Sunday, July 27, 2014

Trent, semi-Pelagianism and Berkouwer: are R.C. Sproul's misrepresentations cases of dishonesty or just shoddy scholarship

In a recent thread here at AF (LINK), I took issue (yet once again) with a renewed assertion by Ken Temple that the decrees of the Council of Trent concerning justification and salvation are essentially "semi-Pelagian". To support this charge, Ken relies heavily on the polemics of R.C. Sproul, as expressed in his published works, Faith Alone and Willing to Believe (see THIS THREAD for some critical reflections). Ken invokes Sproul's use Herman Bavinck, who wrote, "although semi-Pelagianism had been condemned by Rome, it reappeared in a ‘roundabout way", and adds the following from G. C. Berkouwer (via Sproul):

Between Orange and Trent lies a long process of development, namely, scholasticism, with its elaboration of the doctrine of the meritoriousness of good works, and the Roman system of penitence...

For a fuller context of the above quotes, I now turn to Sproul's, Faith Alone—wherein after quoting chapter 5 of Trent's sixth session—we read:

Here Rome makes it clear that fallen man cannot convert himself or even move himself to justice in God's sight without the aid of grace. Again Pelagiansim is repudiated.

This predisposing grace, however, is rejectable. It is not in itself effectual. Its effectiveness depends on the fallen person's assent and cooperation. This sounds very much like semi-Pelagianism, which had been condemned at Orange. Earlier in the fifth session, which treated original sin, Trent affirmed some aspects of the decrees of Orange.

Rome has repeatedly been accused of condemning semi-Pelagianism at Orange but embracing it anew at Trent. Herman Bavinck held that "although semi-Pelagianism had been condemned by Rome, it reappeared in a 'roundabout way'". G. C. Berkouwer observed:

"Between Orange and Trent lies a long process of development, namely, scholasticism, with its elaboration of the doctrine of the meritoriousness of good works, and the Roman system of penitence...Hence the situation became much more complicated for Rome in Trent than when, in 529, semi-Pelagianism had to be condemned for its "weakening" of grace...Trent had to ward off the Reformers' attack without derograting from the decrees of Orange...The gratia praeveniens had to be taught without relapsing into the sola fide of the Reformers. That is why the Orange texts are repeated in Trent, especially in the decree on justification."

The Council of Trent to steer a course on the razor's edge between semi-Pelagianism and Reformed thought. It is arguable that they cut themselves on that razor. At issue was the residual power of man's weakened, fallen will. Rome tried to argue that the will is weaker than semi-Pelagianism allowed, but not as weak as the Reformer's insisted. Berkouwer concludes: "At Trent there was no concern with the threat to grace as there was at Orange. But Trent is concerned with the natural freedom of the will. The latter, it is true, has been weakened by sin (Orange, Valence, Trent) but not at all extinguished."

...To avoid the Reformation and Augustinian view of the enslaved will, Rome speaks of the power of fallen man to assent and cooperate with prevenient grace. That grace is not effectual without the sinner's response. (Sproul, Faith Alone, pp. 140-141.)

Now, the above has certainly given Ken the impression Sproul believes that Trent is semi-Pelagian, and that Sproul believes he has support from Bavinck and Berkouwer on this issue. But what one will fail to uncover in Sproul's writings is a clear, definitive description of what semi-Pelagianism actually is. The nearest I have been able to find is in his book, Willing to Believe, wherein he seems to identify any system of soteriology that does not embrace "monergistic regeneration" as a form of semi-Pelagianism (see pp. 20-29, 69-84). As such, he is convinced that the vast majority of modern Evangelicals  embrace semi-Pelagianism, and that in official Roman Catholic doctrine, we have the, "triumph of semi-Pelagianism over Augustinianism" (p. 84).

