Marc Carpenter and Today’s Pelagianism

Okay I recognize that most people who would  read my blog wouldn’t have any reason to know or care who Marc Carpenter is. I didn’t know or care who he was until yesterday when some chatter on facebook led me to this post on Billy Birch’s Arminian website. For those of you who were blissfully unaware, in the Christian blogosphere, there’s a group of fierce theological piranhas known as the hyper-Calvinists. If you don’t know what Calvinism is, in a nutshell, it’s the belief that God decided before the beginning of time who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell and nobody knows who’s going where (except that the people who are going to the right place always seem to agree with Calvinist theology). There are other aspects to it as well, such as being very argumentative with other Christians and radically sure of your own theological correctness (though I’m sure there are Calvinists who are actually humble, nice people who might even have a sense of humor).

Now hyper-Calvinism is the extreme version of Calvinism, when you not only damn all non-Calvinist Christians to hell (along with the rest of humanity — DUH!), but also all fellow Calvinists who refuse to damn non-Calvinists. It’s kind of like the logic of the Rwandan Hutu militia that massacred not only Tutsis but also Hutus who sympathized with Tutsis as well as Hutus who didn’t think that Tutsi-sympathizing Hutus should necessarily get killed. So anyway, Marc Carpenter is the most hyper of the hyper-Calvinists that I’ve come across. He actually says that he doesn’t call himself a Calvinist anymore because John Calvin himself isn’t Calvinist enough to avoid going to hell for some of the things that he said (unless he repented before dying which nobody can know for sure).

Here’s a sampling of Carpenter’s logic taken from a letter called “Speaking Peace to God-Haters” in which he explains why other Calvinists (such as a guy named North) aren’t themselves really Christian if they refuse to condemn Arminians like Methodism founder John Wesley (for believing that God’s grace is available to all of humanity).

North and others like him believe that “experience” and “holy living” take precedence over doctrine. They believe that one’s doctrine can deny the work of Christ, but as long as one has a “heart-felt spiritual experience” and a “Christian life,” one can hold to a different christ and a different gospel.

The truth is that it is doctrine that distinguishes the true Christ and the true gospel from all counterfeit christs and counterfeit gospels. Without the doctrine of Christ, you do not have Christ. The “personal knowledge of God in Christ” includes the knowledge of how God is just to justify the ungodly – Christ’s person and work (which no Arminian knows). God invariably gives this knowledge to everyone He regenerates, and no one who does not have this knowledge is a true Christian.

The paradox of hyper-Calvinism is that their doctrine says that only Christ’s atoning sacrifice can “justify the ungodly” — nothing humans do in and of our own accord can earn God’s salvation (a statement which I agree with), BUT… the believer must believe in the right doctrine to be saved (“Without the doctrine of Christ, you do not have Christ”). What Calvinists believe is that while we can’t do anything to make God save us, “God invariably gives [a clear understanding of Calvinist doctrine] to everyone He regenerates.” If it sounds confusing and twisted, that’s because it is. They have to articulate their views in a convoluted way because these two aspects of hyper-Calvinism are fundamentally contradictory. Maintaining the second part, that someone remains unsaved without the right doctrine, undermines the first part, that we can do nothing to earn God’s salvation.

There’s a word that hyper-Calvinists hate more than any other word. It’s Pelagianism, a term derived from a 3rd century ascetic monk named Pelagius who had a fierce argument with the north African bishop Augustine over whether humans could do good without the power of God’s grace. Pelagius argued that if humans just used their will-power, they could suck it up and obey Christ’s teachings, and God would judge them in the end on the basis of their success. Augustine believed that barring Christ’s atonement and empowerment, humans were completely without the existential resources to do good. In Augustine’s view, we need not only for God to forgive the sins we committed before becoming Christians but to continue to prop us up constantly like sagging tomato plants till the day that we die because we never are completely liberated from sin. Augustine won the argument and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic. Since then, Pelagianism has been a catch-all phrase throughout the centuries for accusing other Christians of believing that they earn salvation through their works rather than receiving it as a gift of grace from God (by the way, there’s a ton of scripture which I haven’t referenced which undergirds this whole debate — see my post “Justification by Faith: 3 Perspectives” if you’re confused and let me know if I need to provide more scriptural context for you to understand).

