As Protestants we all want our interpretations of Holy Scripture to be the “right ones”; at least we want to be able to operate with the conviction that what we believe Scripture teaches is in fact what it is teaching. I continue to follow along with Leighton Flowers and his proposed soteriological view known as Provisionism (which is his riff on the Southern Baptist so called Traditionalism). In fact I just
listened to a four hour response he gave to some of his critics and fellow podcasters, one of whom included Chris Date. There are certain things that resonate with me in regard to Flowers’ desired conclusion. In other words, he wants to work, de jure, from revelation as his authoritative source for working out his theological conclusions. We don’t share the same theory of revelation, which has some considerable implications in regard to how we approach Scripture and its interpretation; but we have a shared desire to avoid over reliance on metaphysical speculation when it comes to the way we in fact arrive at our respective soteriological conclusions.
But what I find ironic about Leighton, and this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to him, is that in his speed to defeat the Calvinist theological framework he continues to work from the same sort of soteriological and Augustinian premises that he derides as foolishness. In other words, even though Leighton seems to think that he is offering a more accurate and more biblically reliant doctrine of salvation, it has become clear to me that he is working from the same sort of soteriologically-driven-from-below starting point for thinking salvation as his Calvinst counterparts. It isn’t that he isn’t thinking less “systematically” and theologically than his Calvinist opponents, it is just that he has shifted the ‘systematic’ (his word) from thinking salvation from Augustinian premises—particularly when that comes to thinking about anthropology and ‘freewill’—and instead works from Pelagian premises. This might seem like a violation of a theological Godwin’s Rule by bringing up Pelagius, but I do so because Flowers et al make this move as they attempt to recoup Pelagius’s understanding of freewill over against Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. In this vein, Flowers contends that the Bible itself never teaches that humanity lives in what Luther calls ‘The Bondage of the Will.’ Flowers argues that this reading of Scripture can be attributed to Augustine’s titanic influence on the Western Church’s reading of Scripture in the main. As such, according to Flowers, we ought to throw off the shackles of the Augustinian prison, and freely choose, at the least, to follow the trajectory that Pelagius has given us in regard to understanding the ‘neutrality’ of the human will coram Deo.
To bring this full circle: It is important, in my view, for Flowers and all of us to recognize the power that theological assumptions have upon the way we arrive at our theological and soteriological conclusions. I think Flowers does recognize this, which is why he hopes to defeat the impact of the tradition Augustine has provided for, and replace that with a trajectory, at least with reference to thinking a theological anthropology, with Pelagius’ voice. And yet Flowers seems to slip back and forth between recognizing the role that theological exegesis has on the way he receives and reads Scripture, and then he seems to argue that he is just attempting to offer a ‘pure’ reading of the New Testament text in particular.
But this is the point I want to counter with: We all are ‘enslaved,’ as it were, to a Traditioned reading of the text of Holy Scripture. In other words, none of us read it in a vacuum. That said, Scripture itself does indeed offer up its own categories and emphases. So, the theological lenses we read Scripture through need to dialectically and spirally be understood as lenses that have taken shape as they are formed under the pressures of revelation, and encounter with the living Lord that revelation in fact is. What I am saying is that while we read Scripture theologically, indeed, we are doing so in a dialogical sense; in a sense that Scripture’s teaching, and its witness to its reality in Jesus Christ become mutually informing things. This should chasten Flowers’ et als constant appeal to a more plain teaching of Scripture in regard to soteriological and other loci. His opponents might be reading Scripture from a ‘systematic,’ but no more or less than is Leighton. The question is: Whose systematic is more closely proximate to Scripture’s reality in Christ? And this question, in itself is a highly theological question; but this shouldn’t be surprising since our reception of Scripture, as Protestants, is based on a highly charged theological confession that Scripture is God’s Word where the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) can be encountered through the mediating humanity of Jesus Christ. These things, these hermeneutical realities need to be better attended to by Flowers and his Calvinist interlocutors. In an absence of this sort of attendance I do not believe a fruitful discussion between the parties can inhere. Without a critical understanding and delineation of what Scripture is, without a robust doctrine of Scripture in the forefront, Flowers’ and the Calvinist’s arguments, respectively, will only keep sliding right past each other. I place this emphasis on a doctrine of Scripture because it takes us back to the more fundamental question of hermeneutic and where that comes from for the Protestant reader of Scripture. This lacuna continues to plague the internecine discussions that take place between evangelical thinkers.
There is a better way. The better way is to follow the lead of someone like John Webster. He understood the importance of doing ‘theological theology’; meaning, he understood that there is a theological taxis or order to Christian thought. As such, if we fail to attend, in an intentional way, to this ordered way of thinking—thinking that starts with Theology Proper, subsequently leading to other loci like a doctrine of creation, doctrine of Scripture so on and so forth—we will have very thin hermeneutical frameworks that actually keep us from penetrating the depth dimension of the text of Scripture. If this remains the case, then the inner-theological-reality that allows Scripture to teach what it does will never really be engaged with. Jesus believed (cf. Jn 5.39) that He is the inner-reality of Scripture, as such, I suggest to Leighton et al. that Christology, not soteriology ought to be the starting point in regard to our broader biblical hermeneutic. If we think our thoughts from Jesus as regulator of the text’s reality we will end up with different questions than those being debated by those committed to an Augustinian/Pelagian frame such as the Calvinists and Leighton are. They can choose to recognize this or not. If they don’t recognize this then their discussions will continue to traffic in the status quo of evangelical conservative theological banter with no real hope for advancing deeper into the once for all faith delivered to the saints.