Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Pelagian Calvinism"

“[Nick Norelli] I have to admit that I don’t read Triablogue unless someone whose blog I do read links to it. Well, TurettinFan did exactly that in linking to an admittedly humorous post by Steve Hays in which he mocks Perry Robinson of Energetic Procession for outing TurrettinFan as a Calvinist. But as amusing as Hays’ post was it was an exercise in missing the point. Perry’s post was about Reformed anthropology being essentially Pelagian, a charge which TurretinFan denied elsewhere and sought ot defend against. Perry pointed out from Reformed sources (one of which TF used, i.e., Charles Hodge) that Reformed anthropology is indeed Pelagian in so far as he understands Pelagianism (and I think he makes an excellent case). Of course the substance of Perry’s post wasn’t addressed, but then again I don’t know if Hays is up to such a task (I honestly don’t know since I know next to nothing about the man).”

“[Perry Robinson] I was wondering when Hays would come out to play. I am suprised that mockery was all that was dispensed. Of course I expected mockery but also something trying to look like an argument too. Steve is smart enough to do much more. Perhaps he will engage the argument and sources, but if he doesn’t, that by itself will be sufficiently telling.”

I was making a point about Robinson's apologetic method. So often he uses the following tactic to "disprove" Calvinism:

i) Compare and contrast Reformed theology with Orthodox theology.
ii) Arrive at the conclusion that Reformed theology is different than Orthodox theology.
iii) Case closed!

Of course, that begs the question of why Orthodox theology should supply the standard of comparison. He almost never tries to prove his theological criterion. He takes that as a given. And the few times I've seen him try to prove his theological criterion, he did so in a way that took for granted his Orthodox ecclesiology. I have yet to see him offer a defense of his theological criterion that doesn't assume what he needs to prove. And most of the time he doesn't even try.

“[Robinson] I had no doubt that Hays would be called in since TF seems incapable of grasping and adjudicating the issues. Nothing personal but, TF doesn’t seem to grasp the issues and Dyer masters language from arguments that he can’t effectively deploy.

Sorry to disappoint you, but I didn’t receive a desperate, 3AM phone call from TF.

I’m acting on my own initiative. In that respect I’m not speaking for TF. He can speak for himself.

For purpose of this reply, I’ll act as if Perry addressing me rather than TF or another interlocutor.

“The primary error of Pelagianism is the identification of nature with grace. For Pelagians, nature is grace, completely.”

And, of course, that underscores a primary difference between Pelagianism and Calvinism.

“Because they thought this was so, Adam was not deprived of anything at the Fall and children inherit no deprivation of divine power or corruption. Adam’s nature is impenetrable by sin since grace or righteousness is intrinsic to it. The only way for this not to be so along Pelagian lines is for Adam’s nature to be fundamentally changed, for him to then possess a sinful nature or a nature of sin.”

Notice that Perry uses “grace” and “righteousness” as synonymous. That’s one of his key equivocations. What is “grace”?

In Reformed theology, the term can be used in at least three difference ways:

i) It can be used as a technical term for saving grace.

Moreover, saving grace has both an:

a) objective dimension (e.g. justification)

and a:

b) subjective dimension (e.g. regeneration).

c) Furthermore, in its subjective dimension, saving grace can, in some respects, come in degrees (e.g. sanctification).

ii) It can also be used as a technical term for common grace. By definition, common grace is nonsaving grace.

iii) Finally, it can be used in a nontechnical sense for something gratuitous. Something generous and discretionary rather than obligatory.

So, for example, creation is gracious in the sense of (iii), but not in the sense of (i). For (i) presupposes the Fall.

As for “righteousness,” Reformed theology uses this term in the Pauline sense, where it denotes moral perfection. The holiness of God sets the standard.

(Incidentally, James has the same concept. If you transgress a single commandment, you’re guilty of the whole nine yards.)

As such, an actually righteous person always does right. Righteousness, in Pauline usage, does not admit degrees of righteousness. So, by definition, a sinner cannot be actually righteous.

However, a righteous standing can be imputed to a sinner via the righteousness of a second-party (Christ).

Perry also uses the loaded word “nature.” But that, too, is ambiguous.

“Adam was then perpetually under a ‘covenant of works’ since he intrinsically possessed the requisite power to fulfill it. This is why incidentally the Reformed doctrine of the Covenant of Works is essentially Pelagian.”

i) But, of course, Reformed theology doesn’t believe that Adam was under a “perpetual” covenant of work.

ii) Moreover, the term “Pelagian” connotes a package of errors. For example, when Reformed theology says that Adam was in a covenant of works, this doesn’t entail the proposition that Adam merited the reward. Rather, it could operate on the same principle as heavenly rewards.

