Plagiarism is a Kingdom issue


So if you haven’t heard: Mark Driscoll has done it, yet again. During an appearance on the radio call-in show hosted by Janet Mefford, Driscoll became incredibly hostile in relation to probing questions about his book and antics related to it. To summarize, there were two issues of conflict. First, Janet Mefford questioned Driscoll as to whether John MacArthur’s security actually confiscated his books, as Driscoll had said, or whether Driscoll tried to make it appear that way, as video evidence has suggested. Immediately Driscoll, rather than owning it, became defensive and began to blame Mefford for not being concerned about the Kingdom, claiming he was doing her a favor by appearing (via phone) to promote his book. Ok, well Mefford let that go and proceeded to actually talk about the book.

After Driscoll gave a summary of the key point of his book, Mefford called him out for plagiarism of that exact point. Specifically, Mefford notes that there are 14 pages representing the crux of Driscoll’s argument in his latest book (A Call to Resurgence) and possibly a few pages later, that represented the ideas and sometimes exact phrasing of Dr. Peter Jones. Specifically Driscoll’s use of the terms “one-ism” as representing “neo-paganism” (the hyphen is somewhat unique to Peter Jones) and “two-ism” as representing a Christian worldview. This, and the specific manner in which Driscoll addresses it, is not Driscoll’s idea. It is clearly that of Dr. Jones. Driscoll, who seems simultaneously shocked and annoyed at this point in the interview, says that it must have been a mistake and that he used to have dinner with Dr. Jones, where he (Dr. Jones) did most of the talking while Driscoll mostly listened, but did not take notes.

At this point Driscoll then begins to again turn the tables on Mefford, claiming that she is following tribalism (declaring that she is merely defending MacArthur), claiming to be the victim in this situation, telling Mefford she has “an opportunity for growth,” strongly implying that she is inappropriately taking on the role of a domineering teacher (a clear no go in these circles), and trying to claim that he is just trying to talk about the kingdom of God and all Mefford is concerned with is a “footnote,” implying again that this is a silly thing to be worried about. After Mefford points out that Driscoll’s own sermons on stealing and lying suggest that plagiarism of the exact same sort that Driscoll has done are wrong and possibly cause for a pastor to step down, and after she notes that on Mars Hill, Seattle’s website (Driscoll’s church), it specifically says that those who use any portion or idea of Mark Driscoll without citing Driscoll, something happens with alarming frequency in pulpits, is plagiarism (and may be subject to lawsuit).

Now the last bit has been up for debate, with Mefford claiming they lost all connection and Driscoll claiming she cut him off and editing the audio. Both sides have released raw audio, one clearly recorded from Driscoll’s end (supporting his version) and the other obviously from the radio recording in a single track (and so it could not be edited as Mars Hill staff have alleged). At best someone slipped and hit a button, at worst this was planned out and intentional from one side or the other. However, such debate misses the point.

Following the interview, when Tyndale House (Driscoll’s publisher) was reached for comment, rather than acknowledging an error in the editing phase, or noting it was an honest mistake, Tyndale House, who as a publisher should know how serious plagiarism is, instead doubles down in defense of Mark Driscoll by attacking Janet Mefford. Additionally, Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition’s “Between Two Worlds” blog (who famously attacked Rob Bell’s last book based almost entirely on its trailer) called for a Boycott of Janet Mefford’s show. Just so everyone is up to speed, Mefford is not some liberal secularist, or anti-Christian brow-beater. She is incredibly conservative. You can read about all this drama from Jonathan Merritt at Religious News Services, and from the blog Pyromaniac (both of which provided additional facts related to this brief summary).

Additionally, to thicken the plot, Jonathan Merritt has reported that Mefford has shown indisputable proof that this was not a one time thing for Driscoll. Specifically, Mefford shows that two entire pages from Driscoll’s book on 1&2 Peter were taken word-for-word from a commentary by D.A. Carson, also without attribution. You can find that story here.

What’s at stake

Throughout this entire ordeal, whenever Driscoll has responded, it has been with a tone of indignation. Without saying it, he, and his supporters, have implied that this is a very minor offense and that it is being used to attack him. To be sure, I have seen anti-Driscoll-ites saying this is like bringing down Al Capone on tax charges on Facebook and Twitter. On the other end, I’ve seen supporters of Driscoll claiming that we’re missing the entire point by arguing about a footnote. Driscoll himself, in the initial interview, claimed that “this” would be used by opponents of Christianity to make fun of all Christians and hurt the Kingdom. What Driscoll meant by “this” seems to be what he considers division. Driscoll, however, has an odd definition of division. If someone disagrees with him, or challenges him, it seems, then they are a cause of division. If the roles are reversed, though, then the one in disagreement with Driscoll are deemed heretics.

Let me be clear, “this” will be used by opponents of Christianity. And most of those involved are missing the entire point. But “this” and the entire point are directly related to these footnotes. Ask anyone in college (or high school) if plagiarism is a big deal. Do the words failure or expulsion ring a bell? This isn’t just for doctoral dissertations, either, as Driscoll tries to intimate (interesting, though, considering he has no issue touting his Masters degree when it suits him), but a universal standard. Nor is it confined entirely to academe.

In the publishing world, such as the press carrying Driscoll’s book, plagiarism often leads to lawsuits and immediate terminations, not to mention someone being “blackballed” from the industry not only for committing plagiarism, but for failing to catch it. The non-Church world seems to take plagiarism very seriously, and not at all in the flippant way that Driscoll and his cadre seem to approach it. But why?

At the heart of plagiarism are two primary issues. One has to do with the act itself, the other has to do with the motivation behind the act. Janet Mefford, who certainly seems to understand the gravity of plagiarism, has said much about the act itself. It is simply lying and stealing, and, by Driscoll’s own admission, a pastor who commits plagiarism is unworthy of the office (see Driscoll’s book Vintage Church).