In any case, during the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin accused the Catholic church of Pelagianism for purportedly thinking that the sacramental system of baptism, Eucharist, confession, last rites, etc, was a sort of formulaic means for assuring one’s right standing with God, i.e. earning your salvation through your works, in this case, sacraments. The Reformers’ accusations were at least partly on-point. One of the more extreme, disgusting practices in that day was for the church to collect a certain amount of money from people (called indulgences) in exchange for guaranteeing that their relatives who had died and were suffering in Purgatory could get bumped up to heaven faster. This more obviously corrupt practice (which Catholics quickly discontinued after the Reformation) was allowed to develop because of a mindset that the church could generate (and eventually sell) salvation-assuring products through its sacramental system. Now I don’t think that using the historical sacraments of the church as a means for opening our hearts to God’s gracious transformation is inherently Pelagian (we would do well as Protestants to respect the sacraments a lot more), but it is true that the late-medieval sacramental system was overly formulaic and commodified to the point of creating a culture of works-righteousness that interfered with the Holy Spirit’s reign over the church.

Today we have a new Pelagian problem. Just as sacraments were good but became a stumbling to the medieval Catholic church, doctrine is a good thing, but it has become a stumbling block to Calvinist Protestants in particular. The form that Pelagianism has taken in our time is doctrinal rather than sacramental. Doctrinal Pelagianism is the belief (often vehemently denied and/or unacknowledged but confirmed in practice) that we earn our salvation by believing the right doctrine about Christ. If the hyper-Calvinists really believed what they say they believe about divine predestination, they would have no compulsion to argue other people into their doctrinal perspective, because God has presumably already decided their fate and whether or not people change their minds about their doctrinal views shouldn’t make any difference. In other words, hyper-Calvinist behavior reveals an unstated and unacknowledged functional belief at play underneath the officially professed predestinarian doctrine.

What Marc Carpenter and his ilk demonstrate is that their version of earning salvation consists in taking the most radically unpalatable doctrinal position possible. That is the works-righteousness of doctrinal Pelagianism: believing “hard truths” that are unacceptable to the “anything goes” perspective of the postmodern world as well as lukewarm Christians who refuse to “stand against” the world. The “work” that Carpenter is doing to earn his salvation is a sort of faux martyrdom in which he solicits others’ attacks by saying ridiculous things like Billy Graham is going to hell because he wasn’t vociferous enough in proclaiming the damnation of Hindus.

Jesus does say in John that “the world will hate you because you are my disciples.” What He doesn’t say is that by making the world hate you (however you do it), you earn the right to call yourself my disciple. Just because Fred Phelps, the “God hates fags” preacher, is more hated than any other preacher in America doesn’t mean by some bizarre logic that he’s more fervently proved his loyalty to Christ than any other preacher. Christians like Phelps and Carpenter are simply at the most extreme end of a scale of doctrinal loyalty through anti-worldliness that many conservative evangelical Christians use to evaluate the status of their salvation without recognizing that they are doing so. The reason that doctrinal Pelagianism is so pernicious is because it creates the political power games of doctrinal loyalty tests. The self-promotional doctrinal infighting that goes on in the Christian blogosphere is at least as blasphemous to God’s name and as big a waste of God’s time as the scandalous indulgence sales were in the 1500’s. The reason a doctrinal Pelagian cannot fathom the possibility of any theological diversity within Christian orthodoxy whatsoever is because he needs to know that he’s right in order to feel saved, which is  exactly the kind of dangerous spiritual insecurity we are supposed to be saved from.

