In previous chapters I sought to demonstrate that reason is problematic for Calvinists and that the “fixes,” “work-arounds” and “explanations” they have devised to relieve the incoherence in their theology were ad hoc and amounted to question-begging rationalizations that did nothing to address their logical and moral difficulties.  Indeed, Vernon C. Grounds describes some of the Calvinist justifications for their position as “linguistic and logical legerdemain.”  I have provided sufficient and substantive evidence to conclude that this is true of Calvinism.
I have demonstrated that presupposing the truth of their universal divine causal determinism, the Calvinist simply refuses to allow the deliberations and deliverances of philosophical reasoning and moral intuition to inform their hermeneutic. They must divorce their exegeses from the deliberations and deliverances of philosophical reflection and moral intuitions which show their exegesis up as incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory. The Calvinist must have an exegesis of the text, as we all must, to establish their doctrinal claims. But for the Calvinist, their deterministic exegesis stands as biblical fact despite the logical and moral incoherence their determinism generates. Therefore, the Calvinist must dichotomize exegesis from the truth detecting functions of philosophical and moral reasoning. They simply dismiss these, usually under the guise of “mystery.” But these means by which we discern truth from error, including in biblical studies and interpretation, are ultimately put out of court by the Calvinist. These play no role in determining the validity of their interpretations and theological conclusions. Because of this determinism, the Calvinist is unable to deal with the logical and moral difficulties raised by it in relation to certain clear teachings of Scripture that cannot be denied (e.g., God is holy, good, loving, just, kind, compassionate; the contingent nature of reality and human affairs; human freedom and responsibility; indeterminacy, possibility, potentiality, justice, judgment, etc.).
If Calvinism is logically and morally problematic, then how does it survive? It does so by the suppression of one’s reasoning and moral faculties in its teaching and preaching. If the Calvinist will not remedy their logical and moral difficulties at the hermeneutical or interpretive end, then they must alter the logical and moral faculties and perceptions on the receiving end. That is, they must suppress and reorient the person’s logical and moral perspective for that person to accept Calvinism or remain in it. To safeguard Calvinism from the legitimate rational and moral questioning and cross-examination brought against it by biblical scholars and the typical common sense responses and critiques of the common folk to their doctrines, the Calvinist must engage in the suppression of reason. To prevent people from asking too many probing questions and poking around where they should not go within Calvinism, Calvinists make intentional statements about how people should not trust their reasoning faculties or moral sensibilities. If philosophical reasoning exposes the incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions in Calvinism, then the suppression of reason is necessary for people to accept Calvinism’s interpretations of the key disputed texts and become Calvinists or to continue in Calvinism. Logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction must no longer be allowed to be concerns that would keep a person from embracing Calvinism or remaining in it. To that end the Calvinist is intent on suppressing what our logical and moral reasoning tell us about the implausibility of Calvinism. If the Calvinist can get people to look past the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions in Calvinism, then the way is clear to embrace it on other religious predilections and sentiments like “gaining a tolerance for mystery,” “God’s ways are above our ways,” humbling oneself before “the sovereignty of God” or giving him “the glory due his name.” And presupposing their interpretation of Romans 9 to be correct, they will also quote Romans 9:20, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” But if their interpretation of Roman 9 is incorrect, this only amounts to spiritual intimidation.
I submit that we should reject these Calvinist attempts to suppress our logical reasoning, moral intuitions and any means of spiritual intimidation. If these problems of logical and moral reasoning inherent in Calvinism are real, then we will need these faculties to get at the truth of these matters. They cannot be dismissed as malfunctioning and untrustworthy due to the fall of man into sin, when they function quite sufficiently otherwise. It is just that the Calvinist does not want them functioning in their respective capacities when it comes to evaluating their theology. Furthermore, if human reason was so detrimentally effected by the fall, then why should we trust the Calvinist’s interpretations?
In the following sections I seek to demonstrate how the Calvinist suppresses a person’s trustworthy innate logical reasoning and moral intuitions as the first step to removing the objections these faculties raise against the Calvinist theology and “doctrines of grace.” By doing this Calvinists open the way for a person to be convinced that their incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory doctrines are the teaching of Scripture.
Calvin himself seems to have trained his mind to ignore certain problematic elements of his own theology. One of them is how God is not the author of evil given that he decreed all things to occur as they have, are presently occurring and will occur in the future. He states,
“How it was ordained by the foreknowledge and decree of God what man’s future was without God being implicated as associate in the fault as the author or approver of transgression, is clearly a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind, that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance….I daily so meditate on these mysteries of His judgments that curiosity to know anything more does not attract me.”
Note that given Calvin’s universal divine causal determinism, he has to find a way to deal with the logical and moral entailment that God is implicated as the author of evils and transgressions. Calvin attempts to soften the issue with the description of God as “an associate in the fault” or holding back from his hard determinism he describes God as the “approver of transgression.” The fact of the matter is that Calvin knows full well the logical and moral implications of his determinism, but he has to somehow put them aside. The “foreknowledge and decree of God” interpreted as theistic determinism, is not up for reinterpretation.
So what does Calvin do? Rather than attend to what his logical reasoning and moral intuitions are shouting to him about the incoherence of his determinism, he rationalizes that his doctrine “is so much excelling the insight of the human mind” that he must “confess ignorance” in this matter. That God is the “author and approver of transgression” amounts to a “secret.” That “secret” is so hidden that it is beyond “the insight of the human mind.” And since it is beyond human understanding Calvin is “not ashamed to confess ignorance.”
But does Calvin’s problem really “excel the insight of the human mind” or does it present a problem of logical and moral incoherence about which the human mind is certainly capable of unraveling? The incoherence or inconsistency certainly presented itself to Calvin that way. The incoherence or inconsistency was something that he could not avoid. He was indeed confronted with it. You too no doubt sense the problem here. Then why label this a “secret” if this is such an obvious incoherence, which certainly seems to be the case, except that Calvin is presupposing the validity of his deterministic interpretations? Is this really something that is beyond our understanding or is it something generated by a misunderstanding of Scripture? I think it is the latter.
In an odd twist of reasoning, his daily meditation on “these mysteries” only serves the purpose of suppressing his curiosity to know anything more on this matter, and even to the point that this matter no longer attracts him. It is odd how “daily meditations” on these divine “judgements” would lessen curiosity to know more about them. Calvin has reached a point where to know more no longer attracts him. But surely Calvin is a man of keen intellect and more can be said on the problems that his theistic determinism has created here – unless he does not want to question his interpretation of Scripture that has generated this theistic determinism. It appears that he just does not want to face these difficulties head on so he willfully ignores them, and he would have us do the same.
Even when Calvin attempts to reconcile his doctrines of providence and predestination with human responsibility he ends up in logical and moral incoherence. For example, Calvin and Calvinists propose the idea that there are two wills in God – a “bare” permission and a “willing” permission. Putting aside the use of the word “permission” which is incoherent with Calvin’s “absolute” divine determinism, God’s “bare” permission is his secret decretive will which determines and causes whatever comes to pass. Yet Calvin and Calvinists also claim that God has a “willing” permission which is his revealed will composed of his commands to us, for which our obedience or disobedience to them we will be held accountable. As to the logical and moral problems this creates for Calvin with respect to the character of God, Calvin responds that these matters are beyond our full understanding, being “ineffable.” Indeed, R. C. Sproul writing on “The Will of God,” after providing three meanings of the will of God and recognizing the incoherence between his definitions (e.g., God wills by decree what we will irresistibly and inevitably do, even evil things, and yet, God instructs or wills us not to do those evil things), concludes that “We would be wise to follow the counsel of John Calvin when he said, “When God closes His holy mouth, I will desist from inquiry.””
So, it seems to me that there is an interpretive “blind-spot” in Calvinists where they chose to ignore their obvious problems of incoherence – a divine duplicity in the case above – created by their deterministic doctrinal position. The point is that rather than allow this incoherence in their doctrinal system to cause them to reexamine it for interpretive integrity, Calvinists following Calvin would rather “desist from inquiry” and assert that God’s ways are a “secret,” or are “mysteries” that excel “the insight of the human mind” to the point that he is “not ashamed to confess ignorance.” But he is far from ignorant. The problem is perfectly clear. Calvin just will not acknowledge it because it would cause him to question the very foundation of his theological system, that is, its universal divine causal determinism. From a theological position that is evidently logically and morally problematic, instead of reassessing his doctrinal position Calvin pleads ignorance and requires from us the same intellectual and moral abdication. He demands an attitude of intellectual and moral indifference to these matters under the guise of reverence and worship.
And even though Calvin is not curious to know anything more about these matters, we might be. And we should be as those who strive to be good interpreter’s of God’s Word and want know the biblical truth regarding the gospel message. So, in contrast to Calvin, it appears to me that much more can be said. It appears clear to many of us, and not because we desire to diminish God’s sovereignty or glory, that there are logical and moral problems here and therefore we dare not shut down our minds and morals and abandon further inquiry into these matters. Due to his incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions, we are certainly warranted in thinking that Calvin does not accurately represent scriptural truth here. And therefore to question him about these problems is to be about the search for the truth. And if our logical and moral reasoning are reliable as arbitrators to discern the truth among competing options, then it is incumbent upon us to press on beyond Calvin’s ignorance into the light of truth. If God has predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass” then sound logical reasoning tells us he is “the author” and therefore causes “transgression” and every evil thing and is therefore responsible for them. As such, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that God is morally deficient. We should not follow Calvin in confessing ignorance.
This strikes me as example of the diversion or suppression of logical and moral reasoning in the matter of interpretation. This seems the only course for the Calvinist to take when confronted with the negative logical and moral entailments of their theistic determinism. For the Calvinist the probing, pesky culprits of logical reflection and moral intuition must be silenced. The problem is not in our inability to comprehend the problems here, but that the Calvinist has misinterpreted Scripture and he refuses to acknowledge this. Therefore, to maintain their deterministic interpretations requires the suppression of reason.
We can clearly see this cavalier dismissal of logical reasoning and moral intuition in J. I. Packer’s book, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God. As a Calvinist, Packer has a logical and moral problem between his deterministic definition of sovereignty and human responsibility when it comes to evangelism. Packer attempts to explain how God is deterministically sovereign over all his creation yet people are both free and responsible for the decisions they make, even to believe in Christ for salvation.
As a Calvinist, what J. I. Packer means by “sovereign” is that God has predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass” in every detail, including each person’s eternal destiny. Packer holds that,
“God is indubitably sovereign over man, for He controls and orders all human deeds, as He controls and orders all else in His universe.” (Italics mine)
If God “controls and orders all human deeds” then this logically entails that God is also causing “all human deeds” – both good and evil. People do only what God has willed and preordained they do. Packer leaves us no doubt about this when he says that,
“…all things do in fact happen under the direct dominion of God, and that God has already fixed the future by His decree, and resolved whom He will save, and whom not…” (Italics mine)
This certainly is confirmation of Packer’s Reformed theistic and soteriological determinism. It is also what Packer means when he says God is “sovereign in salvation.” This refers to God’s predetermination of certain individuals to eternal life, and by default, all others to eternal damnation. These are the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election or predestination and reprobation.
What is to be carefully observed and considered is how Packer handles the logical and moral problems his theology generates. In contradiction with the above determinism, Packer is cognitively and morally comfortable making the following statements,
“God made us responsible moral agents, and He will not treat us as anything less. His Word addresses each of us individually, and each of us is responsible for the way in which he responds – for his attention or inattention, his belief or unbelief, his obedience or disobedience. We cannot evade responsibility for our reaction to God’s revelation. We live under his law. We must answer to Him for our lives.
Man without Christ is a guilty sinner, answerable to God for breaking His law. That is why he needs the gospel. When he hears he gospel, he is responsible for the decision that he makes about it. It sets before him a choice between life and death, the most momentous choice that any man can ever face…we have to use every legitimate means to bring home to him the seriousness of the choice that confronts him, and to urge him not to let himself treat so solemn a matter in an irresponsible way. When we preach the promises and invitations of the gospel, and offer Christ to sinful men and women, it is part of our task to emphasize and re-emphasize that they are responsible to God for the way in which they react to the good news of His grace.”
“Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent. God’s sovereignty is a reality, and man’s responsibility is a reality too.”
Packer’s thought process here clearly exemplifies the incoherence produced by the Reformed Calvinist understanding of God’s decree and sovereignty as his absolute predetermination of all things. What Packer is doing here presents both logical and moral difficulties.
The logical contradiction is obvious. Everything is fixed by God’s will alone, yet everything is not fixed by God’s will alone. A equals not-A. Packer clearly states that men and women make real choices with their wills which can produce outcomes for which they are responsible. But clearly, to state that “God has already fixed the future by His decree, and resolved whom He will save, and whom not” and also state that “God made us responsible moral agents, and He will not treat us as anything less…” and add that “When [a person] hears the gospel, he is responsible for the decision that he makes about it” and that “it sets before him a choice between life and death, the most momentous choice that any man can ever face…” is rationally incoherent and contradictory. It is to state two mutually exclusive propositions with respect to the scope and effectiveness of God’s willing, determinations and responsibility and man’s willing, determinations and responsibility. What Packer is saying is that God has determined all things by his will alone, yet God has not determined all things by his will alone. That is to state a contradiction.
Therefore, this presents us with a crucial question that must be answered. Is what Packer is doing hermeneutically significant? If so, is what he has done interpretively decisive against his interpretations and theology? And if not, why not?
Again, carefully observe the moral and theological ramifications of Packer’s theology. Everything is fixed by God’s will alone, including whom he will save and whom he will not save, yet, “God made us responsible moral agents, and He will not treat us as anything less…each of us is responsible for the way in which he responds.” This includes “his…belief or unbelief…” And Packer also claims that each person is “responsible for the decision he makes about [the gospel]…It sets before him a choice between life and death, the most momentous choice that any man can ever face.” Furthermore, the gospel contains “promises and invitations” and the “offer of Christ to sinful men and women” and “they are responsible to God for the way in which they react to the good news of His grace.”
The point to note here is that these are mutually exclusive concepts. Moral and personal responsibility, in order for the concept to have any meaning, requires that we be significantly free moral agents that act in a substantially undetermined fashion, that is, that it is a reality that we generally are the sole authors of our actions and have the ability of contrary choice. But this is something that, although Packer wants to affirm, his Calvinism cannot coherently incorporate into its deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty.
Obviously, on Calvinism, there are moral questions and concerns here regarding the precise content of the gospel message as “good news,” whether the message has meaning to all who hear it, the veracity of God’s Word to sinners, the integrity of those who speak it, and the justice of a God who holds the non-elect responsible for something he himself has determined they cannot do – that is, believe. The Calvinist doctrines have negative implications regarding the moral nature of God in which He speaks things to people as possibilities and as responsibilities and yet determines the contrary.
So what is Packer to do with these problems? He will explain them away by telling us outright that the relationship between his determinism and man’s responsibility is beyond our understanding. He diminishes our reasoning faculties. He writes,
“People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over all those actions. They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it. The desire to over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural in our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute.” 
So “man, indeed, cannot see” how Packer’s determinism is consistent with human responsibility. But why is that? This is obviously a mere assertion telling us what we “cannot see.” As such it is an attempt at the suppression of our reason. But we ought not to accept this assertion because it presupposes the truth of his determinism, and that is simply begging the question. And we ought not to accept this suppression of our reason because, contrary to Packer’s question-begging claim, by our reason “man indeed, can see,” and see quite clearly, that Packer’s determinism is in contradiction with human responsibility. Now, why wouldn’t what our reason tells us about this contradiction be important to acknowledge and have interpretive significance? I submit that it is important to acknowledge and it does have such significance. It is telling us that Packer has misinterpreted the Scripture somewhere – likely with respect to his deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty. We would never be able to see that his determinism is in contradiction with human responsibility except by the use of our reason. What Packer wants us to do is put our reason aside because it points out his doctrinal inconsistencies and contradictions. He would prefer we simply acquiesce and believe him (or at least give him permission to believe this out of Christian “brotherly love” and ecclesial “unity”) when he tells us that “the Bible teaches both…”
Packer is right that “people” are “not content to let the two truths live side by side,” because the inconsistency that “people” are cognizant of in Packer’s theology places his clam that they are “two truths” in serious doubt. Is it actually the case that these are two truths that live side by side in Scripture? Why should we think Packer is right about this? Does Scripture present inconsistencies or contradictions to us? What if Packer has misunderstood what “the sovereign Lordship of God” means in Scripture? Perhaps it does not mean universal divine causal determinism as Packer contends? Perhaps his “doctrine of divine sovereignty” is not biblically true at all. Perhaps our minds are not “perverse” as Packer makes then out to be, nor are these “people” desiring to “over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries.” Rather, perhaps these “people” see that “the great number of texts” that teach the “doctrine of divine sovereignty” do not teach it as a universal divine causal determinism. Perhaps “people” are astute enough to think that when Packer presents two doctrines as the teaching the Scripture, and yet they are also inconsistent or in contradiction with each other, that they have a right to suspect that something is amiss in Packer’s interpretations and doctrines. And moreover, perhaps they don’t like being told what they “cannot see” what they can see it all too clearly. Perhaps they are not discontent if they cannot naively believe Packer’s “two truths” which he claims “live side by side” in Scripture. Maybe these “people” are being good students of the Word – good Bereans – when they question why it is that what seems an obvious inconsistency in doctrine isn’t hermeneutically significant as to determining the validity of Packer’s interpretation of Scripture. Why isn’t that a legitimate way to look at Packer’s problem?
I think that what is going on here is very clear. Packer is suppressing our thinking, perception and reasoning so as to get us to acquiesce to his deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty. What Packer wants from us is just to put aside our thinking and reasoning so as not to make much of the inconsistencies and contradictions we can identify in his theology. Packer wants us to admit that these problems are insignificant as to determining the validity of his interpretations and join with him in redefining his inconsistencies and contradictions as among the Bible’s “mysteries.” But by this reorientation of our reasoning, the hermeneutical issue of inconsistency in one’s interpretive claims is not dealt with at all by Packer. It is just ignored. And it is the inconsistency that shouts out to us, “be careful!” Don’t let go of the logical faculties and moral intuitions you need to discern true from false interpretive claims. And when you see inconsistency in one’s interpretive claims that just may be a sure sign of a misinterpretation of the text. Inconsistency cannot magically be declared a “mystery” and all becomes well. The inconsistency has to be dealt with.
“The proof of the principle of non-contradiction is that it is a principle which we cannot help accepting if we are to think at all.”C. A. Campbell, “On Selfhood and Godhood“
Packer’s conflicted reasoning here has important implications both hermeneutically and pedagogically. He is proposing a certain “intellectual” stance with which to approach biblical interpretation and theological construction. He will assuredly claim he has gleaned his propositions on sovereignty and human responsibility from Scripture. But his thought process has bearing on theological education and hermeneutics. For my purpose here, I want to press the issue as to whether the several logical and moral difficulties that Packer’s position generates are tell-tale signs that something is wrong, not only with his theology, but more fundamentally his exegesis of the text which his theology is built upon. I believe these difficulties do speak to misinterpretations of the texts. I believe this because these difficulties evidence a violation of an essential hermeneutical principle, which is more fundamentally a law of logic – the law of non-contradiction. To be indifferent to or subvert the law of non-contradiction is to eliminate the possibility of a rational assessment of one’s exegesis and the theology derived from it. It eliminates our ability to discern proper interpretive conclusions. One’s exegesis must be subject to this law’s deliberations and deliverances. If the Calvinist objects to this constraint upon his exegesis he must provide an argument as to why his interpretations are exempt from this law or that it is not the case that the interpretations are contradictory. They attempt the latter in three ways – “two wills in God,” secondary causes and means, and compatibilism. But all these fail on the same grounds of logical and moral incoherence. It certainly seems inescapable that the Calvinist interpretations and subsequent doctrines are inconsistent or contradictory. The Calvinist must provide better reasons for why they are not, or, if they are inconsistent or contradictory, why this is not significant as to determining the validity of their interpretations.
Now, if the logical and moral contradictions that Packer’s position generates are tell-tale signs that something is wrong with his theology and most fundamentally his exegesis of the text – if this is in any substantial sense the truth of the matter – then the Calvinist has a vested interest in diverting our attention away from these difficulties and preventing us from concluding that something essential to rational thought is being ignored. That is precisely what Packer is doing here. Packer must suppress inquiry into whether these difficulties tell us something about the biblical validity of his Calvinist doctrines. This is why Packer spends all of chapter two in Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God trying to convince us that what we are dealing with here is an “antinomy.” In other words, according to Packer, we should think in a certain way about the contradictions generated by his Calvinist doctrine of sovereignty in connection with human freedom and responsibility. How does Packer want us to think about this?
Packer’s initial step is preparatory and suggestive of how he is going to approach this problem. He states,
“All theological topics contain pitfalls for the unwary, for God’s truth is never quite what man would have expected… and in such circumstances our finite, fallen minds are more than ordinarily apt to go astray.”
Straight away Packer’s message to us is that we are not to trust “our finite, fallen minds” which “are more than ordinarily apt to go astray” when thinking about “God’s truth” in “the biblical revelation.” Packer states, “God’s truth is never quite what man would have expected.” But in what sense? Certainly in the sense that we need God to reveal to us things that are beyond our reasoning capabilities to discover (e.g., certain attributes of God, the real problem of sin in mankind, the need for and the plan of salvation, how salvation can be accomplished and applied, etc.), or, in the sense that Packer needs us to accept his doctrines that are against our reason capabilities as we know they are able to function for us? Why is it that when thinking about God and his truth we “are more than ordinarily apt to go astray?” Is that true, or, are we being readied to accept the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions of Packer’s Calvinism? I submit that it is the latter. We are being set-up to dismiss what our reasoning might have normally expected to be the case in reading and interpreting Scripture, that is, that what we read be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory. But given Packer’s interpretations, our expectations need to be neutralized and modified. We will even be asked to reverse our logical and moral reasoning in order to accept certain Calvinist doctrines. Packer also warns us about “pitfalls for the unwary.” But how will Packer define “pitfalls.” He will tell us that it is a “pitfall” to think that “our finite, fallen minds” could ever understand his Calvinist doctrines. But is that really a “pitfall” of our understanding or a flaw in his interpretations? So Packer is preparing us for his explanation as to how his deterministic definition of sovereignty can be “reconciled” with human freedom and responsibility. Yes, we need to be wary of the pitfalls that may await us, but the pitfall may be Packer’s suppressing our reasoning faculties in order to embrace his theistic determinism. This is a “pitfall” we should be careful not to step into.
Packer then informs us that “we have to deal with an antinomy in the biblical revelation.” He then asks, “What is an antinomy?” Packer states,
“The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines [antinomy] as ‘a contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary.’ For our purposes, however, this definition is not quite accurate; the opening words should read ‘an appearance of contradiction’. For the whole point of antinomy – in theology, at any rate – is that it is not a real contradiction, though it looks like one.”
Note that his answer deflects our attention away from inquiring as to whether or not his interpretations result in a real contradiction, that is, that his concept of sovereignty as determinism is in real contradiction with human responsibility and therefore his theology is inherently flawed at the level of fundamental thought. He actually changes the definition of “antinomy” from “a contradiction” to “an apparent contradiction.” He does this “for our purposes,” which is to say “because his theology demands it.” He changes the definition of “antinomy” as “a contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable and necessary” to “conclusions that are equally, logical, reasonable and necessary” yet only seem to be contradictory, that is, give “an appearance of contradiction.” Packer shifts the meaning of “seem” from the “equally logical, reasonable and necessary” conclusions onto the contradiction itself. Packer does not want us thinking that his interpretations lead to a real contradiction so he has to get us to doubt the contradiction his doctrines create is real. He tells us that it just seems to be a contradiction. What Packer will not consider is that his doctrine(s) could be in error. Note that according to the definition of “antinomy” it is the “conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable and necessary,” which suggests that it is possible that they are not “equally logical, reasonable and necessary.” So an “antinomy” is not a word that can be employed to assure us that we can’t know a contradiction when we see one or that there are conclusions that are just beyond our ability to comprehend and therefore only appear or seem to be contradictory yet are not. The nature and definition of an “antinomy” is that there is a real contradiction in our conclusions even though those conclusions seem to us to be “equally logical, reasonable or necessary.” As far as biblical interpretation is concerned, this is only to say that the conclusions need to be reexamined in light of the contradiction they present.
“Antinomy” cannot be used to turn a contradiction into an “appearance of contradiction” for the sake of preserving textual interpretations that may actually be misinterpretations and a theology that proves itself to be contradictory. That would be to promote a hermeneutic of nonsense. The fault may very well lie in the interpretations that have produced conclusions that seem “equally logical, reasonable or necessary” to one interpreter, but are not “equally logical, reasonable or necessary” to another interpreter. The fault may very well lie in interpretations that have produced conclusions that seem “equally logical, reasonable or necessary” but because they lead us into a contradiction we can know that those interpretive conclusions are flawed. It is possible, therefore that the conclusions are actually incorrect, though on a particular interpretation of the texts they seem “equally logical, reasonable or necessary.” But the emphasis is on the word “seem.” No matter how “logical, reasonable or necessary” both conclusions seem to be, nevertheless the fact that they are contradictory can be discerned, and this should tell us that somewhere we have misinterpreted the text. The interpretations are not “equally logical, reasonable or necessary.” That would be a wrong assessment. Contradictions indicate that our interpretive conclusions are in error. And lest we fall into accepting the irrationality of denying the law of non-contradiction, ultimately, given the contradiction, we must conclude that the fault lies in the interpretations. In some respect they must be false. Antinomy cannot be employed as license to jettison the law of non-contradiction or to justify incoherence in one’s interpretations.
So what Packer does is simply presume and assert that his deterministic definition of sovereignty does not create “a real contradiction” with human freedom. Packer wants us to accept that we are dealing with two biblical truths despite their contradictory nature. He thereby turns antinomy on its head. He does not question whether there is a real contradiction in his propositions about God’s sovereignty and human freedom. In other words, Packer is going to take away our ability to say that sovereignty defined deterministically and human freedom genuinely understood are contradictory concepts and thereby conclude that one of them is false. So Packer declares that this is only “an appearance of contradiction.” But why should we think this? Given a different definition of “sovereignty” we wouldn’t have a contradiction between sovereignty and human freedom. The point is, the presence of contradiction informs us that something is amiss in Packer’s interpretation. Therefore we should beware of his strategy to get us to think otherwise.
Packer would not have to claim “apparent contradiction” if “sovereignty” were understood non-deterministically – as God’s ability to rule and reign over all he has created and accomplish whatever he has purposed to bring to pass even if he has decided to create human beings with free will. Sovereignty entails God’s freedom and ability to do as he pleases – even create creatures with free will. This does not thwart God’s sovereignty. It rather exalts it to its highest conception. Whereas the Calvinist has a lower view of divine sovereignty as meticulous predetermination and exhaustive causality.
Therefore, the first problem here is that Packer is attempting to tell us that we don’t know a contradiction when we see one. He wants us to embrace the idea that for all practical purposes, what we would conclude to be a contradiction, is really not a contradiction. He states that that is the way it is “in theology, at any rate.” This is very troubling. Packer is telling us, in effect, that the law of non-contradiction doesn’t apply in theology. Why is that? The law of non-contradiction is required if our thinking and speaking – theologically or not – are to make any sense at all. Recall C. A. Campbell’s observation that, “The proof of the principle of non-contradiction is that it is a principle which we cannot help accepting if we are to think at all.”
Note that Packer is compelled to take what is a real, identifiable “contradiction between conclusions,” and designate it “an appearance of contradiction.” This is, of course, an implicit admission that Packer agrees with what I have been arguing all along about the necessity of rational coherence in proper interpretation and discourse. Even Packer cannot have a contradiction in his theological conclusions. It has to be “an appearance of contradiction.” Even Packer cannot abandon the law of non-contradiction and still claim his exegesis, interpretation and theology are plausible. But why then does he think this can be the way “in theology, at any rate?” Why is “theology” not subject to the laws of logic? It may not be in his brand of theology on these matters, but theology is subject to those laws when theology is done well. As C. S. Lewis put it, “…nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.” (The Problem of Pain, 28) Packer is defending his a priori theological conclusions by attaching “appearance” to a contradiction. It seems that Packer’s definition of sovereignty as theistic determinism is driving this whole conflicted affair. If so, the problem lies in the results of Packer’s exegesis on the sovereignty of God. Perhaps Packer is biblically and theologically mistaken and is leading us astray. Perhaps the problem is not in how we perceive contradiction as Packer suggests, perhaps the problem is in his interpretation of God’s sovereignty and/or human freedom. It is possible that the contradiction is a very real one because as a properly basic belief it just makes itself known to us and we can’t ignore it.
Ultimately Packer will have to claim that his contradictory theology is akin to genuine biblical mystery. Indeed, the Calvinist will claim “mystery” to justify his contradictory theology. But the laws of logic and foundational moral concepts do apply in theology. One cannot do good theology without these. Regardless of what Packer is attempting to do here, it stands that contradictory interpretations cannot both be true – ever! When they are, something is wrong in the interpretation of the text.
Packer has to tell us why his Calvinist propositions aren’t contradictory. On what grounds can he argue we need not be concerned about contradiction or what we think is a contradiction is ultimately not really a contradiction and only “apparent?” The Calvinist will say that since we are talking about God and the interpretations of divine revelation we have to leave room for meanings that will be contradictory due to the inability of our fallen sinful human reason to lay hold on how the two concepts are reconcilable. I have dealt with the necessity, reliability and role of reason and in interpretation in chapter 7, 9 and 10 and will do so again in chapter 12 on hermeneutics, but suffice it to say here again, the problem could be in the exegesis, not in the unreliability of human logic.
How can we know if there is a problem in Packer’s interpretive conclusions? We know this because contradiction cannot be apparent. We must know a contradiction when we “see” one, otherwise there would be no law of non-contradiction in human logic and no assurance that our reasoning is valid. And as I will attempt to demonstrate elsewhere, it is an inviolable law of rational thinking and if that is so then it is also an inviolable law of rational thinking even for biblical interpretation. In other words, there can be no true, valid thinking without it – even the thinking that goes on in biblical exegesis. This makes Packer’s method here of defending his Calvinist doctrines unconvincing.
Even though I believe Packer would not outright deny the law of non-contradiction even “in theology,” (indicated by his insistence that the contradiction here must be only ‘apparent’), nevertheless, when thinking about God or ‘spiritual’ things, Packer feels he can dismiss the real presence of contradiction easily enough when it comes to defending his determinism as something he is convinced the Bible teaches. Packer is stuck between maintaining his determinism as an a priori biblical truth that would otherwise prove false if he applied the rational and moral tools that would tell him whether or not his determinism is what the Bible teaches. If his determinism is an a priori biblical truth for him, he has to abandon those tools that would tell him otherwise. Therefore, Packer dismisses the possibility of a problem in interpretation on the basis that “in theology, at any rate…it is not a real contradiction, though it looks like one.” But many theologians don’t do their theology that way. Even in theology, if it reasons like a contradiction it is a contradiction. Hence, we are forced to examine Packer’s theology for where the culprit might be found. When we do so we find it to be his definition of divine sovereignty as theistic determinism. Hence, on the basis of a hermeneutic of coherence Packer’s interpretation of divine sovereignty is not a credible or valid interpretation.
In that Packer’s definition of sovereignty is non-negotiable and creates a real contradiction, Packer must ultimately require a new way of thinking from us. Because most of us would conclude that Packer’s theological conclusions “just doesn’t make sense,” he has to reorient our thinking. We have to be taught a new way to “reason” about this issue that circumvents our “natural reason.” If Packer is not going to go back to Scripture to see if there is way to understand the relevant texts that is exegetically, philosophically, morally, and theologically coherent, then he has to change how we think about his interpretations by actually reorienting our thought process so as to get around the logical and moral problems inherent in his theology. Here is what he requires of us.
“What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as, not rival alternatives, but in some way that at present you do not grasp, complimentary to each other…teach yourself to think of reality in a way that provides for their peaceful coexistence, remembering that reality itself has proved actually to contain them both.”
Here Packer blatantly advises us to suppress and ignore our capacity to reason. He advises us to will to ignore “the apparent inconsistency” and “the semblance of contradiction.” Yet the same questions persist. Isn’t this a problem of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction? Is it really an “antinomy” as Packer claims? What difference does calling it an “antinomy” make? Why is it not possible that this “antinomy” is indicative of an error in interpretation? Can we determine if it is a real contradiction or only an “apparent” contradiction? How so? What is an “apparent” contradiction anyway? Is there such a thing? Isn’t a set of propositions either contradictory or not? What determines that they are only “apparent” and not real? Is it merely that Packer is presupposing the truth of his Calvinist’s interpretations and doctrines? Wouldn’t that be question-begging? Why do these Calvinist propositions not stand in real contradiction with each other if that is the way they present themselves to our natural reason? If it turns out to be a real contradiction, what are the implications for Packer’s interpretative methodology and his Calvinist doctrines? These questions Packer does not address. He offers no explanation as to why we should put aside our reason as he exhorts us to do here.
You should ask yourself what are the intellectual, psychological and emotional implications of what Packer is doing in directing us to “think” a certain way about his contradictory doctrines? Is he asking us to suppress our legitimate reasoning faculties? On which of two alternatives should we place more weight, what we intuitively and logically think about this problem in Calvinism, especially in light of the alternative non-Calvinist interpretations, or on how Packer tells us we ought to think about his doctrines which he presupposes are the truth of Scripture.
I am very concerned about this latter option. One of the most important observations we can make here is that Packer is attempting to reeducate us out of our innate logical and moral intuitions by which we know specific propositions and concepts to be contradictory and incoherent. It would be one thing if he were instructing us how to think correctly on the basis of accepted principles of logic, but he is reorienting us on how not to think about something which certainly presents itself to us with sufficient intellectual and rational clarity. Why should we forfeit what we can clearly see is inconsistent for interpretive and doctrinal obscurity, incoherence and contradiction? I don’t think we should. I honestly don’t see how we can and still be responsible interpreters of God’s Word.
Note that Calvinist John Piper takes this same approach. He states the following in this question and answer session of an interview on these issues.
“Now, the first way you asked the question, is it an antinomy, or a contradiction or humanly inexplicable how God can be absolutely sovereign over all human decisions and those decisions still be responsible, accountable decisions, I think that is, the one for me anyway, for which I don’t have an ultimate answer…it doesn’t work for me. So I have no final explanation. So at that level, the antinomy that Packer talks about between humans being held accountable for their actions – which they absolutely in the Bible clearly are – and God being ultimately, decisively in control of all of those decisions – those are two truths in the Bible…I would die for either one of them – I don’t solve that problem with free will. It doesn’t provide any explanatory help to me at all, nor do I find it taught in the Bible. I’m willing to just live with that mystery.”
Piper believes that God is “absolutely sovereign over all human decisions and those decisions still [are] responsible, accountable decisions.” He admits that the Bible teaches that people make “responsible, accountable decisions” and yet he also claims that the Bible teaches that “God [is] ultimately, decisively in control of all of those decisions.” We know that by “absolutely sovereign” and “decisively in control” Piper is referring to theistic determinism. So this is a serious problem that for most people is a contradiction.
Piper was given three options on how to process his problem – “antinomy,” “contradiction” or “humanly inexplicable.” Packer has demonstrated that “antinomy” is just the way the Calvinist avoids the conclusion of contradiction and passes off this problem as “humanly inexplicable.” They never could admit to contradiction, for even the Calvinist knows that a contradiction in one’s thoughts and theology makes them false. But note that the fact that we can discern that there is a problem here at all is telling us that it is clearly humanly explicable. It is telling us that option number two – contradiction – is obviously the problem here.
But what does Piper do with this option. He completely ignores it. As to the contradictory nature of his doctrines he says, “I think that is, the one for me anyway, for which I don’t have an ultimate answer.” Piper then makes it clear that “I don’t solve that problem with free will. It doesn’t provide any explanatory help to me at all, nor do I find it taught in the Bible. I’m willing to just live with that mystery.”
And there we have the reorientation and suppression of what is humanly explicable and the way we all function each and every day – on the basis of free will. There is the Calvinist’s dismissal, not only of what we clearly understand to be a contradiction but the outright denial of what we all experience in our daily lives – free will. All this is a result of universal divine causal determinism and the Calvinist’s refusal to allow logical and moral reasoning to have a place in their hermeneutic and the interpretive task.
We will take Piper at his word that free will doesn’t provide any explanatory help for him. But we should note that free will does provide quite a bit of explanatory help for many of us when it comes to the problem of evil and suffering. That aside, Piper’s claim that it is not taught in the Bible, seems to me, both astonishing and false. And more to the point here, we have the reorientation and suppression of what is humanly explicable. Here we have the Calvinist’s dismissal of what we clearly understand to be a contradiction, the outright denial of human free will (which Piper seems to have affirmed at least implicitly by talking about “responsible, accountable decisions”), and the predictable flight to mystery. All this is a result of universal divine causal determinism and the Calvinist’s refusal to allow logical and moral reasoning to have a place in their hermeneutic and the interpretive task.
Calvinists demand from us not only what to think as to the content of their theology and soteriology, but also how to think about their doctrinal content. This necessity to reorient how we are to think and suppress what common sense and sound reasoning otherwise tell us about the incoherence of Calvinism, stems from their determinism. Determinism inevitably transforms contingency, free will decision and human responsibility, not into a “mystery,” but into incoherence, contradiction and fatalism..
The problem the Calvinist faces is how to restore meaning to these biblical truths of human freedom, human decision, responsibility and accountability when they are forced to acknowledge that these are mutually exclusive and ultimately absurd in the context of their determinism. We have seen that the Calvinist’s flight to mystery and incomprehensibility indicates that the Calvinist’s determinism is a non-negotiable belief. To grapple with how and what to think about a subject wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself as long as our logical and moral intuitions were left intact. But the Calvinist’s very purpose is to undermine these by playing with the foundations of logic and morals that are part of our fundamental intuitions and thought processes. The only thing left would be the acceptance of “mystery,” which is precisely what the Calvinist wants from us.
Beware of the the practical implication here. In order to become a Calvinist and remain a Calvinist you have to be “educated” out of what you know by your common sense reasoning and moral intuitions to be a true inconsistency or contradiction and “educated” into the “mystery” of Calvinism. Again, I submit that this suppression of reason is required for one to become a Calvinist and to remain a Calvinist. This ought to be a concern for those contemplating becoming Calvinists and those who already are. Packer and Piper can take no other approach than the one they communicate here. They never could acknowledge that their logical and moral incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions are real. That would require them to admit that logical and moral reasoning are essential to a sound, evangelical hermeneutic and as such reliable arbiters of valid exegesis. They would have to be able to definitively state that an interpretation is not valid if it is found to be logically inconsistent or contradictory. But that would prove their Calvinism as false.
Should we follow Piper and Packer’s advice without further inquiry? I don’t think so. What about all these unanswered questions and concerns their theology raises? Use your sanctified intellects to answer them. Have Piper and Packer provided an intellectually satisfying, spiritually sufficient, or biblically accurate response to the problems their doctrines have created? I don’t think so. Should we probe more deeply here? Certainly.
There is another option here that Piper and Packer will not entertain and do not want us to think about. For these Calvinists it is off limits. What is that option? It is the possibility that their Calvinist interpretations of the sovereignty of God, election and predestination are biblically wrong-headed precisely because of the logical, moral, epistemological and theological contradictions and incoherence they generate. It is this incoherence that these Calvinists go out of their way to prevent us from considering more carefully. Their theological success depends upon this intentional refusal to attend to what strikes us as a contradiction while attempting to convince us that our understanding is deficient in this regard. These Calvinists assert that we need to teach ourselves that they really peacefully coexist despite the fact that our common sense and moral intuitions tell us they do not and cannot coexist. That is the function of logical reasoning; to discern those things that can peacefully coexist and those that cannot. Suppress your logical reasoning and you are open to accept anything under the guise of “mystery.”
Given the contradictory nature of the Calvinist interpretations of specific texts, the Calvinist must assert these contradictions to be “apparent.” But not only does sound reasoning tells us they are contradictory, Calvinists themselves realize that given our doctrines of divine inspiration and authority, not to mention the nature of the Bible’s divine author, the Bible cannot abide a real contradiction. Therefore, the only way Calvinism can stay viable is to ignore its logical and moral difficulties and reorient people to pay no attention to their logical, common sense conclusions about it while promoting the idea that these problems are a biblical mystery.
Let’s relate this to the hermeneutical divide. We have seen that the Calvinist can forfeit philosophical reflection and moral intuition in the interpretive process when he feels his interpretation of the Scripture demands it. Rather than indicating a misunderstanding of the Scripture on some point, the logical and moral incoherence is incorporated into the Calvinist’s hermeneutic by fleeing to “mystery” or asserting “incomprehensibility.” The logical and moral incoherence is not hermeneutically significant as speaking to the validity of their interpretation. The hermeneutical divide consists in the fact that for the non-Calvinist logical and moral incoherence are hermeneutically significant as speaking to the validity of their interpretation. Non- Calvinists reject this forfeiture of logical reflection and moral intuition that mark the interpretative process of the Calvinist. For the non-Calvinist, incoherence signifies interpretive error. The non-Calvinist hermeneutic requires coherence, consistency and non-contradiction from their interpretations of Scripture. These may not be sufficient so as to definitively claim to have rightly perceived the author’s intent, but they are certainly necessary to any such claim.
This is a serious matter. If our intellects, reasoning faculties and moral intuitions, although diminished by the fall, still function according to God’s purposes in granting them to us as creatures made in his image so that we can correctly interpret his Word, come to know him as he truly is, along with the nature of our sin and salvation and the workings of his world with accuracy, integrity and in truth so that we are not being deceived or deluded, then to teach people to disregard these divine gifts that reflect his divine nature is a serious offence to God and men, let alone biblical interpretation and theology. I believe that what these Calvinists are attempting to do is unconscionable. Although they have sincere motives, they are violating a person’s intellectual integrity before God. I submit that the suppression of reason and the thought reorientation required for people to accept Calvinism and to remain Calvinists is detrimental to the life of the mind and a hindrance to coming to the biblical truth in these matters. This suppression of reason and moral intuition is an intellectual modus operandi within Calvinism.
Packer argues that Christian’s actually unwittingly affirm the Calvinist doctrine of deterministic sovereignty while they “mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.” He states,
“There is a long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not. What has been said shows how we should regard this controversy. The situation is not what it seems to be. For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.”
