Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian?

Adam Harwood, Ph.D.

Adam Harwood is Associate Professor of Theology, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also Director of the Baptist Center for Theology
and Ministry and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry.

This article was first published to JBTM 10.1 (Spring 2013). Footnotes can be viewed in the original journal article.

Shedding a false charge can be difficult. Consider as an example McCarthyism in the 1950s. A person publicly accused of belonging to the Communist Party had difficulty shaking the accusation. “You’re a Communist. Prove you’re not!” How does one disprove such an accusation? Those who affirm “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (TS) find themselves in a similar situation. Claims have been made that the TS is, or appears to be, semi-Pelagian. This chapter seeks to disprove the charge in four ways. First, historical and theological definitions of semi-Pelagianism will be provided and will be shown to be contradicted by claims in the TS. Second, it will be demonstrated that the theological claims made at the Second Council of Orange (529) fail to indict the TS as unbiblical. Third, the historical-theological context of fifth-century semi-Pelagianism suggests that the historical debate has no connection to the current conversation among Southern Baptists regarding the TS. Fourth, errors will be
exposed in an early assessment of the TS.

Historical and Theological Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism Which are Contradicted by the Traditional Statement

According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, semi-Pelagianism “maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.”1 The TS explicitly argues against this view. Consider this line from Article 2: “While no one is even remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, no sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” Article 2 is clear that sinners are saved through a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel. This drawing of the Holy Spirit described in the TS occurs prior to the response of the sinner. In this way, the TS prohibits the semi-Pelagian understanding of a sinner taking the first steps toward the Christian life.

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology explains that the term semi-Pelagian first appeared in 1577 to describe the fifth-century view which rejected Pelagian theology and respected Augustine but rejected some of the implications of his views. Fifth-century semi-Pelagians “affirmed that the unaided will performed the initial act of faith.” The “pivotal issue” in semi-Pelagian theology is “the priority of the human will over the grace of God in the initial work of salvation.”2 Article 4 of the TS contradicts this view, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement.” The TS states that God takes “all of the initiative in providing atonement.” The TS in no way prioritizes “the human will over the grace of God in the initial work of salvation.”

Lewis and Demarest’s Integrative Theology explains, “The semi-Pelagians claimed that sinners make the first move toward salvation by choosing to repent and believe.” Also, “The semi-Pelagian scheme of salvation thus may be described by the statement ‘I started to come, and God helped me.’” The idea that sinners initiate their salvation apart from God’s grace is ruled out by the words of the TS. Consider again Article 2, “While no one is even remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, no sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.”3 Also, this sentence from Article 4 bears repeating, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement.” The TS is clear that sinners do not “make the first move toward salvation.” Rather, God takes all of the initiative in providing atonement. Article 8 explains that “God’s gracious call to salvation” is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” Sinners are saved by responding to the drawing of the Holy Spirit through the gospel.

One more definition, this one from a Reformed perspective, will be provided in order to reinforce the argument that there is a broad consensus on the term semi-Pelagianism. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology defines semi-Pelagianism as follows: “A term which has been used to describe several theories which were thought to imply that the first movement towards God is made by human efforts unaided by grace.”4 This definition is consistent with those already provided and is contradicted by statements in the TS as demonstrated above. The following chart illustrates our findings:

The Decisions of the Second Council of Orange Which Fail to Indict the TS as Unbiblical

Immediately after the release of the TS, there were online accusations that the TS affirmed semi-Pelagian views. Some of those online essays included appeals to the Second Council of Orange (529). The appeal to this council to support the accusation of semi- Pelagianism will be addressed in two ways.5 First, the decisions from the council will be compared to the TS. Second, the thesis of an historical study of the fifth-century controversy will be considered. In both cases, it will be demonstrated that the decisions of the Second Council of Orange fail to indict the TS as unbiblical.

The decisions of the council compared to the Traditional Statement

At the outset, it is important to understand that the Second Council of Orange is not authoritative for Southern Baptists. The decisions of the council addressed differences between western and eastern theology on the exercise of the will in the context of monastic life (see the next section in this chapter) one millennia before the birth of the Baptist tradition. Even if the decisions at Orange were considered binding for Southern Baptists, then the question arises as to which decisions were violated by the TS and in what way? The decisions were finalized as a list of canons.6 In comparing the Canons of Orange to the TS, it will be demonstrated that there is both agreement and contradictions between the two documents. Further, the contradictions between the two documents are theological differences which result from the fidelity of the TS to the BFM. Below are five replies to this charge of semi-Pelagianism based on the Canons of Orange.