The second issue has to do with motivation. There are two principle motivations for plagiarism, and both of them may very well be at play in Driscoll’s case. The first is hubris. The thought is that I am so amazing that either a) I certainly thought of that first, or b) it doesn’t matter who thought of it first, people will want to give me credit because of how great I am. This may have something to do with the celebrity pastor movement. Namely, if you have church membership in excess of 15,000 members spread over an area broader than 100 square miles, who are you accountable to, and why do you think that your message is so important that the sermon is divorced from personal pastoral care? Now, I don’t think all megachurches or all multi-site churches are de facto wrong, but one should approach these type of things with an extra measure of vigilance because the Church is not a corporation. The Aquila Report has a post dealing on issues of celebrity and the pastorate related to this case.

The other principle motivation is just laziness. Here it may be primary: “I just don’t care,” or ancillary: “what I have to say is so important I don’t have time for due diligence.” In either case, the issues seem to relate back to pride, though perhaps less of the vulgar sense seen above. Still it does not promote the Christian ideal of hard work and working in all things as unto the Lord.

There is another issue that is also related. This has to do with perception of the Church. Certainly the fallout will lead many to view Driscoll and his ministry as epitomes of liars, hypocrites, thieves, and arrogant or lazy people. But the main issue for most of the “millennial generation” is authenticity. If you mess up, intentionally or not, you should own it. Admit that you are a liar, a thief a hypocrite, whatever. Own your mistakes, especially when you are called on it. Don’t put up a façade to hide behind while you blame those who point out structural issues. Own it, and try to fix it, maybe ask for forgiveness or the help of others.

Driscoll’s response only serves to circle the wagons and alienate those outside. The response of Tyndale House sends the message that they are not be respected by readers, nor to be trusted by authors because rather than investigate plagiarism, they may just side with their superstar author. This is particularly sad given its prior excellent history. All in all, this will not get better until someone steps up and admits that, at the very least, someone made a serious mistake, and then apologizes. If Driscoll really wants to end “tribalism” and move toward a more global view of the church, now is his chance to prove it.


What Kind of Fire is it?

Ok so yes, this is late. But it is still important.

If you haven’t heard, John MacArthur released a new book and he did so with gusto, including a conference advertised by this video:

Now, I can’t tell you everything that is going on in that video. There’s a whole thing with what appears to be random scenes from the bible enacted by action figures. (Is that Stephen at the beginning? And why is he missing a leg?). This much I do know, John MacArthur does not think the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement is part of true Christianity.

Now I should be clear about something up front. I like John MacArthur’s studies. When I first started to undertake serious study of the bible, MacArthur was one of my early entry points. While I don’t tend to read him as much today, I nevertheless think many of his studies and earlier sermons are invaluable.

Also, in case you were unaware, I should note that I am not a Dortian Calvinist. Look, I’ve got lots of friends who are. That’s fine. We can disagree on that and still speak constructively about the message of the bible and partner together for God’s Kingdom and to fulfill the works he has called us to and prepared for us (“that we should walk in them” as the Apostle Paul says). So already I’m in disagreement with MacArthur who has become increasingly vocal about Calvinism, and more intolerant of those who disagree with his position (sadly I have lots of former friends who are Calvinists in much the same vein).

I also would not characterize myself as being Charismatic or Pentecostal. “So why,” you might ask, “do you even care about this?” Quite honestly, it’s about unity. And the whole Strange Fire issue directly undermines the unity of the Church. I say this not to shun MacArthur, because one does not build unity by pushing others to the fringe, but to encourage other Christians not to write off what has become the largest and fastest growing area of Christianity today.

I get that there are certainly some abuses within the Charismatic church, largely centered around the so-called “health and wealth gospel.” If you are unfamiliar with that term, let me explain. The health and wealth gospel takes the focus off of the redemptive, transformative, revolutionary and radical power of the cross and empty grave and places it on personal material gains in this life. Does God want you to have joy? Absolutely. Does that joy consist primarily in being materially wealthy and physically healthy? Not remotely. Yes, it is true that the bible says “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7 NIV) and one verse later “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9 NIV). Yet it is the intervening verse that directly undermines the health and wealth message “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:8 NIV). This message, which is purported sometimes by charlatans and, more often than many of us would like to admit, by earnestly believing preachers who simply don’t know any better, is a dangerous message. It appeals to those who are desperate, tells them to focus on a false and quickly fading hope, taking their eyes off of the goal Christ has put before them, and blames the individual for not believing strong enough when things don’t work out. In this way it makes the poor even more poor and blames them for that, it encourages the ill to divert their funds away from genuine treatments (ones that God had a hand in making) and tells them to buy snake oil. It is dangerous and preys (either intentionally or unintentionally) on the most vulnerable. Yes it should be opposed because it is not the gospel.

Still, to argue that all, or even most, Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are part of this false gospel, as MacArthur very strongly implies, is grossly mistaken. You don’t reject all of them for the abuses of a minority. MacArthur, though, goes even one step further. He declares that members of this church are practicing “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” That is very serious charge! This comes from Matthew 12. Jesus says that anything will be forgiven, even blasphemy against the Son of Man (referring to himself), but blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. MacArthur, fully aware of the content of what that means, quickly passes judgment that millions, if not billions, of those professing to be Christians, those who have died to themselves with Christ, are consigned to hell, and will not be raised with Christ. But judging by the way in which he does so, you would think he is wholly unaware of this. Further, he explains that he is sure he is correct because, according to MacArthur, blasphemy of the Spirit is “assigning to God the work of Satan.” But right away there’s a problem.

Let’s actually look at Matthew 12. In it, Jesus has just performed a miraculous healing on the Sabbath. For doing such a work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees begin their plan to have Jesus executed. Not too longer afterward, Jesus performs an exorcism, driving out a demon from a man, healing him of his physical maladies at the same time. The Pharisees declare that Jesus does this under the power of Beelzebul, another name for Satan. It is in this context that Jesus brings up the “blasphemy of the Spirit.” If anything, it is not assigning to God the works of Satan, but rather it is assigning to Satan the works of God, exactly what the Pharisees are doing.

