“Claims, Clarity, Charity – Why the Traditional Baptist Statement on Soteriology is not and cannot be Semipelagian.”
David L. Allen
Dean, School of Preaching
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Distinguished Professor of Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Periodically over the past couple of years I read a post at “The Baptist Review” that addresses some aspect of Calvinism. Sometimes in the comment threads the Traditional Baptist Statement on Soteriology (TS) is referenced and occasionally the claim of Semipelagianism pops up. This occurred recently in the post “I’m Now An Arminian,” (Posted on “The Baptist Review,” September 21, 2018, 1:53 pm.) based on the five points Dr. Leighton Flowers listed at his website Soteriology101 as “The 5 Points That Led Me Out Of Calvinism.”
While there are numerous worthy matters to discuss in the post and comments (and I always benefit from these comments and learn from them), I would like to focus only on one: the claim that the TS is Semipelagian.
In short, the TS is not and in fact cannot be legitimately interpreted as Semipelagian. Here is why.
First, let’s identify what Semipelagianism is . . . and what it is not.
What is the heresy of Pelagianism? Simply put, it is this: a person can take the initial steps toward salvation by his own efforts, apart from divine grace (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 1058). Pelagianism denies original sin and asserts wrongly that human nature is essentially unimpaired by the Fall.
Many labor under the mistaken notion that “Semipelagianism” was a term originating in the debates during and after Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. This is in error. Actually it was Theodore Beza who invented the term in 1566, and applied it to the Roman Catholic view of grace and human will.
Beza used the term by way of analogy with “Pelagianism” to denote the Catholic conception of original sin which, after baptism, leaves only an inclination to sin. He considered the Catholic teaching to be somewhat different, though not fundamentally so, from the Pelagian conception of original sin as not transferrable to Adam’s descendants.
According to Beza, the central tenet of Semipelagianism is that it attributes salvation partly to God’s grace, and partly to what he described as human effort. Faith is viewed both as a gift of God and a choice of the human will.
In 1571, Nicholas Sanders, a Roman Catholic, began to use the term “Semipelagianism” with a shift in meaning, where he for the first time applied it to the fifth-century Massilians. The Massilians considered Pelagius a heretic and sided with Augustine on the priority of divine grace before human response, but also differed with Augustine because they believed the human will acts freely in appropriating saving grace. The Massilians affirmed original sin, the necessity of divine grace for salvation, sought a balance between grace and human freedom, “and doubted whether a just predestination could avoid being based on foreknowledge.” “Semipelagianism” is a misleading term for this kind of theology and is more fittingly called “Semi-Augustinianism.” The term “Semipelagian” as used at this point indicated a rejection of Pelagian theology by siding with Augustine, but rejecting some of the implications of Augustine’s views. (D. F. Wright, “Semi-Pelagianism,” New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic, 2nd ed., eds. Martin Davie, et. al. [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016], 833–34. The Catholic Encyclopedia likewise concurs that “Semipelagianism” is a misnomer.)
“Semipelagianism” came to be used for a variety of post-Reformation positions that postulated a greater or lesser degree of human free will in the process of salvation. By the 1680s the term had become common currency while its original sixteenth-century meanings and usages were virtually forgotten. Interestingly, early Catholic catalogues of heresies of the Reformation period make no mention of Semipelagianism. (See Irena Backus and Aza Gourdriaan, “‘Semipelagianism’: The Origins of the Term and its Passage into the History of Heresy,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 65.1 (January 2014): 25–46; and Rebecca Harden Weaver, Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy, Patristic Monograph Series 15 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996).
Thus, it is important to note that there was no theological position identified by the term “Semipelagianism” in the fifth and six centuries. This is not to say that the idea of Semipelagianism did not exist in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Council of Orange (529) condemned the theological position which was later identified with Semipelagianism.
It is also important to note the elasticity of the term and its usage from the sixteenth century until today. Semipelagianism means different things to different people.