Southern Baptists reject baptismal regeneration (salvation via water baptism). But baptismal regeneration was affirmed by this council. Canon 5 refers to “the regeneration of holy baptism.” Also, Canon 13 states: “The freedom of will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism.” The Canons of Orange are not consistent with the BFM. For that reason alone, the council should be regarded as nonbinding for Southern Baptists.

Canon 4 requires an admission of the working of the Holy Spirit. Article 2 of the TS states: “(W)e deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” That sentence clearly affirms the work of the Holy Spirit, who draws the sinner through the Gospel.

Canon 5 denies that faith “belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace.” The TS makes no claim that faith belongs to us by nature. Rather, Article 4 states that by God’s grace, we are united “to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.” This means that a person’s union with Christ is by God’s grace (a gift) and through the Holy Spirit. These claims remove any idea that faith could “belong to us by nature.”

Canon 6 affirms that God’s mercy is a gift of God’s grace. So does the TS. Consider Article 4 of the TS, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement.” Article 4 of the TS is clear that salvation is a gift of God’s grace and He takes the initiative in providing atonement.

Canon 6 states, “(I)t is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought.” Canon7 emphasizes this by stating that no one can be saved by “assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” The ministry of the Holy Spirit must be acknowledged in one’s understanding of a sinner’s regeneration. The TS repeatedly refers to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in bringing a sinner to repentance and faith in Christ. Consider these claims in the TS:

Article 2, “(W)e deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.”

Article 4, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation… 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.”

Article 5, “We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.”

Article 8, The call to salvation is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.”

The TS clearly acknowledges the necessity of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the work of God to bring a sinner from death to life. It is unclear how a charge could be sustained that the TS teaches otherwise.

These comparisons demonstrate that it is neither helpful nor accurate to charge the mi-Pelagianism based on the Canons of Orange. Next, the historical-theological context of fifth-century semi-Pelagianism will be considered to see if its views are consistent with the TS.

The historical-theological context of
fifth-century semi-Pelagianism

Rebecca Harden Weaver published her Ph.D. dissertation through the North American Patristic Society under the title Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy. Weaver’s careful historical-theological analysis makes a compelling case that the decisions of the Second Council of Orange (529) wrongly characterized the views of the
opponents. In other words, the fifth-century semi-Pelagians did not teach the views they were accused of teaching. If this is the case, then this renders impotent any appeals to the Canons of Orange against the TS.7

The semi-Pelagians, whose views are best illustrated in the writings of John Cassian, understood salvation as the struggle for perfection within the monastic disciplines. Which group of Southern Baptists defines salvation in terms of eastern monasticism? None. The fifth-century, eastern monks questioned how God would judge and reward spiritual life apart from the exercise of the human will. The Augustinian reply (and the later decision by the Second Council of Orange) was a reply to this question about this monastic struggle for perfection, not a reply to contemporary Southern Baptists who differ over Calvinism.

Conclusion Regarding the Second Council of Orange

Contemporary Southern Baptists who view the Second Council of Orange as a model for discussing Calvinism within the SBC will be disappointed. First, the council affirmed baptismal regeneration (salvation via water baptism), which is inconsistent with the BFM. Second, the council did not resolve the question of whether certain people are predestined by God to salvation. Third, if Weaver is correct in her reconstruction of historical events, then the council addressed the semi-Pelagian view of the perfection of saints not the salvation of sinners. In those three ways, the canons against semi-Pelagianism do not apply to the TS.

An Early Assessment of the Traditional Statement

Less than one week after its public release, Roger Olson, professor of theology at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas, commented on the TS. In the blog post, he made three errors before concluding that certain statements in Article 2 “can be interpreted in a semi-Pelagian way.”8 First, he begins with a false premise which ends in a wrong conclusion. Second,

Olson links the TS with people who deny an important claim which the TS affirms. Third, Olson wrongly regards the non-use of an Arminian phrase as a denial of divine initiative. Each of those errors will be detailed below. If Olson erred in his assessment of the TS, then his claim that the TS can be interpreted in a semi-Pelagian way should be considered inaccurate.

