A Riposte to Leighton Flowers and Dr. Brian With Reference to Their Video Response @ Me

I think after this post I will quit engaging with Leighton Flowers and crew (but maybe not, that all depends). I just came across a video where he and his friend, Brian (a PhD in NT, not theology, clearly), respond to a critique post of mine directed at Flowers’ approach to interpreting Holy Scripture. Here is the blurb I quickly wrote up as I shared this video to my FB and Twitter feeds:

Leighton Flowers responds to a critique post of mine starting at 7:44 and running through 21:00. He and his friend just talk around what I was getting at. Ironically, they end up illustrating my critique of their approach by reverting to their sort of rationalist traditioned reading of Scripture. It is really strange to engage with folks who are not self-perceptive enough to see their own foibles, esp. when those are being pointed out to them. But then they deflect those back onto their critics (me) Lol. Flowers’ friend, a PhD in NT (not theology, clearly) calls my approach postmodern (very strange). But this is what you get when you engage with low church evangelicals who have no clue about the Christian Dogmatic tradition, and how that has taken form in the Church catholic. They dispense with catholicity in favor of re-inventing the wheel based on their own reconstruction (interpretation) of the Christian faith and Holy Scripture. But, again, this is what you get when you start with a turn-to-the-subject hyper individualism out of touch with the confessional nature of the Christian faith. And this is why I find folks like Flowers and his friend so dangerous to the Christian faith; they are the epitome of what has been dangerous to my own faith in the past. So, when I come across it I seek to alert others to its errors, and hope to provide a way forward that is more in tune with a reality contingent upon a source (Jesus Christ and the triune God) outside of themselves.

You can watch Leighton’s and Brian’s response to me here (it starts at 7:44 and runs approx. through the 21-minute mark). I want to expand a little more on their response to me; more than what I just shared in the aforementioned blurb.

Brian was really hung up on my language of all humanity being ENSLAVED to our interpretative traditions. But as Steve Holmes rightly underscores (Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 6-8):

This is not something that can simply be swiped away, as Brian and Leighton attempt to do, unless of course the person is appealing to their people. Ironically, as I alluded to earlier, Brian and Leighton fall right into this point, even as they attempt to criticize my underscoring of it, by going back to “their tradition of biblical theology and soteriology.” This is ironic, indeed, because it is the very point of my criticism of them. The fact that they cannot see that, and then by not seeing it, appeal to their own particular traditioned way of reading Scripture should alert people to how imperceptive their educators are; viz. if they are looking to people like Leighton, and his friend Brian et al., as their teachers.

Further, Dr. Brian calls my approach, that is my approach to focusing on a Christ concentrated hermeneutic: Postmodern. He claims that I end up deconstructing all other traditions, and then presume that my own ‘christological’ approach is the only viable way forward. In a sense, this is true; but it isn’t just true for me, but for Leighton and Brian et al. I would imagine all sentient people have arrived at particular convictions and conclusions in regard to the way that they engage with reality in general, and the Christian reality (for Christians) in particular. There is nothing inherently “postmodern” about that. Indeed, and ironically, this is simply an attempt to “boogeyman” me into a straw-box that Leighton and his friend think they can easily dispense of once they have placed me therein. Unlike these fellas, I am not averse to labels, indeed, labeling is just as inherent to being human as traditioning is. In other words, labeling positions (you know like Leighton’s self-described provisionism) is a shorthand, precision way of engaging with a complex or basket of ideas as those are held within a sort of systematic frame of reference. But the point is here: my approach is not inherently postmodern, instead it works from a Christian confessional background that is grounded in the Christian Dogmatic tradition of the Church catholic.

But this is the point, which I also alluded to previously: Flowers and company, are situated in the Fundamentalist/Evangelical individualist tradition that starts, by way of theological or hermeneutical methodology, in an abstract rationality that is idiosyncratic and original to the individual knowers. This was my point of critique, which Leighton attempted to respond to, when he pushed back against my claim that his approach is: anthropocentric or as he calls it ‘from-below.” Both Leighton and Brian need to do more reading on problems associated with what has been called: solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura. They both are proponents of this approach, and as such, they communicate this to the people looking up to them as faithful guides into the world of Holy Scripture and systematic theology.

Further, Flowers takes issue with me saying that he speaks from a ‘resurrected voice of Pelagius.’ He cannot stand this charge. But anyone familiar with what he teaches on so-called ‘total inability’ (or more commonly understood in the history: total depravity, and its noetic and moral implications) knows that he is in line, let’s say, rather than with Pelagius full-blown, with someone like John Cassian. Again, because of Leighton’s non-Dogmatic orientation, he cannot fathom where this charge comes from. He believes that he can simply assert away that this charge just is not true; while at the same time advocating for a position that correlates almost exactly with Pelagius’ in regard to the neutrality of the moral agency latent within a broken, but not completely “inable” orientation towards God. I’ve already spilled enough e-ink in other posts, in regard to Leighton’s inchoate Pelagianism, that I will not belabor that further here. He simply does not understand the broad contours and moods that makeup the landscape of ecclesial historical ideas vis-à-vis their ideational categorizations (i.e. the dreaded “labeling” again).

Finally (although I think I’ve missed some of their response to me), Leighton, in general, hides behind this idea that if someone is going to critique him, they need to provide concrete examples or he doesn’t know how to engage with the critique. I think the article he and his buddy are responding to, of mine, offers all kinds of concrete examples that he could respond to; but it, again, this would require that he is versed in the realm of Christian Dogmatics (which he discounts out of hand; for reasons already alluded to). I give plenty of examples, in regard to the way he interprets and approaches Scripture; in regard to the way he approaches history of ideas; in regard to the way that his approach to soteriology is not grounded in a dogmatic ordering of things. I don’t feel compelled to offer exact examples (although I have done that in some other posts in reference to Flowers) all the time, because I figure that anyone who reads something like an article on Flowers, is already aware of a whole stable of examples that Flowers hits upon, thematically, seemingly everyday in his vlogcasts.

Oh, one more thing: Brian (and Leighton) almost seemed dumbfounded by the idea that I said we should think our theologies, and exegetical conclusions, from Jesus. Brian, in particular, couldn’t fathom how that would be possible apart from Holy Scripture. But this, again, illustrates the absolute rationalist approach he (and Leighton), are ENSLAVED to. They don’t think of Scripture, as John Webster rightly does, as if it has an ontology. In other words, they cannot even imagine how we might think Scripture from within a Christian Dogmatic ordering of things (a taxis). As such, just like with soteriology, they think Scripture in terms of an abstraction that only has value insofar as they can mine its data, as if archeologists trying to make sense of an artifact, and construct an understanding of it that fits within the realm of what they have determined biblical theology to entail. But you see who is regulative in this sort of interpretive and value-enriching process, right? It isn’t contingent upon Scripture’s res (reality) being regulated by the catholic Jesus (think the ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ that has served regulative for most of Church history when it comes to interpreting Holy Writ cf. Jn 5.39). No, it is contingent, instead, upon some sort of abstract realm of positivism that abstract wits have the capacity to manage and manipulate, with greater or lesser outcomes, based upon the interpreter’s disposition, training, and aptitude to approach Scripture with a minimal amount of presuppositions and pre-understandings. Because Brain (and Leighton) seemingly are critically unaware of the history and development of modern bible reading practices, as those developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the naturalist bed those were consummated in, they simply cannot imagine what I mean when I refer to: thinking our theologies and exegetical conclusions from Jesus.

