A Baptist Blunder: ‘We’re Not Semi-Pelagian! But Man Can Choose God with a Little Help.’

John Calvin

John Calvin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The confusing conversation continues over the recent SBC statement positing a “traditional” view of salvation.  Just do a quick search on “SBC traditional statement” and you’ll see a lot of hubbub.  Even my blog was read a few times on the issue.

One of the big problems with the so-called “traditional” statement is that it occasionally steps over into Semi-Pelagianism.  Some Baptist leaders are notorious for avoiding labels (except “Baptist,” of course).  When a conversation comes up about predestination, some will claim Calvinism in the SBC, but the rest often say that they just believe the Bible (an ignorant and arrogant statement, by the way).  The truth is, a better label for many in the SBC is Arminian.  Now before you get offended, thinking that this is an insult to Baptists–trust me, it is a compliment.   You see, an Arminian understands that the human heart is very, very evil and incapable of embracing the Gospel without the Holy Spirit‘s direct influence upon the human heart.  The Arminian believes that God positively influences and enlightens the darkened human heart so that it can really see the Gospel for what it is.  God helps the heart so it can make a decision it was unable to make before.  Now that the heart is enlightened, it is able to accept the Gospel, but the human heart may still choose to deny it.  Thus, God enlightens the heart and human ‘freewill’ is intact.  If the Gospel is rejected, the unregenerate heart falls back into darkness and again is incapable of trusting the Gospel.

The Calvinist has a different take on this, but agrees that (1) man’s heart is desperately evil and incapable of embracing the Gospel; and (2) the Holy Spirit must engage/influence the human heart so that the man can accept the Gospel.

English: Jacobus Arminius

English: Jacobus Arminius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when a Calvinist calls a Baptist an Arminian, he’s complimenting him, because the only other alternative is Semi-Pelagianism or worse, Pelagianism.  [Well, there’s Molinism too, but I consider that a variation of Arminianism]

The Semi-Pelagian believes that the heart is not incapable of embracing the Gospel, but it is very, very weak.  It needs divine encouragement.  So in this case, the Holy Spirit stands outside the door of the heart and knocks.  You’re eating your evening meal and are agitated, but you get up and answer the door anyway.  When you do, the Spirit introduces himself and gives you his best sales pitch to convince you to accept the free gift he offers.   That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?  As the saying goes, “God is a gentleman, and will never make you do something against your will.”  And who would turn down a free gift, right?  Well, the big problem with that is mountain of scriptural evidence that man is hostile to God (Rom. 8.7; Col. 1.21), his black heart is overflowing with evil (Matt. 15.19; Mk. 7.21-23), he has abandoned God altogether (Rom. 3.9-19) and he is incapable of choosing the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2.1-3).  We will always reject God, unless God does some work within the heart.  God isn’t selling anything at the doorway of your soul, he invades the heart on a rescue mission.   The Calvinist and Arminian both agree on this–that our sinful hearts demand that God take such action.  But the Semi-Pelagian really doesn’t think that God has to be that forceful, or that our hearts are really that bad.  We’re just weak.  That’s all.

It’s that kind of language we find in the SBC statement on “Traditional” salvation, and that’s why many aren’t just disagreeing with it, they’re rebuking it.   Consider Article 2:

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.

There are a few things that bother folks about this statement.  One is the brazen denial that man’s free will  (that is, the will to accept the Gospel) is incapacitated.  Calvinists and Arminians believe the will is truly bound and incapable of responding to the Gospel.  God must directly engage the heart , making it able to respond.  Only then is there hope.

But that’s what the rest of the article says, right?  ‘A sinner cannot respond without God’s help!’  No, it does not say that. It actually says this: “…no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort…” Man can’t do it on his own, he’s too spiritually weak!  He needs the Holy Spirit to stand at the door to encourage and convince him of why he needs the Gospel.  The Spirit will “draw” one to himself through divine persuasion.   Further, “…we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.”

