Leighton Flowers Knows Just Enough to be Dangerous: A Would-Be Critic of Calvinism

Theological polemics, for better or worse, have been at the heart of positive theological developments since the beginning of the Church. There are, of course, various levels of both polemics and theology attendant to this venture. That is, there is a variety of ‘quality’ and virtue that shapes the sorts of polemics the Christian might encounter in the broader ecclesial discourse. Since this is a blog, by definitional location, I operate in the online space; when I write for the blog. As a result, I am aware of other people in this space who similarly are attempting to engage in theological discourse; often times this involves, polemics. My preference is to focus on offline theologians, with particular reference to the Christian Dogmatists of the Church (from all periods). But then, I am also exposed to popular level, online characters who ostensibly are offering theological machinations for the edification of the Church. One of these people, operating in this realm, who I have become aware of is, Leighton Flowers. His primary focus, online, is to be an anti-Calvinist operative. If you know anything about me you can almost immediately see a potentially shared perspective between Flowers and myself in regard to being a critic of classical Calvinism. But the perception is where this commonality evaporates. 

What I mean is that Flowers claims to be a critic of Calvinism, but what that actually means is that he is critical of a popular level, reductionistic understanding of what Calvinism entails. Of course, he wouldn’t say it like this, but this is the level of discourse he operates out of and within; with the type of Calvinism he is critiquing. Just recently he tweeted the following (this is in response to a popular level Calvinist who is in fact critiquing Flowers): 

Looks like they aren’t happy with my videos biblically refuting their views, so they resort to mostly “to the man” arguments. I expected better . . . Maybe folks @WWUTTcom are only interested in 2 min vids? So here is one with a clip from a Calvinist correcting their proof texting error, all the while they continue accusing me of not understanding #Calvinism or basic soteriology . . . I get that’s the way you feel Gabe, but instead of just assuming someone who has spent his entire adult life studying a subject doesn’t understand it maybe just consider that they might understand it and disagree with your conclusions so then you can learn the actual reasons why.1 

Flowers believes that he has accurately and successfully reduced the core premises of Calvinist theology to its very essences, and so he feels justified in simply speaking of Calvinist theology in terms of ‘theological determinism,’ and ‘compatibilism.’ If you listen to him for just a week straight you will realize that these two themes serve as the reduction of Calvinist theology that Flowers believes defines the whole phenomenon of Calvinist theology. But the irony of Flowers’ approach, and this is a symptom of his reductionist mode, is that he evinces no knowledge, none at all!, of how Calvinist theology developed ideationally in the 16th and 17th centuries; the period known as Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy (see Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4Vols). His common Calvinist opponents are James White, John Piper, and RC Sproul (with scattered references to Lorraine Boettner and Herman Bavinck). And yet the themes he picks out, even with these rather popular level Calvinists (they are not world renowned as Flowers claims—and I’m referring to the former three) are the reduced themes we have already noted.  

I am simply attempting to register, once again, that Flowers is ironically out of his depth in regard to who and what he claims to be critiquing. He has a huge YouTube following (45K), but this isn’t an indicator of the solidity of Flowers’ provenance as a “sound” critic of Calvinist theology. It only indicates, at best, that there is an audience in the churches that would like to have a solid alternative to Calvinist theology. And I am here to say that Flowers is not offering that. His followers, though, do not have the resources to know whether or not Flowers is actually offering a sound alternative or not. And Flowers (and I don’t think maliciously) is capitalizing on the genuine want for an alternative to the Young, Restless and Reformed; and he does so by having enough linguistic and conceptual knowledge, along with rhetorical ability, to be dangerous.  

As my readers know, I am a critic of classical Calvinism. But for me this means we must do our homework with reference to the entailments of Reformed theology, proper. I am a critic of classical Calvinism (as I call it) from within the Reformed family. If we are going to criticize anything, as Flowers himself often notes, we ought to critique a ‘steelman’ rather than a ‘strawman.’ And yet Flowers critiques a caricatured version classical Calvinism; particularly because of his historical anemia. He doesn’t understand the development of Calvinist ideas, historically, and thus can only engage in a critique of Calvinism that is skimmed off the top of popular ideas about the entailments of Calvinism. As an alternative you ought to read us Evangelical Calvinists, or Athanasian Reformed types. We attempt to engage with the history of ideas and theological development of historic Calvinism, and do our respective critiques from there. True, our approach is more academically oriented, and it takes more work to follow along. But if we are going to be true theological Bereans (as Flowers claims to be, but isn’t), then it will require that we spend the requisite time in expanding our personal theological vocabularies, and elevating our respective theological understanding in general. Flowers does not offer his followers the sort of tools necessary to think properly theological in general, and thus critically (with reference to Calvinism) in particular.   

