Although the controversy over God’s sovereignty and election in relation with human freedom and responsibility goes back to Augustine (354 – 430 A.D.), it is typically set in terms of the Reformation era debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. Generally speaking, the doctrine of divine sovereignty is understood as God ruling or reigning over all things by virtue of him being the Creator of all things, i.e., the universe, the earth, its inhabitants and especially mankind. And the doctrine of election comes to expression in the history of God’s actions and relationship with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Israelites in the Old Testament as his “chosen” people.
Presently there are incompatible interpretations of sovereignty and election offered up by “evangelicals” from their exegesis and interpretations of the same biblical texts. Calvinists maintain that God’s sovereignty is to be understood deterministically, that is, as God having predetermined everything that occurs, including all the thoughts, desires, beliefs, and actions of all people everywhere throughout all time. As such, the doctrine of election refers to God having chosen, solely on the basis of his own will and decision, which particular individuals he would save as a display of his grace and which particular individuals he would damn as an expression of his wrath. Only those chosen can be saved. It is God alone who effects their salvation by irresistibly regenerating them which is evidenced in their believing. The elect have nothing whatsoever to do with their salvation. Therefore, salvation is “all of grace” as defined above and is therefore unconditional.
Non-Calvinists do not believe that these are the biblical expressions of divine sovereignty and election. In short, God’s sovereignty is not deterministic, but refers to God’s right and ability to rule and reign as the Sovereign over his “kingdom,” that is, all of his creation. This does not entail that he has predetermined all things. Rather, he has sovereignly ordained for human freedom and responsibility. These are no threat or hindrance to his sovereignty or his ability to accomplish his purposes in the world and among men. Therefore, election refers to the special place that believers have in the family of God, as believers. Sinners are considered among the chosen “people of God” when they, of their own will in the context of hearing the “good news” of their salvation, place their faith and trust in Christ for salvation. All are called to believe, and all may receive the offered gift of salvation in Christ as the Spirit works through the message to enable belief. Salvation is conditioned upon faith. No one is excluded from salvation by God. This is the “good news” of the gospel. It is God’s desire that all be saved and have eternal life. He predetermines no one to eternal death. Resisting the Spirit’s work through the gospel message and choosing to remain in unbelief will be the cause of a person’s eternal damnation.
In that the New Testament writers understood and wrote about these doctrines as Jews of the second temple period steeped in their Old Testament history, I thought it might be interesting and informative to research the perspective of Messianic Jews on these matters. Perhaps being more familiar than most Christians with Jewish history, culture, mindsets and practices, I thought these believers, as Jews, may have a different perspective on these doctrines that could add information or context that might move us towards biblical clarity and possibly a resolution to this Reformation debate. In other words, how might a Jew think about and understand divine sovereignty and election from within their distinctively Old Testament Jewish context and as taken into and expressed in the New Testament? After all, Jesus, the disciples and Paul were Jews.
Having listened to the Messianic Jewish organization Friends of Israel (FOI) on the radio, I was curious as to what they believe about these doctrines. So I researched their statement of faith. What I found only confirmed what I have already observed in the statements of faith from many evangelical churches and organizations. These statements attempt to meld both Calvinist and non-Calvinist interpretations of God’s sovereignty, sin, human freedom, faith and salvation. My concern is that the conflating of these two incompatible theologies and soteriologies has distorted the definition and content of the gospel and hindered its proclamation as “good news.” I have observed that Calvinism has a strong influence upon Christian thinking, but it also causes confusion, incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction within evangelical theology and soteriology. This confusion is evidenced in these statements of faith. They may not fully embrace Calvinist theology, as in a document like the Westminster Confession of Faith, but they reveal Calvinism’s influence, and this influence creates incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction within those statements of faith. Along with identifying the influence of Calvinism, I wish to point out that the incoherence it creates is often ignored or rationalized away. This has both intellectual, hermeneutical and gospel implications which I will discuss more fully below.
I submit that FOI’s statement of faith is an example of the interpretive and doctrinal incoherence and contradiction that results from the influence of Calvinism. Many evangelical Christians, along with their churches and organizations, seem to feel beholden to reflect key elements of Calvinist theology and soteriology. But in doing so their statements become incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory with their attempts to retain human freedom and responsibility which they consider to be obvious Scriptural and experiential truths. An examination of some of FOI’s articles of faith on God, sovereignty, sin and salvation, along with my correspondence with their Church Ministries Representative, Tim Munger, will support my contention.
The FOI’s Doctrines and Explanations
Their statement of beliefs reads as follows on God and God’s sovereignty.
