Friday, June 8, 2012

A Suggested Interpretation of the Traditionalist Statement

"No man can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws
 (John 10:26)
Before anything else, I want to extend my sincere apologies to those who were or might have been offended with my strongly sarcastic remarks against the Traditionalist statement during some of the discussions over at SBCvoices and SBCtoday. I'm deeply sorry for the way I behaved, and please know that it was never my intention to dishonor, disrespect, or degrade anybody. Mr. Miller was right, however erroneous the Traditionalist statement may be, throwing around the "h"-word will not bring any help in resolving the controversy at hand. From the bottom of my heart I sincerely admit my mistake.

However, I am still of the opinion that if taken at face-value, the Traditionalist statement on human sinfulness (article 2) and freewill (article 8) is nothing but outright semi-Pelagianism[1]. But since I don't want to believe that those who drafted and signed the document are all staunch heretics, I'll be giving them the benefit of the doubt that they never had any intention to make their position appear as it now appears to be, i.e. semi-Pelagianistic—it just so happen that the document was poorly worded. Hence, though the letter of the document seems to promote semi-Pelagianism, the spirit of the document is nonetheless orthodox. Particular statements within the document which seems to side with semi-Pelagianism, therefore, can be interpreted in such wise that it does not cross the line of orthodoxy. Of course this has already been the attempt of many who defend the statement from the charge of semi-Pelagianism, but I have yet to see any convincing explanation/argument that really vindicates the statement from such charge. The common strategy of most of them[2] looks like this:
  1. Number one, overlook the historical background of the semi-Pelagian controversy in the early Church, 
  2. Number two, ignore the most essential mark that makes up the semi-Pelagian position (i.e. affirmation of the fall + denial total depravity) and limit its definition to the logical implications attached to it by the early Church (i.e. that it promotes works salvation; that faith is a meritorious work; that salvation begins with man, etc.), 
  3. And lastly, proclaim to all the world: "See? We are not semi-Pelagians!"
This just doesn't work. It won't. The only solution I can suggest for the Traditionalists is to (1) embrace the historical orthodox position (held by both classical Arminians and Calvinists) that all men are totally depraved in Sin and are not able to have a positive saving response to the Gospel apart from a prevenient, internal, divine enablement; and (2) interpret the Traditionalist statement within its bounds. How? Here's my suggested interpretation (which in my opinion can save the document from its apparent semi-Pelagian tendency):
  • The statement "We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will" in article 2 should not be taken to mean that fallen sinners aren't totally depraved in Sin, but merely that they always make voluntary/uncoerced choices. Man never lost  his capacity to choose between options (article 8), though by his Fall he lost all inclination of will towards all saving good, i.e. repentance and faith (cf. Gen. 6:5; Ec. 9:3; Rom. 3:9-12; 1 Cor. 2:14). In other words, it's not that sinners have no capacity to believe, but that they will never be inclined to exercise that capacity[3] apart from a prevenient, liberating work of grace in their hearts (Jn. 6:44, 65; Ac. 16:14; Php. 2:13).
  • What is this prevenient work of grace? Article 4 reads: "We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement, in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit..." This means that when the Gospel is preached to totally depraved sinners, the Holy Spirit automatically neutralizes the effects of Sin in their hearts, thereby giving them sufficient freedom to positively respond to the Gospel by faith and repentance. However, this work of the Spirit does not guarantee conversion; it just makes it possible. This idea is already presupposed in the last clause in the denial portion of article 2 which says "we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel."
  • The statement "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..." in article 8 should be understood in the same sense as explained in the first bullet. 
There you have it. An interpretation acceptable within the bounds of orthodoxy, yet very non-Calvinistic. It may certainly sound Arminian; but man, it's definitely way better than semi-Pelagianism! I'm not saying it is the correct view, but for sure it is a position that keeps its feet within the fence of orthodoxy however opposed it is to Calvinism. All Southern Baptists, whether Calvinist or not, should keep themselves within that fence, and the purpose of this suggestion is to help the Traditionalist do just that. Take it or leave it. If they shall refuse, fine; but they must face the fact that plain-reading of the Traditionalist statement is nothing but outright semi-Pelagianism in light of overwhelming historical evidences[4]. On the other hand, if the Traditionalists will accept this suggestion, they must prepare themselves to do a lot of explaining each and every time the same charge is thrown at them. Until they revise the statement and remove all its ambiguities, they are bound to do so. 

In the final analysis, all these clearly show how problematic and completely unhelpful the Traditionalist document is. Therefore, why support it at all?


[1] Semi-Pelagianism is a theological system which affirms the fall of mankind but denies total depravity.
[2] See some of their denials here, here, and here

[3] A good parallel illustration is this: "I have the capacity to massacre all my children, but I will never be inclined to do so."
[4] St. Augustine's letter 217 to Vitalis of Carthage; Council of Orange (529); Rev. Joseph Milner, The History of the Church of Christ, Ch. III, p. 328

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