 

The Augustinian-Dualism of Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism

Leighton Flowers of YouTube fame, with reference to his anti-Calvinist soteriological position known as Provisionism, asserts that his theological framework is genuinely ‘Christocentric,’ whereas his counterparts in classical Calvinism are not. The irony of this is too hard to ignore for me. Flowers’ premise is as follows: he believes that classical Calvinists’ theistic determinism keeps them from operating from a genuinely Christocentric approach because instead they think from a God who deterministically causes all things to obtain through decrees. What you will notice with this premise, for Flowers, in this sort of deterministic God-world relation, is that a foreign God (juxtaposed with the one ‘revealed’ in Holy Scripture) is operative for the Calvinist. That in the Calvinist depiction, according to Flowers, all of reality is steamrolled (and thus flattened) to such an extent that there can be no genuine, or responsive relationship possible between God and humanity. As such, for Flowers, the Calvinist is merely playing an automaton role in the Puppet-Master’s hand to the extent that it is ALL God (and thus the Calvinists’ definition of Divine Sovereignty, according to Flowers), and nothing of humanity.

His alternative theory of salvation is what, indeed, he calls Provisionism. His nomenclature, language he coined himself, is intended to signify the expansive nature of God’s love for all of humanity; to the point that, according to Flowers, God in Christ died for all of humanity (us Evangelical Calvinists don’t disagree with him on this point), thus ‘providing’ provision for all who will. But then he goes awry. He posits, in contradistinction to classical Calvinism, that human beings simpliciter are born with a God-given capacity to say Yes or No to God’s provision of salvation to whomever will. He rejects the notion of original sin, which he strictly relegates to an Augustinian invention, and instead theorizes that humanity, even after the Fall has retained an affective-intellectualist capaciousness that allows humans, from within themselves to deliberate whether or not they want to accept the Gospel offer once confronted with it. Flowers maintains that his theory of salvation is genuinely “Christocentric” purely because God in Christ has made provision through unlimited atonement for all of humanity. But this isn’t sufficiently Christocentric; not to the point that Flowers can sustain his assertion that his is a genuinely Christocentric soteriology in contraposition to his counter-locutors, the “Calvinists.”

You see, Flowers’, and this is the irony, is still operating from what us Evangelical Calvinists would identify as a dualistic-Augustinian frame of reference. This type of dualism operates, necessarily so, from a competitive frame of reference vis-à-vis a God-human relation. In other words, just as Flowers (rightly) critiques the classical Calvinist for thinking God from a brute-sovereignist understanding (what I would identify with the decretum absolutum), he simply thinks from the obverse of this. That is, his theory thinks of humanity, in relationship to God in Christ, in just as abstract terms as does the classical Calvinist. It is just that he locates this abstraction in a liberum arbitrium (i.e., an isolated or independent human freewill) rather than in the decretrum absolutum (absolute decree) of the Calvinists. But both approaches, respectively, have not thought a God-human relation through a principial doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That is to say, neither the Provisionists nor the classical Calvinists think a God-human relation through the lens offered by the Chalcedonian patterning provided for by the patristic homoousion.

This is where the Evangelical Calvinists offer a genuinely Christ-conditioned alternative to the whole of the sort of Augustinian-laced dualisms that both the Provisionists and classical Calvinists, respectively, suffer from. As Evangelical Calvinists we think from a non-dualist non-competitive frame (so my Athanasian Reformed label) wherein we posit salvific theory from the hypostatic-union and consubstantial realities of the Divine and human coming into an inseparable union in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This means that, after Thomas F. Torrance et al., we think from the homoousial reality of a Godward to human / humanward to God movement as the actualization of God’s grace for all of humanity; particularly as ‘all of humanity’ (in actualistic terms, which is very important to press) is indeed Christ’s archetypal humanity. In other words, for the Evangelical Calvinist, salvation (or re-conciliation) obtains in the Incarnation&Atonement of God as that is realized/acutalized in the Theanthropos person of Jesus Christ. For the Evangelical Calvinist, Jesus is God’s salvation realized for the world. Not in a ‘corporate’ or hypothetical sense (as the Provisionists tacitly want to maintain), but in an actualized sense, such that all of humanity has indeed been redeemed and atoned for in Jesus Christ; just because He is God’s humanity for the world. This presents apparent dilemmas for some, like they think the reduction of this necessarily leads to Christian universalism, but they would be wrong (this can be addressed at a later time).

Conclusion

I think Flowers has good intentions, but he doesn’t have the theological resources to offer a genuinely Christocentric approach towards a theory of salvation. He is still operating out of the Latin or Augustinian frame of reference that he says he is critiquing. He still thinks of salvation from dualist optics wherein humanity still stands abstract or aloof from God; that is until they may or may not actualize the offer of salvation that God in Christ has left hanging over humanity’s head to do with as they will. Flowers’ alternative is merely, as noted, the obverse of the classical Calvinist offering insofar as he thinks about humanity in abstraction from Christ’s humanity; he simply thinks this abstraction from what he calls libertarian freewill (rather than from the Calvinists thinking that equally thinks in abstraction, but from the absolute decree instead). This is the irony of Flowers’ alternative. He thinks he is offering a genuine solution to the theological dilemmas offered by the classical Calvinist decretum absolutum, but in point of fact he is only forwarding the same Augustinian dualist and God-human competitive relationship that he had hoped to conquer. There is a better way; a genuinely Christ-conditioned way that thinks a God-human relation from the hypostatic-union of God and humanity in and from the singular person of Jesus Christ.

