Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to Deny the Obvious

"...for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die"
(Gen. 2:17)
You know when you keep on saying you are not something people say you are, and yet you yourself are providing clear evidences that prove you are actually what other people say about you? That's how you deny the obvious. Over on the SBCvoices, Rick Patrick has posted an article defending himself and the Traditionalist document[1] from the charge of promoting semi-Pelagianism. How did Rick try to pluck himself and his company out of the mess? Simple.
  1. Ignore the historical facts (i.e. the main issue that sparked the semi-Pelagian controversy)
  2. Create your own definition of terms (e.g. semi-Pelagianism)
  3. And say, "See? We're not what you guys think we are!"
In an attempt to prove they are not semi-Pelagians, Rick limited his definition of semi-Pelagianism within the box of its logical implications while completely ignoring the most essential ingredient that makes up the said system; namely, the tandem of affirming the fall and denial of total depravity. He defines semi-Pelagianism this way:
Semi-Pelagianism is a milder form of the heresy admitting that the sin of Adam passed on to his posterity resulting in our propensity to evil. However, it still maintains that (1) salvation begins with man, (2) this inclination on the part of man toward God is a meritorious work, and (3) this results in man cooperating with God in the salvation of his own soul.
Rick keeps on saying over and over that since they don't adhere to those three marks of a semi-Pelagian as mentioned in his definition, they should not be therefore reckoned as such. However, if one would go deep in history and examine the historical background of the dispute between St. Augustine and the SP folks, one would discover that Rick's description of semi-Pelagianism is not really what the ancient semi-Pelagians have explicitly taught! It was St. Augustine and his defenders who attached those logical implications to the SP position, but the semi-Pelagians never openly taught those ideas themselves.

For instance, Vitalis of Carthage—one of the earliest proponents, if not the originator, of semi-Pelagianism—agreed with St. Augustine's statement that a prevenient grace is necessary for man to be able to come to Christ (which means he denies that salvation ultimately begins in man), but he maintained that this "prevenient grace" refers only to the external preaching of the Gospel/law—not to any form of internal divine enablement. Vitalis argued that since fallen sinners still possess the natural capacity of will to believe in Christ (though they won't have the chance to exercise that capacity apart from hearing the Gospel[2]), no internal enablement of grace is necessary; an idea that is virtually the same with the Traditionalist position[3].

In response to Vitalis[4], St. Augustine contended that this idea is tantamount to saying that grace is given according to merits (or that salvation begins with man, in other words). Why? Because if faith is a product of human nature, and that the whole process of salvation hinges on this faith, then faith becomes the ultimate determining factor of worth in receiving salvation. The plan of redemption may have been initiated by God, but the actual internal reality of this redemption is initiated within man by his own unaided decision to believe the Gospel. This, according to St. Augustine (not Vitalis), is equal to saying that faith is a meritorious work.

My point here is that the Traditionalist's attempt to escape the obvious semi-Pelagian tendencies of the TraDoc by confining the definition of semi-Pelagianism within the box of how the early Church saw its logical implications is nothing but lame. The heart of semi-Pelagianism (and full Pelagianism) is the denial of man's inherent inability of will to perform any godly virtue (i.e. saving faith, repentance, good works, etc) as an effect of his Fall[5], and it is more than obvious that this is the same position promoted in the Traditionalist statement[3]. To make things worse, Rick further confirmed our suspicion when he wrote (emphasis mine):
Yes, in the view of Traditionalism, man is responsible–able to respond. Thus, unlike the Arminian, he needs no prevenient grace to respond to God because he is already able to do it, and unlike the Calvinist, he needs no unconditional election, since God’s election (or salvation) of his soul is conditioned upon his free and faithful acceptance of God’s grace. (source)
If this is not semi-Pelagianism, what is it?


[1] To get some background on the debate, click here
[2] Rev. Joseph Milner, The History of the Church of Christ, Ch. III, p. 328
[3] Article 2 of the Traditionalist statement reads: "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." 
[4] St. Augustine, Letter 217
[5] Council of Orange (529), canons 3-8


  1. Jeph,

    Thank you for your kind and gracious response to my denial of your charges of heresy. Since my understanding of history reveals that John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake for his heresy, I am quite pleased that you have stopped far short of that in merely writing an entire post directed against my denial.

