An Open Letter to the Speakers and Attenders of the 2019 National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA)


Warren Wiersbe preached an excellent sermon on the issue of Truth. You can listen to it here.


The theme for the 2019 National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA) was “Why Truth Still Matters.”  The informational mailing read,

               “From gender and sexuality, to the existence of God, to the Bible, to the very existence of truth itself, reality is being questioned at its very core.  In order to impact our culture with the Gospel, it is necessary for us to both know the truth and why it matters.” 

            Note that the stated ultimate purpose of the conference is to “impact our culture with the Gospel.”  “The Gospel” is at the heart of biblical revelation and the Christian faith.  It is the raison d’etre of every Christian church, Christian ministry and Christian school (including Southern Evangelical Seminary, Talbot, et al.). To witness to “the Gospel” is the purpose of the apologetic endeavors of believers in theology, philosophy and the sciences. The words “the Gospel” can be found in every Christian book and heard in every church sermon, Bible study and ministry outreach. And again, the spread of “the Gospel” is the ultimate purpose of conferences like the NCCA.

            Yet in the Calvinist/non-Calvinist controversy we have a situation in which two mutually exclusive soteriologies both claim they are speaking biblical truth.  These soteriologies entail two mutually exclusive understandings of “the Gospel.”  But in logic, mutual exclusivity is indicative of the truth or falsity of one or the other (or both in the case of falsity) of two propositions. Therefore, when Calvinists and non-Calvinist talk about “the Gospel,” what are they talking about? As mutually exclusive soteriologies (if they are to be consistent with those soteriologies), they cannot possibly mean the same thing by “the Gospel.” Recall the theme of the 2019 conference—“Truth Still Matters.”  Therefore, if truth still matters, then the issue of the truth of the gospel needs to be reckoned with.

            The fact that within churches that call themselves “evangelical” incompatible soteriologies are commonly accepted as viable biblical alternatives, and as such, both claim to be the truth of Scripture, demonstrates that contemporary Evangelicalism has embraced a soteriological relativism.  This relativism bespeaks an indifference to the issue of knowing and speaking the truth when it comes to “the Gospel.”  The contradictory nature of these soteriologies and gospels confronts us with an issue of truth.  

            This is a situation which intellectually honest Christians who call themselves evangelical – which means a bearer of “good news” – should be concerned about because this controversy has to do with defining and defending “the good news.”  This controversy has to do with the truth of the gospel.  To bear witness to that gospel is the ultimate purpose for doing Christian apologetics and for conferences like the NCCA.  In the gospel is revealed the loving, gracious and just character of God and his salvific will for all individuals.  It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).  And if the conference’s purpose is “to impact our culture with the Gospel” then we need to know what “Gospel” we are talking about.  Therefore, the Calvinist/non-Calvinist differences are not a secondary or non-essential matter as is so often asserted.  Neither are they an “in-house” debate. These differences raise questions about the very content, purpose and effectiveness of the gospel message which is at the heart of Scripture and the proclamation of which is the ultimate goal of the apologetic task. 

            At this conference there were lectures that stressed the indispensability of the laws of logic for evaluating and discerning truth claims. Speakers exhorted us to employ philosophy or in-depth logical and moral reasoning to gain clarity of understanding in our areas of study, including theology.  And rightly so.  But if that is the case, then that same logical and moral reasoning needs to be applied to this controversy.  The disciplines of hermeneutics, exegesis and interpretation are not exempt from the probative force of logical and moral reasoning. Embracing mutually exclusive positions as if both are true, let alone the teaching of Scripture, and being indifferent to or in denial of the fact that we are doing so, is unacceptable for the intellectually honest Christian apologist, theologian or philosopher.  It is not a luxury afforded the responsible Christian thinker to ignore the question of truth raised by mutually exclusive positions, especially not while claiming truth still matters and the way to get at the truth is through coherent, consistent, non-contradictory thinking.

