Russell Moore and Premature Comments on Police Shootings

•July 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

imagesThis post names Russell Moore because of his prominent position in the SBC, and because his articles have been widely circulated on social media.  I have nothing against Moore, and I agree with many of his positions.  However, I take issue with two main points here:

1.  The willingness to immediately buy the narrative without the facts.

2.  The irresponsibility of such an action, and its effects on the church.

Russell Moore recently posted two articles (What Shootings and Racial Justice Mean for the Body of Christ and How Pastors Can Address the Shootings This Sunday) following the Philando Castile and Alton Sterling incidents.  Many of my Facebook friends have reposted these articles with praise; but I want to humbly attempt—as a “nobody” talking about a “somebody”—to provide another perspective and show why these articles are premature and irresponsible.

 

 1.  The willingness to immediately buy the narrative without the facts.

Voddie Baucham posted a video today (http://bit.ly/29HdGwm) that I think sufficiently addresses the general issue.  But I wanted to highlight the comments of Moore—and others—on this issue.  From his “What Shootings and Racial Justice Mean” article:

What we should understand…is that this crisis is not new.  Many white evangelicals will point to specific cases, and argue that the particulars are more complex in those situations than initial news reports might show.

In a not-uncommon rhetorical move, Moore has attempted to disarm any opposition from voicing a dissenting view to his own.  Be that as it may, the first question that comes to mind is, what crisis is he referring to?  I think from the context of the paragraph, we’re left to assume he means the “crisis” of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans.  But this presupposes at least two major points that he fails to prove: 1) that there remains state-sanctioned violence in this country, and 2) that these are instances of it.

The first point is debated, and honestly a good case can be made that there is only a manufactured appearance of state-sanctioned violence against black people, especially when one considers the statistics of white vs. black deaths when in confrontations with the police.  But leaving that point aside, the second is hardly warranted given the evidence provided thus far.  What we have so far is a video recording taken in the moments following the death of one individual (Castile), and a 38-second, blurry, handheld video of the other incident (Sterling).

Moore, whether he—or his followers—admit it or not, has automatically assumed the innocency of a party before anything has been taken to a court of law.  Let me be clear, I am not assuming the innocency of the police in this matter either.  In fact, I am inclined to believe the office in the Castile case made a grave error (but it remains to be seen).  But what’s more is that Russell Moore then uses an emotive argument from history, slavery, and state-sanctioned violence to bolster his assumption.  This, I believe is unwarranted and inappropriate.

So when Moore goes on to say:

If we believe that every person will stand before a Judgment Seat, we cannot then stand silently when we see injustice.

We are left to believe that he knows this to be an injustice; when, it might well be, that the police were justified in their actions.

The problem is I will likely be discounted due to the color of my skin; Moore says:

Some white evangelicals dismiss the structural. They assume that if they do not harbor personal animus against those of other ethnicities then there is no “race problem.” 

Of course, I would never say there isn’t a “race problem” in this country.  Honestly, there’s a race problem across the world and across history.  I wouldn’t even say that racism doesn’t exist in certain institutions.  What I would say is that with articles like Moore’s the problem is not helped, only exasperated, because rather than seeking true justice, or a conclusion based on evidence, we assume the conclusion then look for the evidence to support our position.  This will never help these situations.

Moore continues throughout the article with the same underlying assumptions/assertions; I only list them, because I think what I’ve said to this point is enough (emphasis mine throughout):

The situation is complex precisely because such injustices are so longstanding and are often hidden from majority populations, who don’t pay attention to such questions because they rarely have to think about them.

That means that these questions cannot only be addressed by those who are in fear of unjust systems and thereby not addressed by those who benefit from them.

Pray not only for their families to be comforted, but also for justice to be served, that others…would no longer be unjustly killed.

The unwillingness to prove any of his assumptions or assertions leads me to my second point…

 

2.  The irresponsibility of such statements, and its effects on the church.

First, as a prominent leader in a major Christian denomination, Moore should model the voice of reasonableness and measured attitude.  Jumping the gun to a conclusion, and imbibing the narrative of the world, is not helpful when talking about how Christians should treat these situations.  Should racism be addressed?  Absolutely.  Should any type of structural oppression be addressed?  Yes.  But never at the sake of the truth.  Especially in these instances, the truth should come out first, then we can make articles that tell the body of Christ how they should treat it.  Until then the only thing these articles should be cautioning is letting the preponderance of evidence make the case.

Second, Moore repeatedly speaks about the fear that African American persons might experience because of police.  Never does he consider how this fear might be driven by an overarching narrative from the media.  Christians will recognize all day the slant and fear-mongering of the media until it comes to issues that they agree with.  This is no different.  I won’t go so far as to say Moore, or any of the individuals taking his position, are to blame for things like Dallas of DC, but it’s safe to say the argument contributes to that mentality.  An us vs. them mentality.  Rather than encouraging our children to reasonably consider all available evidence, and wait to form a judgment, we encourage them to see structural racism in the police.  Perhaps, rather than assume that cops are simply out to snuff out a black person, we might consider why the cops feel so on edge, and why black people feel so on edge…perhaps there is more to the equation than chalking it up to structural racism.

Third, there is absolutely no room for open discussion anymore.  We take our sides immediately, and no one will hear a challenge to their position.  Nothing makes the chasm greater than an unwillingness to have our worldview, or arguments, challenged.  Instead we have prominent “Christian rappers” posting things like this the day after:

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With the caption “An image bearer. A son. A father.”  One might object that all these things are true, but the fact is, it’s understood that this person has already taken sides and made his conclusion.  This should not be so…

You cannot ask for justice, and then not seek it by just means.

 

SDG,

Jon

Presbyterian vs. Baptist: James Bannerman on Church Polity

•January 2, 2016 • Comments Off on Presbyterian vs. Baptist: James Bannerman on Church Polity

**Note: The title of this post is purposely changed to “Presbyterian vs. Baptist” despite Bannerman writing about Congregational Independency, not Baptists. But because many might not recognize that Baptists usually adhere to a congregational independency, I decided to change the title to better relate to the likely audience of this blog.**

I recently finished reading through James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ.  The book was published in a single volume by Banner of Truth Trust (2015), and is 856 pages on the constitution and powers of the church.  I’d love to do an outline on every chapter, because I think it has good material for Protestants of all brands; but that would take some time, and has probably been done better by others (see here).  So I wanted to consider Bannerman’s last chapter, because I don’t think I’ve ever written anything on Presbyterianism as opposed to other models of church government.  I’ll skip the biographical sketch of Bannerman (you can find one here), and get right to the chapter.  My personal comments are few and hopefully obvious.

The chapter under consideration is entitled “The Independent System of Church Polity as opposed to the Presbyterian,” and is Chapter V, in Part IV (Parties in Whom the Right to Exercise Church Power is Vested) of Banner of Truth’s edition.  The chapter broken down into two subsections: Sec. I. “The Congregational Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism;” and Sec. II. “The Independent Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism.”  The two subsections address the two principles of Congregational Independency.

Bannerman first introduces those two principles: congregational and independent.[*]

Under the name of Congregationalism,” Bannerman explains, “are included those principles which lead them to assert for all the members of the Church, as well as for the office-bearers, a share in its rule and administration.”  As opposed to Presbyterianism, where the decision-making authority is vested in a representative body of elders, the “act of the rulers is null and void without the act of the members consenting with it.”  In other words, the governance of the church is shared equally by the members and the office-bearers.  The only difference between office-bearers and laypersons is that the office-bearers propose measures for adoption and, once voted on and consented to by the members, ensure their execution (822).

Bannerman then explains Independency.  Under that name “are included those principles which lead the denomination now referred to to assert that each worshipping congregation is a Church, independent of every other congregation,–being with its office-bearers complete within itself, and having no connection with other parts of one ecclesiastical system, or united under one ecclesiastical government” (823).  Congregational independency, therefore, is exactly what it sounds like: a congregation dependent on nothing outside of itself for its constitution and governance.  Unlike Presbyterianism, where churches are united under a joint body of elders (presbyteries), Independent Congregationalists take issue with any presbytery, council, or synod that would attempt to impose measures upon it without their consent.

Understanding these two names, Bannerman examines each in turn, and how they are challenged by the Presbyterian system. Lord willing you will find something useful in this consideration—whether you agree or not—and better know why you believe what it is you believe concerning church polity.

 

Sec. I. The Congregational Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism

There’s an important point made at the outset of this discussion. It was stated above that decision-making authority is vested, by Presbyterians, in the office-bearers of the church, as opposed to Congregationalists, who make the validity of a decision rest upon the church members’ vote.  Bannerman makes clear that “it would be a mistake to suppose that Presbyterianism…overlooks or undervalues the importance of the consent of the Christian members of the Church in her authoritative proceedings.”  He goes on to explain that “every proper means [must] be employed, in the way of explanation, persuasion, and instruction, to secure the concurrence of the members in the acts and proceedings of the rulers of the Christian society” (824).  One could think of it much like marriage; the husband bears the decision-making authority within the household—based on his God-ordained role, not his inherent superiority—but not at the expense of his wife or children. He makes the decision he believes is best for the family, by taking into consideration their thoughts and opinions.  But ultimately he makes the final decision, and is held accountable for it.  It makes sense that a qualification for rule in the church is how one rules in the home (1 Tim 3:2-4).

That qualification understood, the Presbyterian model maintains, “that there is in the Church a power of government and administration vested in an order of office-bearers, separate from ‘the Church collectively considered,’ and ‘exercised independently of the concurrence of the members’” (824).  This, Bannerman believes, may be established in one of two ways. (i) “We may prove from Scripture that Christ or His apostles instituted an office of authority and government in the hands of an order of men, separate from the Church collectively, and independent of the members at large;” and (ii) “We may, without any reference to the express institution of the office, prove that the peculiar powers and authority of such an office have been usually exercised and permanently administered by a distinct body of men, separate from and independent of the Church collectively considered” (825). If these two points are proven, Bannerman concludes, then the argument against Congregationalism is decided.  We will look at them separately.

(i) That Christ or His apostles instituted an office of authority and government in the hands of an order of men independent of the members at large.

Bannerman’s first objective is to prove that an office of authority and government were divinely instituted by Christ or His apostles.

The first proof of this principle is the very names given to this distinctive order of men.  “The presbyters of the New Testament Church are spoken of as rulers, as pastors, as overseers, as stewards, as governments—words which all…include the idea of authority and governing power as distinctive of the office held by them” (825).  The position held by Congregationalists necessarily undermines the plain meaning of the words.  If power is split between the office-bearers and members, then in what sense are the elders (presbyters) ruling, governing, or leading?  In the case of the Congregationalists it is the members that lead, pastor, oversee, and rule—not a distinct body of men set apart for that purpose. “The rulers of the church admitted in name are denied in effect; and instead of holding an office Divine and independent, are made the mere delegates of the members of the Church, with authority conditioned by their concurrence, and strictly limited by their commission” (827). Looking at the history of Congregationalism in America, it is easy to see why many ended up doing away with elders, and simply delegating committees of church members to make decisions. Many modern-day Baptists have succumbed to the same tendency; this is why in many churches you’ll find no elders, only a pastor and maybe a deacon or two.