Beginning with a false premise
leads to a wrong conclusion

Olson moves from a false premise to a wrong conclusion in order to charge the TS with semi-Pelagianism. First, he wrongly assumes that Southern Baptists are limited to only two biblical options for addressing the issues in Article 2: Calvinism and Arminianism. Next, Olson notes the failure in Article 2 to include two theological concepts which are used in debates between Calvinists and Arminians. Arminians acknowledge the bondage of the will and counter it with prevenient grace. Because Article 2 fails to acknowledge both the problem (bondage of the will) and the solution (prevenient grace), Article 2 should be regarded as neither Calvinist nor Arminian. Olson’s error is that he regards the only other option to be semi-Pelagianism. Must one choose between Arminianism or Calvinism in order to affirm Christian views? According to Olson, yes.

Olson was wrong to require this Arminian-Calvinist theological grid. Article 2 failed to engage the bondage of the will because such a view belongs to a philosophical-theological system which obstructs a clear reading of Scripture.9 Such doctrines are neither helpful nor necessary for Article 2. The TS summarizes a biblical view of the impact of sin on people without importing the bondage of the will. How? Doctrinal statements which reject the Calvinist-Arminian framework are not obligated to employ doctrines belonging uniquely to that system, such as bondage of the will. It is not enough to argue that the TS fails to employ the terms bondage of the will and prevenient grace. In order to make a case against the TS as unbiblical, it must be demonstrated that the views are required by the words of the Bible. Olson did not attempt to make such a case.

Olson’s false premise is that the TS, a distinctively Southern Baptist doctrinal statement, must employ an Arminian doctrine (prevenient grace) to answer a doctrine belonging to Calvinist-Arminian debates on the will. Otherwise, he wrongly concludes, the Southern Baptist document is semi-Pelagian. Advocates of the TS reject the notion that Baptists must borrow from Arminians to defend against Calvinists.

Wrongly linking the TS with people who deny
an important claim which the TS affirms

Olson links the TS with people who deny divine initiative in salvation, but the TS explicitly affirms divine initiative. In his blog article, Olson writes,

(T)he statement’s mention of “the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel” … 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).10

Olson claims that “the Holy Spirit’s work of drawing sinners to salvation through the Gospel … can be interpreted in a semi-Pelagian way.” How so? Olson explains that Limborch and Finney, whom he labels as semi-Pelagians, affirmed the need for the Holy Spirit and the gospel. At this point, Olson has only established that any doctrinal statement which affirms
the need for the Holy Spirit to use the gospel in order for sinners to be converted should be regarded as semi-Pelagian. That would include both the TS and the BFM. But Olson continues, “What made them semi-Pelagian ….” It is unclear to whom was Olson referring. Olson is probably referring not to advocates of the TS but to Limborch and Finney. Thus, “What made [Limborch and Finney] semi-Pelagian was their denial or neglect of divine initiative in salvation.” Even so, Olson implies that if the TS denies or neglects divine initiative, then it should be regarded as semi-Pelagian. But the TS affirms divine initiative in salvation. In that way, the TS is innocent of Olson’s charge.

Wrongly regarding the non-use of an Arminian phrase
as a denial of divine initiative

In his blog post on Article 2, Olson writes,

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. Leaving the statement as it stands, without a clear affirmation of the bondage of the will to sin apart from supernatural grace, inevitably hands the Calvinists ammunition to use against non-Calvinist Baptists.11

Olson identifies “(t)he problem with this Southern Baptist Statement” as “its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of prevenience of supernatural grace (…).” Previously, Olson noted the problem with Limborch and Finney was their “denial or neglect of the divine initiative in salvation.” Olson has not established that the TS denies or neglects divine initiative in salvation.
But Olson apparently thinks this is the case since the TS does not mention “the prevenience of supernatural grace.”

It is true that the TS does not use this Arminian phrase “prevenience of supernatural grace.” But any concern that Article 2 neglects an emphasis on God’s grace should be assuaged by the following declarations in the Statement:

“…no sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” – Article 2, sentence 4

“We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement…” – Article 4, sentence 1

The language of the TS comforts neither Calvinists nor Arminians because Article 2 fails to mention either the bondage of the will or prevenient grace. The reason the theological language of Calvinism and Arminianism is not employed is simple. The TS describes the theology of Southern Baptists who identify with neither of those theological systems.

