By Eric Kemp
Disagreement is the spice of life. When the goals are shared, people who disagree with one another on how to accomplish the goals can act as a necessary opposing force from going too far off in one direction. Politically, our two-party system is supposed to do just that. Ecclesiastically, the different parts of Christ’s body make us whole.
However, there are many within our political system who do not see those whom they disagree with as sharing common goals. Instead, the person across the aisle is morally deficient, a bad person. There is no common cause with a bad person. These forces seek to drag our politics down, to regress us back, into a power struggle for who is the better person and therefore gets to force the other bad person to sit down and be quiet. We see this every time there is a national conversation on the issues that plague our nation. Unfortunately, I think we are seeing the same thing in the Body of Christ.
The term “Regressive Left” is used to describe those on the far left of the political spectrum who seek to set America back on issues such as human rights and free speech. The term used for those people on the right is the “alt-right” but they are every bit as regressive.
There is a growing “Regressive Calvinism” which seeks to set the Church back in terms of character, scholarship, and rhetoric. This regressive rot within Calvinism was on full display in the recent free will debate between Dr. Leighton Flowers/Dr. Johnathan Pritchett and Dr. Sonny Hernandez/Dr. Theodore Zachariades. The previously agreed upon question of the debate was supposed to be “What is the Biblical View of Free Will?” but it quickly became clear that Hernandez/Zachariades team was instead hard determinists who did not believe in free will of any kind.
In this article, I will not be discussing the differing points of theology in the debate. I will leave that endeavor to more qualified men. I will, instead, be looking at the style, structure, and depth of the argumentation. I will argue that not only were Dr. Hernandez and Dr. Zacharadius unprepared for the debate, but they were wholly uninterested in understanding their opponent’s position. During opening statements, the Calvinists stated their position as true without explanation or argumentation. It seems that the only defense of their truth claims was how loudly they stated them. Further, as I will hopefully be able to show, while the reaction of many Calvinists was one of disapproval of the tone of the debate, there is at least one popular Calvinist resource that celebrated it.
Dr. Hernandez’s Opening
“I believe my opponent’s position, tonight, stands on Tradition and not truth. And I will explain to you why…”
But he does not. Several minutes later in his opening statement, Dr. Hernandez rightly quotes Dr. Flowers’ definition of libertarian free will, “The ability to refrain or not refrain from a given moral action“. I felt buoyed by the accuracy of the quote and thought that we were going to get down to the meat of the disagreement. Unfortunately, Dr. Hernandez goes a different direction: “Now let me explain something to you that is very important OK? Flowers position has more in common with Catholicism than it does with Christ“. Then he goes on to quote Roman Catholic catechism and concludes, “This is not language from heaven, but lies from hell“.
My Calvinist brethren, hear me, even if you factually agree with Dr. Hernandez, his argument is synonymous with every internet argument that ends with an accusation of being like Hitler. It’s a bogeyman fallacy followed up by impassioned polemics and elevated volume. Dr. Hernandez had ten minutes to explain how his position differed from those who affirm free will and he had no more depth than an internet crusader.
In the rest of his opening, he goes on to quote the Bible as if his opponents have never read it. Dr. Hernandez is unaware of Dr. Flowers and Dr. Pritchett’s position on Romans 3. He is also seemingly unaware if they have an explanation for why one person believes in Christ and another does not. Could you imagine going to a debate thinking “All I have to do is quote this one biblical passage and my opponents, who have never read this super obvious passage, will have no answer to it” and then not doing any research on your opponents leading up to the debate to see if that is true? The shallowness is baffling.
Dr. Hernandez does not fulfill his promise to show how his opponent’s position, which he never explains, is separate from truth. He merely states what he thinks the truth is and if he can create a false choice (“free grace vs. free will,” again, which he never explains), if he can associate his opponents with the known bogeymen of Rome, and if he shouts loud enough, the audience will be convinced of his position. Is this the level of scholarship and reason Calvinists want from those representing them at debates?
Dr. Zachariades’ Opening
This is as close to describing the free will position as Dr. Zachariades came:
“Man can thwart God’s plans. He has the ability to keep God from doing that He wants?! WOW!!”