We believe that there is only one true, eternal, living God, who is sovereign over all things. God can be known through the many absolute and relative attributes revealed in the Scriptures (Ex. 3:14; Dt. 6:4; Col. 1:15–17).
God is the source and sustainer of life. He, according to the counsel of His own will, decreed whatsoever comes to pass, including both His permissive will and His causal will (Isa. 14:24, 26–27; Eph. 1).”
What is meant by God being “sovereign over all things” needs clarification. That statement would be acceptable to Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike, but they would mean two mutually exclusive things by it as I outlined above. And in that the statement goes on to say that “He, according to the counsel of His own will, decreed whatsoever comes to pass,” which is very similar to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the phrase “sovereign over all things” can certainly be taken to mean the universal divine causal determinism of Calvinist theology. It is clearly stated that God, “of his own will, decreed whatsoever comes to pass.” That means everything that happens is the result of God willing it to be that way. This also entails that God is the cause of all that occurs – even the worst kinds of evil. It is hard to see how these words do not land us in a universal divine causal determinism.
Now, the FOI statement of faith adds, “…including both His permissive will and His causal will.” Therefore, we need to inquire into this distinction, why it is made and if there is any logical compatibility between God’s “permissive will” and the determinism previously established regarding the sovereignty of God. If “He [God], according to the counsel of His own will, decreed whatsoever comes to pass,” then this surely involves “His causal will.” Having “decreed whatsoever comes to pass” logically requires that God causes all things. But if that is the case, then by what logic can there also be something called “His permissive will?” “Permission” presupposes the genuine activity of other wills of free agents by which they have thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, decisions and actions that are truly their own. They therefore are not predetermined by God. A free moral agent is a person who is the sole author and cause of their thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, decisions and actions. By “permissive will” the statement of faith seeks to introduce human free will and responsibility into the statement which is dominated by an overwhelming determinism. For we were told that God’s will alone is the cause of all things. Therefore it is incoherent to maintain that God causes all things and also that by God’s “permissive will” humans cause some things.
In addition, whether this doctrinal statement of universal causal determinism obscures or contradicts what we know about God “through the many absolute and relative attributes revealed in the Scriptures” (e.g., that he is good, compassionate, loving, etc.), is another problem with it. If God causes “whatsoever comes to pass,” this must include evil. But this cannot be true of an absolutely pure, perfectly holy and all-good God.
Furthermore, section “VII. Man” speaks about man’s fallen condition. It states that,
“In this fallen condition, man was left totally depraved and unable to remedy his own situation (Gen. 3:6–13; Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22; Eph. 2).”
Here, the phrase “totally depraved” may refer to the Calvinist doctrine which states that all sinners are unable to exercise faith upon hearing the gospel. So more clarity is needed here. In the section on salvation we read,
We believe that salvation is the act of God whereby man is brought into a proper relationship with God. It is that act where spiritually dead man is made spiritually alive (Ps. 3:8; Jon. 2:9; Eph. 2:1–2).
We believe that this is accomplished by the grace of God through man’s faith in the death (shed blood), burial, and bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1–4; Eph. 2:8–10).”
Much of this appears to express a non-Calvinist theology and soteriology, yet there are particular phrases that need clarification, in addition to the ones already pointed out in the section on God and Man. Some of these phrases would be “totally depraved,” “spiritually dead” and that salvation “is accomplished by the grace of God…” All these may be affirmed by the non-Calvinist. And although the phrase “through man’s faith” certainly seems to affirm that faith is a response to the gospel that sinners exercise of their own free will, in light of the previous statements that, “[God], according to the counsel of His own will, decreed whatsoever comes to pass, including both His permissive will and His causal will,” there is some ambiguity as to what precisely is meant by these phrases and whether the FOI statements are coherent.
Regardless, it would seem that the original commitment to universal divine causal determinism in the statement about God and God’s sovereignty has direct, negative implications for the doctrine of salvation. Theistic determinism logically requires the doctrine of unconditional election or predestination to salvation as understood in Calvinism. This will become important in the discussion to follow.
Given the ambiguity and apparent inconsistency in the FOI statement of faith, I wrote to them for clarification on their doctrinal positions. Tim Munger, their Church Ministries Representative, wrote back as follows.
Thank you for writing to us at The Friends of Israel as we love to hear from our friends and supporters. Thank you for asking about our doctrinal position about God and His sovereignty. In the section on God you refer to, it states, “He, according to His own will, decreed whatsoever comes to pass, including both His permissive will and His causal will.”