[Quoting Hodge] The important point of difference is this, that the Protestants hold that original righteousness, so far as it consisted in the moral excellence of Adam, was natural, while the Romanists maintain that it was supernatural…Protestants maintain that original righteousness was concreated and natural.” Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 103.

“Now, that is clearly a Pelagian anthropology. Grace or righteousness is intrinsic to nature for Hodge.”

i) Notice the equivocation. Perry treats “grace” and “righteousness” as if they were synonymous.

ii) In addition, which is typical of his behavior, Perry slaps an odious label onto the opposing position rather than bothering to show if the opposing position is right or wrong.

From the standpoint of Scripture, what is wrong with Hodge’s statement? Doesn’t Scripture implicitly describe the condition of Adam in the way Hodge describes it (e.g. Eccl 7:29; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10).

But Perry prefers debating historical theology to exegetical theology since he would lose a debate over exegetical theology.

“The only way to stave off full blown Pelagianism after the Fall is to posit a fundamental alteration in human nature, specifically in a loss in some respect or another of the imago dei. And this is exactly what the Reformed have historically asserted. Total Depravity is therefore required to stave off a complete Pelagian soteriology while motivated by a Pelagian anthropology. And so the dialectic moves from a Pelagian anthropology to essentially a Manichean anthropology post Fall.”

i) Of course, this way of putting it makes it sound as if total depravity was hustled in as an afterthought or ad hoc modification. Perry likes to write these just-so stories about his opponents. And like any pulp fiction writer he includes a few comic book villains for melodramatic effect. In this just-so story, Calvinism began life as pure Pelagianism, but then it suddenly occurred to some Reformed caveman that this was way too Pelagian, so he invented the “Manichean” doctrine of total depravity as a face-saving maneuver.

ii) And, once more, Perry likes to tell just-so stories because this allows him to dodge the exegetical issue. Good Kipling, bad exegesis.

iii) We don’t have to use the word “nature.” The underlying point is that, according to Scripture, there are both continuities and discontinuities between fallen man and unfallen man. “Nature” is just a handy linguistic placeholder.

The only relevant question is whether Reformed theology accurately describes the continuities and discontinuities.

iv) Traditionally, one way in which Reformed theology describes the degree of identity and difference is to distinguish between a broad and narrow imago Dei. And it uses this framework because Scripture itself draws certain distinctions with respect to the imago Dei. On the one hand, it continues to ascribe the imago Dei to fallen man. On the other hand, it also speaks of the renewal of the imago Dei in the case of Christians. Therefore, Reformed theology is simply tracking the nuances of Biblical usage at this point.

“This is why there are no works of nature post-Fall for the Reformed, even works done of common grace that are not sin.”

Once again, what is wrong with that position from a Scriptural standpoint?

[Quoting Turretin] Where two things immediately opposed belong to any subject, one or the other of the two must necessarily be in it. Now righteousness and sin are predicated of man as their fit subject and are directly opposed to each other. Therefore one or the other must necessarily be in him; nor can there be a man who is not either righteous or sinner. Institutes of Eclenctic Theology, vol. 1, p. 464.

“Here Turretin is writing against the Pelagian notion of a pure nature. Notice the dialectic first in terms of opposition and second in terms of sin or righteousness. If nature is to be good, it must be good in terms of moral or personal goodness. There is an apparent conflation between the personal and the natural. Natural goodness is personal righteousness for Turretin.”

i) What, exactly, is wrong with Turretin’s statement that sin and righteousness are antithetical?

ii) Moreover, what would be wrong with saying that God created Adam as a morally good agent?

How is (i) or (ii) at odds with Scripture?

[Quoting Turretin] For the Son of God only is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15)-the essential and natural, and no mortal can attain to it because the finite cannot be a partaker of the infinite. And if we are said by grace to be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4), this is not to be understood of an essential, formal and instrinsic participation, but an analogical, accidental and extrinsic participation (by reason of the effects analogous to the divine perfections which are produced in us by the Spirit after the image of God).” Institutes of Eclenctic Theology vol. 1, p. 465

“Notice that the patristic notion of deification is impossible for Turretin.”

So what? Why should Turretin accept the patristic notion? Perry imposes a standard which he makes no effort to defend.

“He has to strain against the obvious import of the biblical material.”

Several issues here:

i) It’s true that Turretin isn’t doing exegesis in the modern sense of the term. But, then, no 17C theologian is doing exegesis in the modern sense of the term.

ii) Moreover, I don’t think Turretin is even attempting to exegete the passage. Rather, he’s excluding an interpretive option that would run contrary to the general tenor of scripture (e.g. Col 1:15).