My point doesn’t pivot on a competition between Scripture and Jesus—this is the false dilemma and premise Brian critiques me from—but instead, it is grounded in the idea, as John Calvin, Karl Barth, TF Torrance, John Webster, and other luminaries propound, that Scripture is the signum (sign) that points beyond itself to its res (reality) who is the, Christ. In other words, Brian and Leighton fail, in regard to their doctrine of Scripture, and thus hermeneutics, because they essentalize Scripture to the point that it ends in their interpretation of it, instead of being understood as the instrument whereby Christians come to encounter the living God in the risen Christ. I see Scripture from an instrumentalist vantage point, as most  Christians have in history, versus, the Leightonian and Brianian approach, that absolutizes Scripture as an epistemological end in itself; and end that has no idea that there is a theological ontology that stands antecedent to Scripture’s reality as a created medium that serves the instrumental purpose of pointing beyond itself and its many interpreters. Essentially, Brian’s and Leighton’s response to me fails, on this front, because, for at least one reason, they have an inadequate doctrine (and no ontology) of Holy Scripture. This is why Brian (and Leighton) seem so perplexed by my point on ‘from Jesus.’

Again, I would caution folks who are looking to Leighton and company for a healthy theological education. They, in my view, have not done enough homework, particularly in the area of Christian ideas, and the development of Reformed theology in particular, to be of any service to the would-be learner. I know this sounds harsh: but it is my considered opinion after listening to Leighton for about a year and a half now. My reason for saying this about Leighton should be illustrated by the themes I touched upon throughout this post. If someone wants to marginalize the history of Christian ideas, the history of theological grammar, and displace that with their reconstruction of the Christian faith, without engagement with the conciliar faith of historic Christian reality, then you know you are in a hazardous harbor. That’s what I think we get with the ministry of Leighton Flowers. Is he a nice guy? Clearly. Does this necessarily make him a trustworthy guide into the realm of theological and biblical studies? Nein.

 

Leighton Flowers is Benefiting From The Vacuum Created by The Young, Restless and Reformed

I need to, once again, call out Leighton Flowers. I just joined his Facebook group (for about a day), and I was reminded once again of just how dangerous and irresponsible Flowers’ work is. He is making disciples who are twice the sons and daughters of misunderstanding as he is. What I mean is this: if someone is going to make it their life’s work (as I somewhat have as well) to critique Calvinism, then they ought at least to attempt to do their homework; Leighton hasn’t! And at this point, I fear, Flowers has become a victim of his own relative YouTube fame. And the phenomenon, I think, that his “fame” is fueled by is the vacuum that has been created by the disillusionment the masses have had as they’ve come to terms with the novelty they once understood to be the Young, Restless, and Reformed. What I’m saying is that there is, I take it, a serious demand that has been created by folks evacuating the halls of the YRR movement; the coolness and novelty of craft beers, cigars, big beards, and man-buns has worn off, and many of these folks are looking for something else as an alternative to the Reformed theology they thought they were into. Based on my experience with multitudes of these people, most of them really never understood Reformed theology to begin with. What they came to understand of it, over time, was not palatable with their evangelical sensibilities; so now they are jumping ship in droves. Someone like Flowers is there waiting for them with open arms.

My concern with what Flowers is doing is this: he has so reduced Reformed theology to what he calls theistic determinism and fivepointism, that his followers are not being educated to think with any sort of nuance when it comes to considering the broader and more historical tenets of the Reformed faith. For example: I just had one guy, in the Soteriology101 group on FB, tell me that all Reformed theology can be reduced to fivepointism and theistic determinism. I asked him to distinguish what we identify as Evangelical Calvinism and Federal theology; I actually de-joined said group before I got his response. But there were plenty of others voicing this same sort of reductionistic thinking when it comes to Reformed theology. Am I a critic of what I call classical Calvinism? Yes. But even as a critic it’s possible to identify nuance within Westminster Calvinism; and then the other iterations of Reformed theology across the historical spectrum. Ultimately, I think the work that Flowers is doing represents really sloppy and quick “scholarship” that is setting up many of his followers to be just as disillusioned as they were with YRR “theology.” There is absolutely no historical or even ideational depth to what Flowers is doing as he incessantly offers critique of Calvinism on his YouTube/Podcast program. Unfortunately, his subscribers continue to grow exponentially.

How would I classify Flowers’ soteriology? He calls it “Provisionism.” But what he is offering is nothing new or novel. He is riffing on what his Southern Baptist Convention has called Traditionalism. Someone like the late Zane Hodges has called it Free Grace soteriology. Others in the baptistic halls, like I grew up in, have simply called it: biblicism. But Flowers does have a unique spin on his: he rejects so-called ‘total inability,’ with reference to human agency in the appropriation of salvation, which is corollary of his rejection of Augustinian-shaped ‘total depravity.’ In the history this leaves him on the shores of Cassianite-like semi-Pelagianism (which he hates being called that, but in the history of ideas there is no way around it). Flowers’ spin takes ‘biblicism’ to a whole other level of distortion when it comes to thinking theological soteriology.

Indeed, Flowers actually offers an anti-theological mode for his followers to inhabit. This probably helps to explain why he has so much popularity with the populace he has among his low churched evangelical audience. He claims to only be giving people the pure unadulterated biblical truth. He downgrades the significance of systematic theology, and the Christian Dogmatic tradition, while out of the other side of his mouth giving people his personal systematic and dogmatic reflection (interpretation) on the Bible. He engages in the sort of solo scripturaism that other folks he is critical of do: i.e. folks like John MacArthur (and his Macites), James White et al. All of these folks share this sort of antagonism toward the idea that interpretive tradition ought to be taken seriously; because we all have it! But Flowers’ followers are not being educated on this sort of critical reality, and as such, just like the Macites and Whiteians believe, they are simply engaging with what Holy Scripture says; not some man’s “systematic.” Oh no, Flowers, MacArthur, White and others in this genre don’t have a “systematic” (this is another quirkism that Flowers uses often, i.e. the language of “systematic”), they just give you the biblical truth (in the purest way possible). Which is why the whole “debate” between these folks is an utter act of futility. They are doomed to simply trading proof-texts, and proof-exegesis, back and forth between each other; and that’s exactly what happens, particularly between Flowers and White.

Anyway, my hope is that many of Flowers’ followers will see through the facile pabulum he is offering them, and move onto to deeper and theological theology reflections that have been grounded in genuine catholic reflection. I’m not hopeful though. Flowers offers a pseudo-sort of theological refuge for many of the uninformed, and so I think his tribe, unfortunately, will continue to increase. Kyrie eleison.

A Rant on Leighton Flowers’ Rationalist Attempt at Theologizing: And a Correction by Thomas Torrance’s Stratified Knowledge of God

Faustus Socinus

As I drive home from work I continue to listen to this guy, Leighton Flowers; I’m not sure why—I must be something of a theological rubberneck. He continues to push his soteriological framework which he calls: Provisionism. I’d simply call it Calminianism; the lowchurch, baptistic attempt to draw strands from what they take to be fulgent from both Five Point Calvinism and Arminianism. What he is communicating is not something evangelicals like me haven’t grown up with their whole lives; we have! The problem I have with Leighton, ultimately, is that he is teaching young minds how to be rationalist in their approach to Scripture and theology. He appeals to a solo Scriptura mode, denouncing theological exegesis every chance he gets. He thinks, through a series of anecdotes, based in pure rationalism, rather than theological theology, that he has put classical Calvinism to death. I’m all for placing classical Calvinism in its proper place; I think classical Calvinism represents a mode of theological development that ought to be ultimately repudiated; but at the same time it did, in its time, under the material available, forward a theological grammar that can be helpful for the rest of Christendom to glean from and deploy in its attempt to come to the unity of the Faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Unfortunately, Flowers, as I noted, does his thinking from a Lockean-like universe wherein rationality, his, is of a premium; and he fails to recognize that Christian theology, that is genuinely Christian, does it thinking from confessional norms grounded and conditioned in and by the triune life of the living God. In other words, Flowers would be well-advised, and anyone who attempts to do ‘theology’ like him, to do their thinking from the homoousial reality of God’s consubstantial life with us in the Theanthropos, Godman, Jesus Christ. Thomas Torrance offers a better way for Flowers to think, it is what TFT identifies as a ‘stratified knowledge of God.’ Ben Myers offers a helpful and precise sketch of what this entails for Torrance:

