Final Response to Leighton Flowers: And His De-Confessionalized Reading of Holy Scripture

I have been doing a lot of engagement with a guy named, Leighton Flowers, lately. Not just here at the blog, but in some podcasts; and then some personal correspondence via Twitter. I am not really sure why I got sucked into that realm again. When I say realm I mean this: When I first started theoblogging, in 2005, I was almost immediately exposed to Phil Johnson’s personal blog: Pyromaniac. Phil Johnson is the executive producer of John MacArthur’s Grace To You radio ministry, editor of most of MacArthur’s publications, and staff pastor at MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. I was opposed, of course, to their 5 Point Calvinism; not to mention their type of bully-pulpit mode online. Johnson amplified his work by turning his blog into a group blog, changing the name to: Pyromaniacs. I would enter their realm, and attempt to argue against their Calvinism; among other things. All it really ended up being was a futile exercise of getting beat around the ears by Phil’s team and people at the blog. They were never interested in engaging in any sort of meaningful theological discussion; all they wanted to do was throw out theobombs fortified by their supposed non-theological exegesis of the text. This phenomenon is not exclusive to them, it is a pervasive reality (pervasive interpretive pluralism).

In the low-church evangelical world (the one I come from) it is common practice to follow a nuda scriptura or solo scriptura mode. This mode collapses the interpreter’s understanding of said biblical texts into the text, such that to question their interpretation is to question the biblical text itself; as if their understanding of the text just is Gospel truth. As I was mentioning, the Pyromanics, and Macites in general, are famous for this sort of biblical engagement; but, again, this mode is pervasive. On the other side of the Macites, back in the day, there were their counterparts: The Zane Hodges Free Grace gospel people. Often I would loosely join their side in “combat” with the Macites, but the reality was, was that these Hodgesites were just as committed to solo scriptura as were (and are) the Macites. Now, in the most recent instance, I have come across someone of like mood in, Leighton Flowers. He is simply uninterested in thinking theologically-exegetically about how actual biblical and Christian confessional exegesis ought to work. He wants me to disprove, for example, his, what he asserts, biblical exegesis of texts that he believes undercuts the Reformed (and Lutheran and Arminian) idea that people, in and of themselves are inherently unable to be for God—outwith a fundamental change of nature that comes by an internal work of God’s grace. Without chapter and verse, that explicitly teaches that people are spiritually unable to seek God and say yes to him, he thinks his position, that people are born with a God given ability, by nature, to say yes to God, stands. He is not open to the idea that he just might be engaging in theological exegesis, rather than the ‘pure exegesis’ he thinks he is of Holy Scripture. Without a willingness to acknowledge that there is an inner-theologic that allows Scripture to assert what it does about God, people like Flowers, Johnson, and Hodges will never really be able to access the substantive res (reality) of Scripture’s witness. They will continue to, in ‘Ramist-like’ form (which is an abstracting locus methodology deployed by, ironically, the Post Reformed Orthodox), abstract proof-texts out of Scripture; read their interpretations into those texts of Scripture; and collapse them back into Scripture as if all they are doing is engaging with Scripture itself. Without recognizing the fact that we all, by “nature,” engage in theological-exegesis, the uncritical exegete, will almost certainly pour bad theology into the text of Scripture as they interpret Scripture. Learning how to think theologically must be an intentional act on the exegete’s part; if the exegete is unwilling to do this, again, all they will be doing is pouring uncritical, untested theological categories they have naively inherited from their respective tradition/denomination, back into the text of Scripture. This, I would argue, is what Flowers is doing; and in the end, we end up with a genuine semi-Pelagian soteriology and reading of Scripture. Unfortunately, as with many of these characters, Flowers has a relatively big following online.