There’s nothing inherently improper with that. We often say that, considered in isolation, a given verse might have several possible meanings, but considered in relation to other teachings of Scripture, those are not all live possibilities.

iii) And it’s not as if Perry bothers to exegete the verse.

iv) What about the “obvious import” of the passage? “Obvious” to whom? The original reader? A contemporary reader?

v) What is the correct interpretation of this passage? In a detailed discussion, where he carefully works through the relevant background material, a recent commentator concludes that “Peter’s thought has to do with moral transformation…the acquisition of moral character,” G. Green, Jude & 2 Peter (Baker 2008), 186.

So, even though Turretin didn’t’ have the resources of Green, Turretin’s interpretation dovetails quite nicely with the grammatico-historical exegesis of this verse.

This is why Perry studiously avoids real exegesis. As soon as he leaves the unquestioned deliverances of historical theology for the rough terrain of exegetical theology, he will slip and fall.

“For him human nature remains impenetrable to divinity and must remain so, except either morally in terms of an imposed law or in terms of efficient causation volitionally. This is why he must interpret 2 Pet 1:4 in terms of a created analogs in the soul-virtues or ‘created grace.’ The human and divine are divided up on the dialectical fulcrum of cause and effect.”

Notice that Perry’s modus operandi is to simply state the consequence of an opposing position as if that’s unacceptable, without bothering to explain why that’s an unacceptable consequence. Even if this were an accurate description of Turretin’s position, what makes that unacceptable?

[Quoting Plato] Indeed, the opposite is true of them-an image cannot remain an image if it presents all the details of what it represents. Cratylus, 432b

“Here you can see this principle at work. The opposition between cause and effect for Turretin functions to leave human nature always and only extrinically related to the divine. If this weren’t so, Turretin argues, therre would necessarily be a formal or essential confusion between the human essence and the divine essence, which is impossible. There would be no way to distinguish humanity from divinity. God for Turretin obviously lacks intrinsically related energies or activities that can be united inherently and intrinsically to human nature without an abosrption of humanity into the divine essence. Humanity can only be a tool or instrument of the divine will or influenced by moral principles. Humanity at best can only be brought into a kind of contiguity of analogs with God through a subordinating relation of will. The two wills work side by side doing similar things. It goes without saying that this schema is Nestorian in structure.”

Several problems:

i) Perry is quoting Plato, not Turretin. Yet he acts as though this is something Turretin said–in representing his own position–then he proceeds to do a lengthy riff on the implications of this statement for Turretin’s theology.

ii) To the extent that Turretin uses philosophical categories and distinctions, aren’t these generally Aristotelian rather than Platonic?

iii) Once more, he merely states a consequence as if that were unacceptable, without making any effort to demonstrate the point.

iv) Divine “energies” is shorthand for Perry’s Palamite theology. But he hasn’t make any effort to argue for his Palamite standard of comparison. He just takes that for granted.

v) And he’s using this as a pretext to smuggle in the “Nestorian” bogeyman. Yet he hasn’t begun to show that Turretin espouses a Nestorian Christology.

[Quoting Turretin] Was original rightouesness natural or supernatural? The former we affirm, and the latter we deny against the Romanists.” (Institutes, v. 1, p. 470)

However, the orthodox [the Reformed] (although not denying that this rightousness may be called supernatural with regard to the corrupt state and holding that it is not natural constitutuvely or consecutively) yet think it may well be called natural orioginally and perfectively (with regard to the pure state because created with it). (Ibid, 471)

Although original righteousness can properly be called ‘grace’ or ‘a gratuitous gift’ (and so not due on the part of God, just as the nature itself also, created by him), it does not follow that it is supernatural or not due to the perfection of the innocent nature. For although God owned nothing to man, yet it being posited that he willed to create man after his own image, he was bound to create him righteous and holy.” (Ibid, 473)

“If rightouesness can be called superntural with respect to the corrupt state of man after the fall, then it follows that nature is righteousness or grace prior to the Fall. Here the Pelagian anthropology is quite apparent and along with a nascent confusion of the categories of person and nature.”

Here, Perry is continuing to trade on the equivocation of terms we already noted.

