Are “Provisionists” Semi-Pelagians?

Leighton Flowers is dogmatic that his soteriological approach (which he refers to as “Provisionism”) cannot rightly be identified with the ancient heresy known as semi-Pelagianism (from here on out I will refer to it as one word, Semipelagianism). It has become common for those of us who disagree with him to level that accusation, and I would like to briefly explain why, in my estimation, the accusation is accurate, despite his denial.

What is Provisionism?

Provisionism (sometimes called the “Traditional” view) is very clear to distinguish itself from both Calvinism and Arminianism. Sometimes when people do this it is in an attempt to look neutral, unaffected by tradition or titles. This is not the case for the Provisionists. While they are very close, they do have considerable disagreement with “Arminians.” One could argue that Provisionism still ought to be under the umbrella of Arminianism (similar to how Amyraldism is often categorized as a form of “Calvinism”), but that is not for this post. When we compare classical Arminian theology to Provisionism, the key area of disagreement is where the Semipelagianism of the Provisionist movement comes to light.

This key area of concern is the nature of man after the Fall. Provisionists believe in the Fall; they believe in a form of Original Sin. However, Provisionists do not believe sin has had a considerable enough effect on man that he is, by nature, incapable of understanding the Gospel and believing it. In “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” a confession put forward by Dr. David Allen as sufficiently defining Provisionist theology, this is stated about man’s freedom after the Fall:

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will…

Link to statement

This is distinct from both Calvinists and Arminians (including Lutheran theology). Both of those camps affirm that man is so dead in sin and corrupted that a special, gracious, personal work of God must enable them to believe the Gospel. The difference between them is that Calvinism teaches God only does this work in His elect, and that this work is efficacious to bring the person to saving faith. Arminians believe this work (A.K.A. Prevenient Grace) is something God does to all people and it does not effectually bring them to saving faith. But both agree that man is not capable of saving faith in his natural state. The Provisionists disagree, and I believe we will see momentarily that the Semipelagians also disagreed with the same sentiment.

To further demonstrate the Provisionist emphasis on this issue, I want to draw attention to some of the statements made by Leighton Flowers, who is undeniably the most notable, influential Provisionist in the country. He has two videos explaining an acrostic which briefly defines the Provisionist Soteriology (a response to Calvinism’s T.U.L.I.P.). In both he very clearly articulates this point.

People sin which separates us from fellowship with God… but yet we’re still responsible. In other words, we don’t lose our ability to respond because of our sin or because of the Fall. Because that’s the assumption that’s often brought by both Arminians and Calvinists- at least classical Arminians- is that because of the Fall we’re unable to respond positively to God’s appeals to be reconciled from that Fall unless God does some supernatural work on us… We believe that people are sinful, they’re fallen, but they’re still responsible; meaning, they’re still able to respond to Gods appeal to be reconciled.”

Link to source

In other video with the same purpose he made similar claims,

We don’t adopt the idea or concept that all people are born in a corpse like, literally corpse like, dead condition where they can’t respond positively to God’s life giving truth.

Link to source

He then adds,

But just because people sin and they are cast out of the Garden, it doesn’t mean that they lose their responsibility.

Ibid

He then defines what he means by the word “responsible,”

It literally connotes the ability to respond… just because people are in a fallen condition doesn’t mean they’ve lost their ability to respond.

Ibid

The Council of Orange:

The Second Council of Orange was a church council that met in the city it is named after, Orange, in the year 529. This council specifically met to deal with the a theological controversy which we today refer to as Semipelagianism.

Pelagius was a heretic living in the late fourth to early fifth century who found an adversary and debate partner in the great Augustine. Pelagius’ view sought to maintain a high view of free-will, but it forced him into very troubling positions as it pertains to doctrines like original sin and the role of divine grace in our lives. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Carthage, the session which met in the year 418.

After Pelagianism was dealt with, many took up its mantle with some amendments (hence why we call it Semi-Pelagian). While these theologians agreed with some of the condemnations against Pelagianism, they affirmed it in other areas. This is the view that the Council of Orange convened to dismantle. And there are a handful of relevant canons from the council that, in my estimation, clearly reveal that the primary position of the Semipelagians is identical to the Provisionist theology outlined above.