The sad comedy is that the whole point of justification by faith is to clip the wings of our egos and keep us from being snippy, argumentative demagogues. Ephesians 2:8-9 provides the best summary of the true Biblical doctrine of justification by faith: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” That last clause needs to be in bold-face in a larger font than the rest of the text in every Bible. God’s whole purpose in making salvation something that we cannot earn but only receive as a gift is to prevent us from becoming the people who damn everyone to hell who disagrees with them. So to put it in 21st century text-speak, hyper-Calvinism = complete justification-by-faith FAIL!

So are there fruits of spiritual regeneration that show we belong to Christ? YES! By all means! But we don’t need to make these fruits out to be the assented propositions of some extra-Biblical doctrinal system that uses as many tough-sounding words like total depravity, penal substitution, and infinite wrath as possible. Paul gives us a listing of the fruits of our regeneration in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These fruits have nothing to do with the particulars of our doctrine; they have to do with the spiritual dispositions we exude in our treatment of others. Now our doctrine is not unrelated to this. But what I would contend is that whatever doctrine results in the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit is for that reason the right doctrine. Heresy is whatever doctrine produces the poisonous fruit of un-Christlike behavior, no matter how many Biblical proof-texts it can claim. Orthodoxy (right teaching) is confirmed by orthopraxis (right practice). See my post on this specific topic. The reason why the doctrine of justification by faith is so important and worth defending is, because without it, Christians become snotty brats who are utterly useless to the Savior who wants to incorporate us into His body.

So the next time you’re absolutely sure you’re right about something theological and you’re sure that the person you’re arguing with is not only wrong but bound for eternal damnation, then take a look at Galatians 5:22 to examine whether you are indeed regenerate. Maybe you need to pray Jesus back into your heart again (I’ve had to do that quite often myself). Of course being a Wesleyan, I’m not worried about the number of times I’ve had to say that prayer and which time it “counted,” because I know it’s a prayer that God will never lose patience with.

[Note: if I just used too much shorthand and jargon for you to know what in the world I’m talking about, my apologies. I can explain in more depth if you’re interested. Otherwise sorry to have bored you with seminarian dribble-drabble.]

14 thoughts on “Marc Carpenter and Today’s Pelagianism

  1. Pingback: Does doctrine inspire love? (more fallout from @renovatuspastor’s sermon) | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. I recently got into a quarrel with Carpenter who defends a God who hates all workers of iniquity. Indeed, the Bible actually says that but it doesn’t say what Carpenter defends-a God that only loves you as a regenerated creature rather than a God who regenerates you because you are loved. His logic seems so skewed to me without having to borrow from Scripture. It seems if you juggle the Scriptures with a certain skill and dexterity you can argue the case for virtually any sort of God you want to espouse. But typically the God you defend is usually a reflection of yourself: a cruel man believes in a cruel God. And in the end it really doesn’t matter to me. If God is truly a reflection of Carpenter, I am quite prepared to march into hell for all eternity. I mean, why would i want to hang out with a God as cruel as that and a man like Carpenter for all eternity? I would ask what a very special person once asked me: “If damnation were the reward for righteousness, would you still choose to be righteous?”

  3. We aren’t saved by doctrine so the question itself is fundamentally mistaken. The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s profoundly important to teach people good doctrine (the content of which we completely disagree on), but there are plenty of people who have been justified by Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit who will never have the intellectual capacity to believe the right things about Jesus. Just because people don’t have the right words to describe what God has done in their hearts doesn’t mean that God hasn’t claimed them as His own. That’s what makes any doctrine of graces gracious: that God has you covered even if you have some foolishness in your mind. Pelagius said we had to be perfect to enter heaven. If your doctrine has to be perfect, it doesn’t matter whether you call it a prerequisite or a product of salvation — you’re a Pelagian.

