Is Southern Baptist ‘Traditionalism’ or Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionism’, Semi-Pelagian?: An Engagement with Adam Harwood’s Essay

Is Provisionism or Southern Baptist Traditionalism semi-Pelagian? That is the question Dr. Adam Harwood attempts to answer in the negative. In other words, in a short essay he wrote for the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry he sets out to demonstrate the way that Traditionalism or Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism definitionally elides the oft made charge that their respective soteriological position fits the historic bill of semi-Pelagianism.

I intend on engaging with Harwood’s essay by interrogating each of the sections that make up his total essay, respectively. The first section is entitled: Historical and Theological Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism Which are Contradicted by the Traditional Statement. I will limit myself to engaging solely with what Harwood presents in his essay. In other words, I will not engage with the Traditional Statement (TS) directly; instead, I will engage with the way that Harwood represents the TS in his essay—and trust that he accurately represents his own soteriological tradition accurately.

Harwood writes the following with reference to his thesis:

Shedding a false charge can be difficult. Consider as an example McCarthyism in the 1950s. A person publicly accused of belonging to the Communist Party had difficulty shaking the accusation. “You’re a Communist. Prove you’re not!” How does one disprove such an accusation? Those who affirm “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (TS) find themselves in a similar situation. Claims have been made that the TS is, or appears to be, semi-Pelagian. This chapter seeks to disprove the charge in four ways. First, historical and theological definitions of semi-Pelagianism will be provided and will be shown to be contradicted by claims in the TS. Second, it will be demonstrated that the theological claims made at the Second Council of Orange (529) fail to indict the TS as unbiblical. Third, the historical-theological context of fifth-century semi-Pelagianism suggests that the historical debate has no connection to the current conversation among Southern Baptists regarding the TS. Fourth, errors will be exposed in an early assessment of the TS. [1]

Here we see the way he will organize the entirety of his essay. To the point of this riposte, we will simply engage with his first section, first, and then proceed, through forthcoming blog posts, to engage with the rest in succession.

His first section is terse and right to the point. He offers examples, from various theological dictionaries, of what semi-Pelagianism is generally understood to be. He then, as a counter, offers quotes from the TS which he claims offers the ‘proof’ that TS (or Provisionism) does not fit the definitional frame of how historic semi-Pelagianism is typically (and universally) characterized. In order to review his argument, I will now share the definitions he appeals to in order to establish the entailments of semi-Pelagianism, and then the quotes from the Southern Baptist Traditional Statement that Harwood believes demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the TS understanding of salvation does not fall prey to the charge of being semi-Pelagian.

Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism

It “maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.” – The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

 It “affirmed that the unaided will performed the initial act of faith” and “the priority of the human will over the grace of God in the initial work of salvation.” – Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 

“The semi-Pelagians claimed that sinners make the first move toward salvation by choosing to repent and believe.” Also, “The semi-Pelagian scheme of salvation thus may be described by the statement ‘I started to come, and God helped me.’” – Integrative Theology

A term which has been used to describe several theories which were thought to imply that the first movement towards God is made by human efforts unaided by grace.” – The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology [2]

And:

Semi-Pelagianism Contradicted by the Traditional Statement

“While no one is even remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, no sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” – Article 2

 “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement.” – Article 4

 “God’s gracious call to salvation” is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” – Article 8 [3]

Harwood engages in a basic category mistake. It is hard to square how he could make this sort of mistake given its forthright nature. In other words, he is equivocating. The ‘definitions of semi-Pelagianism’ he supplies are referring to anthropological dispositioning. That is, semi-Pelagians, as we can infer from the definitions Harwood provides, has to do with the movement of humanity; or it presupposes on a capacity innate within the human agent that would allow them to make a ‘natural’ move towards God.