I do think the council is relevant as to ascertaining what Semipelagianism is. The term is relatively novel (first used by Theodore Beza in the 16th century), but it is widely recognized that the concept is quite old. Many scholars will affirm the purpose of the council of Orange was to refute Semipelagianism. Therefore, I find this council the most helpful resource we have for understanding what this term means. If these canons don’t reflect what Semipelagianism is, I am not sure who can define it rightly.

Leading Provisionist David Allen seems to agree with me:

Thus, it is important to note that there was no theological position identified by the term “Semipelagianism” in the fifth and six centuries. This is not to say that the idea of Semipelagianism did not exist in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Council of Orange (529) condemned the theological position which was later identified with Semipelagianism.”

Link to source

Dr. Allen and I agree: whatever Orange denied is Semipelagianism. Therefore, if it can be proved that Provisionism fits the bill of Orange’s condemnations, then it is the Semipelagian heresy. In formal logic, my argument looks like this:

P1: The Council of Orange defined and condemned Semipelagian theology.
P2: Provisionism affirms a substantial amount of the theology Orange defined and condemned.
C: Provisionism is substantially Semipelagianism.

Perhaps the key reason for using this council goes beyond its crucial historical significance, but also due to its helpful specificity. When Provisionists deal with the accusations of Semipelagians, it is my experience that they evade the charge through a more general definition of the term. For example, Dr. Allen defines Semipelagianism with a very vague description,

According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the so-called Semipelagianism of the 4th and 5th centuries ‘maintained that the first steps toward the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later.’ As recent scholars have noted, this definition needs to be refined in light of the historical evidence. But setting that aside, let’s go with this definition for a moment, since this is, generally speaking, the way the term is used by many today.

Ibid

Whether one “takes the first step in salvation” is a vague metaphor which can be interpreted in many ways. It’s very easy for any theological position to avoid the accusation there. It does accurately describe Semipelagian thought, but it is not specific enough to be helpful. Unfortunately, while Dr. Allen admitted the deficiency of that definition, his entire article is based on it because he believes that is the common understanding of the term today. This is unfortunate. It would have been more helpful not to set aside the needed refined definition.

The same happens in Dr. Flowers’ impassioned response to those calling him a Semipelagian. He attempted to refute the charge by quoting a source that defined Semipelagianism vaguely as “the claim that sinners make the first move toward salvation by choosing to repent and believe.”

A Clarification

Before commenting on the council’s relevant canons, I need to make an important clarification. A common retort when I quote this council is that I myself do not agree with the council on many things. This reflects confusion surrounding my purpose. I do not quote the council because I view it as a theological authority. The council promotes baptismal regeneration, and in its conclusion seems to take aim at a tenet of Calvinism (to speak anachronistically). Certainly Orange is not a theological authority for yours truly. In fact, given that it is a local council, and not an ecumenical, it even has an inferior level of authority for Roman Catholicism. Again, my purpose in citing Orange is that this is the most historically reliable source for defining and understanding Semipelagianism. My contention is that if this council misunderstood Semipelagianism, I don’t know why I would trust any today do understand it. If Orange doesn’t know what Semipelagianism is, I am not sure who does.

It may also be objected that it is unfair to define the term based on the writings of its enemies. Certainly, primary sources from the disciples themselves is preferable. But the unfortunate fact of history is that we often only know of people and ideas from their enemies. The victors write the history books, after all. If we cannot define Semipelagianism on those terms, than we lose a great deal of history altogether. This council is the closest thing we have to understanding the Semipelagian movement, and I believe Provisionism falls under its condemnation.

CANON 4.

