By Malcolm B. Yarnell III, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Director of the Oxford Study Program, Director of the Center for Theological Research, and Editor of the Southwestern Journal of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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.
A Response to Dr. Al Mohler
Regarding “A Statement of the Traditional Baptist
Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”
I am appreciative of Dr. Mohler’s willingness to reply to our Statement, and I agree with much of it. He is a statesman whose influence on Southern Baptist life is inestimable, and he is owed a debt of gratitude for his tireless work for the cause of the kingdom. His involvement in this debate is crucial to a God-honoring conclusion. I am thrilled over Dr. Mohler’s affirmation of the necessity of this discussion and his agreement that “it’s time to talk.” The most ubiquitous criticism of the Statement over the last several days has been that it is unnecessarily divisive and that our concerns about Calvinism are contrived. We are thankful that Dr. Mohler acknowledges that it is good, right, and healthy to have a robust discussion of these important and very real issues. Along with him, we wholeheartedly affirm that The Baptist Faith and Message forms the sufficient boundary for our collective theological interests and should continue to be our principle guiding document.
Although most of what Dr. Mohler has stated is quite helpful, I am afraid that much of it will be ignored because of two very unfortunate charges he levels concerning the Statement. These charges, especially in light of the more vitriolic responses to the Statement in the blogosphere, are likely to fuel the rancor that will foreclose upon the very discussion Dr. Mohler feels is so important have. The two serious charges to which we strenuously object are (1) that the Statement appears to be heretical and (2) that the Southern Baptist leaders (former presidents, seminary presidents, state executives, seminary professors, evangelists, and pastors) who signed the statement were not sharp enough to recognize the heresy. To these charges, I offer the following reply:
By Dr. Jerry Vines, President of Jerry Vines Ministries,
Pastor Emeritus, First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, FL, member of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 Committee, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
I was interested to read Dr. Mohler’s response to “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” which statement I gladly signed. His response was thoughtful, kind and forthright. I consider Dr. Mohler a friend. It has been my privilege to fellowship with him on many occasions through the years. I had him preach often at the Pastors’ Conference in Jacksonville, and he used to have me speak at Southern. In the same spirit he has demonstrated, permit me to offer a response.
When I was sent the statement primarily authored by Dr. Eric Hankins, assisted by other notable Southern Baptist theologians, I was pleased with it. So much so, that I gladly added my name to it and emailed a number of my friends suggesting they might also like to be an original signatory. Indeed, many of them did sign. The growing list of signatories includes past SBC presidents, current SBC seminary presidents, denominational ministers, pastors and lay people. This is an impressive list and should not be taken lightly, as Dr. Mohler has not.
In that email I stated that I was in general agreement with the statement and would not attempt to nuance its content. As I view it, this statement is intended to start a much needed debate and, like the BF&M, is not intended to be the final word on all things soteriological. 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! My response is not intended to engage this, however. I understand that the primary authors of the statement will submit a response to Dr. Mohler’s blog. So, in a spirit of brotherhood and a humble search for truth, let the discussion begin.
Today’s Discussion Topic:
Article Four: The Grace of God
of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist
Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”
”A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of the Plan of Salvation,” authored by Eric Hankins and others, has drawn strong interest. It has been referenced in a recent Baptist Press article, multiple blog posts, and many dozens of posts in Facebook and other social media. The statement has been accessed over 20,000 times in the last few days. Nearly 1,000 comments have been posted in SBC Today about the statement, and over 350 persons have signed the document (including some key leaders from every level of Southern Baptist life). You can sign it also by following these directions.
To structure the discussion, we are focusing the comments on the affirmation and denial statement of one article of the statement at a time. Today’s discussion will address the Southern Baptist doctrines of grace in Article 4: The Grace of God. Keep in mind that each of the affirmations and denials in the articles complement each other, not unlike the Together for the Gospel statement signed and/or affirmed by some Southern Baptist leaders who embrace Reformed views.
Please confine your comments to the article being discussed that day, not general comments about the statement. If you want to comment on other things, follow the links to other discussion threads:
Thank you for your comments on these theological issues!
– The Editors of SBC Today
|Click this link to see the full statement of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”|
|Right click to download
A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Soteriology SBC Today.pdf
|Click this link to see the list of signers of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”|
|Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join the movement and sign “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” as follows:
Name, Position, Organization/Church, City, State
For example: John Doe, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Anytown, LA or
Discussion of Article Four: The Grace of God in “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”
Note: As we discuss each article of the statement, today’s comments should focus on the affirmation and denial in Article 4. Please limit your comments here to Article 4.
Article Four: The Grace of God
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.
We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.
Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 3:34; Zechariah 12:10; Matthew 19:16-30, 23:37; Luke 10:1-12; Acts 15:11; 20:24; Romans 3:24, 27-28; 5:6, 8, 15-21; Galatians 1:6; 2:21; 5; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 3:2-9; Colossians 2:13-17; Hebrews 4:16; 9:28; 1 John 4:19
Thank you for considering “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” Your comments in your June 4 post  have alerted Christians outside of the Southern Baptist Convention to this important discussion on soteriology that is emerging within the SBC.
I have read, and hold a deep appreciation for, two of your books surrounding this topic, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities and Against Calvinism. They are careful, thorough works. Thank you for your contribution to this field of study.
Your post attempts to link the Statement in question with both Arminianism and Semi-Pelagianism. In this reply, I will address the significant challenge facing your post, which is your faulty assumption concerning the group of Baptist signatories.
Before proceeding, I request a clarification. If you are linking this Statement with Semi-Pelagianism (a heterodox view) and if the Statement reflects the views of the majority of Southern Baptists (which is the claim of the signers), then several questions emerge: Are you claiming that the document does not reflect the majority of Southern Baptists? If so, what is your evidence for such a claim? Are you claiming that the signers of this Statement (hundreds of Baptist pastors, professors, and denominational leaders) have attached their names to a heretical document? If so, then please be clear in your remarks because that would be an astounding claim. Perhaps you have in mind another possibility. Please clarify.