Sunday, July 26, 2015

What have Baptists traditionally believed about Prevenient Grace?

In “Prevenient Grace: Why it Matters”, Dr Roger Olson (who is himself a Baptist) writes:

What have Baptists traditionally believed about prevenient grace? Well, of course, Particular Baptists (who appeared about forty years after the Baptist founders Smyth and Helwys and were Calvinists) have always emphasized the necessity of supernatural grace for the beginning of salvation. That’s not in debate. The question is: What have non-Calvinist Baptists believed about prevenient grace (which includes the question what have they believed about the incapacity of the will apart from it)?

It very may well be that the majority of Southern Baptists have believed and do believe that Adam’s fall did not result in the incapacitation of anyone’s will to respond to the gospel apart from supernatural grace. I have argued for a long time that semi-Pelagianism is the default theology of most American Christians of most denominations. The Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963) does not settle the issue as it does not speak directly to it.

So, let’s look back at the most important statement of faith of early General Baptists. (“General Baptist” is a term traditionally used for non-Calvinist Baptists.) The Orthodox Creed was written in 1678 in response to Second London Confession of Particular Baptists in 1677. The Orthodox Creed was written and signed (initially) by fifty-four messengers, elders and brethren of General Baptist congregations in England. (See W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith [Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1959], pp. 295-334)

Most scholars consider The Orthodox Creed a relatively reliable guide to what General, non-Calvinist Baptists believed in the first century of Baptist life. (Or its second century if you count Anabaptists such as Mennonites as baptists and forerunners of Baptists which I do.)

The Orthodox Creeds says that “man,” as a result of the fall of Adam, “wholly lost all ability, or liberty of will, to any spiritual good, for his eternal salvation, his will being now in bondage under sin and Satan, and therefore not able of his own strength to convert himself nor prepare himself thereunto, without God’s grace taketh away the enmity out of his will, and by his special grace, freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, enabling him to will freely and sincerely, that which is spiritually good….” (XX. Article “Of Free-Will in Man” Lumpkin, p. 312)
Clearly, unequivocally, 17th century Baptists believed in the incapacitation of the will due to sin and the necessity of special (supernatural) grace for the first movement of the will toward God.

Why? The consistent, constant testimony of Scripture is that human beings do not seek after (the true) God: Psalm 14 and Romans 3 are stand out passages to this effect. At the heart of Paul’s message is that all boasting is excluded because the person has nothing good that he or she has not received (from God). (1 Corinthians 4:12)

Theologically, semi-Pelagianism is shallow and opens the door to Pelagianism; it does not take seriously enough the helplessness of humanity or humanity’s total dependence on God for everything good. It also attributes an autonomy to the human being that elevates the person too high in relation to God. It also reduces the gift nature of salvation and opens the possibility that salvation can be at least partially earned or merited.

Only the doctrine of prevenient grace matches what Scripture says about the human condition and about salvation and protects the gospel from humanistic dilution.

An Orthodox Creed
An Orthodox Creed: or, A Protestant Confession of Faith, which Dr Olson referenced above, is available online for free in PDF from The Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, including a 2006 Editor's Preface by Madison Grace.  Article XX reads in full (link, bold mine):

Of Free-will in Man.

God hath endued the Will of Man with that natural liberty and power, of acting upon Choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of Nature determined, to do Good or Evil:196 But Man in the state of Innocency, had such power and liberty of Will, to chuse and perform that which was acceptable and well pleasing to God, according to the requirement of the First Covenant;197 but he falling from his state of Innocency, wholly lost all ability, or liberty of Will, to any Spiritual Good, for his eternal Salvation,198 his Will being now in bondage under Sin and Satan;199 and therefore not able of his own strength to Convert himself, nor prepare himself thereunto, without God’s Grace taketh away the enmity out of his Will, and by his special Grace, freeth him from his natural Bondage under Sin, enabling him to will freely and sincerely, that which is spiritually good,200 according to the tenure of the new Covenant of Grace in Christ, though not perfectly according to the tenure of the First Covenant;201 which perfection of Will is only attainable in the state of Glory, after the Redemption, or Resurrection of our Fleshly Bodies, Rom. 8.23. Ephes. 4.13.
196  Mat. 17.12.
197  Eccles. 7.29.
198  Rom. 5.6. & 8.7, 8.
199  Joh. 8.44.
200  Ephes. 2.8, 9, 10.
201  Rom. 7.14, 15, 16.

Thomas Helwys congregation's Declaration of Faith

The first English Baptist confession was Thomas Helwys congregation's Declaration of Faith. A copy is available at the Society of Evangelical Arminians' website, including an introduction containing the following excerpt from The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys:

After breaking with John Smyth in 1610, Thomas Helwys wrote A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland in 1611. Recognized by the majority of Baptist scholars as the first true English Baptist confession of the faith, the purpose of A Declaration of Faith was to differentiate the beliefs of Helwy’s congregation from that of Smyth’s. The confession contains twenty-seven articles. Despite their separation, the confession illustrates Smyth’s and the Mennonites’ influence on Helwys’s doctrine in the denial of limited atonement and the ability for a Christian to fall from grace. A significant difference from Smyth and the Waterlander Mennonites, however, is discernable in Helwys’s Calvinistic insistence on original sin and what was referred to in his time as “free will.” Other difference include Helwys’s denial of succession, which he referred to as Old Testament doctrine, his acceptance of some oaths it they did not compromise one’s Christian life, the bearing of arms in self-defense, and the ability for a church member to participate in the government. The only original copy known to exist is in the York Minister Library.

It is available in PDF here: Thomas Helwys' Confession of Faith - The First Baptist Confession.  Article 4 states (bold mine):
That notwithstanding this, men are by nature the Children of wrath, (Ephesians 2:3) born in iniquity and in sin conceived. (Psalm 51:5) Wise to all evil, but to good they have no knowledge. (Jeremiah 4:22). The natural man perceives not the things of the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 2:14). And therefore man is not restored unto his former estate, but that as man, in his estate of innocence, having in himself all disposition unto good, & no disposition unto evil, yet being tempted might yield, or might resist: even so now being fallen, and having all disposition unto evil, and no disposition or will unto any good, yet GOD giving grace, man may receive grace, or may reject grace, according to that saying; (Deuteronomy 30:19) I call Heaven and Earth to record. This day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: Therefore choose life that both thou and thy seed may live.

(Also note Article 5 on predestination, election and reprobation).

Other General Baptist Confessions
In their presentation, "Baptist Confessions & Theology” (available from NOBTS here), Dr Rex D Butler and Dr Lloyd A Harsch, both from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, list two other early General Baptist confessions in addition to the Orthodox Creed (1678) and Thomas Helwys' Declaration of Faith (1611): Faith and Practice of Thirty Congregations (1651) of which they note article 25 "Rejects free will unaided by God", and Standard Confession (1660).
Article 25 of the Faith and Practice of Thirty Congregations (1651) states, "That there is not, neither ever was any man endued with any abilities and power to do the revealed will of God, but it was given him from above. Jam. 1. 17." (link).

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