June 7, 2012

Semi-Pelagianism? A Plea for Clarity and Charity

Recently, the charge of semi-Pelagianism was leveled against the signatories of the statement on the traditional Southern Baptist view of salvation. Please allow me to respond with a clear denial of the charge and an appeal for anybody entering this conversation to, first, clearly substantiate any inferences and claims, primarily appealing to Scripture, and, second, rise above inflammatory rhetoric.
            First, regarding “semi-Pelagianism.” What is it? It is a postbiblical issue. According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd edn), the semi-Pelagianism of the 4th and 5th centuries “maintained that the first steps toward the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later.” It is worth taking a minute to reread that definition. (Did you read it again? Okay, let’s continue.) Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the second Council of Orange in 529. While such a council does not carry ecclesial or theological authority whatsoever for Baptists, I believe most Baptists, including the Statement’s signatories, would agree with that council’s condemnation, which is later called “semi-Pelagianism.” Moreover, it is very instructive that the same council also condemned the doctrine that God predestined men for evil. I would agree with the council’s condemnations on both of these counts and invite all Baptist theologians to join me in agreement. (By the way, all Baptists are theologians.)
            Note here that we doubt the comments of Herman Bavinck, who has been cited as an authority on semi-Pelagianism by a group known as “The Gospel Coalition,” are particularly helpful in this free church conversation. Bavinck scorned Anabaptists, Pietists, Methodists, and, yes, Baptists for being too pious and for, inter alia, taking such biblical passages as the Sermon on the Mount literally. Bavinck, moreover, said Baptists erred in shifting the focus “from baptism itself to the believer’s acceptance.” (Guilty! See chapter two of my The Formation of Christian Doctrine for more interaction with Bavinck.) Finally, Bavinck argued that the Baptist idea that original sin does not entail original guilt is part of semi-Pelagianism. The Baptist Faith & Message itself in article three then would likely be classified a “semi-Pelagian” document under such a partisan definition. Our confession states clearly that Adam’s “posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” If our common Southern Baptist confession is “semi-Pelagian,” then we are all “semi-Pelagian,” whether we are Calvinist or something else, at least according to Bavinck, the Dutch Reformed self-professing opponent of Baptists.
            Second, the authors and signatories of the statement have made it clear that they affirm the priority of divine grace in nearly every article of the statement, including article two. Indeed, article two itself states, “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.” Moreover, article four, on “The Grace of God,” states, “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, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.” A careful reading of the document thus indicates that the signatories believe that faith comes to human beings as an act of divine grace, just as the cross and the proclamation of the gospel are acts of divine grace. Personally, I have always taught my students that divine grace has the priority in salvation, from beginning to end, and I will continue to do so.
            We do not claim to know all the details of how divine sovereignty relates to human responsibility, because we do not believe Scripture reveals all those details. We do claim, however, that God is sovereign and gracious and that man is simultaneously responsible to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, because these things are revealed in Scripture. We approach theology this way because we are satisfied that the Word of God is the sufficient and unique authority for Christian theological reflection. Church history is helpful as a laboratory for the exposition of Scripture, which is our authority, but the Christian tradition with its condemnatory councils and burnings of human beings does not carry any authority for us “traditionalist” Baptists. (Honestly, for this reason, I don’t really care for the term “traditionalist,” and prefer “Biblicist” or “Baptist,” but others object to our use of those terms.) Systematic theology is also helpful, but it is a human response to divine revelation, and not authoritative in and of itself, as I recently discussed elsewhere.
            Now, the appeal for clarity: Please, as you enter this conversation, whatever position you take, clearly substantiate your claims. Substantiation helps with clarity in definition and discussion. Feel free to use tradition as part of your substantiation, if you must, but please join it primarily with direct appeals to Scripture. The statement cites plenty of Scripture and we are ready to engage those texts and any biblical text from a Christ-centered perspective. I would covet your engagement with me in the holy writ. I am more comfortable and happier there than anywhere, for the Bible is God’s Word and He talks to me there deeply in my heart (Romans 10). Please also clearly state where you stand on an issue. I have stated my position, and I would like to hear what you believe Scripture says. We can learn from each other that way.
            Alongside this appeal for clarity, I ask you to join me in a commitment to charity. Paul says that we should be at peace with all men, “as much as is in you” (Romans 12:18). I know that my sinful flesh is at war with the spirit in me, and I hope you will join me in committing to letting the Holy Spirit, who brings joy and peace within, reign within. As part of this commitment, it would be helpful if all of us refrain even from the appearance of speaking evil of our brothers, including the use of inflammatory words like “heretic,” “hyper-Calvinist,” and “semi-Pelagian.” This will only be possible as a work of grace, but I still hope we will respond responsibly to His grace. Peace to you, my brothers in Christ, Calvinist or otherwise.

