Chapter 1 – The Main Thesis: The Hermeneutical Divide

This website seeks to examine what it means to interpret Scripture on the basis of sound hermeneutical principles.  Although overlapping, and all are part of an integrated process, there are differences between exegesis, interpretation and hermeneutics.  To many of us, exegesis involves the more technical aspects of examining a text. For example, establishing the meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word or dealing with the grammatical construction of a sentence with respect to semantics and syntax.  These involve the details of practical, technical exegesis.  And although there is no hard and fast division between exegesis and interpretation, there are concerns like literary genre and various aspects of the historical context (e.g., social, religious, political, economic, etc.) that must inform any exegesis of the text.  These are essential for coming to the correct meaning of a text.

But there are broader principles that govern these exegetical practices and interpretive concerns.  In fact, the question as to whether these exegetical and interpretive practices are valid and essential tasks and concerns for coming to an accurate meaning of the text is a matter for the discipline of hermeneutics.  How we should integrate exegetical and interpretive data so as to reach a plausible conclusion about what a text ultimately means lies within the purview of hermeneutics.  Hermeneutics deals with the guiding principles for coming to the meaning of a text – principles like authorial intent, context/coherence, comprehensiveness, the analogy of Scripture (Scripture interprets itself) and the progress of revelation.  And as will be demonstrated elsewhere, integral to all these principles are the more foundational principles of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.

Hermeneutics seeks to elucidate the principles by which exegesis, when it adheres to those principles, will more accurately disclose the author’s intended meaning and not the meaning we might want to impose upon the author.  We want to do exegesis not eisegesis.  We want the text to speak its meaning to us, not read our own meaning into the text.  What the text meant to the first readers needs to be established to inform us of what the text means, and what the text means, along with any principles that can be gleaned from it, need to be appropriately applied to analogous situations in our day.  It is essential to good interpretation that sound hermeneutical principles be identified and followed by all interpreters – such as following the author’s flow of thought in a coherent and consistent manner while integrating the immediate text with the broader and canonical context of Scripture be implemented.

The hermeneutical principle of special interest in the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy is that of coherence – the expectation of logical and moral consistency and non-contradiction in the exegetical and interpretive processes and its interpretive conclusions.  In the pursuit of authorial intent I will be asking how we can know that a proposed interpretation is what the author meant to communicate.  I will be doing this with particular reference to Calvinist exegesis and interpretation.  I will attempt to resurrect an intellectually responsible hermeneutic by which the validity of proposed interpretations can be tested so we can be confident that proper exegesis and interpretation is taking place.  Although the practical foundation of this hermeneutic is the grammatical-historical method, which is the standard method employed in evangelical biblical scholarship, I say “resurrect” because under the influence of Calvinism this method has forfeited rational and moral reasoning as essential to it.  In other words, although grammatical, historical and literary analyses are being performed in a technical exegesis, the process may ultimately be devoid of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  If we can even think it possible, I contend that Calvinists have been allowed to dismiss the deliverances of logical reflection and moral intuitions from their exegetical and interpretative processes and conclusions.  That is, the Calvinist ultimately does not think that logical reasoning and moral intuitions play an indispensable role in a grammatical-historical exegetical method, nor are they reliable and necessary for determining the validity of proposed interpretations. This site seeks to provide the rational, moral and biblical support for this contention.

Hence, Calvinists have adopted a particular type of hermeneutic.  It is a hermeneutic that allows for and will deem valid, interpretations that result in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  I call this a hermeneutic of incoherence.  I will seek to show that one can have an exegesis of a text that an interpreter deems correct as to the technical data, but may not be integrated coherently with other exegetical results.  This should be an indication that something has gone awry in the exegetical and interpretive process.  But rather than act as a check upon exegesis and interpretation, the Calvinist maintains their exegetical and interpretive conclusions despite their incoherence.  But when the hermeneutical principles of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction have been violated, the interpreter should go back to the text to find out where their exegesis and/or interpretation has gone wrong.

This level of interpretive concern – the hermeneutical level, or level of interpretive principles – needs to be revived in the evangelical church.  Why?  Suffice it to say here that for the most part, the Calvinist interpretations go unchecked in light of the fact that they are inconsistent, incoherent and contradictory.  Calvinists continually preach, teach, write and conduct interviews in which they speak inconsistent with their own theology and soteriology without being held to account.  It certainly seems that a new and unique Calvinist hermeneutic of incoherence has been developed and accepted in Evangelicalism.  It is a hermeneutic that has sidelined logical and moral reasoning as essential factors for determining interpretive validity.  It’s no wonder the controversy continues as each generation of evangelicals, for the most part, treats the matter with indifference.

