Roger Olson, a historical theologian relentless in his arguments against the logic of Calvinism and the victimization of Arminianism, writes:

For a long time I’ve been stating that most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist. Calvinists and Arminians stand together, with Scripture, against semi-Pelagianism

Looking at a new statement put together, “A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” Professor Olson is concerned with some of its language, along with what it doesn’t say. He thinks it tends toward, or at least opens the door to, a semi-Pelagian reading:

Semi-Pelagians such as Philip Limborch and (at least in some of his writings) Charles Finney affirmed the necessity of the gospel and the Holy Spirit’s enlightening work through it for salvation. What made them semi-Pelagian was their denial or neglect of the divine initiative in salvation (except the gospel message).

The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly. And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin.

Albert Mohler’s response seeks to set the whole discussion in theological and denominational context, but also raises the question of semi-Pelagianism:

I have very serious reservations and concerns about some of its assertions and denials. I fully understand the intention of the drafters to oppose several Calvinist renderings of doctrine, but some of the language employed in the statement goes far beyond this intention. Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will — understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied. Clearly, some Southern Baptists do not want to identify as either Calvinists, non-Calvinists, or Arminians. That is fine by me, but these theological issues have been debated by evangelicals for centuries now, and those labels stick for a reason.

That leads me to make another qualification. I do not believe that those most problematic statements truly reflect the beliefs of many who signed this document. I know many of these men very well, and I know them to be doctrinally careful and theologically discerning. Some of these very men have served most boldly in the defense of the faith, and they have taught me much. We should be honored by the privilege of a serious theological conversation with one another, and we will all speak more carefully when we are respectfully questioned by those with whom we disagree.

Dr. Mohler’s whole piece is worth reading, even for those who don’t have a denominational dog in this discussion.

Print Friendly
View Comments

Comments:


29 thoughts on “Is an Anti-Calvinist Statement by SBC Leaders Actually Semi-Pelagian?”

  1. Emerson says:

    Please don’t bring SBC issues to TGC.
    It still baffles me that any SBC leaders (even “Reformed” ones) who continue to promote legalism regarding alcohol (for example) are given any sort of platform here. Many of us flocked to TGC because of the absence of an understanding of the gospel in the SBC. Why “Reformed” SBCers want to remain institutionally linked with the rest of the SBC confuses me. It seems they operate with a Roman Catholic understanding of Christian unity (institutional rather than spiritual), assuming that all current SBCers should remain SBCers because they agree on inerrancy. That actually seems like a less important doctrine to rally around than notions of original sin and the way grace operates in salvation.

    1. Tad says:

      You know their are several southern baptist on the TGC council right?

      1. Emerson says:

        Tad: Yes. That is why I am baffled and have been since the council included them. The gospel-centered theology of men like Carson and Keller who both have taught openly about the legalism of demanding abstinence from alcohol embraced a few SBC leaders who openly teach that Christians shouldn’t drink.
        After spending a great deal of time in the SBC, this issue (among others) has led me to see that SBC identity is not around the gospel but around a culture, and the fight we are seeing now is yet one more among many for power within that culture.

        1. Justin R. says:

          Emerson,

          Isn’t the fight we are seeing now about understanding the gospel? So how can you reference this ‘fight’ as an indication that SBC identity is built around a culture and not the gospel? They are arguing about the gospel.

          As Mohler points out in his article, it is a good thing that our (I’m an SBC pastor) family squabbles are not about homosexual ordination and other such issues that infect denominations in which inerrancy is denied. Striving for clarity on the gospel is a good debate to undertake.

          And as for the drinking part, that seems like such an insignificant issue to disengage from the SBC over. And even if you did feel obligated to disengage, it seems most wrongheaded to malign an entire denomination as non-gospel oriented due to your disagreement with “a few SBC leaders” over such a 3rd-tier doctrinal peculiarity.

        2. Kyle Carlson says:

          Your blanket judgment of Southern Baptists as committed to a culture rather than the gospel is uncharitable and unfounded. Making an individual’s position on alcohol a litmus test for whether he has an understanding of the gospel is a non sequitur.

          There are many Southern Baptists who love TGC, so to insist that TGC bloggers ignore SBC issues is absurd. I, for one, am happy to hear TGC folks weigh in on the matter at hand.