Interestingly, Packer states that if you are a Christian you already believe “God is sovereign in this world.” Now we know what Packer means by “God is sovereign.” What he means is universal divine causal determinism or theistic determinism. Packer is of course referring to his theistic determinism when he uses the phrases “whether God is really Lord” and “divine sovereignty.” And note that this determinism applies to “human conduct and saving faith.” We should note that for Packer the phrase “God is really Lord in relation to human conduct” means that God has predetermined the thoughts, desires, beliefs and actions of every person throughout all history, even their evil actions. In addition, the phrase “God is really Lord in relation to…saving faith” means that God has predestined which individuals he will regenerate and cause to have faith and be saved while all others not so predestined cannot be saved.
Now, Packer maintains that every Christian agrees with his determinism whether you know it or not? Well, despite Packer’s contention that all Christians believe these definitions of sovereignty and salvation, there are many of us who know they do not, and we can tell you why we do not. We do not think we are mistaken when we reject these deterministic Calvinist doctrines. Packer also says “The situation is not what it seems to be.” Again, what he is saying is that all Christians already believe his Calvinist version of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and salvation. He asserts that this can be proven by the fact that you pray. Let’s examine this contention more closely.
“The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.”
So how does the fact that the non-Calvinist prays in a certain way prove that he believes in Packer’s determinism? Packer states,
“…the recognition of God’s sovereignty is the basis of your prayers. In prayer, you ask for things and give thanks for things. Why? Because you recognize that God is the author and source of all the good that you have already, and all the good that you hope for the future. This is the fundamental philosophy of Christian prayer. The prayer of a Christian is not an attempt to force God’s hand, but a humble acknowledgement of helplessness and dependence.”
But the fact that we “ask for things and give thanks for things” and we “recognize that God is the author and source of all the good that you have already, and all the good that you hope for the future” does not entail, nor constitute an acknowledgment, that God predetermines “whatsoever comes to pass.” What Packer describes above does not entail that God determines every thought, desire, belief and action of all persons everywhere throughout all of human history. This simply does not follow. It is a non-sequitur. Moreover, the humility, dependence and our recognition of God’s good provisions that mark our prayers, do not necessarily prove or require theistic determinism.
In fact, given Calvinist determinism it seems that prayer, if it is consistent with determinism, is reduced to merely acknowledging that God will do what he has predetermined to do, whether for our good and eternal salvation or for our temporal evil and eternal damnation. You would have to merely confess and submit to the fact that one of those two outcomes applies to you. And the problem is that you cannot presuppose the former eternal salvation, or “the good that you hope for the future,” is your divine lot. The latter fate of eternal damnation is the negative side of Packer’s determinism that he leaves out here. Simply put, it may actually be the case that God has predetermined all kinds of temporal evils for you as well as your eternal damnation. It may even be that he has predetermined all kinds of temporal good for you and yet still your eternal damnation, and vice versa. We know all these are possibilities because of Packer’s own definition of God’s sovereignty as theistic determinism. That is, God alone unalterably preordained all the minutest details of all that has occurred, is occurring and will occur, including everyone’s eternal destiny. It is hard to see how this determinism is conducive to heartfelt prayer. It seems that we need to be assured that God is kindly disposed towards us for us to approach him in love and prayer, otherwise we would be praying out of an unbiblical fear of God and we would be praying to a God who, as C. S. Lewis described him, would be an “omnipotent Fiend.”
Above, Packer mentions two types of prayers – petitionary and thanksgiving. So, in the context of theistic determinism let’s first ask, “What is the meaning and nature of petitionary prayer?” Presumably, such prayers make requests of God to act to cause things to occur in the world that would otherwise not occur. Indeed, if everything about us and our future is fixed by God as the Calvinist claims, whatever prayer might be, it does not alter what God has predetermined to occur. Therefore, petition, in the sense that it presupposes freedom of the will both on God’s part and man’s part, becomes meaningless.
Moreover, given Calvinist determinism, even our prayers are predetermined by God. Such prayers become merely God’s predetermined “means” to God’s predetermined ends. Prayer is swallowed up in a meaninglessness performance of events all caused by God alone. But genuine “means” to an end and genuine petitioning of God in prayer presuppose both divine and human libertarian freedom. The prayers and their answers cannot have been predetermined lest the whole affair becomes meaningless. Divine and human actions lose their dynamic interaction which gives coherence to the phenomenon and practice of prayer. But on determinism there is a circularity that negates the personal dynamic of events in time and history. For theistic determinism swallows up any genuine dynamic relationship between God and man in the sole, absolute will of God. God wills all things to occur, even the prayers that are prayed. And the prayers that are prayed do not change anything, for all is predetermined by God. This static understanding of prayer is incoherent with the biblical witness to its dynamic nature and effects. Whatever dynamics are involved in petitionary prayer that we cannot explain, the point is that placed in the context of a theistic determinism petitionary prayer is rendered incoherent.
And Packer’s description of the nature of prayer is misconceived because of his presupposed determinism. When he says “The prayer of a Christian is not an attempt to force God’s hand” he is presupposing determinism and mischaracterizing the understanding of prayer by those who do not subscribe to theistic determinism. Why would to petition God in prayer be seen as “forcing God’s hand” to do something? It would be “forcing God’s hand” only within the context of theistic determinism. So any sensible concept of prayer as petition is distorted by theistic determinism. Petitionary prayer only makes sense in a world in which contingency, possibility and potentiality is real. Petitionary prayer in this context is grounded upon God acting in our circumstances and in the world according to his wisdom and love in ways he otherwise might not have done apart from our prayers. There is a dynamic apart from determinism that makes sense of both prayer and God’s ability to genuinely respond to prayer that does not threaten his sovereignty rightly defined. The alternative to prayer as “forcing God’s hand” rests upon not accepting determinism. It is to see that prayer is making requests of God in accordance with the best of what we know that he would desire to see happen in a world in which he has vested his human creatures with freedom of the will. That is, to pray according to the will of God. He may act, but just as we not attempting to “force God’s hand,” he does not “force our wills.” And we wouldn’t be “forcing God’s hand,” rather we would be making request of our loving heavenly Father. It is only the one who presupposes determinism that cannot allow any genuinely dynamic intervention of God in the affairs of men or genuine divine response to a Christian’s petition. The fact that God has the prerogative to respond in the way that is best for the Christian which may be not to respond at all or in they way we desire him to respond, does not mean that the Christian is “forcing God’s hand.” Only the determinist would consider prayer as attempting to force God’s hand because the determinist believes God has predetermined all things. To pray in a manner that asks for God to do something as if it were the case that he has options open to him precisely because he is sovereign but also loving and compassionate, is not within the determinists worldview. God can do otherwise. He is not bound to a predetermined plan, but he is bound to his own nature. He has libertarian freedom of the will.
So we do not see why what Packer states is true – that because we pray this reveals we believe in theistic determinism. On the contrary, we do not believe in theistic determinism, therefore we pray.
Packer offers several nuanced aspects of the Christian experience to support his claim that every Christian, because he prays, believes in Packer’s theistic determinism. Notice that in presenting these nuanced aspects of the Christian experience he avoids a full explanation of his Calvinist theology and soteriology while mischaracterizing the non-Calvinist position. Again, Packer’s contention is that in the practice of prayer the Christian is actually affirming Packer’s deterministic doctrines even though they may otherwise deny those doctrines. He calls this an “odd state of affairs.” He writes,
“What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church – the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.”
In chapter 7 I have already explained the difference between reason and rationalism and the implications of each for biblical interpretation. If by “human logic” Packer is referring to the rationalism by which the supernatural and genuine biblical mystery is put out of court because they are made subject to the naturalistic worldview, I would agree with him. These would be the “rationalistic speculations” he mentions. But I also argued the legitimacy and necessity of engaging one’s mind and reason on the basis of the laws of logic in the interpretive task, which contrary to Packer, are the “demands of human logic.” I argued against the dismissal of “human logic” that I believe Packer advocates for here.
So what is Packer’s main contention here? It seems to me that all this amounts to is a cavalier dismissal of the one thing that if Packer was required to incorporate into his hermeneutic would be the death knell of his theology – logic. Here we have a very clear example of the rejection of logic in the Calvinist mindset and hermeneutic. Packer declares “a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic” to be one of the causes of “error in the Church.” Note that he describes “human logic” as projecting “supposed demands” upon us. The canons of reason or the laws of logic are not “demands” that Packer needs to take seriously when interpreting the Bible. He cannot take them seriously because his theology proves to violate these “demands of human logic.” So he merely declares them “supposed demands.” Packer doesn’t have to yield to logic’s demands because it is “human” logic, and “human logic” can always be characterized as faulty, undependable logic. The Calvinist dismisses logical and moral reasoning as is convenient for the preservation of their a priori traditional theistic determinism.
I do not see how it is that “the demands of human logic” as applied to the discipline of interpretation must be antithetical to the existence of genuine “mystery” and letting “God be wiser that men.” And I do not see why it is necessary that logic, because it is “human,” need be faulty in its deliberations and deliverances. Packer would never come right out and suggest that we affirm an illogical interpretive methodology that leads to illogical doctrinal conclusions. But isn’t that precisely what he is doing here?
How can we recognize whether or not Packer’s doctrines are genuine, biblical “mystery?” How do we know when we have crossed the line in failing “to recognize the existence of mystery” and letting “God be wiser than men” and are embracing the “supposed demands of logic?” Why are the demands of human logic antithetical to genuine biblical mystery? Perhaps it is the “demands of logic” that are needed to distinguish between genuine biblical mystery and misinterpretation. Why can’t an interpretive methodology that incorporates logical and moral consistency affirm genuine mystery and God’s wisdom? Is it more “spiritual” to embrace theological contradictions and inconsistencies? How can Packer demonstrate to us that the contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in his Calvinist doctrines are evidence that they reflect genuine biblical “mystery?” How can he show that his incoherent doctrines demonstrate that “God is wiser than men” and are not simply incoherent interpretations? Perhaps Packer has misinterpreted the text. And couldn’t the accusation of a “passion for systematic consistency” also be leveled against the Calvinist’s TULIP soteriology? Perhaps this system has taken on a life and “passion” of its own that cannot be questioned, even when it proves to generate incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions among other clear biblical doctrinal truths.
Moreover, Packer gives non-Calvinists more credit for subverting the Godhead than they could ever imagine. The non-Calvinist wishes to preserve the integrity of the biblical witness as to the character of God and the gospel as “good news.” What causes this “odd state of affairs” is not any attempt on the part of folks who have never had a “rationalistic speculation” in their life and have never been concerned with “systematic consistency” to reject mystery and supersede God’s wisdom. They are simply observing that according to what they know from a straightforward reading of the Bible and the gospel message they have heard, along with their own conversion experience, that Packer’s doctrines simply don’t make sense! Where then is this “intruding of rationalistic speculations” or this “passion for systematic consistency” in this common sense reaction to doctrinal propositions that strike us as perplexing and incoherent? Are we really supposed to avoid this “subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic” at any and all costs? Are non-Calvinists really reluctant to recognize mystery or are they reluctant to accept the Calvinist’s redefinition of their incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions as “mysteries?” All we want is to think more carefully about “mystery” and what it truly is from a biblical perspective. And how is it that we are subjecting Scripture to the supposed demands of “human logic” when all we are suggesting is that for thought to be credible it must have a sufficient ground? So what causes this “odd state of affairs” is Packer’s determinism. This determinism is the cause of the intellect’s unrest with Packer’s Calvinist doctrines. Packer attempts to convince us that the “bare conjunction of differents” that his doctrines generate are genuine mystery, when in reality they are genuine contradictions and inconsistencies. The “mystery” Packer talks about is rather the problem of contradiction his determinism creates with other biblical truths. We know this by the use of logic or critical thinking. Philosopher C. A. Campbell makes the following observation,
“…critical thinking often finds itself obliged to reject what uncritical thinking accepts ‘without a qualm’…thought’s intrinsic demand for a ground is surely plain enough in those activities of thought, such as science and philosophy, in which the theoretic interest dominates; in which truth, not practical convenience, is our goal, and in which, therefore, if anywhere, we might expect to discover the authentic nature of the intellect’s demands. In science and philosophy ‘brute facts’, ‘bare conjunctions of differents’, are not just ‘accepted’. On the contrary, intellectual unrest persists so long as we see no way to deliver them from so ‘irrational’ a status. ‘Brute facts’ are for science and philosophy problems: problems not solved to our satisfaction until we have mediated the ‘bare conjunction’ through what appears to us an adequate ‘ground.’ Just as ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, so ‘the intellect abhors a bare conjunction’”.
Packer would have us ignore this matter of critical thinking about his theology. He does not want our intellects to search for “an adequate ‘ground'” with respect to his Calvinism because his theology cannot provide such a ground; it leaves us with “a bare conjunction” which the intellect “abhors.” Isaac Watts has said,
“It was a saying of the ancients, that ‘truth lies in a well’; and to carry on the metaphor, we may justly say, that logic supplies us with steps whereby we may go down to reach the water.”
For we Christians who are encouraged by Scripture to love the Lord with all their mind and recognize that God is a God of order, even intellectual order, and acknowledge that God gave us the principles of logic and reasoning capabilities unique to our human nature as created in his image by which to plumb the depths of his general and special revelation, it is reasonable to expect that that special revelation also be marked by consistency of thought. Furthermore, even in theology, “brute facts” that amount to “bare conjunctions of differents,” are a problem when they leave the gospel is disarray. Perhaps Packer feels comfortable employing “linguistic and logical legerdemain,” but we do not. Again, he is failing to make a distinction between the ability of human reason to plumb the depths of the divine nature that has not been revealed, and its capability and necessity to be the arbiter between proposed interpretations of what has been revealed. His theology leaves us with a “bear conjunction” of several interpretive propositions, not the awe of the Divine that is the result of solitary, genuine mystery.
Furthermore, Packer’s assessment of why people don’t see it his way smacks more of a fear of the exposure of his Calvinist theological errors than anything the non-Calvinist should consider as an illegitimate confidence in human reason. Although willing to reconsider our own position in light of the biblical evidence and Calvinist critiques, this becomes awfully difficult when in the end we are required to give up our common sense and straight thinking to embrace Calvinism, especially in light of sound exegetical alternatives. And on what intellectual grounds would the Calvinist critique the non-Calvinist if reason is so defective? Besides, some of the “causes” of error in the church Packer gives could be leveled against Calvinism itself. Has Calvinism allowed protestant, scholastic, philosophic and rationalistic speculations about what God must be in order for him to be God to intrude on the biblical witness to what God is actually like? I think so. Why does “sovereignty” need to equate to determinism? It simply cannot. And perhaps the Calvinist needs a little philosophical reflection to see that determinism, whether theological or naturalistic, is a bankrupt concept. Why isn’t God free to create and bestow upon man free will and God still be sovereign? I don’t see any reasons why he could not. Don’t the “doctrines of grace” (TULIP) build upon each other with a rock-solid, logical, systematic consistency so that the whole scheme falls with the collapse of any single point? I would say so. As far as biblical “mystery” is concerned, I have argued that in Calvinism this is one among several other “excuses” (i.e., “the Bible teaches both,” “incomprehensibility,” “apparent contradiction,” maintaining human autonomy or pride, lack of faith, etc.) that are used prematurely and inappropriately as a convenient way to avoid careful, legitimate, rational doctrinal scrutiny. Similarly, regarding the discounting of “human logic,” the Calvinist also cavalierly dismisses the very thing necessary for all rational discourse, biblical inquiry, and interpretation. To dismiss human logic is to fail to recognize that logic is characteristic of God’s nature, that it originates in himself and he has given us fundamental laws of reasoning and morality that even though affected by the fall, still serve as a reliable means for us to come to understand and to know ourselves, creation and God himself to the degree he sees fit to reveal these things to us. As such, his revelation is not self-contradictory. This revelation may contain less than all that God is – hence real mystery – but what God does reveal will not be found to be the reverse of our moral sense or in contradiction with other things also revealed. Commenting on the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election, I concur with Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell when they observe that,
“Calvinists who believe election is unconditional in this sense do not serve anyone well by obscuring this claim with confusion, ambiguity or inconsistency. Nor does it serve the cause of clear thinking and truth to confuse contradiction with mystery or to suggest that it is a mark of superior piety to be unworried about logical consistency. While the truth about God is beyond our full comprehension it doesn’t contain contradiction. Calvinists can’t eliminate the contradictions in their theology by fleeing into mystery or appealing to notions like antinomy. To the contrary the contradictions we have identified are a telltale sign that something is profoundly awry at the heart of Reformed theology.”
As discussed above, Packer believes his definition of sovereignty as theistic determinism is confirmed by his observations about the nature of prayer and the content of our prayers. With respect to salvation, his argument is that when we pray that God would save our lost loved ones, this must mean that we are affirming that it is God who must do a special act in the life of the sinner in such a way that the sinner who has nothing at all to do with their salvation is transformed and believes. According to Packer, when we pray that God would save our lost loved ones we are affirming the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace or the effectual call. This is so because it is God who determines “whatsoever comes to pass,” including the eternal destiny of every person.
But first, this is unconvincing because it is a false dichotomy. To pray to God to save our lost loved ones does not mean that either God has predetermined their eternal destiny, or God can do nothing with respect to their eternal destiny. Regarding the former instance of determinism and such prayers, if God has predetermined my lost loved one to eternal damnation, then a prayer to God to save my lost loved one will never be answered in the affirmative. It is truly meaningless. But it is not true that on libertarian freedom God can do nothing with respect to one’s eternal destiny. God can do much to challenge that person to believe by working in their present circumstances, altering future circumstances, bringing the gospel to them once again, etc. Yes, where they will spend eternity is in the end their decision, but it is not as though God has done nothing so that they may be saved or to save them (after all, he died for them), or that he has not answered our prayers for their salvation.
So the “fact” that we pray for the salvation of our loved ones leads us to doubt Packer’s definition of sovereignty, not affirm it. When we pray “God save our loved ones” we are not praying “God implement your eternal predestination of them to salvation at this time or at the time you see fit.” How could this be the meaning of such a prayer when we do not even know if they are among God’s elect. For what meaning is there to a prayer to save our loved ones if we do not know God’s salvific will for them? What meaning would this petitionary prayer have if “God has already fixed the future and their eternal destiny by His decree?” What meaning is there to petitionary prayer for the salvation of a friend or loved one when God has “resolved whom he would save and whom not?” Why does the content of the prayer “God save our loved ones” have to entail Calvinist predestination? Why would Packer pray “Lord, save my lost loved ones” when the salvation or reprobation of those loved ones has already been predetermined and cannot be altered? The Calvinist will respond that such prayers have an effect upon the one praying, not upon God’s predestination of the destinies of the elect and non-elect. What then is the purpose or meaning of Packer’s prayer as to its content – “Lord, save my loved ones?” What would that do for Packer, especially given the fact that he does not know the elect or non-elect status of the one he is praying for. He is praying into a metaphysical vacuum. The content of his prayer has nothing to do with whether it has some spiritual effect on the one doing the praying. Even if Packer’s praying may have some spiritual effect on him because he has prayed, but what about the content of our prayers? Do they not have meaning? If so, then how is that Packer can pray, “Lord, save my loved ones” when God may have no intention of saving them? Furthermore, it seems that Packer loves his “loved ones” and yet God may hate them having predestined them to eternal punishment in hell.
To claim that to pray to God to save a loved one affirms the belief that their salvation or damnation is fixed by God’s decree simply does not follow. When we pray to God to save a loved one we don’t mean “God implement your predetermined salvific will on those you have chosen to save.” But that is what Packer must mean. But petitionary prayer cannot be fully accounted for as simply the acknowledgement of God’s predetermined will in all things or only that it has some beneficial spiritual, mental or emotional effect for the one praying. As much as praying might have these benefits, the petitionary element has meaning. But on Calvinism it is rendered meaningless. In fact, it would it make sense to ask for anything, let alone the fact that whatever you pray is predetermined by God! It seems to render nonsense Jesus’ instruction to us as to how to pray. Jesus said, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). When we pray to God for the salvation of our loved ones we are asking God to intervene in their lives in positive ways that only he can do that will serve to remind them of their need for salvation. Indeed, when we pray for God to save our lost loved ones we are praying for God to intervene in their lives in ways he would not otherwise have done but for our prayers. This is a sobering thought. The eternal destinies of people remain an open issue while they are alive and our prayers may make a difference in how they decide their eternal destiny. We are believing that God’s interventions will be effective in the lives of those loved ones in accordance with how he has ordained salvation to be appropriated. We do not presume that He will violate his own determinations as to the way of salvation that involves the person’s will, decision and response of faith. God himself works within the constraints of his own decree to invest his human creatures with a will that is genuinely theirs which he in his wisdom has incorporated into the way of salvation.
But in light of Calvinist determinism and the doctrine of unconditional election, for us to pray for lost souls, which certainly includes the non-elect, would be to pray for God to do things that he will not do because he has already willed all things to be as they are. What we would be praying is for God save those he has unalterably predestined to eternal damnation. What meaning or effect could such a prayer have? Such a prayer would even be averse to the thinking and purpose of God for our non-elect loved ones. And for us to pray for those he has already predestined to eternal life is certainly not effective towards realizing their salvation, as if God was not going to save them if we had not prayed. For that would amount to a contingent circumstance which is contradictory to theistic determinism.
Again, we see that given theistic determinism even our prayers are predetermined and therefore all is encompassed in a monolithic, divine willing which does not reflect reality. God does not determine what we will pray and he will not decide anyone’s eternal destiny for them. He leaves that up to them.
The point is that when we pray for God to save our loved ones, contrary to Packer’s contention, we are not necessarily affirming Calvinist determinism or their soteriological doctrines.
Popular mega-church Calvinist pastor and president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J. D. Greear, also evidences this suppression of reason. Preaching on Ephesians 1 he states,
“Today is going to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever taught you, but also the most important. We’re going to talk about the fact that God has chosen you for all eternity to be His child, and the rich blessing that that fact is supposed to bring into your life… And it’s going to be difficult for some of you, because this biblical teaching raises all kinds of questions. “Why did God choose me? Why didn’t he choose everybody? Doesn’t the Bible teach freewill?” And these are great questions. But here’s what I need you to do. I need you, for just a little while, to turn off those objections. I want to teach you today as a pastor, not as an apologist or a defender of Christian doctrines.” (p.1)
“So here is what I am asking: if you believe this book is the word of God, I want you, just for a little while, to turn off your objections, and just listen….Later, you can go back and try to reconcile everything. Warning: The smarter you are, the harder this is going to be for you. (If you’re dumb, you’ll be like, “Oh yeah, this totally makes sense).” (p. 3)
“…the Bible teaches that God chose me before the foundation of the world; it also teaches me that God loves the whole world and whosoever will may come… And, again, I’m not sure how all that fits together but for now I’ll hold them in tension and believe them both. (BTW, please understand, I’m not saying they are illogical or contradictory, just that they may be beyond the grasp of our finite minds.)” (p. 2)
These are astonishing statements. They ready the listener not only to the problematic nature of the Calvinist interpretation of this text, but the requirement to put aside the “great questions” and accept the clear dumbing-down that is required when Greear states “The smarter you are, the harder this is going to be for you” and “If you’re dumb” you will come to the realization that “Oh yeah, this totally makes sense.” I will comment more on this below.
Suffice it to say here that these are actual instructions and expectations as to how the hearers are supposed to think about the incoherence that is inherent in the Calvinist doctrines as Greear is going to present them. It is clear that Greear will be teaching the Calvinist rendering of Ephesians 1 when he says, “We’re going to talk about the fact that God has chosen you for all eternity to be His child.” Greear is readying his listeners for a journey into contradiction, the final explanation of which is that this “just…may be beyond the grasp of our finite minds.” So he assures his “dumb” listeners that they will conclude “Oh yeah, this totally makes sense” and yet he says the final explanation “just…may be beyond the grasp of our finite minds.” Well, which is it? So we are already confused, with more confusion to come. For instance, Greear states, “…the Bible teaches that God chose me before the foundation of the world; it also teaches me that God loves the whole world and whosoever will may come… And, again, I’m not sure how all that fits together…”
The intellectual and moral quandary and confusion these Calvinist doctrines will present for both the speaker and listener is palpable in these remarks. And in the context of his teaching that God chose who would be saved and yet whosoever will may come, Greear gives this clear instruction on what we can and can’t do with his interpretation of Scripture. He emphatically states,
“What you are not allowed to do is say, “Well, I just don’t agree with this, or I don’t understand it, so I won’t believe it.” (p. 2)
A charitable reading of this statement would be that Greear is insisting that people don’t respond in stubborn, uninformed disagreement to his doctrines, or superficially dismiss them while not putting forth any effort to understand his explanations of them from Scripture. Fair enough. That is reasonable. So let’s take Greear’s advice, which again on a charitable reading, would be for us to attend to and attempt to understand what he wants to teach us about predestination and election. But doesn’t this require some degree of engagement of our minds to listen and process what he is teaching? So I don’t see how this charitable reading is coherent with what Greear has said above.
Therefore as Greear teaches on Ephesians 1 we might ask why we should believe his interpretation of the passage regarding election and predestination. We might ask why we shouldn’t disagree with him if there are good reasons to do so. This would take a fuller critique of Greear’s sermon and writings, which I do in a different section of this site.
So the charitable reading erodes in light of the astonishing statements I commented on above. Greear has clearly communicated that the only way a person can “hear” the Calvinist interpretation of Ephesians 1 on predestination and unconditional election is if they turn off their objections, listen to what Greear has to say as a pastor, not as an apologist or defender of Christian doctrines, become “dumb,” admit the doctrines are in tension, believe them both, and admit they are beyond the grasp of our finite minds. Especially egregious is his statement, “If you’re dumb, you’ll be like, “Oh yeah, this totally makes sense.” What do you think about that statement? I submit that these words are completely unacceptable for mature, thinking Christians to accept.
Also note above that Greear states, “What you are not allowed to do is say, “… I don’t understand it, so I won’t believe it.” Now if by “understand” Greear has in mind the incoherence his doctrines generate and he is therefore requiring that we are not allowed to conclude from such incoherence that “I won’t believe it,” then Greear is dismissing the function and deliverances of reason in the exegetical and interpretive endeavor and as the means by which we can assess the validity of his doctrinal positions. He is engaging in the suppression of our reason. Surely on some basis and at some point we might be forced to say “I won’t believe it.” Perhaps that basis should be that the interpretations lead to nonsense. Perhaps at that point our unbelief is intellectually warranted and obligatory. That someone is interpreting the text in a nonsensical way is the best reason I can think of for not believing what someone is telling me.
Therefore, suppose “those objections” which we are to “turn off” lend important observations and information crucial for determining whether the Bible teaches what Greear is going to claim it teaches? If we “turn off” our objections, how would we know whether or not Greear’s interpretations are correct? How would we be able to discern if they really are “beyond the grasp of our finite minds?” If we can go back later and “try to reconcile everything,” why does Greear preach as if these things cannot be reconciled? He has already indicated that they cannot be reconciled when he told us “they are beyond the grasp of our finite minds.” If they can be reconciled, why wouldn’t Greear explain their reconciliation in his exposition of Ephesians 1? This is typical of the confusion Calvinists engender when attempting to address their deterministic doctrines.
It is incredible to me that a pastor would ever tell his congregation what they intellectually can and cannot do while listening to him teach or preach. It is unfathomable to me that a pastor would request of his congregation to “turn off” their objections and would actually say to them, “Warning: The smarter you are, the harder this is going to be for you. (If you’re dumb, you’ll be like, “Oh yeah, this totally makes sense).” Instead of intellectually dumbing-down the people, he should be leading them through the biblical text so as to allow them to examine the Scriptures with their minds wide open to see if what Greear is telling them is true, that is, whether it makes sense within its own context and the whole of biblical teaching. People should be encouraged to be good Bereans (Acts 17:10-11).
It is also egregious for Greear to pit the Bible as believers understand it as their authority for faith and practice against their logical and moral reasoning when he states, “…if you believe this book is the word of God, I want you, just for a little while, to turn off your objections, and just listen…” What Greear is also doing here is presupposing that the interpretation he is about to deliver is the authoritative Word of God on the subject. Greear is presenting the Bible as a book whose truths are received (not understood?) by mentally and spiritually dumbing oneself down. Who then, if they really believe the Bible is the Word of God, could disagree with what Greear is about to teach them? He presupposes his Calvinism is the authoritative Word of God and therefore the submissive Christian will be prepared to receive it as such. They are prepared to receive it as the authoritative Word of God and as such it is not to be subjected to the objections springing from our flawed sinful minds. Greear’s advice, instructions, and indeed his whole approach here is atrocious, and exemplifies the suppression of reason. It is was the typical mindset and approach we observed in Calvin, Packer and Piper.
Furthermore, Greear also knows that he has to assure the people that what he is teaching is not illogical or contradictory. He clearly states, “…please understand, I’m not saying they are illogical or contradictory.” I take it that Greear is affirming that if his interpretations and doctrines were illogical or contradictory they would not be valid interpretations or accurate teachings of Ephesians 1 or any other passages. It is an implicit acknowledgement of the indispensability of logic in interpretation. We therefore should not avoid applying the test of logical reasoning to Greear’s interpretations. Therefore his warnings against thinking them to be illogical and contradictory certainly raise the suspicion that they are. Like the one who is hiding something in a closet nervously stating to the one searching for it, “There’s nothing behind that door!” This makes Greear’s statements that seek to suppress our reasoning faculties all the more egregious.
What is Greear to do when in his Calvinist exposition of Ephesians 1 he finds himself mired in incoherence and contradiction? He will flee to mystery and tell us these doctrines are “beyond the grasp of our finite minds.” They are a “tension” and we are to “believe them both.” But we know a contradiction when we see one and therefore we should not think that Greear’s interpretation is valid. We should not follow the Calvinist’s instructions to shut down our minds in order to accept his doctrines. It is through our asking questions, thinking and learning more, not less, that we can rightly assess the truth of what we are being told. How would we know if Greear is teaching us something illogical or contradictory or not? Greear would have us believe him when he says his doctrines are not “illogical or a contradiction.” But that is just the point. We should be able to discern this for ourselves and not just take his word for it. And he should be expounding the text as Paul would have intended we understand it. And if Paul himself intended and therefore knew his doctrines to be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory, then the Calvinist is going have to show us where Paul instructs us on this matter of how to think about what he teaches. Otherwise why should we believe that Greear’s interpretation here is correct? How does Greear know his interpretations are not “illogical or contradictory?” Simply by making a pronouncement that they are not? On what basis does he make this claim? If he merely claims his Calvinist doctrines are the teachings of Scripture that would be question-begging. How can we know if these are the teaching of Scripture? Doesn’t this imply the necessity to grapple with the nature of the “tension” Greear is proposing we just accept? If so, then we have to keep our minds in gear and our wits about us!
The point is that if we follow Greear’s advice and drop our “objections,” then we are forfeiting our reasoning by which we discern the validity of the interpretation he is presenting. Once we do that we fall prey to allowing Greear to read his presupposed Calvinism into the text, play upon our willing submission to the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and be swayed by what might amount to sloppy exegesis, rhetorical flourish and creative proof-texting.
Also, the distinction he makes between teaching us as “a pastor” and not “an apologist,” and “defender of Christian doctrines” is troubling. His teaching on election and predestination from Ephesians 1 involves us neck-deep in Christian doctrine. It is the pastor’s task to teach sound Christian doctrine and defend it. By going “pastoral” he is saying that he does not want the probative force of the logical and moral reasoning that goes on in apologetics and in formal defenses of Christian doctrine to be applied here. He wants to eliminate sound philosophical, moral and exegetical reasoning for the moment because he knows these will expose the illogical and contradictory nature of his exposition and his doctrines. What Greear wants to accomplish in maintaining and teaching his traditional Calvinist interpretation requires the suppression of reason. He wants to insulate his theology from substantive critique. That is the clear impression I get from these preparatory remarks in this sermon.
Theologies that require instructions and admonitions for us to leave our reason and moral intuitions at the door should be rejected. For us to buy into the suppression of reason is to be indifferent to loving God with all our mind and leave ourselves open to false teaching.
In a “Calvinism 101” podcast, Kevin DeYoung is interviewed by Matt Tully on “The Doctrines of Grace.” DeYoung recalls his childhood experiences with Calvinism.
“I grew up in a Reformed church as a part of The Reformed Church in America… I do remember—when I was probably in elementary school—having a sermon series that my pastor did on TULIP… But I didn’t much understand what it was…
Later when I was in, I think, middle school I went to a public school and in a western civilization class there was a paragraph on Martin Luther and two sentences on John Calvin. And of course, it said about John Calvin that he believed in predestination—that God chose who would be saved—and I thought that sounded kind of barbaric. I guess I hadn’t picked up my pastor’s sermon series very well. It does say something about our human intuition and how we need to constantly be reminded and taught these things. We don’t come upon them naturally.”
Note DeYoung’s initial childhood response to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. He describes his reaction to learning “that God chose who would be saved” as “that sounds kind of barbaric.” I submit that this initial response should not be passed over lightly. It is the typical response of most people when they are first introduced to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination or unconditional election. I would also submit that such reactions are significant. They reveal the functional purpose of our logical reasoning and moral intuitions which is to give us guidance for discerning the truth or falsity of what we are being told or experiencing. I would also submit that these are still sufficiently reliable for that purpose. Therefore, such reactions reliably indicate to us that something is amiss in Calvinism.
Now, responses like DeYoung’s are a serious matter that Calvinists need to reckon with. How do they deal with these common logical and moral conclusions regarding their “doctrines of grace?” First, the Calvinist must cast doubt upon the reliability of our logical reasoning and moral intuitions as truth detectors. Second, they must redirect us from such reliance by attempting to convince us that their doctrines are Scriptural. And thirdly, they then recast those doctrines as gracious and good.
Note that once the first step is accomplished, the others can fairly easily be achieved, for overcoming the first will allow for any subsequent exegetical arguments offered to appear acceptable because two key pillars upon which to discern the validity of an exegesis – it’s logical and moral coherence – have been knocked out from under us. The plausibility of the Calvinist’s exegesis is no longer a primary issue. The Calvinist “doctrines of grace” will be presented as biblical truth, not on the basis of logical and moral coherence or sound hermeneutical principles, but on appeal to the Christian disciple’s spiritual sensitivities and proclivities about “divine sovereignty” and “human depravity” channeled into and redefined in Calvinist terms. These sensitivities and proclivities may include the need for God’s sovereignty to be defined deterministically for the “comfort” gained from this definition. They may also be processing the nature of salvation and faith through their own personal experience of radical transformation, interpreting what they experience as unconditional election. Also, they may assent to determinism, thinking it is the highest expression of humility before God and that which glorifies God above all things. This humility in the face of determinism is hailed as diminishing human capacities to the greatest extent by removing from man any meaningful freedom along with the ability to believe the gospel. Calvinists perceive this as exalting God above all things.
Let us examine how DeYoung and other Calvinists cast doubt upon the reliability of our logical reasoning and moral intuitions as truth detectors. Note first that DeYoung admits that his doctrines are averse to our logical and moral reasoning. He states,
“We don’t come upon them naturally.”
Perhaps this is a sure indication that his doctrines are misinterpretations of Scripture. It is one thing to argue for or against a certain interpretation on some other point of interpretive method, but to require the forfeiture of our logical thinking and moral intuitions so as to accept one’s interpretations is quite another. That would be to throw off the very means by which we can discern the legitimacy of DeYoung’s interpretations and doctrines. This is what DeYoung is doing here. He also states,
“It does say something about our human intuition and how we need to constantly be reminded and taught these things.”
Here DeYoung is telling us that the Calvinist hermeneutic requires us to ignore our “human intuition.” I submit that DeYoung is teaching us that we need to be purposefully and intentionally reeducated out of our natural logical faculties and our moral intuitions to begin to embrace the Calvinist doctrines. We need to “constantly be reminded and taught these things.” Why? Because they go against our logical and moral senses! We need to “constantly be reminded and taught these things” despite their obvious logical and moral difficulties. These difficulties are indicators of bad interpretation. Therefore they must be ignored.
Now I fully understand that the Calvinist believes that they are bowing to the authority of Scripture in believing in and teaching their doctrines – doctrines that they think they otherwise do not come upon “naturally” and are contrary to what is being communicated to them by their “human intuitions.” But I am suggesting that these “natural” inclinations and “human intuitions” are essential for discerning whether or not the Calvinist is correctly interpreting Scripture. In other words, are our “natural” reasoning and “human intuitions” necessarily so worthless and deceptive due to the Fall and the effects of sin that they have nothing to communicate to us of any value in discerning the truth about exegetical conclusions, doctrinal claims and experiential reality? Does biblical Christianity condemn these “natural” intuitions by virtue of them being “natural” and therefore require the reorientation of your “human intuitions” according to the Calvinist understanding of Scripture? How do we know that Calvinism is the authoritative interpretation of an authoritative Scripture if we jettison our logical and moral reasoning capacities in assessing such interpretations? And why would these serve the Calvinist in the exegetical process, let alone in life in general, but not in the evaluation of their exegeses and interpretive conclusions?
Again, we run across this observation that “the five points” conflict with our “natural inclinations” and our “natural intuitions” when the interviewer Matt Tully states,
“I would imagine some of the people listening who are familiar with these issues—and maybe even people who aren’t as familiar and they’re hearing these five points for the first time explained to them—they might have a sense though that some of these are challenging topics and challenging doctrines that do sort of push against maybe some of our natural inclinations or natural intuitions about how things should be.”
Matt’s statements here are telling and troubling. Matt is actually disclosing that “some of our natural inclinations or natural intuitions” are standards that tell us “how things should be” in contrast to what the Calvinist doctrines present them as being. He states the Calvinist doctrines “sort of push against…our natural inclinations or natural intuitions about how things should be.” This is an interesting observation. It seems to be acknowledging the reliability and function of these “inclinations” and “intuitions” to tell us how things should be. But if that is the case, then they should not be ignored, suppressed, or silenced. If these “inclinations” and “intuitions” are reliable indicators of what “should be,” then this ought to raise red flags for the Calvinist and the one on the verge of adopting Calvinism that somewhere the Scripture has been misinterpreted. For if our interpretations can result in inconsistency and contradictions then our exegesis is untethered from those faculties of logical reasoning and moral intuitions by which we can discern good exegesis from bad exegesis. Once that is the case, then anything anyone might say the text means – including the Calvinist – cannot be refuted. My interpretation is just as valid as yours.
It is also interesting that Matt seems to be relying on and expressing these very inclinations and intuitions when he judges that that Calvinist topics and doctrines are “challenging.” How does he discern their character as “challenging” except through the use of his logical and moral reasoning? Should we allow our “natural inclinations” and “natural intuitions” to be “pushed against” without question? Because they are “natural” are they any less trustworthy? Will the Calvinist seek to cast doubt upon their reliability because they are “natural” as in “fallen” or “negatively affected by sin?”
DeYoung responds to Matt, again admitting the logical and moral difficulty of his doctrines.
“You’re right that these doctrines are difficult for many people the first time they hear them. They’re extremely difficult. That may be even some people listening to this. Wait a second. That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible. That doesn’t sound like the God that I know. That’s not the God that I worship.”
He talks as if some people operate on different laws of logic or moral framework when he includes the phrase “for many people.” I would like to know one person for whom “these doctrines” are not “difficult” in the logical and moral ways typically identified in this discussion and admitted to by these Calvinists. DeYoung identifies one reaction when he says, “Wait a second. That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible. That doesn’t sound like the God that I know. That’s not the God that I worship.” Precisely! DeYoung describes the incredibility of his own doctrines for “many people” because they are incredible! I contend that for all people “they’re extremely difficult.” They are incredible for all people. And that fact indicates that something is seriously awry in the Calvinist interpretations and theology.
In the interview DeYoung mentions the “existential angst that the Doctrines of Grace can present to people at first.” But stop and ask yourself, why should the salvific doctrines of the Christian faith rightly understood cause “existential angst” or be “extremely difficult” to believe in the senses begin talked about here – logically and morally? This seems to run contrary to the very nature of faith in Scripture as making salvation easily accessible, that is, without humanly imposed barriers, so that all may believe and be saved (see Jn. 1:4ff., 17:21, 20:30, 31; Rom. 1:16, 17, 3:21-30; 4, 5 and 10, et al.) This is especially ironic in that these are supposed to be the “doctrines of grace.” It would be interesting to ask DeYoung whether he believes his “doctrines of grace” are the gospel or the “good news” of salvation. It would also be interesting to ask him what “gospel” he heard when he first believed and whether these “doctrines of grace” are consistent with that “gospel” message he first heard.
The point here is that we should inquire into the meaning and legitimacy of these common responses of common sense to the Calvinist doctrines. We should also ask whether these responses, along with the many other problematic implications of Calvinism, should be considered reliable indicators of the truth or falsity of the Calvinist interpretations regarding the nature and ways of God and our salvation. “That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible. That doesn’t sound like the God that I know. That’s not the God that I worship” are not necessarily uninformed or insignificant responses to the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”
Regarding the Calvinist doctrines DeYoung states,
“If we can patiently learn what they mean and what they don’t mean and most importantly search the Scriptures for these things, hopefully we come to realize not only are they true, but as you pointed out, they are good.”
DeYoung holds out the promise that we will even come to realize that the “doctrines of grace,” and particularly the doctrine of predestination, is not only biblical, and therefore true, but also good. But how do we know it is biblical if when evaluated in its immediate and broader contexts it generates logical and moral contradictions with the contingency, human freedom and responsibility everywhere testified to in Scripture? If these Calvinist interpretations cannot be evaluated with logical and moral coherence within their immediate and broader contexts, then we have violated the principle of context. Given their incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions, how can we conclude that the doctrines are true and good?
According to DeYoung, predestination is a true and good doctrine despite the fact that it first seemed to DeYoung to be “barbaric” and a thought that produces “existential angst” in people. It is supposedly a true and good doctrine although Calvin has admitted it to be “a horrible decree.” It is a true and good doctrine, and yet Luther described it as “doubtless [giving] the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason” and seeming to be “an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God” such that he himself stumbled over this doctrine “more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that [he] wished [he] had never been made a man.” It is a true and good doctrine although John Piper testifies to suffering the following mental and emotional distress over the Calvinist doctrines.
“And I know what it is like to see these things at first and not see how they fit with his justice and goodness. And I have wept. I mean, my early twenties was a season of great torment mentally and emotionally over theological issues like this. I have tasted what it means to put my hands on my desk, face in my hands and cry out to God: I don’t get this.”
