Thursday, June 21, 2012

Impaired Free Will

Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention should be focused on celebrating the first African-American president of its denomination -- one originally formed in support of slavery -- but it's being distracted by a debate over a so-called "semi-Pelagian" heresy in its midst. The Calvinists and Arminians are not at each other's throats on this one, but are together throttling the common Baptist-in-the-Pew understanding of free will and sinful nature. According to "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation," which presents the average church-going Baptist's view:

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person's sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

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.

This is the common understanding of lay Baptists, but how these two statements fit together is not entirely clear. Hence the joined forces of Calvinists and Arminians, though the latter are surely closer to this typical understanding of Baptists in the pews.

The interesting crux is this: Every person purportedly inherits a sinful nature and invariably commits sinful acts, yet the free will of each person is not in any way incapacitated by this sinful nature. How do these two positions fit together, exactly? If a fallen person's free will is not incapacitated, then why couldn't the person be saved through correct moral choices? In other words, why would one need a savior? This would be the so-called Pelagian heresy. Among the Southern Baptists, however, both Calvinists and Arminians point identify a slightly different heretical view:

[B]oth Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler and George W. Truett Theological Seminary professor Roger Olson, . . . [Calvinist and Arminian, respectively,] said that parts of the document sound like semi-Pelagianism, a traditionally heretical understanding of Christian salvation.

Semi-Pelagianism differs from Pelagianism in that while both affirm that the individual freely makes the first step toward God, semi-Pelagianism makes this a step toward acceptance of saving grace, whereas Pelagianism makes this the first of a series of steps by which one attains moral perfection and thereby saves oneself.

The Calvinists deny free will, which raises the question as to why an unfree person should be held morally culpable.

The Arminians affirm free will, but hold that it is impaired and requires assistance through prevenient grace, given to all, which enables the person to choose to accept saving grace, or so I've been led to understand by my shallow delving into this issue. This avoids the semi-Pelagian threat by affirming that God, not the human being, makes the first move in the initial step toward salvation by extending prevenient grace.

I'm not theologically sophisticated enough to know the finer points of these dogmas, but since my background is Southern Baptist, the issues intrigue me, so perhaps someone more knowledgeable than I could explicate these differences in finer-grained detail.

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At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And just why in the dickens is a Southern Baptist Convention finding itself roiled by theological argument during an election year?

Isn't this supposed to be the time when the proper thing to do is have all the Republicans lined up to get re-baptized and prove their bona-fides?

I notice the Democrats aren't skipping any Union meetings.

T'aint proper arguing theology during an election year.


At 12:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I guess they're doing this against their will.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:58 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Jeffery's answer:
:-D :-D :-D

Back to the issue, it is each time a fascinating one. Quite interestingly, the current Catholic view is the same as the Arminians', though Catholics (in Italy at least) don't know what an Arminian is (nor do I, honestly, except some previous posts of yours).

As to literature, I may have already mentioned that Dante's theology of free will swings abruptly from (semi)Gnostic positions to (semi)Pelagian ones in the Cantos in Purgatorio and Paradiso in which he deals with this matter. But, in general, he sees the universe as having in its center both/either Satan and/or God.

Maybe right THIS is the most intriguing theory, i.e., not looking for the boundaries between sinful mind and free will, God's grace and Man's decision, but seeing our existence as completely hellish AND completely heavenly: it all depends on one's standpoint.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Arminius seems to have borrowed concepts from such Jesuit thinkers as Molina on God's Middle Knowledge.

But I'm quickly out of my league in this realm . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Every person purportedly inherits a sinful nature and invariably commits sinful acts, yet the free will of each person is not in any way incapacitated by this sinful nature. How does these two positions fit together, exactly? If a fallen person's free will is not incapacitated, then why couldn't the person be saved through correct moral choices?"

Come on, that's not a deep theological puzzle. The world just needs to be stuctured in such a way that at certain inevitable junctions you get no morally sound option, only several sinful acts to freely choose among.

At 4:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Come on, that's not a deep theological puzzle."

It is for me, but I'm not so "theologically sophisticated" as you are.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Roger Olson (the chief Calvinist antagonist in the SBC apparently) says “But ‘semi-Pelagianism’ is the view that the initiative in salvation is on the human side.”

OH NO!!! Actually it isn’t, genius. This is just silly Calvinist spin. The initiative in salvation in Christianity is always on God’s part — its the CROSS. What we do NOW is not the initiative since the initiative (the CROSS) took place 2000 years ago. To say, then, that people have the ability to believe in Jesus’ sacrifice without having to wait for God to give them a magic shot in the arm in the now (which is all that this semi-Pelagian boogeyman is saying) is certainly NOT to deny that the initiative in salvation is on God’s part — its just that God took that initiative already 2000 years ago. So what’s the problem, do you Calvinists NOT believe in the cross or something? Why do you NOT recognize THAT as the initiative in salvation? Huh? Huh? Huh? Infinite more number of huhs?

Arminianism and Calvinism say "Jesus died for you but you may go to hell anyway unless God sees fit to give you the secret shot in the arm that will enable you to believe."

Semi-Pelagianism says "No magic shot in the arm necessary. Just believe in Jesus; he already died for you."


At 8:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Are you sure you've been fair to the Arminians?

But I see that you have strong feelings about this issue . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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