The second proof Bannerman provides is the existence of the “ruling elder.”[†]  Within the office of presbyter, Bannerman delineates between three types of presbyters: (i) The “preaching elder” or pastor; (ii) the “teaching elder”; and (iii) the “ruling elder.”[‡]  It is the third order that Bannerman focuses attention on, stating, “the institution of a distinct class of presbyters for the express purpose of government in the Christian society…serves greatly to confirm the evidence we have from Scripture against the Congregationalist principle of a distribution of power…between office-bearers and members” (831). Several passages seem to indicate the existence of a ruling elder (Romans 12:7-8; 1 Cor 12:28), but it is 1 Timothy 5:17 that Bannerman believes is the most “decisive evidence” (830). Paul says to Timothy, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine” (KJV; emphasis mine). The passage seems to indicate a distinction between an elder that “rules” and one that labors in “word and doctrine” (viz., teaching elder).  This passage, Bannerman believes, so strongly indicates a distinction that even notable proponents of Independency have agreed to that interpretation (including John Cotton, Thomas Goodwin, and John Owen).[§]  Again if there is a ruling elder, there must be something to rule—otherwise it’s just a name, with no functional meaning.

(ii) That the peculiar powers and authority of that office have been usually exercised and permanently administered by a distinct body of men, separate from the Church collectively.

Bannerman’s first point was to show Scriptural proof for a distinct body of office-bearers, separate from the congregation at large, who rule over the church.  This second point is meant to show, from Scripture, that the “proper and distinctive exercises of Church power and authority are uniformly and statedly performed by the office-bearers…and never by the members generally.” That power and authority within the church is manifest in three ways: (1) in connection with doctrine; (2) in connection with ordinances; and (3) in connection with government and discipline. The Scripture evidence for “the stated and continual exercise of [these] particular functions…by a particular class, to the invariable exclusion of the members as large, would…establish the Presbyterian doctrine against the Congregational view” (832).  Let’s look at each of these closely.

(1) In connection with doctrine.  The power connected to doctrine, Presbyterians believe, “is exhibited in Scripture as always belonging to pastors [elders],” and never to the ordinary members. “The chief and highest exercise of Church power, to declare the mind of God from His Word, and to preach the Gospel to sinners, is ever represented as the work of presbyters, and never as the duty of the members” (832-833).  Presbyterians maintain that the congregation may elect a pastor to a position in the church, but that they do not have the right to preach, nor ordain preachers.  Only in extraordinary cases where necessity may dictate, is it believed that a layperson may preach to the church.  This, of course, does not exclude the church members from their duty to witness, proclaim, and give reason for the hope within them to the world around them; especially when called upon to give an account.

(2) In connection with ordinances.  Bannerman names ordination and the Sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) under this point, and declares that it does not belong in the hands of the church at large due to the absence of Scriptural precedent.  “There is not the shadow of evidence in the Word of God to prove that private members ever baptized, or dispensed the bread and wine of a Communion Table.”  While the Scripture gives examples of the laying on of hands, ordination, and dispensing of the Sacraments by church leaders, it is silent with regard to the common member.

(3) In connection with government and discipline.  Much of what is contained in this point has been stated at this point. The titles, instructions, and qualifications for eldership (1 Tim 3:2-4) are given to a distinct body and not church at large (he cites 2 Tim 4:2; 1 Tim 5:19; Titus 2:15; and Titus 3:10 as examples of directions given to office-bearers and not to members in general).  “To office-bearers, and not to private members, was the commission given, to bind and to loose, to retain and remit sin, to hold and use the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (834).[**]

 

Sec. II. The Independent Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism

Bannerman next evaluates the Independent principle.  This may seem more relevant to modern distinctions between Presbyterians and Baptists.  Depending on the Baptist church, it may in fact be run like the Presbyterianism discussed above, with a plurality of elders that exercise power and authority in a similar manner.  However, most Baptists, of any brand, will agree that the local church is autonomous, with no authority over it.[††]

According to this view,” Bannerman explains, “the power of ruling…is to be exercised within each particular congregation, apart from every other, and not in the way of the office-bearers of several congregations meeting for the exercise of a common authority over them all, each individual society being absolutely independent and separate from the rest in matters of government, discipline, and order” (838). The Presbyterian view can be gleaned from this description. “Presbyterians assert that the right of governing is deposited in the hands of the office-bearers of the Christian society, and not in the society itself,—a principle that paves the way for the elders of different congregations meeting together in the discharge of their peculiar functions, and as the representatives of their several Churches, for the exercise of a joint authority over the ecclesiastical societies which they represent” (838-839). These meetings are called Courts, Councils, Presbyteries, and/or Synods.[‡‡]

The main issue, in essence, is “whether or not it is lawful and right for the governing body of one congregation to unite with the governing body of a second, or third, or fourth, for the purpose of common counsel and joint authority in the exercise of rule over all” (839). Presbyterians maintain that it is right and lawful; Independents maintain the opposite.  The issue is not whether it is right for representatives from different congregations to seek advice or counsel from others, but whether they can meet together for joint government of the congregations under them.  Bannerman sets out to prove the Presbyterian principle under three arguments.

(i) The lawfulness of association for the exercise of common government, may be argued from the unity of the visible Church.

Bannerman admits that this consideration is not decisive in and of itself, but it “affords a very strong presumptive evidence in favour of the right of association for the purposes of government in the Church.” There is, it is argued, a oneness of the visible Church by its outward covenant relationship with Christ.  Because of this oneness in Christ, a person baptized becomes, “not so much a member of the local congregation…[but] a member of the catholic Church at large, having a right of membership throughout the whole.” In the same way, an ordained minister is a minister of the gospel across congregational bounds—he is a minister to the universal church. “It is unquestionable that the principles of visible unity upon which Christ constituted…His Church at first have laid the foundation for the association of rulers and office-bearers for the exercise of authority in common, and seem fairly to require that association in so far as in the circumstances of the Church it is practicable, or for edification” (842-843) In other words, the catholic Church is united in its witness to the gospel, its ordinances, and its covenant relationship to Christ (Eph 4:4-6).  Therefore, there seems to be a strong warrant for its office-bearers to come together, in unity, for the edification and governance of the church at large.

(ii) The lawfulness of association for the purpose of common government, may be argued from the examples in Scripture of such union among the rulers of neighboring congregations.

The argument here starts with the assertion that the word ‘Church’—ἐκκλησία—has a threefold meaning in the Scriptures, as opposed to the twofold meaning held by Independents.  Independents maintain that the word ‘Church’ is only used in two ways: (1) as speaking about the universal, mystical body of Christ, “made up of true believers throughout the world;” and (2) as a local congregation (i.e. the Church of Rome, the Church of Corinth).  Presbyterians do not deny these two meaning, but believe that there is a third way to understand ‘Church’ in the New Testament: (3) as “a combination of more than one congregation [in the same city], united together under a common government” (844). The assertion here is that when the word ‘Church’ is used in the singular (i.e. the Church of Jerusalem), it oftentimes denotes several congregations within a given city, united by a common government. Bannerman seeks to prove the two assertions contained in this argument: (1) that the word ‘Church’ can denote two or more congregations connected together; and (2) that they are united under one government.

(1) That the word ‘Church’ can denote two or more congregations in a given city. The Church of Jerusalem is Bannerman’s test case.  There is no way of knowing how many converts existed prior to the Lord’s ascension or the outpouring of the Spirit of Pentecost; but what we do know is that there was over 100 disciples who met in the upper room during the Spirit’s outpouring, and that at one time, “Christ, after His resurrection, was seen of ‘above five hundred brethren at once’ [1 Cor 15:6]” (845). On that same day it is recorded that 3,000 were gathered into the Church, and it is said that “the Lord added daily to the Church such as should be saved” (Acts 2:41, 47). Again it is said that, after Peter preached, about 5,000 were added to that number.  One must further account for the women, not explicitly mentioned, but implied.  “Multitudes,”  Acts 5:14 and Acts 6:7 tell us, were being grafted into the Church on a daily basis.  But at this point Church cannot be understood as a single congregation.  “It is utterly impossible, upon any rational theory of interpretation, to maintain that the many thousands of converts thus particularly mentioned in Scripture, as added to the Church at Jerusalem, could have found it practicable to meet together as one worshipping assembly” (846). This point is even more convincing when one considers the small spaces they likely occupied to worship, and the privacy they would’ve sought for fear of the Jews.

Bannerman goes on to make a similar point concerning the amount of office-bearers and ministers that occupied seats in Jerusalem. “It is believed,” Bannerman says, “by most interpreters of Scripture, that the seventy disciples whom Christ…commissioned to preach the Gospel, labored for a period of time at Jerusalem” (847). Also, we know that for several years the twelve apostles occupied ministry in that city, and Acts 11 indicates several more presbyters and deacons within the city.  The conclusion being, that it seems far-fetched to believe a single congregation in Jerusalem maintained all of these well-qualified office-bearers on its staff.  Rather, it would seem that the “Church of Jerusalem” is a term utilized for a plurality of congregations within a given city.

(2) That they are united under one government. If the first point is proven, then the second easily follows. “The single name under which the several distinct…congregations at Jerusalem are spoken of as ‘the Church’ there, is of itself sufficient to prove that they had a common bond of union in their subordination to one ecclesiastical government.” This is confirmed by the fact that the elders and deacons were referred to, not as the office-bearers of this or that congregation, but by the Church there.  “From first to last, in the accounts we have of the Christians at Jerusalem, divided as they undoubtedly were into many congregations, we still read of one Church, or one body of office-bearers, of one set of apostles and presbyters ruling and ordering the common concerns of all” (848).

(iii) The example of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Bannerman’s final proof for the lawfulness of church rulers meeting together in the joint governance of the Church by means of synods or councils is found in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.  It is recorded that questions arose concerning the Mosaic Law and the rite of circumcision as it pertained to salvation.  Paul and Barnabas were then sent to the Church in Jerusalem concerning this question; a council was called that included the apostles and elders of that city.  After much deliberation, and difference of opinion, they pronounced their judgment and subsequently commissioned certain members of the Council to carry the decision to the Churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:1-33, 41; 16:4ff).

Bannerman then states that this narrative contains all the elements necessary “to make up the idea of a supreme ecclesiastical court, with authority over not only the members and office-bearers within the local…congregations….but also the Presbyteries or inferior church courts included in the same limits.”  First, there was a question concerning doctrine that was referred to a higher court in Jerusalem.  Second, there were deputies sent to take part in the council.  And third, these representatives met with the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, and, “after due deliberation and discussion, ministerially declaring the law of Christ on the question in debate, and issuing a decree on the point.”  “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials…” (Acts 15:28); “Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe.” (Acts 16:4; emphasis mine on both verses; NASB).

 

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, I commend you, and thank you.  I do hope that it might benefit someone who is truly interested in understanding better their position on church polity.  It seems that often people hold the position they do more out of tradition or upbringing than by conviction—so it’s important to evaluate your position, in light of Scripture, from time to time.  I highly recommend Bannerman’s book in that endeavor; it is a tome to be sure, but it reads nicely, and he is very good at outlining things simply for your understanding.

SDG,

Jon

 

————————————————————-

[*] Someone may object to Bannerman outlining the terms of this discussion, but his analysis and summarization of the positions are directly quoted from a contemporary authority on the position: Ralph Wardlaw, Congregational Independency (1848).