The point here is that all these “natural inclinations or natural reactions” had to be suppressed in order to embrace Calvinism. If these potential Calvinist converts were going to accept what the Calvinists were telling them was the teaching of Scripture, then they had to convince themselves that what their minds and intuitions were telling them were to be rejected as unreliable and simply not true. But it could very well be that DeYoung’s “angst” and Luther’s “despair” and Piper’s “great torment mentally and emotionally” were all for nothing. They were the result of trying their best to believe what amounts to misinterpretations of the relevant texts. They were told that they had to radically alter their God-given reason and moral sense to embrace what they knew full well was a “horrible decree.” Of course this would cause such angst and despair and emotional and mental torment because one is attempting to wrench from themselves things that are essential to their very nature as rational, moral and emotional beings. These are part of what it means to be human. They presupposed the “horrible decree” was taught in Scripture and forfeited the very “natural inclinations or natural reactions” that were telling them that this theistic determinism could not be the teaching of Scripture. It never could be the teaching of Scripture precisely because of the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions it produced with the biblical world view and the character of God. And yet, rather than question the Calvinist’s interpretations of the relevant texts, they forced themselves to accept them by paying the high price of the suppression of their logical and moral faculties. You must go through this purging of the logical and moral sense to become a Calvinist. It is not a purging of pride and the litmus test of humility as the Calvinist might suggest, but rather a radical expunging of logical and moral reasoning from the interpretive task and the evaluation of the validity of interpretive conclusions. Its the adoption of a hermeneutic of incoherence.
So, why should we believe that Calvinist predestination, along with the “the five points,” are not only true but also good? Here our “natural inclinations or natural intuitions” are speaking to us again. Why should we ignore them? Could the Calvinist possibly be misinterpreting Scripture here? I submit that we can be sure that is the case in light of other sound exegetical treatments of the relevant texts offered by non-Calvinists which do not generate logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.
Therefore, what I contend is happening here is the suppression of one’s “natural” logical faculties and moral intuitions. This is necessary if one is going to embrace Calvinism and remain in it. When our “natural” faculties of logical reasoning and moral intuition detect the logical and moral incoherence the Calvinist doctrines produce with other Scriptures and with respect to the character of God, then that is a signal to us that something is amiss there. And if this will not drive the Calvinist back to the text in search of a more accurate interpretation of the text, then those “natural” faculties have to be squelched. The point is that we are going to have to sacrifice these initial thoughts about Calvinism to embrace Calvinism. That it can be done is evidenced by people becoming and remaining Calvinists. Should it be done? Not if logical and moral reasoning are hermeneutical essentials and without them you cannot correctly interpret Scripture. That is what I am arguing and that is the difference at the hermeneutical level between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist.
Austin Fischer records another of John Piper’s struggles in Piper’s conversion to Calvinism. Piper states,
“So when I went to college and began to hear people give a framework to this [Calvinism], I revolted against the sovereignty of God…When I arrived a Fuller Seminary, I took a class on systematic theology with James Morgan…and another with Dan Fuller on hermeneutics. And coming from both sides – theology and exegesis – I was feeling myself absolutely cornered by all the evidences of God’s sovereignty in the Bible…I would put my face in my hands in my room, and I would just cry because my world was coming apart. I just couldn’t figure anything out…But at the end of James Morgan’s theology class, I wrote in a blue book: “Romans 9 is like a tiger going around devouring free-willers like me. And it did.”
It’s interesting that DeYoung and Piper were never given alternative interpretations of the relevant passages like Romans 9 that do not lead to a definition of “sovereignty” as universal divine causal determinism nor the subsequent logical and moral incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions such determinism creates with other teachings of Scripture. And this raises a related issue. That is, that Dan Fuller’s hermeneutic must have deemed the incoherence his interpretations generated as interpretively insignificant. It must have been the case that Dr. Fuller never considered the serious logical and moral incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions that his deterministic interpretation of God’s sovereignty created as interpretively significant. They had no bearing on determining the validity or invalidity of his exegesis. It is no wonder that Piper was experiencing such anxiety and “just couldn’t figure anything out.” Of course he couldn’t, and he never would be able to figure any of this out. He could not and still cannot (he has to flee to mystery and incomprehensibility) because the very logical and moral faculties and framework he needed to properly exegete Scripture and “figure things out” were being wrested from him. Indeed, they were being taken from him as the necessary first step to adopt the unmovable pillar of Calvinist theology which is God’s sovereignty defined as a universal divine causal determinism. I said above that Dan Fuller’s hermeneutic must have deemed the incoherence his interpretations generated as interpretively insignificant. Adopting this hermeneutic must have been a conscious decision because I take it that he must have known that there are sound exegetical treatments of Romans 9 that do not lead to the logical and moral cul-de-sac of unconditional election and theistic determinism. It was not necessary for Piper to suppress his logical and moral reasoning and go through this torment. Certainly Scripture properly interpreted didn’t require it. His world need not have come apart.
The Calvinist’s reasoning here goes as follows (note that Calvinists trust and rely on their reasoning faculties as far as this discussion and debate is concerned, but not in evaluating their exegesis and theology). Calvinists will argue that we must submit to what Scripture teaches no matter what our “natural” logical and moral capacities indicate to us as problematic with regard to those interpretive claims. Scripture is divine revelation and as divine, or “supernatural,” we should expect this kind of conflict with our “natural” logical or moral reasoning. The “spiritual” is pitted against the “natural.” But this only begs the question as to whether the Scripture is actually teaching what the Calvinist claims it does. According to the Calvinist, their exegesis of the text requires us to divorce exegesis from logical and moral reasoning. And at that point the believer is ripe for accepting Calvinism because their logical and moral reasoning is no longer in play for discerning the truth of the Calvinist’s interpretations. Note that the Calvinist has also provided us a definition of their hermeneutic. In this whole process they are making a hermeneutical statement. That is, that exegesis is not necessarily informed by or tethered to logical and moral reasoning. The Calvinist’s hermeneutic demands we accept the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” as the teaching of Scripture regardless of the logical and moral incoherence they produce. Again, it is to promote a hermeneutic of incoherence.
As much as we agree that the Scripture is the authoritative source for what we are to believe, the common sense responses that can identify logical inconsistencies and moral difficulties cannot be cavalierly dismissed as the product of fallen sinful human reasoning. The veracity of our logical reasoning capacity and moral intuitions can be well established, not only philosophically and experientially but also theologically. They are therefore essential to the whole interpretive task.
Formal, scholarly logical and moral critiques have been brought against Calvinism with great success. And there is a vast amount of scholarship – past and present – providing alternative interpretations to Calvinism. In addition, the common negative reactions of most people to the Calvinist doctrines, as evidenced by those documented here, is additional and powerful support for the claim that Calvinism is not the correct interpretation of Scripture on these matters. If people find it hard to clearly articulate the problems they have with Calvinism, the fact that thinking persons can sense there are logical and moral problems there only casts more suspicion on the Calvinist’s claim that they have rightly interpreted the text.
My point here is to demonstrate that the Calvinist must suppress a person’s logical and moral reasoning and how they go about doing it as the first step to removing the objections such reasoning raises to their doctrines, opening up the way for a person to be “persuaded” (another problematic concept given Calvinist determinism), that Calvinism is the teaching of Scripture.
After acknowledging the troubling implications of the Calvinist doctrines, Matt and DeYoung attempt to put a “good face” on them by pointing out that Calvinists describe them as “the doctrines of grace.” Matt states,
“But I’m struck that another name for these five points of Calvinism, and just the broader system, is as you mentioned the Doctrines of Grace. Why do you think that’s such a helpful or important name for what we’re talking about here?”
Good question. It’s hard to see how these are doctrines of grace if you understand grace in terms of the divine disposition of favor and good will found in Christ to all individual sinners and not God’s decision to predestine only some persons to salvation. And labeling them the “doctrines of grace” will not help avoid the incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions they produce with other biblical doctrines and our experiences of practical reality. It seems that the fallacy of naming is at work here.
When DeYoung first heard about Calvinism and thought it “barbaric,” he subsequently said to himself,
“Okay, next time I hear of this [Calvinism/predestination] maybe I need to do some more learning and digging and try to understand what this is about, and I’m not going to dismiss this.”
This is an admirable and a reasonable approach to what at first offended his logical and moral sensitivities. Each side of this debate needs to be sure they accurately understand and represent the other side. But in the same way, perhaps DeYoung should not have dismissed his first impressions of Calvinism. After all, if he is going to “do some more learning and digging and try to understand what this is about,” he must trust and continue to employ his logical faculties and moral intuitions. He needs these to “learn” and “dig” and “understand.” We cannot “understand” something without exercising our logical and moral reasoning. While DeYoung does this “learning” “digging” and seeking to “understand” Calvinism, he cannot let go of what his logical and moral reasoning are telling him and will be telling him as he encounters the acute logical and moral difficulties the Calvinist doctrines raise. Can they be “true” if they present logical contradictions, and can they be “good” if they present moral incoherencies and inconsistencies that impugn the character of God? Moreover, as such, can they be the teaching of Scripture? Perhaps these incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions are reliably indicating to us that something is amiss in the Calvinist’s interpretations. Once DeYoung abandons the tools of logical and moral reflection, he is free to embrace Calvinism. But he will be paying a very high intellectual and emotion price. He will be embracing it despite its incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions.
I think we can see how one has to forfeit his logical and moral reasoning to become and remain a Calvinist. These cannot be actively involved, that is, they must be suppressed, while learning about Calvinism or for one to accept that is what the Bible teaches.
Finally, let’s explore the implications of this discussion for the gospel. Is it really the case, as DeYoung claims, that “at the heart of this [TULIP] is grace and good news?” How so? I am curious as to what the precise content is of this “good news” that DeYoung is talking about here? It certainly seems like he is linking, if not equating, his “doctrines of grace” with the “good news.” Are his soteriological “doctrines of grace” this “good news?” If not, why not? Why wouldn’t they be? One’s soteriology just is the foundation from which one’s message of “good news” arises. And the two should be consistent. One’s soteriology should be coherent with one’s proclamation of “good news.” Moreover, DeYoung’s “doctrines of grace” just are the full and final explanation as to why a person is saved and another is not. Therefore, they should be for the Calvinist the message of the gospel or “good news.” But I submit that given the Calvinist soteriological doctrines, any good news quickly fades into doubt, hopelessness and despair. We have seen that in the above testimonies. In order for one to become a Calvinist they have to sacrifice the gospel as a message of truly good news. There is no “good news” in telling sinners that they cannot believe “the gospel” (whatever that “gospel” is on Calvinism) because of their total inability to respond to spiritual things. I don’t see any “good news” in telling sinners that God has unconditionally and unalterably elected only certain individuals for salvation and therefore all others to eternal damnation. You might belong to the elect group if God works irresistible grace in you along with regeneration and faith. Therefore, if you are not among the elect, you will not experience this grace, regeneration or faith. And I see no “good news” in informing sinners that God does not extend his love and grace to all individual sinners in Christ because the atonement is limited. How is, “Jesus did not die for all persons,” good news? His death applies only to the elect. Since only the elect will be saved, Jesus died only for them. In the end, God does not love everybody. I see no “good news” in that.
I think it is evident that these “doctrines of grace” cannot be put into the service of evangelism in the true sense of the word as the proclamation of “good news.” The Calvinist soteriology or “doctrines of grace” are not “good news” because they teach exclusivity on the basis of a theistic determinism, not inclusivity on the basis of God’s loving provision of salvation for all in Christ to be appropriated by faith. If you want to understand what the Calvinist means when they talk about God’s love, grace, faith and salvation, you must run these through the grid of the Calvinist’s theistic determinism. This determinism is expressed soteriologically in the doctrine of unconditional election or predestination. This interrelated composite of deterministic doctrines erode the gospel message as truly “good news.”
The point is that on Calvinism God’s love and provision of salvation in Christ cannot be honestly and forthrightly proclaimed to all sinners. Calvinists know this and therefore never preach their “doctrines of grace” in the service of evangelism as the gospel. They therefore must preach some other message that is truly good news but will inevitably be inconsistent with their underlying soteriological doctrines. Either that or they use phrases that seek to blend their Calvinism with a genuine offer of salvation. They will say things like, “If you feel God working in your life, then accept Christ as your savior.” But most of the time they become Arminians or Provisionists as far as evangelism is concerned. Calvinists cannot provide the assurance that God is kindly disposed to the sinner and desires their salvation. The harsh reality is that on Calvinism God does not love everyone and that he has unilaterally predetermined that a multitude of people made in his image should experience eternal torment in hell for the display of his justice, wrath and glory. Calvinism is just news about there being a mass of people predestined to salvation and a mass of people predestined to reprobation, and which individuals constitute these groups remains unknown to any of us. Indeed, there is no good news in Calvinism.
During the “Tough Questions Christians Face: 2008 West Coast Conference” a woman asked John MacArthur the following question.
“Dr. MacArthur, you gave us two scriptures that popped out to me. The natural man cannot get to God in his unaided condition. And then in Acts, God now commands all men everywhere to repent. So, does that mean God would help everyone to repent since he commands it?
“The question you’re asking is why would God command all men everywhere to repent if they can’t unless he aids them. The answer to the question is, I don’t know why he chose to do it that way but that is the way it is.”
The questioner follows up with,
“So not everybody can be saved then?”
At which point MacArthur interjects, saying,
“Everyone is held culpable and guilty for not repenting. Everyone is culpable for his own sin. Guilty before God for his own sin. Like the second Thessalonians passage, God will deal out, when Christ returns, retribution to those who know not God and believe not the gospel. This is the great ultimate question that you come to in the doctrines of grace – is personal moral responsibility and the sovereignty of God. How do those two things come together. Clearly they are taught in Scripture. Clearly they are both taught in Scripture. What you want to avoid is some middle ground that assaults both of those things. But that’s for God to fully resolve in his own mind. All men are sinners. All men are culpable. All men are guilty. All men are commanded to repent. All men are in disobedience and in violation of that command, yet at the same time they’re unable to respond apart from the intervening sovereign grace of God. That is what the Bible teaches. The resolution of that is, I think, clear to the mind of God, but difficult for us to understand.”
True to the title of the conference MacArthur was faced with a tough question here. But it is only tough for him because of his deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty.
Note that he does not give a direct answer to the question except to say, “The answer to the question is, I don’t know why he chose to do it that way but that is the way it is.” He states, “This is the great ultimate question that you come to in the doctrines of grace – is personal moral responsibility and the sovereignty of God.”
It is important to realize that we only come to this “great ultimate question” because of the determinism inherent in “the doctrines of grace,” which is a euphemism for the Calvinist soteriological doctrines (i.e., TULIP). It is the determinism inherent in “the doctrines of grace” that generates this “great ultimate question” which I submit should be more appropriately designated the “great ultimate contradiction.” Because MacArthur’s theistic determinism is taken for granted as biblical teaching, and he must also admit to the non-deterministic biblical teaching on man’s culpability for sin and the responsibility to repent in light of God’s command to do so, he therefore affirms that the reality of God’s interaction with human persons is both deterministic and non-deterministic. Therefore, he holds to a contradiction. But rather than face the fact that his position is inherently contradictory, he declares it a mystery and pleads ignorance. He states, “I don’t know why he chose to do it that way but that is the way it is.”
I think MacArthur must ultimately know and believe that his position is contradictory, otherwise he would have provided a response that resolved the problem the questioner posed. For instance, why didn’t he explain compatibilism to the questioner if that really does address this contradiction in his position as many Calvinists claim? It is only when the Calvinist runs into a real rational or moral cul-de-sac that they have to bail themselves out with statements like “But that’s for God to fully resolve in his own mind” and “The resolution of that is, I think, clear to the mind of God, but difficult for us to understand.” But this ignores the fact that the laws of logic and non-contradiction are the very way the mind of God works. This is an attempt to pass off on God something that we can see is a real contradiction. It is not a mystery that lies somehow resolved within the mind of God but to us looks like a contradiction. That is to tell us that what we see to be a contradiction is not. But if God is the source our laws of logic and moral intuitions, especially if they are essential to his very nature, and therefore they are fundamental to our being as the biblical teaching on being made in the image of God would affirm, then God will have none of these results of poor interpretation of his Scripture foisted upon him and neither should we. Because God is beyond our comprehension in certain ways, he can’t be used as the excuse for the contradiction generated by the Calvinist’s deterministic definition of divine sovereignty. So all we are given is the flight to mystery and the question begging assertions that this is what the Bible teaches.
So what is “the way” that God “chose to do it” that MacArthur is referring to here? “The way” God “chose to do it” is apparently to have decided, “I have predetermined who will be saved and that this will involve that they repent and believe. And because they cannot repent and believe unless I effectively work repentance and belief in them, therefore I will effectively work repentance and belief only in those persons I have chosen to save (determinism). Yet, I also declare that all individuals have personal moral responsibility and I will also hold all persons responsible for their disobedience in refusing to repent and believe (non-determinism). The non-elect cannot repent and believe because I will not work effectively in them (determinism), yet I also hold them responsible for not doing so (non-determinism). MacArthur’s position sets up an obvious contradiction. MacArthur affirms the non-determinism of culpability for sin and responsibility to repent and believe the gospel while also affirming that God determines all things, including in whom he will effectually work repentance and belief in “the gospel.”
It is as MacArthur says, “All men are commanded to repent” and “Everyone is held culpable and guilty for not repenting” and “God will deal out, when Christ returns, retribution to those who know not God and believe not the gospel” and yet “they’re unable to respond apart from the intervening sovereign grace of God.” The phrase “apart from the intervening sovereign grace of God” means “apart from being predestined to salvation.”
MacArthur is definitely affirming both determinism and non-determinism otherwise there would be no problem here. MacArthur asserts that “Clearly they are both taught in Scripture.” But this begs the question. Is it true that “Clearly they are both taught in Scripture?” Why is it “clear” that a deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty is taught in Scripture when it runs roughshod over so much of what is taught in Scripture on human culpability, responsibility and contingency? What does this insistence that “both are taught in Scripture” demonstrate? It demonstrates that rational and moral coherence are hermeneutically insignificant to MacArthur. Despite the contradictory nature of his position, he finds in this no reason to doubt the accuracy of his interpretations. For MacArthur rational and moral incoherence and contradiction play no role as a check upon his exegesis of the text. This being the case, it seems that there is nothing that could ever cast doubt upon MacArthur’s soteriology or theology. Therefore he can and must continue to merely assert “This is what the Bible teaches.”
But equally important to note here is the suppression of reason MacArthur imposes upon this questioner. He tells her directly, “What you want to avoid is some middle ground that assaults both of those things.” I take MacArthur to mean that we shouldn’t think about this in a way that pits (assaults?) sovereignty against human responsibility. What this amounts to is, “Don’t think about these two issues in the way that you would normally think about them, that is, as contradictory.” In saying this MacArthur is directing the questioner to ignore what she otherwise recognizes as the contradictory nature of MacArthur’s position. He is telling her to avoid thinking in a way that would not allow her to accept both of these in the way the Calvinist does – as “the great ultimate question” that we cannot fathom and is “difficult for us to understand.”
In order for the questioner to accept MacArthur’s “explanations” she must jettison her logical reasoning and moral intuitions. She must do what MacArthur does here when he says, “The resolution of that is, I think, clear to the mind of God, but difficult for us to understand.” He takes the rational observation of the questioner, removes it from her mind and thinking, and places it in the mind of God. He makes it so that it is not a contradiction to God, but also makes it so that the questioner is not rightly understanding – and never could –these Calvinist teachings. This relieves some of the nonsense of his position for MacArthur. After all, if it is not a contradiction to God then it is not a contradiction at all. And even though it may seem otherwise to us, MacArthur can always just say it is not a contradiction to God because this is something we can never know or understand. We have no access to the mind of God on this matter, so MacArthur’s position is supposedly safe from criticism. But MacArthur is using God to excuse the contradiction in his position. He is referring us to God’s mind, which in this matter he asserts is beyond our understanding. He does this to divert us from the nature of the situation which certainly seems clear to us to be a contradiction. And that is the problem here. You, me and the questioner seem to see this for what it is – a contradiction. But MacArthur refuses to do so because he presupposes “clearly they are both taught in Scripture.” But that claim, in large part, rests upon the very logical and moral reasoning that MacArthur has banished from our understanding and yet asserts “is clear to the mind of God.”
Therefore, we should question MacArthur’s advice here. Is this really too difficult for us to understand, or is our understanding indicating to us that something is amiss in MacArthur’s “doctrines of grace?” Why isn’t that a possibility? We should not allow our thinking to be diverted or suppressed from the logical and moral incoherencies and contradictions MacArthur’s theistic determinism raises. You must ask yourself whether or not the intellectual price for believing “the doctrines of grace” is much too high a price to pay. Given sound exegetical, theological and hermeneutical alternatives that are not like Calvinism – incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory – I think it is. You must ask yourself whether the Bible really does teach universal divine causal determinism at the price of forcing you to ignore the dictates of your logical and moral reasoning. And most importantly, you must ask yourself whether or not, when all is said and done, these “doctrines of grace” remove the “good news” from the gospel message, transforming it into something contrary to the biblical content and definition of the gospel as good news.
Furthermore MacArthur’s position is morally incoherent in that God calls upon the non-elect to repent and believe and holds them culpable and responsible for not doing so, that is, he holds them culpable and responsible for not doing what they never could do because God does not will it to be. Recall MacArthur’s statement that men are “unable to respond apart from the intervening sovereign grace of God.” But note what Calvinist R. C. Sproul states about the word “responsibility.”
“I’d like to add to that, that the very term responsibility carries within it the idea of the ability to respond. And it’s a normal thing to draw the inference that if God commands somebody to do something the implication is they must have the ability to do it without some kind of supernatural intervention.” 
Precisely. Sproul affirms what any person who is reasoning normally would conclude about what the Bible testifies to regarding human responsibility. Sproul admits that it is reasonable to think that the term “responsibility” means just that – “the ability to respond.” But Sproul must ignore this normal inference “that if God commands somebody to do something the implication is that they must have the ability to do it without some kind of supernatural intervention.” Now, the Calvinist’s deterministic definition of divine sovereignty must hold sway and therefore this normal inference must be disregarded. The logic must be ignored. Any kind of “ability to do” that has not been predetermined and therefore caused by God to occur is anathema. Human response to God’s command cannot be a free response but must be determined and caused by God.
Note also that Sproul understates his Calvinist doctrine of the divine decree when he talks of “some kind of supernatural intervention.” It is incorrect for Sproul to talk of God intervening when he has predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass.” God does not “intervene” in a world in which he has predetermined and causes all things to occur as they do. God is the sole actor in the world according to his predetermined plan and therefore it make no sense to speak of him “intervening” in his own activity.
And here again we see the suppression of reason. Sproul goes on to say,
“I might add that that’s exactly the logic that was used by the arch-heretic Pelagius…”
So Sproul considers the logic that he himself expressed above about the nature of responsibility to be heretical. Although he admits that it is “a normal thing to draw the inference that if God commands somebody to do something the implication is they must have the ability to do it without some kind of supernatural intervention” he ultimately denies the legitimacy of this normal inference. It is important to note that Sproul goes on to use Pelagius’ misinterpretation and misapplication of Matthew 5:48 to conclude the following,
“You’ve got to be very, very careful of a rush to judgment and concluding that because God holds you responsible for something that therefore you can do it.”
Sproul would not only have us not rush to judgment, but also forfeit our judgment, for it is our judgment that shows up Sproul’s theology as incoherent. The Calvinist requires that we suppress the logical reasoning that tells us that “the very term responsibility carries within it the idea of the ability to respond.” We are required to suppress the logic and reasoning that tells us that “it’s a normal thing to draw the inference that if God commands somebody to do something the implication is they must have the ability to do it without some kind of supernatural intervention.” He would have us conclude that this kind of “logic” leads to heretical conclusions. But perhaps the application of this kind of logic to his “doctrines of grace” leads us to conclude there is something very wrong in Sproul’s doctrines. Perhaps logical reflection and moral intuition are the Calvinists worst enemy and must be avoided at all costs. And intellectually the cost is very, very high.
The Calvinist’s position is contradictory. They know this is the case, but as we see, rather than face the problem and amend it, they find ways to alter our thinking to accept it. The bottom line is that they will not affirm that the contradiction in their theology is hermeneutically significant for determining the invalidity of their exegesis. They must assert that “clearly they are both taught in Scripture” and “that is what the Bible teaches.” But is that really the case?
Sproul states, “…it’s a normal thing to draw the inference that if God commands somebody to do something the implication is that they must have the ability to do it.” Correct. So the questioner, reasoning normally, cannot reconcile the Calvinist deterministic definition of “the sovereignty of God,” which in practical terms just is “the intervening sovereign grace of God,” with the command of that same God for all men everywhere to repent. The need for “the intervening sovereign grace of God,” that is, an “effectual call” or “irresistible grace,” based upon the doctrine of predestination or unconditional election, requires ignoring this normal reasoning process and the plain meaning of the term “responsibility.” The two concepts become incompatible. They contradict each other. And the Calvinist wants you to accept that contradiction as what the Bible teaches and therefore he must suppress your God-given reasoning ability that betrays the problem as a real contradiction in the first place.
In the end they ask the questioner “Did that help,” to which she responds “Almost.” The questioner should stand her intellectual ground here and not be duped into thinking that her reasoning is somehow flawed. Rather what she sees very clearly is the contradiction inherent in “the doctrines of grace.” And she got her answers. “…I don’t why he chose to do it that way but that is the way it is” and “…that’s exactly the logic that was used by the arch-heretic Pelagius” and “You’ve got to be very, very careful of a rush to judgment and concluding that because God holds you responsible for something that therefore you can do it.” I submit to you that this is nothing but the suppression of reason. Moreover, on this Calvinist “logic,” it certainly sounds like we are off the hook for our sins.
Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams wrote the book Why I Am Not An Arminian. In it they write,
“To no small degree, the very heart of the Calvinist-Arminian debate is about the nature of the relationship between divine action in salvation and history, on the one hand, and human responsibility in salvation and history, on the other. Both traditions seek to relate the human to the divine. Thus what is said about human agency in history will necessarily moderate statements about God’s historical relationships. It would be easy to take the Calvinist commitment to the sovereignty of God in all things, push it to some “logical conclusion” through inference, and conclude that human beings have no proper role or agency in history, that they are but puppets trapped within an utterly amoral and deterministic stage play. Yet the characterization would not be one that many Calvinists would want to claim as their own. Indeed, the vast majority of us would strenuously object that we have been misrepresented.”
But how would this be a misrepresentation? What would be the proper representation of the Calvinist doctrine of “the sovereignty of God in all things?” It is clear that by “the sovereignty of God in all things” the Calvinist means universal divine causal determinism. Given the way the doctrine is stated, what other conclusion can be reached other than “that human beings have no proper role or agency in history, that they are but puppets trapped within an utterly amoral and deterministic stage play?” It would seem that any Calvinist denial of this would be a mere assertion that could never logically overcome the definition and entailments of their determinism. Has divine sovereignty been so mistakenly documented in the Calvinist confessions and so misunderstood by those who have studied and commented on it that a divine determinism can in no way be inferred? I submit that determinism is the only conclusion one can come to in light of the Calvinists own theological teachings. Can we not trust our reasoning faculties enough to conclude that the logical and necessary implication of Calvinist “sovereignty” is that “human beings have no proper role or agency in history?” Peterson and Williams seem to downplay logic and inference when they write,
“We should not push an adversary’s position to what seems to us to be a natural consequence of the position.”
Why not? If by “natural consequence” is meant logical entailment, then why shouldn’t we “push” an adversary’s position to that point? Don’t we want to get at the truth of the position? Delineating the logical entailments of a position is a necessary part of seeking the truth regarding a position. What Peterson and Williams are saying here is “please don’t apply philosophical and moral reasoning to our theological position such that we are confronted with its incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions.
And what is meant by “what seems to us?” This smacks of interpretive and theological relativism. What seems to one side to be the true meaning of Scripture may not be the case to the other side. Therefore, we shouldn’t “push and adversaries position,” which again, simply means, “Don’t apply the conclusions you would come to by employing your “natural” logical and moral faculties to our Calvinist position. We can’t have these faculties exposing the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions in our theology.” Again, the Calvinist casts doubt upon our reasoning ability to accurately draw out the logical entailments of their position. As far as the logic of the position is concerned, this is not a matter of “what seems to us” to be “a natural consequence,” but what is the natural consequence of the position. We should beware of the logical and theological relativism here. I contend that Peterson and Williams are telling us that whatever the controversial texts mean to each person according to their own thinking is fine. But why would Peterson and Williams understand the “natural consequences” or logical entailments of their position differently than anyone else? Are the cannons of reason or the laws of logic and or basic moral intuitions universal? Don’t they apply to everyone everywhere? Why would the “natural consequence” of a position be different for one person than it is for another? It wouldn’t be, unless the person holding a certain view wants to preserve that view no matter how incoherent and morally repugnant its “natural consequence(s)” might be. Peterson and Williams continue.
“At best, such consequences might be a danger or tendency of a belief if overly emphasized. People usually live in the middle of their commitments rather than at their logical periphery.”
Really? “A danger?” “A tendency?” I would think “at best” such consequences would get at whether or not the belief is a valid interpretation of the text. Here Peterson and Williams banish logic, assigning it to the “periphery” so as not to pose a threat to their theological position and commitments. They say “such consequences might be a danger” or merely present a “tendency of a belief.” And that is all they could do “at best.” A ‘danger?” How so? Describe “a tendency of a belief?” Why is that? Why wouldn’t this “push” be able to provide us with the “natural consequence” or logical entailment of a belief, not merely “a tendency?” What is going on here is that Calvinists need to preserve this idea of “tendency” because they want to retain and utilize theistic determinism when necessary but also human freedom and responsibility when necessary. They want to play both sides of these issues. They want neither “overly emphasized” because if we bring too much attention to one in light of the other the contradiction that their definition of “sovereignty” produces would become evident. It’s best to down play these “dangers” of the Calvinist’s beliefs. Furthermore, people do not usually live in the middle of their commitments. They have commitments that can be clearly stated and well defended – that is why they become commitments. So this mere assertion that “people usually live in the middle of their commitments is just another way of avoiding the logical problems that plaque Calvinism’s commitments, not only at its “periphery” but at its very “middle.”
Peterson and Williams describe the deliberations of logical reasoning which reveal the “natural consequences” or logical entailments of their position as being at the “logical periphery.” They characterize logic and logic’s ability to discern the “natural consequences” of a position or commitment as an extreme hermeneutic. To view their theological conclusions from the point of view of their logical implications would be to view them from what they consider an extreme “periphery.” And if we were to point out these logical implications “the vast majority of [Calvinists] would strenuously object that [they] have been misrepresented.” But they would not have been misrepresented. What they “vast majority” of Calvinists would like from those who are not Calvinists is to no point out the logical and moral incoherence of their interpretations and doctrinal conclusions. They want these to be left alone. They do not want their theology and soteriology put under logical and moral scrutiny. But the logical and moral scrutiny of one’s theological and soteriological doctrinal claims may very well point out the Calvinist’s misinterpretations while pointing us in the direction of the true meaning of the Scriptures on these matters. If the Calvinist feels they have been misrepresented by pointing out the logical and moral incoherence of their views then perhaps they have a faulty hermeneutic. What Peterson and Williams are actually telling us is that if they applied logical and moral reasoning to their theology it would crumble under its scrutiny. So they have to “live in the middle of their commitments,” which is to say, “we have to be allowed to retain our incoherence. We cannot afford to be examined by the logical entailments of our interpretations. These logical assessments must be banished and kept at “the periphery.” To point out the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions of the Calvinist’s interpretations is, according them, to “misrepresent” their views. That may be true, but that would only mean their views need correcting according to the proper interpretation of Scripture.
I have shown that we certainly can delineate the negative logical and moral entailments, or the “natural consequences” of their Calvinist theological positions and commitments. Therefore we should ask ourselves why these entailments wouldn’t accurately and reliably arbitrate on the falsity of Peterson’s and Williams’ theological beliefs. I believe they do.
Therefore, I contend that Peterson and Williams are attempting to distance themselves from the logical entailments of their theological position because they realize the incoherence of their position and are committed to that position despite its incoherence. So is this to place tradition above Scripture? I think so, if the proper interpretation of Scripture requires a hermeneutic of coherence, that is, requires our interpretations to be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory. But the Calvinist’s commitment to their position cannot be subject to the “natural consequences” or logical entailments of their position. They don’t want their “Calvinist commitment to the sovereignty of God in all things” to be pushed “to some “logical conclusion” through inference, and conclude that human beings have no proper role or agency in history, that they are but puppets trapped within an utterly amoral and deterministic stage play.” They don’t want to be pushed on this because they can see that the “inference” is valid and the conclusion that we are “puppets trapped within an utterly amoral and deterministic stage play” is logically entailed by their deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty.
This is the suppression of reason. In relation to the logical entailments of their Calvinism, they have an a priori commitment to their deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty which is the cause of Calvinism’s incoherence. Ironically, therefore, Calvinists are seeking to reason away reason from interfering with their theological commitments. Peterson and Williams are distancing themselves from the negative implications and judgments that logical reflection and inference would render on their theology. They seem to want to keep the “natural consequence” of their position at arms-length. They fear their theology will be found wanting in logical coherence so they relegate logic to the “periphery” with regard to assessing their theological commitments. I take it that to “live in the middle” of one’s commitments means to remain isolated from the probative eye of the logical and moral entailments of one’s commitments. To “live in the middle” of one’s commitments is a safe place from which one can distance themselves from the devastating “natural consequences” that result from the probative force of logical reasoning and moral intuition. “In the middle” one can avoid the “logical periphery” that might show up one’s beliefs as incredible. We can understand why Calvinists would prefer “the middle” to “the logical periphery.”
But surely we ought to reckon with the “natural consequences” or the logical and moral implications and entailments of our interpretations and theological commitments. Again, Peterson and Williams fear the “natural consequences” or logical entailments of their theological position and commitments. They see such consequences as “a danger” or downplay them as if they would just amount to revealing “a tendency of a belief” if “overly emphasized.” But theistic determinism is not a “tendency” of Calvinist belief. It is the very heart of Calvinism. That is why we refuse to acquiesce to this verbal ploy by Peterson and Williams that seeks to exempt Calvinism from careful, intense scholarly, philosophical and moral scrutiny. Can the logical entailments of a position or commitment really be “overly emphasized?” The logical entailments of a position just are what they are. They cannot be “overly emphasized,” but they can be de-emphasized or ignored as Peterson and Williams would have us do here. If a position is being correctly understood, and one’s reasoning about that position is sound, the logical entailments fall into place and should not be ignored. The vast amount of thoughtful critiques of the Calvinist theological and soteriological interpretations of Scripture have continually led to logical entailments that show Calvinism as incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory with other biblical truths that even Calvinists affirm. Peterson and Williams have to de-emphasize the “natural consequences” of their position because these expose the incoherence in their theological positions and commitments.
You have heard that facts are stubborn things. Why aren’t logical entailments just as stubborn? They are, in fact, more stubborn because the laws of logic are just that – laws. And they are laws without which our thinking or speaking cannot be meaningful at all. There is no such thing as a “logical periphery.” The consequence of a proposition is either “natural,” that is, logical, or it is not. Logical entailments are not the types of things you can tweak to your own liking, accommodate to your position or cause to land “in the middle” of your “commitments” so as to preserve those commitments despite their irrationality. When the logical assessment of one’s theological propositions reveals incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, those propositions cannot be held as true a priori. One’s propositions and the belief commitments based on them must be logically coherent and consistent. If they are not, then they are false.
Peterson and Williams reject the logical result of their determinism – that we “are but puppets trapped within an utterly amoral and deterministic stage play.” Therefore, are Peterson and Williams claiming that the Calvinistic confessions definitely do not lead to the conclusion that God’s sovereignty is a universal divine causal determinism? If those confessions do teach this deterministic definition of the sovereignty of God, then are Peterson and Williams claiming that this definition doesn’t make us out to be “puppets trapped within an utterly amoral and deterministic stage play?” If not, why not? What other conclusions can we come to given universal divine causal determinism except that we “are but puppets trapped within an utterly amoral and deterministic stage play?” If Peterson and Williams affirm those confessions, then what other conclusions can we draw?
Furthermore, why do Calvinists themselves recognize the deterministic nature of their doctrine of sovereignty such that in light of the biblical testimony to human freedom they have to label the “natural consequence” as only an “apparent” contradiction? If they want to claim determinism is a mistaken “characterization” of their beliefs or “strenuously object” that they have been “misrepresented,” they would have to present an argument as to why theistic determinism is not the logical implication of their theology and why it is that the “natural consequences” of this determinism do not create intellectually and moral disturbing incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory consequences. They would also have to provide an explanation as to why these problems are not interpretively significant. So they “strenuously object.” So what. Even though they may “strenuously object,” what is the basis for their objection? The question still remains – does the Calvinist definition of sovereignty logically entail determinism and does determinism in turn logically entail incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions with other biblical propositions which Calvinists themselves acknowledge as biblical truths? Is determinism the inescapable truth about Calvinist sovereignty? If not, what is the Calvinist teaching on the sovereignty of God that does not land the Calvinist in a theistic determinism? If it is the teaching of Calvinism, what are determinism’s logical entailments? Which “characterization” would they claim correctly represents their understanding of divine sovereignty that would not logically entail determinism?
It certainly seems that Peterson and Williams are seeking to insulate their position from the substantive logical and moral critiques that can be levied against it. They seek to deflect the legitimate criticisms of Calvinism that point out its logical and moral incoherence and contradictions. Again, they are suppressing the deliberations and deliverances of logical and moral reasoning about their theology.
To discern biblically faithful meanings between alternative interpretations, we must be committed to logical coherence and consistency in our interpretive methodology. We cannot “live in the middle” of that commitment, which just amounts to interpretive and theological relativism, without sacrificing our intellectual integrity. In the words of I. A. Richards, “We cannot have it both ways, and no sneers at the limitations of logic…amend the dilemma.”
Obviously our reasoning powers are not so flawed that the cannons of logic and our moral intuitions cannot be trusted to be meaningfully employed to discern the validity of one’s interpretations of the biblical text. Logical and moral entailments reliably indicate the validity or invalidity of an interpretation. Certainly inference to the best explanation is a valid way to reason in the matter of interpretation. How else do we make decisions about the validity of an interpretation of the biblical text except through such inferences? Yet these inferences are based on logical reflections and moral intuitions.
The words of Peterson and Williams have born out what I submit is the essential problem in the Calvinist hermeneutic. It is the dismissal of logical coherence from their hermeneutic. Presupposing the truth of their understanding of sovereignty, they dismiss the logical and moral incoherence their definition of sovereignty generates. They dismiss its “natural consequences” or logical entailments.
Calvinists want to avoid the intractable conclusions that logical and philosophical reflection along with our moral intuitions lay at their intellectual doorstep, that is, that their doctrine of sovereignty is inevitably deterministic and this wreaks havoc with the biblical witness to contingency, human freedom, moral responsibility, experiential reality and most importantly the character of God and the gospel message. This dismissal is achieved predominantly by fleeing to “mystery” and making baseless assertions like the problem is only an “apparent contradiction.” But more troubling is their attempts at suppression our faculties of logical and moral thought. Here, Peterson and Williams just instruct us that “We should not push an adversary’s position to what seems to us to be a natural consequence of the position.” Regarding their deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty they say “it would be easy to push it to some “logical conclusion” through inference…” Sure it would be “easy,” because that conclusion that we are “puppets trapped within an utterly amoral and deterministic stage play” is the “logical conclusion” of their theistic determinism. So the question is always going to be whether we going to attend to the logical and moral entailments of the Calvinist’s theistic determinism, or simply ignore them as the Calvinist would like us to do. The non-Calvinist says that we need to attend to those entailments. The Calvinist says it is not necessary. And yet Peterson and Williams add,
“Our ultimate goal is to commend a Calvinist understanding of the ways of God in salvation and history as being more biblical than the Arminian interpretation.”
So how will we know which interpretation of the text is “more biblical?” How will we know whether a position accurately reflects the authorial intent or a theological positions traditional reading of a text? Our discussion here, indeed this whole chapter, has emphasized the tremendous importance of this interpretive issue because not only is the nature of intellectual integrity in the evangelical church at stake, but also the very nature of God and the gospel are at stake. We need to restore the life of the mind within Evangelicalism, prevent the distortion of the character of God and revive the proclamation of the truth of the gospel as truly “good news.”
This controversy centers on how we discern a valid interpretation of the biblical text from an invalid one. Thus it is ultimately a hermeneutical matter. As I have tried to show, the solution lies in determining whether rational coherence and moral intuitions are indispensable in the process of interpretation. I submit that they are indispensable in the process of interpretation for non-Calvinists but not for Calvinists. The hermeneutical framework of each is very different in this respect. This is the hermeneutical divide. Whether or not rational coherence and moral intuitions are indispensable in the process of interpretation has to be reckoned with in order for us to discern the “more biblical…interpretation” and for this controversy to be resolved. It reduces to whether it is essential in one’s hermeneutic that the deliberations of reason and morality must be brought to bear in one’s interpretive process and upon one’s interpretive conclusions. This will be a necessary factor for discerning which interpretation is “more biblical.” In that Calvinist can and do dispense of rational coherence and moral intuitions in their process of interpretation, I must conclude that their interpretations of the controverted passages are unconvincing as accurately reflecting the author’s intent.
It is a fact that Calvinists believe in universal divine causal determinism. This theistic determinism is ultimately indistinguishable from fatalism with respect to human freedom and the eternal destiny of every individual. Calvinists will object to describing their theology as fatalistic. But it is hard to avoid the label with respect to human freedom and one’s individual eternal destiny when fatalism is defined as, “the principle or determining cause or will by which things in general are believed to come to be as they are or events to happen as they do,” or, “a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them,” or, “the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable,” or that, “…we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.” It certainly seems to me that each of these definitions accurately describes the Calvinist’s universal divine causal determinism. Their compatibilism notwithstanding, due to their definition of God’s eternal decree and the sovereignty of God, the Calvinist cannot fend off the charge of fatalism.
Calvinist John Piper was asked this very question at a talk he gave. The questioner asked,
“Dr. Piper, as a Reformed theologian, when you emphasize the sovereignty of God, how do you keep out of the trap of fatalism, especially in your preaching, your practice and your prayer?”
“How do I as a Reformed theologian avoid fatalism? Let’s see if we can put a definition on fatalism. Fatalism I take would mean que sera sera, if God wills everything then what will be will be, do what you want to do, or no point in praying, no point in evangelizing, you can’t have any influence on the future, or whatever….
The way I stay out of that is by being more biblical than Reformed. That is I don’t draw inferences from theological logical suppositions or assumptions. I go to my Bible and I look for verses and sentences and paragraphs that tell me the implications of God’s sovereignty. They tell me. I don’t think it up. Like if you tell me “Well, if God predestines everybody, there’s no point in praying, or God predestines there’s no point in evangelizing. Well you can be logical if you want. I’m being biblical.”