          1. Emerson says:

            Justin,
            Thanks for pushing back. I actually think you are raising issues that support my thesis that the SBC identity is not grounded on the gospel. You asked, “Isn’t the fight we are seeing now about understanding the gospel?” I would answer, yes, there is a fight about the gospel going on, but no, the underlying issue is, “What does it mean to be Southern Baptist.” I say that because if you read Mohler and various blogs by J. Akin, Finn, Ascol and others, you will see that while all of these guys disagree with the theology of the traditionalists, their main issue with the tradtionalists is that they have claimed that their statement outlines what it means to be Southern Baptists. Guys like Mohler, Akin, etc. are saying, “We disagree over the gospel and how that works exactly, but that isn’t important, we can all get along and be Southern Baptist for the Great Commission.”
            This too is misleading though because (all?) evangelicals agree with Great Commission work, so that can’t be what makes Southern Baptists identity. What is it then? Is it baptism? Certainly unity on baptism isn’t required for Great Commission partnership. The same goes for innerancy.
            This is why I said that Southern Baptist identity is really a commitment to a culture, a culture linked to the institutions of power that the bureaucracy of the SBC constitutes.
            Striving for clarity on the gospel is a good thing, I agree. But, this discussion has been going on for years now, and the lines have been drawn over and over again. What is baffling is that instead of going separate ways because of disagreement about the gospel, many people argue that SBCers should stay together. If the differences are over the gospel, then why aren’t people moving?
            My point in bringing alcohol into the discussion (because I don’t think it is an obscure issue) is that there is a culture, a way of speaking, and a set of behaviors that actually unify these SBCers across their theological differences. You are right that alcohol is a third tier issue. My point is that the SBC leadership continues to mandate a position on alcohol. That is the problem I am raising. It is ironic that Mohler talks about the theological triage and then fails to apply it himself, enforcing abstinence and preaching in chapel against any Christian drinking. John Calvin in his Institutes went from talking about justification by faith alone directly into a discussion on Christian freedom, condemning those that would lay rules no given by Scripture on to others (against the Roman Catholic Church). He saw a direct correlation between the gospel and its application to Christian freedom. I question whether or not many of the SBC leaders who affiliate with the Gospel Coalition can be truly considered gospel-centered when they enforce legalistic rules in their seminaries and in their churches. This is an area where some of the SBC TGCers and the “traditionalists” are the same. They differ on the gospel, but somehow, they both have the same view of Christian freedom (which is to say that they don’t believe in it).

            I welcome push back on these points. I say all this sadly and after years of working within the SBC, sharing meals with many of these leaders, and attending conferences and conventions with these guys. I am not happy about this, and I don’t say any of this flippantly.

            Kyle,
            I don’t think my statements above can be taken to read that all SBCers are committed to a culture rather than the gospel. I spoke of the convention as an entity. I know many faithful Southern Baptists who are committed to the gospel and being gospel-centered. However, I disagree with you that an issue like alcohol has nothing to do with one’s understanding of the gospel. Commitment to calling all Christians to abstinence of alcohol often does reveal a religious legalism that has nothing to do with Christ in the same way that we would question those who demand all women wear dresses and not pants as a legalism that may be blinded a person to the freedom the gospel brings. I would agree with your statement if it went the other way. If a person thinks no Christian should drink alcohol, then you would be right to say to them: “an individual’s position on alcohol a litmus test for whether he has an understanding of the gospel is a non sequitur.” But, I don’t think your statement works to the one insisting on loving, Christ honoring freedom to enjoy God’s gifts.

            Thanks to you both. I hope this has clarified my original thoughts.

            1. Justin Runyan says:

              Emerson,

              Thanks for the clarification. I now see what you’re saying more clearly.

              I can understand your perspective. Being ignorant of the intricacies of SBC politics, I don’t want to assume the big wigs believe that being a Southern Baptist trumps being biblically faithful. Instead I think they believe that being a ‘traditional’ (whatever that is) Southern Baptist IS being biblically faithful. Thus seeking to know how Southern Baptist have traditionally understood the gospel is a legitimate way (in their minds) of determining what is biblical.