However, I think the issue is much deeper than that. Jesus declares that “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” (v. 30) just before he mentions this unforgivable sin. I would argue that this sin has more to do with disrupting the unity of the Church. Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that John MacArthur has committed blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I am saying that there is a lack of caution here that should give us pause, especially when speaking about the broader Church. The Spirit works to preserve and unify the Church. As Jesus prayed in John’s gospel (ch. 17, NIV)

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

If what we do is damaging to the unity of the church, it should be abandoned. We should strive to work together with others, even when we disagree, so long as we have our eyes fixed on the cross of Christ, and not our own wealth or lack thereof. Pray for unity. Build up, do not tear down. May we all grow together into God’s building.

This was written in response to a direct question. If you have a question you’d like me to write about on the blog, let me know (comments below are a great way to do that).

Sermon on the Kingdom of God

On Sunday I had the joy to preach at what I consider my “home church,” Louetta Road Baptist Church in Spring, TX (North Houston). I think this is one of the few ways I like topical preaching. I walked through a large portion of the bible to give the beginnings of a biblical theology of the Kingdom of God. Video is below:

A Conversation with a Calvinist Friend

The post before last was about “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” which was a response by several non-Calvinist, prominent SBC leaders to what they saw as the growth of what they labeled “New Calvinism.” The “new Calvinism” is understood by the authors of the “statement” to be a more subversive form of Calvinism that seeks to, somewhat secretly, change the traditional identity of many SBC churches through non-traditional (and ethically questionable) methods, including preying on the lack of theological education of many lay persons. The statement, it seemed to me, was a way to give language to the view that many already held, but lacked the training to properly express or defend.

While I acknowledged that the statement was not worded the best it could have been, nor was the timing of its release ideal, I nevertheless was largely in agreement with it. The statement caused a bit of a flutter on the internet, as I described in that post, which included accusations that it was semi-Pelagian. I maintained that either it was not semi-Pelagian, if they meant the heresy condemned in 529, or if it was semi-Pelagian, it was so only in the sense of less than full Augustinian (and thus still not fitting with the heresy condemned in 529).

By and large the controversy seems to have died down a little bit, though likely will reprise itself again. Away from the rhetorical attacks, and the self-affirming words present in some areas, I do think that some useful dialogue may have come out of it. Contrary to what some may have inferred, I don’t hold anything against my Calvinist brethren. I even hold out the possibility that they may be right; I don’t think that is very likely, but it would be too arrogant of me to assume that I know, beyond all doubt, that one group is right or another is absolutely wrong, especially given the positive impact they have made historically. These things should be approached with humility, openness, and clarity. In that vein, at least I hope in that vein, I’d like to post below a conversation I had on the blog of one of the first persons to suggest that the “Statement” might be semi-Pelagian, Chris Roberts. Christ and I went to seminary (or more correctly “Divinity School”) together and are friends. I think he does some really great stuff over at his blog “Seek the Holy” (yes it is rather Calvinist in most of the posts, but still a good blog) and has been a model for how a Calvinist should act, both with regard to purpose/mission and openness, in the SBC, which is still overwhelmingly not Calvinist. At any rate, if you want the conversation in its raw form, click here to visit that page. Otherwise, I’ve cleaned up a version below (just for clarity sake) and reformatted it to read more like a dialogue. I think it has brought some good clarity. I’ll start it by reprinting the post he had, and then having the written conversation.

The Original Post

Monergism recently posted a link to an article by R. C. Sproul titled The Pelagian Captivity of the Church. Read his description of semi-Pelagianism:

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.


Trey: [While, I don’t know that semi-Pelagian is a fair term for a view that is just not Augustinian, we’ll use it] We don’t think there is an island of righteousness. Rather, part of the image of God is the ability to causally affect the world, to make volitional decisions that have future impact, i.e. to be genuinely free to choose something. This weakened, as opposed to “enslaved,” will is not a measure of righteousness, but is a morally neutral faculty of our humanity (like the sense of smell, or the ability to reason mathematically). We can’t necessarily see the full impact of our decisions, or the merit they may or may not achieve and when it comes to moral decisions, we always choose wrongly and that is the result of Original Sin.

The salvation offered is not a moral decision, though. It is akin to a drowning man surrendering his struggle so that he may be saved. On that account, it’s not even necessarily that we choose anything. Rather, it’s that we accept our inability to choose and simply stop actively refusing/resisting. On this account grace is something that is resistible, but not something that may be chosen. That seems to fit well with how I understand Scripture, has never been condemned as heresy, and I am fairly certain is what most of the signers of this statement would agree with. God still does all of the saving.

Going back to the drowning man scenario, it may be a question of whether the drowning victim willingly stops trying to save himself/stops struggling (the position of the “statement”) or whether the life-saver incapacitates the drowning man before dragging him to shore (a more calvinist sense). In neither case can the newly saved man claim any credit at all, it all goes to the one who actually saved his life. It’s an imperfect analogy, but might be more helpful than Sproul’s misunderstanding of the position of most of us who are neither Calvinist nor Arminian (there is no “island of righteousness” from which to act, we are vicious to the core until God transforms that core).

Chris: [When you say] “This weakened, as opposed to ‘enslaved,’ will is not a measure of righteousness, but is a morally neutral faculty of our being human (like the sense of smell, or the ability to reason mathematically),” [I see a problem].

On the one hand, what Sproul refers to as an island of righteousness is not so much righteousness based on prior merit, but a capacity for doing righteous. It is good and righteous for people to repent of sins and confess the name of Jesus. If I am able to do this of myself, then I retain the ability to do a righteous act.

As for a morally neutral faculty, I’d be even more concerned with that phrase as it is much closer to full Pelagianism. You clarify yourself some when you say, “When it comes to moral decisions, we always choose wrongly and that is the result of Original Sin.” but then I would want to ask, in what sense is the will morally neutral if original sin always leads us to choose wrongly?