June 6, 2012

Theological Inferences: Be Careful When Reaching Beyond the Bible

     When Scripture makes a theological claim, it is incumbent upon Christians to affirm that claim. However, the theological task is never a matter of merely repeating Scripture (though we should be doing that more than we do!) The task of theology includes speaking to people today about the coherence of the truth claims made in Scripture. Part of the difficulty in the theological task is that different theologians choose to speak in different ways about the coherence of biblical theology. These competing ways of speaking theology arise due to the nature of one of the necessary, though problematic tools that we employ: theological inferences.
     Let us begin with a relevant example. For instance, when Scripture speaks about human responsibility and God holding people accountable for their attitudes and actions, most theologians automatically posit a doctrine of "free will." Scripture itself speaks of the human constituency in terms of "spirit," "soul," "conscience," etc., but "free will" does not appear to be an explicit biblical category for humanity. "Free will" is thus a theological inference that derives from the theological task. Such theological inferences may be useful as ways to clarify and categorize our thoughts about God and His creation, but they should be carefully used. A theological inference may be true, and may be in some way based on Scripture, but it still remains a human theological inference rather than a theological claim explicitly affirmed in Scripture.
     "Free will," which is, in my opinion, a legitimate theological inference, very often becomes part of the theological framework that theologians attempt to construct. Personally, I have tended to shy away from using it too much, though I freely affirm my fellow theologians in their use of the term. Why do I personally shy away from its heavy use? Well, because once you have one theological inference, you then must relate it to other theological claims and inferences. Why do I then affirm its use? Well, because we must engage in theology if we are to be faithful to the Word and the task of preaching, and there is little doubt that the term is helpful to many preachers.
     Let us dwell upon the first point--the personal reticence to use some theological inferences too heavily--a little more. Again, we appeal to the example of "free will," though there are many such inferences in theology. Once a theologian has posited "free will," he may feel compelled to step beyond that and use the concept in more substantial ways. This is especially true in Western theology. Standing at the headwaters of Latin theology, Augustine of Hippo posited this human constituency of "free will." He then felt compelled to propose how human "free will" should be related to divine sovereignty, which is an explicit theological claim in Scripture. He also felt compelled to relate human "free will" with the problem of the Fall of humanity into sin with Adam. Augustine then went on to make his answers foundational for his doctrines of infant baptism, the relation of nature and grace, etc.
     Inevitably, then, in order to maintain theological coherence, other questions are raised. For instance, how do you relate human "free will" with divine sovereignty and with the Fall of humanity? Well, some theologians see the human "free will" as determined by God from eternity, while others say it was corrupted in the Fall and therefore is no longer "free" per se, while yet others see it as created by God and as being involved in Adam's fall but that human beings retain their freedom even through the Fall. Of course, then these diverse theologians begin to argue and classify each other's ideas and each other with categories. Historically, in the Dark Ages names started being thrown about, such as "Augustinian," "Pelagian," "Semi-Augustinian," "Semi-Pelagian," and later, carrying on the medieval fascination with scholastic systems, "Calvinist," "Arminian," "Modified Calvinist," "Moderate Arminian," etc. Of course, there were also the terms "error" and "heresy" too often loosely scattered.
     Mind you, and here we are being overly charitable, these Christians at their best are each attempting to be responsible theologians and arrive at some conclusion to the matter in order to maintain the coherence of their theology. But also mind this, most departed from direct biblical claims and began to build theological inferences upon both the theological inferences of men and the theological claims of the Bible. This way of doing theology is also tied up heavily with Roman claims for the infallibility of councils and popes. This stacking of inference upon inference and claim upon yet more inferences and claims results in what we call systematic theology. (Yes, I do this type of thing for a living. And, yes, it is something that all Christians should necessarily do, for it is part of submitting our minds to God.)
