Thursday, June 7, 2012

Article 2 is unclear, but not Semi-Pelagian

Article two of the traditional understanding of the SBC view of God's plan of salvation (link) has been called Semi-Pelagian  hereherehere and here.

Here's the article:

Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man

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.


The most criticised phrase is the denial of incapacitation of anyone's free will as a result of Adam's sin and it does sound bad. However, the very next sentence denies sinners are saved apart from the Holy Spirit's drawing through the Gospel. Per Semi-Pelagianism, we don't need the Holy Spirit's drawing - we just need the man up their preaching. Further, 'drawing' is likely an allusion to John 6:44, and John 12:32 - texts commonly cited in support of prevenient grace. So unless the authors of the traditional view are using an abusive definition of drawing, this sentence cannot be read as consistent with Semi-Pelagianism.

So the options seem to be, A) the Traditionalists are secret heretics hiding their views in plain site, B) article two is self contradictory in back to back sentences or C) the denial of incapacitation is consistent with man's need for super-natural previenient grace.

We should give the Traditionalists the benefit of the doubt that they are not secret heretics. They could be inconsistent - given the large number of signers some could be Semi-Pelagians while others are not. That way each sub-group could see what they want in the statement. But that's not a very charitable thing to assume either - but I think the possibility alone is enough to call for a clarification as to the original intent behind article two.

But let's explore the third option, that the denial of incapacitation is consistent with man's need for super-natural prevenient grace. But before digging in, let's look at article 8 on free will.

For reference, here’s the affirmation in 8:

We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.

This affirmation is interested in two things: 1) defining freedom in libertarian terms and 2) asserting that our acceptance or rejection of Christ is free in a libertarian sense. While this affirmation presupposes freedom from the slavery of sin, the issue under discussion is not so much freedom from sin as it is freedom from determinism.

Freedom from determinism is the idea that we are free in a libertarian sense; nothing determines our actions. Freedom from sin is the ability to obey God’s commands and believe His promises. Let’s for the moment say a person has libertarian freedom, but not freedom from sin. He can’t obey God, but he can still choose between chocolate or vanilla, or choose between sinful alternatives (i.e. should I yell at my wife or go out back and smoke pot). If the person doesn’t have libertarian freedom they can’t – if God predetermines I will eat chocolate, I cannot eat vanilla. I say this only to clarify the distinction between these two freedom’s.

Article 8 asserts that whoever accepts or rejects the call of the gospel does so with libertarian freedom. Compatiblist freedom is not enough. The Calvinist definition of the freedom we have when we choose Christ is not correct.

Now for the denial in 8:

“We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an “effectual call” for certain people that is different from a “general call” to any person who hears and understands the Gospel.”

The first sentence is a critique of Calvinism; what they see as the logical implication of man lacking libertarian freedom. Ultimately God is behind the action and it’s not up to us. The second sentence denies the idea of an “effectual call”. Per Calvinism, this effectual call, causes a positive response. If a person is effectually called, their is a positive response. The call is a sufficient cause of the response. The person cannot say no; they are causally determined to say yes. This is a denial of libertarian freedom (at least with respect to salvation). Article 8 rejects this idea.

Back to the denial of incapacitation in article 2. What if they are talking about incapacitation generally and denying the loss of libertarian free will? So when the Holy Spirit's drawing opens responding to the Gospel as an option to us, we are able to choose it. In this way, these back to back sentences can be reconciled without contradiction or semi-Pelagianism.

Now let's address an obvious objection. Calvinists don't believe Adam lost libertarian freedom by the fall because they don't believe he had libertarian freedom before the fall. That's a serious difficulty. If the incapacitation in article two is not talking about the loss of libertarian freedom, but rather the freedom from sin's dominion, then we are back to either the Traditionalists being either inconsistent or secret heretics. About the only answer I can think of is that throughout the document the Traditionalists did not present Calvinism as Calvinists would - they used their own definitions of terms rather than Calvinists definitions. Additionally, Calvinists themselves have not always been clear on the distinction between freedom from sin and freedom from determinism. So just because they didn't hit Calvinism with total precision doesn't mean they didn't have libertarian freedom in mind.

I do think there is a reasonable way to read article two without Semi-Pelagianism. That's not saying much but is saying enough to say those calling the document Semi-Pelagian are jumping the gun. This is especially true, given the Traditionalists are already saying they are not Semi-Pelagian. However, a clarification from the Traditionalist side is in order.

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