[†] This point is possibly too broad to give much support to in a brief summary; but I have tried to summarize the main point. For more in-depth study, Bannerman directs his reader to George Gillespie, Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland (1641) and Alexander Henderson, The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland (1641), pp. 13, 30, 36; see also John MacPherson’s, Presbyterianism (1900), pp. 37-89.

[‡] Most Presbyterians limit this to simply the teaching (pastor) and ruling elders. See, for instance, the Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (2013); Chapter 25:9 (Testimony): “The responsibility of the elders is in teaching and ruling. Although all elders are to be able to teach, the Scripture recognizes a distinction in these functions.”

[§] See the Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline (1648), ch. vii:1: “The ruling elder’s office is distinct from the office of the pastor and teacher [using 1 Tim 5:17 as prooftext].” The Cambridge Platform was a quintessential Congregationalist document; New England Puritans drafted it.

[**] Bannerman goes on to deal with three Scriptures leveled against his third point: Matt 18:15-20; Acts 15; and 1 Cor 5. I have left this out due to the growing length of this post, but I didn’t want someone to think I was purposely avoiding the objections. Bannerman deals with them on pages 834-837, and I leave it to your study (though I’d be willing to discuss them in the comments).

[††] “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers…each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.” The Southern Baptist Faith and Message (2000); section VI.

[‡‡] Historical note: In colonial New England, where Congregationalism held sway, they quickly recognized the difficulty of maintaining their idealized society—their “city upon a hill”—through the principles of Congregational Independency. This is why in name they remained Congregationalists, even while becoming functional Presbyterians through their many councils and synods: Cambridge Platform synod (1648); the Halfway Covenant (1662); the Reforming Synod (1679-1680). They maintained their consistency by stating that these measures were only “recommended” not required—but often they were strongly recommended.

God’s Eternal Decree — It’s No “Mystery”; It’s Biblical

•December 28, 2015 • 1 Comment

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with someone who denies that God, “from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF III:1).  Unfortunately these conversations were not all too fruitful; and perhaps more unfortunately, they were filled with more emotion and mockery than a calm, reasonable discussion of the Word of God concerning these matters. That said, the conversations highlighted some things I want to clarify.

I’ll attempt to summarize the major objections from this person (this is not meant to exhaust the topic, only address some common objections).

1) Did God decree my standing up or sitting down? Does He decree the color tie I pick?

These questions are sometimes framed in order to elicit ridicule. When I answered, “yes,” to the question, it was met with derision and words akin to, “that’s ridiculous.”

My first thought to this objection was the irony of it. Not only is the example of rising and sitting presented in Scripture, but it also appears to support a Reformed position concerning God’s decrees and foreknowledge:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:1-4; emphasis added).

But as ironic as I might find that, the line of thinking is really quite troubling. Sadly, not a few Christians are convinced that God is only concerned or involved in the major events of history (i.e. the crucifixion; the plague; WWII), but not the minor ones that bring about the major events.  But Scripture does not paint that picture, it tells us that God “works ALL things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11), and it does not delineate between things we consider trivial or important. We may call it “random” (1 Kings 22:34), but God knows the end from the beginning, not because he took on knowledge of future events, but because He “purposed” them (Isaiah 46:10). “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33); so even the seemingly random act of tossing dice will result in what God has planned (see how Matthias is chosen to replace Judas; Acts 1:23-26)

It’s also troubling because it makes the person rejecting God’s decrees and purposes appear disingenuous.  Observe, for instance, how a person who rejects God’s decrees reacts in time of crisis or trial; that person, if a Christian, is likely to tell a person going through trials, “God is in control; He has a purpose in all of this; His ways are above ours.”  Now point that out in the middle of a debate on Calvinism, and suddenly they don’t believe God decrees all things and is in control of all things—even the minute details that might have brought that trial along.

I asked this person that refused to believe that God decreed his standing and sitting, “what if you were to fall backwards and break your neck, and it completely altered your life and the lives of your family members, do you believe God was involved? Was it part of His plan? Is He still wise and loving?” The response: “That’s something different.”  I think he saw the point; he simply refused to accept it.

Why?  What if someone was to hear of your tragedy, saw your faith despite the circumstance, and came to faith in Christ—would you say God wasn’t involved? This is not hypothetical; I have seen the most “chance” events result in tragedy, but ultimately contributed to the sanctification of some and the justification of others. So before you ridicule God’s eternal decrees, even in “trivial” things, you may want to think about the consequences of your thinking.

This is not all that could be said on this point, but I think the remaining objections will help us examine the subject from different angles.

2) Could Judas have chosen to do otherwise?

It was asserted that Judas had “otherwise choice.”  That even though God knew Judas’s decision, Judas could have done otherwise, because he had otherwise choice (as I pointed out, the term “otherwise choice” really has no meaning and no functional purpose other than to try to evade God’s decretive act.  It basically asserts that even though God knows all things that come to pass, a person has a “true” ability to do otherwise.  But, of course, had they done otherwise, God would have known that choice, ergo that choice was ordained to take place.  One can easily understand why the term has no meaning, and can only be defended with obfuscation and contradiction).

There are two things that come to mind here.

The first is the show Lost.  There was the reoccurring mantra that “whatever happened, happened.” In other words, going back in time couldn’t change what had already taken place, because if you changed it in the past, then it had always happened that way.  The point is this: no, he couldn’t have chosen otherwise, because that’s what happened, and if that’s what happened, then that is what God decreed.  But the objection is meant to trap the Calvinist/Reformed thinker into saying that this somehow releases Judas from his responsibility, or the imperative for him to choose otherwise.  It doesn’t.  Calvinists believe that man is endowed with a will, and that he is ultimately held responsible for his choices.  The non-Calvinist always wants the Calvinist to explain how that can be possible, and this is where we state what Scripture has declared and go no further.  That doesn’t mean the non-Calvinist can then tell the Calvinist what that means (i.e. that God is the author of sin, that God is a puppet master).  As I repeatedly reminded the individual I was speaking with, confessional Calvinists have declared their position on this, and you cannot accuse them of saying something they don’t.  Pay careful attention to the second half of the Confession’s statement:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (WCF III:1).

Whether it seems contradictory is really not the issue; it’s whether it’s Biblical. And what the Bible tells us is that the greatest act of human wickedness was executed according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27-28), and that those individuals were held responsible for their actions (see Isaiah 10:5-12 as well).  Anyone who hasn’t dealt with these verses, or thought about the implications of holding the opposite, hasn’t dealt with the topic with any seriousness.

Second, the irony comes out again. At least three times Judas is referred to as the “son of destruction” that fulfills prophecy (John 13:18; John 17:12; Acts 1:16-20). This whole discussion really calls into question the nature of prophecy, and how it is God could bring about the things that He says He will. It also doesn’t deal with difficult statements of Scripture that imply that a person did what they did because God determined a certain outcome.  A person who objects must deal with passages like 1 Samuel 2:25: “But they [Eli’s worthless sons] would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.”

One must keep in mind that God does not puppeteer these actions, as the Westminster Confession makes clear; He ordains the means and the ends; He utilizes the will, nature, and choices of His creatures to fulfill His purposes.  The writers of Scripture declare with equal clarity that God knows and purposes all things, but that man is at liberty to make choices, and is held responsible for those choices.  I think Lorraine Boettner summarizes nicely:

“The true solution of this difficult question respecting the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man, is not to be found in the denial of either, but rather in such a reconciliation as gives full weight to each, yet which assigns a preeminence to the divine sovereignty corresponding to the infinite exaltation of the Creator above the sinful creature.”

Here are some Scriptures to further consider on this matter (provided by Boettner): Prov 16:9; Jer 10:23; Ex 12:36; Ezra 6:22; Ezra 7:6; Rev 17:17; 2 Sam 17:14.  You can call it prooftexting, but you must offer explanation of verses such as these before you dismiss them.

3) Why evangelize? Won’t the person be saved anyway? You can’t honestly tell someone to believe in Christ! You have to tell them, “only if you are one of the elect.”

There are several objections here, but I think they can be addressed in a single point.

This is an old objection, and it’s surprising that the person I spoke with brought it up, because he should know the answer by now, and he should recognize the objection for the straw man it is.  Most of these questions can be answered simply: we don’t know who the elect are.  I don’t know how many different times, or in how many different ways, that can be told to a synergist (non-Calvinist).

If it hasn’t been said enough, let me say it again: we are not Hypercalvinists; we reject hypercalvinism as a great error.

We believe that God has not only ordained the ends, but also the means.  As I tried to explain to this person, the incarnation shatters the belief in a deistic god or impersonal fatalism.  We do not believe that God drafted the blueprint, or programmed the computer, and then stepped out of the picture.  We believe in a personal God, who interacts, covenantally, with his creation.  He has entered into time and space, grown from infanthood to adulthood, experienced fatigue and undergone death; in other words, he fulfills His purposes in a dynamic way that cannot be fully comprehended.  He fulfills His purposes and designs through the utilization of secondary causes (i.e. the human will and nature).  How does all of this work?  We don’t know; the Scriptures don’t fully explain the depth of it.  But if you’re not going to deal with our stated beliefs, and basically treat all of us as if we’re Hypers so you can dismiss the arguments, then you’re not treating the subject fairly—and truthfully, you’re not treating the Scriptures faithfully.

4) The way that God knows all things without decreeing all that comes to pass is a “mystery”.

When pressed to tell me how God can know all things without decreeing those things, it was said, “I don’t know, it’s a mystery.”  The problem with the “mystery” argument is that it only works where the Scriptures don’t speak.  If I say God decrees all things and man is responsible for his actions, I can reconcile those things by appealing to “mystery,” because the Bible does not fully explain.  Really the only answer given to “Why does He still find fault? For who can resist his will?” is, But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?  Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’  Has the potter no right over the clay…” (Romans 9:19-21).

However, one cannot appeal to mystery if the answer has been given–and especially if the answer is contradictory to what your assertion is.  We know that God knows all things, because He is the creator; sustainer; primary mover; first cause.  He works ALL things to His purpose (Eph 1:11).  There is nothing outside of God that determines the path or purpose of human history; to assert otherwise is to introduce a force outside of God that He then acts upon or responds to.  In this instance “mystery” is simply a cop out for not wanting to answer the Biblical evidence for God’s eternal decree.

Conclusion

Understanding that God has decreed all things is not the same as fully comprehending it.  Sometimes the Scriptures express paradoxical truths; they may seem contradictory, but they are revealed as truth.  The Trinity is the cliche example.  We worship 1 God, revealed in 3 persons.  We are able to understand this concept, but perhaps we are not able to comprehend completely.  In the same way, we can understand that God has an eternal decree, and that this exhaustive decree does not violate man’s will or responsibility, but we cannot always fully comprehend it.  The fact is, the Scripture declares the truth of both.  As John Piper once quipped: “better our minds be broken than the Scriptures.”  We have only to adore, fear, and worship our wise, holy, and good God; and we must understand that we are His creatures, and we will give an account for all of our actions—and there will be no blaming God on that day.

SDG,

Jon

Leighton Flowers and the Diminishing Arguments of the Anti-Calvinist Camp

•December 5, 2015 • 3 Comments

It has been a while since I last posted, but it has been a very busy few months: new job, new house, new baby. But I wanted to get back to writing.

