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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.

In honor of Article Two…

In honor of Article Two of the “traditional” Southern Baptist view of salvation, I would like to provide a citation from the Abstract of Systematic Theology by James P. Boyce, published originally in 1887. Boyce has the distinction of being the founder and first president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and President of the Southern Baptist Convention (1872-79,1888):

The facts as to the descendants of Adam show that they have universally partaken of his corrupted nature, and that, not even in their earliest years, have any had the innocent nature, with its strong proclivities to holiness, which constituted his original condition.

1. They are born with the corrupted nature which he acquired, together with all the other evils set forth as the penalties of his sin. This was true even of his first children, Cain and Abel, as it has been also equally true of all others even to the present time.

2. No one of these descendants has been able to recover the nature possessed by Adam before the fall. In each of them the same inability has existed which fell upon him.

3. No one has been able to escape the complete fulfilment of the penalty of death, in all its meanings, except through the work of Christ.

4. No other reason for this universal condition has been assigned than the one sin by which Adam fell, and it has, consequently, been generally recognized as, in some way, the result of that one transgression.

5. The conscience of mankind has universally taught that this condition of their natures is sinful, and is as fully worthy of punishment as the personal transgressions which proceed from it.

6. The Scriptures plainly assume and declare that God righteously punishes all men, not only for what they do, but for what they are. Men are indeed represented as more guilty and sinful than they know themselves to be, because, through the restraints with which God surrounds them, their natures have not been fully developed into all the sin towards which they tend. This is the argument of the first part of the Epistle to the Romans, the turning point of which is Rom. 2:1. It is also illustrated in the case of Hazael. 2 Kings 8:12, 13.

7. It follows from the facts in these last two statements, that a corrupt nature makes a condition as truly sinful, and guilty, and liable to punishment, as actual transgressions. Consequently, at the very moment of birth, the presence and possession of such a nature shows that even the infant sons of Adam are born under all the penalties which befell their ancestor in the day of his sin. Actual transgression subsequently adds new guilt to guilt already existing, but does not substitute a state of guilt for one of innocence.

8. Not the judgement of God only, but that of man also, regards a sinful nature as deserving punishment equally with a sinful act. The law of man is necessarily confined to the punishment of the acts, because these alone give such testimony to the condition of the heart as man can correctly apprehend; but the character of any act is regarded as alleviated, or aggravated, by the character of the actor; and men are shunned or courted as they are deemed to be good or bad, without any other reference to their acts than as they testify to character.

From the above points it will be seen that men, as descendants of Adam, are invariably born, not with his original, but with his fallen nature, and, more than this, not only receive that corrupted nature which was a part of the penalty of his sin, but with it all the other penalties inflicted because of that sin. It is also plain that a condition of sinfulness is regarded worthy of punishment not only by the Scriptures, and by personal conviction of conscience, but by the universal sense of mankind; and consequently that men may be punished for the corrupt nature thus inherited, although they may not have been personally guilty of a single transgression. This naturally leads to the inquiry into the nature of the connection between Adam and his posterity through which such sad and serious results have occurred.

Contrast this doctrinal statement with Article Two of the “A Statement of the Traditional Modern Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”:

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.

The italicized portion of the denial is what is generating the greatest concern as Dr. White addresses here and here and Tom Ascol addresses here.

I cite from Boyce to demonstrate not simply the age of the view within the SBC (though, Dr. Nettles has written on this at length), but also to highlight the significant contribution of Calvinistic Southern Baptists to the history of the Southern Baptist Convention in the area of theology.

For those interested in following this issue, Tom Ascol is giving this document a fine response on his blog.

The Preacher’s Passion

Richard Baxter encourages ministers to let their earnestness match the seriousness and worthiness of their message. Would we be dull if we were to speak to our Lord? Would our speech be frivolous if we were to see him this very moment? If not, then how could we make our substance trivial and our voice dull or mild when we speak about Him?

If we were heartily devoted to our work, it would be done more vigorously, and more seriously, than it is by the most of us. How few ministers do preach with all their might, or speak about everlasting joys and everlasting torments in such a manner as may make men believe that they are in good earnest! It would make a man’s heart ache, to see a company of dead, drowsy sinners sitting under a minister, and not hear a word that is likely to quicken or awaken them. Alas! we speak so drowsily and so softly, that sleepy sinners cannot hear. The blow falls so light that hard-hearted sinners cannot feel. The most of ministers will not so much as exert their voice, and stir up themselves to an earnest utterance. But if they do speak loud and earnestly, how few do answer it with weight and earnestness of matter! And yet without this, the voice doth little good; the people will esteem it but mere bawling, when the matter doth not correspond. It would grieve one to the heart to hear what excellent doctrine some ministers have in hand, while yet they let it die in their hands for want of close and lively application; what fit matter they have for convincing sinners, and how little they make of it; what good they might do if they would set it home, and yet they cannot or will not do it.

O sirs, how plainly, how closely, how earnestly, should we deliver a message of such moment as ours, when the everlasting life or everlasting death of our fellow-men is involved in it! Methinks we are in nothing so wanting as in this seriousness; yet is there nothing more unsuitable to such a business, than to be slight and dull. What! speak coldly for God, and for men’s salvation? Can we believe that our people must be converted or condemned, and yet speak in a drowsy tone? In the name of God, brethren, labor to awaken your own hearts, before you go to the pulpit, that you may be fit to awaken the hearts of sinners. Remember they must be awakened or damned, and that a sleepy preacher will hardly awaken drowsy sinners. Though you give the holy things of God the highest praises in words, yet, if you do it coldly, you will seem by your manner to unsay what you said in the matter. It is a kind of contempt of great things, especially of so great things, to speak of them without much affection and fervency. The manner, as well as the words, must set them forth. If we are commanded, ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might,’ then certainly such a work as preaching for men’s salvation should be done with all our might. But, alas, how few in number are such men! It is only here and there, even among good ministers, that we find one who has an earnest, persuasive, powerful way of speaking, that the people can feel him preach when they hear him.

Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor

On being defined by what you are against…

For Christians, this is nothing new:

And when finally he was brought up, there was a great tumult on hearing that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, he tried to persuade him to deny, saying, “Have respect to your age”—and other things that customarily follow this, such as, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; change your mind; say, ‘Away with the atheists*!'”

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

*An atheist was one who rejected the state approved gods.