Is Southern Baptist ‘Traditionalism’ or Leighton Flowers’ ‘Provisionism’, Semi-Pelagian?: An Engagement with Adam Harwood’s Essay

Is Provisionism or Southern Baptist Traditionalism semi-Pelagian? That is the question Dr. Adam Harwood attempts to answer in the negative. In other words, in a short essay he wrote for the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry he sets out to demonstrate the way that Traditionalism or Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism definitionally elides the oft made charge that their respective soteriological position fits the historic bill of semi-Pelagianism.

I intend on engaging with Harwood’s essay by interrogating each of the sections that make up his total essay, respectively. The first section is entitled: Historical and Theological Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism Which are Contradicted by the Traditional Statement. I will limit myself to engaging solely with what Harwood presents in his essay. In other words, I will not engage with the Traditional Statement (TS) directly; instead, I will engage with the way that Harwood represents the TS in his essay—and trust that he accurately represents his own soteriological tradition accurately.

Harwood writes the following with reference to his thesis:

Shedding a false charge can be difficult. Consider as an example McCarthyism in the 1950s. A person publicly accused of belonging to the Communist Party had difficulty shaking the accusation. “You’re a Communist. Prove you’re not!” How does one disprove such an accusation? Those who affirm “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (TS) find themselves in a similar situation. Claims have been made that the TS is, or appears to be, semi-Pelagian. This chapter seeks to disprove the charge in four ways. First, historical and theological definitions of semi-Pelagianism will be provided and will be shown to be contradicted by claims in the TS. Second, it will be demonstrated that the theological claims made at the Second Council of Orange (529) fail to indict the TS as unbiblical. Third, the historical-theological context of fifth-century semi-Pelagianism suggests that the historical debate has no connection to the current conversation among Southern Baptists regarding the TS. Fourth, errors will be exposed in an early assessment of the TS. [1]

Here we see the way he will organize the entirety of his essay. To the point of this riposte, we will simply engage with his first section, first, and then proceed, through forthcoming blog posts, to engage with the rest in succession.

His first section is terse and right to the point. He offers examples, from various theological dictionaries, of what semi-Pelagianism is generally understood to be. He then, as a counter, offers quotes from the TS which he claims offers the ‘proof’ that TS (or Provisionism) does not fit the definitional frame of how historic semi-Pelagianism is typically (and universally) characterized. In order to review his argument, I will now share the definitions he appeals to in order to establish the entailments of semi-Pelagianism, and then the quotes from the Southern Baptist Traditional Statement that Harwood believes demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the TS understanding of salvation does not fall prey to the charge of being semi-Pelagian.

Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism

It “maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.” – The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

 It “affirmed that the unaided will performed the initial act of faith” and “the priority of the human will over the grace of God in the initial work of salvation.” – Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 

“The semi-Pelagians claimed that sinners make the first move toward salvation by choosing to repent and believe.” Also, “The semi-Pelagian scheme of salvation thus may be described by the statement ‘I started to come, and God helped me.’” – Integrative Theology

A term which has been used to describe several theories which were thought to imply that the first movement towards God is made by human efforts unaided by grace.” – The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology [2]

And:

Semi-Pelagianism Contradicted by the Traditional Statement

“While no one is even remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, no sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” – Article 2

 “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement.” – Article 4

 “God’s gracious call to salvation” is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” – Article 8 [3]

Harwood engages in a basic category mistake. It is hard to square how he could make this sort of mistake given its forthright nature. In other words, he is equivocating. The ‘definitions of semi-Pelagianism’ he supplies are referring to anthropological dispositioning. That is, semi-Pelagians, as we can infer from the definitions Harwood provides, has to do with the movement of humanity; or it presupposes on a capacity innate within the human agent that would allow them to make a ‘natural’ move towards God.

The responses Harwood offers from the Traditional Statement, that ostensibly counter the charge that Traditionalism is semi-Pelagian, aren’t all that clear; that is in regard to answering the question of whether or not the human agent in salvation has an innate capacity to make a movement towards God. Indeed, this is the abiding question under consideration. What we get in the TS, as offered by Harwood, are statements that ‘appear’ to potentially contradict the definition of semi-Pelagianism; but on closer inspection what they really seem to be communicating is that God has objectively offered a way for salvation. But the question under consideration has to do with an anthropological question, in regard to the internal makeup of the human being vis-à-vis God. Semi-Pelagianism has to do with the human agent’s posture towards God; it doesn’t have to do, per se, with God’s posture (so to speak) towards humanity.

What Harwood remains unclear on, with reference to his deployment of the TS, is whether or not human agents have an innate capacity to be for or against God; that is apart from God’s unilateral activity upon the human agent. In other words, for Harwood, in particular, and the TS, in general, does the grace that comes with the Gospel offer itself internally ‘enable’ the human agent to make a choice for or against God that heretofore it didn’t have prior? In other words, do the ‘Provisionists’ maintain that the human agent in salvation is inborn with all of the ‘equipment’ necessary in order to say yes or no to the Gospel; or does the Gospel itself, in its objective reality, confront the human agent in such a way that the “internals” of the person are given an alien capacity (to its own native or natural capacities; ie freewill etc) that allows them to say yes or no, subjectively, or ontically to the Gospel reality?