Turns out it was another SBCToday article by Leighton Flowers—someone I have posted about in the past—that drew me out of my break from blogging. Leighton Flowers is a regular poster on SBCToday, and he is the proprietor of a website that really targets nothing but Calvinist theology at soteriology101.com.

In the past he has made interesting—albeit unpersuasive—arguments for his anti-Calvinist side, and he has tended toward a slightly more measured approach than most of the individuals commenting or posting at SBCToday. That, of course, was one of the things I could respect. Unfortunately he has recently become like many other anti-Calvinists, that talk about nothing more than their anti-Calvinism, and has begun posting articles that are—for lack of a better word—juvenile and unthinking. I get it though, if you read my introduction to the last series I did on his posts you’d know that Leighton Flowers strikes me as one trying to make a name for himself; one way to do that is to post inflammatory posts about Calvinism that your side will eat up, and will probably get you speaking engagements at their seminaries. And with Leighton’s poor attempt to defend his interpretation of Romans 9 against James White, it’s no surprise that he would resort to the arguments that he knows can only last on SBCToday.com.

In his latest blog post at that site, title “What If I Am Wrong?”, Leighton Flowers relates how he once heard that question posed during a debate between a Christian and Atheist.  “What are the practical, real world consequences if what I believe, teach and practice is in error?” The question is an important one, one worthy of careful thought, and one that I don’t think Leighton Flowers really put the thought into before writing his article.

His article is not terribly long, so I’ll try to respond to most of it (his words will be in white).

—————–

As I have said before, we are either rightly standing in defense of God’s glory or God has sovereignly determined for us to be wrong for the praise of His glory (his emphasis).

Leighton has used this line before, but he reduces down the issue so that he can easily defeat it. God’s decree does not negate man’s will or responsibility—I know he knows this, so I hate to see him continue to act like Calvinists don’t hold a compatibilist worldview. You’ll see what I mean as we go on.

“If I am mistaken, no fewer people are going to heaven, no less glory will be given to God than what He decided and nothing I do will ultimately harm or hinder the desire of God for this temporal world or the eternal one to come.”

Does Leighton feel that God’s glory is something that can be increased or decreased by the actions of his creatures? I would imagine that both sides, when pressed, would say that God’s glory does not change, only the expression of it, and the realization of it by His creatures. The issue that is being overlooked is that the Word of God does tell us that our actions can “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Isa 63:10; Eph 4:30) and “dishonor God” (Rom 2:23). So while we never detract or add to God’s glory in any ultimate sense, we do please, honor, and glorify Him in the way that he has condescended and covenanted with his creation.

Leighton is right though, what he does or doesn’t do will not affect the number of elect or subvert God’s plans, but that doesn’t mean his actions are not important: God ordains the means and the ends. Leighton is responsible for what he does or does not do. I’m glad he recognizes that God’s plan cannot be thwarted, however.

“I literally have nothing practical to gain by converting to Calvinism.”

This is where he loses me.

Why is the test of something’s validity or worth based on what you can gain from it practically? If a right view of God, His character, the Gospel, evangelism, preaching, missions, and apologetics are not something practical to gain (or lose), then I’m afraid of what is. If the attitude is, “it ultimately doesn’t matter what I believe about God,” then I think we need to start elsewhere. But aside from all that, who cares what you gain from it practically? The statement is ironic: when your theology starts with man, so do all of your measures of practicality. Now that’s something practical right there.

“And I know if the claims of Calvinists are true and God wants me to become one, then I certainly will. In fact, I sincerely pray He converts me to adopt sound theology. I have no desire to teach false interpretations of scripture as I believe I did for many years, so I can honestly say I am open to correction.”

I do want to give him credit here; I do think this should be our prayer, namely, a right view of God.  No one has ever had a perfect theology but Jesus, and if they did have one, they didn’t live it out perfectly at all times. But I think he undermines this statement in the article.

“I wonder how many Calvinists have objectively evaluated this question.”

Leighton has a terrible tendency, as do many others on SBCToday, to only apply arguments to one side, without fairly recognizing that most of the commenters on SBCToday have clearly never evaluated anything outside of their comment box.

The same question could be asked back, and it should probably be asked of every honest, fair-minded individual on the face of the earth. It’s important to ask, “what if I’m wrong?” But that doesn’t mean you then doubt everything you run into. You test the validity of a position not by what you gain from it, or what makes you feel better, or what you think God should look like, but what is actually stated in Scripture. So far Leighton, or any other non-Calvinist on the SBCToday site, has never given a compelling reason—from Scripture—to abandon Reformed theology.

Leighton goes on to give a list of what he thinks are negative consequences of believing Calvinism.  Really none of them are new, and Calvinism does not own the market on any of them, I’ll try to be brief on each:

“Countless church splits.”

Again, like I said, he has a problem of blaming Calvinist for things that could easily be applied to any theology. But actually, I’d want to see the numbers…not a vague “countless.”

“Much time, resources and energy wasted over the issue.”

This classifies under what I called juvenile. Google “Leighton Flowers”, and you find it difficult to find the web pages that don’t have anything to do with Calvinism.  Every post by him on SBCToday is about it, his Soteriology 101 page is about it, his debates are about it, he’ll probably find this blog and comment about it… it’s laughable that he should even state it.

This goes back to his statement about nothing practical to gain, and it makes his statement about wanting to have a right theology sound disingenuous. How could time, resources and energy spent on having a right view of God be wasted? I admit there is much time wasted talking solely about it—but I think it comes from those who make it their hobby-horse…like Leighton Flowers.

“Hyper anti-evangelism by some who take the view to their logical ends.”

Hyper-Calvinism is heretical, and it isn’t Calvinism, so this really doesn’t apply.  If I wanted to play this game, I would accuse his side of open theism and exalting man, and I bet I could make a better case for it.

“Some repulsed by a seemingly monsterous [sic] view of God.”

Uh, Leighton…when has that ever been a measure for who God is? This is a silly statement, and any reasonable reader will see it as such. The idea that God is holy and will judge sinners in hell is a monstrous thought to most, shall we change those positions? Some have, will you? You know–I hope—that that is no measure for who God is, only Scripture.

“Some falling into fatalistic handling of temptations and addictions (if God wants me to quit this addiction or resist this temptation He will give me the effectual grace to do so).”

I actually think this is a good one, it doesn’t make me want to abandon right views of Reformed theology; it does make me want to correct those who think this way. Taking a view to incorrect ends has never made the actual position incorrect though.

“God’s character of love, grace and genuinely providing salvation for every person being clouded and subverted.”

Circular reasoning and equivocation. Leighton is assuming his position, and is using ambiguous language that needs to be defined or proven. Namely, “genuinely providing salvation for every person.” What does that look like? How do you provide a salvation that doesn’t save?

“‘Cage stage’ Calvinists turning unbelievers off to God.”

Already addressed above. They might need correction in their heart not necessarily their doctrine (but don’t be fooled, there are “cage stage” synergists too…just venture over to the SBCToday comments and try to insert a reasonable thought…dare you).

Leighton then concludes his article:

“What are Calvinists really accomplishing by converting believers to adopt Calvinism? Practically speaking, if Calvinism is correct, the Calvinist’s arguments are not going to determine who will or will not adopt Calvinism anyway and if Calvinism is false, then a well intending Calvinists shouldn’t want to risk converting others to a false interpretation anyway.”

We’ve already addressed this really, but what Leighton makes Calvinists into is fatalists, not Calvinists. God ordains the means and the ends, Leighton can’t seem to figure that one out unfortunately. But this paragraph is honestly a jumbled mess of incoherence and false assumptions.  No need to parse it at this point, it refutes itself for those who take the time to understand Calvinism.

To be clear, I think Leighton has a problem with the Scriptures, not Calvinists. The fact that he uses no Scripture, but only what he thinks are clever arguments, is one indication.

…according to the purpose of Him who works ALL things according to the counsel of His will…
-Eph 1:11

…declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…’
-Isaiah 46:10

These verses are not unclear or ambiguous, and there are so many more like it. If you read Leighton’s article you’ll get a sense that he has a rather disturbing issue with God being one who created Him, owns Him, saves Him, and knows the plans He has for him.

To conclude, I think one of Leighton’s major hang ups is why a Calvinist would do anything because God predetermines everything anyways. He can say Calvinists are fatalists all day if he’d like, but it’s not what they are, and we do not believe in a deistic god who winds a clock, with a master plan, and then lets it run without being intimately involved or working within the means. The incarnation completely obliterates that false notion. We exist within time and space, we exist as creatures who do not know the decree—we know that God works by means, and He has ordained to use us as the means for conversion and His glory—rather than mocking that fact, it might be good to submit to it and worship Him, rather than trying to make this Calvinism issue into a word game you can win. That would be extremely practical…

SDG,

Jon

The Shortcomings of Corporate Election – Thoughts on Brian Abasciano’s Article

•January 29, 2015 • Comments Off on The Shortcomings of Corporate Election – Thoughts on Brian Abasciano’s Article

In a response from a corporate election proponent (Leighton Flowers) I was told that I had not really dealt with this “scholarly” argument from Dr. Brian Abasciano from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Boston) that he had cited.  Initially I was going to simply read it, and familiarize myself, but the more I read, the more I thought: how about I just write down my thoughts on an article that purports to clear up misconceptions.  I then thought I would clean it up and present it in a more polished fashion, but that looked like a daunting prospect with such a busy schedule.  So I have left it as is for now, and I hope to extend on some comments in the future.  For now, this is my reference for all corporate election proponents.

I begin a bit mid-context in some parts, and in others my thoughts are somewhat disjointed; these were notes, so hopefully that will be excused.  Quotes from Dr. Abasciano’s article will be in white, and the numbers refer to the page.  Full article can be found here: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/41-1_059.pdf

Brian Abasciano, “Clearing Up Misconceptions About Corporate Election,” Ashland Theological Journal (2009), pp. 59-90.

————————————————————————————–

60: Once these misconceptions are cleared away, it should be seen that corporate election is indeed the most biblical view of election, vindicating the Arminian approach to the doctrine, even if untraditionally.

This view favors an Arminian interpretation of Scripture; which I only want to point out because many who hold to it claim they are not Arminian, or that Arminianism is not the only other option besides Calvinism.  This is a production of a semi-pelagian, synergistic, and Roman Catholic theology.  It is not the soteriology of the Reformed or the Protestant Reformation.

60: Most simply, corporate election refers to the choice of a group, which entails the choice of its individual members by virtue of their membership in the group.

Right.  There’s no way around it—in its simplest form it is those who meet the boundary qualifications that are “elected” into the “elect” corporate group.  As he says: “Thus, individuals are not elected as individuals directly, but secondarily as members of the elect group.”  And again: “Individuals are elect as a consequence of their membership in the group.”  This should be interesting to see how he proves this.  This is—no matter how one words it—conditional election at its finest.

On speaking of the Calvinist position:

60-61: In other words, the group is chosen as a consequence of the fact that each individual in the group was individually chosen.

Not entirely accurate.  This tries to frame the question in reductionist terms to deal with the issue more easily.  Christ was chosen as the head of a determined group, therefore the best explanation would be: “In other words, the group of individuals (the church) was chosen in Christ (the head) from before the foundations of world.”  That is the meaning of Ephesians 1:4 in plain language.