“Consequently the basic problem of viewing God and creation as related oppositionally remains the unfortunate heart of Reformed theology. It is just a diferent location for the pagan conception of God and the world as distinguished by opposite properties. God is cause and humans are effect.”

i) Since God is the Creator, and man is the creature, there’s a fundamental sense in which God is cause and man is effect.

ii) At the same time, the Westminster Confession goes out of its way to exclude occasionalism. It has a doctrine of second causes. God is not the only agent. Man is a finite agent.

iii) It’s highly inaccurate to say that, in Reformed theology, God and man have opposite properties. In Reformed theology there are communicable as well as incommunicable attributes.

Perry knows all this. But he feels free to misrepresent Reformed theology for the readers of his blog since he expects them to rely on his say-so rather than do their own fact-checking. He can lie with impunity.

“No, the Orthodox do not think we become God by essence. We become partakers of the divine nature with respect to God’s energies or activities-love, immortality, glory, impassibility, etc.”

Divine impassibility refers to the view that God cannot be affected by the world. Does Perry claim that, according to Orthodox theology, Christians cannot be affected by the world? Do Christians become impassible?

"No, it was part of an argument I was making with respect to a citation from Turretin. In the context, because Turretin thinks of God as absolutely simple such that all of the attributions we make of God are identical in God and all there is to God is his essence, it is impossible for Turretin to take the passage in a straightforward way. He has to introduce the idea of a created subsitute or analog that we partake of."

Once again, what is wrong with the claim that God is identical with his essence? And how does 2 Pet 1:4 contract that claim?

Notice how habitually Perry Robinson states a position as if it were objectionable without bothering to explain what makes it objectionable. Perry is a very lazy debater. We’re treated to his conclusions minus anything resembling a supporting argument.

“I am aware of what Horton is trying to do with the Reformed ordo. He seems the problems with the pretty much standard way of glossing justification and sanctification as contiguous relation between the forensic and the real.”

Once more, what is wrong with that relation? If, according to Scripture, sin has both an objective dimension (guilt) and a subjective dimension (corruption), then we’d expect saving grace to have both an objective dimension (e.g. justification) and a subjective dimension (e.g. sanctification).

Has Perry lost all capacity to ever argue for his position? Maybe he never had much ability to do so. Instead of making a case for what he believes, we’re constantly treated to his considered opinion as a fait accompli, to which we should instantly acquiesce.

“The church does the activities and is empowered by Christ and is in fact his glorified and immortal body.”

Of course, that’s pious nonsense on stilts. What is the glorified body of Christ? Try reading Lk 24 or Jn 20-21. It wasn’t “the church.” It was a discrete body that could sit down alongside other bodies and speak with them and eat with them.

“Horton’s position of keeping Christ in heaven…”

As in the Ascension and Session of Christ? In distinction to the return of Christ? Seems pretty biblical to me.

“It is sufficiently known that Horton has a more Lutheran slant. Look at his political theology as well as his teaching, or lack thereof on sanctification. This is why he detests Theonomy. He pretty much won’t even preach progressive sanctification. It was quite strange to see when Gerstner came to our church and was preaching all this standard Puritan stuff on progressive sanctification and Mike flipped out, claiming it was Rome through the back door.”

Perry may well be right about this.

“In any case, I sat under Horton personally for almost five years. Spent time at his house, with his family, etc. Horton has a problem with reading primary sources. For example, the debate that he was participant to for example in the 1990’s with three other Protestant participants against four Catholics in Pasadena is a good example. Prior to the debate he hadn’t read any substantial amount of Catholic sources like Newman’s lectures on justification or Journet on Grace or Lagrange. Zippo.”

Once again, Perry may well be right about this. Horton is a popularizer. And he spreads himself very thin. Not only is he quite prolific, but just look at all his speaking engagements. It’s safe to say he doesn’t have time for in-depth research.

"In their view, the 'person' Jesus Christ was the product or result of the union of the two natures. This is why it is possible to give an unorthodox reading to the statement that after the Incarnation Jesus is a composite hypostasis. That could mean that the person is the product of the two natures coming into union or it could mean that the one divine person takes human nature into his divine person."

This, too, is fatally ambiguous:

i) Is the person of the Son a product of the hypostatic union? No. The person of the Son would subsist with or without an Incarnation.

ii) However, is Perry going to say the human nature makes no distinctive contribution to the personality of Christ? Would Christ have the same psychology if he had no human nature—only his divine personhood? Obviously not.

And, of course, the “person” of Christ is used for more than mental attributes. It includes physical attributes as well.

So, in that sense, the person of Christ is a product of the hypostatic union.

Is Christ a "divine person"? Yes and no. He's not a merely divine person. Rather, he's a theanthropic person.

And, of course, Perry never discusses NT Christology. Revelation is not his touchstone.