              While I disagree with their methodology, most especially since they would say I do not understand the gospel in the traditional Southern Baptist way, I do recognize their goal isn’t simply culturally motivated. They are motivated to properly articulate and defend the true gospel, not just a SBC culture. I could easily be wrong, but i want to hope for the best concerning their motivations.

              It appears that for many years a consensus on this issue was assumed simply because Calvinism was a very small part of SBC life. Now that Calvinism has grown in influence, that unarticulated consensus has been challenged, and a clear doctrinal position is needed. Once (if?) that position is reached, I do believe that separation will begin to occur.

              As to your questions concerning what is at the heart of Baptist identity (Baptism? Inerrancy? Great Commission?) that is a good question for me to consider.

              God Bless.

            2. J. Clark says:

              Emerson,
              Way over stated. I knew a man who once beat a dead horse and then he beat it again. Can you give me one denomination that does not struggle with some forms of legalism? I’ve run out of time but will be back later.
              J.

              1. Emerson says:

                J.,
                I am not sure if you were really asking a genuine question here or making a point. I’ll take your question seriously.

                “Can you give me one denomination that does not struggle with some forms of legalism?”
                Yes, the SBC does not struggle with legalism, it embraces it wholeheartedly. This is not just an accusation. As late as 2006 the SBC passed this resolution at the annual convention: http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/amResolution.asp?ID=1156
                Additionally, many state conventions pass resolutions like this each year, (NC for example).
                Yes, all Christians struggle with legalism. My point is that the SBC as an entity and many of its institutions (like each seminary and many state conventions) continually enforces legalism, and many of the SBC leaders associated with TGC support this.
                Sadly, I do not think my comments are overstated. I wish they were.

  2. david carlson says:

    Just to prove the apocalypse is upon us, Frank Turk (Team Pyro) has the same opinion as Roger Olson.

  3. Scott C says:

    A number of recent Reformed theologians have denied that Arminianism is a form of semi-Pelagianism. Part of that response has been precisely because men like Roger Olson have emphatically denied the charge. I think in order to be conciliatory, these Reformed leaders have agreed with Olson. I think they are wrong. I think Arminianism does deserve the charge of semi-Pelagianism. I have written a paper that examines the issue and can be found on Mongergism.com.

    http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/Prevenient%20Grace%20&%20SemiPelagianism.pdf

  4. Arminianism isn’t really a form of semi-Pelagianism, because semi-Pelagianists assert that:

    1.) Man is part good and evil.

    2.) The good in man chooses God.

    3.) Therefore, God has NO part in salvation.

    Arminians would affirm man’s total depravity (in a sense) and recognize, at least, that the Holy Spirit must awaken the heart to salvation.

  5. Scott C says:

    Nick,
    You have mis-characterized semi-Pelagianism (especially #3) which is commonly misunderstood. Furthermore, the Arminian view of salvation hinges on their view of Prevenient Grace. Olson calls it the “Linchpin” of Arminian soteriology (Arminian Theology, p. 178). When the Arminian view of PG is understood it is virtually indistinguishable from semi-Pelagianism.

  6. So some Calvinists are pouting and to get back they decide to call the ones that hurt their feelings, “Semi-Pelagians”. Yeah, that’s the spirit of theological dialog allegedly promoted at TGC. LOL.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Alex, (1) no one is pouting, (2) no one’s feelings are hurt; (3) semi-Pelagianism is a conclusion, not name calling. Roger Olson is a militant anti-Calvinist and this is his concern. Furthermore, the author of the statement is a self-professed semi-Pelagian.

      1. Donald says:

        <>

        Where, pray tell, is this self-profession?