Harwood’s brief presentation, in his first section, does not offer clarity on these things. It leaves us wondering if he isn’t equivocating with the terms in order to elide the charge he is attempting to evade; ie semi-Pelagianism. It seems to me that we could posit that the Gospel reality is an objective or alien reality indeed. That person X could be presented with the Gospel, and that person X, even while standing in the presence of the graciousness of the Gospel, is not affected one way or the other, internally, in regard to their capacity to say yes or no to the Gospel. This is what Harwood’s analysis, thus far, is unclear on.

All Christians agree that there is a general call made by the Holy Spirit in regard to the Gospel. But that isn’t the question under consideration. The question remains open and is not answered by Harwood’s comparative analysis. His deployment of the TS does not answer the anthropological question. Instead, it claims to offer an answer by using a theological proper category, which does not directly address the anthropological question about human agency in salvation. It says that, “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement,” but this, again, only speaks to God’s objective decision to provide salvation through the atoning work of Christ. This doesn’t address the question of ‘how’ this works towards ‘moving’ the human heart towards or away from God.

In this brief engagement, thus far, we are left, at least by my lights, to conclude that Harwood (and Flowers following) has not addressed the all-important question of how the Gospel ‘initiates’ God’s unilateral movement of salvation in the human heart. Harwood’s appeal to the TS only shows what all Christians affirm: viz. That God has provided Himself, in Christ, objectively for the salvation of the world. The TS does not address the subjective impact that that offering has on the human agent in salvation; it only asserts that the Holy Spirit draws, but then does not indicate what in fact that drawing entails. Maybe the remaining sections in Harwood’s essay will address the question his essay set out to answer. We will see.

________________________________________________

[1] Adam Harwood, “Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian?,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2013), 47-56. 

[2] Ibid., 49

[3] Ibid.

 

Was Augustine a Lifelong Manichean? And Reflection on the Demerits of Online Theologizing

There is an online group asserting over and again that Augustine essentially remained a Manichean ever after he repented and became a Christian. This would be like claiming that Karl Barth remained a Schleiermacherian through Hermann after he repented of his ‘liberal theology,’ and entered into the ‘strange new world of the Bible.’ As the name of my blog now connotes, I am Athanasian Reformed; this is an intentional rhetorical (but also substantially theological) move in order to note that the frame of my Reformed theological orientation is indeed from Athanasius rather than Augustine. I follow TF Torrance and Barth, with emphasis on TFT, in this regard, insofar as they identify as Athanasian. Torrance, famously, calls Augustine’s theology: ‘The Latin Heresy.’ He believes that Augustine, through his neo-Platonism, injected a notion of dualism into a God-world relation. As such, Torrance believes that Augustine gives the church a frame of reference, regarding a doctrine of God, wherein God is thought of dualistically, i.e. through a lens of the eternal forms and their temporal shadows. He believes this eschews a knowledge of God, creating a competitive relationship between God and humanity; both ontologically and then epistemologically. He, and Barth, seek to correct this sort of dualism in a knowledge of God through a methodological, albeit personalist Christ concentration. The result: all theology is thought of through a theory of revelation/knowledge that can never be abstracted from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Ironically, this online group who claims to be against Augustine, even going as far as claiming to be non-Augustinian Christians, operate from this very sort of ‘Latin Heresy’ that they say they repudiate at an essential level (I’ll have to demonstrate later).

Beyond that, this online soteriological group, wrongly frame Augustine as a life-long Manichean. As Scott MacDonald notes:

The third important influence shaping Augustine’s mature thinking about God is not explicit in the vision passage we are examining. But if we read the passage in the larger context provided by the narrative of the Confessions, we can see the clear role that Manichaeism plays in shaping the conception of God that Augustine begins to articulate here. Augustine’s first intellectually serious commitments were to Manichean theology, which remained throughout his life a kind of foil for many of his mature views.[1]

Rather than being a life-long Manichean, Augustine, post-repentance, becomes a life-long antagonist of the Manichee sect; even so, only as he developed his own positive theological frame—a frame that did multiple duties: one of which was to bury the theology of Mani.

What often happens online, ironically as you read this online, is that some person, group, et al. gets a brand, a handle through a blog, vlog, or podcast, and within the insular communities said people build through these platforms, these people become the in-house experts. They can make claims and assertions without having to worry about the critical check of history. Within the ‘group’ they are the little logoi who get to construct the universe their communities, respectively, come to inhabit. People, in their groups, come to trust the ‘words of knowledge’ they get from their online, albeit, sacred teachers. Most of what we find online in these arenas is not based on critical history, or even critical thought for that matter. That is, what I would suggest, and argue, this online soteriological group is doing regarding their constant attack of a straw-Augustine. I think it is possible to critically engage with Augustine, I just don’t think these folks are doing that. QED


[1] Scott MacDonald, “The divine nature: being and goodness,” David Vincent Meconi and Elenore Stump eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine: Second Edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 20 kindle edition.

The Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians: Juxtaposed with the Pauline Christ Relation

Douglas Campbell in his book The Triumph of God’s Love: Pauline Dogmatics offers a nice sketch of a theological continuum; what he identifies as ‘Hyper-Augustinianism’ and ‘Pelagianism.’ He concisely shows how both fail to do justice to Paul’s theology proper, and subsequently, his soteriology. But both of these loci have continued to plague the church from Augustine/Pelagius; Luther/Erasmus; Calvin/Pighius; Dort/Arminius; classical Calvinists/- Arminians; MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation/Hodges’ Free Grace; James White/Provisionists; so on and so forth. This frame of reference, or this binary is rather false when we examine, with a critical eye, what we find in the teaching of the New Testament in general, and the Pauline corpus in particular. It is from within this frame of reference that Campbell offers up the aforementioned sketches with reference to Augustinianism/Pelagianism. In this post we will work through Campbell’s sketch on Hyper-Augustianism, and in a post following we will visit what he has to say on Pelagianism juxtaposed with the Pauline theology. After we read Campbell’s sketch on Hyper-Augustinianism, I will attempt to tease out some further applications, and show how they might impinge on some current soteriological wanderings among the crowds ‘out there.’

Campbell writes at some length:

Hyper-Augustinianism

If election is understood mechanistically, someone might attach this notion to grace and argue that God has given us everything we need in the act of electing us. God simply acts decisively upon us, albeit generously. This gift would then operate in spite of anything we do, and anything we might do should be excluded. Indeed, if we had to act, we would to that degree undermine what God has given us. Grace and human activity operate here in a zero-sum relationship, so, if we take the side of God, we would go on to attack any endorsements of a need for human activity in the name of grace.

A particular reading of Augustine can cause readers of Paul trouble in this respect, so that the assertion of any need for agency or even learning in response to grace is dubbed “Pelagianism”! I don’t think this is a complete reading of Augustine, who was a complex thinker and shifted significantly in his thinking over time. But an extreme account of some of his positions can be advocated in this way and in his name, and at this moment his influence—however misrepresented—must be resisted. We can speak of a hyper-Augustinian view, then, that eliminates any role for human agency in discipleship, the long-term results of which are serious. The whole process of formation is neglected if not opposed by hyper-Augustinians, and the end result is a church without discipleship. How good is this church likely to be? And how Pauline will it look?

Fortunately, we have already exposed the error at work in this view and corrected it. God’s election is certainly unconditional, but in the sense that a covenantal relationship is. It will never be withdrawn and will ultimately prevail. In the meantime, however, it respects human agency carefully, as seen most clearly in God’s incarnation to meet us. Moreover, as we will see in much more detail shortly, among those who respond to it, it enhances human freedom. Those who learn actively and wholeheartedly to live out of their new location in Christ can grow dramatically in their capacity to act in good ways. Relational election nurtures human agency and freedom; it does not stifle it. It summons us to ongoing and deeper responsiveness, which is to say, to learning, and many of Augustine’s writings contain a great deal of wisdom about this process. Nevertheless, any exclusion of human activity in response to God’s initiative in his name, in a type of hyper-Augustinianism, must be vigilantly opposed and rejected. This type of unconditionality undermines the heart of the life of discipleship.

However, a further mistake is, as is often the case, a swing to the opposite and complementary error. Whereas hyper-Augustinians emphasize election and grace to the exclusion of human agency, misconceiving both divine and human agency in the process. Pelagians share the same basic misunderstanding but emphasize human agency on the other side of the supposed divide, and so go on to override divine election, with equally destructive results.[1]

If you are familiar with the history, you’ll agree that Campbell’s sketch captures the ground quite well; viz. in regard to understanding the binary, or divide between what we know today, and more popularly, as the ‘Calvinists versus the Arminians.’ What shouldn’t be lost, and often is when considering something like Campbell’s points, is the alternative he is working into this mix. That is the ‘relational election’ he mentions, and the covenantal relationship, as Campbell contends, that is central to Paul’s understanding of a God-world relation. What he doesn’t tease out so explicitly in his sketch, but that is because it implicitly underwrites what he is developing, is the objective/subjective status that the Pauline soteriology operates from, insofar that God acts, within a covenantal relationship, unilaterally for the world in Jesus Christ. This is his, or the Apostle Paul’s alternative to both Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism.

Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism both operate, respectively, from an abstract non-relational-covenantal frame when they attempt to think salvation. That is to say, anyone who operates on this continuum, and they are legion, thinks salvation from an abstract humanity (rather than from Christ’s vicarious humanity), and think in terms of individualism insofar as the cosmic Christ does not ground the way they think God’s election for the world in Jesus Christ. In other words, both Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians, on a continuum, think salvation is contingent upon the elect’s response/decision to be for God. Paul’s alternative thinks salvation is contingent upon God’s election to be for humanity in Jesus Christ; that salvation is Christ-focused, and that within this as the inner-covenantal ground of the God-world relation, humanity comes to have the capaciousness to say Yes to God from God’s Yes and Amen for them in Jesus Christ. But you will notice that for the Apostle Paul, particularly as Campbell tells it, humanity comes to have this capacity from the elect and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is by this signification of God for humanity in Christ that humans come to have genuine liberty or freedom for God, ‘for where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.’ This undercuts the emphases that both the Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians give us in regard to their foreclosure of God’s grace by placing God into a competitive relationship with humanity; whether that be from the Augustinian side, which emphasizes God’s brute determination and sovereignty to be for the world through a series of decrees, particularly the decretum absolutum; or from the Pelagian side which emphasizes the freedom of an abstract human agency to respond to God, insofar as they posit that said freedom has been an inherent given from since the beginning of creation. Both fail to think from Paul’s relational conception of election, and the corresponding relational-covenantalism that funds the Pauline Christ concentrated conception of a God-world relation.

Contemporary examples of Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians: Classical Calvinists, classical Arminians / John Piper, Leighton Flowers (and his Provisionism).


[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Triumph Of God’s Love: Pauline Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 180-81.

An Introduction to an Intention: Forthcoming Posts Contra Provisionism

As I just noted on Twitter ‘I plan on unfurling a slew of blog posts that take @ProvisionistP and @soteriology101 to task for the sort of soteriology they are slinging. Some have warned me not to sink to this level because it might “cheapen” my work and elevate theirs. But gotta do it.’ If you are unaware of who I am referring to when I reference the Provisionists just refer to my category on their contemporary founder, Leighton Flowers. Some of my posts will be directed directly at them, unfortunately they are primarily podcasters/vloggers, and they don’t offer transcripts for their respective podcasts. This will make it more difficult to get at them here in written form. But I am primarily a theoblogger. I actually think the written form is better suited for engaging in this sort of elenctic discourse. And I have been having some correspondence with one of the proponents of this sort of soteriology on Twitter (as I’m writing this post). He has just made it clear to me that I will focus on Leighton Flowers, the guy these guys all look to for their cues. I’ve had correspondence with Flowers in the past, but he’s slippery. I don’t really intend on having any personal engagement with these folks, beyond what I have been doing on Twitter just this evening. But be on the lookout for some posts here and there on this issue, in an ongoing way. I won’t always let you know that the post itself is intended to rebut Provisionism, per se. But many of them will be motivated just that way. In fact, I am going to write a post immediately after this one that gets into a Pauline Dogmatics; one that delves into Paul’s theology vis-à-vis what Douglas Campbell calls ‘Hyper-Augustinianism’ V Pelagianism. As Campbell rightly notes, for the Apostle Paul, both of these loci miss the actual New Testament theology as disclosed by the Apostle Paul and the whole New Testament witness. These Provisionist characters uncritically operate on this continuum between Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism; and they slide to the latter not the former in their error.

Stay tuned.

Spitting Out the Caricature-Water: An Anatomy Lesson on Pelagianism

In my last two posts I have made reference to the theological heresy known, historically, as Pelagianism. In an effort to provide further theological development and engagement with this locus I want to refer us to a description of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the cor curvum in se (heart turned in on itself) provided for by Philip Ziegler. There is a facile understanding of so-called Pelagianism, by some (of my interlocutors), wherein they seem to think that the conceptuality that the language of Pelagianism signifies is theologically unproblematic. In other words, some of my interlocutors believe that if they can exonerate Pelagius himself from the ‘heretic-label’ that his teachings have gained via the councils of 2nd Orange, Ephesus, and Carthage, that they can espouse his teachings, in the main, and avoid the heretical label altogether (since in their view Pelagius wasn’t really a heretic anyway, particularly, because according to them Pelagius didn’t teach what the whole history of the Church believed he taught). But this naively misses the whole point: whether or not Pelagius taught the idea of a neutral morality and human-will, indeed in need of an aide of grace, is not the point of critique in regard to Pelagianism simpliciter. What is at stake is, oriented by biblical faithfulness vis-à-vis whether or not someone’s theological anthropology in fact coheres with the teaching of Scripture in toto. In other words, does Scripture teach that humanity simpliciter is born with a freewill that has the capaciousness to respond to the offer of the Gospel on its own strength or not? This is what some of my interlocutors have attempted to argue, all the while either by way of acquitting Pelagius himself, or by suggesting that they aren’t corollary with the historic tenets of Pelagianism proper; particularly as understood by almost ALL within Church history.

Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler’s accounting, maintained the common notion that Luther et al. have maintained in regard to the biblical anthropology of homo incurvatus in se. That is, “and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn 3.19); further, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3.11). The case can be made further, from Scripture, that the human problem is unsurpassable save someone extra nos (outside of us) entering into our incurved and sinful situation, and redeeming us from the inside out; guts and all. According to Ziegler this is what Bonhoeffer maintained; here is how Ziegler illumines that for us:

Whatever else will be meant by divine freedom and transcendence, in the first instance they mean that God is not at the disposal of fallen human reason, neither ‘to hand’ or ‘in hand’ to be deployed in schemes of metaphysical and existential explanation. Bonhoeffer conceives of human reason as such to be verkrümmten—warped and turned in upon itself—fully conformed to sin’s distortion of humanity…. As such it is ‘imprisoned in itself, it sees only itself, even when it sees another, even when it wants to see God (DBWE 2: 45). To the extent that such reason does think and speak of ‘God’ it can only do so as an epiphenomenon of its own religious ambitions, as an idea firmly resident in and subservient to its own self-reflection (DBWE 2: 44, 50, 51). Since, as Bonhoeffer explains, ‘thinking is as little able as good works to deliver the cor corvum in se from itself’ (DBWE 2: 80), the truth of God must come upon reason ‘from beyond and break in upon it in such a way that one is placed ‘into the truth by Christ in judgment and grace’ (DBWE 2: 96). Thus the axiom ‘deus non potest apprehendi nisis per verbum’ (it is impossible to apprehend God apart from the word), which Bonhoeffer approvingly cites from the Confessio Augustana (DBWE 2: 53, 67). The saving address of the Word has the form of God’s transcendent freedom: it is God giving himself ‘without precondition’ (DBWE 2: 89) to be known across the otherwise unbridgeable chasm of unlikeness, most concretely the unlikeness of human sin and divine righteousness (DBWE 2:54, 79).[1]

For Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler, and I would maintain for the teaching of Scripture itself, the human condition is so enslaved to sin that it has no hope in itself to surpass its condition. In other words, the fallen human being, which is what all human beings apart from Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity are, is so trodden down by the effects of sin that there isn’t one part of it, not its affections, intellect, or will, that hasn’t become constrained by its own weight of ineptitude; that isn’t only always for the self rather than for God. And this is precisely why ‘He who knew no sin, assumed sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’ The fact that it took God to become Theanthropos (Godman) ought to illumine the minds and hearts of those who would be tempted to think that they have anything in them (even if claimed to be from a God -givenness), that could say Yes or No to God; that this is utterly and biblically fallacious. And yet this is what some of my interlocutors want to maintain; and to do so with a straight (and even smug, at points) face.

The heresy of Pelagianism, in the history, apart from debates surrounding the man Pelagius, is what Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler maintained in the aforementioned. Some of my interlocutors will assert that Bonhoeffer is just a good Augustinian; but that reply is simply an attempt to poison the well with caricature-water. What Pelagianism, the doctrine, has come to signify is: that people have a God-given and grace aided capacity in themselves to respond positively or negatively to the Gospel offer; that is Pelagianism. Some of my interlocutors believe that this teaching is in fact the biblical teaching, eo ipso they are Pelagians, by any historic standard for understanding that terminology and the conceptuality it signifies. But the biblical teaching, as we have just been noticing, with help from Bonhoeffer, is that humanity requires resurrection and the new creation of Christ’s human body in order to have capacity to say Yes to God. Some of my interlocutors, though, have an anemic understanding of what the atonement entails (and this ironically is where they are in lockstep with the Calvinists they claim to be in critique of). The atonement involves ontological depth, as TF Torrance rightfully emphasizes; along with the Apostle Paul. This implies that the Gospel isn’t simply about whether or not someone gets to go to heaven or not; the Gospel, under this pressure, involves what it in fact means to be fully human coram Deo (before God) in the prosopon Christi (face of Christ). Some of my interlocutors don’t understand the depth dimension of the Gospel implications in regard to what it actually did; i.e. it fully recreated humanity by the resurrection humanity of Jesus Christ. This ought to enlighten some of my interlocutors; they ought to be able to infer that if the Gospel goes this deep, then it went this deep for a reason. The reach of sin has a primal orientation such that its effects denude the human capacity in itself, even if so-called God-given and aided by grace, in such a way that it takes God Himself to stoop down and recreate the capacity for us to be for God and not against Him in and through the Yes and Amen of His life for us (pro nobis) in Jesus Christ!

My next post, or some post in the near future will be in reference to the Apostle Paul against Pelagianism and its contemporary proponents. I’m afraid some of my interlocutors believe they have the scriptural teaching on their side, but they really don’t!


[1] Philip G. Ziegler, “God,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 140.

Pelagianism and Provisionism in Historical Duet

The following is a repost (originally posted on June 6th, 2019), with another repost embedded in it from (2017). But in an effort to dispel the erroneous claims made by Eric from Provisionist Perspective in regard to my historical claims vis-à-vis Pelagius, and Pelagianism, I want to repost the following with hopes of demonstrating to people that Eric, not myself, is the one who doesn’t seem to know the history. But I also want to say the following: these Provisionists are woefully informed when it does in fact come to ecclesial history, and the ideas developed therefrom. They myopically grasp onto what they think fits their theological narrative, from a selective reading of the history, and then in a sweeping way apply that myopia to anyone who would attempt to counter their false atomistic historical narrativizing. Pelagius is not the end of the story, but only the beginning of what developed into a full-blown doctrine known as Pelagianism. JND Kelly, a world renown Patristics scholar (contra the standing of someone like Ken Wilson), if we must speak foolishly, offers a nice sketch of Pelagius’s own teaching. It is from Pelagius, as the fountainhead, that Pelagianism took a flowered development, and the form that many of the Protestant Reformers stood against (think of someone like Peter Martyr Vermigli et al).