If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

The Canons of Orange can all be found here

This canon is perhaps the strongest condemnation of the Provisionist position. The Provisionists are adamantly opposed to what Reformed theologians call an “Effectual Call” and “Irresistible Grace.” The council here does not weigh in on whether this Spirit wrought infusion can be resisted; but nevertheless, the council recognizes that the human will, in its natural state, is incapable of coming to Christ. The human will does require a specific, effectual working of the Holy Spirit before it wills to ask God for cleansing from sin.

This Canon is consistent not only with Irresistible Grace, but could be seen as consistent with Prevenient Grace also (the Calvinist position assuredly, the Arminian position only potentially). Both the Calvinist and Arminian may find a home in Canon four as we both see mankind as incapable of repentance and/or faith without a specific, direct work of the Spirit. The Provisionists stand in staunch disagreement, and fall under its condemnation.

The key is the canon’s specificity. It does not speak in broad terms. If it merely said “… but does not confess that grace must precede our will to be cleansed” then the Provisionists would affirm it. But this canon does not speak of general grace, but specifically identifies a work of the Spirit infusing us with this desire which we could not naturally have. Canon four is directly opposed to Dr. Flowers’ statement that, “we don’t lose our ability to respond because of our sin or because of the fall. Because that’s the assumption that’s often brought by both Arminians and Calvinists- at least classical Arminians- is that because of the Fall were unable to respond positively to God’s appeals to be reconciled from that Fall unless God does some supernatural work on us.”

CANON 5.

If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism-if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.

Canon five is equally damaging to Provisionism as the last. Like the previous canon, it condemns any notion that our first step of faith, wherein we are justified, comes from nature, rather than directly from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has to “amend” the will, implying again that, left to itself, the will is incapable of believing on Christ and affirming the Gospel. This directly refutes the theological statement the Porivisionists cling to quoted above, “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will…”

Additionally, the Holy Spirit’s work is spoken of in causal terms. He is not prodding, wooing, or tugging. He is described in terms of taking complete control of the direction of the will. The Spirit “turns” the will “from unbelief to faith.” The grace that we speak of which precedes faith is not the general categories of grace the Provisionists speak of; but rather, it is an effectual grace of the Spirit which causes faith and amends an impotent will.

CANON 6.

If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

Same story, different canon. The first first half of the first sentence is one a Provisionist could, on his own terms, affirm. But the second half qualifies it to make it abominable to the Provisionist. Again, what does it mean that grace precedes faith? What does it mean that God makes the first step in our salvation? It is direct, effectual inspiration and infusion from the Spirit within an individual that brings about faith. Faith is Spirit wrought. Take note also of the impotency of the unregenerate will. It is the Spirit that gives us the “will or the strength to do” things such as believe, desire, study, pray, etc.

CANON 7.

If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).

How is it that natural man believes or forms any right spiritual opinion? The inspiration and illumination of the Spirit “makes men gladly assent to and believe the truth.” This is very Calvinistic language. Notice three things in this text consistent with Calvinism, and inconsistent with Provisionism:

  1. The logical order of the Spirit and faith: If it is the Spirit who makes us believe, then the Spirit logically is prior to faith (this what many Calvinists mean when they say “regeneration precedes faith”).
  2. The efficacy of the Spirit: The Spirit is presented as “making us” believe. This is language of irresistibility.
  3. Men “gladly” accept the Gospel: Among those whom the Spirit effectual calls, they gladly affirm what the Spirit has called them to believe. Thus, the Spirit moves our will, He does not work around it or against it. So, while the Spirit is effectual, it is still right to say “we believe,” it is our glad choice. This kind of compatible language sounds an awful lot like the kind of Calvinism Flowers has spent hours criticizing.

CANON 8.

If anyone maintains that some are able to come to the grace of baptism by mercy but others through free will, which has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man, it is proof that he has no place in the true faith. For he denies that the free will of all men has been weakened through the sin of the first man, or at least holds that it has been affected in such a way that they have still the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God. The Lord himself shows how contradictory this is by declaring that no one is able to come to him “unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), as he also says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17), and as the Apostle says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).

Canon 8 is another heavy blow to Provisionism. There is an explicit rejection of Provisionism’s nature of the will.

