What did the infamous, Pelagius, teach about human agency, within the broader category of anthropology? This is a question that has seemingly plagued the church throughout her history. We have Augustine/Pelagius; Luther/Erasmus; Calvin/Pighius; The Council of Dort/Remonstrants so on and so forth. This struggle will not go away. I have, once again, been provoked to enter this fray myself; not because I think this binary is a useful one, but because it continues to ensnare others within the broader Christian body. The provocateur for me has been popular-level podcaster and youtuber, Leighton Flowers. I have engaged with him before through a few blog posts, you can read up on those here. Without rehashing the nitty-gritty of Flowers’ approach (which he calls Provisionism), what is at greatest rub with his whole proposed system reduces down to the question that Pelagius has come to be known for (indeed, Pelagius, has come to be known as the heresiarch of the church because of this). Flowers just did a podcast where this issue takes centerstage (i.e. the human agent’s moral capacity to know or not know God); I responded, here, via a podcast of my own. For the remainder of this post we will attempt to offer a precis of Pelagius’ view on human freewill, and compare that to what Leighton Flowers presents. What should stand out by the end of this post, is that to Flowers’ protestations, his position fits with Pelagius’ perspective much more than he would like. It will be concluded that Flowers’ position isn’t simply equivocally related to Pelagius’, but instead, that Flowers operates with a form of the Pelagian position, that in the history has come to be called semi-Pelagianism.
In order to make a genuine attempt at representing Flowers’ view accurately I will quote directly from the statement of faith he has posted at his website. The statement of faith is said to be representative of the majority of Southern Baptists; Flowers is, by self-confession, within this ‘majority.’ I will quote a large section of the statement (for context), since it has to do with the very question under consideration:
ARTICLE ONE: THE GOSPEL
We affirm that the Gospel is the good news that God has made a way of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ for any person. This is in keeping with God’s desire for every person to be saved.
We deny that only a select few are capable of responding to the Gospel while the rest are predestined to an eternity in hell.
Genesis 3:15; Psalm 2:1-12; Ezekiel 18:23, 32; Luke 19.10; Luke 24:45-49; John 1:1-18, 3:16; Romans 1:1-6, 5:8; 8:34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 4:4-7; Colossians 1:21-23; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; Hebrews 1:1-3; 4:14-16; 2 Peter 3:9
ARTICLE TWO: THE SINFULNESS OF MAN
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.
Genesis 3:15-24; 6:5; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 6:5, 7:15-16;53:6;Jeremiah 17:5,9, 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:19-20; Romans 1:18-32; 3:9-18, 5:12, 6:23; 7:9; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 6:9-10;15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-15
ARTICLE THREE: THE ATONEMENT OF CHRIST
We affirm that the penal substitution of Christ is the only available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.
We deny that this atonement results in salvation without a person’s free response of repentance and faith. We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will. We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved.
Psalm 22:1-31; Isaiah 53:1-12; John 12:32, 14:6; Acts 10:39-43; Acts 16:30-32; Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10-14; Philippians 2:5-11; Col. 1:13-20; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 9:12-15, 24-28; 10:1-18; I John 1:7; 2:2
ARTICLE FOUR: THE GRACE OF GOD
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.
We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.
Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 3:34; Zechariah 12:10; Matthew 19:16-30, 23:37; Luke 10:1-12; Acts 15:11; 20:24; Romans 3:24, 27-28; 5:6, 8, 15-21; Galatians 1:6; 2:21; 5; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 3:2-9; Colossians 2:13-17; Hebrews 4:16; 9:28; 1 John 4:19
ARTICLE FIVE: THE REGENERATION OF THE SINNER
We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.
We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.
Luke 15:24; John 3:3; 7:37-39; 10:10; 16:7-14; Acts 2:37-39; Romans 6:4-11; 10:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; 6:15; Colossians 2:13; 1 Peter 3:18
ARTICLE SIX: THE ELECTION TO SALVATION
We affirm that, in reference to salvation, election speaks of God’s eternal, gracious, and certain plan in Christ to have a people who are His by repentance and faith.
We deny that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation.
Genesis 1:26-28; 12:1-3; Exodus 19:6;Jeremiah 31:31-33; Matthew 24:31; 25:34; John 6:70; 15:16; Romans 8:29-30, 33;9:6-8; 11:7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2:11-22; 3:1-11; 4:4-13; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 1 Peter 1:1-2; 1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 7:9-10
ARTICLE SEVEN: THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation.
We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.
Genesis 1:1; 6:5-8; 18:16-33; 22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; 1 Chronicles 29:10-20; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Joel 2:32; Psalm 23; 51:4; 139:1-6; Proverbs 15:3; John 6:44; Romans 11:3; Titus 3:3-7; James 1:13-15; Hebrews 11:6, 12:28; 1 Peter 1:17
ARTICLE EIGHT: THE FREE WILL OF MAN
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.
We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an “effectual call” for certain people that is different from a “general call” to any person who hears and understands the Gospel.