We accept the truth that God is sovereign over all things. We believe in election, for the Bible teaches that God chose us from before the foundation of the world. Jesus said in John 15:16, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give you.” In Romans 8:29-30 the apostle Paul declares the foreknowledge and predestination of His children and His purpose. So the terms elect, foreknowledge, predestination all indicate that God has actively and intentionally concerned Himself with His children. Every one of us is a wanted child, for God chose us in Himself in love (Ephesians 1:3). The Prince of Preachers from the 19th Century, Charles H. Spurgeon, rightly observed, “It is obvious that God chose me, for I would never have chosen Him!” How true!
Now often doctrines can be carried to an extreme, and that is what your inquiry about our belief is concerning salvation. Every man, woman, boy, and girl who has entered this life needs to make a decision for or against Jesus Christ. No, we emphatically do not believe that God chooses some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation. As Peter states in 2 Peter 3:9, “He is not willing that any should perish, but that ALL should come to repentance.” In Revelation 22:17 the final invitation is given, “And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take of the water of life freely.” Note those two words, take and freely. This indicates a personal responsibility, an invitation, to take God’s offer of salvation. We reject outrightly that God has determined some to salvation and others to eternal damnation. As D. L. Moody declared, “God save the elect and then elect some more!” He desires all to be saved, and so should we!
The permissive will of God is what He allows, His causal will is what He enacts, what He does in human affairs. “The doctrine of divine decree is only another method of assigning to God the position of first cause of all that exists. There is one comprehensive plan in which all things have their place and by which they proceed.” As Paul said in Romans 11:36, “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” Amen, indeed!
Thank you for writing to us Stephen, and we hope that you will write again. May the Lord bless you and give you His grace and peace abundantly.
Yours for His People,
Church Ministries Representative”
I thought this response to be, if not contradictory, certainly still ambiguous in certain respects. Therefore, I wrote again for more clarity.
Thanks for your prompt response to my email. I have an observation and one or two other questions for clarification on your response. I want to be clear on FOI’s view of election and salvation.
I take it that your second paragraph affirms a doctrine of unconditional election, that is, that God, from before he created the world, chose certain particular individuals to be saved apart from anything other than his own will and decision, and therefore only those specific persons will be saved. All others who are not among the elect cannot and will not be saved. In other words, God is the sole determiner and cause of a person’s eternal destiny.
Yet, in the third paragraph you state “No, we emphatically do not believe that God chooses some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation” and “We reject outrightly that God has determined some to salvation and others to eternal damnation.” You state that everyone “needs to make a decision for or against Jesus Christ” implying personal responsibility and that their eternal destiny is something they decide and is not predetermined or predestined by God.
Therefore, it certainly seems that you are stating that God determines whether or not a person will be saved, that is, the salvation of each individual depends upon whether they have be elected or chosen by God to salvation or not. And yet, you also state the person determines whether or not they will be saved by accepting or rejecting Christ. That is, they have the freedom and responsibility to believe and be saved or remain in unbelief and be condemned.
Here is my question. Do you think these two perspectives or teachings are contradictory? If not, why not? If so, how do you reason about that difficulty both logically and morally?
Finally, can you clarify your doctrine of divine sovereignty, that is, what precisely is meant by “God is sovereign over all things.” You state, “There is one comprehensive plan in which all things have their place and by which they proceed.” Do you mean God has predetermined everything to occur as it does to the minutest details? Would this result in universal divine causal determinism, or, is “sovereignty” something other than this?
Thanks so much for your kind and patient consideration of my questions on this subject.
Tim responded as follows
Concerning your follow up questions:
1. God saves, and He saves when the individual comes in faith after hearing the gospel. God chooses, that’s a fact. If you trust the Lord Jesus Christ, then you are chosen. If a person rejects Him, they are lost, not because God didn’t choose them, but because they rejected the Gospel and His Son. The apostle John puts it like this, “He who has the Son has life, he who has not the Son has not life.” The tension between sovereignty and free will not be settled this side of glory. The salvation of a person depends on the Holy Spirit, and He creates faith in the individual. So to try and decipher is it God or man, I would say emphatically, it’s all of God. “For salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). It’s all of God because that’s what the Bible teaches.
2. God is Sovereign, that is He rules and reigns. He chooses, He works, He acts, and He does so at the [sic] accordance of His will. God’s Sovereignty means that God acts in accordance with His own will. The plan of God is that He is LORD, and that His Name will be exalted and His glory demonstrated in all the earth. What is His plan? Paul tells us exactly what that plan is: for His children to be conformed to the image of His Son. In 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 Paul details the plan of God, that all things will be completely under the rule of Jesus Christ “that God may be all in all.” So God’s sovereignty refers to His rule and reign in the affairs of men.”