Thomas F. Torrance’s model of the stratification of knowledge is one of his most striking and original contributions to theological method. Torrance’s model offers an account of the way formal theological knowledge emerges from our intutive and pre-conceptual grasp of God’s reality as it is manifest in Jesus Christ. It presents a vision of theological progression, in which our knowledge moves towards an ever more refined and more unified conceptualisation of the reality of God, while remaining closely coordinated with the concrete level of personal and experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ. According to this model, our thought rises to higher levels of theological conceptualisation only as we penetrate more deeply into the reality of Jesus Christ. From the ground level of personal experience to the highest level of theological reflection, Jesus Christ thus remains central. Through a sustained concentration on him and on his homoousial union with God, we are able to achieve a formal account of the underlying trinitarian relations immanent in God’s own eternal being, which constitute the ultimate grammar of all theological discourse.[1]

If Flowers were to follow this method of theological reflection he could avoid his rationalist approach to all things ‘theological.’ I keep putting theological in quotes, when referring to Flowers, because I don’t take what he is doing to be actual Christian theology. In order for Christian theology to be genuinely Christian it must be principially and intensively grounded in and from Jesus Christ who is the evangel of God for us. As Torrance rightly understood the Gospel isn’t a concept, but a person; and the Christian can only think God’s thoughts, from a center in God, as they do so in participation with God in the mediatorial and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Folks like Flowers fail at doing Christian theology precisely at the point that they don’t start in God’s confession that He is for us in Jesus Christ. Flowers fails at doing Christian theology because he fails to recognize that there is such a thing as a theological ontology—God’s triune life—that comes prior to a genuinely Christian theological epistemology; i.e. there is an order of being that is antecedent to a prior of knowing. To realize this allows the Christian to start their thinking in what Anselm famously identified as fides quarens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Note the emphasis on faith. A proper conception of Christian faith cannot start its thinking, but from the ‘faith of Christ’ (pistis Christou). As Calvin realized, biblically speaking, faith is knowledge of God. And according to Scripture Jesus is God’s knowledge, God’s wisdom, God’s Self-exgesis for us (cf. Jn 1.18; I Cor 1.30). It is as we are in union with Christ (unio cum Christo), that real knowledge of the triune God can obtain; outwith this union, and the realization that this is the only place wherein genuine knowledge of the living God is realized, all one can do is what Flowers does—i.e. turn-to-the-subject, and rationalize an ostensible theological framework that has its grounding in an abstract conception of humanity that is mondic-like in its day to day existence (in other words, it starts with itself and thinks its way towards God from its own inherent intellectual and spiritual resources—God-given as Flowers is wont to emphasize).

Flowers can signify a multitude of various theological traditions out there; ones that equally claim to engage in Christian theology, when in fact all they are doing are self-projecting themselves onto what they perceive to be the God of the Bible. <rant over>

[1] Benjamin Myers, “The Stratification of knowledge in the thought of T. F. Torrance,” SJT 61 (1): 1-15 (2008).

Contra Good Ole’ Boy Hermeneutics in Response to Leighton Flowers: With Reference to John Webster and the Conciliar Age

For some reason I continue to listen to this popular level voice, Leighton Flowers, as he attempts to critique and offer an alternative to classical Calvinism. I just listened to one of his newish videos (pertinent discussion starts in and around 28 minutes) where he interacts with a Calvinist friend of his. In this video he reveals his hermeneutical approach, which is pretty clear after you’ve listened to him for awhile. He sees the ecumenical church councils, for example, like Nicaea-Constantinople, Chalcedon, so on and so forth as ‘inspiring’ but not derivatively ‘authoritative,’ insofar as they aren’t scripture in themselves. In fact Flowers tells his friend that he sees the [Holy Spirit “inspired”] conversation he is having with his friend as potentially as ‘authoritative’ as these councils. So, as I have noted before, Flowers, in the name of sola Scriptura (but he is really solo Scriptura) has swallowed an Enlightenment rationalism ‘whole-hog,’ wherein he sees himself as the interpretive center in isolation from past doctors of the church. And yet, with this dissonance (that he doesn’t experience, as he should), he presumably affirms the definitive language of Trinitatis (Trinity), and the Christological grammar that developed in the conciliar age. For some reason he doesn’t have the capacity to make the connection between that grammar as fundamentum to everything he thinks about who God is in Christ, and how that implicates the way the Christian, historically and into the present, has interpreted Holy Scripture. He operates out of an anthropological ground like we might find in John Locke’s theory on tabula rasa.

In order to offer a correction, that Flowers himself will not take (he claims to be humble and teachable in a good ole’ boy sort of way, but he isn’t), let me offer up an excellent word on these things from theologian, par excellence, John Webster. You will note that what Webster says, following, stands in stark contraposition to what this chap, Flowers maintains. Here is how John Webster sums up his discussion on the relation of ‘The Word’ (Jesus) to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). Webster has been arguing against the usual modes of hermeneutical consideration, as anthropology; and through a ressourcement of Barth, he is presenting a ‘way’ that provides for a thick dogmatically oriented mode of hermeneutical theory.

To sum up: because God in Jesus Christ speaks, because Jesus is God’s living Word, then the ‘hermeneutical situation’falls under the rule: ‘We do not know God against his will or behind his back, as it were, but in accordance with the way in which he has elected to disclose himself and communicate his truth’. Once this is grasped, then doctrines begin to do the work so frequently undertaken by anthropology or theories of historical consciousness in determining the nature of the hermeneutical situation, thereby making possible the ‘formed reference’ which is the basic mode of theological depiction.[1]

In other words, modern hermeneutical proposals that seek to propound a theory of biblical interpretation that aren’t first given shape by a direct encounter with the Word (Jesus), dogmatically, will always fail to encounter Jesus for who he actually is because the interpretive event is not dominated by him, but them. This hermeneutical error not only applies to Flowers, but many other so-called biblical exegetes who have swallowed the higher-critical mode of a naturalist biblical hermeneutic. As Barth underscored in his Göttingen Dogmatics, we can only rightly do biblical and Christian theology Deus dixit, after ‘God has spoken.’ This necessarily entails that we can only do theological exegesis of the biblical text from the grammar, or implicates of God’s life for us in the mysterium that is the Theanthropos, the Godman, Jesus Christ. This is the only genuine Christian way for reading Scripture; i.e. through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is in this foundational and fertile ground wherein the Divine Meaning can be ascertained aright; “for no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor 3.11).

If the Christian is going to be part of what has been called the communio sanctorum (‘communion of the saints’); if they are going to live in the vibrancy of the Church catholic; they will realize they are not a ‘clean-slate,’ that they are not a hermeneutical island with ‘me-and-my-Bible’ in hand. They will repudiate anthropologies that suffer from turn-to-the-subject[ivism], as the rationalist mode (like the one Flowers operates with) suffers from, and instead will recognize that as they were ‘born from above,’ they were born into a holy communion that is grounded in the very triune life of God Himself. The Christian will recognize that we all interpret Scripture from a particular tradition, one way or the other; since tradition making is as inevitable as being a creature with extension into time and space, and all that entails. A misguided Christian might think they are able to read Scripture de nuda (nakedly), but what they will really be doing is reading Scripture from a naturalist tradition that has no Christian confessional grounding whatsoever. When the Christian attempts to operate this way with Scripture, they are bound to come to exegetical conclusions that reflect their deepest and most innate (natural) desires. In other words, because of anthropological, and thus epistemological definition, they will really only be able to read Scripture homo in se incurvatus (from an incurvature upon themselves); they will only be able to read Scripture, from this vantage point, out of  categories that have been constructed from self-projection (see Feuerbach for this critique)—the history of higher criticism and Jesus Quest illustrates how this trajectory concludes. No amount of good ole’ boy piety or piousness can overcome this sort of hermeneutical dilemma. Sorry Leighton.

