Chris Roberts blogs at “Seek the Holy“.
The recent “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” has brought a lot of attention to the theology of human nature. Of particular concern is Article 2 which states:
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.
Many people have read this and responded that it comes very close to the semi-Pelagian position, a position declared heretical at a church council in 529. Many who defend the Statement have denied the semi-Pelagian label, but the question still remains as to whether or not the label fits.
I thought I would take a stab at presenting the various views and seeing where Article 2 fits, if it fits in any of these. On my blog I have a lengthier discussion, but for the sake of brevity on SBC Voices, I’ve chopped it down to the version presented below. Head to Seek the Holy for the full thing.
Pelagian: No natural corruption from sin. Most people will still need salvation because most people will sin. Individuals are able to seek salvation without God having to first remove their corruption or awaken their wills.
Semi-Pelagian: People are greatly corrupt, yet retain the natural ability to do some good, including respond to the gospel in saving faith. We are able to respond to the gospel without God having to first deal with corruption and deadness in our hearts.
Arminian: People are born completely corrupt and unable to respond to God, but God gives prevenient grace to all (or to all who hear the gospel), undoing enough of the corruption in their hearts that they are able to seek or to reject the offer of the gospel.
Calvinism: People are born completely corrupt and unable to respond to God, but God will give life and light to those he has elected to save, removing the corruption of sin and opening their eyes to the glory of the gospel so that they will respond in faith to the gospel call.
Compare those four positions to Article 2 above and see which, if any, fit. I think the critics are correct that Article 2 crosses into semi-Pelagian territory. Consider what is affirmed and denied about the effect of sin on the natural man:
Affirmed: We affirm that… every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin
Denied: We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will
The statement affirms that there is corruption (inclined toward sin), but denies that there is inability. The statement elsewhere affirms that we need salvation through Jesus Christ alone, but repeatedly asserts that salvation is found through a free response of the human will, a will which is here claimed to be inclined toward sin but not incapacitated by sin. If that is not semi-Pelagian, what is?
The last part of Article 2’s denial adds: …we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.
It is possible that this rescues the Statement from semi-Pelagianism, but I don’t think so. The Statement says that while the Holy Spirit must draw through the gospel, such a drawing does not influence the human will since there still must be a free response (a response of the human will apart from God operating on the will) to the Spirit’s drawing. I assume the writers of the statement mean that the Holy Spirit woos us with the gospel, beckons us to the gospel, shows the beauty and attraction of the gospel (the same way a man might try to win the affections of a woman), but the Spirit does not touch the human will thus avoiding the possibility of “influencing” or “manipulating” the response. In other words, while the Spirit woos and draws, our response to the Spirit originates in the individual through a will that does not need to be changed by God to overcome sin’s corruption.
The Affirmation in Article 2 sounds a lot like what is in the 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message article III on Man, but while those editions of the BF&M only speak of our inclination toward sin (as opposed to the 1925 edition which speaks of corruption and bondage), the Statement goes on to deny natural human inability.
As I said above, if this is not semi-Pelagian, what is? I realize that many in the SBC dislike theological labels of any sort, but there are times when labels apply whether we like it or not. I do not see how the Statement can avoid being rightly called semi-Pelagian.