            Yet, when sound logical and moral reasoning is applied to the Calvinist’s exegetical and interpretive conclusions, they show themselves to be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory with respect to both the witness of the Scriptures and reality as we know and experience it.  If logical reflection and moral intuition are essential for discerning what is true from what is false, then we must grapple with the fact that Calvinism, as a universal divine causal determinism,[1] cannot be coherently sustained.  And if that is the case, then it must be false.  When the results of our thinking and conclusions, even our exegesis and interpretations of the biblical text, are found to be incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory, then they cannot be true. Coming to agree that this is an essential principle in hermeneutics is at the heart of this controversy.  

            We only come to discern whether or not an interpretation is true or false, that is, whether or not it is a valid interpretation of the text, when we take logical and moral reasoning on board in our hermeneutic.  Calvinists argue that their exegesis of Scripture teaches their universal divine causal determinism despite the logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency or contradictions their interpretations generate.  Ultimately, for the Calvinist, these logical and moral problems have no interpretive significance.  But this is to establish a false dichotomy between exegesis and philosophical reflections and moral intuition.  Exegesis cannot be severed from the deliberations and deliverances of philosophical and moral reasoning.  All exegetical claims must be assessed as to their interpretive validity.  That can only be done as the interpreter remains tethered to the laws of logic and their moral intuitions.  Logical and moral coherence are necessary for discerning the validity of any propositional or interpretive claims as well as the doctrinal conclusions and theological constructs built upon them.  But faced with the problems of interpretive incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, Calvinists flee to incomprehensibility and mystery.  In doing so the Calvinist reveals their hermeneutic.  It is a hermeneutic of incoherence.  The Calvinist claims that their exegesis and interpretations are the truth of Scripture regardless of their incoherence, inconsistency or contradictions.  They claim that a fully satisfying reconciliation of their doctrinal difficulties is “beyond our human comprehension.”  Hence, the Calvinist transfers their logical and moral difficulties to the Scriptures while finding no hermeneutical significance in the incoherencies, inconsistencies or contradictions of their interpretations.  But this is not so for the non-Calvinist.  For them, interpretive coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential to a sound hermeneutic.  These are interpretively significant for discerning the validity of one’s interpretations. These two diametrically opposed views about the necessity, reliability and function of logical and moral reasoning for discerning the validity of one’s interpretations is what I call the hermeneutical divide.  This divide is the reason this controversy continues.  Therefore, what needs to be decided is whether a sound evangelical hermeneutic needs to be a hermeneutic of coherence as non-Calvinists maintain, or can be a hermeneutic of incoherence as Calvinists maintain.  Addressing this hermeneutical divide is essential for resolving this controversy. 

            This controversy is nothing new to most of you.  And perhaps you are among the many who consider it a tired, worn-out and hopelessly complex matter—an “in house debate” that will never be resolved.  You may believe that since centuries of pondering divine sovereignty, predestination, election, along with human freedom and responsibility has not resolved the differences, the matter should be ignored for the sake of Christian unity, tolerance and brotherly love.  As apologists who are Christians, certainly these sentiments should be given serious consideration.  But as Christians who are apologists, these sentiments cannot be insisted upon at the expense of intellectual integrity and truth.  What is unity, tolerance or love without truth?  Moreover, many Christian scholars do believe there is a solution to the controversy and that apathy or denial is neither an intellectual nor spiritual virtue in this regard.  I invite you to consider the cause and the solution I have briefly laid out above and in what follows.

            The road to a resolution will start with an in-depth inquiry that asks serious questions like whether we can discern a real contradiction when we see one; whether two contradictory propositions can both be true; whether the sovereignty/free-will debate fits into the category of genuine Christian mystery; whether it can be that “the Bible teaches both”; whether Scripture can contain inconsistencies and contradictions; whether the Calvinist “gospel” or “doctrines of grace” are “good news”; whether this controversy has profound implications for the nature of God and our knowledge of God; whether it impacts the authority and inspiration of Scripture; whether it impacts the meaning and message of the Gospel; whether we can know God loves us, that he is kindly disposed towards us, has brought about salvation for us and therefore anyone can be saved; and which apologetic arguments completely lose their force on the Calvinist’s theistic determinism and whether this matters or not.  Raising and answering these fundamental questions would begin to move the evangelical church towards a final resolution to this controversy.  Only then can there be unity in the truth.  Only then can there be love which rejoices in the truth and the spread of the truth of the gospel as “good news” under the direction and in the power of the Spirit of Truth. Evangelical philosophers, theologians and apologists needs to acknowledge the gravity of the intellectual and theological problem in their midst and begin to address the above questions.

