Your Systematic Has No Clothes

Leighton Flowers | Professor of Theology
Dallas, TX

**This article was previously posted by Leighton Flowers on his website www.soteriology101.com and is used by permission.  Leighton is: teaching pastor in his local church, an adjunct Professor of Theology, and the Youth Evangelism Director for Texas Baptists.

Learn more about Leighton, HERE.
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Most of us are familiar with the old fable by Hans Christian Andersen titled, The Emperor’s New Clothes.  The story is about two tailors who pretend to make an Emperor a new suit of clothes that they convincingly argue is invisible only to incompetent fools. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his “new suit of clothes,” no one dares to say that he is naked for fear of being deemed a fool.  Finally, a child declares what everyone else is thinking but is too scared to say, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

The story is a lesson in speaking your convictions even in the face of public ridicule. At the risk of being seen as a fool, you must tell the plain truth. Even if it goes against popular opinion or the common norms of a society one must be willing to speak out against that which seems clearly wrong. That is much easier said than done.

Back when I served on staff in a Reformed Southern Baptist Founders church and still affirmed Calvinism, I do recall several moments where I felt the TULIP systematic “had no clothes on,” so to speak. But I was not about to put myself out there as “the fool who is just too stupid to see it.” I knew all the pat answers and could quote all the right verses when any question was raised, but deep down I knew there was no rational answer against the charge of divine culpability for moral evil if Calvinism’s claims were true. Calvin himself admitted as much when he wrote:

“How it was ordained by the foreknowledge and decree of God what man’s future was without God being implicated as associate in the fault as the author or approver of transgression, is clearly a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind, that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance…. I daily so meditate on these mysteries of his judgments that curiosity to know anything more does not attract me.” (there are quotes from Piper, MacArthur and Sproul appealing to this same mystery)

It is as if Calvin is saying, “I see the naked Emperor but I’ve grown so troubled by looking at him that I’ve chosen to advert my eyes instead of just admitting the obvious truth of what I see.” I suppose that approach works for some, as it did for me…at least for a while.  (Read more on this inconsistency in Calvinism HERE)

Others deal with “the Emperor’s nakedness” by appealing to the uniqueness of God and His ways. They might argue something like, “God’s judgement, love and goodness looks different than ours because His ways are simply higher and cannot be understood.” In response to this approach, C. S. Lewis answered:

“If God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our “black” may be His “white”, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good,” while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what.” And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) “good” we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.The Problem of Pain, pg. 29

And the founder of Methodism, the esteemed John Wesley, wrote even more boldly:

“[Calvinism] destroys all [God’s] attributes at once: It overturns both his justice, mercy, and truth; yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust. More false; because the devil, liar as he is, hath never said, “He willeth all men to be saved:” More unjust; because the devil cannot, if he would, be guilty of such injustice as you ascribe to God, when you say that God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, for continuing in sin, which, for want of that grace he will not give them, they cannot avoid: And more cruel; because that unhappy spirit “seeketh rest and findeth none;” so that his own restless misery is a kind of temptation to him to tempt others. But God resteth in his high and holy place; so that to suppose him, of his own mere motion, of his pure will and pleasure, happy as he is, to doom his creatures, whether they will or no, to endless misery, is to impute such cruelty to him as we cannot impute even to the great enemy of God and man. It is to represent the high God (he that hath ears to hear let him hear!) as more cruel, false, and unjust than the devil!” http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-128-Free-Grace

These two men clearly saw a naked Emperor when they looked at Calvinism’s claims and they were not afraid to say so.  It should be noted that both Lewis and Wesley, at other times in their ministry, tempered such boldness with gentler remarks toward their Calvinistic brethren. And I am not referencing these quotes to bring a charge of “devil worship” against those who affirm the TULIP systematic.

I know full well that Calvinists see “a beautiful suit of clothes on the Emperor” and their intentions are sincere, but it does not change the fact that many believers (if not most) simply see a naked Emperor rather than a beautiful suit. (Read this great article by Austin Fischer for more on the beauty that Calvinists see in relation to others)

So, why am I writing this article?