Piper’s answer reveals the Calvinist’s mindset on the role of reason in interpretation. The question posed was getting at the logical entailments of Piper’s deterministic definition of sovereignty. But note what Piper does.
First, he dichotomizes being logical from “being biblical” when he says, “Well you can be logical if you want, I’m being biblical.” What he is saying is that his interpretations are not subject to logical coherence or critique. Logical inquiry into his theological position is off limits. Piper is able to “be biblical” without “being logical.” What Piper is telling us is that he refuses to grapple with the logical and moral implications of his theological determinism that he holds a priori. He rejects subjecting his interpretation of sovereignty to rational, logical assessment. He admits this directly when he says “I don’t draw inferences from theological logical suppositions or assumptions.” What he is saying is, “I don’t incorporate philosophical reflection into my hermeneutic.” We should ask, “Why not?” The reason is because Piper’s determinism logically entails fatalism. Avoid logic and you avoid the probing question as to how determinism is not fatalism. Piper brushes aside logical reflection and pits it against “being biblical.” But that is just question-begging.
Piper would probably maintain that because he has employed the grammatical-historical method of exegesis and other interpretive principles, therefore the text means what he says it means with respect to God’s sovereignty. But one interpretive principle he rejects is that the end results of his exegesis should be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory, both internally and with respect to other biblically accepted doctrines and teachings. An interpretive practice he rejects is that his interpretation should be subject to logical and moral assessment for the purpose of reevaluating his understanding of the text
I share his concern that this somehow smacks of subjecting the text to the authority of human reason whereas human reason should be subject to the authority and message of the text . But such an approach would mean that we would forfeit our reasoning capabilities in the interpretive process so as to properly glean the message of the text. It would mean we would have to employ some new set of rules of thought when it comes to Scripture or no rules at all. It would also mean that any person’s subjective interpretation would be a valid interpretation without any way of confirming its truth or falsity, which is the purview of reason. Interpretive relativism would reign.
Rather, when we speak about our reason being subject to the authority of Scripture we mean to reject rationalism as a worldview applied to Scripture (See Chapter 7 – The Indispensability of Reason and Logic in Biblical Interpretation). Rationalism is insufficient to deal with divine revelation with respect to God’s miraculous intervention in this world. Rationalism is born of a naturalism which asserts that nothing exists but the material universe. But we cannot a priori eliminate the possibility of the existence and intervention of God in history precisely because there are good reasons to believe that God exists and that he has intervened in special ways in history. These are recorded for us in Scripture. But the use of reason is necessary to glean an accurate interpretation of the text, an interpretation that may be beyond our ability to comprehend, but not against our reasoning ability when interpreting the text. We can know that God created the universe. We cannot fathom how he did it. This and other truths like it are not irrational, they are supra-rational. We bow in humble submission with our will, disposition, and whole being to what Scripture says precisely because we do understand it, not because it requires the reversal of our logical and moral reasoning faculties.
The Calvinist’s suppression of reason raises the question as to what other means can be employed to get at the authoritative message of the text. How do we “be biblical” as Piper claims he is doing without the use of logical principles and moral reflection upon his interpretations? Why does, “I go to my Bible,” entail rejecting logical reflections and moral intuitions in the practice of discerning the meaning of the text? We are not subjecting the text to human reason, but recognizing that the use of human reason is just the way interpretation is done. This is because we presuppose that each individual author wrote with logical coherence intending to be understood, that the multiple authors of the canon as a whole speak a coherent message, and all this can be affirmed because of the inspiration of the divine Author who is rational, logical and moral in his very nature; the One who gave us, as made in his image, the tools of reason for our benefit to understand Him, his revelation and his creation aright. So Piper presents us with a false dichotomy here. The two alternatives are not “be logical” or “be biblical.” There is a third way – read the Bible with an eye for the coherence, consistency and non-contradiction of your interpretive conclusions.
A due consideration that we remain subject to Scripture’s authority does not give license to interpret the Bible in ways that can be shown to be nonsense. Can an interpreter follow the grammatical-historical method of exegesis and still come out on the wrong end of the author’s intent? Certainly, because when his exegesis is contradictory and incoherent then he has missed something in his exegesis. Even though he claims to have exegeted the text, how would we know him to have done so responsibly? One way to evaluate the validity of an exegesis is not only technically but also literarily as to whether or not it wreaks logical and moral havoc with other texts and doctrines. How can we know an exegetical claim to be a wrong-headed interpretation of a text? By the presence of incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction. One sure way we know a faulty exegesis is when an interpretation is marked by logical and moral problems. This is not the only way of course. An interpretation may be coherent but still faulty due to overlooking some “technical” aspect of the exegesis. But Piper’s questioner put his finger on a key hermeneutical principle that Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell have enunciated. That is, “While logical consistency may not be a sufficient condition to show that a theology is true, it is a necessary condition.” If Piper cannot defend his definition of sovereignty from logical inconsistency, then we have no warrant to think that his interpretation of the text regarding the sovereignty of God is accurate.
Secondly, Piper seems to confess that his Reformed view of sovereignty is fatalistic. His theistic determinism just is the description of fatalism he provides. So look at the move he makes. He states, “The way I stay out of that is by being more biblical than Reformed.” In an ironic theological paranoiac way, Piper distances himself from his own Reformed theological position on divine sovereignty, as if admitting his Reformed theology is not biblical because it does lead to fatalism. So Piper is going to get his determinism from the Bible. But is that any different than the determinism found in his Reformed theology or fatalism? Aren’t Reformed theology’s definitions of the eternal decree and God’s sovereignty the biblical definitions? And aren’t they not deterministic? How is that not the same as fatalism?
Thirdly, Piper merely presupposes his deterministic reading of Scripture on God’s sovereignty is correct. He is begging the question. The questioner was getting at whether we should consider determinism to be a viable interpretation of Scripture if it cannot avoid fatalism; a fatalism which both the questioner and Piper rightly presumed they must avoid. But if you are going to reject fatalism and fatalism is ultimately found to be no different than determinism – at least where it counts the most in the matter of one’s eternal destiny – then Piper would have to reject his own definition of sovereignty because he is certainly on record as confessing that sovereignty means that all things are predetermined by God.
Fourthly, even given Piper’s explanation, we still don’t have an answer to the question. We should still respond, “When you say “I go to my Bible and I look for verses and sentences and paragraphs that tell me the implications of God’s sovereignty,” on your reading we are still left with a determinism that is no different than fatalism.” We still don’t see how that keeps Piper out of the trap of fatalism.
Fifthly, we still need to ask Piper, “What does your reading of the Bible tell you about the implications of God’s sovereignty and what do you mean by implications?” We know Piper claims that his reading of the Bible leads him to a definition of sovereignty that is deterministic, but what does the Bible tell him about the implications of this determinism? We need to know what the “implications of God’s sovereignty” defined deterministically might be. It seems to me that the implications are the very incoherencies and contradictions that have been identified and are the catalyst for this controversy – the abolition of human free will and moral responsibility, the erosion of the gospel as “good news”, etc. And it seems to me that I have no recourse but to use logic and inference to arrive at these implications of Piper’s determinism. Why wouldn’t these be the implications of his deterministic understanding of sovereignty? Piper might respond that these are not implications of his determinism because when he goes to his Bible he also sees that it teaches human free will and moral responsibility, the universal salvific will of God and the free offer of the gospel, etc. But what happens now? What happens when logic and moral intuition tell us these interpretations are incoherent and contradictory with each other? Does that have no hermeneutical significance? Are these incoherencies inherent in God’s Word? Or, could Piper be wrong in his interpretations and doctrinal conclusions? How would we know if we have abandoned logical reflection and moral intuitions in the interpretive task?
What Piper must do is suppress the role of logical reflection and moral intuitions with respect to his hermeneutic. He must avoid the problem raised by his determinism with the assertion that “I’m being biblical.” Since logic has been put out of court, how this is not anything more than question-begging – a mere assertion that his interpretation is correct – we have no way of knowing. And if he directs us to his exegesis to the relevant texts and we still come away with the observation that he is inconsistent and contradictory in his explanations, what do we do then? The Calvinist will redefine this as a “tension” or “antinomy” and finally as a “mystery” that we have to live with. They may further “sanctify” their position by saying that is what faith is all about – believing that God is loving, merciful, compassionate and just despite the problems our reason has with the Calvinist doctrines of predestination or unconditional election. The Calvinist will tell us we have to believe in the Scriptural teaching on the eternal decree and divine sovereignty as deterministic but also human freedom and responsibility. But what the Calvinist is doing is seeking to suppress our reason and moral intuitions. The Calvinist insists that we put our logical and moral reasoning aside and embrace his doctrines which he presupposes are the correct meaning of Scripture. As Piper exclaimed, “Well you can be logical if you want. I’m being biblical.” But non-Calvinists do not see “logical” and “biblical” as incompatible or in a dichotomous relationship. And although they have an appreciation and place for the incomprehensibility of God and genuine theological mystery in their theology, the non-Calvinist does not see this issue as falling into either one of these categories. Piper presents us with a false dichotomy. Rather, I submit that this is just a problem of a flawed interpretation on the part of Calvinists. It’s that simple. Piper would have us live with suppressing or ignoring these logical and moral problems. He might say, “Despite the logical and moral difficulties, believe that both are true and both are taught in Scripture.” But this is to just say that a proper hermeneutic is a hermeneutic of incoherence, that the nature of Scripture is inconsistent or contradictory and the way we ought to think as Christians is refuse to think. Is this really what we want to say? Leighton Flowers responds that “If you say something that’s not logical, or you say something contradictory, you have falsified it. You have proven it to be false.” I agree.
Piper’s “Well you can be logical if you want. I’m being biblical,” communicated to the questioner that Piper’s interpretation is correct despite any amount of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction it may generate. He was telling the questioner “Don’t be logical.” Even if Piper would argue that one’s beliefs should not be irrational, at some point Piper’s hermeneutic does away with the need for being logical. That point is usually when his theology is threatened by the probative force of logical and moral inquiry. That point is when his theology is shown up as inconsistent, incoherent or contradictory. One thing the Calvinist will not do is take inconsistency and contradiction in their theology as a reliable and sufficient indicator that something is amiss. They do not see these as a reason to revisit their interpretations of the relevant texts. They do not take logical and moral coherence into their hermeneutic, whereas the non-Calvinist does. This is the hermeneutical divide. If we cannot tackle this fundamental difference on the role of the canons of reason and our moral intuitions in the interpretive process, there will never be a resolution to this controversy.
In the meantime, the Calvinist prefers the suppression of reason.
On the “Ask Pastor John” podcast,
“A podcast listener named Steve writes in to ask this very pointed question: “Pastor John, are some people predestined for hell?”
John Piper responds as follows,
“Before I give my clear and definite answer, it really is crucial that a few preliminary things be said that are always lurking right there below the surface, ready to turn the answer into something it is not. So here are some preliminary points, then a few Bible verses, and then an answer.
There are many people for whom a “yes” answer to this question — yes, he predestines people to hell — would have to mean God is unjust and he is not good. So a positive answer to that question is simply not possible for them.”
Now, perhaps there are good morally intuitive reasons for these people to think that “God is unjust and he is not good” given Piper’s doctrine of predestination. Perhaps a positive answer to that question shouldn’t be possible for us logically, morally or biblically. Perhaps there are exegetical and philosophical reasons as to why we shouldn’t believe in Calvinist predestination. These reasons would have to be teased out. But Piper will not do that here. Interestingly enough, as we will see later, even if Piper were to entertain those reasons he would reject them as ultimately irrelevant as to deciding the issue, for Piper does not think logical and moral considerations have bearing upon discerning the validity of his interpretation here. They are not essential to his hermeneutic. Piper believes it is the Scripture, as he interprets it, which is the final word on the matter. Piper’s interpretation would not take into consideration the logical or moral issues the objector would raise because these are not part of his hermeneutic. Piper continues,
“In fact, I would say if that is who you are, if God’s predestining who he saved and who perishes can only mean that he is unrighteous or unjust or not good, you shouldn’t believe, even if it is true. I know that sounds strange.”
It sure does. That’s because it is strange. It is strange for three reasons.
The first is, why wouldn’t we think that if a doctrine makes God out to be unjust and not good then something is wrong with the doctrine? This requires us to trust our moral sense. So Piper, or Calvinists in general, need to give us good reasons why we shouldn’t trust our moral sense? But there I go again, wanting good reasons (i.e., using the laws of logic, holding to our moral intuitions, etc.), for believing someone about what they say the Bible means. Do you see how we cannot even proceed with a rational discussion if we jettison our logical and moral faculties?
The second reason has to do with a matter of intellectual integrity, that is, the responsibly to believe what is true and not believe what is false. Rather than pressing us to believe only what is true, that is, what the Bible actually means in this regard, and perhaps, therefore, instructing those who view Piper’s predestination as incompatible with God’s justice and goodness where they have gone hermeneutically wrong, Piper kindly gives his objector permission to go on his merry way believing what they will. Piper does not entertain the possibility that the use of our logical and moral senses are imperative to correctly interpreting the biblical text and that is why we may disagree with Piper’s interpretation of predestination. But this kind permission not to believe in predestination, even if it is true, certainly smacks of Piper fearing that the objector might raise a substantive moral argument against Piper’s doctrine and Piper would have to provide a substantive response. Piper prefers that they not believe it and go on their way so as not to challenge his theology on moral grounds. It is as if Piper is saying, “If this offends your moral sense, then don’t believe it. But don’t raise these issues in critique of my doctrine. I can believe it is what the Bible teaches despite these moral offences and critiques, but that is just what it means for me to be a Calvinist. We Calvinists dismiss these logical and moral objections to our theology.”
I don’t think Piper can fully ignore his own moral sense when all is said and done because he will have to declare the relationship between his doctrine of predestination and the justice and goodness of God a mystery. He wants to retain both his predestination and God’s justice and goodness, but that cannot be done when one’s doctrine of predestination is truly incompatible with what we know of divine justice and goodness. Therefore, Piper must declare the matter a mystery. But let us see what else he says on this question.
Thirdly, when Piper advises, “…you shouldn’t believe, even if it is true,” Piper is side-stepping the pursuit of truth in this matter and adopting a theological relativism. Piper is in effect stating, “You believe what you want to believe and I’ll believe what I want to believe and that’s OK. You don’t have to believe what is true.” He permits the objector to continue in his objections of predestination and says they “shouldn’t believe, even if it [Calvinist predestination] is true.” So what is the objector’s problem here? According to Piper’s determinism they haven’t been caused by God to believe in Calvinist predestination. Rather, God is causing them to reject the truth of his own Word. The objector needs a special work of God to believe the truth of predestination.
Anyway, it seems Piper has a vested interest in minimizing the moral scrutiny that can be applied by the objector to his doctrine. Piper will even give people permission to believe what is false to avoid this scrutiny. He does this so that they won’t rock his predestinarian boat with logical and moral objections. This neutralizes the introduction of any logical and moral assessment of Piper’s doctrine that might undo it and show it up as not “what the Bible teaches.” Piper must do this because, as we shall see, when he is pressed for an answer to the question “…are some people predestinated to hell?”, Piper will ultimately have to resort to the ad hoc “explanation” of mystery to retain his belief.
“Only believe it if you see it taught in the Bible and if it does not undermine other true and important things taught about God in the Bible.”
Here Piper gives us a hermeneutical principle or criteria for knowing the true meaning of a biblical text or doctrine, but it in effect defeats his own theological position. It is the principle of consistency. And this principle will ultimately work against him. I take Piper as saying that a doctrine that “undermine[s] other true and important things taught about God in the Bible” is not taught in the Bible and should not be believed. What could Piper mean by “undermine?” Does he mean “incoherent with” or “inconsistent with” or “in contradiction to?” We must presume so. So Piper says if Calvinist predestination is incoherent with God’s justice and goodness then he agrees that it would not be the biblical teaching on predestination.
So we must ask how it is that Piper’s definition of predestination does not “undermine other true and important things taught about God in the Bible,” like God is just and God is good? How is his definition of predestination coherent with God being just and good? Would Piper ague these are coherent or will he just ignore his principle to preserve his doctrine of predestination as true a priori? We shall see it is the latter, because again, he will fail of explaining how his doctrine does not undermine God’s justice and goodness and flee to mystery.
So what must Piper do with his moral sense that might question his doctrine of predestination? What he must do is prevent or suppress his moral sense from participating in a determination of the validity of the interpretation that produced his doctrine of predestination. He divorces his moral intuition from his hermeneutic and therefore can embrace this doctrine as “taught in the Bible.” Once his moral intuition is suppressed, he can “live with” his doctrine as he understands it to be taught in Scripture.
I say all this because it certainly seems Piper had to reorient his own innate moral compass, that is, his moral intuitions, to ignore what they were telling him about justice and goodness in order to accept the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. I suggest that this is representative of the suppression of one’s logical and moral senses and reorientation of these that a person needs to go through in order to embrace Calvinism. I say this because of what Piper himself tells of his own experience.
“And I know what it is like to see these things at first and not see how they fit with his justice and goodness. And I have wept. I mean, my early twenties was a season of great torment mentally and emotionally over theological issues like this. I have tasted what it means to put my hands on my desk, face in my hands and cry out to God: I don’t get this.”
When Piper was going through his personal struggle with predestination in relation to God’s justice and goodness he was obviously, and rightly taking Scripture as authoritative for faith and practice. If Scripture said it, he should believe it. And he was willing to do so. But could it be that this emotional, mental and moral torment is due to a misinterpretation of the Scripture? Given that there are other interpretations of predestination that are exegetically responsible and do not create the moral incoherence that Piper’s definition does, and are consistent with God being just and good, I think it is clear that Piper had to suppress his own moral intuitions to embrace the Calvinist definition of predestination. But his “great torment mentally and emotionally over theological issues like this” is indicative that his understanding of Scripture is wrong-headed. Recall what Luther wrote,
“Doubtless it gives the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of his own mere will abandon, harden and damn men, as though he delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such poor wretches. It seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been a stumbling block to so many great men down the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wished I had never been made a man.”
Indeed, when we divorce our logical and moral sense from our exegesis of the text and thereby conclude that our exegesis is “taught in the Bible,” then our interpretation or doctrine is automatically justified and in addition insulated from any defeaters. So for Piper, God’s justice and goodness are not actually compatible with his doctrine of predestination, he could never demonstrate that, rather, they are just irrelevant to it. He has made the objector’s moral sense a matter of interpretive indifference. He will ultimately summarily deal with the whole matter by asserting mystery and inscrutability.
We can see that if Piper wants to preserve and protect his doctrine as biblical truth, then he must deflect any scrutiny his doctrine raises about God’s justice and goodness based on our moral intuitions.
So can Piper’s predestination avoid undermining God’s justice and goodness? If we do not suppress our capacity for logical thinking and moral intuitions, I don’t see how. Our capacity for logical thinking and our moral intuitions raise doubts about whether this doctrine is even taught in Scripture because, following Piper on this, our capacity of logical thinking and our moral intuition tell us this doctrine does “undermine other true and important things taught about God in the Bible.” Why the doctrine doesn’t undermine the justice and goodness of God as taught in the Bible Piper doesn’t say. He doesn’t say because he can’t provide any reasoning upon which a case could be made. In other words, these are incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory propositions or doctrines.
So how will Piper deal with this problem with those who object to his doctrine without telling them to suppress their moral intuitions? He states,
“And I know that sounds almost outrageous to people to say, don’t believe it even if it is true. But I am not eager to undermine anyone’s confidence in the goodness and the justice of God.”
Piper places what one prefers to believe above what is true with regard to what Scripture teaches. Piper states, “I am not eager to undermine anyone’s confidence in the goodness and the justice of God.” Is this an admission that his doctrine would do just that? Either it does “undermine” these or it doesn’t. Can Piper explain to us and the objector how it doesn’t? If the objector is mistaken, he should be instructed in the way of truth. Granted, Piper’s point is that he does not want to run roughshod over people’s objections by forcing his view of predestination upon them regardless of their perspective on the implications of the doctrine. We assume that he would want to ease someone into his belief in predestination, and have them understand it in the way Piper does, which will ultimately be as a mystery. We presume Piper would be able to explain how it is that God can predestined people to hell and still be just and good. But he should explain how this can be, not sanction the refusal to believe a doctrine that is biblical truth or believe in some other form of predestination that is biblically false. That’s seems to amount to endorsing personal delusion.
Following Piper’s logic and advice, if one should not believe in Calvinist predestination, even if it is true, because they feel it impugns God’s justice and goodness, then, one should believe in Calvinist predestination, even if it is false, if they feel it affirms God’s sovereignty and glory – which is what the Calvinist will say it promotes. Piper says he is “not eager to undermine anyone’s confidence in the goodness and justice of God” by having them believe in his doctrine of predestination, and therefore we can presume that he would not want to “undermine anyone’s confidence in the sovereignty and the glory of God” by having them not believe in Calvinist predestination. The point being that this is going to get us nowhere with respect to the truth of the matter. We are still left to determine whether our logic and moral intuitions are telling us something true about this clash between predestination and God’s justice and goodness and whether or not this is hermeneutically significant. As we go on we will see Piper distancing himself from the reliability of our moral intuitions to prevent their probing cross-examination of his doctrine.
Obviously, according to Piper, people who understand Calvinist predestination to entail that God is unjust and not good are badly mistaken. For some reason they just cannot comprehend the issue as Piper does. They either misunderstand predestination, God’s justice and goodness, or both. According to Piper God predestines people to hell and God remains both just and good. Piper believes this is “taught in the Bible” and also must think that it “does not undermine other true and important things taught about God in the Bible.” Although he does not explain how this is the case, we ask why wouldn’t Piper want these people to believe his doctrine? Why should people not believe it especially if it is true? How can Piper advise people not to believe in his understanding of predestination “even if it is true?” Shouldn’t Piper exhort that these people be instructed in the truth? Shouldn’t he be concerned that they come to see how it is that God can predestine people to hell and still be just and good? Can he explain this to us? Again, it certainly seems that Piper is deflecting the matter away from moral considerations – suppressing the moral questions – because he knows his doctrine cannot survive the scrutiny that a rigorous moral assessment of its implications for divine justice and goodness would reveal.
By this time you have probably asked yourself how God is “just” and “good” in unconditionally predestining certain persons to hell. You have probably asked why he has done so. On what definitions or concepts of “just” and “good” can you reconcile God’s creating certain people for the very purpose of assigning them to eternal torment in hell? Can you answer those questions in light of or in defense of Calvinist predestination? If you cannot, you will have to accept the Calvinist answer – we cannot know why or how this is. Is that an acceptable answer to you? What have you had to sacrifice to accept that answer?
Again, Piper has warned us that we ought to believe things only if they do not “undermine other true and important things taught about God in the Bible.” The Bible also teaches that God is gracious, merciful and compassionate. It also clearly states that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16) and that he “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:4). So how is it then that Piper’s definition of predestination does not “undermine” these “other true and important things taught about God in the Bible?” I do not see how it is that Piper’s doctrine of predestination is anything but incoherent with the fuller biblical witness to God’s nature and actions on our behalf.
One way to deal with this incoherence is to push these matters into the moral and intellectual fog of mystery and incomprehensibility. Piper continues,
“…if God ordains ahead of time that anyone will perish he does it in a way which is probably inscrutable to us and beyond our understanding. He does it in a way that the person is really responsible, really accountable for his choices, really guilty, really deserving of punishment. That is the hardest thing to grasp. But it is essential if we are going to believe all of Scripture, I believe. Everyone who perishes has chosen sin in such a way as to be truly responsible for his choice and truly guilty and truly deserving of judgment.”
When Piper says “that is the hardest thing to grasp,” he is admitting to knowing that it is morally incoherent to hold to a deterministic predestination and also claim that a person is to be held accountable for his choices, that is, having chosen sin “in such a way as to be truly responsible for his choice and truly guilty and truly deserving of judgment.” This is why I say he has a logical and moral sense and feels the weight of the incoherence his doctrine creates with it. The point is that this incoherence is not interpretively significant for him. Rather than go back to the text to see if there is a better explanation of what Calvin himself understood to be a “horrible decree,” Piper, convinced that the Bible teaches his theistic determinism, suppresses both his logical reasoning and moral intuitions.
Were any of us, before we even existed, deserving of punishment? If it be said that we are all deserving of punishment, then by what standard of justice and goodness would God predestine some to heaven and others to hell? If it then be said that “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” then can we ever know or assuredly state “God is just” or “God is good?” What would those statements even mean if they weren’t similar to what we know of justice and goodness? If they are the reverse of what we know and mean when we talk of justice and goodness or even ambiguous as to what we know of justice and goodness – which seems to be the case with Calvinist predestination – then we don’t even know that God is just and good. In fact, we wouldn’t know the truth about what God is like at all.
Piper then provides several texts that he believes teach his doctrine of predestination and gives a definitive answer to the question.
“So I am leaving those texts pretty much uncommented on. Just holding them out there. My answer is yes. God does determine from eternity who will be saved, who will be lost. But he does it in ways that are mysterious to us so that on that day no one will find any legitimate fault with God. No. The redeemed will know we are saved utterly by grace while deserving hell and the rest will know that they suppressed much knowledge of God’s grace and they deserve to perish.”
The fact that God predestines who will be saved and who will be lost in “ways that are mysterious to us” does nothing to relieve any of the logical and moral difficulties the doctrine creates. Indeed, if “on that day no one will find any legitimate fault in God,” do we use the same logical and moral bearings “on that day” that we use here and now? If so, why do these logical and moral bearings fail to tell us what is true when they tell us here and now that Calvinist predestination creates a “fault with God?” To say “on that day no one will find any legitimate fault with God” is a mere assertion which does nothing to address the issue.
Furthermore, given Piper’s universal divine causal determinism, what sense does it make to say those not predestined to salvation “will know they suppressed much knowledge of God’s grace and they deserve to perish.” Piper is making it sound like they had the opportunity to be saved. But that is precisely not what Piper’s doctrine of predestination teaches. These are just meaningless words in the context of Piper’s theistic determinism. How is Piper’s doctrine that the predestined to hell deserve hell be coherent with his deterministic doctrines of predestination, an eternal divine decree and divine sovereignty in which God foreordained “whatsoever comes to pass?” When Piper states “they suppressed much knowledge of God’s grace,” this seems to presuppose some sort of human freedom by which they could have done otherwise, else how do “they deserve to perish?” So Piper implies some sort of freedom contrary to his own determinism, that is, he implies a libertarian freedom to choose between alternatives such that one can be held morally accountable for what they do. So Piper’s own words are incoherent here.
Moreover, how is God just and good in holding people morally accountable for their actions when he unconditionally, irresistibly and unalterably preordains that person’s every thought, desire, belief and action, that is, predetermines that they suppress the knowledge of God’s grace, causes them to reject his offered salvation, and predestines them to hell? Recall the original question. “Pastor John, are some people predestined for hell?” Recall Piper’s preliminary answer. “There are many people for whom a “yes” answer to this question — yes, he predestines people to hell — would have to mean God is unjust and he is not good. So a positive answer to that question is simply not possible for them.” Is a positive answer possible for you? How so? Can Piper sufficiently explain why we should give a positive answer to that question?
You must ask yourself whether this doctrine of predestination, along with Piper’ universal divine causal determinism, does not “undermine other true and important things taught about God in the Bible” which is Piper’s own criteria for knowing what is taught in the Bible. I cannot see how it does not undermine what the Bible teaches us about God’s love, justice, goodness, compassion, mercy, wrath, etc.
So, God foreordained that these people would suppress much knowledge of God’s grace. And what is the nature of this “grace?” What does Piper mean by “grace” here? Was this “grace” offered to them so that they may have been saved? What does Piper mean when he says that “they suppressed” this grace? Since God predestined persons to heaven or to hell from eternity past, not by anything he foresaw in them or as to any external conditions, but only by his own will, how is it that they “suppressed” this grace and what was this “grace” intended to do? The Calvinist will say it increases their guilt? How so? Guilt based on what a person does or fails to do is not an issue in a predestination or election that is unconditional. For instance, Piper’s interpretation of Romans 9 has it that both Jacob and Esau, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might continue, not because of works but because of his call – she [Rebecca] was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”” (Rom. 9:11-13) Calvinists interpret these words to mean that God predetermines all our eternal destiny’s before we have done anything “good or bad.” How then can Piper say that those not predestined “suppressed much knowledge of God’s grace and they deserve to perish.” They were predestined to hell before they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad. How is it that the divine rationale for punishment of the reprobate or non-elect be based on a condition of their works, that is, they having “suppressed much knowledge of God’s grace,” and yet their reprobation or non-election is also unconditional in that they were predestined before they were born and had done nothing either good or bad? Their fate was predetermined apart from their suppression of God’s grace or other sins, and yet it is said that they are deserving of punishment because of their sins.
So Piper is inconsistent here. He first says we are not chosen because of anything good or bad that we have done but simply by God electing some and not others before we were born. And yet he says the non-elect are deserving of punishment on the basis of their “suppressing much knowledge of God’s grace and they deserve to perish.” Which is it? It cannot be both. If we are chosen or not chosen before we did anything good or bad, how does the eternal destiny of those not chosen depend upon them having done bad or suppressing much knowledge of God’s grace. The non-elect, although predestined to hell before they did anything good or bad, are condemned and deserving of punishment because of the bad things they have done.
Now you need to ask yourself whether or not all this confusion has interpretive significance, that is, does it tell us anything about the validity of Piper’s Calvinist interpretations of the biblical text, especially regarding predestination?
These are questions regarding the coherence of Calvinism and its logical and moral entailments. So in that the Calvinist’s own interpretations create these logical and moral difficulties, Calvinists cannot reason their way out of them. This is because you can’t reason your way out of an incoherence while seeking to maintain the set of propositions the cause the incoherence. That being the case and still wanting to retain their position, the best the Calvinist can offer is a rationalization. But rationalizations don’t hold up against further rational and moral scrutiny. They ultimately fail as cogent explanations. Sooner or later, all rationalizations show themselves up as insufficient “explanations.” Unless you alter the basis of the incoherence, your attempts at providing reasons for your position will always prove unreasonable. Reason will not allow herself to be examined or betrayed by rationalizations. They only show themselves up as rationally insufficient or incoherent themselves. As Calvinists attempt to reason out of their inconsistencies or contradictions while maintaining the cause of these, i.e., their universal divine causal determinism, they will always fail, at least as far as those who retain their reason as essential in the interpretive process are concerned. So ultimately the Calvinist has only one recourse – to suppress our logical and moral reasoning and claim mystery or inscrutability. Once that is done, anything can be claimed to be “taught in the Bible.” If one surrenders their logical and moral reasoning they are then free to embrace Calvinism and accept the assertion that “it’s a mystery.” Indeed, one must forfeit their logical and moral reasoning to become a Calvinist and accept the Calvinist assertion of “mystery.” So, very predictably, Piper deals with all the incoherencies his position has raised here by finding refuge in mystery and inscrutability. He states,
“…if God ordains ahead of time that anyone will perish he does it in a way which is probably inscrutable to us and beyond our understanding.”
This is to say any further inquiry into this matter will prove fruitless. Again, the suppression of our logical reasoning and moral sense. This is also just to say that as far as Piper is concerned his Calvinist interpretation of predestination is a priori true and unassailable. Again, my point is that to accept Piper’s doctrine will require you to suppress your logical thinking faculties and moral intuitions. Yet, it is these that are the God-given resources that allow us to know that the Calvinist is incorrectly interpreting the Bible. It is also these God-given resources that cause us to seek alternative interpretations of these controversial passages. The hermeneutical principle of interpreting in context requires the full engagement of our logical and moral faculties, for logical and moral connections between verses, paragraphs, chapters and books need to be made for us to do good interpretation. But once you have suppressed your logical faculties and moral intuition, you will see no need, nor have the desire to seek a biblical alternative interpretation of the doctrine. You will have been trained to reorient your “thinking” about God and Scripture in ways that transcend concerns for consistency, coherence and non-contradiction – which again are just what it means to interpret in context. God’s ways will be higher than your ways, even to the point that the canons of reason and our moral sense do not apply to the interpretation of Scripture. The hermeneutical divide is clear.
It is quite troubling to be pressed to the conclusion that this process is similar to those employed by cults to get people to believe what they are told. This concern begins to surface when you think about the surrender of one’s logical and moral bearings that Calvinism requires for the acceptance of its tenets. This concern needs to be teased out further, but I cannot help but think that Calvinism operates in similar ways to gain adherents to its doctrines.
So how does Piper answer the question, “Pastor John, are some people predestined for hell?” Piper unequivocally states,
“My answer is yes. God does determine from eternity who will be saved, who will be lost. But he does it in ways that are mysterious to us…”
When Piper uses the phrase “he does it in ways,” it seems he must be referring to the reasons why God predestines “who will be saved, who will be lost” before they ever come to exist. What this tells us is that Piper never could provide an answer to those people for whom predestination would “mean God is unjust and he is not good.” If God does this “in ways that are mysterious to us” and God’s ways are “inscrutable to us and beyond our understanding,” there is no answer to the questions raised about God’s justice and goodness. Piper must simply assert that God is just and good no matter how much it may look otherwise to us. But as to whether or not Piper is correctly interpreting Scripture, this is of no help.
So how can we know the biblical truth of the matter here? After all, that is what we want to get at. We want to know what the biblical authors actually mean to tell us on this matter. If we are to apply logical reflection and moral intuitions to determining valid interpretations of Scripture, Piper’s predestination would be found wanting. Recall Piper instructing us that we should “Only believe it if you see it taught in the Bible and if it does not undermine other true and important things taught about God in the Bible.” Well, do you think Piper’s doctrine of predestination undermines other true and important things taught about God in the Bible? We would think that “undermines” must mean “is incoherent or inconsistent with, or in contradiction to.” So, do you think Piper’s doctrine of predestination “undermines” or is incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory to “other true and important things taught about God in the Bible?” I would certainly say it is. But note that in order for me to make this judgment I had to hold onto and employ my logical reasoning and moral intuitions. How do I know whether or not something “is taught in the Bible?” It is by holding to and using my reason and moral sense in evaluating what I am being told is taught in the Bible. But these faculties are the very things Piper suppresses with regard to the interpretive enterprise by his flight to mystery because he knows they expose his traditional a priori deterministic doctrines as unbiblical.
The main point is that we see the Calvinist hermeneutic at work here. That is, to deflect us from critiquing Calvinism on the basis of logical reflection and moral intuition or dismiss the difficulties these raise as “mysteries.” But these logical and moral considerations pose a serious challenge to the validity of the Calvinist’s interpretations of Scripture. And with these put out of the interpretive process by the Calvinist, all is safe within Calvinism.
Finally, as sensitive as Piper is to these objectors and wanting “to be patient with people” and not wanting “to undermine anyone’s confidence in the righteousness and the goodness of God,” he really has no answers to their questions and objections. They will just have to come on board the same way Piper did, through the mental and emotionally torment that results from suppressing their logical reasoning and moral intuitions.
Calvinist John Piper gives an account of how he came to suppress the reality of his own experience of free will, and that which is everywhere presupposed in Scripture, on the basis of his Calvinist interpretations of Philippians 2 and Romans 9. He states,
“When I entered seminary I believed in the freedom of my will, in the sense that it was ultimately self-determining. I had not learned this from the Bible. I absorbed it from the independent, self-sufficient, self-esteeming, self-exalting air that you and I breathe every day of our lives in America. The sovereignty of God meant that he can do anything with me that I give him permission to do. With this frame of mind, I entered a class on Philippians with Daniel Fuller and class on the doctrine of salvation with Jaymes Morgan.
In Philippians, I was confronted with the intractable ground clause of Philippians 2:13:”Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure,” which made God the will beneath my will and the worker beneath my work. The question was not whether I had a will, but the question was why I willed what I willed. And the ultimate answer — not the only answer — was God.
In the class on salvation we dealt head on with the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace. Romans 9 was the watershed text and the one that changed my life forever. Romans 9:11-12 said, “Though they [Jacob and Esau] were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call — she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’”
And when Paul raised the question in verse 14, “Is there injustice on God’s part?” He says, no, and quotes Moses (in verse 15): “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” And when he raises the question in verse 19, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” He answers in verse 21, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?”
Emotions run high when you feel your man-centered world crumbling around you. I met Dr. Morgan in the hall one day. After a few minutes of heated argument about the freedom of my will, I held a pen in front of his face and dropped it to the floor. Then I said, with not as much respect as a student ought to have, “I [!] dropped it.” Somehow that was supposed to prove that my choice to drop the pen was not governed by anything but my sovereign self.
But thanks be to God’s mercy and patience, at the end of the semester I wrote in my blue book for the final exam, “Romans 9 is like a tiger going about devouring free-willers like me.” That was the end of my love affair with human autonomy and the ultimate self-determination of my will. My worldview simply could not stand against the Scriptures, especially Romans 9. And it was the beginning of a lifelong passion to see and savor the supremacy of God in absolutely everything.”
Note how what Piper was being taught about the meaning of Philippians 2 and Romans 9 created a serious personal and intellectual struggle over whether or not he has a self-determining will. It is important to note that at the heart of this struggle was a hermeneutical issue. It was the issue of whether or not incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions – like the one’s being created in Piper’s mind and morals by the Calvinist interpretations of Philippians 2 and Romans 9 he was hearing – had interpretive significance. That is, whether these logical and moral difficulties were telling Piper something about the validity, or invalidity, of Fuller’s and Morgan’s Calvinist interpretation of these texts. It is important to note that if they do have interpretive significance, Piper was being taught to expunge their consideration from his thinking and interpretive process and method. He was being told that they do not have interpretive significance. They were to be overcome by the Calvinist interpretations of these texts as a priori true despite the incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions those interpretations produced with other biblical texts and theological truths. Therefore, sooner or later, Piper had to surrender what his logical and moral reasoning were telling him about the interpretations he was getting from Fuller and Morgan. He had to come to the conclusion that the deliberations and deliverances of his logical reasoning and moral intuitions were hermeneutically and interpretively meaningless. They were not significant when it came to evaluating Fuller and Morgan’s Calvinist interpretations of these passages. It is also important to note that Piper had to go as far as to ignore his own innate and practical knowledge that he has his own self-determining will. To dismiss what was to Piper, and is to most of us, such an obvious truth that is testified to throughout Scripture and born out every day in practical living (i.e., that we all have a self-determining will), goes to show the extreme and powerful influence Calvinism has in the minds and hearts of those who are exposed to it and whose impressionable personalities and spiritual dispositions make them vulnerable to the suppression of reason and moral sense Calvinism demands.
On the basis of other sound interpretations of these texts the contradictions and incoherencies disappear. But it seems that he was never provided those interpretations (e.g., Arminian, Provisionist, etc). On the basis of these interpretations Piper would have been able to affirm what was experientially obvious to him – that he willed to drop the pen – without sacrificing “the sovereignty of God.” He was given a false dichotomy to deal with – believe the Bible teaches the “sovereignty of God” as a universal divine causal determinism, or, spurn the teaching of Scripture and put yourself in the place of God by believing you have your own self-determining autonomous will. It’s either God who determines “all things” or you who determines “all things.” Which will it be? Well, the spiritually sensitive Christian will defer to God every time! But Piper’s reason and moral sense were telling him deep inside that these were not the only options. But given this false dichotomy, to avoid going insane, this problem could only be resolved by him suppressing his logical and moral reasoning. Sovereignty had to be defined as theistic determinism and therefore all the logical and moral conflicts that created with the measure of true freedom Piper knew he had had to be squelched, stuffed down deep inside and ignored forevermore. God needed to be acknowledged as “sovereign” defined deterministically. But why is that? Does Scripture teach this definition of “sovereignty?” How would we know? Did Piper sacrifice the means by which he could discern the truth from Scripture about God’s sovereignty when he suppressed his reason and moral intuitions on the matter? In the face of universal divine causal determinism, human freedom was out of the question. If one were to confess the reality of human freewill, that would be to deny “God’s sovereignty.” So freewill must be a delusion. Again, this raises the point as to whether or not interpretations which lead to moral, intellectual and experiential incoherence and contradiction are valid interpretations. Why wasn’t the dropping of the pen determined by Piper’s will to do so? If that was the case, how would that threaten the sovereignty of God? Why couldn’t this be a “self-determination” of his own “will?” Again, if it was, why would that negate God’s sovereignty? And why should these passages ever need to be interpreted as crushing the “love affair with human autonomy?” Has not God made his human creatures with a substantial degree of freedom as made in his image, not only to give them dominion over his creation but also for the purpose of having loving relationship with them in which they respond freely to him? Doesn’t the fact of human freedom best explain the presence of sin and evil in the world without impugning the character of God as evil? If the Bible everywhere presupposes human freedom and responsibility, why did Piper ever think that the Scripture taught universal divine causal determinism? Why couldn’t he detect that what Fuller and Morgan were telling him were not necessarily so and could have been misinterpretations of the text. It was because of the suppression of his logical and moral reasoning that is part of becoming and remaining a Calvinist. What was held over him like a Damoclean sword was either the exaltation of God or the exaltation of self. He had to choose between exalting God’s sovereignty by embracing theistic determinism or exalting himself by retaining any vestige of human freedom. He was presented with the false dichotomy of a sovereign God or a sovereign self. He would either bow to God’s sovereignty defined deterministically or make himself sovereign by retaining even an iota of free will.
Regardless of what was obvious to Piper, that is, that he did have a degree of human freedom in dropping the pen, he nevertheless had to suppress whatever his logical and moral reasoning where telling him about that freedom and whatever incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions Calvinism would present with the realities of human freedom and responsibility. The pen incident was paradigmatic of the suppression of logical and moral reasoning that would become part and parcel of Piper Calvinist worldview. Piper’s logical and moral reasoning had to be crushed in order for Piper to embrace Calvinism.
But Piper should have been able to detect, or at least entertain the thought, that Fuller and Morgan were misinterpreting these texts. He should have been able to do so by virtue of the contradiction those interpretations generated with what Piper surely knew of his own human freedom and with the overwhelming testimony of Scripture to human freedom and responsibility. There would be many more incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions to come. But once one embraces Calvinism these will have to be dealt with in the save way, by the suppression of logical and moral reasoning. Logical and moral reasoning would no longer apply in discerning the validity of one’s interpretation of Scripture. That was settled for Piper long ago. He wrongly associated these gifts of God with human autonomy and the self-determination of his own will. The Calvinist definition of “the sovereignty of God” as a theistic determinism would be taken as an a priori biblical truth. It is what would preserve the sovereignty of God over against the “independent, self-sufficient, self-esteeming, self-exalting” “free-willers” like Piper. All subsequent incoherencies and contradictions would have to, in like manner, be suppressed for Piper to remain a Calvinist. And he has been suppressing within himself to this very day – ironically, by his own self-willing – the deliberations and deliverances of these God-given faculties.
