Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian? / Adam Harwood, Ph.D.

by Adam Harwood, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Theology
McFarland Chair of Theology
Director, Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry
Editor, Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

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:

       
 

Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism

It “maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.”
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

 

It “affirmed that the unaided will performed the initial act of faith” and “the priority of the human will over the grace of God in the initial work of salvation.”
- Evangelical Dictionary of Theology

 

“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.’”
- Integrative Theology

 

“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.”
- The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology

 

 

Semi-Pelagianism Contradicted by the Traditional Statement

“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

 

“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

 

“God’s gracious call to salvation” is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.”
- Article 8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

1.) 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 non-binding for Southern Baptists.

2.) 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.

3.) 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.”

4.) 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.

5.) 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.” Canon 7 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 TS with semi-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.*

(Other headings in the article)

The historical-theological context of fifth-century semi-Pelagianism
Conclusion Regarding the Second Council of Orange
An Early Assessment of the Traditional Statement
Beginning with a false premise leads to a wrong conclusion
Wrongly linking the TS with people who deny an important claim which the TS affirms
Wrongly regarding the non-use of an Arminian phrase as a denial of divine initiative


[1]The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s. v. “Semipelagianism.”
[2]Richard Kyle, “Semi-Pelagianism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2d ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1089–90.
[3]Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 3:20–21.
[4]E.J. Yarnold, “Semi-pelagianism,” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson and John Bowden (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), 536.
[5]See, as examples, Jeph, “My Response to ‘A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Under standing of God’s Plan of Salvation,’” June 2, 2012, http://righteousbutnotyet.blogspot.com/2012/06/ response-to-statement-of-traditional.html; and Joe Carter, “The FAQ’s: Southern Baptists, Calvinists, and God’s Plan of Salvation,” June 6, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/06/06/the- faqs-southern-baptists-calvinism-and-gods-plan-of-salvation/, who cites Chris Roberts, “Is the Statement Semi-Pelagian?” June 5, 2012, http://sbcvoices.com/is-the-statement-semi-pelagian-by-chris-roberts/ (accessed December 19, 2013).
[6]The complete list of canons will not be listed in this chapter but can be accessed here: http://www. reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/canons_of_orange.html (accessed September 8, 2012).
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