    I’ve seen your proof-text for the kind of perfect intelligence that people supposedly have if they’re regenerate. You’re doing a whole lot of leg-work with very little supporting text. Paul writes a ton about the way that people are at different levels in their discipleship and that those who are strong should not throw stumbling blocks in the way of those who are weak. Some need milk and others need meat.

    The more mature Christians I’ve known are the ones who are more willing to admit that what Jesus has done for us on the cross is too sublime and wonderful for any reductionist systematic theology whether it’s Arminian or Calvinist or Thomist or Augustinian. Of course we should try to talk about it and grapple with it but the minute we’ve put it in a box and resolved it completely once and for all, we’re no longer talking about God’s mystery but some man-made approximation. The beauty is that God gives us a bunch of different truths held in tension with one another in Romans, the Corinthian letters, James, Hebrews, all of the gospels, all of the prophets. Different people have different needs at different points in their discipleship journey. And God gives us what we need when we need it if we use the resources He has given us. To try to come up with a single right doctrine rather than respecting the sublime mystery of God is to develop an idol. I imagine that hundreds of other people have already said this sort of thing to you and you’ve probably got a response already prepared that you can just cut and paste into a response to me.

    There is so much counter-evidence against your position in scripture, but I know you’ve built your entire identity off of what you believe, so there’s not really any point in writing pages and pages of exegesis to refute you. I just don’t think it’s good stewardship of my time to have a conversation with you. Many others have told me it’s a waste of time to try to engage you directly. You know that you’re right and nobody has ever really changed your mind. I’m damned. You’re elect. Let’s just leave it at that.

  4. WHAT DO YOU THINK YOUR’E DOING by SAYING that I’m GOING to WRITE BACK in ALL CAPS? CAN’T YOU SEE that I’ve ALREADY had EIGHT WORDS (TEN if you count CONTRACTIONS as TWO WORDS — oops, now there are SIXTEEN) that were not in ALL CAPS? (OH, I’m NOT supposed to have a SENSE OF HUMOR, am I? OOPS.)

    I want to express my wholehearted agreement with one of the things you stated in your last comment. I mean WHOLEHEARTED, absolute TOTAL agreement, with NO DISAGREEMENT WHATSOEVER. Here it is:

    “I honestly just don’t understand you.”

    AMEN! A point of total agreement!

    As for your original post and your last comment, there are so many false accusations, but I want to focus on the “doctrinal Pelagianism” issue for now. I have a question for you and a follow-up:

    Are there any doctrines that all saved people believe? If so, can you name one?

  5. Hi, this is Marc Carpenter. You know, you’d be a whole lot more respectable if you represented someone else’s views accurately before deciding to tear them down. How about starting out by reading http://www.outsidethecamp.org/doctregen.htm and try to articulate what we believe regarding fruits of salvation vs. prerequisites/conditions of salvation. Do you believe that all saved people believe that Jesus is God? If so, then according to your convoluted logic, you believe that salvation is earned by believing in the deity of Christ. Stupid conclusion? Yup. Believing right doctrine about Christ has NOTHING to do with earning, gaining, or maintaining salvation. Absolutely NOTHING. Now let’s see if you have integrity by retracting your false accusation that we believe that we earn our salvation by believing right doctrine about Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    • I’m aware of the rhetorical gymnastics you go through to distinguish fruits from prerequisites of salvation. If you really believed that your doctrinal standards weren’t prerequisites for salvation and were only fruits, there would be no reason to try to persuade others of the correctness of your doctrine. They would simply come to the same conclusions on their own by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. What am I supposed to conclude about the way that you condemn to hell everyone in the blogosphere who disagrees with you? It really sounds like a lack of peace and assurance on your part that is compensated for by proving your fidelity to God through having the perfect doctrine, i.e. a doctrinal form of Pelagianism. If you really had assurance, wouldn’t you be at peace with God’s sovereignty over other peoples’ souls? Why would you be out campaigning to declare almost every theologian in Christian history reprobate because they disagree with your doctrine? How does it build the body of Christ for you to do that? What is your goal? I honestly just don’t understand you.

