William Lane Craig’s Sound Evangelical Hermeneutical Principle

In his Defenders Series 3 Podcasts on the Doctrine of Man, Dr. William Lane Craig deals with the subject of the freedom of the will.[1]  In three of these podcasts he compares the Calvinist and Catholic views and then provides what he believes is a more biblically accurate view through an exposition of Romans 9 in light of Galatians 3 and Romans 10.[2]

            I would like to pick up on a point he makes that I believe is at the heart of the controversy between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  It has to do with “making sense” of a passage.  After quoting from Galatians 3:6-9 and Romans 10:8-13 in contrast to the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9, Dr. Craig concludes,

               “Now you can’t make sense of Romans chapter 10 on the interpretation of Romans 9 that construes it as God’s electing some minority of people irrespective of their free will, entirely dependent upon God’s unilateral choice.  The only way that I think you can make sense of Romans 10 is by interpreting it along the lines as I have done.”[3] (emphasis mine)

            I submit that by the words, “make sense,” Dr. Craig is making a hermeneutical statement.  He is revealing his hermeneutic.  He is expressing and advocating for a hermeneutic of coherence, and rightly so.  In effect Dr. Craig is saying that an author’s thoughts in one section of the text need to be coherent or “make sense” with his thoughts expressed in another section of the text.  And it is important to note that this coherence is necessary for determining the validity of one’s exegetical and interpretive conclusions.  While not sufficient for determining validity, coherence is necessary or essential for doing so.  If our interpretations evidence incoherence, then we know that we have misinterpreted the text at some point. For Dr. Craig, and most interpreters, coherence is an essential consideration in a sound evangelical hermeneutic and a necessary condition for an interpretation to be deemed valid and true.  We would all do well to attend to and put into practice this key hermeneutical principle, that is, the principle of coherence.

            So I think we can confidently say that claims about what a text means, even if an exegesis is provided, must be evaluated on the more fundamental principles that constitute a sound evangelical hermeneutic.  And surely one of those principles is that our interpretations should “make sense” of all the data that needs to be taken into account.  This is precisely what Dr. Craig is doing in trying to correctly understand what Paul wanted to communicate in Romans 9.  He is reading Romans 9 in light of the immediate context of chapter 10, Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3 and an exegesis of Ephesians 2:8, 9 to see how the information given in each chapter can “make sense” when viewed as a whole.

            You would think this goes without saying.  Most of us take for granted that the interpretive task requires that we “make sense” of the passages we are interpreting within their immediate contexts and in relation to other remote texts and the teachings of Scripture as a whole.  But I submit that this is not so for the Calvinist.  Therefore, whether or not we are going to seek consensus agreement that a necessary condition for an interpretation to be valid is that it “makes sense” in relation to the surrounding texts becomes the most fundamental issue in the Calvinist/non-Calvinist controversy.  We need to have a discussion at the hermeneutical level because that is where the crux of the divide between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist exists.  Allow me to explain.

            After listening to an exposition like Dr. Craig’s, when all is said and done the Calvinist will continue to maintain his predestinarian interpretation of Romans 9 regardless of the incoherence that that interpretation produces with Romans 10 and the other passages that Dr. Craig referenced and exegeted.  Now, why does the Calvinist do this?  The dynamics of personal psychology and the peer-pressure of theological traditionalism aside, I submit that as far as hermeneutics and interpretation is concerned, it is because the requirement to “make sense” of the author’s thoughts is not an essential and indispensable principle in the Calvinist’s hermeneutic.  The Calvinist still holds to his predestinarian interpretation of Romans 9 because he does not think that coherence is a necessary condition in determining the validity of one’s exegesis.  Rather than going back to the texts to see if there is an understanding of what is written that maintains the coherence and consistency of the author’s words, flow of thought and comprehensive teachings and does not land us in inconsistencies and contradictions, the Calvinist is content to leave the passage in logical and moral disarray.  Therefore the Calvinist is working under a very different hermeneutic than non-Calvinists like Dr. Craig.  In effect, it is a hermeneutic of incoherence.  It is one in which there is ultimately no need to “make sense” of the author’s words and thoughts within the immediate and larger context of Romans or within the broader canon of Scripture.