Pelagianism is first dealt with, it is rejected with the line, “For he denies that the free will of all men has been weakened through the sin of the first man.” But then, Pelagianism’s later cousin theology, Semipelagianism, is also rejected as having “no place in the true faith” with the line “or at least holds that it has been affected in such a way that they have still the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God.” Pelagians reject original sin altogether. Semipelagians affirm it, but believe that human nature is still capable of coming to Christ and believing the Gospel. Here, Provisionist anthropology is clearly rejected. For this condemned statement, that “[the free will of all men] has been affected in such a way that they have still the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God” is almost a verbatim quote from many we saw above from Dr. Flowers. This statement perfectly encapsulates the Provisionist distinctive, and it is exactly the system the Council of Orange condemns. Provisionism is Semipelagian.

It is at this point the Provisionist will object, accusing me of misrepresenting them. After all, they readily affirm that man cannot seek salvation apart from “the revelation of God.” Given the other canons we have read, and especially considering the proof-texts providing in Canon eight itself, we must understand what is meant by “revelation.” This is not referring to God’s self-disclosure generally and specially. Of course our Provisionists brothers know that if God remained silent and never revealed Himself, no man could believe unto salvation. But that is not what is meant in this canon. Like any good Calvinist, John 6:44 is a prooftext used, wherein the Father must irresistibly draw a man unto Christ. This is connected with Peter being told that He believed in Christ because of the revelation of the Father, and also to the Holy Spirit giving us the ability to know and confess that Jesus is Lord. Thus, it is evident that “revelation” in this text means precisely what the Provisionists wish it not to mean. It is a reference to the Father, through the Spirit, causing men to believe the Gospel; it is not a reference to the Gospel itself.

CANON 13.

Concerning the restoration of free will. The freedom of will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism, for what is lost can be returned only by the one who was able to give it. Hence the Truth itself declares: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

This canon assures us that free-will is not in the possession of the unregenerate. Free will is one of the blessings we receive from Christ through the transforming work of His Spirit. Flowers wants to maintain that all men have the free will naturally to come to Christ, but the council here considers that a Semipelagian doctrine. Free-will is not what we use to come to Christ, free-will is what we receive when we come to Christ.

CONCLUSION.

And thus according to the passages of holy scripture quoted above or the interpretations of the ancient Fathers we must, under the blessing of God, preach and believe as follows: The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God’s sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him. We therefore believe that the glorious faith which was given to Abel the righteous, and Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and to all the saints of old, and which the Apostle Paul commends in extolling them (Heb. 11), was not given through natural goodness as it was before to Adam, but was bestowed by the grace of God. And we know and also believe that even after the coming of our Lord this grace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ… (Phil. 1:6, 29, Eph. 2:8, 1 Cor. 7:25, 1 Tim. 1:13, 1 Cor. 4:7, Jas. 1:17, John 3:27)… We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him. We must therefore most evidently believe that the praiseworthy faith of the thief whom the Lord called to his home in paradise, and of Cornelius the centurion, to whom the angel of the Lord was sent, and of Zacchaeus, who was worthy to receive the Lord himself, was not a natural endowment but a gift of God’s kindness.

(Emphasis mine)

Here the council concludes in more general terms. When we consider the canons of this council it sheds light on how we understand the propositions in its concluding remarks. By the standards of the council, Provisionists cannot affirm that faith is purely a gift, and not a natural endowment. In Provisionist theology, mankind is capable of faith naturally, even with the effects of Original Sin. Thus, statements about needing grace prior to faith, when defined properly, are statements Provisionists cannot actually affirm, though they do claim to affirm them.

Final Analysis

After all has been heard, I am left to conclude that whoever drafted the canons of the Council of Orange would unanimously convict Provisionists as Semipelagians. And since I think this council is the most reliable resource we have as it pertains to defining “Semipelagianism,” I am left to conclude that Provisionists, despite their outrage, are in fact out-right Semipelagians.

The less obvious case to make is whether Arminians and Papists are condemned by the above Canons. I would, along with Calvin, make that case, but that is perhaps for another post.

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