Semi-Pelagianism? A Plea for Clarity and Charity

June 7, 2012

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.

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.