And that is part of the problem with respect to those who want to label the Traditional Statement as “Semipelagian.” The historical-theological context of the fifth-century debates between Augustine and Pelagius and their surrogates really have no correlation to the current conversation Southern Baptists are engaged in regarding the TS, as Dr. Harwood rightly points out (Harwood, “Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian?”, in Anyone Can Be Saved: A Defense of “Traditional” Southern Baptist Soteriology, eds. David L. Allen, Eric Hankins, Adam Harwood [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016], 157–68. Harwood’s chapter is an excellent resource on this subject and is the best refutation of the Semipelagian charge.).
According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the so-called Semipelagianism 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.” As recent scholars have noted, this definition needs to be refined in light of the historical evidence. But setting that aside, let’s go with this definition for a moment, since this is, generally speaking, the way the term is used by many today.
By that definition, Baptist theologians Malcolm Yarnell and Adam Harwood have demonstrated from the language of the TS itself that it clearly denies Semipelagianism. The Statement affirms the priority of divine grace in nearly every article, including Article Two, which is the focus of the Semipelagian charge. Article Two 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 [prior] drawing through the Gospel.” Article Four, “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.” The TS makes clear that sinners are saved through a faith response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel prior to the response of the sinner. The TS prohibits the Semipelagian understanding of a sinner taking the first steps toward salvation. The TS does not prioritize the human will over the grace of God. The free response of any sinner is not possible without God’s initiation. Semipelagianism does not argue for the priority of grace in the matter of salvation. The TS does.
Now, here is what I have observed in some of the comments by Calvinists labeling the TS as Semipelagian. First, there is the presumption and presupposition that concepts like total inability, irresistible grace, and regeneration preceding faith are matters of fact. These are of course all disputed by those of us who are not Calvinists. (The latter is disputed by many Calvinists as well, but I digress.)
Second, presuppositions like “original sin entails original guilt” are considered fact and any denial of such is considered to be a part of Semipelagianism. This was the approach of Herman Bavinck and appears to be followed by some Calvinists, including some commenting in “The Baptist Review.” As Dr. Yarnell has accurately pointed out, on such a partisan definition of Semipelagianism, The Baptist Faith and Message would likely be classified as “Semipelagian” since the BFM makes no reference to original guilt. Not even Reformed theologians are in agreement on whether original sin includes original guilt. Henri Blocher in his book Original Sin notes the different views among the Reformed.
Third, it appears to me that some Calvinists have only two theological boxes and some have only three. A few, thankfully only a few, seem to believe that the two boxes are Calvinism and Unbiblical. This is a classic case of the False Dilemma Fallacy. Others operate under the three box system: Calvinism, Arminianism, Unbiblical (where Arminianism barely escapes the third category, i.e., it is wrong on many points, but it is not heresy). As Dr. Harwood noted in his critique of Roger Olson’s points concerning the TS, as Traditional Baptists, we don’t necessarily need to utilize the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace (which is in need of careful definition as well) to state our position against aspects of Calvinism.
While we are at it, let me state for the record that the term “prevenient grace” antedates Arminius and all orthodox Christians affirm some form of prevenient grace in the general meaning of the term: a grace coming from God prior to any human response to the Gospel and enabling any human response to the Gospel. This is what lies behind Augustine’s use of the term (grace is “prevenient to human will”) and Calvin’s use of the term in their writings and, more recently, Fleming Rutledge’s statement in her book on atonement, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015) that we need to retain the valuable term “prevenient grace.” The initiating act of God for salvation as defined by the TS falls well within this category.
Now back to point number three above. Calvinists and Arminians err when they claim that theologically, it’s either Calvinism or Arminianism. This approach does not do justice to the varieties of orthodox Christian traditions. Augustinianism is not identical with Calvinism. Nor can Lutheranism be identified as Calvinism. As Michael Horton rightly noted, Confessional Lutherans “cannot be pressed into Calvinist-Arminian categories” because they affirm unconditional election and monergism, but deny double predestination, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of believers (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 314.n.11). Douglas A. Sweeney (professor of Church History at Trinity) informs us that Lutheranism is . . . Lutherans. They are neither “hesitant Calvinists” nor “two-and-a-half-point Calvinists.” (See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/was-luther-a-calvinist/). Baptists are Baptists, and we are a varied bunch! Those who affirm the TS reject the notion that one has to be either Calvinist or Arminian . . . and Baptist history is on our side. See http://www.baptisttheology.org/white-papers/neither-calvinists-nor-arminians-but-baptists/.