     However, in spite of the necessity of systematic theology with its structure of inferences and claims, it would be beneficial if we remembered that the human theological inference and the biblical theological claim are not of the same status. When God's Word speaks, it is incumbent upon every Christian theologian to say, "Amen!" When a preacher speaks about God's Word, and the listener's heart is prompted by the Spirit to affirm that that too is God's Word, then say, "Amen!" However, not everything that a preacher says about God's Word may itself be God's Word. (Jesus warned us about this, and those noble Bereans in Acts 17 understood this well, for they judged Paul's preaching by the Word.)
     Part of what this theologian or that preacher says may be an inference, an inference to which my own heart has not been prompted by the Spirit to say, "Amen!" Why would I not say, "Amen!"? The possibilities are (1) that the Holy Spirit has not illuminated that biblical truth to me; (2) that I am in rebellion against God's Word and Spirit; or (3) that the theological inference is itself a human inference that God's Word really doesn't teach. How then do we arrive at the truth of the matter?
     In such cases, humility and community must, among others, step in and have their say. Humility with a theological inference means that I must recognize that my theological inference, such as "free will" or "effectual calling" or "prevenient grace," may have a tenuous biblical basis. Indeed, the latter two inferences strike me as being more difficult to establish than the inference of "free will." This means that there is actually a hierarchy of inferences: on one end are such doctrines as the Trinity and inerrancy, which are soundly based in the scriptural witness, and on the other end are such doctrines as effectual calling and prevenient grace, which are based upon a system of inferences and claims. As one of my fellow faculty said this morning, some theological inferences are legitimate as walls, but not as "load-bearing" walls. This is a very good point!
     Humility demands that I be careful with my theological inferences so as not to assert that they themselves are direct theological claims from Scripture. Humility demands that I be careful not to place undue weight on human inferences. Humility demands that I always hold my system, especially those sections heavily dependent upon inferences, in some degree of suspicion. I may believe in this way of reading Scripture, because I am convinced that it is constructed from the theological claims of Scripture and from legitimate theological inferences from Scripture. However, my theological system is still my response to Scripture, my human construction.
     Community also has a role as we discern the truths of Scripture. This is what Paul spoke about in 1 Corinthians 14 and what in the Radical Reformation is called the "law of sitting" (German Sitzerrecht, Latin lex sedentium.)  Let the preachers speak in an orderly way and let the others sit and judge. The Anabaptists were so willing to go into formal disputations with Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman theologians, because they believed truth was arrived at together, that the text would lead Christians together into the truth. Sadly, they were often wrongly accused as heretics and then horribly tortured. Thousands of them were burnt at the stake, drowned for being baptistic, and driven mercilessly from their homes by Catholics and Reformers alike. Christian history presents some horrible lessons for us, today, in these matters.
     In spite of the difficulties of theological construction and discussion, I still believe that we can arrive at theological truth through theological inferences as we listen to Scripture together, but only if we will orderly and patiently hear one another. This entails a willingness to return to Scripture in order to establish each and every claim and inference, alongside the freedom to reject inferences not firmly based in Scripture. This is where we are as Southern Baptists right now. I have longed to see us converse about theology and do this well. I pray we will. I am committing myself to listening patiently to others, even as I remember that theological inferences must be handled carefully, for with them we are reaching beyond the Bible. And reaching too far beyond the Bible is always a dangerous move.

