figure. The East has less difficulty with Augustinianism, because they didn't build their theology on him. Of course, there are other problems.) So, the comparison is not between an orthodox Cassian and a semi-Pelagian Faustus, but between two semi-Pelagians, who themselves battled the heresy of Arianism. Third, the Traditionalist statement does not affirm that the free will of man is the "initial" cause of the reception of grace, as Faustus apparently did. So, the comparison you see does not stand. Fourth, please recognize that Faustus made these comments as he was responding to an error he perceived in a predestinarian scholar. This brings us to an important point: too many theological errors occur when trying to respond to the theological errors of others, especially when such errors are themselves based on extrabiblical ideas. (Please see my previous post on theological inferences and claims.) Fifth, perhaps the key here for us is not to dwell upon the complex ruminations and conflicts of early medieval theologians and philosophers, but to get back to the biblical text. Perhaps a good reading of Romans 10 will help us reorient ourselves to the priority of the proclaimed Word of God in salvation, and the necessity of our responsive call to that Word. Thank you, David.

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  8. Dr. Yarnell,

    As a young leader of a 6 year old church plant we(the pastors) are trying to find every way to cooperate and glean wisdom from our fellow brothers within the SBC. We long to work along side our traditionalist brothers to reach our city and state and are working with a younger non-calvinistic church to reach an unreached people group in Thailand now.

    I understand that we're in a season of definition and re-orientation as a denomination, but quite frankly as one who affirms Calvinistic doctrines like election and total depravity... I feel very pushed away. It's disheartening that many feel a need to make our denominational theological umbrella more narrow than the BFM 2000 which leaves room for us to work together. As we sort through these coming years the dividing lines are growing much clearer within our denomination. It seems that the line in the sand isn't between Arminianism and Calvinism, but between those who are willing to work with those who disagree with them on soteriology and those that aren't.

    I appreciate your appeal for charity and I'm tired of both the straw men built in the traditionalist document regarding calvinism and those by calvinistic reactions to the document about the traditionalist.

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    1. Brandon, thank you for your gracious reply. Please understand that the document does not intend to push away Calvinists. It does state the intention to move beyond the effort to measure truth by the Calvinist categories. The signatories I know desire truth and peace with our Calvinist brethren and the furtherance of gospel proclamation together, even as we wish to state our beliefs without desiring a narrowing of parameters. I laud your work with a traditionalist congregation. I do the same with Calvinist congregations. I was heartened by your response, for it indicates both the desire to understand and to move forward together. Blessings to you in your faith and work.

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  9. Hey Dr. Yarnell,
    What I have seen in blog responses lately and what I heard in a church history class at Dallas Seminary in 2009 is that semi-pelagianism is related to man's free will. That is, total depravity is often defined as that which incapacitates one's will to the extent that they cannot respond positively to the gospel without the Calvinist's effectual (i think) call or the Arminian's previenient grace allowing one to respond affirmatively.
    Is this new statement offering a third option on this point? (i hope so).
    That is, are you all essentially arminians that are eschewing the need for previenient grace? Or are you contending that Christ's death and resurrection and the actual preaching of the gospel are the previently gracious acts required for one to be able to choose Christ. Or are you saying yes those things must be in place for one to respond to Christ but we shouldn't have to call them a fancy (and hard to spell i might add) title?
    thanks
    adam

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    1. Adam, thank you for your question. We not see the need for the Augustinian paradigm as required for theological formation, which means neither the Calvinist nor the Arminian systems are necessary. If the articles are all read together, you will see that grace is given priority. The lack of language that satisfies Arminian or Calvinist systematic requirements is simply not germane to biblical theology. We are not bound by this particular debate between Augustinians and believe it is time to move forward. As for what semi-Pelagianism is, I find the language itself aggressive and the term inapplicable anyways to this document. Blessings.

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  10. Dear Friends,
    Family, church, and ministry callings are weighing upon me. Please note that I will only be responding here periodically. I look forward to joining this conversation further as we move forward together in the gospel.
    In Christ,
    Malcolm Yarnell

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Edifying comments are appreciated.