61: Hence, the real question regarding the election of God’s covenant people is, which election is primary, that of the group or that of the individual?

This is a false dichotomy; and Dr. Abasciano should know it.  The group and the individuals are inseparable, therefore the chosen group, comprised of chosen individuals, is elected in Christ.  Let me paint this in less theological terms:

A mason chooses his cornerstone, and he selects the exact stones he will use for the rest of the structure based off of the cornerstone.  The mason knows what the structure will look like, he knows what bricks he wants based on his chosen cornerstone.  He lays out all of his stones, but they are still in disarray, until he places them together with the cornerstone.

Scripture is the measure of an analogy, however, so one should not take any particular piece of this too far; the point is that the structure (church; group) is inseparable from the individual bricks (Christians) that the mason must choose according to his predetermined plan.  There is no group without the individual—the structure is the bricks and the bricks are the structure.  Without the bricks there is no structure—just a cornerstone and an empty lot; and without the chosen cornerstone the bricks are in disarray, and remain individualized.  Thus the group of individuals is chosen in the corporate head.

As Dr. Abasciano would have it, we believe (and some may) that election is framed in the following manner: “chosen individuals that will then comprise a group.”  This is not being fair to the position.

61: [Corporate Election] refers to the election of a group as a consequence of the choice of an individual who represents the group, the corporate head and representative. That is, the group is elected as a consequence of its identification with this corporate representative.

Because of Dr. Abasciano’s false dichotomy he has now enabled himself to make these arguments as though Calvinist do not believe this simple truth: that Christ is the corporate head and representative of the church (ekklesia: “called out ones;” i.e. a group of individuals).

So he goes on:

61: The same may be said of individuals. They are chosen as a consequence of their identification with the people, and more fundamentally, with the individual corporate head.

Dr. Abasciano balks at the idea that his position is illogical; but really, think about what’s being said here:  The individual is chosen as a consequence of their choosing.  In what sense is the individual chosen?  Why not just drop the “chosen” when you speak of individuals, it comes off as an attempt to deflect the charge of ignoring specific scriptures (i.e. Romans 8:30)—but it won’t deflect the charge of logical inconsistency.

It is necessary to quote him in full here, because this is the locus of his argument in this section:

61: God chose the people of Israel in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel (Deut 4:37; 7:6-8).9 That is, by choosing Jacob/Israel, the corporate/covenant representative, God also chose his descendants as his covenant people. It is a matter of Old Testament covenant theology. The covenant representative on the one hand and the people/nation of Israel on the other hand are the focus of the divine covenantal election, and individuals are elect only as members of the elect people. Moreover, in principle, foreign individuals who were not originally members of the elect people could join the chosen people and become part of the elect, demonstrating again that the locus of election was the covenant community and that individuals found their election through membership in the elect people.

I’d like to notice firstly how he—by some sleight of hand—moves past the choice of the covenantal head, Abraham.  It is a well-known story that Abram grew up in the house of an idolater, in a land of idolatry, Ur.  No mention is made of his searching for God or walking in righteousness—God simply called him one day to a great calling (Genesis 11-12).  Dr. Abasciano can make all the arguments he would like for the corporate/covenantal/group nature of OT Israel, but he will need to reckon with God’s electing choice of the individual to represent the covenant people (and “it only happened once!” is not a very good answer).

Secondly, Dr. Abasciano conflates the nature of national Israel and spiritual Israel, and claims that words “election” or “chosen” need to be employed in the same way every time it is used.  We have the privilege of the full revelation of God in the Scriptures, which means we can look to Paul in Romans 9 when he responds to claims that God has failed in His promises to national Israel saying, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (v.6).  This is why those who were not descended from Israel could, in fact, join the physical people of God—and could also be a true, spiritual Israelite by virtue of a circumcised heart.  For Paul says again, “know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal 3:7).

Because of his conflation, his conclusion is based on a false premise:

61: This notion of election is rooted in the Old Testament concept of corporate solidarity or representation, which views the individual as representing the community and identified with it and vice versa.

Dr. Abasciano has simply equivocated on the term election, and tried to refute one use of it in regard to the new covenant spiritual people by an entirely different use of it on the OT national Israel—that had the purpose of bringing forth the Messiah.

Dr. Abasciano then goes on to show that God limited His election of people further and further as time went on.  Not all of Abraham’s children, but those who came through Isaac, not all of Isaac’s but those who came from Jacob, so on and so forth until alas:

62: Finally, the Apostle Paul would argue, God limited his election even further to Christ as the head of the New Covenant (Gal. 3-4; see especially 3:16; cf. Rom. 3-4; 8), which is the fulfillment of the Old. Paradoxically, this also widened the election of God’s people because all who are in Christ by faith are chosen by virtue of their identification with Christ the corporate covenantal head, opening covenant membership to Gentiles as Gentiles.

The shift is subtle and undetectable if one does not recognize the differences in God’s national purposes for Israel and spiritual purposes for the Church.  All the while, Dr. Abasciano has still resisted comment on the personal, individual choice of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Jesus is not in discussion, because the choice of Him as corporate head is of a different nature than a fallen human) by His sovereign purposes.  A person does not “come into” the New Testament corporate people by a pledge, or outward circumcision, as they did the corporate body of national Israel; they come in by a renewed heart (regeneration) and God-given faith and repentance—this makes the incorporation into the covenant people of a different nature.  The corporate election arguments falls apart as simply as recognizing the distinctions in the make-up of the covenant people.

The OT covenant people (i.e. national Israel) had boundary conditions for admittance, which could be met by human exertion.  The NT covenant people (i.e. spiritual Israel) has boundary conditions for admittance, which can only be met by God’s gracious provision—“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).  “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

62: Just as God’s Old Covenant people were chosen in Jacob/Israel, the Church was chosen in Christ (as Eph. 1:4 puts it). And as Ephesians 2 makes clear, Gentiles who believe in Christ are in him made to be part of the commonwealth of Israel, fellow citizens with the saints, members of God’s household, and possessors of the covenants of promise (2:11-22; note especially vv. 12, 19).

I think Dr. Abasciano shows the error in thought by his own words at this point, once the distinction is properly recognized.  And he further makes the position undesirable by offering this:

62: While this is not quite the traditional Arminian position, it fully supports Arminian theology because it is a conditional election. Most directly, such election is conditioned on being in Christ.

He moves on to the misunderstandings, and I would like to take these in turn.  But he first gives some introductory remarks:

63: [Corporate Election] is strongly supported by the fact that it was the standard biblical and Jewish conception of election with no evidence in the New Testament that its orientation had changed.

I think I’ve already sufficiently shown how it hasn’t changed, he has merely equivocated on the term
“election” and conflated its application.  Moreover, he has not demonstrated scripturally that man is capable of meeting the boundary conditions for admission into the “group” (i.e. faith and repentance) without the proactive work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8).  Obviously the topic of man’s condition cannot be fully dealt with in his article (or this one), but his position on depravity should be understood to underlie his entire argument.

63: Moreover, the explicit language of election unto salvation is always corporate in the New Testament, continuing the approach of the Old.

I would like to see Dr. Abasciano show us how he comes to this, maybe he will later on in the article.  It would be interesting to see how he maintains this conclusion in light of Romans 8:30 or 2 Peter 1:10 (or numerous others).[1]

He says he has explained some of this in other articles, but since this was already a footnote to an article, I don’t really want to get stuck in the labyrinth of endless footnotes.  Perhaps at a later date I’ll look more into that article.

Now to the misconceptions:

63: Misconception #1: Corporate Election Excludes Individuals.

63: We have already invalidated this approach implicitly by the description of corporate election provided in the previous section.

This statement is actually false.  He hasn’t invalidated the “misconception” implicitly.  He needs to explicitly show how election (that is, God’s election) is, in any meaningful way, individual.

63: It is simply not true that the view excludes individuals; it includes individuals, but only insofar as they are part of the group.

Exactly.  “Insofar as they are part of the group” they are “elected.”  But they are not individually chosen by God—that’s the point.  That Dr. Abasciano keeps saying Dr. Thomas Schreiner has misunderstood his argument is incorrect.  Dr. Schreiner has rightly observed, “According to Abasciano, corporate election refers to God choosing a group, but the individual dimension refers to our choosing to be in the group God has chosen.” And again, “If the individual dimension of corporate election simply means that human beings believe in order to be saved, then there is no “election” in corporate election.”[2]  This has been my point; in what meaningful way are the individuals “elected” or “chosen,” other than they have chosen to join the elected group—and by virtue of their choice they become “elect” or “chosen.”  It is, simply put, playing with the language so that he may more easily deal with the clear teachings of Scripture—that individuals are elect.

63: It is true that corporate election does not refer to the election of each individual separately from Christ or the group, but this does not in any way nullify the election of each individual member of the group as a result of the group’s election.

Who says this?  Not Calvinists.  I’m comfortable using the exact language of the apostle: “even as He [God] chose us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world…” (Eph 1:4).

He may state that it does not nullify the election of the individual, but it does not make it so.  It does.  The rest of his paragraph at the bottom of page 63 is a mess of contradiction and ambiguity; but what else is he left with but to muddle words?

64: Misconception #2: Corporate Election Is Not the Election of People, but Merely the Election of an Empty Set.

Dr. Abasciano’s second misconception is broken down into 2 parts.  The first is:

64: Misconception #2a: The Corporate Head is the Group and Is Chosen First.

He explains:

64: Above all, God first chooses the corporate head/representative so that there is never an empty set.  Indeed, the corporate head is the foundation of the group and embodies the group in himself. To put it bluntly and in a way that undoubtedly rubs against individualistic sensibilities, the corporate head is the group, in accordance with the biblical principle of corporate solidarity. As 1 Cor. 12:12 puts it in relation to Christ, ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though being many, are one body, so also is Christ.’  Christ is both an individual and corporate figure… With the corporate head as the locus of election, there is never a time that the elect people is an empty set.

I don’t know too many people that would argue against the unity of the church, or that Christ is the corporate head and representative.  The problem is not whether Christ is “enough” to fulfill all things, the problem is that the inclusion/redemption of God’s people—or the inclusion of more than just Christ—was one of His stated missions for coming into creation (Matt 1:21; John 10:16; Eph 1:4; 1 Tim 1:15; etc.).  In that sense “God’s people” is an empty set, because if no one makes the choice to belong to the chosen group, then it remains an empty set that Christ purposed to save, but [potentially] couldn’t due to man’s free will.  I don’t believe in that potentiality; I believe that Christ came to save, and accomplished it.

He uses Jacob as his example for how this is not an empty set.

64-65: …God’s Old Testament people were chosen in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel. Jacob was chosen in the womb, and at the very same time his descendants were chosen; they were chosen in him.

He then cites Gen 25:23, and makes this conclusion:

65: Notice how Jacob is wholly identified with his people before they exist.  His election is their election; his destiny is their destiny.

This fails on a couple fronts.  1) Again, he fails to make the distinction between the manner of inclusion in the OT people (by the flesh; by birth) and NT people (conversion; by God’s action).  2) Like he did above, Dr. Abasciano conveniently skims over the fact that Jacob was chosen over Esau before they had been born; why?  Why were Jacob’s descendants to be blessed over Esau’s?  (Romans 9:11 tells us, but we’ll leave it for now).