Many of you know I debated the very seasoned apologist, Dr. James White, over the soteriological perspective represented in Romans 9 earlier this year. From the first day I engaged with Dr. White over this issue he has treated me as “the fool” who simply cannot see “the emperor’s new clothes.”  Given that I once claimed to see the suit and declared it to be beautiful only fuels the fire of ridicule.  After all, if you ever really did see the emperor’s suit then you would not be saying he is naked today.  If you were ever really smart enough to see the suit then you would know better than to question it.

In a recent exchange over social media, Dr. White wrote:

“Last night I listened to some portion of a dialogue he had on YouTube, and was once again astounded at the horrific eisegesis that marks his entire system. But in noting someone’s reply to him just now, I saw this statement: ‘are you talking about the filthy rags you determined to do or that God determined you to do? :-)’ Notice the contradiction he attempts to create that the Bible will have none of: he seems to think that one action has to be EITHER “determined” by man or by God, but it cannot be BOTH. Now, again, Flowers claims to have once been a Calvinist, but as normal, his recollection of what that means seems to have gotten pretty hazy. For he surely should know that there are a number of very, very important texts in which the Bible itself makes it plain that you have BOTH God and man acting in the very same action. That is EXACTLY what you have in Genesis 50:20 without question. The same is true in Isaiah 10, and in Acts 4 in reference to the crucifixion of Jesus in the sovereign plan of God. So, the Bible’s answer to Flower’s false quandary is, ‘both, I, to my shame and destruction, and God, to His glory and fame.’ And if Leighton’s system is so shallow and paltry as to not be able to withstand the pressure of that Biblical revelation, then he needs to dump it and get one that is actually worth professing!”

Let’s unpack this a bit:

1. He defers to the old tactic, “instead of responding to the actual arguments I’ll just say he doesn’t do proper exegesis.” This approach might work if I were not standing on the shoulders of much more seasoned exegetes of scripture than myself. It is not as if I am making up my interpretation as I go along. (See the article titled “Debate Over Exegesis” for my response to this tactic)

2. He argues for “both/and” versus “either/or” in regard to who is making “determinations.”  He writes, “[Flowers] seems to think that one action has to be EITHER ‘determined’ by man or by God, but it cannot be BOTH.”

I think if one were given the opportunity to press Dr. White on this point he would admit that God’s determination is the one that controls the man’s ‘determination,’ thus making this qualification nothing more than a semantical difference without a distinction. Also, Dr. White seems to forget that we do affirm the doctrine of  Judicial Hardening and God’s sinless use of sinful means to accomplish SOME divine purposes throughout redemptive history. We simply deny the heinous assumption that the example of God using man’s free moral choices to bring about the redemption of sin on Calvary is somehow proof that God meticulously determined all the heinous sin that Christ died for at Calvary.  It seems irrational for God to work in the same manner to redeem sin as He supposedly does to cause the sin He is redeeming.

3.  Again, he questions my claims of once being a Calvinist on the basis that I no longer interpret passages like Genesis 50:20 in the same way he does. I suppose anyone who claims to have once been an Arminian (or a Traditional Southern Baptist) cannot change their interpretations or question the positions they formerly held?  This double standard is apparently a blind spot for White because I am quite certain he does not call out the former Arminians for daring to oppose the doctrines they have now recanted.

(For those interested in going deeper than these surface level accusations, I do present our view of passages like Gen. 50 in the article referenced above. And I discuss why non-Calvinists will always be accused of misrepresenting Calvinists no matter what we say or how we say it in this article.)

4. White wrote, “So, the Bible’s answer to Flower’s false quandary is, ‘both, I, to my shame and destruction, and God, to His glory and fame.’” So, let’s apply White’s theology to the real world and see how it plays out:

Question: Why did Jeffery Dahmer determine to rape and eat a child?
Answer: Dahmer determined to do it to his shame and destruction and God determined for Dahmer to do it to His own glory and fame.”

I’m sorry, but I’m simply not willing to teach that our perfectly Righteous, Pure and Holy God determined a man to rape, torture and eat children for His own glory and fame. Instead, I must say, “The Emperor has no clothes!”