The email abruptly ends there.
I found point 2 of this response to be clearer and more coherent than point 1. Point one seems incoherent and confusing in certain ways.
First, it seems to me that Tim’s response evidences that FOI is strongly influenced by Calvinism. This is made clear by his affirming sovereignty and freewill as a “tension.” This is a typical Calvinist “explanation” for the incoherence generated between their deterministic definition of sovereignty and human freedom. Tim resorts to “tension,” which implies that his statement of faith embraces and expresses a deterministic definition of sovereignty which creates a contradiction when he want to also affirm human freedom and responsibility.
Secondly, Tim says that “God saves, and He saves when the individual comes in faith after hearing the gospel.” This is coherent with a non-Calvinist viewpoint on salvation. But then Tim says, “God chooses, that’s a fact.” What is meant by “God choses?” That sounds like the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. But then Tim clarifies this somewhat by saying, “If you trust the Lord Jesus Christ, then you are chosen.” Does this mean that the one who trusts in Christ is giving evidence of their unconditional election to salvation, or, that a person is designated or described as “chosen” or “elect” because they put their trust in the “elect One” – Jesus Christ? And recall Tim’s original email response in which he states, “We believe in election, for the Bible teaches that God chose us from before the foundation of the world.” This certainly sounds like a clear affirmation of Calvinist unconditional election.
Thirdly, the next statement seems to clearly affirm a non-Calvinist soteriology. Tim writes, “If a person rejects Him, they are lost, not because God didn’t choose them, but because they rejected the Gospel and His Son.” But then Tim seems to place all this into confusion by referring to a “tension” between sovereignty and free will. He states, “The tension between sovereignty and free will not be settled this side of glory.” Why is there a “tension” between sovereignty and free will? There wouldn’t be if sovereignty was not defined as determinism. And it seems that Tim does not believe that sovereignty should be defined in terms of Calvinist determinism for he states in point 2 that “God is Sovereign, that is He rules and reigns,” and again, “So God’s sovereignty refers to His rule and reign in the affairs of men.” So why is there a “tension” here if sovereignty is defined as “his rule and reign in the affairs of men” and not defined deterministically? That God rules and reigns in the affairs of men does not necessitate determinism. And yet, the statement of faith does reflect the determinism of the Westminster Confession when it says that “[God], according to the counsel of His own will, decreed whatsoever comes to pass…”
Fourthly, in point 1 above, Tim is clear about what FOI believes about the nature of salvation, and he certainly expresses the Calvinist views of pre-faith regeneration, effectual calling and irresistible grace. He states,
“The salvation of a person depends on the Holy Spirit, and He creates faith in the individual. So to try and decipher is it God or man, I would say emphatically, it’s all of God. “For salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). It’s all of God because that’s what the Bible teaches.”
To say that the Holy Spirit “creates faith in the individual” certainly seems to be a statement affirming pre-faith regeneration, which is a Calvinist distinctive, and may indicate that what the FOI statement says in section VII about man being “totally depraved” accords with the Calvinist understanding of “total inability.” The sinner cannot believe. The Spirit has to “create” faith in the individual. And if that is the case then either the Spirit creates faith in every sinner hearing the gospel or only the elect. Perhaps Tim means to say that the Spirit accompanies the gospel preaching and enables the hearer to respond in faith, for that is the desire intention of God for the sinner based on the content and offer of the gospel. But as it stands, it seems that the FOI statement is affirming Calvinism which teaches pre-faith regeneration of the unconditionally elect.
Again, Tim and the FOI certainly seem to be affirming the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election when Tim says in his first email that,
“We believe in election, for the Bible teaches that God chose us from before the foundation of the world. Jesus said in John 15:16, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you…” and “Charles H. Spurgeon, rightly observed, “It is obvious that God chose me, for I would never have chosen Him!” How true!”
Now the non-Calvinist would agree and affirm the first sentence here, but they would not interpret it as referring to unconditional election. Rather the Eph. 1 passage is speaking about the blessings God has determined to bestow upon those who will freely believe “in Christ.” But Tim does not clarify whether the ones “God chose” (“the elect”) refer to those who would freely believe or a limited number of people that are unconditionally elected. When Tim quotes Jesus speaking to the twelve disciples saying, “You did not chose me, but I chose you” and heartily affirms and quotes Spurgeon (who was a staunch Calvinist), who said, “It is obvious that God chose me, for I would never have chosen Him!”, then Tim seems to be affirming Calvinist unconditional election.
So we cannot escape the conclusion that there is much inconsistency that is creating an equal amount of confusion here about the doctrines of sovereignty, election and salvation.