Fourth, and this may be the most problematic of all, some critics of the TS seem to assume or believe that anything that is not Calvinism is, by entailment, Semipelagianism. Since the TS authors and signers deny such things as regeneration preceding faith, total depravity entails total inability, and that faith is a special grace gift given only to the elect, some Calvinists wrongly interpret the TS as denying prior divine initiative in salvation, and thus they conclude it is Semipelagian. This is a misuse of the term . . . and a serious mistake. It reads Semipelagianism into the words of the TS rather than finding it there.
I would urge all to read the last three pages of Richard Muller’s Divine Will and Human Choice (Baker, 2017) to see that today’s Reformed understanding of Compatibilism is not equivalent to that of the early Reformed theologians who placed more emphasis on genuine free will. Spoiler alert—heavy dependence on Jonathan Edwards for your understanding of the freedom of the will, or the lack thereof, is problematic according to Muller! Edwards did the Church no favor when he wedded Calvinism with Thomas Hobbes’ determinism (See Allen Guelzo’s Edwards on the Will [Wipf and Stock, 2008]. Even the 19th century Calvinist theologians B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge were not on board with Edwards).
God’s prior initiative in salvation does preclude Semipelagianism.
The TS affirms God’s prior initiative in salvation.
The TS is not Semipelagian.
God’s prior initiative in salvation does not preclude libertarian freedom.
God’s prior initiative in salvation does not have to include Calvinism’s paradigm of total inability of the human will. Denial of total inability is not Semipelagianism. As Arminius rightly made clear in his refutation of the charge of Pelagianism, the sinfulness of humanity is so complete that only by grace, and by grace alone, is human freedom even a possibility. (W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments, 189.)
The Biblical reality of humanity’s responsibility to God militates against a wholesale rejection of freedom of the will. A will that is not free is not a will, as the early Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas all affirmed. Libertarian freedom, rightly understood, has always been a qualified freedom. A person does not act outside of the influences of his sinful human nature or contrary to the judgment of his intellect or outside God’s providence.
In this vein, serious problems exist with Augustine’s exegesis of Romans 9 and Ephesians 2, coupled with his concept of original sin. Prior to the later Augustine, with the exception of the Pelagians, all Christians held the concept of an inherited sin nature and propensity to sin which prohibited any human approach to God apart from an initiating divine grace. As Kenneth Wilson has recently demonstrated, Augustine redefined the standard notion of original sin to include original guilt. Free will for Augustine becomes Stoic “non-free free will” requiring God’s infusion of faith for regeneration to occur. Augustine borrowed from Stoic moral theory to validate his novel notion of individual unconditional election à la his interpretation of Romans 9. Wilson states:
Stoicism’s internal “evil will” precluded any possibility for a human to have a positive response [to the gospel]. . . . Therefore “free will” meant only that humans were capable of responding negatively, not that humans could believe. His novelty blatantly contradicted the universal Christian doctrine of the God-given (and post-fall retained) capacity/principle to receive/accept/believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (cf. John 1:12–13; John 20:21). (Kenneth Wilson, Augustine’s Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to “Non-free Free Will,” in Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Christianity, vol. 111 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018], 270).
This ground-breaking book is a bombshell in Augustinian studies and demonstrates Augustine derived much of his later theology more from Stoic, Manichaean, and Neo-Platonic philosophies, which he then superimposed on key biblical texts. See especially pp. 265–69, on Augustine’s departure from traditional Christian theology of original sin. Calvinists cannot afford to ignore Wilson’s scholarly treatment. He is one of the few scholars to have read and examined all of Augustine’s writings in Latin, in chronological order. Augustine is the fountainhead of Reformed theology and the primary influencer of Calvin.
So, back to the title of this piece: “Claims, Clarity, Charity.” Claims have to be substantiated. The claim that the TS is Semipelagian remains unsubstantiated. Clarity—definitional, historical, theological—must be the order of the day. Charity must rule as we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.