The major error in Sproul's assessments lies in the fact that he has incorrectly described/understood what actually constitutes semi-Pelagianism. This fact comes as shock to me, for a number of the scholars he has quoted (e.g. Berkouwer, Harnack, Schaff), in his two referenced books above, do define the distinguishing feature of semi-Pelagianism—i.e. the rejection of the belief that preceding/prevenient grace (gratia praeveniens) is necessary for one to accept the Gospel.  Sproul has substituted this distinguishing feature of semi-Pelagianism with the notion that it is the rejection of "monergistic regeneration" that makes one's theology semi-Pelagian—to do so is either a case of dishonesty or very shoddy scholarship.

Before moving on to Sproul's misrepresentation/misunderstanding of Berkouwer, I would like to provide a few scholarly selections that identify the distinguishing feature of semi-Pelagianism:

SEMI-PELAGIANISM. The doctrines on human nature upheld in the 4th and 5th cents. by a group of theologians who, while not denying the necessity of *Grace for salvation, maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and Grace supervened only later. (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. 1974, 1985 reprint, p. 1258.)

SEMI-PELAGIANISM. Doctrines, upheld during the period from 427 to 529, that rejected the extreme views of Pelagius and of Augustine in regards to the priority of divine grace and human will in the initial work of salvation...

Cassian taught that though a sickness is inherited through Adam's sin, human free will has not been entirely obliterated. Divine grace is indispensable for salvation, but does not necessarily need to precede a free human choice, because, despite the weakness of human volition, the will takes the initiative toward God. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984, p. 1000.)

In opposition to both systems [Pelagianism and Augustinianism]  he [John Cassian] taught that the divine image and human freedom were not annihilated, but only weakened, by the fall; in other words, that man is sick, but not dead, that he cannot indeed help himself, but that he can desire the help of a physician, and either accept or refuse it when offered, and that he must cooperate with the grace of God in his salvation. The question, which of the two factors has the initiative, he answers, altogether empirically, to this effect: that sometimes, and indeed usually, the human will, as in the cases of the Prodigal Son, Zacchaeus, the Penitent Thief, and Cornelius, determines itself to conversion; sometimes grace anticipates it, and, as with Matthew and Paul, draws the resisting will—yet, even in this case, without constraint—to God. Here, therefore, the gratia praeveniens is manifestly overlooked. 

These are essentially Semi-Pelagian principles, though capable of various modification and applications. The church, even the Roman church, has rightly emphasized the necessity of prevenient grace... (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 1910, 1981 reprint, 3.861, 862.)

The preeminent Christian doctrinal/historical scholar of the latter-half of the 20th century, Jaroslav Pelikan, 'puts-the-icing-on the-cake' (so to speak). He begins his section on Semi-Pelagianism with:

The opposition to Augustine earned this position the title "Semi-Pelagian" in the sixteenth century, but already in the fifth century the partisans of Augustine were calling it "the remnants of the Pelagian heresy [Pelagianae pravitatis reliquiae]." The term is used to cover a group of theologians from the fifth and sixth centuries, the most prominent of whom were John Cassian, Vincent of Lérins, and Fautus of Riez. (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 319.)

After presenting the doctrines that the adherents of "Pelagianae pravitatis reliquiae" agreed upon with Augustine and the catholic tradition, Pelikan then delineates where they departed:

Even while asserting that without divine assistance none of these virtues could attain perfection, Augustine's critics still insisted that "it cannot be doubted that there are by nature some  seeds of goodness in every soul implanted by the kindness of the Creator." This did not detract from the glory of redemption. If is was said "that one should not pay attention to what is good by nature because before the coming of Christ, the Gentiles obviously did not attain to salvation," the reply was the axiom: "Anyone who denies that nature is to be proclaimed in its good qualities, simply does not know that the Author of nature is the same as the Author of grace," and that therefore "since the Creator is the same as the Restorer, one and the same is celebrated when we praise either work." Praising the free will of man meant praising its Creator and did not detract from his grace.