And the inconsistency continues. After giving us the clear impression that FOI believes in unconditional election, Tim then states,
“Every man, woman, boy, and girl who has entered this life needs to make a decision for or against Jesus Christ. No, we emphatically do not believe that God chooses some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation. As Peter states in 2 Peter 3:9, “He is not willing that any should perish, but that ALL should come to repentance.”
“We reject outrightly that God has determined some to salvation and others to eternal damnation. As D.L. Moody declared, “God save the elect and then elect some more!” He desires all to be saved, and so should we!”
Here Tim emphatically rejects the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.
In his previous email Tim wrote,
“In Romans 8:29-30 the apostle Paul declares the foreknowledge and predestination of His children and His purpose. So the terms elect, foreknowledge, predestination all indicate that God has actively and intentionally concerned Himself with His children.”
When Tim talks about “his [God’s] children” in this same context, he might be referring to those who freely came to trust in God and have believed in Christ for their salvation, but it seems he could just as well be referring to “the elect” in the Calvinist sense of “unconditionally elect.” He is ambiguous here. And he is confusing when he adds,
“Every one of us is a wanted child, for God chose us in Himself in love (Ephesians 1:3).”
I don’t know if this refers to all sinners or just the elect believers.
It certainly seems that Tim and FOI perceive divine sovereignty, election, sin and salvation as vacillating between the mutually exclusive Calvinist and non-Calvinist views. But this is to present a confusing, incoherent and even contradictory picture of these doctrines. Tim’s statements and positions seem to be inconsistent and contradictory. So why is this the case? Does Tim and FOI believe the Bible teaches both a sovereign determinism with all the limiting affects that entails regarding election, salvation and the gospel, or do they believe in a non-deterministic sovereignty which allows for human freedom and responsibility with respect to salvation and the gospel? If Tim and FOI were to hold fast to the strong non-Calvinist position that was at times enunciated above, it seems that their position need not be inconsistent, incoherent or contradictory. Yet for some reason, Tim feels compelled to quote Paul and Spurgeon in support of Calvinist unconditional election but then quote D. L Moody and Revelation 22:17 in support of free will. Tim writes,
“…the final invitation is given, “And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take of the water of life freely.” Note those two words, take and freely. This indicates a personal responsibility, an invitation, to take God’s offer of salvation.”
As much as I agree with Tim’s position in the above quote, I maintain that FOI’s position as explained in all of the above quotes and communications accords with Calvinist theistic determinism, unconditional election to salvation and pre-faith regeneration. But it also accords with a non-Calvinist theology of free will theism, conditional election to salvation and post-faith regeneration. Therefore FOI’s position is confused and contradictory. I submit that FOI’s position is contradictory because it has embraced the determinism of Calvinism. This is revealed in the sentence found in point 1 where Tim states,
“The tension between sovereignty and free will [sic] not be settled this side of glory.”
The fact that Tim believes there is a “tension” here reveals he and FOI have embraced Calvinist determinism. But it also reveals they also want to hold to a substantive, meaningful belief in human free will. Hence the contradiction. The descriptor – “tension” – is a euphemism for contradiction.
Another indication of the influence of Calvinism is when he finds himself caught in the problem of having to “decipher” whether salvation is of God or man when he poses the question,
“So to try and decipher is it God or man…”
What is his answer?
“I would say emphatically, it’s all of God.”
Of course the work of accomplishing salvation for us sinners is “all of God.” He did not consult us in that matter. But the phrase “all of God” is a favorite of Calvinist and would lack the distinction the non-Calvinist would make in that faith is the condition by which the sinner appropriates to themselves the salvation that God alone provided, that is, was “all of God.” So without this clarification, Tim seems to land squarely in Calvinism when he says salvation is “all of God.” His “either / or” question does not leave room for the biblical testimony that faith is the responsibility of the sinner without it being meritorious or misconceived as “man contributing to his own salvation.” The statement, “It’s all of God,” needs clarification. To say “It’s all of God” needs further elaboration as to whether this is referring to God graciously bringing about salvation for a limited number of unconditionally elect persons who are effectually and irresistibly called and caused to have faith, or whether he is referring to God graciously bringing about the way of salvation in Christ and making it known to us in the gospel message; a message that each person willingly accepts and believes to their salvation or willingly rejects to their condemnation.