Erasmus posed the following question to Luther about the dissemination of Luther’s “Reformed” deterministic views on election and predestination. Erasmus asked, “What use or need is there, of publishing such things, when so many harmful results seem likely to follow?” Luther, in his definitive work on these matters titled Bondage of the Will, wrote the following,
“I reply: It should be enough to say simply that God has willed their publication, and the reason of the Divine will is not to be sought, but simply to be adored, and the glory given to God, Who, since He alone is just and wise, wrongs none and can do nothing foolish or inconsiderate – however much it may seem otherwise to us. This answer will satisfy those who fear God.”
We can detect several unique elements of a Reformed “apologetic” in Luther’s response.
First, as far as Luther is concerned, whatever was done was the will of God simply by its having been done (e.g., the publication of Luther’s views). On this point at least, Luther is consistent with his theistic determinism – a determinism he states clearly when he writes,
“It is, then, fundamentally necessary and wholesome for Christians to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will…Do you suppose that He does not will what He foreknows, or that He does not foreknow what he wills? If He wills what he foreknows, His will is eternal and changeless, because His nature is so. From which it follows, by resistless logic, that all we do, however it may appear to us to be done mutably and contingently, is in reality done necessarily and immutably in respect to God’s will. For the will of God is effective and cannot be impeded, since power belongs to God’s nature; and His wisdom is such that He cannot be deceived. Since, then His will is not impeded, what is done cannot but be done where, when, how, as far as, and by whom, he foresees and wills.” 
This is a clear statement of his view that everything that occurs does so because God has willed it to be so. Just look at what occurs – past or present – and you will know what God has willed and causes to be. Therefore, according to Luther, God having predetermined all things should be reason enough for accepting whatever occurs, including the publication of Luther’s views. But note the result of Luther’s determinism. All discussion ceases. It happened, therefore God predestined it, and that settles it! But this is hardly a substantive or biblically convincing response because it exemplifies several serious problems in Reformed thought.
The first is that Luther’s position turns life into a farce or charade. Luther is predetermined and caused by God to do what he does and it is the same for Erasmus. Each believes what they do because God has predetermined them to do so. So, that “God willed it” cuts both ways. Erasmus’s theological views, writings and criticism of Luther are also what God has willed. What Erasmus has written in opposition to Luther’s writings was also willed by God, and if Luther were consistent with his own view he should acknowledge this. And we could ask why Luther should even care what Erasmus thinks or says. It seems inconsistent with Luther’s determinism for him to even get excited about Erasmus’ contrary views. But for Luther to admit this would be to admit that reality has a ridiculous absurdity to it. Luther would have to admit that arguing against Erasmus, or vice versa, does not involve anything other than what God has willed to happen. But Luther, inconsistent with his determinism, does argue against Erasmus and others who don’t hold to his views as if they should. But in doing so he is merely protesting against the predeterminations of God. This renders the whole discussion and attempts to convince each other of the “truth” of their position meaningless. What is the “truth” of a position if God himself has two or more minds on the matter?
Which leads to the second point that Luther’s theology, if followed to its logical conclusion, presents a conflicted, double-minded God. God willed Erasmus’s views and Luther’s views in contradiction. Therefore, God himself has a contradictory mind on the matter and causes individuals to believe what they believe despite the mutual exclusivity of the propositions. This impugns the very character of God as a God of reason and truth. It presents God as a God of confusion. It presents God as indifferent to the truth and having people believe the truth.
But is God of two contradictory minds on an issue? Does he, by his own will, bring about things that are contrary? Moreover, if we were to ask why a horrendous evil happens that is in direct violation of the revealed will of God in Scripture, Luther’s ultimate response must be, “God has willed it.” We are presented with the incoherence that God willed – in the sense of an eternal predetermination – what is often against His will – in the sense of what he has revealed in Scripture. This all-encompassing, exhaustive determinism renders historical events ultimately meaningless. All thoughts, attitudes, desires, and actions are the direct result of the will of God, and a conflicted will at that. When we have reached this point, God is, as C, S, Lewis pointed out “we know not what.” We are faced with the fact that God has willed that these two theologians interpret Scripture in diametrically opposed ways. Therefore, given Luther’s view of divine sovereignty, why does he protest against the views of Erasmus or for that matter the Roman Catholic Church? Every abomination the Reformers railed against in the Roman Church were all willed to be by God himself. And to quote Luther, “the reason of the Divine will is not to be sought, but simply to be adored, and the glory given to God…” So in addition to the inconsistency of Luther’s complaining about Erasmus’ views or those heretical doctrines of the Roman Church, we have Luther refusing to simply adore and give glory to God for what he has brought about. Luther ought to adore and glorify God with all the heretical teachings of the Roman Church for God has willed them to be, and the reason why he has willed them to be is “not to be sought.” So we can see the absurd results of Luther’s theistic determinism. Moreover, on Calvinist determinism we have to conclude that we are living a delusion, that is, we believe we are actually and meaningfully participating in what happens in the world when we are not. We are deluded in thinking and believing we make decisions and those decisions matter because we are under the impression that things could have been otherwise. But according to Luther they could not have been due to God having predetermined by his own will all things which he therefore also causes to bring to pass. We think that change is real, because things do not have to be as they are or perhaps may be different if we take a different course of thought and action. But things cannot be altered and we do not bring them to pass in a way in which it would be meaningful to say we do so freely and are therefore responsible for doing so.
Hence, the more plausible explanation of their differing views in not that God willed them, in the sense of predetermining them by an eternal decree, but that one or the other has misinterpreted Scripture on the matter. Ultimately on Luther’s view, God thinks and acts in contradiction, creating opposing viewpoints and perplexities, and that same God, who is absolute goodness, has willed evil from within himself. For logical, moral and biblical reasons, I suggest that Luther’s view is not the correct interpretation of the biblical text. But note that I am including logical reflection and moral intuitions in my hermeneutic, which is something I am endeavoring to show that determinists like Luther and Calvin do not.
Thirdly, and nearer our immediate concern here, Luther goes on to define the nature and boundaries of inquiry. Once Luther declares what God’s will is, then “the reason for the Divine will is not to be sought.” Note what is being established. Once anything occurs as it does, which again according to Luther is just what God willed to occur, we are therefore not to question that occurrence. For that would be to question God himself. Reasoning about what occurs is out of bounds when placed in the context of Luther’s theistic determinism. Luther’s theological tradition and construct is not subject to substantive critique, whether logical or textual, but holds sway over such input. This dismissal of legitimate inquiry is an element in the Calvinist hermeneutical mindset. It is critical for the survival of Calvinism that this mindset be propagated and encouraged. This is done by suggesting that to think otherwise is to forfeit and betray the sovereignty of God and to side with autonomous man and his sinful, flawed human reason.
Now the point to consider is this. If Luther tells us Scripture says that God eternally predetermined all things and that he has chosen a limited number of people to be saved, and we ask how this can be in light of what the Scripture also says of the moral nature of God, human freedom, personal moral responsibility, the nature of faith and the content and definition of the gospel as “good news,” then he will answer, “the reason for the Divine will is not to be sought.” In other words, Luther would have us stifle all serious inquiry into theological propositions we discern to be logically and morally incoherent. This is nothing less than the suppression of our logical and moral faculties in assessing the claim that this view is what the Bible teaches.
“We cannot have it both ways, and no sneers at the limitations of logic…amend the dilemma.”I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, chap. xxv. (from C. S. Lewis, Miracles, chap. III.)
It is hard not to conclude that this “spiritual” reasoning serves to dismiss legitimate inquiry or at least define its boundaries. This not only truncates discussion but it establishes an inherently dichotomous thought pattern and approach towards interpretive and theological matters. Luther rightly characterizes God as “just and wise, wrongs none and can do nothing foolish and inconsiderate.” With this we would agree. Yet many would say his Reformed doctrines about God and salvation make God out to be the opposite – that God is unjust, unwise, does wrong to people and is foolish and inconsiderate. Erasmus thought this to be so. Who was thinking biblically, and how would we even know if it is God who has predetermined the thoughts of each? And how would we know if we are thinking biblically if our logical and moral faculties are put out of court when it comes to discerning the validity of one’s interpretation of Scripture?
Interestingly, Luther’s statements imply that he agrees with Erasmus on the point of God’s goodness, that is, that he knows God is good. Luther states, “He alone is just and wise, wrongs none and can do nothing foolish or inconsiderate.” But Luther then adds “however much it may seem otherwise to us.” This caveat is very telling. We should ask, what is it that is making God’s goodness “seem otherwise to us?” It is Luther’s doctrines of deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election. How can a God who “ordains whatsoever comes to pass,” which includes all evil thoughts and actions, or a God who predestines people to eternal damnation merely because he wills to do so, be called “good?” He can’t on any standard of what we know to be “good.” And Luther recognizes that his doctrines cast doubt on God’s goodness because he has to add “however much it may seem otherwise to us.” Now, this is an affirmation that God’s goodness is very similar to what we know goodness to be, and yet Luther also affirms a God whose character and actions are certainly opposite of what we know goodness to be. But Luther must ultimately ignore this disequilibration between his doctrines and his own moral sense. Despite this incoherence with his logical and moral sensibilities, Luther would maintain that his theology of sovereignty and unconditional election is taught in Scripture. But is it? That is the question before us. How will we know? That is the deeper question confronting us. We must at least raise the question as to whether incoherence in one’s theological conclusions are reliable indications of faulty textual interpretations. Why wouldn’t they be? Why should we accept a hermeneutic that results in making God out to be what we must ultimately confess he cannot be? Why should we accept interpretations of the character and workings of God that need to be qualified by the phrase “however much it may seem otherwise to us?” Why does Luther have to provide a disclaimer regarding the portrait of the God his theology creates? Can such disclaimers be the result of a correct reading of Scripture? From where does Luther get his information by which he knows that God is “otherwise” than he “seems” to be given Luther’s theology? Does it come from Scripture? If so, then Scripture must be presenting to us an inconsistent or contradictory portrait of the character of God. What are we to do with Luther’s theology that makes God “seem” to be exactly the opposite of what Luther knows God cannot be? Again, how does Luther know the difference between what God cannot be and what he seems to be? If it’s on the basis of Scripture, and it is, then that would beg the question as to whether Luther has rightly interpreted Scripture. Does Luther believe Scripture contradicts itself as to it revelation of the nature of God? If he believes Scripture presents a unified picture of God as “just and wise, wrongs none and can do nothing foolish or inconsiderate” then how does he get from the same Scripture a picture of God that is “otherwise?”
Furthermore, why does Luther’s doctrine of predestination involve a mysterious expression of the divine will into which we are not to inquire? I submit that this raises the prior hermeneutical question which shifts our focus from Luther’s interpretive assertion regarding predestination and from being an inquiry into the depths of the being of God, to an inquiry into the legitimacy of Luther’s approach to biblical interpretation and theology. Luther’s hermeneutic is one in which he can dismiss the logical, moral and biblical incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions his interpretations produce. If there are interpretations that make God seem contradictory to what we clearly know from Scripture must be true about him, then we should not embrace those interpretations. A sound hermeneutic will not allow it, but Luther’s hermeneutic does. God’s goodness cannot be a “goodness” that must be qualified as “however much it may seem otherwise to us,” for if it is, then God is “we know not what.” We don’t know God to be good. In fact, he looks to be evil. And it is hermeneutically illegitimate, let alone just plain foolish, to paint a picture of God as not good while at the same time insisting that he is good. Adding “however much it may seem otherwise to us” only confirms a confused interpretation of the Scripture on these matters, not something incomprehensible to us about God. What is claimed to be true about God’s character from Scripture, should remain consistent with what we know must be true of God’s character from those same Scriptures. We should not come to interpret Scripture about the ways of God in predestination that would require us to say God is not like that “however much it may seem otherwise to us.” When this interpretive consistency is ignored – when God is described as doing things that we know are not good and just, and then it is insisted that he is actually not like that – a great confusion is propounded and foisted upon us. But this is precisely what Luther’s deterministic doctrine of predestination causes him to do. This is a sure sign he has misinterpreted the biblical texts on this matter. Rather, we should seek a more coherent interpretation of the text and adjust our theology accordingly. This problem, which is inherent in Calvinist theology, shows us that there is a serious error in the Calvinist’s interpretation of Scripture on these matters. It reveals a flawed hermeneutic.
Erasmus grasped these “harmful results.” That’s why he asked the subsequent question, “What use or need is there, of publishing such things, when so many harmful results seem likely to follow?” How can we even perceive anything good coming from maintaining and publishing a theology that creates incoherence and contradiction with what we know God must be in his very nature? Can theological propositions or constructs that create a dichotomous portrayal of God from Scripture have any purpose whatsoever? Can they be correct interpretations of Scripture? By what means could we discern whether such a theology is true or false? In other words, if the Reformed doctrines insist on presenting God as we know him not to be, or the Reformed assertions themselves are deemed to be in contradiction with other biblical truths (i.e., the presence of evil, moral responsibility, divine judgment, God’s universal love, etc.), how can we avoid the conclusion that Luther’s hermeneutic of “seem[ing] otherwise” is incorrect? Might this “seem[ing] otherwise” interpretive theological methodology indicate the doctrines are incorrect? Should not the thought process that allows us to distinguish the difference between what God seems otherwise to be and what he must be also determine the validity of the theological construct that generates this incoherent depiction of God? Of what purpose is a theological thought pattern that creates a “seeming” depiction of God that is antithetical to what God must be? Can a theology that generates an antithetical portrayal of God and his ways, while simultaneously maintaining that that portrayal is not what God and his ways must be, command our intellectual assent? How can it be dubbed anything but confused and incoherent? What is driving such an incredible and untenable theological construct? This brings us right up against the question of whether or not there are real contradictions, incoherencies and inconsistencies inherent within Calvinism, and whether Luther’s caveat of “however much it may seem otherwise to us” is simply a cavalier dismissal of those incoherencies and contradictions as essential to a proper biblical hermeneutic.
Although Luther seeks to promote the adoration, glory and fear of God, I submit that we cannot follow Luther’s advice because of the violation of valid reasoning and our moral sense that he demands. He asks us to believe about God what he knows God cannot be. This strikes me as hermeneutically and theologically confused and not on the order of any genuine “mystery” we may encounter in divine revelation even though we confess that an infinite God must always remain incomprehensible to finite creatures. But to admit to incomprehensibility is not to assent to incoherence and irrationality in interpretation. The very God who is incomprehensible is not logically or morally incoherent. The two are very different. And to what are we to assign this “incomprehensibility?” Are we to assign incomprehensibility to the fundamental cannons of reason themselves as if the law of non-contradiction no longer applies in biblical interpretation? Or are we to assign incomprehensibility to our inability to plumb the depths of God’s nature and ways without divine revelation. One is against reason the other beyond reason. Again, these two are very different. Certainly we accept that we cannot exhaustively grasp all that God is in his being and nature, but that is not to accept that this also means God is unintelligible, arbitrary, capricious or contrary to what we know to be logically true and morally good.
Given that it appears Luther is convinced he knows God’s will and that should satisfy us, it is especially incumbent upon us to evaluate the biblical validity of his claims. We are to “keep close watch on…the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16) and “teach what accords with sound doctrine?” (Titus 2:1) Yet Luther requires that we dismiss the very grounds for rational discernment of “sound doctrine.” Granted, all the reasons and purposes behind what God does may not always be accessible to us, but inaccessibility is very different than incoherence and inconsistency among the things which a theological tradition proposes as biblical knowledge and truth. Such proposals raise the question as to whether or not the Bible is being interpreted properly. What is fitting or suitable to a particular doctrine’s content and claims about knowledge of the will and ways of God, in order to be biblical, must be subject to legitimate inquiry grounded in logical and moral principles. These principles are rooted in God’s very nature and therefore stand as principles by which we can discern truth from error. God’s nature does not allow for a contradiction in the divine mind. Rather, the human interpretations that lead to the suggestion that God has two minds or wills must be flawed and rejected, let alone the Calvinist’s prohibition to inquire into the matter further. Luther’s theological method includes pitting God against himself and chalking it up to “mystery.” In Luther’s theology there is God as he seems to be and God as he must be. I submit that we can know God as he truly is, that is, as he must be. Most Calvinists will agree. But then why the “seems to be?” This “however much it may seem otherwise to us” is the result of flawed thinking on divine revelation, not anything mysterious about God himself. It is the result of flawed interpretation, not anything we cannot grasp about God. Given a God who reveals himself to us in his written word and his living Word, Jesus Christ, we should not settle for a divine dichotomy whose salvific relationship to us remains a mysterious unknown. This strikes at the very heart of the gospel.
There is an intellectual “bottom-line” that cannot be subverted otherwise our thoughts about anything, including God, cannot be deemed true or false, valid or invalid. But Luther has asked us to suspend the most essential grounds of inquiry and blindly accept a logically and morally conflicted view of God. I suggest that this is precisely what Calvinist’s ask of us, indeed require of us, in order to embrace their view of sovereignty and their “doctrines of grace.” The only persons Luther’s answer will satisfy are only “those who fear God,” but it is a God of Luther’s own making. It is a God who is, as C. S. Lewis put it, an “Omnipotent Fiend.” Luther’s answer will satisfy only those who can suppress their logical and moral reasoning, embrace the incoherencies and contradictions in Luther’s theology and label those incoherencies and contradictions a “mystery.” It will satisfy only those who can embrace a hermeneutic of incoherence.
Calvinists are predisposed to defend against their doctrinal incoherence by asserting that our sinful, fallen human minds simply cannot comprehend how these doctrines go together. But the problem is not that we cannot understand these things, but rather, that we understand them all too well. Our “human” understanding and reason can certainly detect incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction when we see it. If it couldn’t, we would not be able to have a rational conversation.
As I wrote about in chapter 7, I am not endorsing rationalism here. Reason is not the ultimate authority in the Christian religion. Scripture is our only authority for faith and practice. But we do not read Scripture in a rational vacuum. I am talking about the legitimate use of reason in the interpretive task. There is an important difference between the two that needs to be appreciated. The canons of reason are the basis for all rational thought and communication.
Now, this is the essence of the frustration non-Calvinists experience when conversing with Calvinists or when they try to understand Calvinism. At key points you’re not supposed to understand Calvinism, your just supposed to give assent to its theistic determinism; a determinism which is the inevitable result of the Calvinist’s divine eternal decree and their definition of divine sovereignty. With regard to questioning divine determinism, in the previous section we have Luther stating that,
“…the reason of the Divine will is not to be sought, but simply to be adored, and the glory given to God… This answer will satisfy those who fear God.”
But theistic determinism runs rough-shod over the human freedom, contingency, potentiality, possibility, responsibility, culpability, the gospel as “good news,” etc. that are pervasive throughout Scripture. This answer does not satisfy many who “fear God.”
What are we to do about this? We need to honestly assess and come to grips with what is going on here. My point is that the underlying intellectual, moral, and epistemological tools we use to discern truth from error cannot be discounted in biblical interpretation. To the degree Reformed Calvinist thought requires we forfeit our reasoning capabilities and moral intuitions is the degree to which, in the truest sense of the word, it is irrational. I contend that it requires the suppression of “common sense” and the most basic elements of “natural reason” for one to embrace its theological paradigm. Here is an example from Luther’s own experience. He writes,
“Doubtless it gives the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of his own mere will abandon, harden and damn men, as though he delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such poor wretches. It seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been a stumbling block to so many great men down the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wished I had never been made a man.”
In everything that can be identified as giving “the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason” in Luther’s theology, he simply maintains that “the reason of the Divine will is not to be sought.” He then incoherently asserts that “He [God] alone is just and wise, wrongs none and can do nothing foolish or inconsiderate – however much it may seem otherwise to us. This answer will satisfy those who fear God.” The Reformed explanations – “the Bible teaches both,” “apparent” contradiction, “divine mystery” and “human incomprehensibility” – all work together to preserve the Calvinist position despite reliable evidences to the contrary. By “spiritualizing” these problems, the Calvinist places them into the theological realms of the “humanly incomprehensible” and the “fear of God,” thereby insulating their theology from its most devastating critique – its irrationality.
The problem here is not the fact that these are such lofty biblical truths that they are impossible to understand or that God’s sovereign ways come to us as incoherent, inconsistency or contradictory (“God’s ways are higher than our ways”). Rather, the problem here is that we seem to comprehend these matters all too well. And we can discern the problems here so much so that the inescapable conclusion, “That just doesn’t make sense,” forces us to conclude something is wrong within Calvinism. Upon what basis does the Calvinist insist that we are to believe that what “gives the greatest possible offence to common sense and natural reason” warrants our intellectual assent and trust? How is it that the correct interpretation of Scripture is the one that “gives the greatest possible offence to common sense and natural reason?” How would anyone ever come to a proper interpretation of a written text except by the use and affirmation of “common sense and natural reason?”
If we are to embrace Calvinism we step into an intellectual, personal, moral, and spiritual vacuum, without resolution, facing the host of problems outlined above and without significant knowledge of what is true and what is false, for God is depicted in Calvinist thought other than what even the Calvinist will say he surely cannot be. In other words, we end up confused as to what God is really like and what his disposition is towards us individually. This can only lead to what Luther described as “the deepest pit of despair” and resulted in him “wishing we had never been made a man.” This is hardly the biblical message of “good news” and what the true message of hope produces in the one who hears it.
God’s revelation was given to be understood, not to be presented as contradictory, incoherent, and inconsistent with itself, or remain an incomprehensible mystery, especially when it comes to our eternal destinies. It was given that we might have the hope of eternal life instead of eternal punishment for our sin. It was given that we might actually know that we have such hope. It was given that we might know that God is kindly disposed towards us in Christ, indeed, that his love is demonstrated to us in “that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). It was given that we might know that anyone may appropriate this salvation through faith. This is the greatest need of every human being – to know and be assured that God loves each of us individually and that he has not predetermined any of us to an eternity in hell as something unconditional and left unknown to us. Rather, he desires an eternity in heaven for every person. Every person needs to know that God loves them and that “whosoever believes” in Christ will be saved. This is truly “good news.” Yet this is not the message of Calvinism.
So if the Calvinist assertions prove unconvincing, what other reasons do Calvinists have for clinging to their theology? Perhaps there are subjective, psychological reasons such as church or family tradition, the sense of comfort or security it may provide if one presupposes their own election, the explanation for a dramatic conversion from persistent unbelief or the explanation of another’s continued unbelief (i.e., they are not among the elect), the personal disposition and attraction for the logical schemata of Calvinism (TULIP), a fondness for its emphasis on the glory and sovereignty of God which are understandable spiritual predilections, or its examples of signal religious devotion. But these don’t answer the question as to whether the Reformed “doctrines of grace” are biblical truth and how we should discern that. In doing biblical exegesis, we need to know whether that exegesis is presenting the true meaning of the text. We cannot simply propose interpretations. We must also be able to validate those interpretations. This involves reflecting on the place logical thought and our moral intuitions and inferences play in examining our exegetical conclusions. We need to examine how it is that our exegesis either generates or answers these logical and moral perplexities and whether Calvinism respects these concerns or indifferently dismisses them to preserve its theological position.
Up to this point I have attempted to raise awareness of the problematic nature of Calvinism and the deficiencies in their justifications for their position. I have also tried to touch upon why many Christians conclude that Calvinism cannot be an accurate reflection of biblical teaching, not only upon exegetical grounds, but upon the grounds that “it simply just doesn’t make sense.” I believe Jerry Walls is correct when he concludes the following in his essay “Divine Commands, Predestination and Moral Intuition.” He writes,
“I think most persons who engage this controversy will admit that the doctrine of unconditional predestination “makes one’s blood run cold.” Yet it must be recognized that only those who find positive moral significance in such a reaction will have a reason to follow Wesley on the doctrine of predestination, rather than Luther and Calvin.”
And so it is. Why Calvinists do not find positive moral significance along with positive logical significance with the problems generated by their theology, seems to me to be the real “mystery.”
In the remainder of this chapter I will seek to demonstrate how Luther’s “thought process” is evidenced in the interpretive and theological thinking of Reformed Calvinist theologians, pastors and teachers.
As one reads Reformed literature and listens to Calvinist preachers and teachers with an ear for consistency with their underlying soteriology, the presence of incoherence becomes obvious and troubling. This incoherence is so acute that even some Calvinists will acknowledge that their theology comes at a disturbingly high intellectual price.
Author George Bryson documents Calvinist John Feinberg’s admission regarding the highly problematic logical and moral implications of his Calvinist beliefs. Bryson writes,
“…the Calvinist scholar John Feinberg admits:
Sometimes it would be easier not to be a Calvinist. An intellectual price tag comes with any conceptual scheme, but the one that comes with Calvinism seems beyond the resources of human intelligence to pay. Calvinists hold views that appear at very least counterintuitive. This is especially so with respect to Calvinist accounts of God’s sovereign control in relation to human freedom and moral responsibility.
If Calvinists are right about divine sovereignty, there seems to be little room for human freedom. If freedom goes, so does human moral responsibility for sin. Worst of all, if Calvinists are right, it appears that God decides that there will be sin and evil in our world, maybe even brings it about that there is such evil, and yet, according to Calvinists, is not morally responsible for any of it. We are.
If this is Calvinism’s God, Calvinism seems not only intellectually but also religiously bankrupt. Who would worship this God? Moreover, if atheists understand this portrait of God as paradigmatic of traditional Christianity, no wonder they are repulsed by Christianity. Although committed atheists will not likely abandon their atheism for any concept of God, at least the Arminian portrayal of God seems more attractive than the Calvinist portrayal.”
Notice that Feinberg seems most concerned about how Calvinism presents itself. In other words, the problem is with the accurate “portrayal” to which he refers. Conversely, it is not in a misrepresentation of that “portrayal” by non-Calvinists that troubles him, rather, it is Calvinism, accurately understood and fairly represented, that poses the greatest intellectual, emotional, spiritual, theological, and scriptural challenge, and even and perhaps especially to those who call themselves Calvinists.
Given the fact that Feinberg has dedicated at least some of his life to promoting and defending Calvinism, what he admits here has not caused him to abandon Reformed Theology for the “Arminian portrayal of God.” Thus, despite what Feinberg concedes, he still believes that Calvinism is the “portrayal of God” found in Scripture. How this can be, if what he says about Calvinism is true, is difficult for me to fathom.”
And here we have a good example of the hermeneutical divide. Note first that Feinberg is able to distinguish the logical and moral incoherence in his Calvinism despite his reasoning faculties being affected by the fall and sin. His reasoning faculties are capable of discerning logical and moral incoherence. Yet even when he admits that “the Arminian portrayal of God seems more attractive than the Calvinist portrayal” he dismisses the incoherence of Calvinism as hermeneutically insignificant. He does not accept our reasoning capacity or moral intuition as a necessary and reliable element in a sound hermeneutic by which we can discern whether or not Feinberg correctly interprets and understands the Scripture in this matter. On the other hand, the non-Calvinist incorporates this coherence as essential in discerning a valid interpretation from an invalid one. Bryson cannot “fathom” how Feinberg can maintain his belief in Calvinism when it is fraught with rational, moral and theological incoherence and inconsistency. Bryson, therefore, gives weight to rational and moral consistency in determining a valid interpretation of Scripture. Bryson believes that rational and moral consistency are essential to the interpretive task. In contrast, Feinberg ultimately does not. The divide is obvious.
Feinberg recognizes and struggles with the intellectual and moral “price tag” of his Calvinism, even to the point of acknowledging that this “seems beyond the resources of human intelligence to pay.” It seems to me that Feinberg is implicitly acknowledging the inviolate nature of the cannons of reason here. Reason is operative and presses upon on minds in this matter such that one would have to somehow force themselves to suppress and ignore them to continue to embrace Calvinism. Moreover, he strongly suggests the problem resides in the Calvinist definition of divine sovereignty. But this acknowledgement does not play a role in his hermeneutic. That is, he does not consider the incoherence and inconsistency of his position to be reliable indicators that something is wrong with his interpretation of Scripture.
Feinberg insists that his Calvinist “portrayal of God” is found in Scripture. But having dismissed the deliverances of reason, if we were to ask on what basis we might know this is true, what are we left with? With what faculty do we discern what is true from what is false regarding one’s exegesis and the conclusions that follow from one’s exegesis? We are left with nothing by which to evaluate the truth of the Calvinist’s exegetical and interpretive claims. But if we take logical and moral coherence to be indispensable elements in a responsible and credible hermeneutic, then the Calvinist could not resort merely to his exegesis as support for his position since his very exegesis is what causes this problem in the first place. If the Calvinist dismisses the logical problems of his position and contends that his exegesis is correct – which would entail that the Bible contains logical incoherencies and contradictions – then his position reduces to question-begging and mere assertions about the meaning of the text, and there would be no intellectual grounds upon which to refute Calvinism. All is a mystery.
The critical problem here is that in the eyes of the Calvinist, their “portrayal of God” will always be found in Scripture because no further discussion can be had on the basis of reason at that point. The faculty of human reason which is required to determine the validity of their exegetical interpretations has been put out of court. Thus the Calvinist interpretations are insulated and preserved. When the Calvinist ultimately makes the claim that his exegesis demonstrates that “the Bible teaches both” (i.e., Calvinist divine sovereignty and human freedom) or devolves into “apparent contradiction,” “paradox,” “antinomy,” “mystery” or “incomprehensibility” – that is, that he cannot support his exegesis as consistent and coherent with other biblical passages, doctrines or our moral intuitions – then he leaves us with nothing by which we can determine the validity of his claim. The Calvinist claims his interpretations of Scripture are valid while the incoherence and inconsistency of his interpretive conclusions are not allowed to play a role in determining the truth of that claim. Thus, as far as he attempts to support his position in this manner he is merely begging the question. We are asking how we can know his interpretation of Scripture is correct and ultimately his only answer in defense is that Scripture teaches it!
Once the deliverances of reason are dismissed with respect to evaluating one’s exegetical conclusions about a text or texts we have nothing more substantive to go on. When the Calvinist dichotomizes the cannons of reason from their hermeneutic and yet claims, “We believe Calvinism because the Scriptures teach it”, he is merely presupposing the truth of his exegesis. How is this not “reasoning” in a circle? Such question begging seems to be the inevitable result of jettisoning reason in the interpretive process. Even if the Calvinist says his exegesis convinces him that the Scriptures teach Calvinism, we still want to know how to determine whether the Calvinist has properly exegeted Scripture. For the Calvinist to answer that the results of their exegesis are ultimately a mystery or paradox or incomprehensible does nothing to explain why one should believe Calvinism as the biblical teaching on these matters.
Bryson probes more deeply to get at this fundamental problem that is inherent in this controversy. This time it is a difference in the role of reason between two Calvinists. Bryson writes,
“Of course, Feinberg believes that Calvinism can be rescued from most of the criticism that even he has leveled against what he calls “the Calvinist portrayal.” Feinberg has worked very hard to resolve as many apparent problems inherent in Reformed Theology as he can. Nevertheless, there is, according to Feinberg, a portrait by Calvinists of Calvinism that he is not willing to accept. That is, Feinberg says:
Unfortunately, some Calvinists, because of their understanding of God’s sovereignty, have denied that humans are free. Yet some of those Calvinists maintain that we are morally responsible for our sin, while God, who decreed our sin, is not morally accountable. When asked how this can be true, they respond that it is a paradox that nonetheless must be true because Scripture teaches it.
Evidently, the Calvinists that Feinberg refers to here are, according to Feinberg, just copping out. I must confess that I cannot see any real difference in the faulty “understanding” of Calvinism that Feinberg seems to reject and the accurate “portrayal” he seems to accept. Regardless, it would appear that Edwin Palmer is representative of the kind of Calvinism that Feinberg finds objectionable. According to Palmer:
To say on the one hand that God has made certain all that ever happens, and yet to say that man is responsible for what he does…[is] nonsense! It must be one or the other…So the Calvinist has to make up his mind. What is his authority? His own human reason or the Word of God?
…What Palmer does here is give us two choices. We can embrace:
2. Our “own human reason”
The “nonsense,” according to Palmer, is Calvinism. “Human reason” is anything contrary to “nonsense.” I sympathize with Feinberg and can see why these kinds of statements trouble him. Yet, it cannot be argued that Palmer is not onto something, and that what he says is much more representative of true Calvinism than what men like Feinberg will concede. Upon close inspection, Palmer is really only saying what Feinberg says. He just does so with less sophistication and less concern about how Calvinism may appear to others. As with Feinberg, for Palmer the conflicts in Calvinism are also only “apparent.” Thus he says:
…The apparent paradox between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man belongs to the Lord our God and we should leave it there. We ought not probe into the secret counsel of God.”
Note Feinberg’s objection to Palmer’s position. It is that Palmer, although he acknowledges the mutual exclusivity of the Calvinist definition of sovereignty and human freedom, will nevertheless affirm both on the basis that the Bible teaches both. Feinberg rejects that Palmer claims the contradiction is inherent in Scripture. Feinberg does not want to go that far. He wants to find some kind of reconciliation between the two that accords with reason because Feinberg still wants to hold to the Calvinist definition of sovereignty with intellectual integrity. Palmer acknowledges that his Calvinist definition of sovereignty is inconsistent with human responsibility. He admits they are mutually exclusive. So in this sense Palmer cannot escape the deliverances of his reason, nor does he seek to do so, indeed he employs them to discern the mutual exclusivity of his doctrine of sovereignty with human freedom. He honestly states, “To say on the one hand that God has made certain all that ever happens, and yet to say that man is responsible for what he does…[is] nonsense!”
And this is the point that we need to ponder. It is that Palmer does think his reason is indicating something that bears upon his interpretation of the text, but he is willing to say the text contradicts itself. So Palmer is also inconsistent here. It was through his human reason that Palmer identified that Calvinist sovereignty and human freedom were of course “nonsense”, but then this reason is dismissed when it comes to discerning the validity of his own interpretation. We presume that Palmer would not state that Scripture contradicts itself or contains nonsense. Therefore, if reason functions initially to discern the “nonsense” of Calvinism, why would it not apply to discerning the validity of that interpretation that has resulted in this “nonsense?” Is Palmer stating that Scripture, rightly interpreted, is incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory?
Instead of Palmer setting up a dichotomy between his human reason which tells him his Calvinism is “nonsense” and the authority of Scripture which he asserts teaches that “nonsense,” he should rather question his interpretations of Scripture. He should seek an interpretation that is faithful to the grammatical-historical method and yet does not generate nonsense. Indeed, the grammatical-historical method of interpretation correctly employed should not lead to nonsense. Palmer claims that his fellow Calvinists have to decide which is going to be authoritative – “his own human reason or the Word of God?” But again, this is a false dichotomy and question begging. How do we know that the Bible teaches the Calvinist “nonsense?” Why should we think that this “nonsense” is a valid interpretation of the biblical texts? Palmer knows the two doctrines to be hopelessly contradictory. He embraces the result of the law of non-contradiction and so he “bites the bullet” to conclude that if he is going to maintain his Calvinist definition of the sovereignty of God and human responsibility he must jettison the input of his logical and moral reasoning at that point and place the burden of incoherence on the Word of God and designate it an “apparent paradox” that resides in “the secret counsel of God.” The incoherence has no weight in the matter of discerning interpretive validity.
Note again that Palmer presents his fellow Calvinists with a misconceived, false dichotomy – their own human reason or the authority of the Word of God. We certainly agree that the only authority in matters of faith and practice is the Word of God. But aside from the question-begging presupposition that the Calvinist view of sovereignty is the authoritative teaching of Scripture, what we are dealing with here is not the issue of what is our ultimate and final authority. We all agree it is Scripture. But what we are dealing with here is what does it mean intellectually and hermeneutically to affirm that Scripture is authoritative? It means that we acknowledge that here we are also dealing with how it is that we come to know which definition of sovereignty is the authoritative biblical teaching. Why should we believe that the Calvinist definition of sovereignty is the authoritative Word of God? And how do we know what the Word of God authoritatively says except by using our human reason in the exegetical task? As a Calvinist, Palmer is inclined to think of “human reason” as so affected by the fall that it is marked by “total depravity.” But it is one thing to rightly state that human reason cannot discover what only God can reveal and that in many matters we must struggle to understand things correctly, and quite another to declare human reason the culprit to excuse exegetical conclusions that can be identified as incoherent or contradictory. It is one thing to acknowledge that there are things about God and his ways that are beyond our reason to fully grasp, and quite another to propose interpretations that are against our reason while claiming that human reason is incapable of discerning the validity of interpretive claims – especially when those claims result in incoherence and contradiction. To dichotomize the use of reason from “the authoritative Word of God” is to quadrant off Calvinist theology from substantive critique as to its interpretive validity. Palmer is accepting the idea that his interpretation of “the authoritative Word of God” need not accord with the cannons of reason. But this, again, is question-begging. We do not disagree that there are things God reveals, the totality of which are beyond us to comprehend, but we are suspect about claims as to what the Bible teaches when those claims go against reason. Palmer merely presupposes that “the Word of God” teaches his view of sovereignty. Therefore he acknowledges the function and reliability of reason with respect to the relation of his theology of sovereignty with human freedom (i.e., he admits it is “nonsense”), but then refuses to employ the deliverances of reason in his hermeneutic. According to Palmer these have no interpretive significance or implications. He merely presupposes his interpretation of sovereignty to be correct regardless of the incoherence it generates with human freedom.
Similarly, although Feinberg accepts the same Calvinist deterministic definition of sovereignty as Palmer, and like Palmer cannot bring himself to deny human freedom, Feinberg too does not allow reason to arbitrate on the question of whether he has interpreted the Scriptures accurately on these matters. So here again we have the hermeneutical divide. That is, the Calvinist refusing to take on board rational and moral coherence in his hermeneutic while the non-Calvinist contends it is imperative to do so.
Note also that Palmer entreats us not to think further about the matter. He states, “We ought not probe into the secret counsel of God.” What does he mean by this since it is in no way possible to “probe into the secret counsel of God?” The fact is that we are not probing into the secret counsel of God, we are probing into the question of what constitutes a sound hermeneutic as related to biblical interpretation. The former presupposes the Bible teaches Calvinism the latter does not. When Palmer states, “We ought not probe into the secret counsel of God,” that is a statement intended to mitigate the weight of the logical and moral incoherence of the Calvinist position in relation to the question of its interpretive validity. It is a red-herring. It is a “spiritual” way to divert us from carefully thinking about the logical and moral problems of Calvinism and for the Calvinist to legitimize his position despite its incoherence. Shouldn’t we pull back the veil and subject Palmer’s and Feinberg’s interpretations of the text to our God given reasoning ability which he bestowed upon us as made in his image for the very purpose of discerning truth from error? I think so.
Bryson now zeros in on the essential matter of Calvinism’s inherent incoherence, its avoidance of the dictates of reason to deal with that incoherence, and whether ignoring those dictates is interpretively legitimate.
“Are these conflicts in Calvinism really only an “apparent paradox,” or are they hopeless contradictions, with absolutely no hope of reconciliation in this life or the next? Even though some Calvinists make a valiant attempt to rescue Calvinism from its own internal contradictions and inconsistencies, they all fail as they must. They fail because the contradictions and inconsistencies in Reformed Theology are not merely apparent, but very real. No amount of wishful thinking will make them go away, in time or eternity. This should be of concern to anyone seriously thinking about becoming a Calvinist. Even if we were to ignore the contradictions and inconsistencies of Calvinism, which I do not think it wise to do, we still need to ask the question: is Calvinism compatible with Scripture? While it is not possible for a theological system to be self-contradictory and true, it is possible for it to be internally consistent and not true or not true to Scripture. It is the contention of this writer that the Calvinist is saddled with the double burden of being under a system which is both contradictory and unscriptural.”
And it is the contention of this writer that precisely because the Calvinist system is contradictory it is unscriptural. All you need is a contradiction to know it is unscriptural. I contend that because the Calvinist dismisses the cannons of reason in the interpretive process, they have also dismissed the necessary arbiter that determines what constitutes a valid interpretation of Scripture. In asking the question “Is Calvinism compatible with Scripture?” the only means by which we can answer that question is to employ the tools reason offers. To divorce the dictates of reason from the question of interpretive validity is to sanction an untethered, subjective interpretive process that will always remain unverifiable as to whether it accurately reflects the meaning of the text. Indeed, an interpretation is unscriptural when it runs rationally roughshod over and against other doctrines and themes we also glean from Scripture. It is reason that detects such incoherence among interpretive claims. As reason serves its function it informs us which interpretations are faulty. Therefore, I submit that precisely because “…it is not possible for a theological system to be self-contradictory and true…” Calvinism is false. For it to be contradictory is for it to be unscriptural. Hence, if Calvinism generates real contradictions (and there is no reason to think otherwise), there would be “no hope of reconciliation in this life or the next” between thee views because as the laws of reason and logic are integral to the way God is in his rational nature they cannot change and therefore they would not. Neither can they be cavalierly dismissed or obscured by claims of “mystery,” paradox,” “antinomy,” etc. Therefore, the dismissal of the deliberations of reason is a sure sign that Calvinism is false.
Given their statements both Feinberg and Palmer obviously acknowledge the necessity and reliability of reason and its results. Note that Palmer thought sovereignty and human responsibility to be “hopeless contradictions” and dealt with this by denying human responsibility. But again, he did not take contradiction and incoherence to be hermeneutically significant or as signaling a flawed interpretation. That is the point to note. The Calvinist’s doctrines of theistic determinism (e.g., divine decree, sovereignty, unconditional election) are non-negotiable no matter the incoherence and contradiction they generate.
Hence, we have to come to grips with whether coherence is a hermeneutical touchstone for discerning the validity of an interpretation and therefore biblical truth from theological error. If coherence is not significant in the interpretive process then the Calvinist / non-Calvinist divide will never be bridged in that no rational discussion can be had and therefore no rapprochement achieved.
The issue centers on the reliability and function of reason in hermeneutics. Hence the key hermeneutical question for the Calvinist is, “Do you or do you not believe that logical and moral coherence are essential and indispensable to the interpretive process and provide a reliable means by which we can determine a valid interpretation and theology from an invalid interpretation and theology? If the Calvinist answers that they do not believe coherence is essential to the interpretive process then all rational discussion – which is the only kind worth having – ceases. This is why dialogue between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist is marked by frustration and never comes to resolution. Each is working from opposing presuppositions about the role and reliability of reason. And since reason and logic are the most fundamental tools of thought, no productive discussion or resolution can be had when one person considers them dispensable and the other does not. Indeed, the intellectual disequilibration that Calvinism generates can become acute. John Piper warns of it.