June 1, 2012

The Grace of Unity: A Prayer for the Southern Baptist Convention

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.
It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, that went down to the skirts of his garments.
As the dew of Hermon, that descended upon the mountains of Zion, for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life forevermore (Psalm 133).
     Commentators upon this passage note this psalm was likely used in the context of worship, probably as pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem for the festivals. No matter where in the diverse land of Israel the pilgrims originated, regardless of their birth or of the particular local religious tradition they had learned, they would find unity before God in their common worship as they gathered in the holy city. The image of a diverse people gathered as one is powerfully compelling. Leslie Allen summarizes the psalm thus, "The family of God were gathered at the cultic place where fragrant grace flowed down." On a personal level, I can still remember the first large Southern Baptist Convention that I attended. It was amazing to witness tens of thousands of people, from diverse churches all over the nation and the world, most of them carrying their holy Bibles, gathering to the same place. The Southern Baptists I saw were personally devoted to worshiping the same Lord, even as they diversely expressed their understanding of the faith. In Psalm 133, such unity of the people of God in worship is described with two liquid illustrations: oil and water.
     It is theologically significant that the first illustration, that of ointment, is simultaneously Christological and Pneumatological. On the one hand, "anointed one" may be translated as "Messiah" or "Christ," typifying that the Messiah Himself is the one who will bring the people into unity. Aaron as the High Priest, who unites the people of Israel in worship, is merely a type or shadow who must give way to the New Testament antitype or reality, Jesus Christ, who unites the justified people of God before the divine throne. On the other hand, the process of anointing is also correlated in Scripture with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah 61, the Messiah is described as anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel of freedom. In Luke 4, Jesus applied this passage to Himself at the beginning of His public ministry. In a Trinitarian vein, the Son and the Spirit are united by the mission of the Father to bring the gospel to human beings, who are in dire need of redemption and sanctification. The Trinity is united, not only in being, but in mission, as the Son and the Spirit work seamlessly together to fulfill the will of the Father in providing Himself a unified holy people. Ecclesial unity is based in such a divine unity.
    It is geographically significant that the second illustration, that of water, draws upon two separate mountain ranges to indicate the nature of unity. First, Mount Hermon, at the southernmost limit of the Lebanon range, is in the far north of Israel. It is the rock where the Father revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Subsequently, Jesus Christ proclaimed that He would build the church upon the rock of Peter's confession (Matthew 16). It was, moreover, on Mount Hermon, where Jesus Christ was miraculously transfigured before the eyes of his closest followers. For a moment, the light of heaven engulfed Peter, James, and John as they glimpsed the magnificence of divine light pierce through the very human body of Jesus into their world (Matthew 17). Mount Hermon is capped by three high peaks, all fed with the dew of snow, which give fount to the Jordan River that waters the fertile lands of Israel. Isaiah had such fruitful grace in mind when he described the Word of God as falling from heaven like water and snow to bear fruit in the accomplishment of the Father's will (Isaiah 55).
     The second mountain range is that of Zion, where the city of Jerusalem was built as a fortress. The capital of Jerusalem united the diverse tribes of Israel not only politically but religiously, for the presence of God was formalized in the temple upon Mount Zion. The Spirit with the glory of the Lord was said to reside upon Jerusalem. So when the Spirit departed from Jerusalem, Ezekiel understood that a terrible judgment, the dispersion of the peoples into exile, was come upon the nation (Ezekiel 1, 10). Yet, Ezekiel also prophesied that the Spirit would return the scattered peoples into a united congregation by coming into and transforming the hearts of the people (Ezekiel 11). The promise of personal transformation resulting in communal unity, of course, was the result of the grace of God working through the Messiah and the Spirit. What is interesting here is that it is the "dew of Hermon," in that other mountain range in the far north of Israel, which would "descend upon the mountains of Zion" in the center of the land. Such a miraculous movement of water would benefit the nation through a "blessing" that is nothing less profound than that of eternal life!
     Grace is pictured as descending from heaven because all that is good comes down from the Father (James 1). This grace displays itself universally in the work of His Son, Jesus Christ, upon the cross, where the atonement of sin is accomplished perfectly (1 John 2). This grace displays itself particularly in the work of the Holy Spirit in granting believers regeneration, faith, and repentance (John 3), indeed all the graces of salvation (Romans 8). One of the graces of God that comes through Christ in the Spirit is the grace of unity with the body of Christ. God intends for believers to manifest the unity of His Son, who reconciled humanity with humanity--Israel with the nations--through His cross, even as He thereby reconciled humanity with God (Ephesians 2). The prayer of Christ is thus for His people to manifest the unity that is integral to the Trinity itself (John 17).
     Yet, and this is the critical part for us today, such unity occurs only through the grace of sanctification upon the basis of truth (John 17:13-21). The grace that falls from heaven like water falls upon different mountains of truth, mountains separated from one another by valleys, rivers, and seas that we humans must traverse. So, how does the dew on the mountain of Hermon fall upon the mountain of Zion? Or, to apply that metaphor in our particular context to the Southern Baptist Convention today: How does the grace of God manifested in the doctrine of divine sovereignty, which is precious to Calvinist and Traditionalist alike, fall upon the responsible human being, who is precious to the Traditionalist and Calvinist alike? Alas, we, Calvinists and Traditionalists alike, often bring questions to the Scripture that Scripture doesn't always answer in the particulars we would prefer.
     Scripture does not tell us "how" the dew on Mount Hermon falls on Mount Zion; it simply remarks that it does. Likewise, because of certain silences in Scripture, I cannot tell you how we can reconcile the doctrine of human responsibility with the doctrine of divine sovereignty in a manner that meets every theologian's preference, at least not on the basis of revelation. However, I can tell you that these two doctrines--divine sovereignty, or grace, and human responsibility, or free will (if you will)--are both true and both necessary to be affirmed, because they are both revealed in Scripture.
     My prayer is that we as Southern Baptists, whether we identify ourselves with the mountains of either Calvinism or Traditionalism, that we will seek our unity only in Christ by the Spirit before the Father. This unity is a gift of grace worked in us through sanctification on the basis of the truth of Scripture. It is a unity we desire. However, until we reach unity in how we bring the mountains of Zion and Hermon together, or, to put it cheekily, how we can successfully mix oil with water, we must trust that God will do it. Moreover, we must continue to come together as one to worship this God, this God who reveals to us His divine sovereignty, or grace, and our human responsibility to respond in faith, repent of our sins, and tell others how they too may be reconciled to the Trinity. Lord God, bring us unity in doctrine in Your time, but let our unity not be disrupted until then, for we wish to fulfill Your mission, and we know the world will believe and receive eternal life from You as they see us united in telling them of You.