When you say that salvation is not a moral decision, I think we need to clarify what is required of us in salvation. More is required of us than simple surrender. It does require a work of the will to turn from sin and turn to the righteousness of Christ, confessing our sin and embracing by faith the work of Jesus and the glory of God. Doing this is good, and doing this is impossible for fallen man.

[Also your claim that] “we accept our inability to choose and simply stop actively refusing/resisting” [as distinct from freely choosing to accept Grace in your human capacity] isn’t a valid distinction. We cannot say accepting our inability is something different than making a choice. How do I accept my inability unless I choose to accept my inability? A work of the will is still required. If I accept my need for Christ because of my inability, then I have chosen to yield myself to Christ.

[You conclude by saying] “it may be a question of whether the drowning victim willingly stops trying to save himself/stops struggling (the position of the “statement”) or whether the life-saver incapacitates the drowning man before dragging him to shore (a more calvinist sense).”

The first position still requires a choice, as I’ve already noted. To willingly stop trying to save myself is to choose to stop trying to save myself. It is a work of the will, a work that requires recognizing that I need saving, a work of the will that fallen humanity can never perform.

As for the Calvinist position, the drowning man does not need to be incapacitated before being saved because he is no longer a drowning man: he has already drowned, he is already dead, he is already incapacitated. To be rescued he must be brought back to life.

[As a sidenote,] one thing that came to mind a few times as I read your comment is that some of the things you say sound like pietist beliefs such as found in the Keswick movement – surrender, yield, let-go-and-let-God type of approach to salvation and sanctification. Would this be correct?


Trey: [First to address your sidenote], it’s difficult to argue that Keswick has not had influence among baptists, particularly given its connection to R.A. Torrey, D. L. Moody and Billy Graham. How much of it I’ve imbibed? Well I haven’t actually studied to movement enough to know exactly how much of it has influenced me or not. It’s likely, given what I have read, it has influenced me greatly. I would add as a caveat that I believe John Stott spoke at one of the Keswick conventions at some point and it really seems to be much broader than Calvinist or non-Calvinist in its theology.

[Now moving on to the substance of your response, let me clarify.] I’m saying it is not possible, on your own, to repent of sins and confess Jesus. Such a step is only available after initial surrender. This is the key distinction, Calvinism preaches an irresistible Grace that overwhelms and accomplishes its goal for the predestined elect. What I am talking about is a resistible Grace that, once it is no longer resisted, functions the same way as the Calvinist understanding of Grace. I think the key distinction between the position being described by Sproul and my own is that Sproul seems to think that I actively choose this grace. That is not the case. Like the Calvinist, I hold that it is God who has chosen me and sent his grace to me.

The only “choice” is whether to exercise the will, and thus be unable to choose it because by that active action we are working against what Grace fundamentally is, or whether to recognize the futility of our own ability surrender the will over to God.

I do think I make a valid distinction between stopping to exercise the will and actively engaging the will to choose grace. It’s a difference between active and passive. The Arminian perspective accepts the active role of choosing God’s grace and thus, in order to avoid semi-pelagianism, must add in the extra step of “prevenient grace,” a concept I would maintain is completely alien to Scripture and smacks more of a holdover from medieval Roman Catholic understandings of Baptism than the Protestant idea of Grace.

Sproul’s perspective seems to assume that their can be no passive function of the will as distinct from the active function of the will. So Sproul denies both, while the Arminian accepts only the active function of the will after prevenient grace. The key difference is whether there can conceivably be a distinction made between an active and passive will.

In both my perspective and the Calvinist one, God chooses you first and last, and you don’t choose. Yes, I would accept that we are dead, in a sense, but also alive in a sense, though only alive in our death. The reason I chose the drowning man analogy, however, is this: when a man who was drowning is rescued, do any of his actions deserve merit? It doesn’t matter if he was knocked unconscious (the Calvinist view) or merely gave up struggling (my view), once the rescue has been accomplished no one looks back and says he did anything to contribute to that rescue. He didn’t. His was a passive role and if he had taken an active role he either would have saved himself, or he would have only hastened his own demise. Thus, in my view, if you are saved it is entirely God’s doing, if you are damned, it is entirely your own fault. The Calvinist perspective, however, can only (logically) accept a double predestination view. If you are saved or damned, it is because God saved or damned you. If that is not the case, either it is not Calvinist or else it declares God somehow impotent to save others.

Chris: But am I hearing you right that in your perspective, what begins the process of surrender is still something that originates in you? I will not be saved unless and until I surrender, etc., and if I never surrender, I will never be saved.

As for the merit to the drowning man, he doesn’t deserve merit for being saved, but it remains the case that he was at least partially for his rescue because of his action. Had he done other than what he did, he would have drowned. Because of what he did, it was possible for him to be saved.

Trey: Let me draw possibly another analogy to possibly help clarify. It’s like a fish swimming against the stream. The fish is resisting the current that’s all around it swimming towards what is his death. It’s only when the fish stops resisting the current that its force overwhelms him and takes him far away from that death and brings life. The fish did not do it, only stopped resisting the current already in place. So I don’t think it originates with you. While with the drowning man his inaction made it possible for his rescue, he was not, in fact, responsible for any portion of his rescue. His only possible action would have resulted in the failed rescue. So, as I’ve said, on my view it is entirely possible to resist grace, but it is not possible to save yourself or even, really, choose grace. Now while that may not be a Dortian Calvinist position, I don’t think it can be called heretical and it certainly has grounding in Scripture. That’s really what I’m trying to say. It’s not that I’m necessarily right or you’re wrong, but that my view is, nevertheless, a valid perspective.

Chris: Why does the fish stop resisting?