  7. Jason Boggs says:

    Two points need to be clarified concerning this SBC statement. First, despite the fact that they claim to speak for “Traditional” SBCers, the truth is they do not. This statement has in no way been ratified, accepted, or even voted upon by the SBC. In fact, many in the SBC, Mohler, Akin, etc, would argue that the statement misunderstands not only the nature of the Gospel, but also the doctrinal history of the SBC. Sharing a history with both the Reformers, and the Anabaptists, one can hardly argue that we do not have Calvinistic roots. The influx of non-calvinists in the early 20th Century hardly constitutes a “tradition” of non-calvinism. Secondly, the reason so many calvinistic Southern Baptists continue to operate within the SBC despite differing theologically with a few of our fellow pastors/members is that we believe the SBC, overall, to be the closest to our understanding of Scripture. If we were to leave our church, or begin a new denomination every time we disagreed with someone doctrinally, then there would be as many denominations as there are Christians. Overall, I pray that Mohler is right and that this discussion of saving grace will lead to a better understanding of the Gospel overall for our denomination. However, until we resolve this issue, I fear it will only serve to black the eye of the SBC and make it more difficult for us to do ministry.

    1. Emerson says:

      Jason,
      I agree with your first point. I have no disagreements there. My point above is to point out the baffling problem that is either overlooked or ignored by the very leaders you just mentioned. If the doctrinal issues being discussed were not central issues to the Christian faith (like say the timing and nature of the events of Christ’s return) then I would understand healthy discussion and unity amidst disagreement. What is baffling is that the very leaders you mention are arguing that the so called traditionalists are massively missing key central doctrines. If the so called traditionalists are missing on central doctrines after years of discussion, why won’t the leaders you mentioned (who also affiliate with TGC) part ways (especially since they are in the minority on a large scale overall)?

      My point is that there is another ground for unity in the SBC that keeps these sides together despite their serious differences on central matters which makes me wonder if the SBC leaders that affiliate with TGC are actually gospel-centered in the first place.

      I don’t expect people to leave denominations over any doctrinal disagreement. I do expect that when the gospel is being compromised (whether by denying sin or through legalism) Christians sadly part ways after reconciliation cannot be achieved.

      Does that make sense?

      1. J. Clark says:

        Emerson,
        The real question is if you have now realized that some at TGC are affiliated with the SBC and now knowing your feelings about the SBC, shouldn’t you disassociate with TGC? Aren’t you going to follow your own counsel? Shouldn’t you start with yourself? I mean, the gospel is at stake here and that calls for desperate measures right? You have parsed the words down to letters and now there is little understanding.

        In the meantime, I, a SBC pastor will go on preaching the gospel.

        1. Emerson says:

          J.,
          I don’t think your point follows from what I have said due to the different nature of TGC and the SBC. Tell me if you don’t think this makes sense.

          The SBC is a cooperating group of churches that agree to a common confession of faith (the Baptist Faith and Message 2000) and that contribute financially to the Cooperative Program (the fund that churches must contribute to in order to be an associated church that can send delegates to the convention). The convention has the authority to kick churches out of association that appear to violate either of these standards (that is, if they don’t actually believe in the doctrinal statement or if they stop giving money).

          TGC is a very different entity. Unless one is on the council itself, there is no such thing as partnership with TGC. TGC serves as a resource center where various people who agree to the vision for ministry and statement of faith can hear like minded pastors and thinkers share biblical wisdom. One can advertise your church on their website, but there is no accountability in either direction (a church cannot influence the council in any formal way and the council does really check to see if churches actually reflect their documents).

          So I can’t affiliate or disaffiliate with TGC. I can stop coming to the website or to a conference, but then I would miss out on all the great thinkers and pastors that contribute. But, by listening in on what is going on here, I don’t in any way condone or condemn what goes on. This is a very different partnership than contributing to the SBC.

          These are two different things, are they not? If not, please explain.

          I am glad to hear that you will go on preaching the gospel. Will you also contribute money from your church to a convention that distributes that money to many many state convention leaders that agree with the legalism mentioned above and the so called traditionalist statement and thus who carry out ministry in that vein?

          1. J. Clark says:

            Emerson, there is no binding confessional agreement. BFM is only a test for those being employed by the Convention (which is few comparatively) and missionaries. The local church is the acting agent for dismissal. Autonomy in the local church.