This was evident from the Bible itself, where "the bounty of God is actually shaped according to the capacity of man's faith." Sometimes, for example in the conversion of Paul or of Matthew, divine grace had preceded any desire or good will on the part of man. But in other instances, for example in the account of Zacchaeus or of the thief on the cross, the free will of man had taken some initiative. By the goodness of the Creator there still remained the capacity to initiate the will for salvation. (Ibid., pp. 323, 324)

He then moves on to the synod of Orange (529) and its clear, direct condemnation of the teaching that "there still remained the capacity [in fallen mankind] to initiate the will for salvation": response to the argument that there was a diversity of operations by which in some cases men took the initiative and in others God took the initiative, the synod condemned as "alien to the true faith" anyone who taught that "some have come to the grace of baptism by mercy, but others by free will." Citing the specific biblical examples that had been used in support of this teaching, Caesarius affirmed that the conversion of Zacchaeus and of the thief on the cross had also been "not achievements of nature, but gifts from the generosity of divine grace." The "beginning of faith" was always due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (Ibid., p. 328)

So, the question for me is: why did Sproul substitute the distinguishing feature of semi-Pelagianism—the belief that "there still remained the capacity [in fallen mankind] to initiate the will for salvation"—with the notion that it is the rejection of "monergistic regeneration" that makes one's theology semi-Pelagian ? What makes this substitution even more baffling is the fact Sproul informs his readers that it was the Synod of Orange in 529 which, "condemned the system of semi-Pelagianism"; and yet, one will look in vain to find ANY reference to "monergistic regeneration" in the decrees of that synod.

Time to move onto Sproul's use of Berkouwer. Does Berkouwer side with Sproul's view that Trent, and subsequent Catholic theology, had adopted semi-Pelagianism ? Sproul's surrounding context of the two quotes from Berkouwer in Faith Alone gives the reader the strong impression that he believed this. However, a deeper, more extensive reading of Berkouwer reveals that Berkouwer did not believe Trent, and subsequent Catholic theology, had embraced semi-Pelagianism. Berkouwer discusses this issue at length in two of his important works that have been translated into English: The Conflict with Rome (English 1958) and Studies in Dogmatics - Divine Election (English 1960).

Sproul quotes Berkouwer three times in his Faith Alone (pp. 140, 141), all of which are from The Conflict with Rome (pp. 80, 82, 84). Two of those three quotes are directly related to the topic at hand (the third deals with Calvin) and are provided in their entirety above. If one limits their reading of Berkouwer concerning semi-Pelagianism and Catholicism to what Sproul has provided, a severely flawed impression is difficult to avoid. However, if one reads Berkouwer's full contributions on this issue as found in The Conflict with Rome (pp. 76-112) and Studies in Dogmatics - Divine Election (pp. 28-52) a much different impression emerges. One will find Berkouwer's clearest assessment on whether or not the Roman Catholic Church teaches semi-Pelagianism in the following selection:

The Council of Orange (529) condemned not only Pelagianism but also semi-Pelagianism, a condemnation to which the Roman Catholic Church still adheres for the reason that even semi-Pelagianism thinks too depreciatively of the necessity of God's grace. To be sure, semi-Pelagianism rejected Pelagianism and did not teach an inviolate ibberum arbitrium, but it still maintained a belief in free will — although a weakened free will (infirmitas liberi arbitrii). It taught that man retains his free will, but because it has been weakened by sin it is in need of God's helping grace, so that a cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom is necessary. Rome rejects this doctrine because she does not think the necessity of grace is sufficiently confessed by it. (Studies in Dogmatics - Divine Election, p. 30 - bold emphasis mine.)

I don't think that Berkouwer could be much clearer on what his position concerning semi-Pelgainism and the RCC is. (Anyone who thinks Berkouwer maintained that the RCC is semi-Pelagian after reading the above is in dire need of some help.)

Before ending this somewhat lengthy post, I would like to point out one more significant difference between Sproul and Berkouwer. Note the following from Sproul's pen:

A theologian friend of mine says frequently that in church history there have been only three basic types of theology. There have been a multitude of theological schools with subtle nuances, but in the final analysis there are only three kinds of theology: what we call Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism. Virtually every church in Western church history, and Eastern church history as well, has fallen into one of those three categories. (Saved from What ?, p. 46.)