So here are some typical evidences that Tim and FOI are strongly influenced by Calvinism, and yet also want to affirm man’s free will in salvation. It is a confusion all too common. That there is confusion about whether a person or organization believes that these doctrines should be interpreted as affirming Calvinist determinism or whether they should be interpreted to make room for genuine human freedom as in the non-Calvinist theologies is evidenced in words like “tension” and phrases like “So to try and decipher, is it God or man…?” and providing unclear answers like, “it’s all of God.” These are all “explanations” that betray much confusion as to the truth of the Scripture on these matters. They are also indicative of the influence Calvinist determinism and their “doctrines of grace” have on the theological and soteriological thinking and beliefs of organizations like FOI and in the evangelical church at large.
Note that this “tension” excuse, in that it indicates real, genuine contradiction, reveals that one must suppress their logical and moral reasoning that is telling them that there is a real, genuine contradiction in their thinking and statements of faith. There is also a denial of the deliverances of one’s logical and moral reasoning in these matters evidenced in the assertion that this “tension” will “not be settled this side of glory.” Instead of grappling with the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions in these doctrinal statements, Calvinists and those who perhaps don’t perceive the logical and moral difficulties in their statements, either deny the problem or learn to think of it only in terms of a “tension” or “mystery” while also deferring its resolution from this life to “glory.”
Now if Tim were not presenting two incoherent soteriological propositions, we might be convinced when he claims “that’s what the Bible teaches.” But what the Bible teaches is precisely what is at issue here. We are raising the question whether one can claim “that’s what the Bible teaches” when the result of one’s exegeses, expositions and interpretations of the various relevant texts land us in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction. If there were no incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions here we would not need to talk about a “tension” the resolution of which needs to be deferred to “glory.” And there would be no problem of trying to “decipher” whether salvation is of God or man. We would not have to say, “The tension between sovereignty and free will [sic] not be settled this side of glory.” If that is the case, what then is the precise content of the gospel message as “good news?” What is the nature of faith in Scripture? What does it mean that “God is love?” Does God desire all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth or not? Why should these questions be marked by incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction? And if our doctrinal positions generate these logical and moral difficulties, can they really be valid interpretations of Scripture? Tim struggles with trying to “decipher is it God or man?” Why is this struggle, especially when it seems he takes such a strong non-Calvinist position in much of what he has said above? I submit that it is a struggle because he has had to suppress his reason due to the influence of the Calvinist rendering of certain texts (e.g., Jn. 6, Rom. 9, Eph. 1). These Calvinist interpretations which generate the logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions we have seen expressed above have influenced the thinking, not only of Tim and FOI, but the majority of our evangelical churches, and as a result they have had to squelch the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions they realize the Calvinist determinism produces with the overwhelming testimony in Scripture to contingency, human freedom and responsibility. They have learned to deny the logical and moral problems that are inherent in Calvinism.
Finally, note this interesting statement, “Now often doctrines can be carried to an extreme…” Here Tim seems to begin to emphatically deny the Calvinist’s soteriological doctrines. As such Tim is admitting that there is something very wrong about these doctrines. And yet Tim has also expressed his affirmation of some essential points of Calvinist soteriology. So to say, “Now often doctrines can be carried to an extreme” in reference to the Calvinist doctrines cannot soften the problematic nature of those doctrines. This is not a matter of carrying a doctrine to an “extreme” but acknowledging the incoherence in one’s position and ultimately in one’s interpretations. You either hold to them with all their logical and moral entailments or you do not. Once you’ve accepted theistic determinism and unconditional election you cannot avoid the problematic logical and moral entailments of those doctrines with the warning that they should not “be carried to an extreme.” This is to say I want to hold to these Calvinist definitions and doctrines but I don’t want to be bothered thinking about or being confronted with what they entail logically and morally. You cannot avoid the vortex of determinism.
Hermeneutical Conclusions and the Gospel Imperative
Calvinism has had a strong influence in evangelical churches and is often assumed to be the biblical truth about sovereignty and salvation. But as I have shown at the beginning of this post, there are two mutually exclusive theologies and soteriologies within evangelical churches today. Evangelicals need to recognize and acknowledge this for the intellectual and interpretive problem that it is. They also need to realize that this results in two mutually exclusive gospels. With respect to the gospel, as mutually exclusive views, one or the other (or possibly both) is not the biblical gospel. Unless we are going to accept that the Bible can contradict itself, or that it is legitimate to interpret it in a contradictory manner, or that we have come to a point where persevering and proclaiming the biblical gospel as “good news” is no longer a priority for the evangelical church (and I fear it is not), then we have to face the fact that one or the other of these soteriologies and gospel messages is not what the Bible teaches. My main concern here is that as Calvinism influences the thinking of more and more evangelicals, the truth of the gospel as “good news” is being distorted and eroded.