Trey: The fish stops resisting (now I’m really going to stretch the analogy) because its eyes were  opened to the genuine possibility, or even likelihood that it was going the wrong direction despite every instinct it had (by the Holy Spirit). Then it had to choose to either stop resisting or continue to follow its instinct. When/if the fish chose to stop resisting, it began to receive some sort of confirmation (now the analogy is getting really thin) along the way, though it was only assured it was correct once it reached the destination at the end of the current into the pool of water (or Grace). Again the key distinction is that, for the fish, even once the eyes are opened the stream (Grace) can continue to be resisted.

Chris: [When you say] “The fish stops resisting… because its eyes were  opened… that it was going the wrong direction,” that’s where I’d see the distinction between what you propose and semi-Pelagianism, or even Article 2. The semi-Pelagian would argue there is no need for someone to open our eyes, at least on the matter of changing directions/being saved, because our eyes are already capable of seeing and we are already capable of choosing. But if the argument is that no, God must open our eyes, God must make it possible for us to see, then we move away from semi-Pelagianism.

Trey: Then I think we can agree I’m not semi-Pelagian, but I would posit that one can hold to the statement (including Article 2) and accept this, even if it is not made explicit in the document. There, I think, is where one of the problems of the document actually is: it’s wording was not very careful. Still, that alone does not make it semi-Pelagian.

Well that’s our conversation. If you’ve managed to read the whole thing (I’m realizing how verbose I can be, and wow!), then what do you think?

My take on the “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist understanding of God’s Plan for Salvation”

If you are not a member of the Southern Baptist Convention (now aka Great Commission Baptist), the following blog post may not seem to apply to your own particular situation, but as the largest protestant denomination in America with an extensive missionary force, through the International Mission Board (IMB) in cooperation with local/national denominations, what happens in the SBC/GCB affects many more Christians than those in the denomination. Further, the controversy I’m going to address below involves issues that to the heart of a very interesting debate that is being held in a variety of congregations and denominations and touches on issues of what salvation is (what we may call ‘redemption,’ ‘atonement,’ or altogether fitting within the larger umbrella of ‘soteriology’) and what our current state as people is before God (what might be termed ‘theological anthropology,’ which will include a discussion of the doctrine of sin, or ‘harmartiology’).

What I am talking about is the recently posted “Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of Salvation” that was recently posted to the high profile SBC website SBCtoday, and was signed by numerous denominational leaders, Seminary presidents, pastors, and SBC theology/religion professors. I will return the previous series “Where did our bible come from” to talk about inspiration and a little bit about translation next time. However, considering that many other high profile websites have addressed it, including the other primary SBC site SBCvoices, and the fiercely Calvinist, but not Southern Baptist, site the Gospel Coalition, as well as some of my divinity school colleagues like Chris Roberts (who I am still friends with despite some of our other theological differences), it seems appropriate to come back to blogging in order to address this specific issue.


-On May 30 (not the 31 as some have written elsewhere), a post appeared on the SBC blog SBCtoday entitled “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” It appears, from what I can gather, that it was meant to be an initial offering, accompanied as it was by an introduction explaining the rationale, which might be later modified. If you want to read it in its entirety you can follow the link here. The statement immediately created a buzz and several prominent SBC leaders sign it (such as Jerry Vines, Jimmy Draper, Paige Paterson along with roughly 450 other pastors, theologians, and other SBC leaders or lay leaders). A full list can be found here.

-The next day, over at another prominent SBC blog SBCvoices, a response was posted a response to this statement saying it sent the wrong kind of message and was unnecessarily divisive. It can be found here. While I agree with the post to a certain extent, I do think he overstates his case (see below).

-By June 4, a number of other blogs had picked up the issue. An Roger E. Olson, an Arminian blogger at patheos, on the one hand, and a seminary colleague of mine (whom I still consider a friend) on the Calvinist end of the spectrum, Chris Roberts, both argued that the text of the statement, particularly article 2, sounded rather semi-pelagian.

-On June 6, the incredibly prominent Calvinist blog The Gospel Coalition featured an FAQ on the subject. Some of the information provided there was faulty, I’ll address below, but mostly it simply reiterated information present elsewhere. Why would a Calvinist blog whose primary readership is decidedly not SBC (though a few SBCers do follow it) decide to post on this controversy, well likely because of the Calvinist/non-Calvinist issues currently going on inside the SBC.

A Valid Critique (but not that valid)

The Gospel Coalition FAQ mentions three primary critiques, personally I don’t think the first two are even worth mentioning (but I’ll address them below), and the third needs a bit more nuance. However, the critique they fail to mention, which was picked up by both the SBCvoices blog and Chris Roberts’s blog, is that the method behind this is suspect. The stated purpose of SBCtoday is to promote unity among Southern Baptists. Since that is the case, it seems odd that they would post something that seems so inflammatory. This was a statement specifically geared to distinguish the “traditional Southern Baptist view” from the Calvinist view of salvation. How could this not be divisive? One of my biggest aversions to many in SBC leadership is not a question of theology (in fact, I’m usually in heavy agreement), but in methodology. If there is no love in our words, how are we to proceed. That said, I don’t think the intent of the statement was to be divisive. At worst, it was careless in its timing and possible phrasing. Still, there might have been good reason to put it forth.

I’ll admit, being slightly removed from the action by being in another country and not really leading a church puts me a bit out of touch with the day to day activities of the SBC and how it impacts the local congregations. However, there has been an increasing trend to adopt Calvinism by new SBC pastors. Currently around 10% of the SBC’s pastors and leaders are self-identified Calvinists. However, over the past five years or so, around 30% of SBC seminary graduates are self-identified Calvinists. This doesn’t even account for the variety of non-denominational seminaries whose graduates go on to serve in the SBC. For every one Asbury Seminary graduate who goes to the SBC (a non-denominational school affiliated with Arminianism), I would guess that there are easily two who went somewhere like Reformed Theological Seminary or Westminster Theological Seminary. This is not to say that all of these incoming Calvinist pastors will try to force their congregation to become Calvinist (in fact, I would say that a good number would take strides to prevent that), however it does highlight two important points.