No one could mistake the look of dripping sarcasm on his face as he said this. I put wow in all caps above but it does not do the volume justice. It must be seen (and heard) to be believed. Dr. Zachariades felt the need to apologize for the ringing ears in the audience; he quite literally screamed into the microphone. After the apology, he moved the microphone away a bit, leaned away from it a bit, and then continued to shout at the same volume for much of his opening. If I could have a shot at sarcasm as well I would say it seems like Dr. Zachariades believes that shouting is his strongest argument and that shouting, itself, is capable of convincing people.
I felt embarrassment for Dr. Zachariades not only for the demeanor of his opening but also for the depth of his scholarship. His main argument, that the free will position believes that man can thwart God’s power, is sophomoric at best. I have a hard time imagining that a man with published works, endorsed by well-known and influential Calvinists, with a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has not read A.W. Tozer or C.S. Lewis.
If Dr. Zachariades put every Soteriology 101 podcast, Youtube video and article in front of him and randomly picked one, there is about a fifty percent chance Dr. Flowers would quote Tozer; that’s how often Dr. Flowers quotes Tozer. This is the never-gets-old A.W. Tozer quote Dr. Zachariades would hear (or read):
“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. – The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God
Indeed, in anticipation of the debate, Dr. Flowers posted an article with this quote in it. The point Tozer makes and the position Dr. Flowers holds is that free will is a part of God’s eternal sovereign decree. Free will does not thwart God’s plans but it is a part of them. Dr. Zachariades is free to disagree with this position, it was a debate after all, but to be willfully ignorant of your opponents position is to disrespect both your opponent and the audience which came to learn from you. Everything in Dr. Zachariades’ opening is based upon this specific willful ignorance of Dr. Flowers and Dr. Pritchett’s position on free will.
I say willful ignorance because Dr. Zachariades published a book entitled “God’s Glorious Gospel: The Potter’s Prerogative – A Response to Leighton Flowers” but does not know how Dr. Flowers sees free will.
In referencing both Eph 1 and Gen 20, Dr. Zachariades says:
“God works all things according to the council of His will. Even keeping the kings who want to commit adultery from committing so. AND WHEN WE WANTS TO HE ORDERS THOSE TO COMMIT ADULTERY WHEN HE WANTS TO!”
I put the second sentence in all caps because Dr. Zachariades shouted it at the top of his lungs. Clearly, in his mind, the volume at which you state something is equal to how true it is. Especially when making God into the being that orders you to commit the sin He then punishes you for.
This is a call for the majority of Calvinists that I know would vehemently disagree with this to do so publicly. Perhaps the first place you could voice your disagreement would be with Dr. Thomas Ascol, the Executive Director or the Founders Ministries who endorsed Zachariades’ book.
The Purpose of Debate
There is much more that can, and already has been said about the debate. However, there is a looming question I would like to address: If neither education nor persuasion was the purpose of the debate for Dr. Hernandez and Dr. Zachariades, then what was? If rightly understanding their opponents position, and providing arguments that we can all understand and learn from as to why their opponents are wrong, was not their purpose, then what was? I suggest that the disrespect, itself, was the purpose.
I chose the term “Regressive Calvinism” carefully. The regressive forces on both the right and the left of the political spectrum exist in a constant state of outrage where the only rightful response to someone you disagree with is to ridicule and shout them down. In their mind, your opponent does not have bad arguments, they are a bad person. These are the same tactics used by the two representatives of Reforming America Ministries. The political left uses “bigot” and the right “snowflake” while Dr. Hernandez used “heretic” and Dr. Zacharaides “man-centered”. “Man-centered” is a fancy word for an arrogant idolator. Arrogant heretics are bad people, and bad people’s arguments should not be understood nor taken seriously. And man-centered heretics should not, of course, be shown any kind of respect. Disrespect is the purpose and idolatrous heretics deserve it. This is how far back the Regressive Calvinists want to take us.
I am open to the idea that this wound within Calvinism may not be as big as I am making it sound. Dr. Flowers has received dozens of messages from Calvinists who did not think Dr.’s Hernandez and Zachariades represented them well. On the last viewing, both the Soteriology 101 and Bible Brodown (Matt and Billy were at the debate) Facebook pages have several, perhaps dozens, of comments from Calvinists expressing concern for the tone of their fellow Calvinists. I’m confident that most Calvinists I know would share this sentiment.