This Calvinist influence evidences itself in the confusion and contradictions that mark the FOI statement of faith and Tim’s correspondence. I think we can conclude that both of these have been influenced by Calvinist thought and doctrine and that the determinism of Calvinism prevented a coherent integration of the contingency, human freedom and responsibility that FOI’s statement and Tim felt was also biblical and needed to preserved. Many ministries and churches have unwittingly embraced Calvinist determinism, but they don’t know what to do with the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions it generates with their other doctrinal convictions.
This has led to sacrificing intellectual integrity and fostering intellectual and interpretive relativism. We are being told that mutually exclusive doctrinal conclusions are both the teaching of Scripture and are being embraced as legitimate interpretations of the text. Feeling obliged to accept the Calvinist interpretations of the controversial texts without further study and consideration of what constitutes sound hermeneutical principles, and simply not knowing what to do with the logical and moral incoherencies introduced by those interpretations, Christians have forfeited their intellectual and interpretive integrity by adopting an attitude of denial and indifference to these theological and soteriological incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions. Two incompatible theologies are an acceptable situation in a church that identifies itself as evangelical and holds to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Shunning this authority by exalting the preservation of a misconceived unity or fear of division, the truth of the gospel is being eroded or forfeited altogether. One denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), has relegated this gospel issue to a non-essential or secondary matter. The gospel begins to fade as our churches have little tolerance for the expression of different points of view and constructive dialogue and debate. But equally important our churches are not fostering the means of dealing with those differing points of view upon the touchstone of an authoritative Scripture. Anti-intellectualism is pervasive in evangelical churches. We do not what to think hard and long about Scripture, theology or the church. We have long abandoned serious study of theology, hermeneutics and apologetics in our evangelical churches.
I submit that when the controverted texts (e.g., Rom. 9, Eph.1, Jn. 6, et al) which seem to affirm the Calvinist interpretations are studied within a hermeneutic that values and requires that logical and moral of coherence are necessary to claim that one’s interpretations are valid, these texts take on a theological depth and contextual coherence and relevance that the Calvinist interpretations do not and cannot provide. These short-comings within Evangelicalism risk eroding and forfeiting the gospel as truly “good news.” It is this gospel that needs to be preserved and proclaimed.
We must revive a study of the relevant texts in terms of a sound evangelical hermeneutic which maintains that the Scripture does not contradict itself and therefore contradictory interpretations reveal that there is a misinterpretation of the text at some point. It is a serious issue that the Calvinist interpretations are being accepted regardless of the fact that they create incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions with other clear teachings or the general worldview of Scripture which everywhere affirms a contingent reality along with human freedom and responsibility. Scripture cannot be read coherently on the basis of Calvinist determinism.
Calvinists and those who have unwittingly embraced the Calvinist doctrines, thinking them to be the only way of reading passages like Rom. 9, Eph. 1 and Jn. 6, have learned to disregard the negative logical, moral and theological entailments of those interpretations. Many have turned off their hermeneutical minds to the incoherence among the Calvinist interpretations and inherent in Calvinism. When they claim the Bible teaches a “tension” or when they flee to “mystery” they are in effect avoiding consideration of the logical and moral incoherence those doctrines produce. They are asserting that their interpretations and the doctrines derived from those interpretations should not be subject to philosophical and moral reflection, which is just clear thinking. Presupposing such interpretations are the truth of Scripture, they should just be left alone as a “tension” or “mystery.” They should be believed because “the Bible teaches” them despite the nature of the logical and moral difficulties they raise. But this is to beg the question as to whether their claim that these are what the Bible actually teaches is true. Therefore, one must ask themselves whether interpretations that lead to incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction can be valid interpretations of the text. FOI, not really sure that they should reject the Calvinist or Westminster Confession’s deterministic definition of sovereignty, leaves it to influence their theology and create incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction with human freedom and responsibility. Tim tried to justify that “the Bible teaches both” with Scriptural proof-texts that supported both positions. But this will not do. This is not a matter of proof-texting, and again, nor is this a matter of being aware not to carry doctrines “to an extreme.” It is rather a matter of facing the logical and moral entailments of the doctrines one has accepted. It is a matter of facing the fact that one is attempting to believe as true two incompatible soteriological positions against what their reason and moral intuitions are telling them. This problem cannot be avoided by suggesting that “often doctrines can be carried to an extreme.” The doctrines are what they are, and those who wish to affirm them have to reckon with the fact of their logical incompatibility.
