I’m personally appreciative Al Mohler responded to “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (TS) released to the public last week by Dr. Eric Hankins, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church, Oxford, Mississippi >>>
Entitled “Southern Baptists and Salvation: It’s Time to Talk” Dr. Mohler demonstrates that the issue the document discusses is really worth our time as Southern Baptists. Several worthy responses to Mohler are already logged including Eric Hankins, Truett-McConnell, Malcolm Yarnell, and Adam Harwood. I hope Dr. Mohler will contemplate well these responses before again suggesting that so many mature Southern Baptists embrace heretical ideas.
Even so, I sense the need to offer my own thoughts concerning the TS and Semi-Pelagianism. I am especially appreciative of the book by Rebecca Harden Weaver, Divine Grace & Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (DGHA). Dr. Weaver presently holds the John Q. Dickinson and James S. Gray Professorship of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia.
As one makes his or her way through this volume, one is starkly reminded of the gross inadequacies routinely offered by theological critics who insist this modern group or that embraces the Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian heresy. Indeed the charge of both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism was immediately hurled toward the signatories of TS. And, it was not only unstudied men and women who made the charges. As we note from Dr. Mohler, he also hurled the accusation that TS appeared to affirm a Semi-Pelagianism understanding of “sin, human nature, and the human will.”1 But according to what I understand to be Weaver’s historical exposition of the Semi-Pelagian controversy, Dr. Mohler, like the other critics who identified Semi-Pelagianism in the TS, has demonstrated what can only be called a fair amount of historical obtuseness.
First, Weaver's survey surely implies that “Semi-Pelagianism” is anything but an exact theological position. Indeed, those frequently identified as “Semi-Pelagians” did not agree among themselves.Dr. Malcolm Yarnell makes this point exactly in answering an inquiry when he notes the theological diversity between John Cassian, the abbot of St. Victor, a monastery at Marseilles and the first monk to offer a clear alternative to St. Augustine’s theological determinism (DGHA, p.71), and Faustus of Reiz, who appeared on the scene about a half-century later, and rose to be one of the primary anti-predestinarian voices of the last quarter of the 5th century (DGHA, p. 155). Hence, while there was genuine concern for genuine human agency expressed among all the Semi-Pelagians, the degree of their concern failed to be uniform.
In addition, Weaver mentions that the very term “Semi-Pelagian” is, in her words, “generally conceded to be a misnomer, as the persons so designated rejected Pelagianism” (p. 40). In fact, according to Weaver, the Semi-Pelagian controversy did not arise from anti-Augustine monasteries. Weaver explains:
“In fact, these persons [i.e. those who became known as “Semi-Pelagians”] accepted Augustine’s arguments against the Pelagian heresy. They, too, insisted on the necessity of grace. It was only as Augustine carried his arguments to their logical, predestinarian extreme that Gallic opposition arose. As monks striving to please God and thereby attain eternal reward for their efforts, they assumed a reliable connection between human actions and the salvific outcome of these actions. The De correptione et gratia challenged this connection and, in fact, their whole way of life. Thus, the Gallic opposition arose only at the point of monastic insistence upon the genuineness and relevance of human agency in the process of salvation (pp.40-41).
It seems if Weaver is correct, then we could safely conclude that "Semi-Augustinianism" appears more appropriate in describing the monks’ position than "Semi-Pelagianism." Of course, Semi-Augustinianism possesses no heretical salaciousness about it and consequently loses much of its rhetorical persuasion. Suggesting one leans toward Augustine but does not fully embrace Augustinianism as the term “Semi-Augustinianism” implies not only could be said about the Gallic monks, but could also be said about every Baptist Calvinist without the least objection. On the other hand, to be “Semi-Pelagian” automatically indicts one as leaning in the direction of perhaps the most famous heretic in Christian history. Language itself has a way of coloring the evidence in decidedly biased ways.