      One of the main pastoral concerns of both Augustine and Calvin that motivated their doctrine of predestination was to help us as pastors make peace with our lack of control over other peoples’ souls. We do the best that we can in obedience to the Holy Spirit and trust that God’s sovereign plan is manifesting itself and thank God that He had the mercy to include us in the implementation of His plan. I guess you’re probably going to write back with one of your 50 page ALL-CAP specials. I’ll try to engage you in conversation until it starts to be unfruitful and then I’m going to have to cut you off.

  6. Generally I don’t have any quarrel with the Catholic perspective as you’ve stated it, though perhaps I put more emphasis on justification than you would. I imagine that Catholics would agree that we have to be rescued from our concupiscence in order to enter into the path of sanctification. To me, the sacrament of Eucharist reinforces the reassurance of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf which empowers me to seek God’s holiness. I think our basic human problem as rational creatures is the discongruity between our need to make sense and the fact that we do things that don’t make sense. When we don’t have any basis for making peace with our irrational behavior, we rationalize our irrationality (what I would call self-justification) which perverts our reason and deadens our awareness of the hunger that we don’t realize we have for communion with God.

    I think our acceptance of Christ’s atonement opens the door for us to receive God’s judgment as loving sanctification that transforms us more into His image. Otherwise we persist in the need to say I’m fine just as I am, and we remain perpetually defensive when confronted with our shortcomings. I feel like I need perpetually to be reminded of my need for Christ’s cleansing blood in order to face the painful realizations of my persistent pride, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, anger, and sloth particularly as they take forms that are more subtle than those who sin in complete obliviousness. When I read Teresa of Avila or the Desert Fathers, I notice that they saw their battle with sin as a lifelong struggle even as their sins became so acute that people today would consider them to be miserable obsessive compulsive perfectionists. It seems to me that the more we taste of God’s holiness, the more that tiny imperfections become unacceptable to us. Hence we continue to need to lean on the justification of Christ’s atonement. Every time I receive Eucharist, I remember that I am a grateful sinner and thank God for accepting me anyway and continuing to refine me.

    How does this articulation of the Christian journey jive with the way you guys describe it? Thank you so much for this conversation. I’m going to need to come down 95 one day and chill with you guys. I’ve learned a lot already.

    • I don’t find anything with which I disagree there.

      I would say that our Western culture is very intent on self-justification, disclaiming responsibility for our actions by claiming that we are “born this way” or that others should accept us as we are — we rationalize our lack of rationality/reason. Whereas God gave us reason so that we could choose whether to give in to our sinful desires or willfully follow Him.

      I think that it’s ironic that our culture pays such lip service to empowerment, and then completely disempowers everyone by rejecting our ability to reason, reducing us to animals in the thrall of our sensual desires. If I say I love someone that I should not (my neighbor’s wife, my horse, etc.) it’s because I was born this way. If I hate someone that I should not (Jews, black people, women) it is not because I’m a racist or a misogynist; it’s because I was born this way. Ridiculous!

      It is crucial that we accept Christ’s sacrifice. It is also important that we use the reason that God gave us to choose every day to follow the innate leadings of the Holy Spirit rather than our sinful, base instincts.

  7. (1) The idea of God deciding an individual’s fate ahead of time seems very… unreasonable to me. It implies that God exists inside of time, and seems to suggest a less than all-loving God by my understanding. And this hyper-Calvinism even more so.

    (2) I haven’t read in Luther or Calvin’s writings the accusation that the Catholic Church fell into Pelagianism. It is entirely possible, given the sin to which we are all vulnerable, that some priests described the sacraments as a system of assuring right standing with God, but the Catechism has never described it so. Rather, the Sacraments are a form of training, and with each we graduate to new rights and responsibilities (with Baptism as our letter of acceptance to God University, so to speak).