65: Was Israel an empty set when Jacob was chosen?

Which Israel?  National or spiritual?  Children of flesh or children of promise?  Either way, no; and no potentiality existed that a nation would not exist, and that God did not know those who would belong to each.  The very fact that God gave the oracles, sacrifices, the temple, etc. to a particular nation speaks enough volumes for me.  Even if you want to make this election less personalized, the election was still made over all of the other nations on the earth, who perished with no knowledge of God.  And it all started with the election of one brother over another; one must reckon with it.

I’ll let Dr. Abasciano tell you:

65: the people Israel was chosen as a consequence of the man Israel’s election. When he was chosen, they were chosen.       

But, remember, he was chosen…individually.

At this point, I do want to acknowledge a valid observation of Dr. Abasciano: the collective understanding as opposed to the individual.  If one positive can be gleaned from his article, it is that Christianity was never meant to be a strictly individualized religious experience.  Western society in general has moved in that direction—and America is defined by its individualism.  The church is a group of individuals unified, as one body, by their corporate head.[3]  The move away from church participation, unity, and Scriptural faithfulness can be blamed in some part on the individualizing of religion.  That said, one’s personal salvation (faith and repentance) is a matter between the individual and God, which inaugurates them into the people of God.

The rest of this section can have arguments already made applied to it, so I move on.

66: Misconception #2b: The Significance of Ephesians 1:4

Ephesians 1:4 is a standard battleground for the Arminian/Synergist and Calvinist.  This is a long section of his article, and it’s really a tedious thing for me to go line by line in response, so let me say two things.  1) Some decent articles—with much more depth—on this subject can be found below.[4]  2)  Eph 1:4 is not the only verse that speaks of election, and it is not even the one I would use as my primary defense for the understanding of God’s individual, gracious election unto salvation.

There are a few statements that I think sufficiently undermine the rest of Dr. Abasciano’s point here, and so hopefully I can just highlight those.

66: It simply insists that the election of individuals comes to them as part of the elect people. Each individual member of the elect people is personally elect, but only as a consequence of his membership in the elect people, and ultimately, only as a consequence of his identification with the corporate head.

This is the point; and to this point Dr. Abasciano has continued to deny what he keeps plainly saying: incorporation into the head is a consequence of the individual’s choice to become elect.  The person is not elect in any meaningful way, other than he became chosen by his choice.  This must be kept in mind by any person who trudges their way through the rest of this section.

The Scriptures plainly teach the opposite, of course: Rom 8:29-30; 1 Thess 1:4-5; 2 Thess 2:13-14; Eph 2:1-10.

Another point that must be kept in mind is Dr. Abasciano’s rejection of the total inability of man; that man is not quite as dead, deaf, blind, unable, disobedient, rebellious, or lost as the Bible appears to indicate.

66: Election is conditional upon being in Christ by faith.

What is interesting about this line is that Dr. Abasciano does not shirk away from his position: he is an all out Arminian; however, the way I found this article was through a person who does not claim to be an Arminian, how he is able to maintain that is impossible to tell.

So far as pg. 68-69 is concerned, I find myself agreeing with most of what he says; the difference comes from his underlying presuppositions that guide him toward a salvation merited by the individual’s self-appointment into the covenant head.  I would challenge that it is God who places us in Christ; thus Dr. Abasciano is dealing with the wrong issue at this point.

I will need to take issue with one statement, however:

67: All of this is contingent on being in Christ, which is itself contingent on faith in Christ, a point underscored by the fact that some of the key blessings just mentioned are explicitly said to be by faith, namely sonship (and therefore heirship), righteousness/justification, the giving of the Spirit, and life/resurrection. (my emphasis added)

It is Dr. Abasciano’s understanding—as it is with all Synergists—that sonship (being in Christ) and all of its blessings are attained by a self-actuated faith.  This, of course, is not the Scriptural record.[5]

Because so much of Ephesians 1:4 revolved around differences in how to interpret the “in Christ” phraseology, it’s order, and so on—it would be best to take the whole of Scripture as a guide for understanding what it is to be chosen “in Christ.”  The corporate model has basically made it impersonal by focusing only on Christ’s election, and the impersonal “us” is then made elect by incorporation into Him.  The individual model recognizes that we are elect “in” (because of) “Christ.”  Based on nothing but His work, etc.

72: To sum it up succinctly, Calvinists tend to interpret Eph. 1:4 as saying that God chose us separately and individually to be put into Christ, to which Arminians quickly respond that what the text actually says is that God chose us in Christ.

This is categorically false.  Perhaps Dr. Abasciano can provide the scholars/theologians (and he might be able to find a few), but this is not the Calvinistic interpretation of the text.  It is instead that we (“us”) were chosen before the foundation of the world “in Christ.”  That is, in Him, by Him, because of Him, we are considered the children of God.  That preordained plan of God, to sacrifice the Son on the cross, included redemptive subjects (us); it was not a potentiality, it was a guarantee (Matt 1:21; John 17; Rev 5:9).  It is not that we are “put into Christ,” it is that we were chosen “in Him.”  This parsing of words confounds more than it clarifies.  I think you’ll find that verses utilizing the same phrase “in Him” are better understood when replaced with “through Him,” “because of Him,” or “based on His work/accomplishment”; i.e. Eph 2:22: “In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”  Col 1:17: “And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Col 2:11: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands…”

If it helps, consider a phrase that I might say to my wife: “I chose you in love.”  The object of my choice is my wife, and the basis/the foundation/the limits of my choice was “love.”  I could have replaced love with “duty,” but love was the chosen qualification, prerequisite, or standard.  So it is with Christ.  He is the chosen means of redeeming the people of God; and all thanks is due God for making such a choice in perfect savior.

72: Misconception # 3: The Concept of a Primarily Corporate Election Is Illogical.     

Assuming his [Dr. Schreiner] own view, he cannot see that being elected as part of a group that is chosen to receive some benefit is still being chosen for that benefit, but he essentially, insists that one is chosen for a benefit only if that same choice also elects one to join the group.

This is, as rightly observed, illogical.  Dr. Abasciano’s insistence that it is not does not make it logical.  His sentences turn into contradictions very easily.  That said, I don’t think that the illogical nature is dealt with properly by Dr. Abasciano.  It is not illogical for a group to be elected without its individual members being so; it is illogical to say that a group is elected, and then by virtue of membership the individual is also elect.  This is not so; it is still the case that the group is elected, and the individual made the election to join the elected group.

What Dr. Abasciano continues to miss is the distinction between fleshly entrance into a “chosen people” and spiritual entrance into a “chosen people.”

75: But when we examine the evidence for which type of election is found in the Bible with respect to the election of God’s people unto eternal salvation, it is a primarily corporate election that is found.

This is simply not the case, as has been shown several times.  Especially in Romans 8:29-30 and 2 Peter 1:10: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”  I’m interested to see how the corporate election proponent depersonalizes this verse, and turns “brothers” (a group of men being written to) into a faceless, corporate entity that must confirm its calling and election.

75: Misconception #4: Corporate Election Empties Divine Election of Meaning and Makes Human Choice Decisive.

This misconception comes closer to the objection I’ve made several times: that there is no meaningful election of individuals at all, so they might as well drop the term.  His first two points do nothing meaningful to address the issue.

75: Third, [this] reasoning foists a predetermined hermeneutical conviction on the’ idea of election and what it has to be or involve, and then judges the corporate view by it rather than a more objective approach of trying to determine the biblical view and then assessing its implications.

Again, nothing substantial here; this is one of 4 sentences in this paragraph, and no evaluation is given.  The meaning of election is given meaning by the Bible and by common usage.  To elect something is to choose it.  The meaning of church in Greek has that idea of a called out group of individuals.  At this point the attempts appear futile, and he is merely trying to disallow common usage to make his point, and confound the reader.

76:  He [Dr. Schreiner] believes that human choice cannot play a decisive role in salvation, and then denies validity to a view that he perceives as giving such a role to human choice. But this is more of an argument from theological presupposition than from the text of Scripture.

How does Dr. Abasciano figure?  It’s a childish tactic to try to boil down a person’s belief into “theological presupposition” rather than “Scriptural” just because you don’t care to take the time to deal with his theological conviction about the depravity of man; a position easily established from Scripture.  One I think even a new Christian could easily defend, because they [should] know the wickedness of their own heart; and the gracious work of God to pull them out of it.

76: My plea would be for us to draw our view of election from Scripture rather than deciding what its implications must be and then using our assessment of a view’s implications to decide if Scripture can teach such a view. Perhaps we are wrong in our presuppositions.

Ditto to Dr. Abasciano.  He might benefit from taking his own advice.

I don’t know how scholarship is done in the field of theology (my experience is in history), but Dr. Abasciano has really left the realm of objective scholarship and moved into opinion and pedantry.

76: That he gives us a genuine choice in whether we will receive the salvation that he offers in the gospel is entirely in his control and at his discretion.

Here is a good example of Dr. Abasciano needing to heed his own advice; because he has yet to establish this point, and would truly have a difficult time doing it.  Oh, I’m sure there are verses he’d like to use, but the whole of Scripture speaks of a God who orchestrates to His ends, guiding history the way He has ordained, and knowing the end from the beginning (because he decreed it, not because he takes in knowledge of the choices of free will creatures).

The end of this section really devolves into caricature, painting Calvinists as those who do not believe in the responsibility of the creature, and his position as upholding the sovereignty of God (whatever that is) and man’s responsibility.

It is sophism at this point.  And I’m sorry, I’m not too convinced by football/baseball team examples.

77: One of the wonderful theological advantages of corporate election is that it comports with the Bible’s teaching that God loves all, calls all to believe and be saved, and genuinely desires all to be saved (e.g., John 3: 16; Acts 17:30- 31; 1 Tim. 2:4).

No.  It doesn’t.  It comports with man’s reasoning.  It takes away the objection, “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”  This objection does not comport with the watering down of God’s gracious, sovereign right to grant salvation to those whom He freely wishes.

[Each of those verses has long been explained by Reformed.  There is no need to do so now.]

But in case you wondered which view was the right one:

77: Thankfully, on that score, the corporate view is the most strongly supported view.

I suppose that settles it.

On to his last misconception.

77: Misconception # 5: Election Unto Spiritual Salvation in the Old Testament Was Individualistic.

This is another that attempts to deal with the problem I raised earlier.

He still confuses the individual and corporate distinction between the individual heart and the corporate nation.

78: He points to the individual election of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But ironically, these very examples are corporate in nature and support the concept of a primarily corporate election visa-vis the covenant people of God. Each of these individuals was chosen as the corporate head and representative of the covenant and his covenant descendants.

I raised the individual nature of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s selection earlier; but Dr. Abasciano’s sidestepping of the issue is very apparent in what he says—or doesn’t say—right here.  Besides dealing with the individual aspect of Abraham’s election, or even the “individual” election of a nation, he changes the issue initially raised.

78: All agree that the Old Testament contains instances of individual divine election unto service. But the question we are dealing with is election unto salvation, the election of the covenant people of God, which establishes people as belonging to God and, at least ideally, as beneficiaries of his salvation.

