June 24, 2022

Is Provisionism Semipelagian?
Part 2: Centering

At the end of my last post, I concluded that while Provisionism is certainly closer to Semi-pelagianism than Arminianism is, there are certain factors that make it difficult to say that they are the same. The two big ones are its acceptance of eternal security and it viewing salvation being conditioned on belief rather than on moral living like the Semipelagian.

However, I think a big reason why this is difficult is an over reliance on the 5 points of the Arminian/Calvinism debate. The 5 points of the Remonstrance and Dort are an excellent means of organizing the disagreements of these two positions. That does not mean, however, that it is a good way of assessing other positions which developed apart from the historical clash. A more thorough look I think comes from examining centeredness.

Epistemic Centering

I’ve written an extensive piece on what I call epistemic centers. Calvinists talk a lot about them being “God-centered” and others as being “man-centered”, which is essentially the same rhetorical trick that pro-choice activist use when they say we are “anti-women”. It’s not a real critique.

However, the concept intrigued me: what does it mean for a theology to be centered on something? I ran through several possible answers to that, but the one that I found the most fruitful, the one that helped me to actually understand those that I disagreed with, was epistemic centering.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge: what is knowledge, how do we acquire knowledge, how do we organize our ideas, etc. So, an epistemic center is where we organize our thoughts around certain sets of questions based on particular themes, and adjudicate their answers based on those same themes. In other words, epistemic centeredness refers to the controlling theme or idea that shapes the way someone thinks about a particular topic. For instance, I identified Calvinism’s center as being causal: being concerned with issues of cause and effect, and power. On the other hand, I identified Arminianism’s center as being relational: being concerned with issues pertaining to relationships and personal characteristics.

Semi-pelagianism and Provisionism

So how are the two positions we are here to talk about centered? Let’s talk first about the more established view: Semi-pelagianism.

I refer to Semi-pelagianism as being pragmatically centered. Whether we are talking about John Cassian or Charles Finney, the principal concern is to accomplish particular goals in ministry. The concern for the classic Semi-pelagians was moral living, while for Finney it was efficaciousness in evangelism. Now, everyone is concerned with practical questions to some degree, just like Calvinists do care about God being good and Arminians do care about God being sovereign. Likewise, we all care about our ministries being effective. However, for the Semi-pelagian, it is the first concern; it is the issue upon which they’ll judge a doctrine’s veracity. This is also why Semi-pelagianism tends to emphasize human action, since the encouragement of that action tends to be the main goal of the theology. Is this the same for Provisionism?

Clearly not. In my mind, this is the factor that makes Semi-pelagianism and Provisionism fundamentally different. It is very clear, listening to Flowers, that he puts veracity and the Bible before issues of pragmatics. Just like Arminians and Calvinists, he clearly cares about practical things, but he won’t assume something is false just because it is impractical. Indeed, you may notice that he does not actually claim that humans must act first like a Pelagian or Semi-pelagian would. Indeed, he considers the cross and the proclamation of the gospel to be the initiative of God. The only reason why he seems to reject prevenient grace is because he fails to see its need (though I think this is tied to his misunderstanding of faith, as stated in my last post).

Instead, I would say that Flowers and other Provisionists are apologetically-centered. This puts them in a similar group as Amyraldians, Molinists, and the Trinity. Another way to think of this kind of centeredness is tradition management. Many times in history, certain theological conflicts break out. An apologetically centered theology is one that develops precisely to deal with these conflicts. This means that such theologies always assume a particular tradition and is attempting to preserve that tradition somehow.

Apologetically-centered theologies can develop in two ways: irenically and polemically. An irenic theology is one that is attempting to resolve conflict by making a “middle-way” between the two sides. Amyraldism attempts to be a middle ground between Arminianism and Calvinism, while Molinism attempts to be a middle ground between libertarianism and determinism. A polemic theology is one that attempts define a clear line between their tradition and what they see as a significant error in an attempt to show why the tradition doesn’t need that error and thus anathematize it. The early debates about the Trinity and the hypostatic union are great examples of this.

