Semi-Pelagianism, Christ’s Imputed Righteousness, and Article II of that SBC Document – UPDATED

Article II of the statement proposed by some SBC pastors and theologians on Salvation continues to garner some attention, as well it should. There are implications to the statement that need to be considered heavily. I remain hopeful that this article was written in haste and that as the implications of the wording are pointed out that the wording will be worked out better.

As mentioned before, Dr. White and Tom Ascol have weighed in on this issue, and now Dr. Mohler has offered his conciliatory thoughts. Dr. Mohler wants to open dialogue as it seems that this documented was intended to start a conversation. I wish my Southern Baptist brethren well as they work this through.

The chief concern has been that Article II sounds very close to semi-Pelagianism. But, lest anyone think that when Dr. White, Dr. Mohler, and Tom Ascol assert that the Article II sounds like semi-Pelagianism that it is unhelpful alarmist language, it is important to understand what semi-Pelagianism asserts.

Of semi-Pelagianism, Herman Bavinck states in his Reformed Dogmatics:

According to semi-Pelagianism, the consequences of Adam’s fall consisted for him and his descendants, aside from death, primarily in the weakening of moral strength. Though there is actually no real original sin in the sense of guilt, there is a hereditary malady: as a result of Adam’s fall, humanity has become morally sick; the human will has been weakened and is inclined to evil. There has originated in humans a conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” that makes it impossible for a person to live without sin; but humans can will the good, and when they do, grace comes to their assistance in accomplishing it. This is the position adopted by the Greek church; and although in the West Augustine exerted strong influence, the [Western] church increasingly strayed toward semi-Pelagianism.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3, pg. 90

Bavinck’s comment about the Greek church is accurate insofar as the official doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox is what is known as “Ancestral Sin” and not “Original Sin”. Ancestral sin explains that death has been inherited as well as an inclination toward sin; humanity received the consequences of Adam’s sin, but not the guilt.

As one Eastern Orthodox defender put it:

The Eastern Church, unlike its Western counterpart, never speaks of guilt being passed from Adam and Eve to their progeny, as did Augustine. Instead, it is posited that each person bears the guilt of his or her own sin…It is not guilt that is passed on, for the Orthodox fathers; it is a condition, a disease.

So, when we compare these statements with Article II we see a striking similarity:

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. 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.

This denial that Adam’s sin “rendered any person guilty before he personally sinned” and the maintaining of the free-will of man (the will is not incapacitated by sin) makes the issue significant and identical to what an Eastern Orthodox would be willing to believe. The only objection they might take to the article is that each person’s sin brings “the wrath of a holy God”.

Of course, we need to quickly recognize that the EO would part ways with the SBC on many of its conclusions, so my point is not to make guilt by association. Rather, when one looks at the cumulative citations above, it is difficult to see how Article II does not escape the label of semi-Pelagianism.

But, that is not all. Ascribing the name is not the only issue here. It is what comes with the name that is more concerning. There are implications to denying the imputation of Adam’s guilt that I am not sure all non-Calvinistic SBC pastors and theologians are intending or would be willing to abandon. A denial of Adam’s imputed guilt can lead to a denial of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

Turretin’s warning here is worth noting:

The denial of the imputation of Adam’s sin would not a little weaken the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (which answer to each other and upon which is founded the principal antithesis instituted by Paul between the first and second Adam). For the descent from the negation of the former to the denial of the latter is most easy. Hence, there is no one of the heretics who have denied the imputation of sin who have for the same reason opposed the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (as seen in the Pelagians, Socinians, and Arminians). Hence the reasons by which the imputation of Adam’s sin is opposed can no less be turned back against the imputation of Christ’s righteousness; those upon which the imputation of Christ is built also serve to establish the imputation of Adam’s sin.

– Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 1, p. 623

Article II, then, becomes far more important than ascribing the moniker of “semi-Pelagianism” to the authors. It has implications of fundamental doctrines of Original Sin and Justification, and those are no small issues.

***Update***

An important distinction in semi-Pelagianism is the timing of when grace is given. Semi-Pelagianism usually asserts that men move first and then grace is given. Article II is vague in the timing of grace, but one could see that the phrase “we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel” is intended to convey such a concept.

Nevertheless, this is why it is important to consider and weigh heavily the arguments and implications regarding wording. It is also important to note that the warning from Turretin remains regardless of whether the Semi-Pelagian moniker is deserved.

***Update II***

Responding to Roger Olson’s critique that the statement can still be read in a semi-Pelagian way, Dr. Adam Harwood, one of the SBC document signatories responds:

Second, you explain that for us to defend against the charge of semi-Pelagianism, we must affirm the “cardinal biblical truth” of “the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace.”

Our reply is simple: No, we don’t. What obligates us to borrow a view (prevenient grace) from another group (Arminians) to defend against a philosophical-theological framework which we don’t accept? We reject the precondition that all doctrinal formulations must be placed into a philosophical-theological framework comprised of only these three categories: Calvinism, Arminianism, or Heresy. We consciously reject that framework. And we refuse to place over our eyes the hermeneutical spectacles which demand that we read the Bible in that way.

Dr. Harwood also stated his justification for rejecting the Calvinist/Arminian framework because, “We’re not classical Arminians. We’re ‘Traditional’ Southern Baptists.”

Claiming the historicity of being ‘Traditional’ Southern Baptists while disclaiming the need of the historicity upon which the Southern Baptists originally framed their distinctions seems to be a bit askew. But, more concerning is that Dr. Harwood seems to reject the need to escape the claim that the view is semi-Pelagian by clarifying the article’s position on the grace of God. There are implications to the doctrine beyond the name. The name is not a bogey-man intended to keep the Calvinism/Arminian debate alive. The name represents doctrines that are distinctly unbiblical and has doctrinal implications far down the line, including justification and penal substitutionary atonement. It is not to be taken lightly.