Ah.  This is how it’s done.

Huge problems with this approach.  1) How is salvation conferred in the OT?  Was it necessary to be among God’s people to receive his revelation, worship, prophets, etc.  All of the things necessary to hear the word of God and be saved?  If so, then salvific election is a direct corollary to election unto “service,” or Israel’s election.  2) The choice of Abraham is undeniably salvific in nature.  Again, Abraham was taken—nay elected—out of a land of idolatry and was given a promise and God covenanted with him.  It would be silly to think that God called Abraham out of Ur, made a covenant with him, made him the father of the faithful, blessed him above others, but had no salvific purpose.  3) Even if not salvific, how does this actually deal with the problem, that God selected Abram rather than any other to make a blessing (Gen 12:3) and a great nation?  4) You must then deal with the promise, blessing, and salvation given to Isaac and Jacob and not Ishmael or Esau.  Before they were yet born…so that God’s purpose according to election might stand…need I go on?

The rest of this section is a response to varying views among Calvinists or individual election proponents, and I don’t really care to deal with positions that might not be mine.

What is important, is that Dr. Abasciano did not deal with the distinction I made earlier about the nature in Spiritual and national Israel.  There most certainly is a distinction, and the NT makes it clear.  Incorporation into one is not equal to incorporation into the other; and the means by which one is joined to the invisible church is not the same as the visible church; it is an act of a gracious God that saves wretches from their mire and filth.  Anything less has not dealt faithfully with the Scripture.

Conclusion

My concluding thought is this: Dr. Abasciano—as with any corporate proponent—really does not offer a cohesive, logical, or consistent interpretation of election in the NT (or OT).  If you need the OT example, look no further than Paul in Romans 11:2-6, and think about it before you read all of the Synergist responses (the Scriptures speak plainly of a spiritual people chosen and retained by God’s grace alone—in Christ):

“God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?  “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.”  But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”

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[1] It should be noted that Dr. Schreiner, in his response to Dr. Abasciano, brings up Romans 8:30 in light of individual election.  Dr. Abasciano does not reckon with it in any of his articles to this point.

[2] Thomas R. Shreiner, “Corporate and Individual Election in Romans 9: A Response to Brian Abasciano,” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June, 2006), 376.

[3] I would want to push this further than this current response warrants; I think the corporate nature of Israel, and the emphasis over individualism, makes a great argument for infant/household baptisms.  See J.V. Fesko, Water, Word, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), specifically chapter 14.

[4] http://www.monergism.com/calvin-ephesians-14-5; http://vintage.aomin.org/JWDB5.html; http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/49/49-2/JETS_49-2_373-386_Schreiner.pdf; for starters.

[5] See John 1:12-13; 3:3-8; Romans 6:17-18; 1 Cor 1;28-31 (I highlight this one especially because of the use of “in Christ”, and the manner in which we are placed “in Christ); Eph 2:1-10; 1 Peter 1:3-5; et al.  More can easily be provided and expounded upon.

Ex-Calvinists and SBCToday.com (#5)

•January 20, 2015 • 3 Comments

This is the fifth post in a series of observations about Leighton Flowers’s post on SBCToday.com, The Five Points that Led Me Out of Calvinism.  

Find the Introduction Here, Part #2 Here, Part #3 Here, and Part #4 Here.

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It appears I’ve ruffled some feathers at SBCToday.com.  And, as they would have it, I am extremely threatened by them.  I guess I am threatened by error; so sure.  The lack of meaningful response to anything I have written is duly noted, but I feel I’ve been more than cordial in my treatment of Mr. Flowers’s posts—something not reciprocated by those on the SBCToday comment board.  While they are busy accusing Calvin of the worst crimes, including pride and hatefulness, they never cease to spew their own.  Never mind all that though…

Moving on to Flowers’s last point:

 

Point #5: I came to understand that sovereignty is not an eternal attribute of God that would be compromised by the existence of free moral creatures.  

This is no new argument, but it is worth considering.  He starts with a quote from AW Tozer:

God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.

It will be necessary for Flowers—as it was for Tozer—to show how this is the case from Scripture.  Not only that, but no one denies a will given to the creature, the point is: what state is that will now in after the fall?  Taking us back to the problem with most of Flowers’s points.

“Some seem to believe that for God to be considered ‘sovereign’ then men cannot have a free or autonomous will.  Should sovereignty be interpreted and understood as the necessity of God to ‘play both sides of the chess board’ in order to ensure His victory?”

Flowers needs to define free and autonomous.  Is it free and autonomous at all times?  In all situations?  Is the will affected by nature, circumstances, temptations, the fall, regeneration?  Is there anything in history that is known to God, but not decreed?  If so, does God take on knowledge as he sees things unfold in the future?  These are all questions worthy of consideration, and desperately needing an answer.

“I’m saying that the revelation of God’s holiness, His unwillingness to even tempt men to sin (James 1:13), His absolute perfect nature and separateness from sin (Is. 48:17), certainly appears to suggest that our finite, linear, logical constructs should not be used to contain Him (Is. 55:9).”

This is all fine and good.  After all, I’m a compatibilist.  It is not for me to reckon how man’s accountability and God’s sovereign decrees are reconciled, I can only admit that both are Scriptural, and be content to leave it at that.  I’d actually charge the person who rejects compatibilism with attempting to fit God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability into a logical or linear construct—so that it can make sense in their mind.

For example: if man is accountable then God must not decree all things, because to decree all things would make Him the author of sin.

This is what leads many people to reject the Biblical account of God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s will as compatible.

“One point that really helped me to understand the apparent contradiction of this debate was realizing the divine attribute of sovereignty is not an eternal attribute of God.” (his emphasis)

Here, I think, Flowers misses the mark.  He goes on:

“What the Calvinist fails to see is that sovereignty means ‘complete rule or dominion over creation.’  For God to be in control over creation there has to be something created in which to control.  He cannot display His power over creatures unless the creatures exist.  Therefore, before creation the concept of sovereignty was not an attribute that could be used to describe God. An eternal attribute is something God possesses that is not contingent upon something else.”

Flowers may want to tread lightly here, before he rejects—out of hand—the proper definition of sovereignty.  The first question I asked upon reading this was: where does he get this definition of sovereignty?  The Bible certainly never speaks of God’s sovereignty in this manner.  The problem for the Flowers is evident: he is forced to change the definition in order to fit his new system.  No longer is Sovereignty an eternal attribute of God, meaning “absolute rule, dominion, power, kingship, authority, etc.”; it is now a role taken on by His interaction with creation.  The issue is the conflation of what has historical been understood as the Providence of God with the Sovereignty of God.  A.W. Pink has correctly defined the Sovereignty of God (see previous link), and I’m content to leave it with him:

What do we mean by [the sovereignty of God]? We mean the supremacy of God, the kingship of God, the god-hood of God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that God is God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Most High, doing according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, so that none can stay His hand or say unto Him what doest Thou? (Dan. 4:35). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Almighty, the Possessor of all power in Heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purpose, or resist His will (Psa. 115:3). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is “The Governor among the nations” (Psa. 22:28), setting up kingdoms, overthrowing empires, and determining the course of dynasties as pleaseth Him best. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the “Only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). Such is the God of the Bible.

And he says elsewhere:

The Sovereignty Of God may be defined as the exercise of His supremacy (see preceding chapter). Infinitely elevated above the highest creature, He is the Most High, Lord of heaven and earth; subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent. God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases. None can thwart Him, none can hinder Him. So His own Word expressly declares: “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa. 46:10); “He doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay His hand” (Dan. 4:35). Divine sovereignty means that God is God in fact, as well as in name, that He is on the throne of the universe, directing all things, working all things “after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11).

As James White has rightly observed: Sovereignty is not something God does, it’s something God is.  Flowers may want to challenge that understanding, but he must demonstrate it Biblically—and refute the Biblical definition given.  God does not suddenly become sovereign once He chooses to create; his very choice to create is a demonstration of His sovereignty.

“The eternal attribute of God is His omnipotence, which refers to His eternally limitless power. Sovereignty is a temporal characteristic, not an eternal one, thus we can say God is all powerful, not because He is sovereign, but He is sovereign because He is all powerful, or at least He is as sovereign as He so chooses to be in relation to this temporal world.”

Splitting hairs here a bit.  It really matters not what word is used so long as the definition is understood.  This sentence really doesn’t make any sense: “God is all powerful, not because He is sovereign, but He is sovereign because He is all powerful.”  It might be better written as “God is sovereign and omnipotent.”

“If our all-powerful God chose to refrain from meticulously ruling over every aspect of that which He creates, that in no way denies His eternal attribute of omnipotence, but indeed affirms it. It is the Calvinist who denies the eternal attribute of omnipotence by presuming the all-powerful God cannot refrain from meticulous deterministic rule over His creation (i.e. sovereignty). In short, the Calvinist denies God’s eternal attribute of omnipotence in his effort to protect the temporal attribute of sovereignty.

Once again, Flowers must demonstrate this Biblically.  Where does the Bible speak of God giving up his sovereign direction of events?  I don’t want to call Flowers a deist, but one should recognize how far this can go.  He must also reckon with verses that directly contradict his understanding: Gen 50:20; 1 Sam 2:25Psa 139:16; Prov 16:4; Isa 10:5-19; 46:10; Matt 10:29-30; Acts 4:27-28Rom 9:19-24; Eph 1:11.  If the Calvinist denies what Flowers says they do, then it must be said, “the Synergist denies God’s supremacy, sovereignty, freedom, foreknowledge, and foreordination in his effort to protect the libertarian free will of the creature.”  Man’s will is elevated, God’s will is downplayed.  Trust me, recognizing God’s right to do as He pleases is sometimes a tough pill to swallow; it is tough even for those who confess it; but it is also the basis for our comfort, confidence, and hope that God is able and willing to work all things together for good for those who love Him (Rom 8:28).

 “The Omnipotent God has not yet taken full sovereign control over everything on earth as it is in heaven. Is not that His prerogative? Passages throughout the bible teach that there are ‘authorities’ and ‘powers’ which are yet to be destroyed, and that have been given dominion over God’s creation.”

Sadly, when Synergists head down a certain road, and it becomes all-important to defeat Calvinism, they tend to say some dangerous things.  His [mis]definition of sovereignty has already been addressed, but this is a comment that I would hope Mr. Flowers would want to qualify.  In a sense Flowers has a point; Christ has not yet subjugated all to a final judgement (well, already-not-yet); and God has permitted evil forces to continue for His “sovereign” purposes.  However, what is the implication of this statement?  Is the idea that God is now, somehow, completely hands-off?  Does He not still exercise dominion and sovereignty over all things that take place?  He allows free reign of evil forces, unhindered, and outside of His sovereign, omnipotent, immutable decree?  This needs clarification.

What he says has a tinge of truth, but what he implies by the way he’s been arguing has unsavory consequences on a person’s thoughts about God’s sovereignty and control of events.

He now goes on to list the passages that show how authority is still being given to temporal powers, including: Isa 24:21; Eph 6:12; Col 2:20; 1 Cor 15:24.  But again, we must not understand these as though God has no present control or decreetive purpose in what comes to pass.  To say that takes these verses much too far.