    (3) Indulgences are not money collected from people to get the dead out of Purgatory faster. To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia[1], “An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God’s justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive.” The indulgence is not the money, then.

    (4) The Church still offers indulgences. They were not discontinued as part of the Counter-Reformation. What was corrupt and made explicitly verboten was the practice of selling indulgences, which was obviously wrong and which, I’m sure, right-thinking Bishops never imagined they would have to explicitly forbid. (Of course, back then they never imagined that anyone would ever question the Perpetual Virginity of Mary either.)

    (5) Selling indulgences was not selling salvation. Indulgences don’t get you out of Hell. They just decrease the amount of time which one might need to spend being purged of sin before entering God’s presence.

    (6) The sacraments each point to God, just as Mary forever points to Jesus. I don’t see how they could ever be a stumbling block. There aren’t really enough of them to treat them as a checklist for salvation. You’ve got seven years between Baptism and First Holy Communion, and then what? You could get sick and get the Sacrament of the Sick. You could eventually get married and have the Sacrament of Marriage, or choose instead to commit to God and take the Sacrament of Holy Orders. You can get the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation as often as you can find a priest to offer them to you, of course. And regularly doing both is important. How could they possibly be stumbling blocks? To be physically present with Christ is amazing, not a stumbling block. To have the priest acting in personae Christi and grant one absolution is freeing, not a stumbling block.

    (7) I don’t think that “the whole point of justification by faith is to clip the wings of our egos and keep us from being snippy, argumentative demagogues.” I think the point, for Luther, was that he never felt good enough, and wanted to reassure himself. I think that the point, for most people, is that they feel bad for not doing enough and would like to be told that their lack of good fruits does not correlate to a lack of justification.

    [1] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm

    • Thanks as always, Dan, for offering the Catholic perspective. I appreciate the correction regarding indulgences. Regardless of what Luther meant by “justification by faith,” I do think that Ephesians 2:8-9 describes justification pretty plainly as having the telos of our humility (“so that none can boast”). I do think that what’s critical to our salvation is some combination of trusting in Christ’s atonement and renouncing our self-sufficiency whatever language you want to use for that. I suppose “justification by faith” might be only Protestant language. How do you guys talk about justification? I learned Aquinas’ ordo saludis in seminary but it’s been too long. The way that Methodists connect things is to say that Christ justifies so the Holy Spirit can sanctify. My pride is a wall that must be breached by the cross. Only then can I move into that form of cooperative grace in which I consciously participate through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

      I’m never going to understand the whole Mary thing, and I prefer Augustine’s understanding that the world is fundamentally sacramental in character to Aquinas’ arbitrary designation of 7 sacraments (I honestly think that if he could have come up with 12, you guys would have 12). All 7 of them make sense as things to do to experience the presence of God, but I think there are other things you can do to be close to God which aren’t necessarily less sacred just because they didn’t make Aquinas’ list. Also I’m not sure how you can talk about baptism as a form of training if it occurs to an infant who doesn’t know what’s going on. I don’t dispute the real presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the act, but “training” seems to imply the cognitive participation of the recipient. Not trying to be unnecessarily cheeky. I’m grateful for the honest conversation.

      • I am in complete agreement with you that “what’s critical to our salvation is some combination of trusting in Christ’s atonement and renouncing our self-sufficiency”.

        As for the Catholic take on justification, the short answer is that (1) Catholics don’t really worry about it in my experience, trusting that God loves us perfectly and will take care of us in this world and the next and (2) we are justified through grace. The longer answer may be found here: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08573a.htm

        Catholicism holds that the world is fundamentally sacramental, as Augustine said, though fallen since its creation. God made the human form sacred when He created us, and after we fell, after a time, Christ made the human form sacred anew by taking it on. The seven recognized sacraments don’t make everything else less charged with holiness; they are a way of recognizing important transitions.

        I may have been unclear: Baptism is our letter of acceptance/admittance; the other six sacraments are classes and graduation ceremonies.

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