You can read my last post if you want to know who Eric is, and what he had to say in response to a post of mine. His triumphalism ought to be quenched now by the sobriety of the actual history and teaching of Pelagius. What is striking, if Kelly is to be believed, and he ought to be, is that the way he describes Pelagius’s teaching is in fact exactly correlative with what Provisionists like Leighton Flowers, Eric et al. propose in regard to our capacity to respond to the Gospel offer. They understand how damaging this is to their cause, so they attempt to distance themselves, at points from Pelagius, and at other points, retrieve Pelagius in such a way that he isn’t really “that bad” after all.

I continue to listen to Leighton Flower’s podcasts on the way home from and to work. As he acknowledges, he is not an “academic,” per se, but a popularizer of various academic themes within the sphere he is associated. Nonetheless, he is constantly engaging with so called “academic theology,” and has various guests on his podcasts who are. The one that stands out most to me, thus far, is his interview of Augustine scholar, Ken Wilson. What was most striking to me about this interview is that both Wilson and Flowers attempt to invert the usual and historic understanding of Pelagius and Augustine; they denigrate Augustine as the heretic and elevate Pelagius as the champion of how we ought to understand ‘freewill’ vis-à-vis salvific appropriation. This is rather striking, for obvious reasons, but also concerning because this message is being advocated for among the popular; a group of folks who don’t have critical resource (or time) to see if what Wilson and Flowers are proposing be so. In an effort to provide some sort of online counter I wanted to provide a small sketch of Pelagius, and the implications of his teaching. My contention, along with the church catholic’s, is that when Pelagius’s teachings are placed up against the Scriptural teaching, particularly the New Testament’s teaching (cf. Rom 3 etc), that it flounders just at the point Wilson, Flowers et al claim that it achieves the proper balance for how we ought to understand humanity’s capacity to choose God rather than self. There is a reason ‘no one seeks after God,’ it is because we ‘love the darkness rather than the light’ (cf. Jn 3.17ff). Pelagius’s teaching operates out of a notion of ‘pure nature’ that is funded by the idea that creation itself has an absolute and ontological orientation of its own, such that it remains impermeable to anything other than its own self-determination; ironically, we might identify this orientation, of the self-determined self, as the definition of a Genesis 3 understanding of sin. This is why Pelagius’s teaching has rightly been identified as heretical; i.e. because his teaching on the nature of humanity is grounded, narrativally, in an understanding of humanity that finds its antecedents in the very conception of humanity’s ability ‘to choose’ that God unilaterally came to put to death in the cross and humanity of Jesus Christ.

With the above noted, here is a short sketch on Pelagius and his theology that I offered a couple of years ago here at the blog.

We often hear of Pelagianism, or of Pelagius himself. We know it is a heresy which Augustine in the 5th century combated; but we don’t often hear exactly what Pelagianism entails. I thought in an effort to remedy this type of lacuna, at least for those who don’t know, that I would share something from JND Kelly on Pelagius, and in brief, what the main aspect of his troubling teaching entails.

Kelly writes:

Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.[1]

Augustine famously opposed this with his development not only of sin as privatio (privation), but also concupiscence (self-love). But beyond that, if you have ever wondered about Pelagius, or more pointedly about his teaching which has become known as Pelagianism, then this should at least give you a good start. If you want to see what Kelly says further about Pelagius I recommend you pick up his excellent book where he covers this, among other important developments in the early period of the church.

I think all Christians, whether classical Calvinist, classical Arminian, Evangelical Calvinist, Barthian, Lutheran, or what have you share common ground in their opposition towards Pelagianism. Sometimes it requires heresy in order for orthodoxy to be sharpened and articulated in such a way that it provides a fruitful way forward for the church. In this case what Augustine offered against Pelagius served as the basis for what many Christians, even today, think of Pelagianism, and more importantly, how Christians conceive of grace (of course we’ve had other developments since Augustine and Pelagius as well).

For my two cents, I think when attempting to offer an alternative model to classical Calvinism and Arminianism it is best to avoid associating your alternative, even grounding some of its key themes, in the theology of a known and worldwide heretic. This approach may work well when presented to folks who don’t have critical access to the history of ideas and their development, but that’s really as far as it will go; other than idiosyncratic appropriation in and among a small number of a scholarly caste of people. It is true that credentials, one way or the other, do not establish the veracity of ideas, but ultimately that is not my appeal here. My appeal to the “theologians” in the church catholic is to note that Pelagius is a known heretic precisely because his teaching correlates with what Scripture identifies as something we need to be saved from (i.e. ourselves and our enslavement to only and always freely choose us rather than God).


[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57.