[1] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 328.

 

A Register on Leighton Flowers: His Incredible Critique of Classical Calvinism

Just a quick word: I have, at times, engaged with a guy named Leighton Flowers. He has a relatively large following on you YouTube (29.5 thousand people), and he uses that platform to offer critique of a lowest common denominator or reduced form of Calvinism from his “Provisionist” perspective (what in the past in low church evangelicalism has been referred to as ‘Calminianism’ or in Flowers’ Southern Baptist circles, ‘Traditionalism’). What is strangely ironic to me, given the fact that Leighton purports to be offering critique of Calvinism, is that he never, no never actually engages with classically Reformed theology, or classical Calvinism proper, in its 16th and 17th century development. He has a few themes he constantly hits on, like: determinism, total depravity/inability, interpretive tradition, and a few other choice loci.

I simply want to register this as a placeholder post for more developed posts, in critique of Flowers that are forthcoming. How does someone spend ALL of their YouTube time critiquing something without actually engaging with that something’s actual formal and material theological developments? How does someone gloss past the whole history of ideas, as Flowers does, in regard to Calvinism’s historical development, and then pretend to actually be critiquing Calvinism? He constantly trumpets that he wants to present a ‘steel man’ not a ‘straw man’ when representing competing perspectives from his; that he wants to give the best and most accurate representation of Calvinism that he can, before he sets out on critiquing it. But he doesn’t actually do that with Calvinism. He appeals to the popular (which his YouTube following is indicative of) who doesn’t know any better, and then acts like he is fairly engaging with Calvinism; but anyone who knows the history of Calvinism, and its theological development, knows that Flowers isn’t seriously engaging with the best of classical Calvinism—which is why he never really attracts serious interaction with real life Calvinist scholars (James White doesn’t count).

Anyway, like I said, more to come. I myself have clearly been a critic of classical Calvinism, long before Flowers in fact (at least online). But what we have attempted to do is to actually engage with real life Reformed theology, and recognize how within that total tradition, there are numerous eddies of development. But what I have criticized has been the developments known as Federal or Covenantal theology; this is Calvinist theology. To simply hone in on a popular development of Calvinism, like the 5 points represent, is not to offer a real critique of Calvinist theology. Indeed, it is highly reductionistic and sweeping to engage in this sort of critique. I think what irks me most about Flowers’ approach is that he presents himself as a fair and honest guy simply offering a real life critique of something that isn’t actually representative of what he says he is critiquing. But the masses, who follow him, don’t know any better; so goes the online world (as I write a post for the online world). More to come.

Confronting Leighton Flowers and Kevin Thompson on their ‘Humanless’ Reading of Holy Scripture

If we read the Bible we all do it, we read it theologically. I was just listening to Leighton Flowers, and this time his friend, Kevin Thompson on their attempt to refute Calvinism. Now, I have no problem with critiquing classical Calvinism (and Arminianism), but it at least needs to be done responsibly; these two are irresponsible. That will be the topic of this post: a critique of the claim that a person can or does read the Bible without following “other people” in the process (this is the method of their supposed critique of Calvinism). That is what both Flowers and Thompson claim to being doing at this mark (approx the 50 min mark) in Flowers’ podcast. They want to reject being part of a movement, like Calvinism, Arminianism, Lutheranism, Evangelical Calvinism so on and so forth because they believe that absolutely identifying with a tradition or “label” shuts down rather than stimulate independent interpretation of Holy Scripture. They both ostensibly maintain that they don’t want to be known for following a ‘man’, like Calvin, or Arminius, or Luther, or whomever; that they simply want to be associated with following what the Bible teaches unabated—without being associated with any sort of tradition of man or the Church.

Some would discourage engaging with what most would consider to be a non-serious position, but I persist under such inanities; if only to alert the many people who follow folks like Flowers and Thompson—that they are under a ruse. It is ironic, wouldn’t you agree?, when people like Flowers and Thompson want to reject being the type of person associated with a label or an artificial paradigm created by men (as Thompson claimed), that they themselves are men who have now created a new paradigm (which really isn’t new, i.e. think Socianism), with a label (for Flowers it is, Provisionism) that simply ends up illustrating the inevitability of tradition making. Even their supposed ‘Scripture all by itselfism’ (solo Scriptura not to be confused with sola Scriptura) is a tradition embedded in the history of ecclesial ideas developed by men.

Not to mention that solo Scripturaism is in fact a bastardization of the Protestant Scripture Principle; in other words, to say that a person is solely committed to hearing from Scripture alone, as if that can be done in an ecclesial vacuum, illustrates just how naïve the person making such claims is. The Protestant Scripture Principle was developed by Christian men in the history of the Protestant church in contravention of the theory of authority pulsating through the veins of the Roman Pontificate. Even so, a right understanding of the Scripture Principle, or more pointedly, a theology of the Word, understands, as Calvin did (i.e. his concept of Scripture as spectacles), that Scripture itself is or should not be reduced into a paper version of the Roman chair; which might yield for us a Paper Pope, instead of a Pulsating Pope. Sola Scriptura in its best iteration understands that Scripture is a signum (sign), and it bears witness to or points beyond itself to its res (reality) in the triune life of God as that is mediated to humanity through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Solo Scriptura, in the dress of Flowers and Thompson, ends up, ironically, re-establishing a new mode of the papal posture by absolutizing the ‘independent’ Bible interpreter, and collapsing all authority into the binding of their goatskinned Book (and their interpretation of it). Don’t get me wrong, I take Scripture to be the Christian’s sole authority as well, but the way we understand Scripture’s ‘ontology’ (as John Webster identifies that), or ‘being’ vis-à-vis God, and its ‘instrumentality’ will relieve the pressure that Flowers and Thompson place onto Scripture in absolute and even rationalist ways. To maintain that Scripture is our sole authority, and then presume upon a theory of authority where independent interpreters of Scripture are the keyholders of that authority, by way of the accuracy of their interpretation, only makes a person maintaining this position highly hypocritical when they claim that they only follow the Bible and not men. Apparently these men are not men; or they somehow have achieved a Lockean tabula rasa wherein they come to Scripture with no preunderstandings, or less preundertandings than us other mere mortals, to the point that they can make the claim that they are only following Scripture and not men; as if they don’t interpret Scripture as men.

There is always more to say, but I had to at least speak to this silliness as it got under my skin earlier today. Before we go, let me share a nice index once offered by my friend, Oliver Crisp. This index provides a nice and articulate way for understanding what our friends, Flowers and Thompson, fail to grasp, in regard to the role and reality of tradition, creeds, and even theologoumena, as these categories find their orientation from Scripture and its reality, not against it.