Provisionism is a polemical theology. It is attempting the clarify the Southern Baptist tradition in such a way as to show that there is no need for Calvinism. Part of the way that such theologies work is that they have to show that their view is (A) more true than the error and (B) more consistent with the tradition than the error is.

What am I basing this on?

So first of all, the historical context of this lines up. It is not simply that there is a conflict between Calvinists and non-Calvinists: Arminianism has been around for a while and one would simply expect them to embrace Arminianism if that was the sole issue. Where would there be a need to manifest a separate theology? Rather, what caused Provisionism to manifest was an attempted take over of the SBC by Calvinist theology (SBC is the Southern Baptist Convention). Leighton Flowers isn’t trying to protect the church at large from Calvinism, or trying to invent a new soteriology; he is protecting the SBC in particular from Calvinism.

This makes sense of the unique properties of Provisionism. First of all, it rejects most of Calvinism. Indeed, it assumes any position of Calvinism to be false until proven true. This is fundamentally the reason why he resists Total Depravity so much. It doesn’t matter that the Arminian view of Total Depravity is operating in a different context: he’s attempting to exorcise Calvinism from the SBC and he doesn’t want it to have a foot in the door. Indeed, he often argues that he is better positioned to defeat Calvinists because he rejects Total Depravity. 1

But what about eternal security? Shouldn’t reject that as well? That would make sense, but if you know anything about the SBC, eternal security is VERY important within that denomination. In fact, most 4-point Arminians (that is Arminians who believe in eternal security) are SBC. Therefore, I doubt he really sees it as a Calvinist distinctive: he sees it as a Southern Baptist distinctive. Which means that it is part of what he is trying to protect. I could say that this is part of the reason for the rejection of Arminianism, but I actually know this not to be the case for Flowers in particular. He was willing to call himself a 4-point Arminianism until he understood our position on Total Depravity.

I suspect that this is also the reason for the seemingly odd definition of faith. As I talked about in the last post, Flowers seems to equate faith with intellectual assent: i.e., belief or acceptance. Meanwhile, the Bible, and Arminians, have an understanding of faith that has to do with a trusting relationship: i.e. fidelity or loyalty or trust. However, this isn’t really that odd because this is the way that faith is talked about in the culture at large. I’m not sure if it has ever occurred to him to question this definition. I also suspect that this understanding of faith is very common within the SBC in general. Personally though, if there was one thing I could change the minds of Provisionists on, this would be it.

Burden of Proof

One final point I want to make is the issue of burden of proof. This is a concept that I care a lot about because I’ve debated Atheists, and they really abuse this concept. It is worthwhile to think about this more deeply.

Now, Dr. Flowers has often argued that the burden of proof for Total Depravity is on the Arminian. Why? Because we are making the assertion. This is the same claim that Atheists make when they say that the affirmative case bears the burden of proof. However, the affirmative case is not really the same thing as the positive case (which is a case expressed without the words ‘not’ or ‘no’), and there is no reason to claim that the positive case bears the burden of proof.

Indeed, the burden of proof is possessed by people, not positions. In other words, no quality of a particular viewpoint forces the burden on it. Rather it is the context of the discussion that puts the burden on a particular person. Indeed, the actual quality that determines the burden of proof is presumption.

What do I mean by presumption? Let me put it this way: no one walks into a discussion as a clean state. We all enter a conversation with certain presumptions. A person bears a burden of proof if they want someone else to change their mind on their presumption. So, in an informal discussion, the presumption is whatever the people in the discussion believed at the beginning of the discussion. If you want me to change my mind, you have the burden of proof; if I want to change your mind, I bear the burden of proof; if we are both trying change a third person’s mind, we share the burden of proof.2

“Hold on Martin,” you may say, “what about in a court of law? There, the prosecution always has the burden of proof.” Yes, but why? Is it because they are making the positive case? Is it because they are making an assertion? No. It is because the defendant is presumed innocent. In a court of law (in theory anyway), the defense isn’t trying to change the jury’s mind, because they already presume that the defense is right. The defense is merely trying to stop them from changing their minds. That is why he doesn’t have a burden of proof. However, the prosecution is trying to change the jury’s mind and so does bear the burden of proof. The issue therefore is presumption, and in formal contexts, presumption can be assigned.