Second, other issues the Semi-Pelagian controversy spawned included whether God’s predestinating grace excluded the salvific desire God possesses for all to be saved. Weaver writes:
On several points the Augustinians and their opponents agreed: all sinned in Adam; grace is essential for salvation; baptism is the necessary rite for regeneration. Disagreement, however, focused on two interrelated areas: the universality of the offer of salvation and the role of merit. The Gallic opponents insisted that the offer of the reconciliation effected in Christ is for everyone so that whoever responds may be saved” (pp. 45-46; see also pages 111-113; 143-148)
Around and around the debate circled, with those identified as Semi-Pelagians arguing the “universal” texts like “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), claiming God’s salvific will for all persons contra the extreme predestinarian teaching of Augustine. I wonder if today’s Southern Baptists—including Al Mohler—as well as biblical Arminians—including Roger Olson—would agree with those identified as Semi-Pelagians on this particular issue, or would they side with those who systematically explained away the universalistic texts of Scripture? If they would side with Semi-Pelagians on this issue, how do they escape the “Semi-Pelagian” label at least so far as God’s universal salvific will is concerned?
Third, telling is Weaver’s rehearsal of the debate which lasted over a century (p.199) and climaxed in 529 at the Council of Orange (p.225). Worthy of mention is the council of Valence the year before the council of Orange which, from the records Weaver mentioned, “affirmed the long-standing Gallic antipredestinarian sentiment” (p.227). Hence, the so-called Semi-Pelagians were handed a theological victory just a single year prior to Orange. One gets the impression that politics played a larger role in these councils than we may comfortably admit.
Even so, the Council of Orange concluded that “as fallen, human nature surely cannot receive salvation apart from grace” (p.229). Grace is the only means of being freed from the depravity we inherit from Adam.
However, while “The priority of grace is undeniable,” Weaver asserts “the council also affirmed human agency” (p.229). Grace makes it possible for human works to be performed to gain rewards. This seems to meet the initial Gallic concern that their monkish ways were not for naught.
Weaver also mentions that while the council “unequivocally endorsed the Augustinian emphasis on the priority of grace” (p.231) the council failed to explicitly endorse Augustine’s divine determinism. In other words, on Augustine’s scheme of absolute, meticulous predestination, the council remained stone-cold silent. On the other hand, on Augustine’s predestination to evil, the council specifically denied.
Further, the “Augustinian notion of predestination to glory was implicitly disallowed” (p.232). The council made it clear that “salvation is a reward for those who, having been baptized, persevere in the good with the assistance of grace. Such an understanding excludes Augustine’s teaching that God, without regard to merit, chooses certain Christians to attain glory through a gift of perseverance that cannot fail.”
The Council was dated and signed on July 3, 529 by Caesarius (and a number of other bishops) who was later confirmed as Bishop of Rome (p.232). Upon being confirmed as Bishop, Caesarius attached a brief preface to the Orange canons which included a number of citations from Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome among others, citations which served as the evidence designed to undergird the council’s decisions. Interestingly, according to Weaver, the citations Caesarius assembled “emphasized the necessity and priority of grace, the operation of which enables rather than undercuts the freedom of the will” (p.232, italics added).
Given Weaver’s survey of the Semi-Pelagian controversy spanning across more than a century, one could hardly conclude a slam dunk for those Calvinists and Arminians who are wed to the theological trajectory on Original Sin composed by the Bishop of Hippo. At best, Augustine was vindicated for his insistence on the necessity and priority of grace while his meticulous divine determinism was definitively squashed. Human agency does, in fact, play a role in the soul’s dealings with the Holy according to Orange.
Concluding, what Free Church theology has to do with Rome’s Authoritative Canons I’ve yet to figure out. While I have no reservations toward looking into church history and learning from our collective past, as a Free Church believer, neither do I have obligations to abide by or adhere to any creed written by any human being. Dr. Mohler is free to embrace his evangelical confessionalism till Jesus splits the eastern sky. So be it. But at least this with Martin Luther I confess: my conscience is bound to the Word of God--alone.
1as did Arminain theologian Roger Olson though Olson did not go as far as Mohler. He said in engagement on the matter, “I see only the possibility of semi-Pelagianism. I seek further clarification and correction from the statement’s authors and signers if I’m incorrect.”