            Calvinists complain that the non-Calvinist’s objections to Calvinism are primarily philosophical and moral, although they must of course acknowledge that non-Calvinists have their own exegesis of the relevant texts that “makes sense” of them, as Dr. Craig clearly demonstrated in his podcast.  But Calvinists remain unconvinced of the non-Calvinist’s exegesis because they dichotomize exegesis from the probative force of philosophical reasoning and moral intuitions.  It is not necessary to “make sense” of what the author is telling us in different sections of the text and therefore it is of no consequence to the Calvinist that his predestinarian exegesis of Romans 9 is incoherent with, for instance, the content of chapter 10. 

            As such, the Calvinist is doing at least two things.  First, he is violating the established hermeneutical principle of context.  If the principle of context involves more than the coherence among the author’s thoughts in a passage, it certainly doesn’t involve less than this.  And when the Calvinist argues for the truth of his predestinarian interpretation of Romans 9 on the basis that his exegesis demands it, while he ignores the necessity for it to “make sense” with Romans 10 and many other passages throughout Scripture, he is simply ignoring this established principle of context.  After all, to interpret in context means to disclose in a coherent manner the relationship of the author’s thoughts expressed in the relevant passages.  It is a coherent disclosure of the passages that informs and justifies our claims as to what the individual passages can mean.  Note that this disclosure must be coherent lest we set ourselves out on a sea of interpretive subjectivity and relativity. To read in context involves the search for coherent relations between the author’s thoughts throughout the texts being examined. If the Calvinist insists that his predestinarian interpretation is correct despite the fact that it is incoherent or inconsistent with chapters 10 and 11 and other texts in Romans, then he is advocating for a completely different hermeneutic which, when it suits him, dismisses the principle of context.   As such, this hermeneutic of incoherence would need to be justified.  I don’t see how it can be justified. And usually the Calvinist does not attempt a rational justification but rather flees to incomprehensibility or mystery.  Which brings me to my second point.

            Secondly, the Calvinist is insulating himself from a critique based in logical reasoning and moral intuition, and thereby, any and all critiques.  By ignoring the principle of context or coherence the Calvinist insulates his interpretation from the only means a fellow interpreter has for evaluating the validity of the Calvinist’s interpretive claims, or anyone else’s for that matter.  Simply because one has an exegesis of a text does not mean that that exegesis is correct.  And if our logical reasoning and moral intuitions are put out of court such that we cannot evaluate whether or not the exegete’s interpretive claims “make sense” within the immediate and broader contexts, then we have no way to adjudicate the matter.  We have no way of knowing if one’s interpretation is correct or not.  We have been set adrift on a sea of interpretive relativism.  My exegesis and interpretation is just as good as yours.  

            Therefore, each individual believer and the Evangelical Church as a whole must decide whether a hermeneutic of incoherence and interpretive subjectivity and relativism are legitimate options for the evangelical interpreter of Scripture.  I think the answer is clearly that they are not.  This would mean that the Calvinist’s hermeneutic of incoherence, which enables Calvinism to survive, should be rejected.  This, it seems to me, means that particular aspects of Calvinist theology and soteriology are not valid interpretations of the relevant supporting texts like Romans 9.  And yet we are accepting Calvinism’s universal divine causal determinism [4]as a legitimate theology and their “doctrines of grace” as a legitimate soteriology within Evangelicalism.  This shows that most evangelicals have succumbed to the intellectual and interpretive relativism that leads to accepting two mutually exclusive soteriologies and the two mutually exclusive “gospels” they entail as legitimate interpretations of Scripture.  Most evangelicals are in denial that Calvinism generates demonstrable textual and theological incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions.  If the Calvinist believes that his interpretations need not “make sense” of the various Scriptures and as such violates the principle of context., then this amounts to the Calvinist maintaining that their predestinarian interpretation of Romans 9 is an a priori biblical truth.  As such, there is no way, based on pointing out the incoherence of one’s interpretations, of convincing the Calvinist that their interpretation is incorrect.  Yet Calvinists are forced to acknowledge the logical and moral difficulties in their interpretations, but rather than concluding that these speak to a misinterpretation of some texts on their part, they resort to various “explanations” that are ad hoc (e.g., antinomy, mystery, incomprehensibility), or philosophical justifications that only produce more incoherence (e.g., compatibilism).  These only serve to confirm that their interpretations are flawed.