Genesis 1:26-28; Numbers 21:8-9; Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 1 Samuel 8:1-22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; Esther 3:12-14; Matthew 7:13-14; 11:20-24; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 9:23-24; 13:34; 15:17-20; Romans 10:9-10; Titus 2:12; Revelation 22:17
Keep the aforementioned in mind. Now we will turn to a reading of Pelagius’ understanding of human nature, and freewill. I will refer to my friend’s, Nick Needham’s synopsizing of that:
Unfortunately for Pelagius, his ardent zeal for holy living was wedded to a rather unorthodox theology. Although his doctrine of God was Catholic enough (he believed in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity), his beliefs about human nature sparked off a storm of controversy which ended in his condemnation for heresy. Pelagius held that all human beings were born into the world as sinless as Adam was before he fell, the apostasy of Adam had not corrupted humanity’s nature, but had merely set a fatally bad example, which most of Adam’s sons and daughters had freely followed. However, there were some people (according to Pelagius) who had managed to remain sinless throughout their lives by proper use of their free-will, e.g. some of the Old Testament saints like Daniel. In fact, anyone could become sinlessly perfect if only he tried hard enough. Pelagius admitted, of course, that human beings needed God’s grace in order to be good, but he had his own peculiar definition of grace. For Pelagius “grace” really meant two things: (i) God’s gift of natural free-will to all human beings; (ii) God’s gift of the moral law and the example of Christ, which revealed perfectly how people should live, and supplied strong incentives in the form of eternal rewards and punishments. Pelagius’s theology therefore made the fruits of human goodness grow almost entirely out of human free-will and effort; entry into heaven, in the Pelagian scheme, became a just reward for living a good life on earth, rather than an undeserved gift purchased for helpless sinners by the blood of an all-sufficient Saviour.
Based on Needham’s description (which is a good one, the common one you will come across in any sound patristic theology book) of Pelagius’s doctrine, we can see some similarities and dissimilarities between what Flowers and the Baptists affirm, and what Pelagius ostensibly affirms. It is the Deny section of Article 2 from the statement above where we find the greatest similarity between Pelagius and Flowers. To reiterate that section it says: “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.” In comparison, Pelagius’s position, according to Needham is this: “Pelagius held that all human beings were born into the world as sinless as Adam was before he fell, the apostasy of Adam had not corrupted humanity’s nature . . . Pelagius admitted, of course, that human beings needed God’s grace in order to be good, but he had his own peculiar definition of grace. For Pelagius “grace” really meant two things: (i) God’s gift of natural free-will to all human beings. . . .” I selected the aspects of the respective anthropologies that I think present the greatest similarities between Flowers and Pelagius. While there is not a one-to-one correlation, there is a correlation between the way Flowers believes humanity ‘retained’ a person’s free will, post-fall, and the way Pelagius maintained that human beings were born with an ‘uncorrupted human nature’ as that refers to ‘freewill.’ And as Needham points, out, for Pelagius grace is what fortifies this ‘uncorrupted’ or ‘retained’ (that’s Leighton’s language in his podcasts when attempting to explain his perspective even further) freedom of the will within the human agent. There are some obvious distinctions between Flowers/Baptists and Pelagius, such as Pelagius’s sort of naturalist full-blown moralist soteriology, and the way that Flowers attempts to soften that within a more classical soteriological framework. But what is of concern is the way they share a highly similar theological anthropology, in regard to humanity’s capacity of freewill vis-à-vis salvation. This is the locus classicus that led the early church to identify Pelagius’s teaching as heretical.
There is so much more that can be said. I haven’t even started critiquing Flowers’ position from my own theological program; that will have to wait for another day (if that day ever comes). We haven’t even applied concepts like created grace, a Thomist-Intellectualist anthropology, or considered concepts like operative and cooperative grace when it comes to Flowers’ approach. But I wanted to at least attempt to show how there is a serious and substantial connection between what these Southern Baptists and Flowers teach when compared to what Pelagius taught in regard to the retention of the so called human freewill post-fall. Earlier in my post I noted that I would place Flowers’ position, when considered from the historical valence, into the semi-Pelagian category. I would do this just at the point where we see Flowers/Baptists attempting to dress their soteriological understanding within classical and even orthodox categories, at least linguistically. But when we dress that down, we still end up with this underlying and nagging understanding of a retained ‘freewill’, post-fall, that Pelagius himself taught and was anathematized for. Even in the Deny we paid attention to, the statement says that ultimately the choice is the person’s, as that is understood from what already was affirmed in regard to the retention of human freewill, even if the idea of Pneumatic wooing is referenced. This is what Flowers&company cannot get past. At bottom they affirm that internal to the human agent, it is within the human agent’s power to ‘respond’ or not to the wooing of the Holy Spirit’s prompting. If the person responds in the affirmative to the wooing, Flowers will say this was because of God’s grace; if they reject this wooing, he will say it was because it was in their prerogative to do so because of their freewill. Either way, the response isn’t motivated by grace or no-grace, it is funded by the human agent’s inherent capacity of freewill to either reach out and take hold of God’s grace or not (which if you have read any John Cassian you will also recognize this in him, and his understanding of ‘grace as a hook’). This doesn’t even fit into what Aquinas et al. would refer to as cooperative grace. Grace in Flowers’ et al. approach is always external to the human agent, and this is why Flowers’ soteriological position can rightly be labeled Pelagian. As I reflect on this now, even, the ‘semi’ might not well be applicable at all to his position.
Much to consider. I will leave us with this: good intentions, which Flowers has, a high-piety, which Flowers has, never covers up for bad theology. What Flowers and this set of Southern Baptists are offering is bad theology, and unscriptural at every turn; at least when it comes to thinking about how ‘freedom’ is understood in Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ.
 A Statement of the Traditional Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, accessed 05-17-2020. I have italicized and emboldened all of Article 2; this is where the comparison between Pelagius and Leighton Flowers, and his like-minded Southern Baptists is most acute.
 Nick Needham, 2000 Years Of Christ’s Power: Volume 1: The Age Of The Early Church Fathers (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publication, 2016), 276.