    1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
    2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
    3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
    4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

Flowers and Thompson would do well to take heed to what Crisp wisely outlines for us. The idea that we do not ‘follow men,’ when we interpret Scripture makes a laughing stock of empirical reality, and the inevitable reality of tradition-making (i.e. even denying that we make traditions becomes a new tradition; so the dialectic runs on), but more importantly, it mocks what the Apostle Paul himself taught us when he wrote this:

11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. –Ephesians 4:11-16

Apparently Calvin, Arminius, Luther et al. aren’t or weren’t teachers of the Church; but hey, we’re good to go because we have Flowers and Thompson around to give us non-men human teachings about what Scripture teaches. If you’re a follower of Flowers, Thompson, and others with their mindset, I would exhort you to reconsider putting yourself under people who are pointing away from Christ, and pointing to themselves as the proper gateway between rightly knowing Christ or not. While their teaching might come with a warm smile, a Texas drawl, or just one of the guys’ sentimentality, just know that what they are teaching is dangerous to your soul and will ultimately point you back to yourself, and to Flowers and Thompson, but not to the risen Christ. The underlying anthropology these folks have adopted has much to do with all of this, but that will be reserved for another post.

 

[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

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.

Maximus the Confessor, Cyril of Alexander, and the East are not with Leighton Flowers on Freewill

In some of my more recent posts I have been engaging with a guy named, Leighton Flowers; and his ‘Provisionism.’ I have attempted to show how his position fits into, what historically, is understood as semi-Pelagianism. I still think that’s the case. In this post I want to get into a distinction that Flowers likes to appeal to himself; he likes to align his position with the pre-Nicene church fathers, with particular reference to what he takes to be their understanding of “freewill.” Mind you, Flowers isn’t really all that concerned with whether or not he can find historical catholic precedent for his soteriological view or not; but when debating Calvinists like, James White, or Lutherans like, Jordan Cooper—people who have been similarly framing Flowers’ position as semi-Pelagian—Flowers, in counter to their Augustinianism, which he takes to be a species, categorically, of Manicheanism, will attempt to find counter voices in the primitivism of said proto eastern church fathers. He believes that his understanding of freewill in salvation aligns with their respective understandings; particularly as that would stand in contrast to the mature Augustine’s doctrine of predestination/election and “determinism.” In this post I simply want to say to Leighton: not so fast! I will do that by way of reference to Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: Vol 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700), and his brief sketch of Augustine’s position in contrast to Maximus the Confessor’s. By this simple reference my hope will be to alert the reader to the fact that Flower’s attempt to appeal to the eastern understanding of “freewill” in salvation is equivocal; particularly because the eastern Church has a robust Christological condition underwriting the way they think humanity vis-à-vis freewill in salvation. Further, in my attempt, I will also refer to some of Cyril of Alexander’s thinking with hopes of fortifying what we find out about Maximus’s thinking.

Pelikan writes:

No less striking was the contrast between the Augustinian tradition and the Greek tradition in the understanding of grace and salvation. An epitome of the contrast is the formula of Maximus: “Our salvation finally depends on our own will.” For “one could not conceive a system of thought more different from Western Augustinianism; and yet Maximus is in no way a Pelagian.” This is because the dichotomy represented by the antithesis between Pelagianism and Augustinianism was not a part of Maximus’s thought. Instead, “his doctrine of salvation is based on the idea of participation and of communion that excludes neither grace nor freedom but supposes their union and collaboration, which were re-established once and for all in the incarnate Word and his two wills.” Even though the century following the death of Augustine saw his predestinarianism attacked by his critics and mollified by his disciples, the Augustinian understanding of original son and of grace continued to shape Western theology. Eastern theology, on the other hand, continued to emphasize, with Maximus, that divine sonship was a gift of God and an achievement of man, and neither of these without the other. Such diametrically opposed interpretations of the very hear of the Christian gospel would almost inevitably come to blows when the ecclesiastical situation had shifted and all the other doctrinal differences that we have been examining became matters of open controversy. Nevertheless, over the centuries of the controversy, it was neither in the doctrine of grace nor even in the doctrine of the church that East and West came into dogmatic conflict most frequently, but in a doctrine on which, supposedly, not only East and West, but even Nestorians and Monophysites, were all agreed: the dogma of the Trinity.[1]

On the face of things, it might sound like Flowers is onto something, in regard to the idea of freewill, as that is ostensibly operative in Maximus’s and the East’s soteriology. But what Maximus has, and Flowers doesn’t, is a soteriology grounded in a robust understanding of Christology and our participation in His humanity as the ground and frame of reference wherein we have capacity to finally say yes to God. In other words, following Athanasius et al. the east understands that apart from union with Christ, by way of His hypostatic union with us, the person, in and of themselves, does not have the capacity to say yes to God. In other words, the east has a heavy doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ operative in their soteriological understanding; so heavy that they referred to their soteriological doctrina as theosis. Flowers doesn’t have this doctrine funding his conception of soteriology, which again, is why he is left open to the charge of forwarding semi-Pelagianism.

To help further fortify this thinking on participatio Christi in the eastern understanding of salvation, let’s turn to Donald Fairbairn’s discussion on union with Christ in the soteriology of Cyril of Alexandria (another eastern father). This passage from Fairbairn is rather lengthy, and you’ll notice that he has a dialogue between Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics in mind, but I think the whole context helps to grant greater insight into just what Cyril’s union with Christ and/or doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ was all about. Fairbairn doesn’t get into the how of union with Christ in Cyril’s theology, but he does point out that for Cyril it is the indicative of being in union with Christ wherein the person has the capacity to be for God and not against Him. This is what Flowers doesn’t have in his soteriological conception, and again, why his view easily falls prey to the charge of semi-Pelagianism. Here is Fairbairn:

From what I have written, it is clear that there are important similarities and differences between Cyril’s understanding of justification and that of Protestantism. Cyril repeatedly writes of the believer’s righteousness as one that is given by another, by Christ, from the outside. This emphasis on Christ as the source of the Christian’s righteousness is similar to the Protestant understanding of the passive nature of the Christian’s righteousness. Cyril, as much as Luther or any Protestant subsequently, sees the righteousness or holiness of the Christian as that which belongs to Christ and which Christ actively grants to the believer, who passively receives it through faith and grace. But as we have seen, there are also differences between Cyril and many classical Protestant writers. Cyril does not adopt a forensic framework as the dominant aspect of his soteriology. He does not distinguish justification and sanctification to any great degree at all. And he certainly does not make justification the central idea of his soteriology. Thus, Cyril stands as a caution against the potential dangers of a theology that is too exclusively forensic or makes the justification/sanctification distinction too sharply.

When one examines Cyril’s relation to modern Eastern Orthodoxy, we find that there are also similarities and differences. The participatory nature of salvation shines very clearly in both Cyril and modern Orthodoxy. But on the other hand, two things about Cyril’s understanding of participation stand in partial contrast to some expressions of modern Orthodoxy. First, the basis for Cyril’s understanding of participation is not the qualities of God (whether they be the energies, as in later Palamite theology; qualities such as incorruption and immortality that dominate the attention of many Greek patristic writers; or even qualities like righteousness and holiness on which this article has focused), but the person of Christ. For Cyril, participation is at heart personal. We become righteous when we are personally united to the one who is righteous, to Christ. (Notice again that this exactly parallels the fact that we become sons of God when we are united to Christ, the true Son.) Second, the very fact that participation is at heart personal means that it is not fundamentally gradual or progressive. The outworkings of union with Christ are indeed gradual, but union with Christ himself, effected in baptism at the very beginning of Christian life, lies at the heart of Cyril’s concept of participation. To say this even more directly, for Cyril even deification is primarily the present state of the believer, rather than the culmination of a process, and his teaching on justification undergirds this fact.

At this point, readers from both Protestant and Orthodox traditions may object that their tradition does in fact emphasize personal union with Christ. This is true. There are some – perhaps many – voices within both traditions that possess such an emphasis. But my point is that in both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the centrality of personal union with Christ tends to be obscured by these other emphases: forensic justification in Protestantism and a more mystical and/or progressive approach to union with God in Orthodoxy. I ask my readers to recognize these tendencies, even though the mistakes to which they can lead are sometimes successfully avoided.