“Much more could be said, but in short we must refrain from bringing unbiblical conclusions based upon our finite perceptions of God’s nature.”

Much more could be said, and one really wishes he had spent more time to say it.  One especially wishes he had taken the time to show us the Scripture that led him his conclusions.  His hope may have not been to “convert” the Calvinists reading, but he certainly didn’t try.  [Side note: I for one hate the “I’m never going to change your mind, you’re never going to change mine, so why bother” mentality; to me it downplays the ability of the Spirit to convict and enable people to have a greater understanding of Biblical truth].  And laying the charge of “unbiblical” is never good when your “reasons” never really included much Scripture.  Also, appealing to our “finite perceptions” is no excuse for not submitting to what is clearly revealed to us in Scripture.

Flowers then says some things I agree with, before getting to the proof texts commonly used, namely: 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Tim 2:4; John 3:16; 1 John 2:2.  These texts have been answered several times over, so it’s not really my objective to evaluate them one by one (maybe in the future).  Because he sort of carpet-bombs the end of this post, and just lays down a bunch of verses that he assumes a Synergist meaning to, I have chosen to remain on the original subject: sovereignty.  So I really just want to respond to one more thing he says before concluding this:

“No man will stand before the Father and be able to give the excuse, ‘I was born unloved by my Creator.  I was born unchosen and without the hope of salvation.  I was born unable to see, hear or understand God’s revelation of Himself.'”

Oy!  This is another one of those statements that just makes me wonder how I can believe this guy was a “former Calvinist.”  I just don’t think I could ever reject Calvinism and then make arguments like this; I should hope they’d be a bit more fair and understanding.

One more time: The reason men won’t come to Christ is not because God won’t enable/allow them, it’s because of their sin. But they won’t come unless God enables them, because of their sin.

Or as Piper (I think) once put it: if we find ourselves in hell we have no one to thank but ourselves; if we find ourselves in heaven we have no one to thank but God.

That Flowers would make such a cavalier statement is telling, unfortunately.  It truly belittles the Scriptural account of man’s sin and God’s gracious provision.  Even if Flowers decides to remain in the Synergist camp, hopefully he will take more care to understand the position he once held to, and not paint it in the most objectionable light in order to defeat it.

 

Conclusion

It was Mr. Flowers’s stated objective to help all—even the Calvinists—reading his blog to REALLY understand why he ended up abandoning his Calvinist position.  But, as I have said several times, he has failed to REALLY help us understand for two simple reasons:

1) He provided no convincing case that his Calvinism was ever really grounded in a Reformed church or based on a all-encompassing worldview conviction.  Reformed theology and ecclesiology is based on more than 5 points, and it is best fostered by a church that integrates the doctrines of grace into the practice and life of the local church.  Moreover, the doctrines of grace are not a social club or academic affiliation, they are not rooted in a “brotherhood of ministers.”  Flowers’s account of his move from the Reformed doctrines to a Synergistic semi-pelagianism seems to focus more attention on the friends or influence he might lose, rather than his views of the Scripture, man’s condition, and God’s sovereignty.  One would like to see that those things were very difficult to change his mind on, because they ought to have undergirded his entire worldview and his Christian walk.

2) Flowers’s attempt to help us understand his move away from Calvinism is even further diminished by his lack of Scriptural exegesis.  It is one thing to proof-text and assume a Synergistic meaning into things, and then expect others to come to that conclusion; it’s another to actually look at the verse in context and to thoughtfully consider the implications of your interpretation.   I can as easily cite Romans 9:11 as the Synergist can cite John 3:16—and we can both just assume our interpretation; and this is often what the discussion is boiled down to; but I don’t think it’s a faithful way to handle the Scriptures.  I’m not interested in tricking people into the Calvinist position by showing them prooftexts out of context; I want them to honestly assess the Scriptures, to consider them, to pray, and to continue asking questions.  I think we need to see more analysis and willingness to explain context, writers, audience, etc.  Flowers cites passages, but he gives no meaningful analysis.  In fact, most of his assertions are backed up with nothing more than an exclamation point.  This does not help anyone REALLY understand.

I do hope I let Mr. Flowers speak for himself, and gave each of his points due consideration.  I’m more than willing to hear the thoughts of those who disagree; but I would please ask for Biblical analysis for the assertions you make.  I will try to respond in kind.

SDG,

Jon

 

Ex-Calvinists and SBCToday.com (#4)

•January 16, 2015 • 2 Comments

This is the fourth post in a series of observations about Leighton Flowers’s post on SBCToday.com, The Five Points that Led Me Out of Calvinism.  

Find the Introduction Here, Part #2 Here, and Part #3 Here.

———————————————————————

I’ve decided to split up Mr. Flowers’s last two points.  Each are important topics, the 4th having to do with Irresistible Grace, and the 5th with the sovereignty of God.  If the 5th point wasn’t such a massive one (not that his response is massive, but the topic is), I think I could do both, but I wanted to write on God’s sovereignty in more depth.

So on to Point #4:

 

Point #4: I accepted the fact that a gift doesn’t have to be irresistibly applied in order for the giver to get full credit for giving it.

“According to Calvinism, God does not merely enable people to believe (as the scriptures say), but He has to actually change their very nature so as to certainly make them believe.”

Right.  Well, God changes the heart and draws them in love, sure.

“As a Calvinist I remember shaming other Christians for ‘stealing God’s glory’ by suggesting they played any role in their salvation. I insisted they would be “boasting” to believe that they chose to come to Christ unless they first admitted that God irresistibly changed their nature to make them want to come.”

Think I addressed this in the last post, so I will defer to that discussion.  As for shaming them, I don’t know if that’s necessary, a Christian just ought to desire to give God all of the credit—and none to their own libertarian free will (i.e. their right choices…that others didn’t make).

“I recall a wise elder from my home church challenging me on this point by asking, ‘Why do you believe God’s choice of you for no apparent reason is less boast worthy than his choice of me for being a weak beggar?’ I honestly did not know what he meant at the time, but I do now.”

At this point we are still ignoring the crux of the problem, namely, man’s state in sin.  This point, so far, is not much different than the last.  Mr. Flowers has disregarded the main point of the argument, and made it seem as though being a “weak beggar” isn’t praiseworthy.  The problem is, no where in Scripture does it give the indication that man can, wants, or will come as a weak beggar unless God—by His gracious will (election)—brings them under a conviction of their sin, by the Holy Spirit, and makes them recognize their absolute need for a perfect Savior that has fully paid for their [particular] sins.

“I used to think the idea that God chose to save me before I was born and done anything good or bad was humbling, but it is not near as humbling as the reality that God would chose [sic] to save me in the middle of my worse [sic] sin, my brokenness, my humiliation and my shame.  Like the prodigal who returned home from the pigsty of his life, broken and humiliated, seeking to beg for handouts, deserving nothing but punishment, receives instead the gracious love of a father, I too felt the choice of a Father to forgive me right then and there in the middle of my filth.”

I think Flowers has a bit of a misunderstanding regarding Calvinism, despite whatever “formerness” he may claim.  I really want to ask him who put him in the circumstances that led him to his realization that he needed forgiveness?  What brought the thoughts before his attention?  What led him to know he deserved punishment?  It’s a bit naive to think that he was walking in sinfulness, rebelling against God, following the whims of his fallen will, and then one day—apart from the providence, direction, and proactive work of God—he randomly came upon the thought, “hey…I need Jesus!”  But hey, I’ll leave that consideration up to the reader; but be aware that a cursory reading of the Old Testament will quickly reveal that God orchestrates things to His purpose; that includes bringing people to a sense of their wickedness and a need for forgiveness, or leaving them in their sin.

Here’s a quick example, for your careful reflection (emphasis added):

Now Eli…kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting.  And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people.  No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad.  If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (1 Samuel 2:22-25).

And there’s many more like it.  Only by recognizing the condition of man and the sovereignty of God does the Calvinistic system—or these difficult passages—even begin to make sense.  Unfortunately, Flowers has shown no due consideration for the Scripture’s testimony concerning man’s condition, and he leaves the issue of God’s sovereignty to the end, but we’ll get to that in the next point.

“It was not some theological concept of God picking me for no apparent reason out of the mass of humanity at some distant inexplicable time before time was.”

This just kills me, that he can be so dismissive of the Calvinistic concept of God’s perfect decrees, when he claims to have once been a lover of the doctrines of grace.  Theological concept?  How about “Biblical concept”?  We already touched on the verses that clearly speak to it.  Should there have been a reason?  Does that not make God a respecter of persons?  Not to mention how he has carefully avoided any discussion of Romans 9:11 in this particular place.  It’s okay to denigrate the position so long as you paint it as “Calvinism”; but I’d like for him to quote Romans, Eph 1:4 & 8-10, 2 Tim 1:9, or 1 Thess 1:4-5, then immediately follow it with the words he’s been using here.

“Why can’t we give God all the glory for enabling mankind to respond to His gracious truth?  Why must he irresistibly cause our acceptance of that truth in order for Him to get full glory for giving it?”

Simple.  Because the Scriptures never speak of this general “enablement,” that spreads out God’s grace peanut-butter style, but never actually accomplishes anything without man’s 2 cents—i.e. self-humilation, self-manufactured faith, or repentance.  God must give us a new heart, that new heart will be alive to God, and desire to know Him.

“It in no way robs God of glory by suggesting He does not irresistibly determine men’s choice to accept or reject the gospel appeal.”

Forget the way he paints this in a negative tone; I think the Scriptures speak plainly enough for themselves; and notice to whom thanks is given:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness…” (Rom 6:16-18).

“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 2:13-14).

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:37&39).

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Eph 2:4-5).

Here are more to consider: Deut 30:6Psa 115:1; Ez 36:26-27 (and really the whole section); Rom 8:29-30; Eph 1:6 & 12; 1 Thess 1:4-5.  These are not meant to be read as proof text, but in their context, with the full understanding of the argument or point being made.

The conclusions ought to be simple; it’s sad that there are those so opposed to it that they must find emotional, philosophical, or deceptive arguments to work around it.

“In fact, it seems to lesson His glory by making Him appear disingenuous in that appeal sent to all people.  Should not God get the glory even for the provision of those who reject Him?”

It would’ve been good for Mr. Flowers to elaborate at this point, because it is merely an assertion with no argument—and no Scripture.  Not many a Calvinist would say the offer is not genuine.  This is, again, the Synergist framing the Calvinist position in their Synergistic box and claiming that we use double-speak when we say God freely offers the gospel to all those who hear it.  But this is another misunderstanding of Calvinism, that Flowers should know.  I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again…

The reason men won’t come to Christ is not because God won’t enable/allow them, it’s because of their sin. But they won’t come unless God enables them, because of their sin.

The Synergist always tries to place the blame on God, rather than where it rightly belongs: the sinner.  The gift is free, and freely offered, but men are dead, blind, lost, rebellious, disobedient—only the Calvinist position remains true to the Scriptural account of man’s condition and God’s grace.

Mr. Flowers ends with a Lewis quote, and I agree with it.  I don’t agree with it in the way he’s trying to use it, but I think I’ve said enough to deal with this point.  Again, Mr. Flowers does not adequately deal with man’s condition, or the Biblical record, therefore we are left wanting to REALLY understand why he left the Calvinist position.

SDG,

Jon

 
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