To demonstrate this phenomenon in Calvinist thought and interpretation, I will quote many Calvinists for themselves and document case-studies of Calvinist incoherence.  I will also provide the critiques by non-Calvinist scholars of Calvinism, along with my own assessments.  I will also demonstrate how Calvinists respond to critiques of their theology and how they think about the problems their own interpretations raise for their theology.

In assessing the two opposing positions of Calvinism and non-Calvinism, what I will argue is that the controversy reduces to the credence given logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction as essential elements of a sound hermeneutic.  Calvinists and non-Calvinists value logical reflection and moral intuition very differently in the interpretive task and therefore as hermeneutical principles.  Each sees logical reflection and moral intuition as holding very different weight and playing very different roles in the justification and validation of one’s exegetical and interpretive results.  I will examine the implications of these differences with regard to which soteriology can more plausibly claim to be biblically faithful.

Calvinists stress that they believe in their “doctrines of grace” because they claim they are the teaching of Scripture.  They state that their reasons for believing them are exegetical while also stating that their opponent’s objections to their doctrines are not so much exegetical but philosophical and moral.  For the Calvinist, these philosophical and moral objections are not interpretively significant.  I deal with this claim in detail later.  Suffice it to say here that it establishes a false dichotomy between exegesis and philosophical/moral reflection.  But such a dichotomy is a flawed hermeneutic.  This dichotomy is self-defeating as to determining the validity of the proposed interpretations.  It is asserted that the “doctrines of grace” are taught in Scripture, yet, when these “doctrines of grace” can be shown to generate incoherence, inconsistency and real contradiction then the very logical reasoning and moral intuitions needed to adjudicate on the validity of the Calvinist’s assertion are put out of court by the Calvinist when they claim their logical and moral difficulties are a mystery or incomprehensible to fallen human reason. But this is to beg the question.

Therefore, the Calvinist’s exegesis which supports their doctrinal conclusions cannot be rationally or morally affirmed, not only because Calvinism is a determinism which places it in contradiction with the overwhelming testimony of Scripture to contingency, human free will and moral responsibility, but also because logical and moral reasoning are placed off limits by the Calvinist for evaluating their doctrines which are derived from their exegesis.  The Calvinist will claim that their doctrines stand on the basis of their exegesis, but also that any assessments or critiques as to the logical or moral incoherence of that exegesis do not serve as indicators of the invalidity of that exegesis.  Moreover, therefore, Calvinism cannot be affirmed as biblical on any logical and moral bases.  Therefore the Calvinist exegesis stands despite its logical and moral incoherence.  But for the non-Calvinist, who considers logical and moral coherence to be essential to sound hermeneutic, the Calvinist exegesis reveals itself as an invalid interpretation of the text.

What the Calvinist hermeneutic seems to be advocating is that as long as one can demonstrate they have an exegesis of a text, the interpretation can be deemed valid despite its incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  The Calvinist’s hermeneutic allows for exegesis and logical/moral coherence to be be dichotomized while still claiming that their exegesis is the true meaning of the text. The interpreter can declare their interpretation to be what the Scripture means to say and teach regardless of whether their exegesis is coherent, consistent and non-contradictory in relation to other accepted exegetical and interpretive conclusions, biblical truths or experiential realities.  But this is to ignore the fact that one’s exegesis can be mistaken and that a means by which that can be determined is by observing whether or not the interpretation is logically and morally coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.

To dismiss the critiques of philosophical reflection and moral intuition in the exegetical process and with regard to its interpretive conclusions, is to create a dichotomy between the necessity of clear thinking and the exegetical task.  With respect to the conclusions of an exegesis and determining the validity of that exegesis, literary scholar E. D. Hirsch states,

“For when a scholar has said, “Here is all the relevant evidence that has been brought forward, and here are the conclusions which that evidence requires,” his statement is no longer subject merely to opposition by rhetorical posturing.  His claim can be shown to be false – either because he has overlooked some of the known evidence or because he has made a mistake in logic…The discipline of interpretation is founded, then, not on a methodology of construction but on a logic of validation.”[1]

Here the essential difference between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist hermeneutic is elucidated.  That difference is expressed in the following thesis.

I contend that the Calvinist does not consider logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction to be indispensable elements in a sound hermeneutic.  The Calvinist does not view these as necessary and reliable indicators of the validity of an exegesis or interpretation of a biblical text.

In contrast, the non-Calvinist does consider logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction to be essential and indispensable elements in a sound hermeneutic.  For the non-Calvinist they are necessary and reliable indicators of the validity of an exegesis or interpretation of a biblical text.

The grounds for the above thesis is expressed as follows.