First, there is a significant uptick in the number of ministers who identify themselves as Calvinist, much moreso than in previous years, or indeed living memory, for the SBC. This can cause a certain amount of backlash as the once dominant group begins to feel slightly threatened. If that is the motivation behind this statement (which it may be for some), then the criticism against it as needlessly divisive has some strong grounding. However, given the introduction to the statement, I don’t believe that is the case.

In the introduction to the document, the authors are rather complimentary of the majority of SBC Calvinists, noting that they have no desire to force their views on the rest of the convention. Admittedly some of the caricatures of Calvinism it mentions (anti-missional, hyper-calvinism) are unfair and no serious follower of Dortian Calvinism (TULIP/ROSES) would accept these oddities as accurate doctrine. However, it also mentions some “New Calvinists” who are not so keen to avoid imposing their views on others. Despite the opinion of Matt Svoboda, who wrote one of the earlier responses, he is likely not included in the group of “New Calvinists” mentioned (at least if what Svoboda says about himself is true). Specifically, the “New Calvinists” are not just part of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” group (though there may be some overlap), but are those whose Calvinism has a certain method.

The New Calvinists mentioned in the preamble to the statement are new to the SBC not because of their theology, but because of their methodology. They do seek to impose their Calvinism on the convention and, because they think it is entirely correct and the only gospel truth, seek to force others to embrace it. Now, the methodology is not necessarily so straight forward. Instead, they are encouraging each other to take pastoral positions at non-calvinist churches, essentially hide their calvinism, and then subtly through weekly preaching and selection of education literature, move the congregation toward Calvinism. I knew some who were involved in this movement and went to divinity school with some (I am not, repeat not, including Chris Roberts in that group, I think he is a model of how a Calvinist pastor in the SBC should approach his duties as a pastor by being open about his Calvinist beliefs with his congregation (who is not Calvinist) and working together with them toward a mutual respect and cooperation for the Gospel). These people were easily identifiable in my divinity school because they sat in the back of the theology classroom, where the decidedly non-Calvinist Baptist professor (Fisher Humphreys for the curious) would directly address this phenomenon. They would mock him after class when he dared to give equal time to any theological position that was not expressly Calvinist without also deriding it. There was no respect there, and they were very clear that their intent was to move the whole of the SBC toward Calvinism, by any means necessary. I have not kept up with those former co-students, nor do I think I could recall their names, but they were present at the divinity school I attended (which, let me be clear, is not the fault of the divinity school, nor the majority of the Calvinist students).

It is this, somewhat disturbing and subversive, trend to which the statement explicitly states it is a reaction. If that is the case, then it is somewhat appropriate to make such a statement. Churches, who may have good reasons for their beliefs, even if they cannot articulate them in theological language, are well served by such statements. Not because the statements are polarizing, but because they provide a clear stance of beliefs held for good reasons that people may lack the formal training to articulate in a coherent manner (for instance, for the first several decades of the early church they lacked the formal language to express the Trinity until much later, but the evidence that it was accepted as early as the writing of the New Testament is very clear).

That said, while I understand the impetus to create the statement, that indeed may be valid, I do not know that I would agree with the exact language or timing of the message. The language has a sense of “us vs. them” to it that I do not know is entirely appropriate. As the document acknowledges, Calvinists have been part of Baptist tradition almost since the beginning. Thus it is really only one group’s “traditional” view, and even if it is the majority it is inappropriate to isolate one group in this manner. The language seems to indicate the authors don’t view Calvinists as genuinely Southern Baptist, and they were, instead, some sort of outsider group who were merely tolerated byreal Southern Baptists. This is a mistake because national groups of Baptists, from the earliest Triennial Convention (the first national Baptist group), have always emphasized adherence to the gospel and missions above all else and well before such doctrinal distinctions as these.

In summation, while I can understand, and to a certain sympathize with, the reasons for releasing the statement, I do find that I agree with this critique to a certain extent (though I would say that some of the critiques go too far). It seems to divide much more than it helps. As I said before, though, I am removed from the situation and don’t know the day to day impact the “New Calvinists” are having upon the SBC churches. So while I don’t agree with the method, I can sympathize with it (and find myself largely in agreement with its theology). Regardless, it’s already been put out there and so should be dealt with, including .

Two Grossly Mistaken Critiques

The Gospel Coalition, in the FAQ I mentioned above, gives three major critiques of the statement. Only one actually deserves an extended discussion, but the other two seem to demand some explanation, only because of their prevalence.

Allegation of lack of Scriptural foundation

First, the Gospel Coalition alleges that “The document’s primary argument relies on an appeal to the masses rather than careful exegesis of Scripture.” It is difficult to take such a critique seriously, particular given that after each article a list of passages used as support are given (following the style of the Baptist Faith and Message). The trouble is the Gospel Coalition blogger who wrote this, like a surprising number of Calvinists, assume that if your position does not match theirs, you must not be basing it upon Scripture. It’s not explicit in those terms, and may not even be something of which they are conscious, but it is something I have found in conversation with many (but by no means all) Calvinists. There is no doubt in their minds that there is one correct way to interpret Scripture and if you don’t agree, you must not be reading it correctly. There’s a certain amount of arrogance in that statement above (that it does not rely on careful exegesis of Scripture). It assumes not only that the authors of the “traditional” statement did not engage in their own study of Scripture, but that the majority of Southern Baptists do not base their views on Scripture.

Suggestions of a different history

Second, the Gospel Coalition goes on to suggest, in its second critique, that the non-Calvinist position is relatively recent, dating only to the publication of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. This is simply untrue, but all too common. There is a fair amount of historical revisionism in such claims among many (but again not all) Baptist Calvinists. It’s assumed by a fair number of Baptist Calvinists that Baptists have historically been Calvinists and it is a recent phenomenon that they lost their Calvinist roots. This assumption is based upon the fact that most early baptist confessions have been Calvinist in tone, but it fails to account for the broader historical picture.