            I find that evangelical scholars and pastors do not perceive this controversy in terms of its hermeneutical foundations – especially this principle of context.  But when seen in this light we should press the issue and ask Calvinists whether they think that logical and moral reasoning are necessary and reliable for determining the validity of one’s proposed exegesis and interpretations of a text.  We should ask them whether or not interpretations that result in incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions could ever be accurate interpretations of what an author intended to communicate in Scripture, either from the human side or the divine side.  It’s a sound hermeneutic that maintains that authors don’t intend to contradict themselves or write inconsistently or incoherently.  And neither does the divine inspiration of Scripture allow for incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction.  A text that a rational God inspires, we take to be correctly read and interpreted when our reading and interpretation accord with the logical and moral reasoning faculties that that same God has given to us as made in his image.

            Most evangelicals tolerate the logical and moral incoherencies and contradictions engendered by Calvinism on the basis that this controversy is a “non-essential” or “secondary” doctrinal issue.  This problem of Calvinist incoherence is simply ignored while theological, soteriological, intellectual and interpretive relativism are fully embraced.  So this is not only bad interpretation, it also lacks intellectual integrity.

            This controversy is emphatically not a “non-essential” or “secondary” doctrinal matter.  Neither is it an “in-house” debate. Nothing could be more pertinent to all persons because the very gospel as “good news” is at stake.  Most evangelicals fail to see the negative ramifications of Calvinism upon the gospel biblically defined and understood as “good news.” Calvinism is antithetical to the biblical definition of “the gospel” which derives from the Greek word “euangelion” and means “good news.”  It is the word from which we get the designation “evangelical.”  But I submit to you that there is no good news in the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” (i.e., TULIP).  As such, it is not an evangelical theology or soteriology in the true biblical sense of the word.  Calvinism cannot be put into the service of evangelism biblical defined as the proclamation of “good news.”  This is why Calvinist pastors and teachers cannot and do not remain consistent with their “doctrines of grace” when they are “evangelizing,” let alone in their regular preaching and teaching.  Their TULIP doctrines, which ironically are the full and final explanation as to why and how anyone is saved and all others remain unsaved, cannot be put into the service of preaching the “good news” of salvation in Christ by faith.  One would think that Calvinists would proclaim their soteriological “doctrines of grace” as the core of their evangelistic message because they are the comprehensive explanation of why and how people are saved or not saved.  But they do not proclaim their Calvinist soteriological doctrines in evangelism.  The Calvinist must preach a non-Calvinist message if it is to be “good news” to the hearers.  And as Dr. Craig and so many others have demonstrated, Calvinism, as an interpretation of the text that lands us in theological, logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, is not a valid interpretation and therefore does not reflect the good news message that Paul proclaimed throughout the world in his day.

            I submit to you, therefore, that the rising tide of Calvinism in our evangelical churches is having a distorting and eroding effect on the biblical gospel and its proclamation as truly “good news.”  More needs to be said on this topic, but suffice it to say here that the Apostle Paul would not tolerate for one moment a “different gospel” other than the one he preached (cf. Gal. 1:3-9, 2:5, 6, 11-14, cf. 3:7-9, 22). 

            Therefore, the hermeneutical divide is clear.  The Calvinist does not think that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are necessary conditions for determining the validity of one’s exegetical and interpretive conclusions, whereas the non-Calvinist does.  For the non-Calvinist the interpretations must “make sense.”  In contrast, the Calvinist’s interpretations are not subject to logical and moral reasoning.  When they are found to be incoherent or contradictory, rather than returning to the text to seek a more consistent reading, these problems are chalked up to the failure of human reason to comprehend the truth of the text according to the Calvinist’s interpretation of it, or they assign these difficulties to the category of biblical Christian “mystery.”  Both are question-begging.  