“And I pray that when you contemplate believing in a sovereign God who governs the dust motes, the waves (including tsunamis)—when you contemplate believing in a totally sovereign God, I pray that you will center it right on the cross. Because you’ll go crazy otherwise. You will!
These things have driven people mad. But it won’t drive you mad if you say, “He loves me. And he governed the most wicked thing that ever happened in the world, the crucifixion of my Savior and my God.” If you stay right there and then just work out from there as far as your mind can handle, then you’ll be safe. Your mind will be safe and your heart will be safe, because you’ll be kept humble.
People get very arrogant with these kinds of doctrines. They can use them to club people. But if you stay with the cross, you won’t.”
Here Piper admits that Calvinist sovereignty is so logically and morally incoherent that one even needs to be aware of being driven mad by its implications! Piper’s advice here does not solve the essential issue of Calvinist determinism and only adds another point of incoherence, that is, if you don’t want to be driven mad by Calvinism just say “He loves me…” But of course given unconditional election that may not be true of you, and for Piper, as a Calvinist, to state that people should claim that divine love for themselves is disingenuous. Given the doctrine of unconditional election a person cannot know if “God loves me” is true of them. I submit that you can avoid going mad as a Calvinist only by training yourself to ignore or rationalize the incoherence and contradictions in the Calvinist system. The other option which is more rational and sane is to adopt a more coherent, consistent and non-contradictory interpretation of the biblical texts.
How do Calvinists deal intellectually with the problematic nature of their theological propositions? I contend that for Calvinists coherence ultimately holds no weight for determining the validity of their theological propositions. This is not so for non-Calvinists. They take coherence to be an essential element in a sound biblical hermeneutic. The Calvinist must therefore suppress their reasoning and ignore their logical and moral difficulties.
Examples of Calvinists summarily dismissing the problematic incoherence within their theology abound. For instance, John MacArthur, commenting on Romans 9 in a Grace Bridge Panel Discussion, says that,
“At some point, you just say: Look I can’t find out…how do you resolve predestination and human volition, I say that’s past finding out…so you end up worshipping his transcendence. You end up worshipping his unsearchable nature.”
Dr. Mayhue suggests that Paul in Ephesians didn’t
“…try to explain what seems to be a contradiction, because in his mind there was no contradiction. They both are true. You just accept it by faith.”
Let’s suppose that Mayhue is correct and that in Paul’s mind “there was no contradiction” in what he was writing. First then, we should ask whether Paul thought “there was no contradiction” for the reason Mayhue claims, that is, that Paul thought deterministic predestination and human volition are “both true” and therefore just didn’t give it another thought. But this is to just beg the question as to whether Mayhue’s understanding of predestination is correct. Secondly, we should then ask why it is that in light of Mayhue’s interpretations there certainly seems to be a contradiction here to our minds? And if this contradiction that we certainly detect is a real contradiction, then why didn’t Paul see it, and if he did, why didn’t he care about it? Mayhue’s presumption is that Paul could accept it “by faith” and so it didn’t bother him at all and therefore there was no need to address it. Well, that is just necessary for Mayhue to say as a Calvinist. But again, that is just a presumption made on the basis that Mayhue’s Calvinist interpretation of Paul is correct. Rather, the answer could be that Mayhue is mistaken about Paul’s meaning. It could be that Paul’s understanding of predestination was not what Mayhue claims and as such it did not create a situation in which you have to convince yourself that “both are true” and “you just accept it by faith” despite what your logical reasoning tells you is a clear contradiction. So Mayhue would just be mistaken about what Paul means to tell us in both Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1and therefore Paul didn’t need to struggle with this matter as the Calvinist does, rather, it certainly never enters Paul’s mind that “they are both true” and “you just have to accept it by faith.” Nowhere does Paul have to deal with such a problem, including in Romans 9, where it can be convincingly shown that Paul is not answering the question, “How do people get saved?” with the Calvinist answer “by unconditional election.”
Furthermore, could it be the Reformed interpretation of these passages are not Paul’s meaning precisely because the Calvinist interpretations generate these contradictions? In other words, if there was no contradiction in Paul’s mind then perhaps the Calvinist interpretations are foreign to Paul’s intended meaning. Based on the presence of contradiction given the Calvinist interpretations, and the reasonable literary presupposition that Paul did not address these contradictions because he did not compose these contradictions, it is incumbent upon us to ask whether or not the Calvinist’s interpretations are correct. Since the Calvinist interpretations create such perplexity, perhaps we should conclude that Mayhue and MacArthur’s interpretations of Romans 9-11and Ephesians 1 are erroneous. As one who intensely cared for the church and the purity of the gospel message (see Gal. 1), we would think Paul would have been concerned about any incoherence in his doctrines and reasoning, and if there was an “apparent” contradiction or he really thought this contradiction was taught in Scripture (prior to Paul of course), then he would have addressed it as an issue of faith. Perhaps he would even have provided a clarifying exposition upon the nature of this salvific “mystery” of God’s working, how he processed this “mystery” and therefore what should be our proper response. But Paul does none of this. Given Mayhue and MacArthur’s interpretation of Paul, we are left to wonder why Paul never recognized or acknowledged any contradiction in his own theology. How did Paul completely miss what is so obvious and troubling to us? You would think Paul would spend some time somewhere explaining his doctrine of unconditional election in light of his other statements and doctrines that “seemingly” contradict such an understanding of election.
Therefore, trusting that we know a real contradiction when we see one, and if Paul saw no contradiction where we obviously see one, it is more likely that Mayhue and MacArthur are mistaken. Paul is not a Calvinist. It is more likely that Paul did not teach a doctrine of predestination or election defined as the unconditional divine premundane choosing of a limited number of individuals to salvation and the passing over of all others. Do MacArthur and Mayhue want to try to convince us that the contradictions are only “apparent?” Again, it is more reasonable to think that Paul never understood predestination as Mayhue and MacArthur claim he did and therefore he has no contradiction to explain. Paul need not explain what is not a contradiction. There was no predestinarian contradiction to explain as far as Paul was concerned.
So, rather than second guessing Paul’s lack of explanation about something so obviously contradictory and troubling to us about his theology, it seems more likely that Mayhue and MacArthur are misunderstanding Paul. This would be especially true if there are interpretations of passages like Romans 9-11 that can provide more explanatory power and scope in an exegetically coherent way than Calvinism. We have to at least pursue this possibility, not merely on the basis of providing an alternative non-Calvinist option, but on the basis of wrestling with whether or not the Calvinist incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions are hermeneutically significant. That is, whether such incoherence is a reliable indication that the Calvinist interpretation is not reflective of Paul’s intent.
Mayhue and MacArthur would have us believe that Paul was of such great faith (per Luther) as to simply be beyond being troubled by the fact that God has predetermined all things, including each person’s eternal destiny despite all his other statements about the universal nature and purpose of faith which involves human decision and as the means by which salvation is appropriated by both Jew and Gentile. Mayhue and MacArthur want us to accept that Paul’s exposition in Romans 9-11 is an expression of the salvific will and ways of God that are beyond Paul’s comprehension due to the moral and intellectual conflict between unconditional election and human responsibility. Any contradictions that Paul may have recognized in his own exposition he deemed only “apparent” and therefore didn’t give them another thought. This is what Mayhue and MacArthur expect us to believe, and they both support and dismiss this problem in his theology by employing Romans 9:20, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”
But why would Paul not directly address such a contradiction in his theology? Again, perhaps he did not do so because there was none. Perhaps Romans 9 is not what the Calvinists claim it to be – an exposition on how certain individuals have been unconditionally chosen to salvation. Perhaps Romans 9 can be interpreted in harmony with what Paul says elsewhere about human volition especially given the gospel he expounds upon in Romans 3 through 5 and chapters 10 and 11. In those chapters he explains the important matters of the nature of faith and how each sinner has access to the saving grace of God in Christ and can appropriate that salvation by faith. Paul’s expositions there are inconsistent, incoherent and in direct contradiction with the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9.
To recognize a contradiction and seek to resolve it interpretively is certainly not “to answer back to God” (Rom. 9:20), for we are not now asking “Why does he still find fault?” but “Have Mayhue and MacArthur correctly interpreted the text?” It seems that MacArthur and Mayhue have recast Paul into their own theological image and are not open to seriously considering that the rational and moral incoherence their interpretation generates among Paul’s writings, and especially within this very context, is indicative of misinterpretation. They do not deem their incoherence as significant for determining the validity of their interpretation. This is the essential hermeneutical issue the Calvinist needs to come to grips with and must provide an answer for that is not ad hoc or question-begging. It is a hermeneutical question with exegetical, interpretive and theological implications. The implications of Mayhue’s and MacArthur’s Calvinism are logically, morally, epistemologically, existentially and biblically problematic, and their indifference to this fact betrays a hermeneutic of incoherence which is at the root of this controversy. I submit that given these problems, and their hermeneutic of incoherence, their interpretations are incorrect. And even if the Calvinist feels that their problem of incoherence is not weighty enough to drive him back into the text for a truer understanding of Paul’s intent, I submit that each Christian should do so as they grapple with how to determine the truth of Calvinism, the meaning of the relevant passages and as part of developing a responsible hermeneutic. The incoherence is passed over on the basis of “you just have to accept it by faith.” This sounds spiritual, but since when does biblical interpretation consist in dismissing logical and moral reasoning? Rather, we need to trust these God-given faculties and determine the author’s intent upon the basis of what we do know, not on the basis of claiming “mystery” in the midst of contradiction. Faith cannot be equated with the violation of the canons of reason in the interpretive task.
Neither is “you just have to accept it by faith” a means by which one “convinces” another that their incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions are only “apparent.” What we ultimately have here is an unsubstantiated claim that “faith is what is needed for you to embrace our seemingly contradictory teachings about salvation.” They suggest that to embrace their theology which teaches that God “appears” to be of a nature that he cannot really be, is a mark of spirituality or superior “faith.” In other words, “What I am teaching you about salvation will come to your mind as contradictory, but it only seems contradictory, it really is not. You’ll have to take both our interpretation and our telling you it is not contradictory, by faith.” But how are we to know that this interpretation of salvation is really not contradictory? And if that were so, why wouldn’t that be the death knell for the Calvinist system?
Ironically, since Mayhue and MacArthur must assure us that the contradiction can only be apparent or a mystery and not real, and we are supposed to take this “by faith,” we can conclude that in the back of their minds they really do think that coherence is hermeneutically important and indicative of a sound interpretation. If asked, “Do you believe logical and moral coherence and non-contradiction are essential to good interpretation?”, I think they would answer, “Yes!” I think they would maintain that if the contradictions were real, this would invalidate a theological system at that point. But Calvinists will go on to say, “But since the Bible teaches what we are saying, even though it comes to our thinking as contradictory, it must therefore only be an apparent contradiction, and therefore it serves to produce faith in God.” But again, this is ad hoc and a question-begging assertion that attempts to explain away what is known and perceived all too clearly – that there are problems of real incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in their Calvinist interpretations. The Calvinist argues that since the Bible teaches these various dichotomies, we should view their contradictory nature as a false perception on our part and let faith and praise flow forth to a God of “sovereign grace.”
But allow me to review why I say this approach fails on four counts.
First, as far as the matter of correct interpretation is concerned it is question begging. By presupposing the truth of his interpretations by dismissing them as “mystery,” the Calvinist is reasoning in a circle because whether or not the Bible actually teaches what the Calvinist says it does is the question before us. Whether or not this is what the text means is precisely the issue in question.
Second, the Reformed hermeneutical approach is “logically closed” instead of “open,” that is, it refuses to entertain the possibility that incoherent interpretations are erroneous interpretations. The Calvinist refuses to ask whether interpretations that produce these contradictory propositions are correct.
Third, the claims that the Calvinist’s doctrinal propositions are both true and ultimately not contradictory, and that understanding how this can be the case is past finding out, are mere ad hoc assertions. There are theological models that provide interpretations of these various texts and doctrines in such a way that they can be understood coherently.
And fourthly, the Calvinist claim regarding the utility of faith in this regard is not biblically warranted. Faith, biblically defined, is not something that gives warrant for accepting logically contradictory and morally problematic interpretations. The Reformed idea of “faith” as accepting the assertion that deterministic sovereignty and human freedom are both true is a distortion of the biblical presentation of faith. Neither is faith “I hope I am among the elect,” nor is it being able to “leave room” for a God of contradictions and whose saving disposition with respect to each of us remains an unknown.
The nature of biblical faith is trusting in what we have good reason to believe is true on the basis of sound reasoning and evidences. This does not eliminate supernatural activity of which the “how’s,” and often times the “why’s,” remain unknown to us. Rather, what is does eliminate are interpretations of Scripture that are logically and morally irresponsible in that they depict the nature of God and his relation to man in an incoherent and contradictory manner. A faith response to God rests on knowing God’s salvific will and kind, loving disposition towards each of us as fully disclosed “in Christ.” “Faith” is not a theological rationale for accepting interpretive incoherence. Neither should interpretive incoherence be confused with legitimate revelatory mystery. There are genuine mysteries in Scripture, but they are not of the nature of logical or moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, especially regarding soteriology. Paul writes, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he richly poured out on us with all wisdom and understanding. He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ as a plan for the right time— to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him.” (Eph. 1:7-10, CSB)
MacArthur’s final conclusion is that any understanding of the contradiction between predestination and human volition is “past finding out.” He therefore fall’s back upon God’s “transcendence” and “unsearchable nature.” We would agree that God is transcendent and his nature is unsearchable in the sense that there are always things yet unknown to us about him. But we are reminded of C. S. Lewis’s warning that we will not be required to completely reverse our moral standards when rightly contemplating the mysterious nature and ways of God. Lewis, although here dealing with the problem of pain, addresses this serious flaw in the Calvinist’s reasoning which is applicable to our discussion. He writes,
“Any consideration of the goodness of God at once presents us with the following dilemma.
On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in his eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.
On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our “black” may be His “white,” we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good,” while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what.” And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying him. If He is not (in our sense) “good” we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil worship.”
“Beyond all doubt, His idea of “goodness” differs from ours; but you need have no fear that, as you approach it, you will be asked simply to reverse your moral standards…This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice. He appeals to our existing moral judgment – ‘Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?’ (Luke 12:57)
A proper interpretation of Scripture and understanding of God and Christian faith will never require of us the suppression of our logical and moral reasoning, let alone the reversal of these.
The Calvinist is asking us to believe that the problematic nature of their interpretation of predestination in light of human volition should be considered as an indication of God’s transcendence. The Calvinist is attempting to justify various knowns that generate contradictions, and chalk these up to unknowns, that is, to God’s “transcendence.” But note that in this controversy we are not dealing with what is yet unknown to us about God as if it were something of the nature of his “transcendence.” Neither should it be framed in such a manner. Rather, we are dealing with known revealed aspects of the nature of God observed to be in conflict with several other known revealed biblical doctrines as Calvinists interpret and define them. On the basis of the Calvinist interpretations these knowns are perceived by us to be in contradiction. Therefore, these interpretations should not be summarily dismissed by pleading “transcendence” or the “unsearchable nature” of God as the explanation for those contradictions.
In speaking about this contradiction between divine determinism (“sovereignty”) and man’s responsibility in his Calvinist theology, MacArthur cites Romans 11:33-36 as the biblical resolution and final word on the matter.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
McArthur claims this verse contains the final resolution to the contradictions of the Reformed position. He uses this verse to defend his incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory theological conclusions. But obviously these verses could be used by anyone to “justify” their interpretations when those interpretations raise logical and moral contradictions in relation to other biblical doctrines or the character of God. One could simply claim that their interpretive conclusions are biblical yet encompassed in God’s transcendence, beyond human reason, too deep for understanding and that we glorify God simply by accepting into our thinking what seems to us to amount to a real contradiction, yet we declare it only “apparently” so. The important thing for the Calvinist is to embrace their deterministic interpretations of Ephesian 1 and Romans 9 and glorify God in his transcendence.
Granted, lack of knowledge is an issue bearing upon faith. But the very basis of faith is a true, sufficient and accurate knowledge of the thing or person one is to have faith in. Being asked to accept something contrary to what we know we can know and do know is true about God is to enter a very different and dangerous territory of intellectual and spiritual sacrifice. So, the question really is not whether these verses “prove” the Calvinist’s conclusions. They may or may not. The question is whether there is interpretive plausibility in those conclusions when they engender incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction. We need to ask as interpretations of written texts, do they accurately reflect the author’s intended meaning? Thus, the crucial hermeneutical questions are whether we can know actual incoherence and contradiction when we see it, whether Calvinism presents actual incoherence and contradiction, and whether actual incoherence and contradiction are reliable signs of misinterpretation. The crucial hermeneutical challenge here is whether coherence matters in discerning valid interpretations of the text.
Excursus: Non-Calvinist Alternative Perspectives on Romans 9 – 11
So, is there an exegesis that relieves us of the problems inherent in the Calvinist interpretations of Romans 9-11? Yes, there is. There is no doubt that these three chapters are very difficult to interpret, but a careful consideration of Paul’s thought in chapter 11, for instance, will set us on the right path. Romans 11:32 provides important insight into Paul’s thinking and a summary of his arguments in these chapters. Paul’s concluding thought, given his prior discussion is,
“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that he may have mercy on all.” (11:32, CSB)
So immediately we see that in contradiction to Calvinist unconditional election, Paul tells us that God’s mercy is going to reach all persons. If all have been imprisoned in disobedience, then God has arranged it so that he will have mercy on all. Indeed, the extending of mercy to all is the very purpose of showing how all have been and are disobedient to God. Paul reflects upon how “God has imprisoned all in disobedience,” that is, both Jew and Gentile, so “he might have mercy on all.” The scope of sin and disobedience – “all” – is the same as the scope of God’s mercy – “all.” This is inconsistent with Calvinist unconditional election. Even though Paul is speaking about two groups here, and that should always be kept in the forefront, it is difficult to conceive that this disobedience of the “all” and this mercy on “all” does not include every individual person within those two groups. It is inescapable that Paul understood that those two groups were the sum total of individual souls, and therefore his conclusions apply, not to an elect people chosen by God for salvation apart from all others, but to all persons everywhere – both Jew and Gentile – who are spoken of as being among the elect by their believing the gospel.
In contrast to MacArthur’s interpretation, what causes Paul to reflect upon “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” is how he has worked a perfect salvation for all people, one that is purposed, planned, and finally brought to pass in the person and work of Christ by God and God alone. Therefore, even if we do not present an alternative interpretation of Romans 9-11, on a hermeneutic of coherence we can know what the text certainly cannot mean. It cannot mean what the Calvinist says it means when their interpretation of chapter 9 is inconsistent with or contradicts Paul’s other statements and teaching in the immediate context of chapters 10 and 11.
For instance, Paul does not have a deterministic understanding of the events taking place. Rather, his worldview includes the contingencies of obedience and disobedience, belief and unbelief, boasting or humility and the very real dynamic of both the kindness and severity of God on display. In chapter 10 Paul lays out plainly that because of Israel’s own disobedience to God, they are responsible for their present judicial hardening by God. Paul writes,
“But not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed our message?” (10:16, CSB)
But I ask, “Did they not hear?” Yes, they did: Their voice has gone out to the whole earth, and their words to the ends of the world.
But I ask, “Did Israel not understand?” First, Moses said, I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that lacks understanding.
And Isaiah says boldly, I was found by those who were not looking for me; I revealed myself to those who were not asking for me.
But to Israel he says, All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and defiant people.” (10:18-21, CSB)
“What then? Israel did not find what it was looking for, but the elect did find it. The rest were hardened, as it is written, God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear, to this day.
And David says, Let their table become a snare and a trap, a pitfall and a retribution to them. Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and their backs be bent continually.” (11:7-10, CSB)
Now, when Paul writes, “…but the elect did find it” he is referring to those who among the Israelites who are believing the good news of their salvation in Christ. He is playing on the word “elect” as it applied to all the Israelites in the Old Testament but now applies to those who have responded to God in faith by believing in Christ. He indicates this by speaking about “the rest” who “were hardened.” In contrast to how MacArthur and Mayhue interpret Romans 9, Paul is addressing the problem of God’s people having now rejected their Messiah. This raised questions regarding the veracity of God’s word of promise to his “chosen people” and the present status of the relationship of God to Israel and their place in his saving work. They were after all the “elect people of God.” They were God’s “chosen people.” Throughout the Old Testament God was continually presenting to his own elect people – Israel – who he was as God and Savior. He revealed to them the way of salvation and how they should appropriate that salvation to themselves through their faith response to God (e.g., Abraham). He also revealed to them a coming Messiah (Jesus) who was made known to them. God looked for the response of faith in him and his way of salvation, but Israel was, for the most part, “disobedient and defiant.” (10:3, 18-21) Therefore, Paul sees that God has hardened Israel because of Israel’s present rejection of their Messiah. Paul argues that God, as sovereign, has the prerogative not only to choose the nature and means of salvation through “promise” (9:6-16), but also to harden, even his chosen people Israel, for the purpose of extending his mercy to the Gentiles (9:18-26). Paul’s interlocutor is his fellow Jew who objects to God’s ways – first in choosing that salvation would come through the “children of the promise” and would be of the nature of a “promise” and not the “children of the flesh” nor of “human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.” (9:6-13, 16), and secondly that of hardening Israel despite the fact that they are his special, privileged people. Isn’t there injustice here? But Paul defends both the sovereignty of God, even over his own chosen people, to harden them, and also God’s prerogative to extend mercy to those who are not his people – making them his people! (9:25-26) This is Paul’s point. Those who would not believe in Jesus are hardened despite their claims upon God as his chosen people, yet, in this hardening, God creates the opportunity to show his mercy to those who were not his people – the Gentiles. To them salvation is proclaimed. (15:8-12) God accomplished his saving work in Christ among his own people Israel, of whom most, especially their leadership, rejected it. God is now also proclaiming this salvation in Christ, which was first intended for and proclaimed to Israel (1:16), to the Gentiles. This is a radical breaking down of barriers and a lesson to Israel of the eternal intentions of God to bring salvation to all people.
And yet a warning goes out to the Gentiles not to boast in their new position in the history of salvation. Speaking to the Gentiles by way of an analogy to an olive tree and its branches about the hardening that has come upon the Jews, Paul writes,
“Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, though a wild olive branch, were grafted in among them and have come to share in the rich root of the cultivated olive tree, do not boast that you are better than those branches. But if you do boast—you do not sustain the root, but the root sustains you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” True enough; they were broken off because of unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but beware, because if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Therefore, consider God’s kindness and severity: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you—if you remain in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from your native wild olive tree and against nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these—the natural branches—be grafted into their own olive tree?” (11:17-24, CSB)
This is a very important passage with respect to determining the validity of the Calvinist’s deterministic interpretation of chapter 9. We see here the contingency of human responsibility in the responses of belief and unbelief. Paul is clear. People themselves are responsible for their unbelief or faith. (11:20) The very ones that the Calvinist has assigned to perdition in chapter 9 by insisting that it teaches unconditional election, Paul speaks of their future opportunity to change their mind and heart, believe and be saved. He states, “And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again.” Yet, the Gentiles too must take care and “remain in God’s kindness” otherwise they too “will be cut off.” The salvation of these people remains an open issue in which they are involved by their own wills and decisions. There is no salvific determinism or unconditional election in Paul’s thought here. Calvinist unconditional election is not a valid interpretation of Romans 9.
Another instance of Calvinist incoherence is Paul’s distinction in 11:28 between “the gospel” and “election.” He states,
“Regarding the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies for your advantage, but regarding election, they are loved because of the patriarchs…” (CSB)
A major concern in Romans 9 is whether God’s word to Israel had failed (9:6) and whether God has rejected his people Israel (11:1). Paul speaks of national Israel in terms of their election by God. With the call of Abraham, God established Abraham’s descendants to be his own people. But not just any or all of Abraham’s descendants would be the “children of Abraham,” that is, “the children of promise.” (9:6-8) Only those God had designated or chose would “belong to Israel.” (9:6) By means of this divine election Isaac was chosen over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. The human convention of the younger serving the older would be reversed. (9:12) God was establishing the fact that salvation would come through the God ordained means and “not because of works, but because of his call.” (9:11) Salvation would come in Jesus Christ and be by faith, not works of righteousness or national privilege. This was God’s purpose in election. (9:11) We can begin to see that election here has nothing to do with who is chosen for salvation as opposed to all others who are not elect and cannot be saved.
The “elect people of God” is the Old Testament terminology used of Israel. But after a lengthy complex discussion about God’s purposes for Israel and their present condition, in 11:28 their “election” is placed in contrast to “the gospel.” Obviously “the gospel” is not “election” and “election” here does not refer to “unconditional election” to salvation. Rather, these are two different aspects of God’s work in salvation history. Israel’s election as a nation was for the very purpose of bringing to pass a universal salvation that would be by faith for both the Jew and the Gentile. Originally, election has to do with God choosing Israel as a nation for bringing to pass God’s purposes in salvation history. The gospel is the culmination of God’s choice of Israel as his people, but the concept of the election of national Israel as it applies the Jews of the Old Testament can be seen as separate from the salvific purpose of that election. The gospel is the message of the culmination of the promise of salvation in Christ that came about by God’s “purpose of election,” that is, God choosing Israel and making selections or electing who would be “the children of the promise” (i.e., Isaac and Jacob) so that this salvation would be appropriated by faith and “not because of works.” The choosing of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau was not about unconditional election to salvation. It was an exemplification of the means by which God would demonstrate that the coming salvation was to be brought about in God’s own way and through the persons of his promise and choosing. Paul is speaking to Jews who are protesting God’s present dealings with them as his elect people and the way of salvation through Christ by faith. They still consider themselves privileged on the basis of their Abrahamic lineage, that is, simply by being an Israelite. But the point that they are missing is that Abraham was counted as righteous on the basis of his faith. (Rom. 4) The Jews of Jesus’ day came to view themselves as the “chosen people of God” who, by virtue of their being chosen, had privilege and status before God. But now, God was hardening the Jew – his own elect people – and he was showing mercy in bring salvation to the Gentiles. God can show mercy on whomever he wishes. The Jew could not restrain God’s mercy on the basis of their privileged relationship to God. God wants to bestow his mercy upon the Gentiles too. Once this promise of salvation was accomplished in Christ, it went out to the Jew first (1:16) – who had rejected it at that time – and then it went to the Gentiles, for whom it was also always intended. Paul is making application of the culmination of progressive revelation to the present situation of the salvation of both Jew and Gentile. So, the gospel is a message of the “good news” of the salvation to both the Jew and Gentile. It is for all people and therefore all persons individually. Although Paul is speaking about the Jew and Gentile as groups with respect to salvation history, he also speaks about the salvation of the individual. When he does this, he does not ground it in an unconditional election. That is to read a deterministic theological doctrine into this historically complex discussion. It is not a discussion about how God unconditionally saves some people and not others. It is an argument by the apostle to refute and clarify the objections and misunderstandings of his fellow unbelieving Jews as to what God was doing through them to bring about his ultimate purposes of universal salvation. These chapters help the Jew understand God’s present dealings with Israel and the reasons behind their present hardening. These chapters speak of a message of salvation to all in the way God has ordained salvation to come about for these groups and the individuals in these groups. Salvation is found in Christ by faith. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (10:12-13) This is Paul’s gospel.
This is an important aspect of their present circumstance that Paul wants the Jew and Gentile, and us too, to understand. The corporate groups Paul speaks of are constituted of individuals, and yet Paul in Romans 9-11 fluctuates between informing us as to God’s present work among his elect people Israel as a group, the implications for the Gentiles as a group of the present divine hardening of the Jews due to their rejection of their Messiah, and also the nature of salvation for the individuals in these groups which is always by faith in Jesus. Salvation for both Jews and Gentiles is found in Christ and appropriated by faith. It transcends the election of Israel and the grace God showed them in giving them his law and the privileges that were theirs because they were his “chosen people” (9:4-5). And yet Paul states, “For [God] tells Moses, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (9:15, CSB). God would have mercy and compassion on whom he wills – and that was to include all mankind – both Jew and Gentile. The gospel has nothing to do with the unconditional election to salvation of a limited number of chosen individuals. The sense in which Paul will use “the elect” throughout his epistles is in reference to those who have willingly and freely chosen to believe the “good news.” These believers are now to considered among the elect with all the fullness of its meaning brought in from the Old Testament and the special relationship that God established with Israel. That same relationship with God is now established in Christ. Believers can be designated as among “the elect people of God.” When a sinner believes “in Christ” – the Elect One – they are now viewed in terms of what it meant for Old Testament Israel to be his “chosen” or “elect” people – the “people of God.” To be one of God’s “elect” now applies to both believing Jews and also believing Gentiles. In light of an attitude of Jewish privilege and election, Paul makes it clear that God can have mercy on whomever he pleases, that is, on the Gentiles too. Paul makes it clear that, “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Rom. 9:8, ESV). The special place Old Testament Israel occupied as “the elect people of God” now becomes the status of the believing Jew and believing Gentile. As the Old Testament Israelite was accounted righteous by faith, so it is in the New Testament. Persons are saved by faith, but it is essential that this faith is faith “in Christ.” And this whole scheme of salvation is the gift of God to all. It is a way of salvation by God’s grace through faith and not by anyone’s works of the law so that no one (e.g., the Jew, but also Paul’s warning to the Gentiles) can boast (cf. Eph. 2:8, 9). But Paul says the Jews of his day were “ignorant of the righteousness of God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes…” (10:3, 4, CSB) And Paul speaks directly to the Gentiles saying, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Insofar as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if I might somehow make my own people jealous and save some of them” (11:13, 14, CSB). Paul does not have a deterministic understanding of election or salvation. For Paul, election does not carry with it the idea of an unconditional divine choosing of certain individuals to salvation. Sinners must believe to be saved (Jn. 3:14-18). Any deterministic predestination or election as unconditional has to be read into this passage of Scripture. The passage, rightly interpreted, is addressing very different historical concerns about the justice of God’s due to his present dealings with Israel because of their unbelief and rejection of their Messiah Jesus and the salvation he accomplished for them.
Another instance of Calvinist incoherence is found in the section in chapter 11 regarding “the rejection” or hardening of Israel, but then also “their acceptance.” The point is that the salvation of the Israelites, and by implication any individual Jew, was an open question. The “if” statements reveal this open or contingent nature of salvation and belief. If the Gentiles become proud in their salvation because Israel was “broken off” and they were “grafted in,” Paul warns,
“True enough; they were broken off because of unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but beware,because if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Therefore, consider God’s kindness and severity: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you—if you remain in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from your native wild olive tree and against nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these—the natural branches—be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Rom. 11:20-24, CSB)
Note the conditional nature of salvation. The situation is fluid and contingent. It depends upon one’s belief or unbelief. Paul sees the situation as one involving personal responsibility not divine determinism. Paul states,
“…to Israel he says, All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and defiant people.” (Rom 10:21, CSB)
Furthermore, in 10:1 Paul writes, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” (ESV) Paul understands their eternal salvation to be an open issue. He expresses a similar strong desire in 9:2-3 when he talks about the great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart because of the unbelief of his fellow Jews. He states, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” (ESV) It is hard to understand the rationale of such personal desires from within a Calvinist determinism. It certainly seems that the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election stands in contradiction to Paul’s thoughts and words here.
The point is that the Calvinist interpretation of unconditional election in chapter 9 stands in contradiction with much of what Paul states in the immediate contexts of chapters 9, 10 and 11. Therefore, given the indispensable hermeneutical principle of context, we can know that the Calvinist interpretation of chapter 9 is flawed.
The accomplishment of salvation in Christ was God’s intent from the time of the fall (see Gen. 3:15), and those who would believe in Christ were in the mind and heart of God – foreknown and loved – and predestined to adoption and an inheritance. (Eph. 1:5, 11) They are not predestined to either faith or salvation itself, but “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8: 29). This was always the intention of God, it is what it means for God to be sovereign, and no one could know this plan of God as it unfolded throughout history except that God should reveal it. And he did so in a progressive manner. Paul writes,
“He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ as a plan for the right time…” (Eph. 1: 9, 10)
“The elect,” defined as certain ones predestined to salvation from before the world began, is not in Paul’s thoughts in Roman 9 – 11 and neither in Ephesians 1. Certainly, the salvation of the individuals within these groups is in Paul’s thoughts, but Paul fluctuates between references to Jew and Gentile as groups and individuals in reference to the way of salvation by faith in Christ. The leap made by the Calvinist to unconditional election in reference to the salvation of individuals has to be read into the text. It is not the message that Paul communicates from the text. Neither here, nor in any of Paul’s epistles, are persons a priori excluded from salvation on the basis of a predetermined choice of God as to whom he will and will not save.
The corporate or group aspect is primary in Paul’s mind because that is the heart of the issue in these chapters. Explaining Israel’s negative and hostile response to God’s revelation in Christ and what God is presently thinking and doing with Israel in relation to his saving work is what Paul has to explain. Paul is answering the question, “Given the present Jewish rejection of Christ and therefore their spurning of God’s way of salvation, has the word and promises of God to Israel failed? (9:6) They are after all his “chosen people.” Has God failed to keep his word to Israel, especially in his act of hardening them at the present time (11:7,25). And how is Israel to blame in such a situation, for “who can resist his will. (9:19)” These are the questions implied behind 9:6, “Now it is not as though the word of God has failed” (CSB). Therefore, this is not an exposition of why certain individuals become saved as opposed to other individuals who do not. That would not take three chapters to explain. And the one raising the questions regarding God’s way in salvation and God’s justice (see esp. 9:14ff. and 19), that is, Paul’s interlocutor, is the unbelieving Jew. The point is that any concept of “election” that is present must remain coherent with the immediate context and with the full scope of biblical teaching. Election refers primarily to the way God brought about what he had purposed in the way of salvation for all. Salvation was “God’s purpose” (9:11, CSB) and God brought about that purpose “according to election,” that is, by “electing” or “selecting” – starting with Abraham and then his descendants in the manner of God’s choosing so as to show that salvation is by God’s promise and not according to Israelite privilege or human conventions. God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to show that contrary to human conventions and even prior to Israel’s existence as a nation or before anything was done that was “good or bad” (9:11), the way of salvation would transcend one’s own “righteousness” or those human conventions and be established by God in the way of his choosing – in Christ and having mercy on all by faith “in Him.” Paul writes,
“What should we say then? Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written,
Look, I am putting a stone in Zion to stumble over
and a rock to trip over,
and the one who believes on him
will not be put to shame.” (Rom 9:30-33, CSB)
The way of obtaining righteousness is certainly all the work of God, and clearly, at the same time this righteousness is for “all” persons and may be appropriated by faith. It is a “righteousness that comes from faith.” It is monergistic in its plan, purpose and accomplishment. But it is not monergistic in its application or appropriation. Salvation is applied upon the condition of faith. It is the sinner who by believing appropriates the gift of righteousness or salvation to themselves and is saved. Paul continues,
“…there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:12, CSB)
So, the corporate or group sense is present and is accounted for in the discussion of the historical purposes and scope of God’s saving work for both Jew and Gentile, the implications for the status of the Jew in light of God’s extension of mercy to the Gentiles and that salvation is appropriated by faith and not by “works of the Law.” And finally, the corporate emphasis comes to play in the hardening that has occurred among Israel as the people of God viewed as a whole. Paul was confronted by his Jewish interlocutor with these multifaceted questions about the ways of God among them given their presumption that by virtue of their being decedents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (i.e., Israel) they had favor with God and salvation.
And yet equally important is the individual sense in light of the definition and content of the gospel message and the biblical nature of the response of faith that is called for in that message of “good news.” It is always “good news” as it is heard by any individual sinner. God’s working with a people he established and chose as his own – Israel – was not for the purpose of the exclusion of the Gentiles as a group or as individuals, but their inclusion into God’s new “chosen people” as a group and as individuals. And that inclusion was to be by the means God predetermined that both Jew and Gentile should receive salvation “in Christ” and “by faith.”
It is a sound interpretation and more consistent with the biblical witness to understand that when Paul speaks of an “elect” he refers to the determinations of God to bring to pass in time and history his salvific will first in reference to the formation of Israel (i.e., Abraham, Isaac, not Ishmael and Jacob, not Esau) and second in reference to those individuals who believe in his salvific work “in Christ.” There was a distinct purpose in working through this way of electing or selecting and that was that the salvation would be known and seen to be by promise and not by any other human means. That is, it would be by God sending Christ to be the Savior of the world. Therefore, it was faith alone that placed one among the elect in both the Old and New Testaments. Not all that are of national Israel are of spiritual “Israel.” Paul states,
“…not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are all of Abraham’s children his descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring.” (Rom. 9:6-8, CSB)
The “children of the promise,” who now include believing Jews and believing Gentiles, are taken up into Paul’s use of the term “the elect” to describe them both in accord with the historical meaning of the former as God’s “chosen people.” National Israel still exists as “the people of God,” but any misconceptions they had about their being “God’s chosen people” to the exclusion of the Gentiles is what Paul is correcting. He does so by explaining God’s sovereign prerogatives. The Israel of Paul’s day, even though God’s elect, cannot hold sway over God’s way of salvation in Christ as extended to all and to be received by faith. Neither are they immune to God’s hardening due to their stubborn unbelief and rejection of Jesus. This hardening of his own people is God’s prerogative as the sovereign God. Israel cannot presume upon God’s grace to them because they are “God’s elect.” He is sovereign over Israel too. They refused to obey God, and receive Jesus, their Messiah. So, God, in his wisdom, used their disobedience in his plans for bringing salvation to the Gentiles. God had merciful designs and purposes even through the hardening of Israel for a time.
So, God was both choosing through whom his salvation would come – Isaac, not Ishmael and Jacob, not Esau – and also hardening his own people who would accuse God of treating them unjustly (9:14) and not keeping his word (9:6). But Paul understands that from the workings of God with Israel in the Old Testament, it was God’s intention not to lock up his mercy and compassion within Israel as the people he had brought into being and made his very own, a people who now insisted that his mercy be their exclusive possession. Paul understood that it would be not only through Israel, but also in spite of Israel, that God would have mercy on all people, including the Gentiles – a thought contrary to every expectation of the Jews. Therefore, there were Jewish questions about God keeping his word to his own people Israel. There was Jewish pride over God showing compassion to the Gentiles. And there was Jewish protests of injustice for a divine hardening that the Jews could do nothing about, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (9:20, CSB). But through Israel’s hardening, Paul was amazed at how God has now incorporated the Gentiles into the plan of salvation. Indeed, Paul states, “…by their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous” (11:11, CSB). God has done this without ultimately rejecting national Israel as his people. Although for a time God hardens his people Israel for their persistent transgressions and unbelief, he does so for his greater purposes of mercy and grace. And he still holds out to his own people the opportunity to believe. Paul says to the Gentiles who have been shown mercy that “regarding the gospel, they [the unbelieving Jews] are enemies for your advantage. But regarding election, they are loved because of the patriarchs, since God’s gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable” (11:28-29 CSB). The salvation of the Gentiles was to make Israel jealous. “And even they [Israel], if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again.” (11:23, CSB).
These very clear thoughts of Paul about belief and unbelief and God always pursuing mercy and compassion defeat the Calvinist interpretation in chapter 9 that these hardened Jews, along with and untold number of other individuals God has predestined to eternal damnation, are among the reprobate or a non-elect class of people who God does not want to be saved, never can be saved and therefore are “objects of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22, CSB). These reprobate or non-elect individuals never could receive salvation. But if this is what Paul meant in chapter 9 then he is contradicting himself in chapters 10 and 11, let alone in previous key chapters in Romans. Contrary to Calvinism, Paul holds out the prospect that these same hardened individuals may be grafted back in if they do not continue in unbelief. The contingency of the situation reveals that they are not predestined to damnation. They can be saved if they believe. Paul envisions and expresses contingent possibilities throughout this passage that are incoherent with Calvinist determinism and unconditional election. Therefore, we take this Calvinist incoherence to be interpretively significant. It shows that they have misinterpreted chapter 9.
Also note the reciprocal interaction of faith or “belief” with God’s power and purposes in Paul’s thought. Paul stresses and maintains God’s sovereignty and glory throughout this intensely reasoned discourse, while at the same time this sovereignty and glory is not at all threatened or diminished by the dynamic of faith which is everywhere spoken of as a real possibility for all who hear the gospel. Paul stresses God’s sovereignty to inform Israel that their Jewish heritage as God’s chosen people does not guarantee their salvation as Jews privileged to be “the people of God.” God can harden whom he wills, even his own chosen people, but he does not do so unjustly or arbitrarily. And as the sovereign God, not beholden to his own “chosen people,” he also may have mercy on whomever he wills (9:18). And Paul takes us to his final conclusion in 11:32 which is a defeater for the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. Paul writes, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all.” God shows his mercy to all. How does God “have mercy on all?” Through Christ by faith. Paul here is very straightforward regarding God’s universal salvific will along with the means and of salvation. Yet the committed Calvinist will choose to ignore the plain meaning of the text at these key points and the contradiction their Calvinist doctrines present with them. Recall Calvinist John MacArthur’s response.
“At some point, you just say: Look I can’t find out…how do you resolve predestination and human volition, I say that’s past finding out…so you end up worshiping his transcendence. You end up worshiping his unsearchable nature.”
I submit that MacArthur has not rightly discerned the issues involved in Romans 9-11, Paul’s answers to those issues and thus the meaning and application of Paul’s exclamations about the ways of God in 11:33-36. Is 11:33-36 really Paul’s response to the fact that God has predetermined everyone’s eternal destiny? Are these verses really Paul’s conclusion about his own contradictory presentation in Romans 9-11 between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility? Is MacArthur engaging in exegesis or eisegesis? Calvinist Richard Mayhue stated that Paul, in Ephesians, embraced the contradiction. Was Paul’s Romans response meant to teach us that “that divine determinism and human responsibility are both true?” Was that Paul’s intention in Romans 9 or Ephesians 1? Was Paul teaching his first century readers that God has predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass” including each person’s eternal destiny? Was Paul actually cognizant of his contradictory doctrines and letting us know that we should “…just accept it by faith?” Did Paul want us to know that the reasons why God elects some to salvation and others to eternal damnation and yet holds the non-elect accountable for their sins are unfathomable for us to comprehend? Was this what Paul meant by “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” or “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!?”
If so, then salvation itself has been made, not only inscrutable, but absolutely perplexing and existentially unknowable. How then is this a cause for worshiping a God who has perhaps predestined you or me to hell before the creation of the world for reasons unknown to us? How then, with respect to this unknown as to whether God loves us or not, and the lack of assurance as to our final eternal destiny, are we to give a response of worship as to “his unsearchable nature?”