To begin with, the very earliest baptists, both in the US and in England (where the very first baptists, distinct from the Anabaptists, came about), were decidedly non-Calvinist. In England they eventually became labeled “General Baptists” to distinguish themselves from the other group of Baptists, who sprung up independently about a decade later, who became known as “Particular Baptists.” While this later, Calvinist, group had some more outspoken members, they were less persecuted (but still persecuted and imprisoned) than the other, non-Calvinist group in large part because of their closer ties to the Westminster Confession of Faith (a document that is strongly Calvinist in tone and content). The lessened persecution, which subsequently meant they did not have to flee for a time to Amsterdam, is likely the reason that more of the early leaders’ writings persist to this day. In the US, Roger Williams set up Providence, Rhode Island, after being exiled from the Puritan settlers in New England. He intentionally set up his community to be non-exclusive in terms of theology and, despite using the term “providence” to describe his community, was not really a Dortian Calvinist.

While it is difficult to say exactly what number of other early American Baptists were Calvinist, given that they had many ties to both the first and second Great Awakenings in the US, it is probable that there was a mix of Calvinists and non-Calvinists, though considering the more charismatic nature of many of these revivals, its likely that more were non-Calvinist. Looking at some of the documents related to the first national Baptist group, the Triennial Convention, it is likely that, again, there was a mixture of Calvinists and non-Calvinists.

Once the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, in the years leading up to the American Civil War, they eventually created their own seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. One of the founding documents, The Abstracts of Principles, is decidedly Calvinist and was the first confession of faith exclusively for Southern Baptists (and required of all faculty). Considering that the Seminary was founded in 1858 and the next SBC seminary (Southwestern) was not founded until 1908, as well as the somewhat Calvinist nature of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message (the first denomination wide confession of faith for Southern Baptists and the only major confession since the Abstracts of Principles), this has led some, such as those in the Baptist Founders Movement (like and Al Mohler (among others), to suggest that Southern Baptists have historically been predominantly Calvinist. However, this ignores the broader historical setting in which these documents arose (and the responses to them).

First of all, although the Southern Baptist Convention was formally formed in 1844, they continued to use the seminary of other baptists (Newton Seminary) at the time. For those Southern Baptists who did not want to use that seminary, the still fairly young Furman University founded in 1826 as Men’s Academy and Theological Institute in South Carolina, and renamed to Furman 1850 maintaining its affiliation with the South Carolina Baptist Convention and adding to that an affiliation with Southern Baptists (though now it has severed ties, formally at least, with both). Furman was, and still is, largely anti-creedal and resistant to formal confessions. It’s important to note this affiliation predates the founding of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary by nearly a decade. It should also be noted that James Boyce, the first president of Southern Baptist Theology who wrote the Abstracts, did not attend one of these Baptist seminaries, but instead attended Princeton Theological Seminary, which was still fiercely committed to Dortian Calvinism at the time. It is for this reason, not because it was predominant Southern Baptist Theology, that Boyce likely constructed the Abstracts the way in which he did.

Despite Boyce’s encouragement that other churches adopt similar confessions, no such moves were made. In order to provide a more official sounding alternative to the Calvinist heavy Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded in 1908 (it should be noted that during the Civil war and early reconstruction periods Southern was incredibly limited in the scope and number of courses offered, so the gap of time is not as long as it seems, in only about 20 of the 50 years between foundings could Southern have been said to be active, and Newton as well as Furman were still viable (and popular) alternatives. Nevertheless in 1908 Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded and they explicitly refused to adopt anything remotely similar to the Abstract of Principles (only Southeastern would accept Southern’s call to accept the Abstracts). So, despite the narrative told by the founders movement, the majority of Southern Baptist education was not Calvinist throughout its history (and for a long period in the 20th Century, even Southern wasn’t very Calvinist).

Regarding the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M). Quite frankly, I don’t know how it can be described as a Calvinist document. Most of the statements are left unchanged in newer versions (the 1963, and 2000 BF&M), only exhibiting later expansion. Further the 1925 confession expressly states that grace is accepted or resisted by free action. Specifically it states:

The blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel. It is the duty of all to accept them by penitent and obedient faith. Nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner except his own voluntary refusal to accept Jesus Christ as teacher, Saviour, and Lord.

It  bears some resemblance to the earlier New Hampshire and London confessions, but that is likely due to the fact that they needed a format to follow. In terms of actual content, it is nowhere near as Calvinist as the founders movement would have you believe. Don’t take my word for it, though, you can compare all the SBC national confessions here.

What is particularly troublesome about the Gospel Coalition’s critique is that they refer to the 1963 BF&M (and by proxy the 2000) as a “doctrinal downgrade.” Granted they are quoting from, but for a non-Baptist group (like the Gospel Coalition) to even reference a source that declares one SBC BF&M a “downgrade” is wildly inappropriate and irresponsible. It is only a “downgrade” from the perspective of the “New Calvinists” who wish the SBC was more homogenous in accepting Calvinist and other similar revisionist histories. And to point out that the 1963 and 2000 are essentially identical with regard to such a “downgrade” is insulting to the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists who adhere to one or both of those documents. It is frankly a little sad that I have to spend so much time debunking what is a clear rewriting of baptist history. The truth is that the “traditional” nature of the statement is much more traditional than most of its critics care to accept.

I’ve used a variety of sources in compiling the above section, the two primary ones, however, are:

H. Leon McBeth’s The Baptist Heritage

James Leo Garrett’s Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study

A seemingly Valid Critique

The third critique mentioned by the Gospel Coalition, the final one that I will discuss here, and the primary one levied by both Arminian Roger E. Olson, and Calvinist (and Baptist, and again colleague) Chris Roberts (who is referenced on both SBCvoices and the Gospel Coalition) is that the statement is semi-pelagian. Specifically they want to identify it with the heresy that is now called semi-pelagianism, here’s the problem, no such heresy has ever been declared.