However, consider this article by Pulpit and Pen, which has twenty thousand Facebook followers. The article was written by the News Division but since P&P’s “About” page says “All published content is ultimately the responsibility of Pastor Hall” I’m going to refer to the article as written by JD Hall. The article is entitled “Top Five Reasons to Watch…” the debate. I will not be going through every reason, my purpose will be to show the absolute glee Hall displays at Dr. Hernandez’s and Dr. Zachariades’ disrespect.
“The debate over the weekend with Sonny Hernandez and Theodore Zachariades versus Leighton Flowers and Johnathan Pritchet is the most interesting debate in recent years. It is…cathartic, to watch.”
According to Hall, debates are worth watching for the emotions they give you. Not for rational discussion, not for education, but for emotions.
“Let’s be clear: Leighton Flowers hates the gospel, hates the God of Scripture, hates free grace, and seeks to place man upon the glory throne of Christ.”
In other words, Leighton Flowers is a despicable person who deserved the treatment he received at the hands of the Reforming America Ministry boys.
“Flowers has gone on a one-man crusade to defend the virtuous nature of man, attack the doctrines of depravity, and twist the Holy Scriptures to make Jesus into a worthless potential Savior. ”
Not a single quote to show how Dr. Flowers is doing this nor a single argument as to how. That’s not the point. Shouting down and demonizing the heretic is the point.
“While namby-pampy, Interfaith-dialogue-having, bow-tied Calvinists might be horrified at the straightforwardness of Hernandez and Zachariades, the rest of us actually rejoice that God’s name and power might be defended and Arminians might be rightly handed over as unworthy of theological respect.”
Hall not only considers disgusting heretics unworthy of respect but also anyone who engages them in thoughtful dialogue. This means his fellow Calvinists as well.
“Presuppositionalism oozed out of Hernandez and Zachariades as they repeatedly refused to give excuses for God, and they seemed altogether uninterested in making their position seem rational or respectable.”
When I say that being rational and convincing people of your position is not the purpose for Regressive Calvinists, I was not being unfair. Hall celebrates Hernandez-Zachariades’ irrationality and disrespect.
“It was very clear that Zachariades had little patience for people he feels are heretics, and that reality bubbled to the surface of his discourse on multiple occasions.”
Losing patience and being belligerent due to that lack of patience is virtuous as long as it is done to someone you think is a heretic, ie. a bad person. That is JD Hall’s standard.
“While they will be criticized for not having the right demeanor for debate, I would suggest that is only because we have been inundated with the soft-bellied, lily-livered, limp-wristed creampuffs who make up the children of our age. These men were all fire and lightning, and the respect given to Flowers and Pritchard was commensurate with the respect due.”
JD Hall suggests that if you’re offended by Dr. Hernandez’s and Dr. Zachariades’ demeanor it’s not because their demeanor was offensive but because you’re too much of a sissy to handle it. These are the tactics of an intellectual bully.
“For Calvinists who are sick and tired of seeing Leighton Flowers treated as a well-meaning brother and not an enemy of God, watching the repeated anathemas during the debate was a breath of fresh air”
Let us walk a few steps down Thought Experiment Lane. Hall believes that Dr. Flowers and Dr. Pritchett “hate the God of Scripture,” “hate the gospel” and are “enemies of God.” On what grounds does Hall have to object to the behavior of his hero John Calvin who advocated for dissenters to be burned alive? As Dr. Zachariades tweeted on Thursday:
I wonder if these men held political power how far they would go to impose their views on others?
The infection of the Regressives within Calvinism must be exposed and condemned by the majority of Calvinists I know object to it. JD Hall and Reforming America Ministries are attempting to drag the Church down into screaming names at one another with our fingers firmly planted in our own ears. I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
If we are going to reach the world for Jesus Christ, and change it, the face we present to the world cannot be one of eye-rolling sarcasm, gleeful ridicule, or red-faced shouting. Join with me, brothers.