It was after reading the above that I came to understand why Sproul labels Arminian, Lutheran and Catholic theologies as semi-Pelagianism, for in his worldview, "there are only three kinds of theology".

But, Berkouwer does not agree with Sproul on this matter. Berkouwer's view adds a fourth kind of theology: synergism. In Studies in Dogmatics - Divine Election, he makes a clear distinction between Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, synergism and monergism, and places the Arminian, Lutheran and Catholic theologies into the synergistic category.

I shall end here, feeling fairly confident that I established some significant flaws in a number of Sproul's assessments.

Grace and peace,


P.S. I think it is prudent that I let my Calvinistic readers know that this thread is not a critique of monergism and/or an endorsement of synergism (in any form).

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"God-breathed", theopneustos

I accepted B. B. Warfield's interpretation of theopneustos (θεόπνευστος) after my first reading (circa 1982) of his essay, "GOD-INSPIRED SCRIPTURE" (The Works of Benjamin B.Warfield, 1927/1981, Vol. 1, pp. 229-280; The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, edited by Samuel G. Craig, 1948, pp. 245-296; original in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, v. XI, pp. 89-130; online version HERE). Warfield's interpretation is repeated throughout this contribution, and concludes, with the following:

What is θεόπνευστος is "God-breathed," produced by the creative breath of the Almighty. (p.296)

Warfield reiterates this interpretation in, "Inspiration", an article which first appeared in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Vol. 3, pp. 1473-1483), and subsequently reprinted in The Works of Benjamin B.Warfield (1927/1981, Vol. 1, pp. 77-112), wherein we read:

For the Greek word in this passage [2 Tim.3:16] — θεόπνευστος, theópneustos — very distinctly does not mean "inspired of God."... What it says of Scripture is, not that it is “breathed into by God” or is the product of the Divine “inbreathing” into its human authors, but that it is breathed out by God, “God-breathed,” the product of the creative breath of God. (pp. 78, 79)

Now, before I introduce the online article/essay which prompted this thread, I would like to point out that in addition to Warfield's interpretation/understanding of the term theópneustos, I also adopted his view that this "'God-breathed'...product of the creative breath of God" was limited only to the originals autographs (i.e. sola autographa) and did not extend to any copies (i.e. apograha). I took it for granted that this was the 'classical' view of the conservative, Reformed paradigm. However, it seems that I was mistaken on this point, for Dr. Theodore P. Letis, in his scholarly essay, "B.B. Warfield, Common-Sense Philosophy and Biblical Criticism", argues that Warfield was the first conservative, Reformed scholar to adopt the notion that theópneustos pertains only to the autographa. Note the following:

Benjamin Brickinridge Warfield (1851-1921), Professor at Princeton Seminary from 1887-1921, was the most astute and critically aware N. T. scholar at Princeton during his tenure. While he also retained the old scholastic view of verbal inspiration, he did so, keenly aware of this "weapon" in New England.

A good deal of Warfield's early academic career, therefore, was spent mastering the discipline of N.T. criticism so as to tame and neutralize this threat. How he went about his  task helps to explain three developments at Princeton in his lifetime and his lasting influence on the current evangelical view of Scripture: 1) why he gave a distinctive emphasis to the autographic inerrancy theory; 2) how text criticism came to be viewed by evangelicals in the twentieth century as a safe, neutral realm that can only support the evangelical cause and never harm it; 3) how Warfield contributed to the climate that was more tolerable toward genuine biblical criticism at Princeton at a time when such criticism was perceived to be threatening in the extreme.

Warfield's first step in this process was to distance himself the Protestant scholastic approach to text critical matters, while retaining the scholastic view of verbal contrast to Charles Hodge's view, which we shall treat below, Warfield began by depreciating the established text (what was called the textus receptus—the "received text") which had hitherto been the locus of the verbal inspiration view. For Warfield, the scholastics had stumbled when their reverence for the Word of God, perversely but not unnaturally exercised, erected the standard or received text into the norm of a true text. [These are Warfield's own words; see note below.]