In theology, there is actually a formal structure that assigns the burden of proof: orthodoxy. In debate, orthodoxy is presumed to be true, and therefore, innovative doctrines bear a burden of proof. Now what is interesting here, is that orthodoxy is defined by tradition. So, for instance, if you are Catholic, you can’t simply go around proclaiming that the Council of Trent is false. Trent is presumed true within the Catholic Church, so you bear the burden of proof (indeed a very high burden in that case). Meanwhile, you would also have a burden of proof is you attempted to argue for Trent in a Lutheran Church. In any church, established tradition is presumed.3

So, when Arminians and Provisionists are talking to each other, is there a common orthodox tradition that we can point to in order to establish a burden of proof? No. There is not. Arminianism enjoys the stasis of being the older and more established position generally, but we’re talking about Baptists here. They don’t play like that. (Unless they are Calvinist for some reason. Then they insist that a local synod in the Netherlands that was overturned 7 years later is binding for every Christian on Earth.)

However, I think in Leighton Flowers’ mind, the question is always regarding SBC tradition. After all, he is centered on tradition management. Sure, I’m not Southern Baptist, but if I’m talking to him, on some level, I must be saying that SBC tradition should change. I may not think I’m doing that, but I think subconsciously he does. I am suspicious that this is where this ploy regarding the burden of proof is ultimately coming from. Either that, or he's been talking to too many atheists. If I am right about it being subconscious, though, it would explain why he often uses it where it is inappropriate. If he is having a one-on-one dialogue with an Arminian, he has just as much a burden of proof as the Arminian does. As Arminians, we must insist on this.


Is Provisionism Semi-pelagian? No. Is it Arminian? No. Is it a viable theology? So far, I must say no, since they do not tend to offer any proof apart from their own apprehension of Arminianism. Now there is more that I can say about Provisionism that I haven’t included here since it lay outside the scope of the question at hand. Additionally, even what I have said here is merely a proposal. I cannot insist that I am right on this, at least not at this point. But I offer it for internet consideration, and I would really appreciate any feedback one may give. Thank you.


1 Just to be clear, I find all such arguments dubious. I’ve heard many Arminians argue the reverse of this as well, and I’m not convinced of that either. In my experience, people are too complicated and their ideas too convoluted to actually predict this kind of thing. Many times, the people who seemed farthest from the gospel end up accepting the gospel, while those that seem like they were on the cusp of faith remain on the cusp for decades until their death. You never really know what will convince a person.

2 I wanted to explain what the affirmative case is, but that is going to get rather granular, so I put it down here. Only read this if you fully understand what I said above. First of all, in formal debates, the debate is often named after a particular question. The audience presumes that question to be false. Thus, the affirmative case, in that scenario, is the person who affirms this official proposition. This only applies to formal debates though where presumption can be officially assigned.

In an informal debate though, the affirmative case kind of goes back and forth depending on what is being debating. For instance, what if one of the arguers puts forward a particular argument, like let’s say the Kalaam Cosmological Argument. Well, the conclusion of that argument is that God exists. Therefore, while discussing the Kalaam, the burden of proof is on the person who affirms that conclusion: that God exists. However, if we shift to talking about the Problem of Evil, then the conclusion of THAT argument is that God doesn’t exist. So, the burden of proof is on the person who affirms that conclusion: the atheist. This is because the purpose of an argument is to change someone’s mind. Therefore, the presumption that is trying to be changed is the person being told the argument. This is what sharing the burden of proof ultimately looks like. You bear the burden of proof for your arguments; he bears the burden of proof for his arguments.

3 This is basically my stance on the Trinity. The Trinity is such an ancient and established doctrine that any attempt to deny has a high burden of proof. Unless you can show that the Trinity is incompatible with Scripture, it should be the presumed reading of the text.

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