            Again, this matter should be of concern for all Christians who call themselves “evangelical,” for to be an evangelical is to be a believer in and a bearer of “good news.”  As such, we need to come to grips with which soteriology has a message to speak to every individual that is trulygood news.”  If our purpose is to “impact our culture with the Gospel,” then we need to know what “the Gospel” is.  Christian apologists especially, by definition, must be about defining and defending the truth of the gospel.  Intellectual and spiritual integrity demands it.  Scripture demands it.  The apostle Paul demands it.  Given his passionate warnings in Galatians 1 and 2 as to distorting the gospel of Christ (1:7), preaching a gospel contrary to the one he preached or to the one they received (1:8), and preserving the truth of the gospel (2:5), I would suggest a rigorous inquiry is needed to decide whether one or the other of these incompatible soteriologies and gospels falls under the “anathema of Galatians.” (1:8, 9)

            The resolution of this controversy will require the evangelical church to come to realize that truth still matters.  And if truth still matters then it matters with respect to “the Gospel.”  And because Scripture is our sole authority in matters of faith and practice the evangelical church has to come to grips with the hermeneutical divide.  Can biblical interpretations that result in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction be accurate interpretations of the text?  Can mutually exclusive interpretive claims both be true?  The EPS to the rescue!?

            Sober and mature interdisciplinary leadership is needed to stimulate evangelical thinking on this important issue.  We need to grasp that this is a matter of truth and that clear thinking is essential to knowing the truth.  This would be the first step to removing the intellectual and soteriological relativism and theological indifference that grips the evangelical church.  This will open the way for productive, civil discussion and thoughtful, respectful debate in more structured and formal settings on what makes for a sound, biblical hermeneutic.  Moreover, the question of the truth of the gospel presses ever more heavily upon us given the keen sense of loss we experience when faithful servants of God who defended the role of reason and preached the gospel of “good news” in the previous generation are entering their eternal rest (e.g., Dr. Norman Geisler and Dr. Billy Graham).

            It cannot be overstated that the truth of the gospel is at stake in this controversy.  In the contemporary church there are two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospels being embraced as options of biblical truth.  And it would be very odd indeed that while defending the theme, “Why Truth Still Matters,” we show little interest in determining and defending the truth of the central message of the Christian faith.  If truth still matters, then why doesn’t it matter when it comes to “the Gospel,” especially given that its proclamation into our culture is the very purpose and mission of NCCA conferences and Christian apologetics.  What “Gospel” is the NCCA referring to? What “Gospel” are we to proclaim?

            Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as responsible Christian apologists, scientists, theologians and philosophers who are claiming that truth still matters, to discern and declare the truth of the gospel.  Indeed, it would be perfectly appropriate, and certainly appears to be necessary, that the many facets of this controversy be topics of investigation and discussion at conferences such as this in the future.  If our purpose is to “impact our culture with the Gospel” then it is necessary for us to both know the truth of the gospel and why it matters.

            Thank you for taking time to read this letter.

Sincerely,

Stephen C. Marcy, M.A., M.A

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[1] The expression “universal divine causal determinism” is William Lane Craig’s description of Calvinism.  See his five-fold philosophical critique of Calvinism.  Defenders 2 Class, Doctrine of Creation: Part 10.  Oct. 21, 2012.  https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-creation/doctrine-of-creation-part-10/  You can read the transcript or listen to the lecture.  Last accessed June 9, 2018.

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