At the very least, Pelagian ideas are given a green light.  How much influence does the Spirit have on the person?  Is he just trying to sell the gospel to the human heart, or does he transform the human heart so that it can respond to the Gospel?  The Arminian and Calvinist both say that your own free will response to the gospel will always be a rejection unless God  resituates and repositions the heart, directly affecting it.  The Semi-Pelagian denys that this is the case.

So which does the SBC statement affirm?  To me and others, it tends to so zealously affirm freewill that it denies that scriptures which make the reality of a completely darkened human heart a non-sequitur.  It seems to say ‘The heart is not that evil and hostile to God!’  Both the Calvinist and Arminian find such an idea repulsive.

The rest of the statement seems squarely Arminian.  I suggest signers accept this compliment and honestly deal with the Semi-Pelagian language in the document.

Categories: Calvinism, SBC, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Mohler’s Response to the SBC “Traditional” Salvation Statement

English: Al Mohler, President of Southern Bapt...

English: Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr. Al Mohler is in a very tough spot.  Several prominent leaders in the SBC have signed the recent statement that tries to put Calvinism in its place.  As the president of one of the big SBC seminaries, he needs to be respectful and have political tact in his response while making the document’s shortcomings clear.  I think he does a great job!Mohler is kind enough (or maybe ‘political’ enough) to treat the document as an invitation for SBC leaders to have dialogue about Calvinism.  But the statement nowhere mentions such a conversation.  The Statement instead makes it clear that Southern Baptists have never been Calvinists and suggests that they never will be.

After he acknowledges that the proclaimed Gospel really is how God brings people to salvation–it’s incredible that he would actually have to mention that!–Mohler makes some great points:

-“Indeed, 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.”

A fabulous point that represents one of the biggest concerns of SBC Calvinists for a long time.  Calvinists are concerned about heresy which blinds and binds the believer.  While Arminianism is a legitimate theological option, any form of Pelagianism has always been considered a serious heresy in the church.  The fact that the Statement has some semi-Pelagian points should concern us all.  The fact that many former SBC presidents have signed this document is cause for great alarm.

Another great comment:

-“…we must recognize and affirm together that we have already stated where Southern Baptists stand on the great doctrines of our faith. The Baptist Faith & Message is our confession of faith, and it binds us all together on common ground. The BF&M does not state doctrines comprehensively, but it defines our necessary consensus. Every Southern Baptist is free to believe more than the confession affirms, but never less.

“…Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists have a legitimate claim to represent the ‘traditional’ Southern Baptist understanding. “

Yes!  So much for autonomy, right? I believe the statement is actually an addendum to the BF&M article on salvation.  Whether you’re an Arminian (and that’s what it is!) or a Calvinist, the BF&M is a document you can embrace.  It seems the Statement signers disagree.  That’s promoting a tribalism that concerns a lot of folks.

I encourage you to read the rest of Mohler’s post.  It great, even though I think he’s holding back because he doesn’t want to be divisive himself.

As I’ve mentioned a few times already, it’s not just a little troubling that many SBC leaders have signed this statement.  These guys are the leaders, and they can’t recognize that they’re championing a document peppered with serious heresy.  Time and time again, they prove that they don’t really understand Calvinism, the thing they are so eloquently denying.  It’s not based on knowledge–it’s prejudice.  In my book, it spells real trouble for the Convention.  If you know anything about the tenacity of SBC leaders, then I’m sure you’ll understand why.

This is gonna be ugly.

Categories: Calvinism, SBC, Theology | 1 Comment

Autonomy and the Ever-Tightening Collar in the SBC

I’ve got three dogs. One with a freakishly small head. When I’m walking her she does just fine until she wants to get away. With just a few wiggles and tugs, she pops her head right out of the leash and takes off. I’ve tried tightening the collar around her neck before, but that just chokes her. So if I tighten the collar she’ll choke, but I can stay in control. If I leave the collar a little loose, I forgo absolute control and risk losing her. [Yes, I could get a shoulder harness to solve all my problems, but that would mess up my illustration.]