So rather than the hymn of praise in Romans 11:33-36 being employed to explain away the incoherence and contradictions in the Calvinist deterministic interpretation of Romans 9, it expresses the wisdom and knowledge of God’s workings in the affairs of mankind and among his own people to bring to pass his planned salvation in Christ and his purpose that the Gentiles too should be included in that salvation. They too are “the people of God.” They too are among “the elect” by faith in Christ Jesus. And if Israel were to repent and believe, which they may still do (certainly individually if not as a nation), they too can be grafted in again. Moreover, Romans 9-11 clearly testifies to human freedom and responsibility not only here but in the context of the whole epistle of Romans. The hymn of 11:33 ff. speaks of God’s “wisdom,” “knowledge,” “unsearchable…judgments” and untraceable…ways.” No one could have thought of or known what God was up to in salvation history. But Paul has certain insights which he has expounded for us in chapters 9-11 and throughout Romans. Through God’s wonderful, sovereign, incomprehensible plan, which is now revealed, Paul shows us how that rather than God being arbitrary, exclusive and unconditional as to saving purposes, he is merciful and compassionate to all. Recall that the hymn of praise to God in 11:33-36 is preceded by words about the reception of mercy (vss. 30-32). That God’s purpose is “that he may have mercy on all” is truly good news. That is the gospel message.
“As you [Gentiles] once disobeyed God but now have received mercy through their [Israel’s] disobedience, so they [Israel] too have now disobeyed, resulting in mercy to you [Gentiles], so that they [Israel] also may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may have mercy on all.” (11:30-32, CSB)
What an amazing God to have purposed and accomplished so great a salvation!
Therefore, God’s mercy is not arbitrary – extended to some and withheld from others for no known reasons and all else being equal (i.e., all are sinners in need of salvation). By sending Christ to die for all (see 2 Cor. 5:14 – 6:2) God’s mercy is extended to all. God’s mercy is displayed and becomes a present reality for both Jew and Gentile through faith in Jesus Christ. God desires that all be saved and has made that salvation possible. He blesses all who call on him.
“If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame, since there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (9:9-13, CSB)
In Romans 9–11 Paul reflects upon how God sovereignly worked in the larger historical picture with reference to Israel by presently hardening them and answering the Jew’s objections to such hardening and expounding upon the nature of God and the gospel (Rom. 9:14, 19-20, 22-24, 30, 32; 10:8, 14-15, 18-20; 11:1, 4, 7, 11, 19). Surely such an exegesis is closer to Paul’s intended meaning than an interpretation that has to conclude that Paul contradicted himself and didn’t know it or if he did know it, it simply didn’t matter to him and this needs no explanation other than “But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God?” (9:20, CSB) or to cite the hymn of praise to God in 11:33-36. The Calvinist wrenches Romans 9 out of its historical context and concerns and uses it to justify their deterministic doctrines. In do so they dismiss coherence, consistency and non-contradiction as essential elements in a sound hermeneutic and for determining valid interpretations.
Looking at the passage from the point of view of a hermeneutic of coherence we can definitely say what Romans 9-11 cannot mean. It cannot mean what the Calvinist says it means because of the several examples of incoherence given above. Recall an interesting element in the text. Paul begins chapters 9 and 10 by expressing that his “heart’s desire and prayer to God concerning them [Israel] is for their salvation.” (10:1, CSB, cf. 9:2-3) Such expressions of desire for the salvation of his people, let alone his prayer to God “for their salvation” runs counter to a Calvinist interpretation of the preceding chapter, that is, that there is a limited number of elect persons predestined to receive salvation. Paul’s statements reveals strong personal emotion and a disposition that expresses what is in accord with a universal desire that each individual Jew be saved. The logical implication is therefore that Paul has no such Calvinist distinction in mind between those preordained to salvation and a reprobate that could never be saved. There is not an elect and a non-elect among the Israelites. Each individual among them may be saved. Therefore, the exclusion of some on the basis that God has decided to withhold salvation from them is inconsistent with Paul’s emotional expression for the salvation of his fellow Israelites. Add to that his sentiments in 9:1-3, “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience testifies to me through the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the benefit of my brothers and sisters, my own flesh and blood.” (CSB) Paul’s desire would exceed God’s as to moral excellence because God has no such desire in having predetermined many to be left in their sin without the hope of salvation. Paul’s sentiments are inconsistent with the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.
Furthermore, to suggest that Paul perceived a logical contradiction within his theological position and that Romans 11:33-36 is his resolution to that contradiction is not even hinted at by Paul himself anywhere in the text and not supported by those verses. Rather, a righteousness from the law contrasted with one that is by faith is the focus of the discussion carried over from the end of chapter 9. Paul’s conclusion is that this message of a righteousness that comes by faith is obviously clear and very present. “The message is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. This is the message of faith that we proclaim: If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (10:8, 9, CSB) and “For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame, since there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (10:12, 13, CSB) His logic and meaning here is very clear and must be taken in an unrestrictive sense. Because all have the same Lord, the idea that he would prefer to save one person over another is ad hoc. It is very difficult to support unconditional, exclusive election from Romans 9-11 when we take into consideration the full scope of Paul’s reasoning throughout these chapters.
The Calvinist must believe that, “Only the elect will call upon the name of the Lord” and therefore the word “everyone” must refer to only the elect. But this goes against the flow of thought in the text as a whole and is an artificial restriction upon the definition of the word “everyone” that must be read into the context. Calvinists must have Paul meaning to say that all those who are elect evidence their election by calling upon the name of the Lord and can therefore be assured of their election to salvation. But this obviously a perversion of the wording and reasoning in the text. Non-Calvinists maintain that Paul means to say that God has shown his mercy in Christ to both Jew and Gentile without artificial human restrictions, the necessity of works of the Law, or the limitations of heritage or national privilege, and therefore anyone may call upon the name of the Lord, and everyone who does so will be saved. Sound interpretation, in context, compels us to define “everyone” with the meaning of “all without exception.” This is the more coherent reading of the text – and coherence matters is exegesis, interpretation and theology.
I conclude that a non-Calvinist interpretation more consistently handles the texts in question and provides for greater coherence of the whole biblical witness. I contend the Calvinist interpretations provide less explanatory power and scope regarding the difficult and relevant passages. Calvinism retains more troubling logical and moral implications within their final theological construct than the non-Calvinist interpretations and theological constructs. I contend that God intended to be coherent and consistent within his written revelation, as coherent and consistent as he is in his nature. Therefore, I believe the Calvinist position to be a problem of hermeneutics and is not satisfactorily addressed by resorting to the mere assertions, “that’s past finding out,” or “mystery”, or “antinomy” or the question begging “the Bible teaches both.” 
It must be repeated that greater consideration needs to be paid to the logical and moral implications of the Reformed position as a clue to the validity of that theology. I stress this because seemingly this is something Reformed theology itself is designed to ignore. Through certain “internal mechanisms,” such as associating one’s acceptance of Calvinist doctrine with one’s degree of humility, and any questioning of Calvinism as an indication of sinful pride and one’s “love affair with human autonomy” and a rejection of God’s sovereignty, it promotes its own brand of the “fear of the Lord” that insulates itself from necessary introspection and dismisses the serious hermeneutical issues it raises. These “internal mechanisms” serve to make Calvinism an insulated, self-contained, self-propagating theological system. Who wouldn’t want to exalt the glory of God and be “on his side” by acknowledging he is “sovereign over all his works?” But on Calvinism that requires believing that God has predetermined all events, including every person’s eternal destiny from before the creation of the world? According to the Calvinist, failure to accept this is to rebel against the sovereign God. But this is a false dichotomy for the reasons explained in the above exegesis. Note also that if one accepts the Calvinist doctrines as true, this requires the believer to presume they are among the elect. But you cannot know this. Using this kind of spiritualized reasoning almost anything can be proposed and almost anyone can be “persuaded.”
Hence, I’m compelled to reject Calvinism on the basis of the sound biblical evidence that reveals God’s character as goodness, justice, and love which taken together conflict logically and morally with a salvific predestination and unconditional election. It seems to me to be a hermeneutical requirement to maintain that what is universally acknowledged about common sense, the rules of logic, and human moral intuition applies to exegesis and interpretation. They are the means with which we decide truth from error in all areas of life, including biblical interpretation. They abide as important elements for proper interpretation and discernment in determining the meaning of Scripture.
That there are substantial contradictions, inconsistencies, and incoherence within Calvinism is undeniable. (Note that I can only make this statement based upon the presupposition that my way of knowing, that is, my logical and moral inferences, are valid inferences.) These contradictions, inconsistencies and incoherence are acknowledged by Calvinists themselves. Therefore, it is not a matter of whether Calvinism is incoherent and contradictory or not. That it is incoherent and contradictory has been definitively established. It is only a matter as to whether or not we are going to acknowledge that incoherence and contradiction are interpretively significant, that is, that these are reliable indicators of the invalidity of one’s interpretations of the text.
Note then that the fundamental logical and moral grounds of reasoning are inescapably pressed upon the Calvinist. Luther acknowledged that this conflict within his theology has deep rational, moral and existential ramifications. He expressed it this way,
“Doubtless it gives the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of his own mere will abandon, harden and damn men, as though he delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such poor wretches. It seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been a stumbling block to so many great men down the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wished I had never been made a man.”
Luther confesses that his theology “gives the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason.” That is to say that his theology conflicts with the fundamental grounds of human thought. Even though Calvinists acknowledge the logical and moral fundamentals of valid reasoning, they do not consider them indispensable when it comes to biblical interpretation. What I am contending is that Luther and Reformed Calvinists cannot dispense with these essential elements of sound reasoning and maintain a credible theology. They confess that their theology “gives the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason” yet they refuse to incorporate this fact into their hermeneutic.
Furthermore, this conflict of theological interpretation with the essential elements of sound reasoning has such negative existential ramifications that this is a tell-tale sign that something is wrong in their theology. Why Luther’s “despair?” Why the wish to “have never been made a man?” Because Luther wants to avoid contemplating such a despairing prospect for both the nature of God and human beings. It is because Luther was dwelling upon the fact that his own theology taught that God has turned his back on a multitude of people who, of his own “mere will,” he hardens and damns to eternal torment.
In the story Anne of Green Gables, Anne asks Marilla, “Can’t you even imagine you’re in the depths of despair?” Marilla answers, “No I cannot. To despair is to turn your back on God.” Now, if there is no hope but only despair for us if we turn our back upon God, then how much worse despair lies in the prospect that God himself may have turned his back on us! The point is that our hope and joy depend upon a sure knowledge that God loves us and therefore we can be secure in his love and respond lovingly to him. The essence of despair is not knowing whether God loves you. That it might be that God has rejected you and banished you from his presence for all eternity is certainly cause for despair. And that is a real ontological possibility on Calvinism. Marilla was saying that as long as she knew of God’s kind disposition and the assurance of his care for her, and she did not turn her back upon him, she need not experience despair. From God’s point of view she was loved. Therefore, as she trusted and rested in his love for her, there was no reason for despair. All was well. What Luther was contemplating was the despairing teaching of his own theology – that God has certainly turned his back on the multitude of the non-elect. But what concept of God is this? It seems Luther is blind to God as love and justice, his mercy and compassion, his presence in Christ Jesus, his good will and ways, his good purposes and plans. Has Luther understood Scripture aright when his interpretation leads to despair to the point that he wished he had never been made a man? Is this what God wants us to think, believe and feel? How would we know Luther’s theological gleanings are accurate? It seems that Luther’s theology is marked by a confused, dark mystery as to what God is really like, personal ambiguity and uncertainty as to God’s disposition towards him, along with logical incoherence and moral dissonance. Luther seems to have traded the despair of his works righteousness for the despair of Calvinist determinism. If his despair is to be even partially relieved, he must presuppose his own election. Luther simply presumes that he is not among those destined for eternal torment in hell. But how would he assuredly know this? The other alternative is after reflection and despair, for all practical purposes he needs to simply suppress and ignore his rational and moral reasoning that is producing this despair. He needs to presuppose his own unconditional election and reason about his faith no more. But what about others? What about those who cannot suppress their logical and moral reasoning? How are they to come to grips with the nature of God presented in Calvinism? Is there any biblical, saving hope for them?
Here, the Calvinist will respond that anyone who feels this dread that God might have not elected them to salvation is already showing signs that they are among the elect. The non-elect wouldn’t care about such things. But this is to look for assurance of election in one’s personal experience which varies widely from person to person. And there is no way to know what the future holds as to your ultimate response to God and these truths if you are indeed not among the elect. The way you feel now is not the way you may feel in the future if you are not among the elect or even if you think you presently are among the elect.
The Calvinist may also respond that we are not to inquire into whether we are among the elect or not. But this makes election as the Calvinist understands it an irrelevance. It is to admit that we should seek our assurance of salvation elsewhere, that is, where the non-Calvinist would encourage us to seek our salvation and its assurance – “in Christ.” The biblical teaching would be to place your trust in Christ precisely because he died for you and his death on the cross is God’s demonstration of his love for you. That is where the assurance of God’s love and one’s salvation is found.
The Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election is hardly indicative of the hope in Christ held out to all men in Scripture that conquers despair. I submit that these problematic logical, moral, epistemological and existential implications of the Reformed position are indications of profound soteriological interpretative errors.
Calvinist are intent upon maintaining the historical Reformation concern to exalt and glorify God and humble sinners. We sense this in Calvin’s intended purpose when he speaks in defense of his doctrines of unconditional election and reprobation.
“I know well enough that we ought to be humble and modest in the treatment of this profound mystery…[my] only object is to subdue the pride of the human spirit, and to teach it to reverence, in all fear and humility, the majesty of God.”
Although certain Christian virtues are mentioned by Calvin here, it seems to me that he has the propensity to wield his doctrines like a spiritual club to “subdue the pride of the human spirit, and to teach it to reverence, in all fear and humility, the majesty of God.” Granted, a reverence for the “majesty of God” is lacking in many evangelical churches today. But I submit that Calvin is including in this “majesty of God” his theistic determinism. Calvin seeks to “subdue the pride of the human spirit” by propagating his doctrines of unconditional election and predestination. But if these doctrines are unbiblical, perhaps the subduing of human pride should be left to the Holy Spirit, and that on the basis of the “good news” of the gospel message.
Calvin describes his doctrines of predestination and reprobation as “this profound mystery.” We have seen over and over again this flight to “mystery” so as to avoid the rational and moral incoherence Calvin’s doctrines create. What harm can come from seeking to exalt and glorify God and humbling sinners? Much, when it is done through the manipulation of the mind to accept that which it knows is unacceptable both rationally and morally. It appears that in attempting to assure that people learn to reverence the majesty of God, Calvin has come up with the litmus test of spiritual faith – belief in the doctrines of predestination and reprobation. If you can consent to these doctrines being taught in Scripture and that this sovereignty of God in salvation is the truth about salvation, then the pride of your human spirit has been subdued and you have, in all fear and humility, learned to reverence the majesty of God.
But has your pride been legitimately subdued, or, have you just been pressured to ignore what amounts to a sound interpretive method, that is, adhering to a hermeneutic of coherence. I suggest that the exegetical process has succumbed to eisegesis and a sound hermeneutic has succumbed to Calvin’s theological proclivities. The doctrines of predestination and reprobation became the Reformer’s ‘tools’ by which they could pry one loose from their interpretive rational and moral bearings. The majesty of God would be reverenced, but at the cost of accepting incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in biblical interpretation. Calvin was not crushing human pride. He was altering the thinking of people so they would accept his deterministic doctrines. He was not teaching reverence. He was using the Christian’s spiritual desire to exalt and reverence God to neutralize legitimate objections to what he was teaching.
In the face of so many logical, moral, epistemological, and theological difficulties, one has to wonder if Calvin gave sufficient consideration to whether what he felt were worthy spiritual ends were pursued in accord with sound biblical truth or not. The expediency of “subduing the pride of the human spirit” seems to have overshadowed the proclamation of the “good news,” for it is impossible to find it in Calvin’s doctrines. What only the Holy Spirit can do through the good news of the assurance of God’s love and Jesus’ death in our place for the forgiveness of our sins, it seems Calvin wanted to accomplish by wielding his pride crushing doctrines of predestination and reprobation. Calvin asserts that his understanding of predestination and reprobation is a “profound mystery.” And because it serves to “subdue the pride of the human spirit” and “to teach it to reverence, in all fear and humility, the majesty of God” he sees that these doctrines have spiritual utility. But the logical, moral, and epistemological incoherence of these doctrines in relation to the whole biblical witness is to me an indication that Calvin was consumed by the need to compel others to his own personal doctrinal beliefs. As well intentioned and biblically compatible as these goals may be, Calvin’s doctrines of election, predestination and reprobation create profound incoherence with the nature of faith and the character of God, and therefore he flees to “profound mystery” to avoid logical and moral reasoning from assessing both his spiritual agenda and his doctrines. It seems to me that these doctrines produce a “humility” that smacks more of a pride that says, “Look at how humble I am. I can put aside my human logical reasoning and moral intuitions, so that God might be reverenced and glorified.”
The fact that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is good at instilling a certain type of “humility,” which I contend is more akin to Lewis’ “omnipotent Fiend” (i.e., a negative, unbiblical “fear” of God), does not address the question as to whether it is a valid interpretation of Scripture. I contend that the humility Calvin understood to be a necessary disposition for salvation as testified to in Scripture, was being constructed upon faulty deterministic interpretive foundations. Isaac Watts, in his hymn “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” finds the dissolution of our pride, not in God’s mysterious predestination of some over others to salvation, but in the fact of God’s love is expressed in the “the wondrous cross upon which the Prince of Glory died.” This is what confronts every sinner’s self-centered hubris and provides both the rationale and power to “pour contempt on all my pride.” That is something the Spirit does through the truth of the gospel. There is no boasting “save in the death of Christ my God.” Both “sorrow and love flowed mingled down” for the redemption of every sinner. “Love so amazing, so divine” is fully revealed in the cross of Christ, exposing our sin, and testifying to our need of a savior while simultaneously providing the hope of salvation in Christ’s work alone. As such, it “demands my soul, my life, my all.” I don’t see how the doctrines of predestination and reprobation can produce the kind of humility, reverence or fear of God that will cause the sinner to love God. Rather, they need to know for sure that Christ died on their behalf as an expression of God’s love for them. The hymn presupposes and teaches that this salvation is applicable to each and every sinner. This love of God for us demonstrated in Christ’s death on the cross is what effectively addresses our pride. As Paul wrote, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” (1 Cor. 1:21, NIV). It was God’s choice of the “foolish,” “weak,” “lowly” and “despised” things “of the world” that he used “to shame the wise” and “the strong,” that is, “the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one would boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”” (1 Cor. 1:27-31) Human pride hasn’t a leg to stand on in light of a right understanding of the “good news” of God’s love and salvation in Christ.
A deterministic doctrine of predestination may crush one’s pride, but it also crushes one’s spirit and hope of salvation. It leaves one without the assurance of being predestined to salvation. It may be the case that God has predestined you to salvation, and then again, it may not. Recall this Calvinist woman’s obituary which reads,
“I am proud of my heritage, the Presbyterian faith I’ve practiced these many years… As a convicted Calvinist, moving beyond my long life on this earth, I am confident that my predestined fate is in God’s hands and that He knows best. Amen.”
So Calvinist’s must presuppose that they are among those predestined to salvation to function within their theological framework. But Martha Hazel’s testimony reveals that the focus of the assurance of salvation has shifted from what Christ has done and knowing that he has done it for her, you, me and all sinners, to an unknowable decision God made in eternity past as to who would be saved and who would not. Such a shift is unbiblical and completely wrong-headed. It is christologically deficient. Calvinist predestination fails with respect to providing a sufficient reference point for a sure knowledge of God’s love to you, me or anyone else. When God wants to address human pride, he does not do it by a doctrine of predestination. He does not do it by the threat of having been excluded from salvation. He does it through the love and grace he shows us “in Christ” (Eph. 1) as those undeserving of his love and grace. He tells us of our hopeless and helpless situation as lost in sin and that therefore we are under his judgment and wrath. But he also tells us how he has made a way for our sin to be forgiven “in Christ.” Those who believe in Christ have been justified in God’s sight. We are made righteous. We no longer need to fear God’s judgment and wrath upon us. Christ has taken that upon himself on the cross. We are now “in Christ.”
Therefore, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination does not address human pride. It rather requires and causes the presumption of election and diminishes the divine love and grace centered in and demonstrated in the death of Christ on the cross on our behalf. There is no true humility in believing God may or may not have predestined you to salvation. If the truth be told and faced head on, that just causes doubt. This is not the true humility that comes from knowing that God loves and cares so much for each of us that he planned and fulfilled our salvation through Jesus on the cross; allowing for the restoration of our relationship to him simply by believing and trusting in him. Calvinist predestination does not engender the humility that comes from divine respect of our personhood and allowing us the dignity of accepting or rejecting his love and grace. It rather has God having predetermined one’s irresistible, effectual acceptance or rejection of Christ. And precisely because God is sovereign, true biblical humility comes from being confronted by his warning of judgment if we do reject his way of salvation in Christ. Rather, the Calvinist humility seems to reduce to a certain kind moral disability, that is, to accept the concept that “even if God were to assign me to an eternity in hell, that is fine with me. He still deserves our worship and I will still worship him.” It is hard to know what to say about this. Only that this mindset, although it sounds pious, seems to have a kind of ironic boasting and exaltation of self to it. There is a kind of pride in one’s ability to be so humble. That is, “I am humble enough to let God predestine me to eternal damnation and still praise him for it.” Whatever else this is, it is certainly bereft of the core truths of the gospel as “good news.”
On Calvinism, the focus has shifted from the historic death of Christ as the demonstration of God’s love to sinners and the revelation of his salvific will to us for our salvation (Rom. 5:8), to God’s premundane decision to save an unknown fixed number of predestined “elect” persons. This suppresses the good news of the gospel.
We must also note here that Calvinism is a post-Arminian-conversion theology. That is, it requires that the Calvinist hear and respond to the very message of the gospel that is antithetical to their Calvinist doctrines of predestination and unconditional election for them to be saved. They must hear and respond to the non-Calvinist gospel message that points them to the cross and assures them that Christ’s death applies to them personally and individually. They must hear, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. How much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by his blood, will we be saved through him from wrath. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.” (Rom. 5:6-11, CSB). They must hear “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (Jn. 3:14-18, CSB). They must hear these words and presume, believe and know that they are included in them. They initially took these words of the promise of salvation as applicable to them. They responded to the call to put their trust and faith in Christ to be saved. They took it that exercising this trust and faith is something they must do to be saved. It is only after this that they, for whatever reasons, came to adopt their Calvinist doctrines which conflicted with their own salvation testimony. This has profound and troubling implications for the validity of the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”
For instance, Calvinist Chris Date states,
“I’ve been a Christian for approximately eighteen years, and I would say that for maybe the first couple of those years…I don’t even think I knew what Calvinism was…”
So, if Chris says that he didn’t even know what Calvinism was when he became a Christian, then what was the content of the message he heard when he first became a Christian? This is a question that needs to be asked and answered by Calvinists.
From his own testimony we know that in Chris’ case it was not “the doctrines of grace” that he first heard or that brought him to salvation. And yet, we know that for Calvinists these doctrines are the full and final explanation as to how and why a person becomes saved – they are the Calvinist’s soteriology. And for many Calvinists they are the gospel. And I would argue that one’s soteriology is the theological ground and substance for one’s message of the gospel or “good news” – or at least it should be.
Therefore, I submit that what Chris first heard when he became a Christian was some form of a non-Calvinist gospel message of truly “good news.” Chris had to hear and know, as in “be assured of,” that God loves him in particular and provided salvation in Christ for him in particular. Chris had to hear and know that Jesus died specifically for him to provide forgiveness for his sins and that he could be saved by simply putting his faith and trust in Christ. Chris had to hear and know that God is kindly disposed towards him and that he was personally and individually included in God’s salvation plan.
Now, if the Calvinist remains consistent with his “doctrines of grace,” it is this kind of assurance of inclusion in God’s love and plan of salvation that these doctrines cannot provide, and therefore the Calvinist cannot coherently proclaim such inclusion. For the Calvinist to proclaim what does provide for such assurance of inclusion, would be inconsistent with his own soteriology of exclusion. Therefore, for the Calvinist to preach to all that salvation is for all is disingenuous and hypocritical. Yet this is precisely what most Calvinists do. When evangelizing, and also in the normal course of their preaching and teaching, Calvinists are inconsistent. They present a non-Calvinist message of “good news,” not their “doctrines of grace.” And it would be an interesting question to ask what Chris’ response might have been as an unbeliever if he would have first heard “the doctrines of grace” and associated them with the biblical Christian truth regarding salvation. It is an interesting question as to whether Chris or anyone else could have understood “the doctrines of grace” as “good news” to them.
What this means is that the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” are not the gospel because in order for the “good news” to be good it needs to contain, within the message and at the time of delivery, the assurance that the person being spoken to is included in God’s salvation plan and can actually receive this salvation. They have to be assured that they can actually be saved and that they were not excluded by God. But this is what the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” do not and cannot provide. As such, the Calvinist soteriological doctrines cannot, with consistency, be put into the service of gospel evangelism. A non-Calvinist message must be preached in order for there to be “good news” given to the hearers so that they may be saved. I would think that this truly “good news” is what Chris heard when he first believed.
Now Calvinists can certainly preach this “good news,” and non-Calvinists hope they do. This will suffice for most non-Calvinists so as to let “sleeping dogs lie.” But the moral problem of Calvinist inconsistency with their underlying soteriology remains. And the issue of validity in the interpretation of Scripture is always before us. Hence, except for those Calvinists who insist that their soteriology is the gospel message and preach consistent with that soteriology, when all is said and done, as far as evangelism is concerned, Calvinism and Calvinists are for the most part inconsistent.
If what Calvinists first hear is a non-Calvinist gospel of truly “good news,” and if their Calvinism is incompatible with that non-Calvinist gospel of truly “good news,” then this has profound implications as to whether Calvinism is a false gospel. In that it is antithetical or incompatible with the first message that they heard when they believed, it is therefore “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6, 7). It is a “gospel” that one has to become convinced of after they hear the “good news,” but, if it is incompatible with that “good news,” then it is a false soteriology. And being that one’s soteriology dictates their gospel content and message, it is a false “gospel.”
Although in the apostle Paul’s day it was the Judaizers that were distorting the gospel Paul preached to both Jews and Gentiles, he had no problem laying down the “no other gospel” principle. That is, that there is no other gospel than the one he taught and proclaimed. Paul instructed the Galatian believers in this gospel principle. And he even included himself when he said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8, 9) Calvinist D. A. Carson writes,
“The objective truth of the gospel, Paul insists, enjoys an antecedent authority; if even an apostle tampers with that, he is to be reckoned anathema. So an authoritative gospel must be passed on.” 
So what is that “authoritative gospel?” What gospel did Paul preach? Was it the gospel Chris Date, D. A. Carson and other Calvinists heard when they first believed? Was it the “good news” message of God’s love and provision of salvation for every individual sinner that the Calvinist first heard, or, was it the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” which are incompatible with that “good news” message that Calvinists first heard? If they did hear the “good news” message and now embrace a Calvinist soteriology incompatible with that message, then which is the true biblical gospel?
From Chris’ testimony and the above discussion I think is it accurate to say that Calvinism is a post-Arminian-conversion soteriology. Substitute “Arminian” with any other form of non-Calvinist soteriology (e.g., Provisionism) and the point still stands. A person needs to first hear the non-Calvinist message of “good news” in order to be saved. Only afterward does it happen that the believer is somehow convinced to abandon the “good news” they first heard and embrace the Calvinist soteriological system.
So it seems to me that the fuller testimony of Scripture, with an eye to interpreting it coherently, shows that the Calvinist interpretations of predestination and election as unconditional are incorrect. Hence the Calvinist justifications for their position – that “the Bible teaches both,” that the contradictions are only “apparent,” that sovereignty and human freedom are a “profound mystery” or “incomprehensible” to fallen human reason – are unsubstantial assertions made as an attempt to ease the incoherence their doctrines create and divert our attention from careful consideration of the Calvinist position as a theistic determinism. But as mere assertions they are unconvincing. They are not explanations. They do not serve the Calvinist well as substantive interpretive justifications of their position. Neither do they consider their incoherence a reason to go back to the text and acknowledge that on the basis of sound exegesis sovereignty need not be defined as a universal divine causal determinism. Indeed, it cannot be if we are to read the Scripture coherently.
If the Calvinist says that exegesis substantively supports and justifies their position, this would be to completely miss the issue at hand, that is, that it is precisely their exegesis that generates the incoherence and contradiction we are here concerned about. This would be question-begging. They presuppose their exegesis is correct, but that is the question before us. The very exegesis they lean upon leads to incoherence and contradiction with other doctrines which are also the result of responsible exegesis. In addition, as in the experience of Calvinist Chris Date, there is the phenomenon of the Calvinist having to have heard a non-Calvinist gospel message to be saved, but subsequently embracing a soteriology in conflict with that gospel message they first heard and believed.
Due to the logical and moral incoherencies raised by Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, and it ineffectiveness in the service of evangelism, I submit that it is not a valid interpretation of Scripture. Therefore it is not the way God intends “to subdue the pride of the human spirit, and to teach it to reverence, in all fear and humility, the majesty of God.” He does that through the truths of the gospel.
A more subtle example, not only of the incoherence in Calvinist interpretation, but also the erosion of the gospel and the suppression of reason, can be found in Homer Kent’s exposition of Ephesians 1. He begins with an exposition of verse 4; an exposition most of which the non-Calvinist may accept. Verse 4 reads, “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love…” (ESV), Kent writes,
“Verse 4 offers a more specific statement of the Father’s action. It was He who initiated the plan of redemption by choosing believers in connection with Christ before the foundation of the world. By this sovereign act, God chose some to experience the blessings of salvation. The reasons or criteria for His choice have not been told to us, except that it was according to His own “good pleasure” (1:9, Greek, NASB marg.). The concept of a chosen group was well known to Jews from the Old Testament (Deut. 4:37; 7:6-8; Isa. 41:8), but now it is revealed that God’s election in the church includes Gentiles also.
This election by God was “in Him” (i.e., Christ). God found in Christ the all-sufficient merits for redeeming men without violating His righteousness. His purpose was to secure persons whose lives would demonstrate God’s power in overcoming sin.”
A non-Calvinist may agree with most of what Kent says above. We concur that it is God who initiated the plan of redemption, and if Kent means to say that God chose believers in connection with Christ to receive that redemption, we would heartily agree. God determined that those who believe would be redeemed and saved. But as a Calvinist, Kent would maintain that God also determined who would believe. Now, if this is not what Kent means to say, then he should speak more clearly. That is, he could have clearly stated, “It was He who initiated the plan of redemption by choosing to effectually work faith in those he predestined to save.” And even though he does not do this, he certainly reveals his Calvinism in the next sentences. He states, “By this sovereign act, God chose some to experience the blessings of salvation. The reasons or criteria for His choice have not been told to us, except that it was according to His own “good pleasure” (1:9, Greek, NASB marg.).”
The non-Calvinist can just as well affirm that “God chose some to experience the blessings of salvation.” That is, God chose that those sinners who repent and believe the “good news” of their salvation “in Christ” would receive that salvation as well as the other blessings listed throughout this section of Ephesians. That was a choice or decision God made before all time. Only believers in him would inherit his blessings. God had predestined this exclusive way of salvation “in Christ” and therefore these blessings would be for believers as the “purpose of his will” from before creation. What God predestined was that any sinner – Jew or Gentile – as a believer, would inherit all the blessings to be found and obtained by faith “in Christ.” Whether one receives salvation is not dependent upon whether or not one has be predestined by God to salvation, but rather, one receives salvation in the way of salvation is determined by God to be received, that is, through faith in Christ. Those who believe are considered to be “in Christ” and become individuals who are incorporated into the “elect people of God.” And Scripture no where teaches that people are predestined or caused to believe by God based upon their having been chosen by him to be saved.
We would agree that this concept of a chosen group, is established in the Old Testament with respect to Israel. But note that the nature of their election was not deterministic. It included the response of faith that God sought from his people which was the very thing that pleased him most (see Heb.11, esp. v. 6). “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Those who believed experienced God’s salvation, but many did not believe and were judged for their unbelief (cf. Rom. 10:21, 11:20). Election is not an unconditional choice God makes of certain individuals to salvation and upon whom he effectually and irresistibly works faith or belief. In light of the purposes and nature of God’s work and revelation of himself to Israel, Paul is now rejoicing in and expounding upon the ways of God in bringing about a salvation that would include the Gentiles, and “by faith” was the way that inclusion was to take place. Faith was always the primary response God valued and sought from his people in the Old Testament. Even the keeping of his law was intended to originate out of the individual Israelite’s response of love and faith in God. Therefore, since salvation in both the Old and New Testaments is by faith, it knows no restrictions or limitations. All individuals can be saved by believing. How could the Gentiles now be included in “the chosen people of God?” It was not by divine predestination of a certain limited number of Gentiles to salvation before the world began, rather it is through the universal proclamation that God has been gracious to all in providing salvation for all “in Christ” as a salvation which may be appropriated to oneself by faith. God’s grace and salvation is all-inclusive, not exclusive. God speaks of Isaiah as being “a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6, NIV; cf. Acts 13:44-49). In the New Testament the Gentiles, meaning everyone in the world apart from the Jews, were now included among “the elect” by putting their faith in the Messiah that God brought into the world through his “chosen people.” Israel, although chosen by God, was not guaranteed salvation on an individual basis. Neither was it the case that as the special “chosen people of God” they could not fall away or experience his judgment. Nor were they immune to his hardening (cf. Rom 9-11). Rather, they had been chosen to serve the whole of humanity in bringing the revelation of God and God’s Messiah and salvation to them. God ordained the way of salvation “in Christ” and predestined believers to the blessings of that salvation (Eph. 1). But God did not predestine who would believe and be saved. Throughout Scripture the response of faith in God is interjected as the one condition for salvation and that faith response is left to the individual. That is the clear theological teaching regarding God’s dealing with his “elect” nation Israel in the Old Testament. This therefore is the pattern and teaching about what being “chosen” or “elect” means in the New Testament. It is not apart from the free response of faith. Those who believe he chose “in Him” “to be holy and blameless before him,” etc.
Therefore, both Jews and Gentiles, that is, anyone, can be saved precisely because salvation is still found only “by faith,” that is, within a trusting response to the revelation of God as to the way of salvation “in Christ.” God determined that salvation would be by faith in Christ precisely so that anyone may obtain that salvation. Faith is what it means to have Abraham as one’s father, that is, a true son of Abraham who believed God. It is not Israel’s national privilege nor doing the “works of the law” that makes one a son of Abraham. National privilege and the “works of the law” are null and void with respect to salvation. The progressive nature of the fulfillment of the salvation that was spoken of in the Old Testament is now found “in Christ.” All are now to believe in the saving work of God “in Christ.” Those who believe the gospel constitute the church – “the called out ones.” They are now “the chosen people of God.” They are the true Israel.
I submit that Kent’s Calvinism is not allowing him to rightly and fully consider the nature and purpose of God’s work with Israel as the pattern for how the new people of God, the church, would be established, who it was to include, and upon what basis. It was a sovereign act of God that determined that salvation would be “by grace through faith.” The Old Testament speaks of God’s love and compassion for all nations. He has a universal saving intent. It is wrong-headed to interpret Paul as limiting that universal intent further to a predestined number when in context Paul is speaking to the Jew / Gentile division and Gentile inclusion in light of Jewish privilege. The gracious salvation only God could provide is for any sinner who believes, whether Jew or Gentile. All this was brought about according to the “good pleasure of his will.” This is to say that God in his goodness, grace, and mercy willed what is good for helpless, hopeless sinners such as you and me. He willed it, and what he willed is fully expressed “in Christ.” The passage should not be interpreted in a way that reduces the “good pleasure of his will” to a capricious predestination by which God wills to save some and rejects all others without any conditions or involvement on the part of the individual person. Salvation is not perceived as an arbitrary “election,” in the sense of “unconditional,” in which God unilaterally predetermines who will be saved and therefore in whom he will work faith in Christ. Rather, “in Christ” God’s salvific will is made known for all sinners and the salvation accomplished “in Christ” is offered to them as a gift to be received upon the condition of simply believing that “good news.” Salvation is appropriated by the sinner to themselves by faith. The eternal divine purposes, the Father’s vast wisdom and blessings to sinners found “in Christ,” and the universal extent of such a great salvation is Paul’s theme in Ephesians 1 – 3. We also see this throughout his letter to the Romans and of course in his other epistles.
But as a Calvinist, when Kent states that “God chose some to experience the blessings of salvation” he means to say that God himself predetermined by an act of his will alone, before he made the world, which individuals would be saved and which would not. It is not that God predetermined that those who believe would be saved, but God predetermined that those who would be saved he would cause to believe. But such a concept of faith cannot be found in Scripture. In addition, those whom he predetermined not to save he would not cause to believe. The elect will believe by God’s effectual working in them. The non-elect cannot believe because God wills not to work effectually in them. This is nothing less than God’s rejection of certain people for salvation. But then we need to ask ourselves, “Where has the gospel defined as “good news” gone? What becomes the content of its proclamation?
We sense that election is problematically defined and applied in this deterministic sense by Kent’s qualifying phrase “the reasons or criteria for His choice have not been told us.” There is no need for this qualification given a non-Calvinist soteriology. But note that the application of “unconditional election” to the eternal salvation of the individuals in this deterministic manner is in no way consonant with the act and implications of the “election” of Israel in the Old Testament.
And again, note what happens to what otherwise is the “good news” of the gospel. As Kent proceeds with his exposition based upon his Calvinist presuppositions, any “good news” begins to fade into the background with his exposition of verse 5, “…he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” He states,
“The method of God’s election is stated in verse 5. The words “having predestined” (NASB marg.) are probably modal rather than temporal. Paul is explaining the manner in which election is effected. It is accomplished by God’s marking out some for salvation even before their personal existence. This predestination was God’s selection of some to receive adoption as His sons…
This is precisely what God did when He chose men who because of sin had no spiritual life. By God’s choice he made them His sons…by regeneration God actually makes such persons His sons by nature through new birth…
No room is left for human pride, for God’s election was in no sense dependent on men. It is accomplished “through Jesus Christ,” and is to be explained only by “the good pleasure of his will” (Greek, NASB marg.). God’s choice was not governed by anything good or attractive in men, or anything outside God Himself. It was an act of His own goodness, and beyond this we cannot go.”
Note again the Calvinist theme of eliminating “human pride” which was a primary concern for Calvin. But the human will is also eliminated due to the misconception that “to will” is “to work,” and “to work” is “to boast.” It is a false dichotomy to think that salvation must be predestined by God otherwise human pride enters in at the point of a free will decision. But this is not the testimony of the Scripture to the nature of the freedom to believe. To put your faith and trust in another for something you cannot do for yourself is not a work or meritorious or a temptation to “human pride.” Furthermore, Paul himself pits faith against works or merit in an either/or contrast. Therefore, to have faith, that is, believe in Christ out of one’s own will or decision, is for Paul not to be equated with “works,” “merit” or “boasting.” For Paul, faith and works are contrasted as incompatible, so faith cannot be equated with a work. To know that God has graciously provided salvation for all sinners when we were helpless and hopelessly lost in our sin and under the wrath of God, and that by simple faith in Christ alone we can be saved, would never allow one to boast. Theistic determinism is not necessary. It rather erodes the gospel as “good news.”
Note also how Kent employs incomprehensibility – “beyond this we cannot go.” Kent employs this to justify what quickly becomes an incoherent view of this text in light of Paul’s many other expositions of the nature of salvation and faith which Kent is well aware of. What this amounts to is Kent struggling with the problematic logical implications of his own deterministic Calvinist view. This is evident when he writes,
“One should beware of drawing false conclusions from this sublime truth. Paul is not stating a harsh and fatalistic doctrine in which God arbitrarily selects some for heaven, no matter how evil their lives, and consigns others to hell, regardless of how sincerely they may wish to do God’s will. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that all men are dead in sin, and none at all would be saved if God did not intervene. Furthermore, Scripture never speaks of men being predestined for hell. Predestination in the Bible is always in reference to believers. God’s matchless plan also provided the means as well as the end. It is still true that “whosoever will may come.” And it is because of God’s sovereign grace that some do respond in faith and come to God in Christ…
“It is the greatest display of grace conceivable, for it bestows the most glorious privileges on completely depraved and fallen men, and this bestowal is all one-sided. Men merely accept or reject; they bring no merits.”
Perhaps Kent should beware of drawing contradictory conclusions when he cannot cogently juxtapose his statements about election and predestination as compared to the definition of the gospel as “good news” and an offer to those who will believe. Regardless of his claims to the contrary that “it is still true that “whosoever will may come,” he does draw conclusions from the text that are in contradiction with this assertion. His soteriology certainly is harsh, fatalistic, and makes God out to be arbitrary. His warning that “one should beware of drawing false conclusions from this sublime truth” is hollow. It is a red-herring to throw us off the path of logical and moral assessment of his theology. That we ought not to draw these “false conclusions” from what he has just said is a mere unfounded assertion. The conclusions we draw from his “sublime truth” are not false. Rather, we rightly conclude from what he says here that his interpretations of Scripture are contradictory and therefore false. If we ought not to draw such conclusions, I find it odd that his interpretation has presented such inescapable contradictory and therefore false conclusions and yet Kent seems not to care at all about the hermeneutical implications of his contradictory interpretation. Thus, we have here a prime example of the suppression of reason.
Furthermore, if I should “beware of drawing false conclusions from this sublime truth,” I would need reasons as to why I ought not to do so. Kent provides us with good reasons for drawing such conclusions and none as to why we should not. After telling us that only a limited number of elect people are predestined to salvation, which is to say that only those people can and will be saved, and obviously therefore all others are excluded from salvation, he proceeds to tell us “it is still true that “whosoever will may come.” How is it a false conclusion that this simply amounts to double-talk? Again, he expects us to suppress our logical reasoning.
Also, he states “this bestowal is all one-sided,” and yet proceeds to say that “men merely accept or reject” it. By “merely” he means only instrumentally, that is, it is God who causes the elect to accept it and all others cannot accept it. But how “mere” can acceptance or rejection become without contradicting his unconditional election? Surely to say that “men merely accept or reject” salvation is to affirm free will to some degree. But given Kent’s Calvinist definition of predestination, persons are simply being acted upon by God in a way that makes the words “acceptance” and “rejection” meaningless. It does not help to say, “God’s matchless plan also provided the means as well as the end.” This only pushes the problem of determinism back a step. The means are as much predetermined as the ends. To say that “God works through means and secondary causes” fails to introduce into the determinism any human freedom or moral responsibility. Given Kent’s universal divine causal determinism “means,” “secondary causes,” “acceptance” and “rejection” are all still meaningless.