    It will not surprise you that I also deny that I have (1) ignored history, or (2) created my own definition of semi-Pelagianism -- having borrowed it from a Calvinist paper citing a description in Hodges Systematic Theology.

    I appreciate especially your final question, "If this is not semi-Pelagianism, what is it?"

    The answer to your question is: "Traditionalism." While I believe it is possible to distinguish Traditionalism from Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism and Calvinism, I will be the first to admit to you that my simple effort is not at all the best that Traditionalism has to offer in explaining itself.

    As John the Baptist declared that "One is coming who is greater than I," let me assure you, as I have been assured, that a more scholarly response is forthcoming. I look forward to passing this torch to another so you may charge someone possessing theological stature with denying the obvious, rather than wasting your charges on the likes of me.

    1. Rick,

      If you label your position as "Traditionalism", so be it, but I would contend that your position is in the final analysis essentially semi-Pelagian as plain examination of history will show. If that's not the case, then please prove it with your upcoming scholarly response.

      God bless!

      In Christ,

  2. Jeph,
    I think a few simple answers can solve this question: Where in the statement do we say that man "seeks God" apart from the Holy Spirit? Where in the statement do we deny that salvation is only by and produced of God?

    The answer? No where!

    1. Tim,

      First and foremost, I wanna thank you for dropping by my blog. As to your question, of course I'd agree with you that the Traditionalist statement nowhere states that we seek God apart from the Holy Spirit or that salvation isn't only by and produced by God, yet it doesn't change the fact that the statement's position on biblical anthropology is clearly semi-Pelagian. Simple examination on the historical background of the semi-Pelian controversy will prove that.

      To give you a summary overview of what happened hundred years back, the debate began when St. Augustine prayed his most controversial prayer "Command what thou wilt and grant what thou commandest." A certain monk named Pelagius protested against this prayer and contended that such statement is a clear denial of man's being a morally free agent. In response, St. Augustine laid down his understanding of inherent depravity of all mankind because of Adam's sin. He argued that we, as fallen sinners, cannot will or do any good thing apart from a prior working of grace. Pelagius answered, "No! If we ought, we can! God's law is an irrefutable proof that we have untainted moral liberty." He contended that men good from within from birth and we all possesses the natural capacity of will to choose good. The only grace necessary for man to be able to exercise this capacity is the external preaching of the Law. To this, St. Augustine responded and argued that the Law by itself will not bring us any good unless we are aided by God's grace from within, and not only externally. Eventually, Pelagianism was condemned by the Church as heresy.

      However, years after the condemnation of Pelagius, a new system of thought became prevalent among many churches. It is a compromise between Pelagianism and Augustinianism called semi-Pelagianism. It says that "yes, we are all fallen in Adam, but Sin did not totally destroy our moral liberty. We are morally sick, but we can choose to believe & repent, but we will have a hard time obeying the law apart from God's assistance. According to Vitalis of Carthage, the very first semi-Pelagian that engaged with St. Augustine, man does not need any prevenient internal divine enablement from God because he is already able to will, choose, accept, or respond to God's offer of grace. The only "grace" necessary for man to have the chance to exercise his freedom to believe is the outward proclamation of the Gospel.

      At the end, the Church re-affirmed its position against Pelagianism and rejected semi-Pelagianism as beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. The Council of Orange affirmed that,

      1) that Adam's sin didn't affect himself alone, but all his posterity as well,
      2) that Adam's sin brought corruption of nature to all mankind,
      3) that God does not merely wait for our free response to His call, but He himself grants the willingness and ability to do so,
      4) that man's moral liberty was not only injured, but it was completely impaired, by Sin.

      Therefore, in light of these historical facts (see Rev. Joseph Milner's The History of the Church of Christ, Ch. III, p. 328.), it is clear that the Traditionalist position that Adam's Sin "did not result to an incapacitation on any person's freewill" is clearly semi-Pelagian.

      I speak this in love.



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