Warfield was the first from Princeton to break so decisively with the old text standard. He did so with the confidence that a far better text was then emerging.

Nevertheless, to abandon this standard meant he would be abandoning the text thought to be verbally inspired by the Divines who produced the Westminster Confession of Faith. In order to save, therefore, his verbal view of inspiration—the last vestige of Francis Turretin's influence—he was forced to now relegate inspiration to the inscrutable autographs of the biblical records...

The true test for determining if one is an heir of the Reformed scholastics is found in the role the Westminster Confession plays in locating final Scriptural authority. Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), and the Southern Presbyterian, Robert Dabney, (1820-1890) were genuine heirs of Turretin. They focused authority in present, extant, copies of the biblical texts (apographa), with all the accompanying textual phenomenon, as "providentially preserved" and sanctioned edition (Westminster Confession  Faith, 1:8).

Warfield, on the other hand, was the first professor at Princeton to allow his Common-Sense Philosophy the role of reconstructing the text according to the canons of German Criticism. (The Ecclesiastical Text, 1997, pp. 4, 5.)

[Note: "Reverence for the Word of God, perversely but not unnaturally exercised, erected the standard or received text into the norm of a true text;" (Warfield, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p. 216).]

The rest of Letis's essay builds a very strong case for the view that no conservative, Reformed scholar prior to Warfield questioned authoritative, normative status of the textus receptus as the "God-breathed" Word of God.

Though it seems that Warfield's view became the new 'standard' for most conservative, Reformed folk (and the Evangelical paradigm as a whole)—replacing the Reformed scholastic view—opposition to this theological novem has continued in Reformed circles (and, interestingly enough, many Independent Baptists) to our day.

With the above, somewhat lengthy, introduction in place, I would now like to move on to the online article/essay which prompted this post. Just yesterday, while engaged in some unrelated online research, I happened upon the treatment, " Thoughts On the Word Theopneustos, “given by inspiration of God” in 2 Timothy 3:16, and the Question of the Inspiration of the Authorized Version" (LINK), by Dr. Thomas D. Ross (A PDF version, which I recommend, is available HERE). Dr. Ross's contribution opens with the following:

Scripture teaches that the words of Scripture are inspired by God, and thus the entirety of the canonical Scriptures are inspired, 2 Timothy 3:16. God did not inspire people like Moses, Jeremiah, or Matthew; rather, the words that He gave to mankind through them are inspired. Since “inspired” means “God breathed,” and Matthew 4:4 states, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God,” believers are to live by inspired words. Since the present tense verb “proceedeth” in Matthew 4:4 represents continuing action, as is also found in other very closely related uses of the verb, the breath of God, that is, inspiration, remains in the words of the copies of the autographs, and men are to live by every word of those inspired copies. The fact is that neither 2 Timothy 3:16 nor Matthew 4:4 actually refer to inspiration as a process, rather than a product. (Page 1, PDF version.)

Dr. Ross immediately follows the above with five propositions:

1.) Accurate copies of the Greek and Hebrew words are inspired, since inspiration, in 2 Timothy 3:16, refers to a product. Paul instructs Timothy that the product of the written Scripture itself is both “inspired/God-breathed” and “profitable.” Neither “God-breathed” nor “profitable,” in 2 Timothy 3:16, refer to the process of the giving of the autographs. Both adjectives describe the noun “Scripture” and attribute a quality to it.

2.) Anything that we can properly call “God’s Word” is inspired, because, by definition, if God breathes out some words, He has inspired those words. “All Scripture is inspired,” 2 Timothy 3:16. The verse equates what is “Scripture” with what is “inspired.” The two categories are identical—if something is “Scripture,” then it is “inspired.” Had the verse referred to the process of revealing Scripture it would have stated, “All Scripture was given by inspiration of God.” Since 2 Timothy 3:16 refers to the product of that process, inspired words, it states, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” The breath of God is an inherent quality of all that is Scripture, all that is the Word of God.