In a similar way, some key leaders in the SBC are trying to tighten the collar around the SBC’s neck to maintain control over it, even though it’s choking some of it’s most valuable members. Surprise, surprise, it’s over Calvinism.

The document in question is “a suggested statement of what Southern Baptists believe about the doctrine of salvation.” My understanding of the SBC is that it’s doctrines could be as diverse as any congregation chose so long as it agreed with the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM). This goes hand-in-hand with the understanding of congregational autonomy–that each congregation can make their own decisions about secondary and tertiary matters so long as they agree with the BFM. But the signers of this new statement suggest that a “Traditional” Southern Baptist view of salvation is what the BFM article on salvation (IV) was supporting when it was written. But the funny thing is, Calvinist Baptists have no qualms with that statement. As a so-called ‘Five-Point Calvinist’, I have no problem with it either.

From "Baptizing in the Jordan" by Si...

From “Baptizing in the Jordan” by Silas X. Floyd (1869-1923) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what’s really going on here? Isn’t it obvious? It’s a power-play for the Glory of God. The leash needs to be tightened around Calvinist necks because they feel too much theological resistence. Am I being too harsh? Well, listen carefully to the tone of this statement: “The Southern Baptist majority has fellowshipped happily with its Calvinist brethren while kindly resisting Calvinism itself. And, to their credit, most Southern Baptist Calvinists have not demanded the adoption of their view as the standard. We would be fine if this consensus continued, but some New Calvinists seem to be pushing for a radical alteration of this long- standing arrangement.”I can’t help but feel the condescension here. ‘We’re the majority and have let you play ball with us for a long time. But you Calvinists are not keeping a lid on your doctrine like you’re supposed to.’ It’s true that the fear comes from efforts of some group called the ‘New Calvinists’, but this statement promotes a combative stance against all SBC Calvinists. Furthermore, the claim that there is some Calvinistic push for ‘radical alteration’ is bewildering to many SBC Calvinists.So how do the statement-writers want to fix this problem? They have given the “Traditional” SBC view of salvation–an Arminian addendum to article IV of the BFM. [Please dispense with the useless notion that it isn’t Arminianism. If you call a guy a Calvinist for holding to four points of TULIP, then I think it’s safe to say that this statement is Arminian]

Ultimately, I think this is a move to amend the BFM yet again. Key leaders have signed the document with enthusiasm, including several former SBC presidents. If the rest of the SBC leaders care anything about church autonomy or frankly the unity of the SBC overall, they shouldn’t just disagree with the statement, they should rebuke the composers and signers. Otherwise, the collar will tighten, and I wonder how many people will chose a new collar. I have.

Categories: Calvinism, Practical, SBC, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

SBC and Evolution: Dembski’s Unclear and Misleading Remarks

English: Vectorized Southern Baptist Conventio...

English: Vectorized Southern Baptist Convention logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few posts ago I jotted down some thoughts regarding Ken Keathley’s concerns over evolutionary thought.  His was the first post in an ongoing series, dialogue between Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) scholars and the theistic evolutionists hosted at Biologos.  The second SBC scholar post was by the esteemed and highly educated William Dembski, who has degrees from the University of Chicago and Princeton Theological Seminary, having completed some post-doctoral work at MIT.  His post is called “Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?” (Part 1 and Part 2) It is obvious that Dembski is a bright guy, so I’m surprised that his paper really doesn’t seem to prove much of anything that people familiar with the evolution-theology conversation don’t already know!  It is, instead, a confusing and misleading read.