            1. Emerson says:

              J.,
              I am not sure that you are correct that there is no binding confessional statement for the SBC. I am fairly certain that churches have been voted out of association with the SBC because of deviance from the BFM2000. I recall that taking place in the state convention I attended as a messenger a few years ago. Several statements on the SBC website describe the BFM2000 as a common confession and standard for doctrinal accountability.
              Even if I am wrong about that, I still fail to see how this last post addresses my question. How is association with the SBC the same as associating with TGC?
              Thanks,
              Emerson

              1. J. Clark says:

                I am correct about binding confessional statements and SBC churches. An association or State Convention taking steps to dismiss a church from the convention are rare to none. My point is one of association. You associate yourself with TGC and I thought you would like to apply your standard (How are the associations the same? Because you associate that’s how). I don’t think you should disassociate yourself but simply making a point. Organizations are flawed. Every one of them.

                We should guard against extremes. Hyper Calvinism and hyper Arminianism; hyper anything.

  8. Chris L says:

    The problem the SBC faces and has faced is this; it has always been independent churches run by the congregation with a hint of SBC. So when you have one church who preaches a more reformed gospel, the SBC church down the road can be preaching semi-Pelagianism.

    There is no solid form of accountability within the SBC. Today all of the SBC is caught in a dog fight. The SBC has made its stand and certain SBCers may not agree, but the name and organization of churches within the SBC are now tarnished with this awful, sinful statement.

    I hope that faithful SBC preachers who hold to a Calvinist position (Macauthor, Mohler, Akin..) will flee from the SBC and create a denomination that is rooted in creeds not thoughts, rooted in scripture, and hold every church within the organization to a set belief standard of the creeds and scripture.

    1. J. Clark says:

      Chris,
      You are close. But, wellsprings come from the ground and that’s how it is in the SBC. All this highfaluting going on with doctrinal statements is independent rhetoric. The SBC is not a denomination but a convention. I like having Calvinist and Arminians working together for the gospel which is what is commonly practiced in the SBC.

      Secondly, I’m glad all those denominations with creeds as their base have never experienced disagreements, disunity, and sin. How refreshing to see how perfect they are.

  9. Ted Bigelow says:

    oops – love these com boxes.

    er, as I was saying….

    I can promise you MacArthur will fly from the SBC and create a new denomination as soon as:

    1)He and Grace Community Church ever join the SBC, and

    2) He ever sees in Scripture a text either teaching or giving example of forming a denomination. To date none has been found and all have given up looking.

    Along the same lines, I can also promise you Mohler and Akin will leave the SBC only when,

    1) Cows evolve wings and fly, or

    2) SBC money is taken away from their schools.

    Which ever happens first.

  10. Donald says:

    The confession says that Salvation begins with God the Holy Spirit (i.e. “response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing”). By definition it cannot be semipelagian.

    From article 2: “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.”

    Oxford Dictionary Online:

    semi-Pelagian (semi-Pelagian)

    Pronunciation: /ˌsɛmɪpɪˈleɪdʒɪən/
    Christian Theology
    adjective
    • denoting the doctrine that the first steps towards good can be taken by the human will, though supervening divine grace is needed for salvation. It was (questionably) attributed to John Cassian (d.435), and was generally held to be heretical. See also Pelagius.
    noun
    • an adherent of the semi-Pelagian doctrine.

    1. Scott C says:

      Jaroslav Pelikan indicates that semi-Pelagians believed that sometimes faith preceded the supply of grace and at other times grace preceded the exercise of faith (“The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600″, p. 324). Rebecca Weaver’s study confirms this. She says semi-Pelagians believed, “In the case of some persons, grace will assist the will that already desires the good, whereas in the case of others, grace will arouse the will to good when it is not so inclined.” (“Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy”, p. 72).

      Arminians consistently believe that grace precedes the exercise of a good will toward belief in Christ and not vice versa, so one could say that they are not broadly semi-Pelagian, but nonetheless fall within an acceptable range of semi-Pelagian belief.

  11. Ted Bigelow says:

    Ahhh, but the devil’s in the details… or is it God?

    Anyways, the God’s grace means two entirely different things to the Calvinist and the Arminian.

    To the Calvinist, God’s grace flows from him and always accomplishes its purpose. It’s powerful and always does exactly what God wants it to.

    To the Arminian, God’s grace is only prevenient and leaves the person who has it received determining if it will accomplish God’s purpose for giving it. God’s grace only works if the person allows it to work.

    So in Armianism, man is always in control. Thus they are Semi-Pelagians.

Comments are closed.

Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books