Olson’s dedicated and intense study of the Calvinist-Arminian framework over a prolonged period of time has resulted in both help and hindrance. The help is found in Olson’s recent books. One is a masterful explanation of Arminianism. The other is a devastating critique of Calvinism. These books are outstanding.12 Unfortunately, the help is accompanied by a hindrance. Olson now places all doctrinal blocks into one of only three holes: Calvinism, Arminianism, and Unbiblical. Because the preamble of the TS explains it was prompted by the rising influence of Calvinism within the SBC, Olson skipped the Calvinism hole. Next, he tried to fit the TS into the Arminian hole. When the TS mentioned neither the bondage of the will nor prevenient grace, Olson knew it wouldn’t fit in the Arminian hole. Olson reasoned the TS must fit into the third hole. But, as argued above, that would only be the case if one accepts the premise that there are only three options: Calvinism, Arminianism, and Unbiblical. The TS reflects a fourth option, Southern Baptist theology which maintains faithfulness to the Bible but disregards certain commitments of both Calvinism and Arminianism.

Summary

The claim made by Olson was then echoed by an SBC Seminary President, who wrote that the TS appears to affirm semi-Pelagianism.13 This chapter attempted to disprove the charge in four ways. First, standard definitions of semi-Pelagianism were provided which are contradicted by claims in the TS. Second, the decisions of the Second Council of Orange fail to indict the TS as unbiblical. Third, the historical-theological context of the fifth-century debate suggests no connection to the current discussion regarding the TS. Fourth, particular errors were exposed in an early assessment of the TS.

The aim of this chapter has been to defeat a false charge. It has been demonstrated in several ways that the TS does not affirm semi-Pelagianism. Perhaps those who were accused of semi-Pelagianism for affirming the Traditional Statement will one day be exonerated like those who were wrongly accused of Communism in the 1950s.


This article was first published to JBTM 10.1 (Spring 2013). Footnotes can be viewed in original journal article.

7 thoughts on “Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian?

  1. Why would anyone even care if a Calvinist called them “semi pelagian”?

    Seriously, who cares? Calvinists label all non Calvinists heretics anyway. To say that the image of God gives us the freedom to choose is completely Biblical.

    1. Carl
      Why would anyone even care if a Calvinist called them “semi pelagian”?

      br.d
      I know what you’re saying Carl
      But behavioral experts will tell you that the reason a person plays some kind of ploy is because they’ve found it works for them.
      This is common with different types of bullying behaviors in the work place.
      The people who play those games wouldn’t bother if it didn’t give them what they were looking for.

      So there are Christians who – not knowing any better – will try to prove they aren’t whatever the Calvinist is claiming
      So this tells us the reason Calvinists do it – is because its a useful tactic to manipulate people – in order to draw them into the net.

  2. It appears that man goes to hell because of his refusal to accept the offer. So… man is more powerful than God to easily dismantle God’s Predistination and Election. Therefore the fallen man has a share or counterpart to present before God (whether to open the door of his heart or not to open) in obtaining God’s plan of Salvation. This made a Semi-Pelagian – goes off the rail of the non-negotiable God’s Grace and Plan for the Salvation of the fallen man.

    1. Calvinist double-speak talking-point #1:
      -quote
      It appears that man goes to hell because of his refusal to accept the offer.

      br.d
      Actually – Calvin’s god specifically designs select people as vessels of wrath – specifically for eternal torment in a lake of fire – for his good pleasure. And accomplishes that by not permitting them to accept an offer he never intends for them.

      Calvinist double-speak talking-point #2:
      -quote
      So… man is more powerful than God to easily dismantle God’s Predistination and Election.

      br.d
      Yea right
      And that’s about to happen when Calvin’s god infallibly actualized every desire and impulse in man’s brain!

      Calvinist double-speak talking-point #3:
      -quote
      Therefore the fallen man has a share or counterpart to present before God (whether to open the door of his heart or not to open) in obtaining God’s plan of Salvation.

      br.d
      Calvinists do love their DOUBLE-SPEAK!

      Calvinist double-speak talking-point #4:
      -quote
      This made a Semi-Pelagian – goes off the rail of the non-negotiable God’s Grace and Plan for the Salvation of the fallen man.

      br.d
      Yup – Calvin’s god’s grace is manifest in DESIGNING the vast majority of his creatures for eternal torment – for his good pleasure!

      Where can we sign up for Calvinist grace! :-]

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