His first statement is the following: “Is Darwinism theologically neutral? The short answer would seem to be No.”  In his last paragraph which summarizes his  overall argument, guess what he concludes:  “To sum up, Darwinism and Christianity, even when generously construed, exhibit significant tensions. Are these tensions so serious that Darwinism may rightly be regarded as not theologically neutral? I would say the tensions are indeed that serious.”  Are you surprised?  I know this may seem cynical of me, but I really don’t understand the point of the article overall.  At the beginning of his argument, it’s pretty clear to him that Darwinism isn’t theologically neutral.  At the end of the paper, he concludes that Darwinism isn’t neutral.  I don’t think the paper as a whole really takes us anywhere.

I’m also bothered that Dembski continually calls anything dealing with evolution “Darwinism” as if theistic evolutionists are really “theistic Darwinists”.  I’ve said it before, I am not a scientist, but even I am aware that the evolution that Darwin described is a different animal (pardon the pun) than the evolution that most scientists and theologians discuss today.  It’s also pretty common knowledge that Darwinism is a pejorative term creationists often use ad hominem to suggest that someone is a naturalist.  Just because one believes that evolution is a fact, it does not mean that he also believes that God had no hand in it, or that God was not necessary in the process.  The conversation about evolution-theology is much more dynamic than Dembski suggests.

Let me give you a very small taste of what I mean.  The following is an excerpt from Philip Hefner’s entry “Evolution” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity (2:228-29):

“Just as evolution is itself a multifaceted idea, so it is expressed, both within the natural sciences and in other disciplines, in a variety of distinctive, compatible ways. It is not sufficient to relate the idea of evolution exclusively to biology and the work of Charles Darwin (1809–82). Evolutionary ideas are perennial, particularly the ideas of change and emergence, which go back to certain strands of ancient Greek philosophy and classical Christian theologians such as Gregory of Nazianzus and  Augustine. They were certainly present in the 18th century in the geological writings of James Hutton (1726–97), who propounded uniformitarian processes of change, as well in certain theories of history, literature, and culture” (emphasis mine).

You see, equating Darwinism with all evolutionary thought is not at all fair because there are many more approaches to evolution, and they don’t all have to do with Darwin.  That’s why I just can’t see the purpose behind Dembski’s paper.  I don’t even think it’s relevant to the current evolution-theology discussion.  In fact, I think it vilifies the theologians who prefer an evolutionary model of creation, one that God was ultimately driving (not even Falk, who responds to Dembski, considers himself a Darwinist!)

Here’s another example from Dembski’s paper that disturbs me: “Those who embrace Darwin and his ideas regard him and Christ as compatible.”  Boy, that’s unclear.  Does he mean evolution or Darwinism?  And also, what exactly does he mean that they embrace Darwin and Christ?  Does he mean religiously?  It seems that what he’s getting at has to do with naturalism verses Christianity.  I wish he’d just say that.

And then there’s this: Dembski’s first example of someone who reconciles Christianity and evolution is  Michael Ruse, the writer of the book Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?  According to Dembski, “Ruse claims Darwinism compatible with Christianity, but by Christianity he means a liberalism gutted of miracles.”  Well that’s terrible!  Just what kind of Christian can Ruse be?

Ruse is an atheist.   Funny isn’t it?  I thought the writer of such a book would be a Christian.  Didn’t you assume that too?  Well, it’s not true.  And for some mysterious reason, Dembski fails to mention Ruse’s lack of faith.  That’s an important part of this conversation, don’t you think?

There are many other points to be made (like his strange list of non-essentials for Christians pitted against those of Darwinists, or that tired old argument that evolutionists can’t believe in the actual resurrection of Christ), but Darrel Falk’s response is a more than adequate response.  Let me just say that, on the one hand, I’m glad that the SBC scholars are willing to have this dialogue in the first place.  On the other hand, these first two articles are a disappointment.  These guys are not playing ball, they are just throwing stones.  If the SBC really wants to have a voice in this conversation, they must fairly deal with the basic talking points; but so far, all I see is that they either can’t or won’t.  Both are unbecoming for Christian scholars.

Categories: Creation, Evolution, SBC | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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