            Therefore, I submit to you that it is at this level of our hermeneutical principles that the controversy needs to be discussed.  We need to discern what constitutes a sound biblical evangelical hermeneutic.  For if we can agree that interpretations that render passages as incoherent, inconsistent or in contradiction with each other cannot be valid interpretations, then what divides the Calvinist from the non-Calvinist at the most fundamental level of hermeneutics will have disappeared.  But such a discussion will require the Calvinist to amend his hermeneutic or at least clarify for us what they believe is a legitimate, sound, biblical, evangelical hermeneutic.  Now, you can’t make a person “make sense.”  But if they insist on a hermeneutic of incoherence, then that hermeneutic would have to be justified.  The Calvinist’s hermeneutic of incoherence would have to be explained to those of us who think coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are necessary for attaining a right understanding of what the author intends to say.  We would also like to know why non-Calvinists are wrong to embrace a hermeneutic of coherence, especially when they do provide compelling exegeses of the texts at issue while responsibly handling them according to the grammatical / historical method.  Avoiding question-begging and ad hoc explanations, how can the Calvinist provide a credible justification for his hermeneutic of incoherence?  We wait to hear.

            I have stated that the gospel is at stake in this controversy. There is only one true gospel which the Bible defines as “good news.”  Evangelicals can no longer remain in denial of the fact that they have accepted two mutually exclusive soteriologies that result in two mutually exclusive “gospels.”  Evangelicals, especially evangelical philosophers and apologists, can no longer ignore the fact that two incompatible theologies and soteriologies are being taught in their churches as if both may be legitimate interpretations of Scripture.   Intellectual and interpretive integrity and credibility demand we deal with this issue.  In a culture where truth doesn’t seem to matter, it should matter in the church (1 Tim. 3:15), but it is sad to say that with respect to the evangelical church’s central and most important message it does not.

            The “gospel” content you end up with will depend upon whether or not you think rightly exegeting and interpreting the Scriptures requires interpretive coherence, consistency and non-contradiction or whether interpretations that exhibit incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction can also be valid interpretations of the texts.  I think Dr. Craig is correct.  We should require that our hermeneutic be one that “makes sense” of the texts.  And once that is decided, this age-old controversy can be put to rest.  The Calvinist soteriology would not be a viable option.  We should require a hermeneutic of coherence because the gospel of “good news” is at stake.

            And I leave you with this practical thought to ponder.  If the “good news” is what changes sinners from the inside out, that is, produces a change of heart and mind that leads to behavioral change, and we are presently experiencing unprecedented violence, lawlessness, turmoil, murder and death in our nation, then perhaps this is an indication of a famine of the true “good news” in the land.  Hearts and minds need to be changed by the Spirit working through the Word of Truth. People need to hear the “good news” of their salvation.  Our nation needs a light in its present political and social darkness to awaken it to the present lawlessness, the burning of Bibles and rejection of Christ and Christianity which are evidences of the spirit of antichrist.  Satan desires to distort, erode and stop the “good news” from being proclaimed “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). The true, biblical “good news” needs to be restored and preserved in our evangelical churches so that people may hear it, believe and be saved.  Only the Spirit of God working in the true gospel message can produce the change of heart and mind that will stem the forces bent on the destruction of the American way of life and Western Civilization.

            Therefore, the Evangelical Church needs to restore the “good news” that is being distorted and eroded due to the “theological correctness,” soteriological and interpretive relativism and the influence of Calvinism.  To accept a theology of determinism and a soteriology of exclusion, limitation and doubt regarding God’s saving love and grace, renders a church passively silent regarding the truly “good news.”  Calvinism, especially due to its doctrine of predestination or unconditional election, has no “good news” to proclaim.  Calvin defines predestination as follows,

               “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man.  For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.  Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.”[5]

            Furthermore, due to their doctrine of “total inability,” Calvinists think it anathema to press upon people the urgency of receiving Christ by faith.  Believing is not under the control of the person’s will.  It is not something the sinner can do.  God has to grant them faith, and that depends upon their status as elect or reprobate.  Calvinists not only do not invite sinners to make a personal faith decision about the “good news” of their salvation in Christ, they don’t even know if that salvation in Christ applies to those they are speaking to.  In reality, there isn’t any “good news” for many of those people.  It may very well be that God has predetermined that they not be saved. The salvation he accomplished in Christ for the elect does not apply to the non-elect. Hence, the “good news” has been short-circuited.  There is no “good news.”  There is just the “news” of the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”  In effect, there is no more gospel biblically defined.  Therefore, while Calvinists presume their own unconditional election, their churches remain passively insular as they wait for others who are also among the unconditionally elect to appear among them by the irresistible work of God in them.  Waiting is all they can do.