The intellectual life and moral character of God ground both human reason and morality.  Therefore the canons of reason are sufficiently reliable and essential for our thought and discourse to be rational, and our moral intuitions are sufficiently reliable and essential for us to know what is truly good and right from what is truly evil and wrong.  Hence, the presence of logical and moral incoherence indicates the falsity of the interpretations that generate such incoherencies.  Therefore, Calvinism, to the degree it is logically and morally incoherent cannot be rationally or morally justified as a valid interpretation of Scripture, and as such cannot warrant or command our belief.

The resolution to this problem is as follows.

Given that Calvinists acknowledge the logical and moral difficulties that result from their exegesis and interpretations of the controverted texts, it is the Calvinist’s refusal to accept that logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential and indispensable elements in a sound hermeneutic and are necessary and reliable indicators of the validity of an exegesis or interpretation of a biblical text that prolongs this controversy.

The practical interpretive implications are as follows.

Calvinist theology, with its understanding of sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism, requires the Calvinist to dismiss the following principle from their hermeneutic. That principle is that a proper exegetical interpretation of Scripture must reflect inter-contextual logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.

Furthermore, the dismissal of this principle of logical and moral coherence is a violation of two other related universally accepted hermeneutical principles. The first is the principle of context. To interpret in context, if it is more than the coherence among the thoughts of an author, is not less than this. The concept of interpreting in context presupposes a coherent connection among the thoughts within that context. The second principle is that of authorial intent. We take it that what the author wrote he did so with the intent of being coherent, consistent and non-contradictory. Whatever meanings he also intended to communicate, we can safely assume were also intended to be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.

The practical intellectual and moral implications are as follows.

In that logical and moral coherence are jettisoned by Calvinists for evaluating the validity of Calvinism and their interpretations of Scripture, the only way someone can come to embrace Calvinism or remain a Calvinist is by the suppression of their reasoning faculties and moral intuitions.

Therefore, the fundamental faults in Calvinism are two:

  1. Its universal divine causal determinism.
  2. Its violation of the fundamental hermeneutical principle of coherence.[2]

I contend that a sound hermeneutic includes logical and moral reasoning as indispensable for biblical exegesis and that these are reliable indicators of the validity, or invalidity as the case may be, of one’s interpretations.  This is the hermeneutic of coherence the non-Calvinist functions under.  But this is not necessarily so for the Calvinist.  The Calvinist functions under a hermeneutic of incoherence.  I call this difference between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist hermeneutics and exegetical methodologies the hermeneutical divide.

Coherence, both logical and moral, is a hermeneutical principle that has bearing on determining the validity of one’s practices and conclusions at the exegetical level.  One cannot claim to have accurately interpreted the text merely on the basis of having performed a technical exegesis alone, as necessary as that is.  One’s exegesis must also exhibit logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.

So here we have reached the bedrock of what creates and sustains this controversy.  The Calvinist claims exegetical support for his Calvinism.  The non-Calvinist objects to Calvinism as incoherent and demonstrates that incoherence while providing their own coherent, responsible exegeses of the relevant texts.  The Calvinist admits to the problems in their theology but responds to the non-Calvinist’s objections of incoherence by claiming that Scripture cannot be subject to human logic and the “logic of Scripture” is different. As such, the Calvinist’s logical and moral difficulties are a divine mystery and therefore incomprehensible to us.   Thus, the Calvinist does not find their incoherence to be hermeneutically significant.  They do not consider incoherence as a reason to doubt the validity of their exegesis and interpretations.  They do not consider their logical and moral incoherence a sufficient reason to go back to the text in search of alternative coherent interpretations.  In contrast to this approach, the non-Calvinist finds incoherence hermeneutically significant. Incoherence is an indication of interpretive error. Hence, the non-Calvinist requires and has produced exegetically responsible coherent interpretations of the controversial texts. And for the non-Calvinist, although coherence is not a sufficient condition for the truth of an interpretation, it is a necessary condition for an interpretation to be valid or biblically faithful.

This hermeneutical divide is at the root of this controversy.  Therefore, whether or not this controversy continues has to do with deciding whether incoherence has hermeneutical significance or not.  This is the question that needs to be put to the Calvinist. As necessary and meaningful it is for non-Calvinists to point out the Calvinist’s logical and moral fallacies, incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions, this misses the ultimate issue at the bottom of controversy. The Calvinist simply ignores all these as interpretively significant. They have adopted a hermeneutic of incoherence. Therefore, until the hermeneutical question as to whether or not logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are indispensable to a sound hermeneutic and reliable indicators of valid exegesis and interpretation is posed to and answered by the Calvinist, there will be no movement towards a resolution of this controversy.  A resolution can be had, but it will take coming to a consensus as to whether or not – given all the exegetical options available at the time – logical and moral coherence are indispensable for discerning the validity of one’s interpretive claims.

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[1] E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity In Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 207.

[2] See Chapter 12 – A Hermeneutic of Coherence: Issues in Exegesis and Interpretation.

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