3.) Scripture shows us that accurately translated words are still Scripture. 1 Timothy 5:18, for example, refers to both the untranslated gospel of Luke (10:7) and the translated book of Deuteronomy (25:4) as “Scripture.” Indeed, 1 Timothy 5:18 is the only other reference to Scripture (graphe) in Paul’s epistles to Timothy, so it is natural for one to consider 2 Timothy 3:16 in light of this previous reference. The same Paul who tells Timothy that everything that is Scripture is inspired calls both the untranslated and accurately translated Word of God Scripture.

4.) Therefore, accurate translations are Scripture.

5.) Since accurate translations are Scripture, they are inspired, since all Scripture is inspired. All Scripture has the breath of God upon it. (Ibid., pp. 1, 2.)

Dr. Ross concludes with:

Scripture teaches that inspiration is a quality that pertains to all that is appropriately called Scripture. Since original language copies are properly considered Scripture, they are properly termed inspired. Since, in a derived sense, the Bible, when accurately translated, is still properly termed Scripture, the Word accurately translated is, in a derived sense, properly termed inspired. Therefore, it is proper to call the King James Version inspired, because it is an accurate translation of the Greek and Hebrew autographs dictated once and for all by the Holy Ghost. (Ibid., p. 6)

Dr. Letis and Dr. Ross have given this beachbum some serious 'food -for-thought'. I would love to hear from those who may share my interest in this subject...

Grace and peace,


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Ken Temple and Trent: a continued reliance on inaccurate definitions and historical errors

Back on June 7, 2011, Ken Temple published a thread at the Beggars All blog called "Between Orange and Trent" (LINK), which was an attempt to defend the following:

"Semi-Pelagianism condemned at Orange in 529 AD, but reaffirmed at Trent"

The above is a very popular view among anti-Catholic apologists, including Dr. R. C. Sproul—who should know better.

In the last comment of the above thread, I provided the URL to a thread here AF  which should have put to rest any further attempts to construe the teachings of the Council of Trent as "Semi-Pelagianism" (LINK).

Ken himself participated in the combox of that thread, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me to discover that three years later (almost to the day) he has produced yet another thread (LINK) which attempts to paint the Council of Trent as Semi-Pelagian !!! Note the following:

R. C. Sproul demonstrates the contradiction in Roman Catholic Theology, when it claims it agrees with Augustine against Pelagius and the Semi-Pelagians (Provincial Synod of Orange in 529 AD), but later re-affirms Semi-Pelagianism by the decrees of Trent (1545-1563)...

My discovery of this thread came on June 30th. I subsequently attempted to post the following in the combox of that thread (BA comments are now moderated):

Hi Ken,

I have not had much 'spare' time to spend on the internet over the last couple of months; as such, I was not aware of the existence of this thread until today. With that said, I am somewhat amazed that you chose to publish it, given our past exchanges concerning the issue of semi-Pelagianism. IMO, the threads contained in THIS LINK, have exposed some grave errors in your reasoning on this matter.

The essence of those threads can be summarized by the following:

Semi-Pelaganianism teaches that an individual apart from grace can accept the offer of salvation, and that once accepted one then cooperates with the grace that God gives. In other words, semi-Pelagianism denies the necessity of grace for one to believe/accept the gospel.

While Pelagianism denies that ANY grace is necessary for salvation (both before and after the acceptance of the Gospel), semi-Pelaganism only denies that grace is necessary for one to accept the gospel.

Grace and peace,


My comment/post has yet to be published, so I thought it prudent to point out yet once again here at AF that Ken's and Sproul's continued attempts to define the teachings of the Council of Trent as Semi-Pelagianism are based on grave historical errors and false definitions. Trent (and all official Catholic teaching on soteriology) clearly denies both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, affirming time and time again that, grace is necessary for salvation both before and after the acceptance of the Gospel. No amount of sophistry will change these facts...

Grace and peace,