            The Calvinist will of course disagree and claim that evangelism is consistent with their “doctrines of grace.” That is, God calls the elect through the gospel message. Questions could and should be raised about the actual content of the gospel message the Calvinist would preach and whether it would be consistent or inconsistent with their “doctrines of grace?” Questions could and should be raised as to whether their “gospel” would apply to all who hear or whether it would be disingenuous and hypocritical with respect to the non-elect. Suffice it to say here that if there is any role for ‘evangelism’ within such a soteriology, if it is to be consistent with the Calvinist’s soteriological doctrines, it will lack the personal assurance of God’s love for each sinner and his desire that they be saved.  It would be missing the good-faith offer of salvation that speaks of the inclusion of all sinners in God’s saving work.  It would be missing the “good news” of the gospel.  As such, it is not evangelism, nor is it evangelical according to the scriptural definition.  In contrast, the fact that we are all sinners, the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness through Christ’s death on the cross on behalf of us all and the genuine offer and real possibility of being saved simply by believing this “good news,” are all essential truths of the gospel message.  Of course, theologically the gospel is more than this, but this content is sufficient to state the “good news” of our salvation. I contend that if the Calvinist were to present this “good news” to sinners, he would be speaking inconsistent with his “doctrines of grace” and would therefore be speaking disingenuously and hypocritically, thereby creating soteriological confusion and diminishing the credibility of Christianity. This then raises the question, “What is the “good news” that is consistent with the Calvinist “doctrines of grace?” 

            Due to the “good news” being distorted and eroded due to the “theological correctness,” soteriological and interpretive relativism and the influence of Calvinism, we are slowly losing biblical clarity regarding the truth of the gospel.  Evangelicals need to restore, preserve and proclaim the gospel as the “good news” that it truly is.  They need to do this for the sake of their own spiritual encouragement in the faith and the salvation of the lost throughout the world.

            The present national distress indicates that the cultural preservative of the true gospel message is fading from our national consciousness.  I submit that this is happening because it is fading from the consciousness of evangelical Christians and the church as a whole.  That gospel is the message of God’s love for every individual and of God’s accomplishment of their salvation through Christ’s death on the cross.  It communicates the heart and desire of God that all persons come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved from their sin by placing their faith in Christ (1 Tim. 2: 3-6).  Sinners need to hear a universally applicable, good-faith offer of salvation that they may believe in Christ and be saved. And in the gospel’s promise of eternal life they have hope in this life and the next.  That is the message that we bring that is trulygood news.”  When we Christians use the word “gospel,” that is what we should mean by it.  And only that true gospel message that is trulygood news” is the message that the Holy Spirit of truth will bless with his presence and power.


[1] William Lane Craig, Defenders 3, Doctrine of Man: Freedom of the Will, Parts 26, 27 and 28.  July 15, 22, and 29, 2020.

[2] William Lane Craig, Defenders 3, Doctrine of Man: Freedom of the Will and Romans 10, Part 28, July 29, 2020.

[3] Ibid. (4:11 – 4:42). You may view Dr. Craig giving a fuller exposition of Romans 9 here.

[4] This is the phrase Dr. Craig uses to describe Calvinism.  I think it advantageous because it specifically mentions the universal and causal elements in Calvinist determinism.  It is important to realize that the Calvinist’s definition of the divine eternal decree and sovereignty are deterministic in a way that encompasses all things down to the minutest detail (universal) and makes God out as the cause of all that occurs (causal), including evil.  Dr. Craig uses the phrase in his five-fold critique of Calvinism in which he concludes “that the Calvinistic view of universal divine causal determinism is one that is unacceptable for Christian theology.”

               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/  You can read the transcript or listen to the lecture at this link.  Accessed August 4, 2020.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 926.

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