The responses Harwood offers from the Traditional Statement, that ostensibly counter the charge that Traditionalism is semi-Pelagian, aren’t all that clear; that is in regard to answering the question of whether or not the human agent in salvation has an innate capacity to make a movement towards God. Indeed, this is the abiding question under consideration. What we get in the TS, as offered by Harwood, are statements that ‘appear’ to potentially contradict the definition of semi-Pelagianism; but on closer inspection what they really seem to be communicating is that God has objectively offered a way for salvation. But the question under consideration has to do with an anthropological question, in regard to the internal makeup of the human being vis-à-vis God. Semi-Pelagianism has to do with the human agent’s posture towards God; it doesn’t have to do, per se, with God’s posture (so to speak) towards humanity.

What Harwood remains unclear on, with reference to his deployment of the TS, is whether or not human agents have an innate capacity to be for or against God; that is apart from God’s unilateral activity upon the human agent. In other words, for Harwood, in particular, and the TS, in general, does the grace that comes with the Gospel offer itself internally ‘enable’ the human agent to make a choice for or against God that heretofore it didn’t have prior? In other words, do the ‘Provisionists’ maintain that the human agent in salvation is inborn with all of the ‘equipment’ necessary in order to say yes or no to the Gospel; or does the Gospel itself, in its objective reality, confront the human agent in such a way that the “internals” of the person are given an alien capacity (to its own native or natural capacities; ie freewill etc) that allows them to say yes or no, subjectively, or ontically to the Gospel reality?

Harwood’s brief presentation, in his first section, does not offer clarity on these things. It leaves us wondering if he isn’t equivocating with the terms in order to elide the charge he is attempting to evade; ie semi-Pelagianism. It seems to me that we could posit that the Gospel reality is an objective or alien reality indeed. That person X could be presented with the Gospel, and that person X, even while standing in the presence of the graciousness of the Gospel, is not affected one way or the other, internally, in regard to their capacity to say yes or no to the Gospel. This is what Harwood’s analysis, thus far, is unclear on.

All Christians agree that there is a general call made by the Holy Spirit in regard to the Gospel. But that isn’t the question under consideration. The question remains open and is not answered by Harwood’s comparative analysis. His deployment of the TS does not answer the anthropological question. Instead, it claims to offer an answer by using a theological proper category, which does not directly address the anthropological question about human agency in salvation. It says that, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement,” but this, again, only speaks to God’s objective decision to provide salvation through the atoning work of Christ. This doesn’t address the question of ‘how’ this works towards ‘moving’ the human heart towards or away from God.

In this brief engagement, thus far, we are left, at least by my lights, to conclude that Harwood (and Flowers following) has not addressed the all-important question of how the Gospel ‘initiates’ God’s unilateral movement of salvation in the human heart. Harwood’s appeal to the TS only shows what all Christians affirm: viz. That God has provided Himself, in Christ, objectively for the salvation of the world. The TS does not address the subjective impact that that offering has on the human agent in salvation; it only asserts that the Holy Spirit draws, but then does not indicate what in fact that drawing entails. Maybe the remaining sections in Harwood’s essay will address the question his essay set out to answer. We will see.

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[1] Adam Harwood, “Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian?,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2013), 47-56. 

[2] Ibid., 49

[3] Ibid.

 

2 comments

  1. Richard Bridgan · ·

    “…postlapsarian humanity inhabits a status that keeps them incurved upon themselves, motivated by a saucer of competing affections that never allows them to see God as anyone but themselves. One manifestation of this, among others, is that such humans will construct rationalist citadels of anthropological heft wherein their reason, incurved upon itself as it were, becomes the standard for all that is real…”

    This is a true and fine summary of the biblical description of the ‘anthropos’ (and his rational response). “You are not able (from that place) to see my face and live; for a human will not see me and live; …I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

    Face to face with God, coram Deo, the ‘anthropos’ is not able to live… except “he inspires the ‘Yes’ of life-breath coming from the lungs of Christ.” Amen and amen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amen, Richard.

    Like

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