Therefore, in light of the logical and moral difficulties the Calvinist doctrine of sovereignty defined deterministically generates with the biblical witness to human freedom and responsibility, we need to ask a deeper hermeneutical question. We need to ask whether exegetical and interpretive claims that lead us into incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction can be valid interpretations of the text – can they really be what the Bible teaches?
What I think this examination of the FOI statement of faith and Tim’s explanations have revealed is the need to incorporate logical reflection and moral intuition into their hermeneutic. It is not just FOI that needs to do so, but the evangelical church as a whole. We need to decide whether or not logical reflections and moral intuitions are essential to a sound hermeneutic and therefore play a role in determining the validity of one’s exegesis and interpretations of the text.
I submit that we also have here an example of the suppression of reason which is characteristic of Calvinism. We can see that if FOI and Tim are going to continue to embrace certain Calvinist doctrines and simultaneously maintain a free-will theology, then they will have to suppress their reason because otherwise is will continue to tell them they have run up against real incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions and as such need to be dealt with. Hence the suppression of reason is essential to the acceptance and success of Calvinism.
Simply put, I am asking whether Tim and FOI’s interpretations of the various relevant texts in this controversy can be valid when they generate logical and moral incoherence. Non-Calvinist’s answer this question with an emphatic “No.” They seek authorial and contextual coherence through the exercise of sound exegetical methods. Calvinists answer this question with an emphatic “Yes” while dismissing the incoherence their interpretations produce.
The crux of the matter therefore is this hermeneutical divide. For the non-Calvinist, coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential to a sound hermeneutic and are necessary elements in determining the validity of an interpretation. For the Calvinist incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction can be dismissed as “tensions” or “mysteries” that are characteristic of Scriptural revelation that simply cannot be comprehended “this side of glory.”
How you respond to this hermeneutical divide will determine whether you can become or remain a Calvinist, or whether you will choose to reject Calvinism for another soteriological and theological paradigm that is based in a hermeneutically responsible exegetical method that evidences coherence, consistency and non-contradiction in its interpretations. The coherent interpretations, I submit, are the more biblically faithful interpretations of the controverted texts precisely because they exhibit coherence within the context of the Scriptural witness as a whole. It should be noted, however, that coherence is not a sufficient condition for an interpretation or theology to be true, but it is a necessary condition. Interpretations and the theologies built upon them must, at least, exhibit coherence.
Finally, it is most important to realize that the truth of the gospel is at stake in this controversy. You must ask yourself which theology preserves the gospel message in accord with its biblical definition as “good news.” All evangelical Christian ministries, organizations, schools, churches, etc., will claim to have as their ultimate purpose to bring the gospel message to a lost world.
Perhaps the astonishing increase in lawlessness, crime, strife, turmoil, disrespect and rejection of authority, power struggles, turmoil and perplexity of our present day is the result of a dearth of the truth of the gospel in our churches, where believers who are also hungering and thirsting to hear it once again, would be empowered to proclaim and live it in the world at large. Therefore, defining, defending and proclaiming the true biblical gospel as “good news” should be the number one priority of all churches and ministries who identify as “evangelical,” which means “good news.”
The apostle Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom. 1:16). If the world needs anything in its present situation of distress and bewilderment, it is the power of God that comes through his message of “good news.” It is the message of God’s love for all people. God loves the whole world. And only upon that message can the love of neighbor that the world needs now be established.
Recommended reading in this regard is A. Chadwick Thornhill, The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015). See also Jakob Jocz, A Theology of Election: Israel and the Church, (London: SPCK, 1958).
 This is the phrase Dr. William Lane Craig uses to describe Calvinism. In his Defenders Bible study class Dr. Craig offers a five-fold critique of Calvinist theology which he describes as “universal divine causal determinism.” It should be noted that the reasons Dr. Craig gives for rejecting Calvinism rest upon the logical and moral entailments of the Calvinist’s interpretations of Scripture as deterministic. Calvinists claim that this determinism is the result of proper exegesis of the relevant texts. What Dr. Craig does is examine the logical and moral entailments of the determinism that Calvinist’s conclude from their exegesis of the biblical text to see if those entailments are logically consistent and non-contradictory and morally coherent. On the basis of the problematic logical and moral entailments of Calvinism, Dr. Craig concludes that the Calvinist’s “universal divine causal determinism” is “unacceptable for Christian theology.” The point is, that on the basis of logical and moral reasoning we can know that the Calvinist’s exegesis is not what Scripture teaches. See William Lane Craig, 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/ Accessed 6/9/2020. You can read the transcript or listen to the lecture at this link.
 See my paper “Two Incompatible Gospels: A Serious Matter for the “Evangelical” Church”