Usually when someone states that semi-Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy, they are referring to the Marseillianism, in reference to the monks from Marseilles who were condemned for advocating “relics of Pelagianism” in 529. It is important to note that what was condemned was not a separate heresy, but the same heresy of Pelagianism. It wasn’t until the sixteenth and seventeenth century that this was (briefly) referred to as semi-Pelagianism in an effort to discredit Molina and his followers who advocated a “Middle Knowledge” or Molinism (he was cleared of any heresy allegations). It was not really used strongly again until the twentieth century, though possibly as early as the nineteenth century. But let’s look at what exactly was condemned in 529.

Pelagius argued that people were not born with either an inclination to sin nor the condemnation of sin. He suggested that is was possible for humans to live a completely sinless life, and by doing so earn their own salvation without the need for God’s grace. He went on to suggest that some people alive during his time were actually living such sinless lives. Pelagius was condemned as an heretic for preaching a gospel contrary to the Scripture (he was not, however, executed as the Clive Owen version of King Arthur suggested).

Three specific teachings of the Marseillian monks were likewise condemned as heresy:

1) Faith is what saves you, but faith is really just the exertion of your own free will (i.e. you save yourself by your own efforts to act morally good)

2) While they condemned the Pelagian teaching that everyone is naturally meritorious (free from sin and performing morally good acts), they nevertheless argued that everyone has a natural claim or right to grace irrespective of anything else (essentially a form of universalism)

3) “Perseverance to the end” or the idea that one remains saved until death or the return of Christ is, according to this movement, the result of human effort only. (as opposed to the idea, affirmed by virtually all Southern Baptists that once you are saved by God, he will preserve your salvation, not by your own actions)

Much of the above was taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia, the relevant available online here.

What is being labeled as semi-Pelagian in the statement is article 2 which reads:

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.

None of the above three points that are applied the Marseillianism heresy can be applied to this statement. Instead, it is labeled semi-Pelagian merely because it is not a strict adherence to the Augustinian view of the Original Sin. According to Augustine, every person inherits both a nature inclined toward sin as well as the guilt of the initial sin of Adam (prior to any moral action themselves). This is inherited, reasons Augustine, through a process he calls “concupiscence.” While the term has broad meaning, for Augustine it essentially means that every child was conceived as a result of lustful passion (though it is unclear whether he considers it sinful in itself, it seems very likely) and as a result the Original Sin is passed down generationally from Adam, including the guilt of that sin.

There are some problems with Augustine’s account, including that it seems to have a very negative view of human sexuality, even within Christian marriage, and for that reason no one accepts it outright (everyone modifies it to some degree). While I won’t bother to get into some of the particular problems I have with Augustine’s view, I will simply say that Calvinists, by and large, who are generally Augustinian in their theology have a tendency to label anything that does not conform to their own adoption of Augustine’s view of Original Sin as semi-Pelagian or outright Pelagian. The most notable exception being Karl Barth who argued that Original Sin exists within all humanity as a propensity toward sin, but does have an inherent guilt associated with it (which is close to, but not identical with, the position offered in the “Statement”).

I could go on and on about this particular criticism and how valid it is, and to what extent a Southern Baptist (who in reality recognizes “no creed but the bible”) should be troubled or not by it, but suffice it to say, I don’t think an honest case can be made for labeling this statement semi-Pelagian in the sense of the early heresy nor do I think that if it is merely semi-Pelagian in the sense of “not fully Augustinian” should we be particularly bothered.

It is interesting to note that, in a follow up, Chris Roberts sought to get a better definition of Semi-Pelagianism than the one offered quickly on various common sources (like Wikipedia or the like). While I examined the Catholic Encyclopedia, he turned to Reformed Theologian Herman Bavinck. According to Bavinck’s description of semi-Pelagianism, it may be entirely likely that article 2 of the “statement” is semi-Pelagian (but it still is not necessarily so). However, if we read closely, we see that many of those whom Baptists readily acknowledge as part of their heritage are included in Bavinck’s rather broad interpretation of semi-Pelagianism. To quote Bavinck directly:

“Totally in agreement with this [what Bavinck has called semi-Pelagianism] is the opinion of Anabaptists, Zwingli, the Remonstrants [Arminians], the Moravian Brethren, the Supernaturalists, and many modern theologians.” (Underline and information in brackets mine).

If you don’t follow Baptist theology, you should know that Baptists have much in common with the Anabaptists, but even moreso with Zwingli. The understanding of the Ordinances of the church for the overwhelming majority of Baptists (including Calvinist Baptists) is almost completely Zwinglian. It’s pretty bold to claim that we should abandon this statement, as well as some of the foundational theologians of baptist life because a few Calvinist theologians (and apparently one Arminian today) argue that it is heretical. Although I don’t necessarily agree with the manner in which the document was released, or some of the divisive language, considering it is already out there, I find myself to have an incredible amount of agreement with it. If that makes me semi-Pelagian, then so be it. I’m more concerned with an adherence to what I think is the true Gospel of Christ than a skewed interpretation of history and regulations to which I (as a free church Southern Baptist) am not genuinely tied.

Since the post has gone on for quite some time (and I’ve been working on it for a few evening commutes now), I think I’ll leave it at that for the time being. If you’d like to rebut me, suggest something I’ve missed,  ask me about anything I haven’t made clear, or encourage me to delve deeper, feel free to do so in the comments below and thanks for reading.

Post Script: I do not mean to attack Chris Roberts personally. I think he is an admirable pastor and should be very much welcome in the SBC. I did, however, take exception with the content of the critique of the original statement and since he has become one of the more high profile critics of the statement (having been cited on other blogs) I do feel it is appropriate to cite his blog in response. I still consider him a friend, and I hope he can consider me the same and view this as merely a friendly (if still serious) disagreement.