With that caveat registered, I suggest that as one looks at these two sets of similarities and differences between Cyril on one hand and either Protestantism or Orthodoxy on the other, they expose a false dichotomy that has perhaps hindered dialogue between the two groups. Protestants, schooled in on-going disputes with Roman Catholicism, are often quick to point out the difference between imputed righteousness and imparted or infused righteousness, and the classical Protestant concept of justification is closely tied to the first of these, in opposition to the second. It seems to me, though, that Protestants sometimes extend this dichotomy into an opposition between imputed righteousness and participatory righteousness, thus unhelpfully applying concepts borrowed from anti-Catholic polemic to anti-Orthodox polemic. (Whether those concepts are appropriate even in dialogue with Roman Catholics is another question, but one I will not address here.) I believe Cyril’s thought demonstrates that this is a false dichotomy. Instead, Cyril teaches us that participatory righteousness – or better, our participation in the one who is himself righteous – is the very heart of imputed righteousness. To say this in Protestant terms, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian when the Christian is united to Christ, who is the righteous one. But to say the same thing in Orthodox terms, participation in Christ, because it is a personal participation granted to the believer at the beginning of Christian life, implies that his righteousness becomes ours.

As a result, I suggest that a deeper consideration of Cyril’s doctrine of justification can both challenge Protestants and the Orthodox, and help to uncover latent common ground between them. Protestants need to recognize that justification is not merely or even mainly transactional, but primarily personal and organic. We are united to Christ as a person, and as a result, his righteousness is imputed to us. The forensic crediting of righteousness grows out of the personal union. At the same time, the Orthodox need to recognize that the gradual process of deification (even the continual reception of life-giving grace through the Eucharist, one of Cyril’s greatest emphases) is grounded in an initial personal union with Christ, and thus, both righteousness and deification are at heart gifts that Christ gives us when he gives himself to us. Perhaps both Protestants and Orthodox can then recognize that as Christians, we are righteous, holy, and even divine, because – and only because – we are in Christ. And if we are righteous, holy, and divine in Christ, then throughout Christian life we will progressively become more and more who we already are.[2]

Lengthy, I know; but necessary to provide the whole context. These are details that Flowers never addresses when he almost casually refers to the eastern fathers and their conception of salvation and freewill. Their idea of freedom isn’t like Flowers’ understanding, which sounds more like libertarian free agency; their conception is drenched in a robust doctrine of participation with Christ (Calvin’s doctrine of unio cum Christo and duplex gratia actually sounds much more akin to someone like Cyril than what we find in Flowers’ naked conception of human freedom in the soteriological package).

Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m spending so much time with Flowers on these things. He has already doubled down over and over again on the idea that his position is not semi-Pelagian; but he dupes himself. My goal with this post was simply (in a bloggy way) to take away Flowers’ easy appeal to the eastern fathers, as if they stand with him contra, Augustine. They do stand against Augustine, but not in the way that Flowers does. Flowers, unfortunately, is more in the camp of Pelagius himself, and someone, early, like John Cassian. Pax Vobis

 

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 182-83.

[2] Donald Fairbairn, “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria, With Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue,”Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 142-44.

One More Response to Leighton Flowers and Semi-Pelagianism: How a Christ Conditioned Theological Ontology Corrects

Leighton Flowers; one more time. He continues to assert that his soteriological position is not semi-Pelagian; and this is understandable, who would want to have that as the label of their soteriological theory. Flowers has been under critique by folks like James White (someone I equally consider semi-Pelagian in soteriological theory), more recently by Jordan Cooper, and even by me (even though Flowers only seems inclined to publicly respond to people with bigger social media platforms). The charge from these guys, and me, is that Flowers’ theory of salvation suffers from what in the history would be identified as semi-Pelagianism. I have already attempted to sketch the basics of Flowers’ understanding of salvation here, so we won’t rehash that. But in response to this ongoing critique of his position he just posted another, more brief, response to his despisers here. Just watch what he says in this latest dispatch of his, and listen very carefully to how he tries to thread the needle between an anthropology (which is his) that is most definitely of the species, semi-Pelagian, and the opposite pole of God’s unilateral and de jure movement in the accomplishment of salvation in Jesus Christ. As you will notice, Leighton likes to use illustrations and analogies; we might say that Flowers is willing to die by the illustrations and analogies of a thousand deaths. You will also notice that Flowers often uses biblical ‘parables’ and superficial referral to descriptive events in Scripture in order to build his soteriological superstructure; this is not an advisable hermeneutic. For someone who says they only want to go where the Bible goes, you would think they would want to also operate with a critical biblical hermeneutic that pays close attention to the literary and theological features of said text.

At bottom, Flowers rejects the concept that a person is ‘born’ with a moral or spiritual incapacity to say yes or no to God in Christ in the Gospel offer. Flowers believes that a person ‘retains’ said ‘moral’ capacity, post-fall, to recognize their need for Christ when confronted with the Gospel. We might say that Flowers’ theory operates with a sort of occasionalism or situationalism in regard to the Gospel power. That is, Flowers seems to think that in any given moment a person can simply say yes or no to God, when confronted with God in Gospel, of their own resources. Flowers will say, along with his statement of faith, that he affirms that God takes the ‘first step’ towards humanity (this would be de jure or objectively)—and he believes this is a sufficient response and workaround the charge that he suffers from semi-Pelagianism—but that at the in se level the person confronted with this objective Gospel reality, even as the Holy Spirit has used a variety of occasions or situations to ‘woo’ said person, has the ‘moral capacity’ within themselves, some sort of inherent original creational capacity, resistant to the noetic effects of the fall, to say yes or no to the Gospel offer. As I noted in my last Flowers post, this fits well with, at least, semi-Pelagian theory.

One of the theologians Flowers depends on, in order to evade the charge of semi-Pelagian, is Adam Harwood of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (where Flowers earned his DMin degree). Harwood, in an article attempting to ‘shed’ the charge of semi-Pelagian, relative to his and Flowers’ et al. view, shares the pertinent articles of confession from their statement of faith:

Article 2, “(W)e deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.”

Article 4, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation… in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.”

Article 5, “We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.”

Article 8, The call to salvation is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.”[1]

I have emboldened the parts of the articles that ought to illustrate, for the careful and perceptive thinker, of the sort of ‘sleight-of-hand’ this statement, and its proponents, like Harwood and Flowers represent, are attempting to engage in (albeit with genuine intention). In particular, we see the statement affirming that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation; this is the de jure or objective component I was noting earlier. In article five, as I’ve emboldened, it says that ‘any person who responds (this would be the de facto, in se, or subjective response) to the Gospel becomes a ‘new creation.’ These are exactly the points that demonstrate the sub-grace anthropology this position suffers from. I say sub-grace because it thinks of grace in qualitative or substantial terms, in abstract terms that only think grace as a mechanism that God brings salvation through to individual respondents. But this isn’t how the Bible thinks of God’s grace; the Bible thinks of God’s grace as the all encompassing reality of God’s life for us, for the creation itself. Just as ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and earth,’ was His first act of grace (as Ray Anderson so helpfully identifies), ‘in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ as riff on Genesis 1.1, is the climax of that first act of God to create to begin with. In other words, and this is where Flowers et al. goes clearly off the rails, and this because of his anemic biblical hermeneutic and commitment to a nuda or solo Scriptura, God’s grace cannot and should not ever be thought of apart from God’s free choice and election to be for and with us, and not be God without us, in Jesus Christ. This is what the original creation was funded by, as we see God’s first narratival act in Scripture is, indeed, to create when He didn’t have to; and it is this same creatio ex nihilo that funds the recreatio ex nihilo actualized in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. This is what Flowers et al. fail to grasp in this whole discussion about an abstract moral or spiritual incapacity for God; they don’t think theologically whatsoever; they don’t seem to recognize that there is a theological taxis (order) to the canonical flow and deep-context of Holy Scripture. They fail to recognize that Scripture has a robust Trinitarian ground and grammar, and as such reduce this whole discussion of anthropology vis-à-vis moral incapacity for God, to an abstract locus (think of the Ramist methodology that funds the scholasticism of Post Reformed orthodoxy) that is detached from its theo-logical dimensional ground in the pleroma of God’s triune life for us in Jesus Christ.