  1. "Of course, that begs the question of why Orthodox theology should supply the standard of comparison."

    Simple: Orthodox theology is orthodox.

  2. If that's your equation, then, by your own standard, you're a heretic. You call yourself an Anabaptist. So Eastern Orthodoxy is not your criterion of sound theology. Or have you suddenly converted to EO since the last time we spoke?

  3. Steve,

    You asked the question, “What is grace?” You then went on to describe the different technical and nontechnical ways that term grace is used in Reformed Theology, but, as far as I could tell, never went on to explain exactly what grace is. I have a couple of questions: What exactly is grace? and, What is the opposite of grace? Thanks.

  4. As far as the basic foundation of soteriology they are orthodox: Adam's sin condemned our bodies to death. Our sins and not his condemn our souls. Jesus saved all men from bodily death by establishing the resurrection. Jesus saves only those who believe and obey the gospel from spiritual death.

    Because I am an anabaptist I obviously disagree with them on how one obeys the gospel. But they are still orthodox on the most basic basics, unlike you. But mostly I was just being cute with the play on words between Orthodox and orthodox.

  5. "What exactly is grace?"

    Grace to an Augustinian is some sort of power God gives you that enables you to obey him. Grace to everyone else is essentially mercy. God sending Jesus to die for our sins and having the gospel preached in this world (as opposed to just instantly killing us all and sending us to hell) is grace--right? Of course. But to the Augustinian, grace is a magical power to give you magical abilities to do stuff.

    Look at it this way, Lightweight: Noah found GRACE in the eyes of the Lord according to Gen 6:8. Now, does that mean that God gave Noah a magical power to keep the commandments he was unable to keep before, or does it mean that God gave him a divine plan whereby he could escape from death? Obviously the latter. So how come grace today is defined as magical power to make us able to keep commandments we couldn't keep before, rather than as the plan that God provided to enable us to escape hell? Obvious answer: false doctrine.

  6. Beowulf,

    The Orthodox would condemn you as a heretic.

    An Anabaptist? You tipped your hand when you recently defended Pelagius.


    "Grace to everyone else is essentially mercy."

    That's a Pelagian definition which most theologian traditions reject. Most recognize the subjective dimension of grace. The necessity of inner renewal.

    "Look at it this way, Lightweight: Noah found GRACE in the eyes of the Lord according to Gen 6:8. Now, does that mean that God gave Noah a magical power to keep the commandments he was unable to keep before, or does it mean that God gave him a divine plan whereby he could escape from death?"

    That's inept on several grounds:

    i) You're confusing English words with Hebrew words.

    ii) You're confusing words with concepts.

    iii) You're confusing Biblical usage with dogmatic usage.

    iv) You're disregarding the variety of Biblical usage.

  8. Steve, You wrote, "[W]hen Reformed theology says that Adam was in a covenant of works, this doesn’t entail the proposition that Adam merited the reward. Rather, it could operate on the same principle as heavenly rewards."

    What is the "same principle" as heavenly rewards that you are referring to? Thanks.

  9. "That's a Pelagian definition which most theologian traditions reject." Pelagian isn't a bad word to me. And, Sorry, but grace does not mean inner renewal. "Most recognize the subjective dimension of grace." Whatever. Your position is just false doctrine couched in big words.

  10. And, Sorry, but grace does not mean inner renewal.

    As usual, you trade in fallacious argumentation.

    1. You provide no exegetical support for this statement.

    2. You don't distinguish between the meanings of words and concepts.Steve did not say that the meaning of the word "grace" = "inner renewal." Did you fail Reading in grade school? What he stated is that grace has a subjective dimension - that subjective dimension is inner renewal. Even Arminians themselves recognize that regeneration is the subjective dimension of grace.

    3. As Steve pointed out, you conflict dogmatic usage and biblical usage.

    Our position is a false position? Okay, let's see you mount an exegetical argument for libertarian freedom. Come to think of it, let's see you mount an exegetical argument for anything whatsoever...

  11. Dear Steve,

    I'm sorry you got entangled with Nick Norelli. He adamantly insists that the Bible is errant.


    “What is the ‘same principle’ as heavenly rewards that you are referring to? Thanks.”

    God doesn’t dole out heavenly rewards because Christians merit a reward. Rather:

    i) Heavenly rewards function as an incentive to persevere.

    ii) It’s also a way in which God distinguishes between less faithful and more faithful Christians–giving public recognition to the latter.

  13. Beowulf sounds like one of those antinomian, Sandemandian types in the "Free Grace" movement, a la Hodges, Ryrie, &c. It's a recipe for nominal Christianity.