There is another ironic layer to this. Flowers, and his like, particularly in low-church evangelicalism, are subject to interpreting Scripture from the modern historicist naturalist mode. This approach emerged most acutely in the 18th century, under Enlightenment pressures to question all orders of institutional authority. The impact this had on confessional Christianity, as that touched on biblical interpretation, was to de-confessionalize the reading of Scripture, and attempt to ostensibly read it without any influence given by the Church’s history of interpretation. This approach turned something like Calvin’s sensus literalis or Luther’s literal-prophetic engagement with Scripture into mere superstitious magic that such ‘confessional’ readers unscientifically imposed upon the text of Scripture. Here are two quotes that help explain: first Calvin’s (and the trad’s) understanding of the ‘literal sense,’ and then Luther’s Christ concentrated ‘literal-prophetic’:

sensus literalis: literal sense; the fundamental literal or grammatical sense of the text of Scripture, distinguished into (1)sensus literalis simplex, the simple literal sense, which lies immediately in the grammar and the meaning of individual words, and (2) sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate either the articuli fidei (q.v.) or the pracecepta caritatis (q.v.). See historicus; quadriga.[1]

And:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture.[2]

The de-confessionalized, “critical” way of reading Scripture mocks such attempts to find the ‘literal’ (per the strictures of the canonical/confessional text itself), or to literally see Christ behind every bush and camel in the text of the Bible. It is this naturalized method of interpretation that Flowers, and the whole tradition of evangelicalism he comes from, in general, engages in with the text of Holy Scripture. Ironically, there are antecedents to the way they proof-text Scripture up, in loci-way, in the work of the confessionally driven Post Reformed Orthodox; but then they take it further, and attempt to abstract Scripture from its ontological givenness as that comes from God Himself. Matthew Levering, alternatively, offers critique and a way out for people, like Flowers, who are trapped in this sort of naturalized way of reading Scripture. He writes:

What happens, then, when Scripture is seen primarily as a linear-historical record of dates and places rather than as a providentially governed (revelatory) conversation with God in which the reader, within the doctrinal and sacramental matrix of the Church, is situated? John Webster points to the disjunction that appears between “history” and “theology” and remarks on the “complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology, through which the sensible and intelligible relams, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other, and creaturely forms (language, action, institutions) denied any capacity to indicate the presence and activity of the transcendent God.” Similary, Lamb contrasts the signs or concepts that can be grasped by modern exegetical methods with the moral and intellectual virtues that are required for a true participatory knowledge and love the realities expressed by the signs or concepts. Lacking the framework of participatory knowledge and love, biblical exegesis is reduced to what Lamb calls “a ‘comparative textology’ à la Spinoza.” Only participatory knowledge and love, which both ground and flow from the reading practices of the Church, can really attain the biblical realities. As Joseph Ratzinger thus observes, the meaning of Scripture is consituted when

the human word and God’s word work together in the singularity of historical events and the eternity of the everlasting Word which is contemporary in every age. The biblical word comes from a real past. It comes not only from the past, however, but at the same time from the eternity of God and it leads us into God’s eternity, but again along the way through time, to which the past, the present and the future belong.

This Christological theology of history, which depends on a metaphysics of participation inscribed in creation, provides the necessary frame for apprehending the true meaning of biblical texts.

In short, for the patristic-medieval tradition and for those attuned to it today, history (inclusive of the work of historiography) is an individual and communal conversation with the triune God who creates and redeems history—and the Bible situates us in history thus understood.[3]

I have written at greater length on Levering’s correction here. Suffice it to say, what Levering describes, and what he critiques, is the method that people like Flowers operate from; i.e. a non-participatory reading of Scripture. As such they will continue headlong into deleterious readings of Scripture that posit historically heretical teachings like semi-Pelagianism. Maybe if Flowers et al. would simply humble themselves, and recognize that the history of interpretation might place a helpful check on historical-critical readings of Scripture, they could avoid the error that has already obtained (in the history), and been corrected therefrom. Until that happens for people like Flowers, they will, unfortunately continue on their merry way, leading many lesser trained people down the path of ring-around-the-rosie “biblical” interpretation.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 279.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.

[3] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 23.