In nuce: Flowers et al. is looking for a silver-bullet verse or cluster of verses from the Bible that proves that he is wrong, and the rest of the classical tradition is right in regard to this idea that humanity is or is not morally or spiritually capable to say yes or no to God of their own volition (even as the occasion of ‘wooing’ is set by the Holy Spirit). But this whole quest is a reductionistic one that ignores a doctrine of creation/recreation as that is taught and ‘understood’ by Scripture’s reality in Jesus Christ. Robert Dale Dawson gets at this in a very precise way as he is commenting on Karl Barth’s doctrine of resurrection:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

Reference to this summative passage from Dawson might seem out of place in our current discussion, but it is not! Indeed, this passage is rather illustrative, and thus instructive for our purposes of critique towards Flowers&co. Flowers et al. get lost in a reduction of the text of Holy Scripture when they reduce it to a datum to be scoured for proving this abstract or that abstract doctrine. Doctrines that are strained out through a Ramist locus methodology that have no necessary attachment to the broader theological soundings and reality that the text of Holy Scripture bears witness to; viz. the ineffable and inexhaustible riches of God’s triune life. Because of this approach, Flowers’ et al. miss the creation/recreational themes that are present from the very first verse of the Bible. As such, they don’t even start to think of anthropology/soteriology and other ologies within and from a theological ontology that necessarily starts from the ‘new creation’ reality of the resurrection. They fail to realize, even as Barth realized it in full, the very fact and need for the incarnation and atonement of God in Jesus Christ for us, reveals to us (or it should!) that we indeed have been plunged into a spiritual incapacity for God; of the sort that what was required was that God assume our sinful humanity in Christ, take it to the cross, put it death, and raise it anew in the resurrected RECREATED vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is God’s ‘grace all the way down,’ and it decimates any attempt to even start the discussion that Flowers et al. are currently lost within. The biblical discussion worth having is an Athanasian one (see his little book On Incarnation), not the Augustinian one that Flowers, along with his Calvinist and Lutheran orthodox counterparts are having. But this is the point: Flowers, for all his bluster about “being biblical” is starting his biblicism in just as strident of a theological place as anyone else; it is just that his starting point suffers from the entailments that give rise to debates about semi-Pelagianism, and other abstractions that a properly formed, Christ concretized theological ontology and hermeneutic elide from the get go.

The incarnation and resurrection of God in Christ itself indicates, without question, that humanity outwith God’s grace all the way down, is most certainly spiritually incapable of saying yes to God; since Jesus is God’s Yes and Amen for us. If Jesus, in His vicarious humanity, in His resurrected humanity is God’s Yes and Amen for us, then only those in ontic and ontological participation with Him, as He assumed our humanity that we by the Holy Spirit’s adoption might come to assume His, are spiritually capable ‘from there!,’ in echo of His Yes and Amen for us, to say yes and amen to the Father’s free offering of salvation in the Son’s choice to be us, for us, and in us. These are biblical categories, of Chalcedonian pattern, that Flowers et al. are clueless of. He is not open for correction in this area, and thus will continue on in the misguided foray of attempting to thwart “Calvinism” at the cost of his own theological soul. The bottom line point is that we are spiritually capable to say yes to God because of the recreational ground of God’s Grace that He has provided for in the new humanity of Jesus Christ. We are capable for God because God in Christ was first capable for us and in us. QED

Addendum: You all might be interested in reading this short post as a supplement to this post. While Flowers doesn’t speak in these sort of nuanced terms, it is hard to see him even thinking in the terms of ‘cooperative grace’ or the semi-Pelagian notion of grace that we see described in ‘habitus grace’, as that is operative in the Roman soteriological framework. I think I might another post using the definition by Muller with more direction focused on Flowers, hopefully for a final time. I just don’t think he is interested in thinking through these things in the sort of nuanced way required.

[1] Source.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

Is Leighton Flowers a Pelagian? The Answer Might Be Concerning

What did the infamous, Pelagius, teach about human agency, within the broader category of anthropology? This is a question that has seemingly plagued the church throughout her history. We have Augustine/Pelagius; Luther/Erasmus; Calvin/Pighius; The Council of Dort/Remonstrants so on and so forth. This struggle will not go away. I have, once again, been provoked to enter this fray myself; not because I think this binary is a useful one, but because it continues to ensnare others within the broader Christian body. The provocateur for me has been popular-level podcaster and youtuber, Leighton Flowers. I have engaged with him before through a few blog posts, you can read up on those here. Without rehashing the nitty-gritty of Flowers’ approach (which he calls Provisionism), what is at greatest rub with his whole proposed system reduces down to the question that Pelagius has come to be known for (indeed, Pelagius, has come to be known as the heresiarch of the church because of this). Flowers just did a podcast where this issue takes centerstage (i.e. the human agent’s moral capacity to know or not know God); I responded, here, via a podcast of my own. For the remainder of this post we will attempt to offer a precis of Pelagius’ view on human freewill, and compare that to what Leighton Flowers presents. What should stand out by the end of this post, is that to Flowers’ protestations, his position fits with Pelagius’ perspective much more than he would like. It will be concluded that Flowers’ position isn’t simply equivocally related to Pelagius’, but instead, that Flowers operates with a form of the Pelagian position, that in the history has come to be called semi-Pelagianism.

In order to make a genuine attempt at representing Flowers’ view accurately I will quote directly from the statement of faith he has posted at his website. The statement of faith is said to be representative of the majority of Southern Baptists; Flowers is, by self-confession, within this ‘majority.’ I will quote a large section of the statement (for context), since it has to do with the very question under consideration:

ARTICLE ONE: THE GOSPEL

We affirm that the Gospel is the good news that God has made a way of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ for any person. This is in keeping with God’s desire for every person to be saved.

We deny that only a select few are capable of responding to the Gospel while the rest are predestined to an eternity in hell.

Genesis 3:15; Psalm 2:1-12; Ezekiel 18:23, 32; Luke 19.10; Luke 24:45-49; John 1:1-18, 3:16; Romans 1:1-6, 5:8; 8:34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 4:4-7; Colossians 1:21-23; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; Hebrews 1:1-3; 4:14-16; 2 Peter 3:9

ARTICLE TWO: THE SINFULNESS OF MAN

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty (?) before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Genesis 3:15-24; 6:5; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 6:5, 7:15-16;53:6;Jeremiah 17:5,9, 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:19-20; Romans 1:18-32; 3:9-18, 5:12, 6:23; 7:9; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 6:9-10;15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-15

ARTICLE THREE: THE ATONEMENT OF CHRIST

We affirm that the penal substitution of Christ is the only available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.

We deny that this atonement results in salvation without a person’s free response of repentance and faith. We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will. We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved.

Psalm 22:1-31; Isaiah 53:1-12; John 12:32, 14:6; Acts 10:39-43; Acts 16:30-32; Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10-14; Philippians 2:5-11; Col. 1:13-20; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 9:12-15, 24-28; 10:1-18; I John 1:7; 2:2

ARTICLE FOUR: THE GRACE OF GOD

We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement, in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.

We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.

Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 3:34; Zechariah 12:10; Matthew 19:16-30, 23:37; Luke 10:1-12; Acts 15:11; 20:24; Romans 3:24, 27-28; 5:6, 8, 15-21; Galatians 1:6; 2:21; 5; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 3:2-9; Colossians 2:13-17; Hebrews 4:16; 9:28; 1 John 4:19

ARTICLE FIVE: THE REGENERATION OF THE SINNER

We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.

We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.

Luke 15:24; John 3:3; 7:37-39; 10:10; 16:7-14; Acts 2:37-39; Romans 6:4-11; 10:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; 6:15; Colossians 2:13; 1 Peter 3:18

ARTICLE SIX: THE ELECTION TO SALVATION

We affirm that, in reference to salvation, election speaks of God’s eternal, gracious, and certain plan in Christ to have a people who are His by repentance and faith.

We deny that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation.

Genesis 1:26-28; 12:1-3; Exodus 19:6;Jeremiah 31:31-33; Matthew 24:31; 25:34; John 6:70; 15:16; Romans 8:29-30, 33;9:6-8; 11:7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2:11-22; 3:1-11; 4:4-13; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 1 Peter 1:1-2; 1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 7:9-10

ARTICLE SEVEN: THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD

We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation.

We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.

Genesis 1:1; 6:5-8; 18:16-33; 22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; 1 Chronicles 29:10-20; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Joel 2:32; Psalm 23; 51:4; 139:1-6; Proverbs 15:3; John 6:44; Romans 11:3; Titus 3:3-7; James 1:13-15; Hebrews 11:6, 12:28; 1 Peter 1:17

ARTICLE EIGHT: THE FREE WILL OF MAN

We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.

We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an “effectual call” for certain people that is different from a “general call” to any person who hears and understands the Gospel.

Genesis 1:26-28; Numbers 21:8-9; Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 1 Samuel 8:1-22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; Esther 3:12-14; Matthew 7:13-14; 11:20-24; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 9:23-24; 13:34; 15:17-20; Romans 10:9-10; Titus 2:12; Revelation 22:17[1]

Keep the aforementioned in mind. Now we will turn to a reading of Pelagius’ understanding of human nature, and freewill. I will refer to my friend’s, Nick Needham’s synopsizing of that:

Unfortunately for Pelagius, his ardent zeal for holy living was wedded to a rather unorthodox theology. Although his doctrine of God was Catholic enough (he believed in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity), his beliefs about human nature sparked off a storm of controversy which ended in his condemnation for heresy. Pelagius held that all human beings were born into the world as sinless as Adam was before he fell, the apostasy of Adam had not corrupted humanity’s nature, but had merely set a fatally bad example, which most of Adam’s sons and daughters had freely followed. However, there were some people (according to Pelagius) who had managed to remain sinless throughout their lives by proper use of their free-will, e.g. some of the Old Testament saints like Daniel. In fact, anyone could become sinlessly perfect if only he tried hard enough. Pelagius admitted, of course, that human beings needed God’s grace in order to be good, but he had his own peculiar definition of grace. For Pelagius “grace” really meant two things: (i) God’s gift of natural free-will to all human beings; (ii) God’s gift of the moral law and the example of Christ, which revealed perfectly how people should live, and supplied strong incentives in the form of eternal rewards and punishments. Pelagius’s theology therefore made the fruits of human goodness grow almost entirely out of human free-will and effort; entry into heaven, in the Pelagian scheme, became a just reward for living a good life on earth, rather than an undeserved gift purchased for helpless sinners by the blood of an all-sufficient Saviour.[2]

Based on Needham’s description (which is a good one, the common one you will come across in any sound patristic theology book) of Pelagius’s doctrine, we can see some similarities and dissimilarities between what Flowers and the Baptists affirm, and what Pelagius ostensibly affirms. It is the Deny section of Article 2 from the statement above where we find the greatest similarity between Pelagius and Flowers. To reiterate that section it says: “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty (?) before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” In comparison, Pelagius’s position, according to Needham is this: “Pelagius held that all human beings were born into the world as sinless as Adam was before he fell, the apostasy of Adam had not corrupted humanity’s nature . . . Pelagius admitted, of course, that human beings needed God’s grace in order to be good, but he had his own peculiar definition of grace. For Pelagius “grace” really meant two things: (i) God’s gift of natural free-will to all human beings. . . .” I selected the aspects of the respective anthropologies that I think present the greatest similarities between Flowers and Pelagius. While there is not a one-to-one correlation, there is a correlation between the way Flowers believes humanity ‘retained’ a person’s free will, post-fall, and the way Pelagius maintained that human beings were born with an ‘uncorrupted human nature’ as that refers to ‘freewill.’ And as Needham points, out, for Pelagius grace is what fortifies this ‘uncorrupted’ or ‘retained’ (that’s Leighton’s language in his podcasts when attempting to explain his perspective even further) freedom of the will within the human agent. There are some obvious distinctions between Flowers/Baptists and Pelagius, such as Pelagius’s sort of naturalist full-blown moralist soteriology, and the way that Flowers attempts to soften that within a more classical soteriological framework. But what is of concern is the way they share a highly similar theological anthropology, in regard to humanity’s capacity of freewill vis-à-vis salvation. This is the locus classicus that led the early church to identify Pelagius’s teaching as heretical.

There is so much more that can be said. I haven’t even started critiquing Flowers’ position from my own theological program; that will have to wait for another day (if that day ever comes). We haven’t even applied concepts like created grace, a Thomist-Intellectualist anthropology, or considered concepts like operative and cooperative grace when it comes to Flowers’ approach. But I wanted to at least attempt to show how there is a serious and substantial connection between what these Southern Baptists and Flowers teach when compared to what Pelagius taught in regard to the retention of the so called human freewill post-fall. Earlier in my post I noted that I would place Flowers’ position, when considered from the historical valence, into the semi-Pelagian category. I would do this just at the point where we see Flowers/Baptists attempting to dress their soteriological understanding within classical and even orthodox categories, at least linguistically. But when we dress that down, we still end up with this underlying and nagging understanding of a retained ‘freewill’, post-fall, that Pelagius himself taught and was anathematized for. Even in the Deny we paid attention to, the statement says that ultimately the choice is the person’s, as that is understood from what already was affirmed in regard to the retention of human freewill, even if the idea of Pneumatic wooing is referenced. This is what Flowers&company cannot get past. At bottom they affirm that internal to the human agent, it is within the human agent’s power to ‘respond’ or not to the wooing of the Holy Spirit’s prompting. If the person responds in the affirmative to the wooing, Flowers will say this was because of God’s grace; if they reject this wooing, he will say it was because it was in their prerogative to do so because of their freewill. Either way, the response isn’t motivated by grace or no-grace, it is funded by the human agent’s inherent capacity of freewill to either reach out and take hold of God’s grace or not (which if you have read any John Cassian you will also recognize this in him, and his understanding of ‘grace as a hook’). This doesn’t even fit into what Aquinas et al. would refer to as cooperative grace. Grace in Flowers’ et al. approach is always external to the human agent, and this is why Flowers’ soteriological position can rightly be labeled Pelagian. As I reflect on this now, even, the ‘semi’ might not well be applicable at all to his position.

Much to consider. I will leave us with this: good intentions, which Flowers has, a high-piety, which Flowers has, never covers up for bad theology. What Flowers and this set of Southern Baptists are offering is bad theology, and unscriptural at every turn; at least when it comes to thinking about how ‘freedom’ is understood in Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ.

 

[1] A Statement of the Traditional Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, accessed 05-17-2020. I have italicized and emboldened all of Article 2; this is where the comparison between Pelagius and Leighton Flowers, and his like-minded Southern Baptists is most acute.

[2] Nick Needham, 2000 Years Of Christ’s Power: Volume 1: The Age Of The Early Church Fathers (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publication, 2016), 276.