On Kent’s interpretation of this text, there is no reason he has given as to why we ought not to draw the conclusions he asserts we shouldn’t draw. It seems to me that these doctrines of election and predestination, understood in this Calvinistic way, certainly are harsh, fatalistic and arbitrary. And Kent’s exposition of them is incoherent. These are the logical conclusions of his doctrines. Indeed, by virtue of having to make this disclaimer Kent himself realizes his interpretation is conflicted and has generated these harsh and fatalistic conclusions.
In addition, his statements about God selecting people for heaven “no matter how evil their lives” and consigning others to hell “regardless of how sincerely they may wish to do God’s will” are, on his Calvinist determinism, either real possibilities or simply a disingenuous way to ease the logical and moral problems in his doctrines. Firstly, it is a possibility that God has predetermined people to heaven “no matter how evil their lives” because God predetermines every person’s thoughts, beliefs, desires and actions. Therefore, we know he predetermines evil, and might he predetermine a person to be evil all their lives and still have elected them to salvation? I suppose so. You nor I nor that person will never know. This ignorance is one of the insurmountable problems about unconditional election or predestination. And the opposite might also be the case. The one who sincerely wishes to do God’s will, has been predetermined and caused by God to do so. But does this guarantee that God has not predetermined them to be among the reprobate? I don’t see why not. We’ll never know and neither will they. Again, that’s the problem with unconditional election or deterministic predestination. It is based in an inscrutable decision of God rather than in the person and work of Christ which publically demonstrates and proclaims the saving love of God to all.
Now we can hear Kent saying that those selected for heaven will not be practicing evil and those who are predestined to hell will not wish to do God’s will. Fine. But to bring up this contrast seems to be just a very disingenuous way of circumventing the conclusion that God is arbitrarily predetermining everyone’s eternal destiny. Raising the point of a person’s evil behavior or whether they wish to do God’s will is irrelevant to the problems of the harshness, fatalism, and arbitrariness that the doctrines themselves create.
Moreover, “grace” for Kent, is God’s decision made in eternity past to save certain particular people and not others. He states that grace “…bestows the most glorious privileges on completely depraved and fallen men…” This is a definition of “grace” that is synonymous with predestination or unconditional election. It is “grace” that is synonymous with the decision of God made in eternity past to save only particular individuals and pass by all others leaving them in their sin. And he is inconsistent when he asserts, “…Scripture never speaks of men being predestined for hell.” Well, to predestine some to heaven is to predestine all others to hell, especially when it is God who predetermined and caused them to commit the sins for which they are assigned to hell. That’s just the logic of the matter. The problem of the reprobate is the aspect of “grace” that Kent ignores. Why is this “the greatest display of grace conceivable?” It doesn’t seem to be because “it bestows the most glorious privileges on completely depraved and fallen men, while intentionally leaving out a whole host of completely depraved and fallen men.” It is a “one-sided” grace that doesn’t fit Kent’s own definition of “grace.” Why wouldn’t a “grace” that reaches out to “completely depraved and fallen men” not include all those “completely depraved and fallen men?” On Calvinism the number of sinners seems to be greater than God’s grace. And if this “grace” is irresistibly and effectually bestowed only upon those unconditionally predestined to salvation, how then can it be coherent or consistent to state that “men merely accept or reject” this “grace?” On Calvinism, men do not accept or reject God’s grace. The elect and the reprobate have nothing to do with determining their eternal destiny. It is an unconditional matter.
The non-Calvinist agrees with Kent’s statement that God’s grace “…bestows the most glorious privileges on completely depraved and fallen men…” But this divine grace for salvation is found “in Christ.” Paul states, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…” (Rom 5 1, 2, ESV). Because God’s grace is found “in Christ,” saving grace is accessible to all by faith. If it were not for God’s love and grace for us “in Christ,” if it were not for his eternal salvation plan and active historical initiative “in Christ,” we would remain depraved, fallen and lost. But “in Christ” we see God’s grace in action. God, because he is loving and gracious, brought about the way of salvation “in Christ” to be received by faith. Therefore, “in Christ,” all “completely depraved and fallen men” can know God loves them (Jn. 3:16), desires that they be saved (1 Tim. 2:3-6) and can find salvation at the cross of Christ by simply believing this “good news” of their salvation.
But Kent continues, “…and this bestowal is all one-sided. Men merely accept or reject; they bring no merits.” Of course they bring no merits! But again, given unconditional election, effectually calling and irresistible grace, how can Kent coherently say that “men merely accept or reject.” That seems to mean that one’s eternal destiny is not predetermined by the will of God but by the will of the individual sinner. So Kent presents this contradiction. God determines a person’s eternal destiny and the person determines their own personal destiny. Kent is stating God unilaterally, monergistically and unfailingly saves those whom he has predetermined to save. This saving work is all one-sided. Yet, he also states that men play a critical role in their salvation. They either accept or reject that salvation, thus determining their eternal destiny. An individual’s salvation is determined by the will of God alone, and yet an individual’s salvation is determined by the will of the individual – whether they accept or reject that grace and salvation. This is contradictory. And the important point to grasp is that Kent is ignoring this contradiction and refuses to consider whether it has hermeneutical importance and implications for determining the validity of his interpretations of the relevant texts.
The fact “that all men are dead in sin, and none at all would be saved if God did not intervene” need not refer to their predestination or regeneration prior to faith because of being dead in sin, but to God’s intervention into history in Christ to inaugurate the kingdom of God and make salvation available to all of us as sinners. Our depravity and falseness is precisely why salvation was made available to us in Christ. It does not keep us from Christ. It is why Christ came and why this is “good news” for all depraved, fallen sinners.
“…Paul is saying that predestination is carried out in perfect harmony with the reasons God had regarding His will for men. What these reasons were is not revealed to us. But it is incorrect to say that predestination has no reasons. God has them; we just don’t happen to know them.”
I believe there are at least two highly problematic epistemological implications in this position.
The first is that we lose the moral correspondence between God’s nature as loving and just and what we know to be loving and just. What the Calvinist is claiming in their doctrines of unconditional election and predestination is completely foreign, indeed, the opposite, of how we conceive of and practice love and justice. This places a true knowledge of God beyond us in a way that is different than the legitimate understanding of a doctrine of incomprehensibility. It is morally and epistemologically problematic in the sense that it does not merely go beyond what we know about God but against what we know God has revealed to us about himself and our responsibility to love and do justice to others. On Calvinism we cannot know what God is really like, not simply because we have a lack of knowledge, but because of the complete reversal of the knowledge we do have, that is, the complete reversal of the meaning of God’s attributes of love and justice from what we know love and justice to be. If we are created in God’s image and he has revealed himself to us as loving and just and has commanded us to be loving and just, then there must be a sufficiently coherent correspondence between what we know of love and justice and who God is as loving and just. When the Calvinist proposes that God is what we know to be unloving and unjust and yet still claims that God is loving and just no matter how it may appear otherwise in their theology, and they claim that we don’t know the reasons as to why God appears to act unloving and unjustly, then they have created a confusion that places the truth about the nature of God beyond our knowing. If God is not loving and just as we know these to be, then we know not God. Rather, we have good reason to think that there is this correspondence between what we know of love and justice and who God is a loving and just because we are created in his image and he has revealed these to us, defined them for us and enjoins us to practice love and justice.
The second problem is its Christological insufficiency. The will of God regarding our salvation is not a blank, mysterious, unknown. It is altogether revealed “in Christ.” Furthermore, Jesus exemplifies what love and justice mean and his example does not cohere with the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and predestination. I will deal with this matter of Christological insufficiency more thoroughly in later chapters.
In addition Kent states that there were certain “actions of believers that were a preparation for the Spirit’s sealing ministry.”
“They first heard the word of truth. This was the gospel – God’s message of good news that revealed to men that Christ died for sin, and He offers complete forgiveness and eternal life to those who will believe. Then they had believed the message and had come to experience salvation.”
Note that Kent defines the gospel for us here. But this definition raises the problem of insincerity that arises when the non-elect hear this gospel or “the word of truth.” Kent states, “This was the gospel – God’s message of good news that revealed to men that Christ died for sin, and He offers complete forgiveness and eternal life to those who will believe.” If the non-elect do hear this message, we are left to wonder how this is “the word of truth” to them. How is it in any sense more than just merely “true news” about something that is not applicable to them? As Kent puts it, one would think that anyone can believe, and if they do not it is they who refuse to do so. After all Kent himself has said “men merely accept or reject” this grace and salvation. But this cannot be what Kent means because this idea of libertarian freedom stands in contradiction with his theistic determinism.
Furthermore, we have to ask what Kent, as a Calvinist, could possibly mean by this definition of the gospel. He says nothing about his soteriology or his “doctrines of grace.” Perhaps there is verbal subterfuge here? That is, what does the nebulous phrase “Christ died for sin” mean? Didn’t Christ die for sinners? This impersonalizing of “sinners” to “sin” allows room for Kent, as a Calvinist, to interpret “the gospel” in terms of his doctrine of unconditional election. Kent could have even said “Christ died for sinners,” but that too would be ambiguous and somewhat disingenuous. We could not take this as meaning “Christ died for sinners, and being that we are all sinners, therefore Christ died for us all.” So is there disingenuousness here? I think so. He should honestly state what he believes. That is, Kent could have just as easily stated that, “This was the gospel – God’s message of good news that revealed to men that Christ died for the sins of the elect.” This would be a more accurate and forthright statement of “the gospel” according to Calvinism. So why doesn’t Kent speak in accord with his Calvinist soteriological doctrines? Simply because there is no “good news” in such a message.
Furthermore, what could Kent possibly mean by “He offers complete forgiveness and eternal life to those who will believe?” What does “offer” imply? Isn’t this a word of potentiality and contingency? Doesn’t this imply that salvation is a gift that must be received? But on Calvinism the outcome of this “offer” is predetermined and therefore it is not an “offer” at all. It is as Calvinists say “an effectual call.” The point is that Kent should state clearly what is in accord with his underlying soteriology.
And what does he mean by “to those who will believe?” It is ambiguous as far as his Calvinism is concerned. As a non-Calvinist I may take this statement to mean that salvation is conditioned upon the person themselves believing – that it is possible that they may and should choose to believe and that it is possible that they may choose to remain in unbelief. There are “those who will choose to believe” and “those who will choose not to believe.” But such conditionality is not permitted in the Calvinist deterministic soteriological scheme. On Calvinism, “to those who will believe” must be a subtle, nuanced way of referring to those who are unconditionally elected to salvation. The future tense here – “those who will believe” – communicates “those among the elect who, of course, will believe.” This is a statement about the surety that God will cause belief in the unconditionally elect. Hence the statement must be merely descriptive. That is, it must mean “to those elect whom God causes to believe.” There is no real offer here and no belief that springs from the individual themselves. It is worked in them by God. Yet Kent then states, “Then they had believed the message and had come to experience salvation.” What does he mean by “they had believed?” On his Calvinism it must mean “they were regenerated evidenced by believing.”
So what makes the “good news” good? That those hearing may believe and be saved, or that there is a limited number of predestined elect that will evidence their election by believing? So we must make the all-important observation that Calvinism is antithetical to and destructive of the gospel biblically defined as “good news.”
I have also shown that Kent’s Calvinist reasoning is at times vague, disingenuous, evasive and incoherent. Several standard Calvinist incoherencies, inconsistencies, contradictions and verbal diversions were incorporated in Kent’s explanation of this Ephesians 1 passage. Therefore, along with the erosion of the gospel, I want to highlight two additional points with some questions from the above study. The first is the suppression of reason that Kent required of us in order to follow his interpretations of this text. What do you make of this need to suppress your reasoning so as to embrace Kent’s logically problematic interpretation of the text? Is it legitimate for the Calvinist teacher or preacher to require this of you in order to accept their interpretation of the text? The second point is that when Kent’s interpretation creates these substantial logical perplexities and incoherencies with other biblical texts and teachings, do you think that these are reliable indicators of a misinterpretation of the text? Do you think that interpretive incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction are hermeneutically significant, that is, that they are sound indicators that determine the validity or invalidity as the case may be, of the Calvinists or anyone else’s proposed interpretations? If not, why not? If so, should we conclude the Calvinist interpretations to be in error? If not, why not?
The above studies have raised important issues for evangelicals regarding intellectual integrity in the interpretive process. It seems to me that Calvinism is engaged in the suppression of reason as a means to preserve its traditional deterministic doctrines which have an absolute status as a priori truth in their theological model. Not only do Calvinists ignore the probative force and truth discovering functions of philosophical reflection and moral intuition when it comes to their interpretations, they also seek, in subtle and not so subtle ways, to suppress reason’s voice so that it does not expose the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions in their interpretive conclusions and doctrinal beliefs.
Grant R. Osborne makes these astute observations:
“The basic problem of theological models is the tendency of their adherents to give them an absolute or permanent status that often becomes more powerful than Scripture itself. This is demonstrated in the tendency of all traditions to interpret Scripture on the basis of their beliefs rather than to examine their systems and alter them as needed on the basis of the scriptural evidence. The answer is to utilize the basic hermeneutical metaphor of this book, that of the spiral. The systematic model forms the preunderstanding that we bring to the scriptural data when we interpret, collate and contextualize it, yet at the same time we must allow the text to challenge, clarify and if necessary change that very system. The continuous interaction between text and system forms a spiral upward to theological truth.
Scripture itself contains models that we identify via biblical theology. However, our very reconstruction of these models is done from the standpoint of our own preunderstanding and therefore must continually be re-examined. How do we know when the text has truly predominated over our theological proclivities? Our preunderstanding affects not only our interpretation but also our perspective and methods. The solution here is to welcome competing models as the best means for forcing us to re-examine the basis and structure of our dogma. It is difficult to question the systematic patterns of our faith since our commitment to them blinds us to their weaknesses. Our opponents keep us honest.”
There are several important points that Osborne makes here. Two stand out as critical – biblical truth and theological honesty. For biblical truth to prevail a “continuous interaction between text and system” is required which Osborne depicts as a hermeneutical process of spiraling upward to theological truth – a process that challenges, clarifies and if necessary changes that very system.
But Osborne also asks a crucial question. “How do we know when the text has truly predominated over our theological proclivities?” He then offers the method of challenge by one’s “opponents.” The virtue in this method lies in “forcing us to re-examine the basis and structure of our dogma.”
Now, as correct and necessary as this is, we need to pursue the answer Osborne gives a bit further, for regarding this controversy, “opponents” have challenged each other’s theological systems for centuries, yet these systems remain intact, alive and well and still in conflict. It certainly seems that theological proclivities still predominate over the text. So we need to ask the following questions. Upon what basis can our opponents keep us honest and we affirm their observations and challenges to our system as biblically correct thus warranting a change to our system? What will be the criteria for examining “the basis and structure of our dogma” such that we can determine its biblical validity and admit to necessary changes? How will we know when “the basis and structure of our dogma” is faulty? How will we know when “our opponents” are biblically correct and we are not? What will prevent what has gone on to this very day, that is, both parties quoting verses, stating their interpretation of a text, insisting that their exegesis and theological model is correct, and going on their merry way with no resolution as to what the truth of Scripture is on the matter? As Osborne rightly points out, it is an issue of honesty. But how will a “competing model” keep a conflicting model “honest?” Why does this controversy continue?
It seems to me that “honesty” must entail a consideration of the rational and moral coherence of one’s interpretations and theological construct. If one is going to allow for logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in their interpretive conclusions, it seems to me that this is being intellectually dishonest and disingenuous in the exegetical and interpretative task. That is, if the laws of logic and moral intuition need not play an essential role in one’s hermeneutic, then the text will never be allowed to provide its intended message to us with respect to the truth in this controversy. Osborne recognizes this problem and delineates the necessary criteria for the validation of one’s interpretations as biblically accurate and the verification of one’s theological model as true to Scripture. I highlight Osborne’s criteria in my chapter on hermeneutics. It is enough to mention here that interpretive honesty, that is, having some criteria that must finally compel us to change our system, must include logical, moral and theological coherence. After all, what is dishonesty but a disregard of the coherence about one’s propositions and beliefs? What is dishonesty or disingenuousness except incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction among one’s doctrinal claims or between what one says and what one fundamentally believes? I have shown that Calvinism accommodates incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in its interpretive thinking while also suppressing the reasoning that identifies these incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions as indicative of flawed interpretations of the text.
This is important because Calvinists honestly believe the Bible teaches their deterministic “doctrines of grace” and also human freedom and responsibility, but they also recognize the contradiction in their interpretive position. But their response to this incoherence is to say that they must submit and believe what the Bible teaches however logically or morally incoherent. This, of course, presupposes that their understanding of the relevant passages in this controversy are accurate interpretations of the texts. It is to presuppose that their interpretations of sovereignty, election, predestination, grace, faith, etc. are the truth of the matter. The Calvinist claims that if these interpretations generate logical and moral incoherencies, then so be it. They must defer and submit to the text. But that is, of course, only to say that they must defer and submit to the text as they understand it. We are after all grappling with what it means to rightly understand the text and evaluate the legitimacy of the Calvinist’s (or anyone else’s) claims as to what the text means. In other words, that the Calvinist claims a particular text means to say what they say it means is precisely what we are questioning. The legitimacy of the Calvinist’s claims about the meaning of certain texts is the very question before us. Are interpretations that result in logical incoherence and moral conflict accurate interpretations? I submit that we must consider incoherence to be a hermeneutical “red flag,” that is, it is at least telling us to reconsider our interpretations and ask whether there might be other historical and theological factors that have not been taken into consideration in interpreting the text and developing our theological system.
I think it is obvious therefore, that when the Calvinist claims that if their interpretations generate logical and moral incoherencies they must defer and submit to the text, that this is only to say that there will never be any movement towards that “biblical truth” Osborne speaks about because the very means of a rational evaluation of one’s interpretations has been put out of court. If the Calvinist cannot be convinced by the considerations of the rules of logic and our moral intuitions that their interpretations are suspect, what other means could there possibly be that the “opponents” could employ to persuade the Calvinist otherwise? The Calvinist can never be kept “honest” because the means by which honesty is discerned has been dismissed.
Non-Calvinists would certainly agree that we must first and foremost submit to what the Bible teaches, but we would not establish a false dichotomy between what the Bible teaches and the use of our rational and moral faculties to discern its meaning. We would not establish a dichotomy between exegesis and philosophical and moral reflection upon our exegesis. It is not an either or proposition between exegesis or interpretive coherence. This either/or approach does not constitute good interpretation, for how else does one discover the meaning of a passage, especially with regard to these more complex biblical topics and themes, except by a due consideration of whether those interpretations exhibit logical reasoning and reflect our moral intuitions.
The Calvinist will agree here as to the use of logical and moral reasoning in their exegesis. They would say of course they use their reasoning in approaching the text. But the distinction that needs to be made is one that has to do with the end result of one’s exegetical conclusions. What do we do when those conclusions create logical and moral incoherence among different texts, other biblical themes and theological conclusions? Can we still claim we have rightly interpreted the Scriptures?
What we are attempting to identify are the most fundamental and indispensable elements of the interpretive task. I am merely insisting that an interpretive element that is necessary for detecting the true meaning of a text not be put out of court. We are in pursuit of how we know what the Bible actually teaches on these matters. To assert that one is submitting to the text no matter the distorting affect on the character of God or the degree of the negative logical and moral entailments of one’s exegesis upon their theological system, is to a priori reject the idea that interpretive incoherence may be indicative of a misinterpretation of the text. I contend that this approach eliminates all possibility of assessing the truth of one’s claim to have accurately exegeted the text and the biblical faithfulness of that particular theological system. For the person who embraces the traditional Calvinist theological system to talk of “mystery,” “tension,” “antinomy,” and “apparent contradiction” is to evade these interpretive issues and insulate their tradition from rational and moral critique. Non-Calvinists clearly perceive and accept that incoherence in one’s interpretations has hermeneutical significance for discerning the validity of those interpretations. In contrast, the Calvinist, even if he perceives and admits to the incoherence, does not take it as hermeneutically significant. But if we do not accept the Calvinist “explanations” given above as question-begging and ad hoc, Calvinism remains suspect precisely because of the logical, moral and theological havoc it wreaks.
I am compelled to conclude from the evidence provided in this chapter that ultimately a self-imposed disregard for the deliberations and deliverances of our legitimate human reasoning faculties are a prerequisite for the acceptance of and continued belief in the Calvinist doctrines. I have provided the evidence that this suppression of reason is precisely what the Calvinist teaches and requires. J. I. Packer’s “advice” was a prime example.
This suppression of reason relieves the Calvinist from the responsibility of presenting some reasoned argument for the truth of their exegesis that draws us to a reasoned conclusion. The Calvinist “flight to mystery” mindset is a conversation stopper for those who present both exegetical and philosophical / moral arguments against Calvinism. In the end, the Calvinist must flee to mystery, not because the Calvinist has conclusively demonstrated that a responsible exegesis demands this “mystery,” but because their exegesis generates incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions that if not dealt with by a hermeneutic of coherence then “mystery” is the only alternative.
An important aspect of what it means to be submissive to the message and authority of Scripture is that we not ignore interpretive incoherence or suppress our reasoning faculties. We have seen that the Calvinist’s claims that they submit to the authority and message of the text through exegesis while non-Calvinists sacrifice biblical authority on the altar of philosophical reflection are just not credible or convincing. We can see that the Calvinist assertions about non-Calvinists exalting human reasoning above exegesis are unsubstantial and a misrepresentation of the interpretive task and amount to propagating a false dichotomy.
Hence we have a paradigm for a more biblical hermeneutic. What will characterize a biblical hermeneutic will be the incorporation of coherence and consistency on all fronts – logical, linguistic, moral, epistemological and inter-textual. A hermeneutic that values propositional consistency and coherence is the only hermeneutic that will legitimately challenge one’s theological interpretations and system and both justify and require changes to that system. It’s the only hermeneutic upon which we can have rational theological discourse. The ultimate goal is to adjust our traditional theological systems to conform more accurately with biblical truth so that a univocal gospel message can be proclaimed with clarity, theological coherence and Holy Spirit power and conviction.
For instance, the propensity to maintain theological proclivities despite the effects of those proclivities upon the rational and moral coherence of their theological model can be detected in statements made by Calvinists Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware. They state that,
“…we believe that the teaching espoused by Arminians is incorrect and will, to the degree it is accepted, work to weaken the church of Jesus Christ.”
“We fear that the denial of the doctrines of grace involves a reduction of the supremacy of God in the minds and hearts of God’s people.”
Here “the supremacy of God” means divine sovereignty as theistic determinism. Schreiner and Ware will hold to this determinism despite the logical and moral havoc it wreaks with their own statements, other Scripture and our common, everyday experiences. Take their own statements for instance. I would be curious to know how Schreiner and Ware would reply if the rationale that Luther used in responding to Erasmus were to be applied to their statements regarding “the teaching espoused by Arminians.” Recall that Erasmus inquired of Luther as to what good could possibly come of publishing Luther’s views on predestination. Luther’s answer was,
“It should be enough to say simply that God has willed their publication, and the reason of the Divine will is not to be sought, but simply to be adored, and the glory given to God, Who, since He alone is just and wise, wrongs none and can do nothing foolish or inconsiderate – however much it may seem otherwise to us. This answer will satisfy those who fear God.”
Now, suppose the Arminian were to respond to Schreiner and Ware’s negative assertions about Arminian teaching in the same way Luther responded to Erasmus, that is, in a way consistent with Schreiner and Ware’s own determinism. Schreiner and Ware believe the teaching of Arminians is “incorrect and will, to the degree that it is accepted, work to weaken the church of Jesus Christ.” But the Arminian’s response to Schreiner and Ware would be “It should be enough to say simply that God has willed their teaching, and the reason of the Divine will is not to be sought, but simply to be adored, and the glory given to God,” That is, after all, what Schreiner and Ware believe. Schreiner and Ware believe that God has ordained all things to occur as they do. That includes “the teaching espoused by Arminians.” Therefore Schreiner and Ware’s assessment of the situation is incoherent with their fundamental theological belief that it is God himself who predetermines and causes all things to occur as they do. God predetermined and causes “the teaching espoused by Arminians,” its “acceptance,” the “weaken the church of Jesus Christ” and “the denial of the doctrines of grace.”
Therefore, three points must be made. The first is that if we are going to include our logical reasoning in assessing Schreiner and Ware’s statements here, we would have to conclude that Schreiner and Ware, to be consistent with their deterministic theology of God’s eternal decree, sovereignty, and predestination, must affirm the fact that God has also willed “the teachings espoused by Arminians.” Given Schreiner and Ware’s deterministic theology they have to accept the fact that God has willed the “the denial of the doctrines of grace,” and therefore the “weakening of the Church of Jesus Christ.” Schreiner and Ware have to reckon with the fact that their determinism lands them in a logical, theological, and practical incoherence. But they will not reckon with this fact. When it comes to the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions their own doctrinal beliefs or “theological proclivities” create with their own statements, they ignore and suppress their reason.
The second point is that Schreiner and Ware’s “theological proclivities” take precedence over Scripture, that is, if you believe Scripture should be interpreted coherently, consistently and without contradiction. If it is true that Scripture should be interpreted such, then there is nothing that will force these Calvinists to re-examine the basis and structure of their dogmas. The only way their position can be determined to be a “theological proclivity” and not a biblical truth is if we include in our hermeneutic a logical and moral assessment of their position.
The third point is that we ought not to ignore or suppress our reason just because Schreiner and Ware can do so. Calvinists like Schreiner and Ware have great influence in the minds of young and old alike. But you must think for yourself about what constitutes good biblical interpretation. You must decide whether you are going to, at some point, jettison your logical and moral framework, or, interpret with these God-given faculties fully functioning and fully engaged.
Furthermore, we must ask Schreiner and Ware how they come to determine “that the teaching espoused by Arminians is incorrect?” On what basis does the Calvinist evaluate Arminianism? Does he do so on a textual, exegetical, hermeneutical basis, or upon the basis of agreement with his theological proclivity for “the sovereignty of God” defined as determinism? It seems that the deciding factor is ultimately whether or not Arminianism accommodates the Calvinist idea of “the supremacy of God” defined as a theistic determinism. Yet the non-Calvinist understanding of God’s sovereignty can coherently account for that sovereignty without loss of divine control over the world that the Calvinist fears would be the result if sovereignty is not defined as a universal divine causal determinism. Moreover, the non-Calvinist position can better account with rational and moral coherence for the gospel as “good news,” the integrity of its proclamation, human freedom and moral responsibility, the presence of evil, the nature of faith and grace, etc.
Should the Calvinist ignore the logical and moral incoherence their deterministic definition of “sovereignty” creates? Should the logical and moral incoherence theistic determinism creates be a consideration in determining whether or not that definition is even a valid interpretation on the matter? Schreiner and Ware do not consider the negative logical and moral entailments of their definition of “sovereignty” as interpretively significant. This can be seen, not only by the somewhat defensive title of their book, “Still Sovereign,” but by the troubling amount of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction that the book attempts to address. Why so many problems to deal with? And acute problems at that. The scope and weight of the concerns of this book seeks to answer evidences the problematic nature of Calvinism. And the fact that Schreiner and Ware ultimately land at “mystery” indicates that their interpretations and theology cannot be logically or morally grounded.
I submit, that for the Reformed Calvinist, maintaining their definition of “sovereignty” as a theistic determinism is even more important than coming to a consensus as to the criteria by which we can determine the biblical validity of an interpretation, especially the Calvinist’s own. “Sovereignty” takes precedence over incorporating coherence into their hermeneutic as a factor that indicates a valid interpretation. The interpretive attitude of the Calvinist seems to be, “We will attempt to deal with the problems of our position somehow and in some way, but we refuse to exam our understanding of “the supremacy of God” from the standpoint of a hermeneutic of coherence.” Calvinists hold to a deterministic definition of the sovereignty of God despite the fact that the doctrine produces logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical incoherence. I contend that it is on these grounds that Calvinism, as a determinism, fails as a viable interpretation of Scripture. What is incoherent and contradictory is simply false.
What besides a mere assertion is left to determine the biblical validity of any doctrine when logical and moral coherence are abandoned? The greater concern should be whether these “doctrines of grace” are valid interpretations of Scripture if they involve a reduction of the gospel message to the point of biblical incoherence and epistemological uncertainty. If the biblical truth of the gospel is being sacrificed for the sake of a “fear” about the reduction of the “supremacy of God,” perhaps that definition of “supremacy” is a misinterpretation due to the fact that it stands as the cause of logical, moral, epistemological, theological and gospel incoherence.
I submit that there is more convincing hermeneutical evidence – which is the primary and necessary evidence that must be considered to determine the validity of one’s interpretation – that the non-Calvinist soteriology is the more plausible interpretation of Scripture than the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.” Do the Calvinist doctrines really serve to exalt “the supremacy of God in the minds and hearts of God’s people” when they produce such pervasive incoherence? Or does one have to adopt a certain Calvinist mode of thinking which involves a sacrifice of the intellect under the question-begging plea to “let God be God” to embrace these “doctrines of grace?” Is “supremacy” here biblically defined or simply a non-negotiable theistic determinism which Calvinism preserves because it is convinced that it “glorifies” God? Does a hermeneutical methodology that produces a theistic determinism “glorify God” when it also results in theological inconsistency? Has the Calvinist adopted an unwarranted “fear” based upon a conception of “the supremacy of God” that the Bible, as a whole, cannot coherently sustain? What type of “supremacy” is being defended when it leaves us with an epistemological void as to God’s disposition towards us, his true nature as loving or malevolent, and whether or not we can be saved?
Thus, in Calvinism, we are faced with a Scripture that we cannot fathom as to whether it presents reality as predetermined and not predetermined. And we are faced with a theology claiming that things are both predetermined and not predetermined. This is a violation of the law of non-contradiction. Therefore, any theology that teaches contradictory doctrines is a false teaching.
My point is that a theological system should not be maintained despite the identification of substantial logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical incoherence. Such a system can only be maintained at the expense of honesty in theological thought and practical word. This is an indication that something very wrong is going on at both the exegetical and hermeneutical levels. How does one discern between a theological position that stands to be corrected and one that reflects a truer meaning of Scripture? A theological model stands to be corrected by an opposing theological model when that opposing model better accounts for the biblical text with logical, moral, epistemological, and theological coherence, consistency, harmony and non-contradiction. It would seem to me that a theological position that dismisses all critiques of that position based upon the detection of rational incoherence and inconsistency, claiming that coherence does not necessarily apply in biblical and spiritual matters (i.e., “the Bible teaches both,” “high mystery,” “apparent contradiction,” “incomprehensibility due to fallen human reason,” etc.) has forever insulated itself from the corrective scrutiny of the reasoned critique of a biblical hermeneutic and also the Bible’s authority to determine what we are to believe. It will never adjust to biblical truth because one of the criterion for a convincing biblical critique – logical and moral assessment of the interpretations by rational discourse and further exegetical evaluation – have been dismissed from the interpretive process. Thus, in such systems, those theological points are fixed by personal predilections and historical tradition and not necessarily by substantive hermeneutical engagement with the biblical text or evaluation of disparate interpretations on an accepted criteria of validity. If it is claimed that the Calvinist theological position has substantive biblical support, yet one is not allowed to evaluate that position as to its logical, moral, epistemological and biblical coherence and consistency, I see no other grounds upon which it may be discerned as to whether that claim and that position is plausible and whether it truly is an accurate interpretation of the biblical witness. There is no other basis upon which discernment of a truth claim can rest. The means of discerning truth from a written text cannot be jettisoned if we are going to genuinely pursue the true meaning of that text. In the Calvinist’s hermeneutic the grounds for substantive evaluation have been put aside and other rationalizations have been substituted as diversions from the persistent presence of logical, moral, epistemological and biblical incoherencies.
Again, the hermeneutical bottom line here is that rational coherence cannot simply be ignored so as to preserve one’s “theological proclivities,” for once incoherence is deemed insignificant, the fundamental common ground for any meaningful biblical discourse about what constitutes a valid interpretation is undermined. Moreover, the insulation of one’s tradition from substantive critique is secured. This results in logically and morally innovative Reformed ways of “thinking” about God and the Bible. We see this in Schreiner and Ware’s book as well as in most other Reformed writing, teaching, and preaching. The examples in the next chapter are intended to let Calvinists tell their own doctrinal and hermeneutical story. I document them here to expose the reader to very specific instances of how Calvinists reason in interpreting the biblical text. I will attempt to provide the “critical dialogue” necessary for identifying Calvinist preunderstandings that may hold sway over an author’s intended meaning in the text. I interact and critique the Calvinist reasoning so that what may at first glance appear to be an acceptable interpretation of the text may be seen from a different point of view. The point is that we must be engaged not only in proposing meanings of the text but also evaluating the validity of those proposed meanings. That is what I attempt to do.
I contend that Calvinist soteriology is not an accurate interpretation of the biblical text or the biblical gospel because its propositions are incoherent on various fronts. As such I submit that it cannot command our intellectual assent and therefore does not warrant our belief. But ultimately that is for each of you to decide from the evidence brought forth and to judge on the basis of a sound criteria for discerning validity in interpretation. I just challenge you to think as you would about most things – with your logical common sense and moral intuitions intact – when you think about what the Calvinist is presenting to you. Given the larger contexts, I challenge you to think about whether there are alternative interpretations to what Calvinists claim is the meaning of a verse or verses in passages like Ephesians 1:11, Romans 9:11 and John 6:37. A study of these passages within their immediate and broader literary context along with the canonical context will go a long way to clarifying what they communicate, which I contend is not what the Calvinist claims they communicate. Such will be the subject matter in the next few chapters.
We have seen that Schreiner and Ware have described their attempts at solving the problems in their theology as “faith seeking understanding.” What do they mean, and is this really the case? How does “understanding” come about except upon the basis of logical and moral “givens”? How is “understanding” achieved except upon a reasoned, harmonious comparison of one’s interpretations with other biblical teachings? But if the Calvinist’s interpretive and doctrinal incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions are dismissed as a “mystery,” or, if what we undeniably perceive as contradictory with other revealed truths is passed off as only an “apparent contradiction,” then what is left by which to gain the “understanding” that is being sought? The very criterion for discernment and understanding is dismissed from serving its function in this regard.
Recall Luther’s response to Erasmus who questioned Luther as to the harmful results that seem likely to follow from his doctrine of predestination. Luther responded that, “The reason of the Divine will is not to be sought.” It seems that Luther’s “anti-epistemological” perspective runs deep in Calvinist thought. It is God’s will that they be published and we should not ask questions about what God has willed. But we also expect “the Divine will” to be consistent with the divine character. When Luther states, “That there may be room for faith, therefore, all that is believed must be hidden,” he is proposing the suppression of our logical and moral faculties as if this lends to the virtue of increased “faith.” But this seems an excuse for the Calvinist to avoid facing their logical and moral difficulties. It smacks of an excuse to protect nonsense doctrines in the name of increased faith.
But what is the justification for claiming that what runs contrary to what is rationally coherent and morally intuitive is only “apparently” contrary to this knowledge and intuition? According to Schreiner and Ware it is that “they believe that these doctrines are taught in Scripture” and so they must distract us from concluding that their doctrinal interpretations are a real contradiction. But again, upon what basis could we check this claim of “apparency” if we have put on hold our most fundamental abilities to logically and morally assess the Calvinist’s interpretations given other biblical data and doctrines? Schreiner and Ware’s “faith seeking understanding” is really a non-negotiable theological paradigm seeking preferred, non-threatening justifications. It is to presuppose their deterministic interpretations of sovereignty and election are “taught in Scripture” while dismissing the basis upon which we could determine whether that is indeed the case. Again, Schreiner and Ware seem to be ignoring the more basic issue of whether or not Calvinists give due consideration to all that is required for a proper interpretation of the relevant passages. We agree with the high place and careful regard given to Scripture by Schreiner and Ware, but when Calvinists say that the reality of life as portrayed by the Scriptures is “complex,” they certainly seem to be attempting to avoid confessing that their theology, as they interpret it from Scripture, is contradictory. I submit that we can distinguish between complexity and contradiction.
“Faith seeking understanding” surely cannot mean “embrace a position of contradictions regardless…” In the name of “faith” the Calvinist requires one to seek understanding regardless of contradiction, but it is the contradiction that understanding must resolve. To conclude ahead of time that such contradictions are of the nature of faith and the understanding sought for need not be influenced by the presence of those contradictions, and the “answer” but must be found somewhere else, is to insulate the theology from meaningful critique and possible correction. In essence the Calvinist is telling us that our thinking does not provide us real insight into the meaning of Scripture. Our logical and moral reasoning are not reliable for determining the validity of an interpretation.
C. S. Lewis treats this most basic of rational considerations in his book Miracles. He writes,
“…no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.”
As applied to our concerns here, we can alter Lewis’ words a bit. We can maintain that, “No hermeneutic or interpretive account can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A hermeneutic which explained everything else in the Bible but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.” This putting aside or distrust of basic laws of reason by Calvinists is precisely why the Calvinist hermeneutic is not a sound method of interpretation.
I submit that there is a degree to which Calvinism engages in the suppression and suspension of the very reason which is necessary to determine its validity. Lewis highlights the validity of an inductive process of reasoning, what logicians call the “Ground and Consequent” process of coming to conclusions. This is different than Cause and Effect reasoning as in, “He cried out because it hurt him.” Ground and Consequent reasoning would conclude “It must have hurt him because he cried out.” Lewis writes,
“We are especially familiar with the Ground and Consequent because in mathematical reasoning: “A = C because, as we have already proved, they are both equal to B.”
The one indicates a dynamic connection between events or “states of affairs”; the other, a logical relation between beliefs or assertions.
Now a train of reasoning has no value as a means of finding truth unless each step in it is connected with what went before in the Ground-Consequent relation. If our B does not follow logically from our A, we think in vain. If what we think at the end of our reasoning is to be true, the correct answer to the question, “Why do you think this?” must begin with the Ground-Consequent because.”
“One thought can cause another…by being seen to be, a ground for it…For we can know nothing, beyond our own sensations at the moment unless the act of inference is the real insight that it claims to be…But it can be this only on certain terms. An act of knowing must be determined, in a sense, solely by what is known; we must know it to be thus solely because it is thus. That is what knowing means.”
We know a contradiction when we see one. Calvinism is on shaky ground in this respect. With its final explanations in “mystery” and its claims that the contradiction, inconsistency, and incoherence of its propositions are only “apparent,” Calvinists circumvent the terms upon which “the act of inference is the real insight that it claims to be.” Therefore, we doubt certain of the Reformed conclusions precisely because they conflict with what we do know in the realm of logic and morality.
Furthermore there are things we know intuitively. Lewis continues,
“My belief that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another is not at all based on the fact that I have never caught them behaving otherwise. I see that it “must” be so.”
Now I mention this distinction because until one is convinced that our reasoning is the only way we can discern meanings, even the meanings of Scripture, and that such reasoning must be a reliable means to finding truth in these matters, then there can be no further discussion and Calvinism (or Arminianism or any “ism”) remains isolated and protected from that which would expose its truth or falsity. Discussion becomes meaningless if reason will be violated in favor of mystery, incomprehensibility, or the sinfulness and inadequacy of human reasoning when that very reasoning points out “good reasons” for believing otherwise. By inductive reasoning we attempt to establish the plausibility of a position. On numerous grounds of implausibility I suggest that the Calvinist position is incorrect. The Calvinist position’s use of “mystery,” “complexity,” or the effects of sin upon human reason to terminate further inquiry because of the position’s own inconsistency is a self-protective and self-insulating mechanism which does not hold up under more rigorous and honest scrutiny. Dorothy Sayers writes,
“God is mysterious, and so (for that matter) is the universe and one’s fellow-man and one’s self and the snail on the garden-path; but none of these is so mysterious as to correspond to nothing within human knowledge.”
My point is simply that there is more “available evidence” against Calvinism than Calvinists allow. The evidences rattle Calvinism at its core. Simply to claim it to be the biblical position and seek to rationalize away its irrational elements is an exercise in futility and subjects the theology to a worsening strain of our logic and moral sense. As such, with respect to a criteria of plausibility, Calvinism fails.
Calvinists ultimately contend that what our thinking indicates is not valid with respect to their doctrines. Therefore, without the prerogative of incorporating logical and moral “givens” there is nothing by which to judge the validity of interpretations and the theology developed from those interpretations. The “understanding” that should adjudicate “the problems posed by our theology” has already been dismissed as unable to inform the “faith.” If the Calvinist “faith” is already fixed as the authoritative interpretation of Scripture no matter what logical or moral difficulties it raises, then what “understanding” is left by which “understanding” is to be sought and gained? The “faith” cannot be questioned as a possible misinterpretation of Scripture. The “faith” is fixed. Hence, the Calvinist’s flight to “mystery” circumvents the thought necessary to gain understanding. “Faith seeking understanding” become meaningless. There is only the flight to “mystery.” But this flight to “mystery” is premature and acts to insulate Calvinism from legitimate, substantive critique. In the end, no real understanding is being sought because the basis for understanding has be dismissed. The theology is simply to be maintained at any cost. And the cost is indeed high on the side of intellectual honesty and valid reasoning, not to mention gospel proclamation. Dorothy Sayers also states,
“Our minds are the material we have to work upon when constructing philosophies, and it seems but an illogical creed, whose proof depends on our discarding all the available evidence.”
Sound reason and the search for understanding suggest that the implications upon logic and morality of one’s theological conclusions cannot be summarily dismissed as “mystery” or by labeling the contradictions “apparent.” Logic, morality, harmonious theological integration and epistemological concerns are all “available evidence” that either confirm or cast doubt upon one’s theological conclusions. A theology whose proof depends on our discarding much of this “available evidence” is certainly suspect as an accurate biblical theology.
Hence, because Calvinism finds it hard to address common sense logical and moral concerns, it is generally marked by a strange, silent indifference to serious challenge and inquiry. The Calvinist will sooner ignore the critic than face the critics challenge because ultimately the challenge cannot be answered. Besides, theistic determinism lends itself to letting each go the way God predetermined they will go. What’s the sense in talking?
For the Calvinist God certainly is “still sovereign” as they understand sovereignty. And it appears that he always will be. The more important question is whether this understanding is biblically accurate and how we would know.
The above discussion raises concerns for the evangelical church and individual Christians. The nature of the problems inherent in Calvinist theology and how the evangelical church responds to them has theological, intellectual and pedagogical ramifications. Questions regarding the perspicuity and authority of the Word of God begin to surface along with the true nature of a biblical hermeneutic. What is at stake is the ability “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). The Calvinist’s suppression of reason obscures the knowledge of the truth, especially with regard to the gospel message. What is being ignored in the evangelical church is the ability to sincerely and genuinely grapple with coming to the truth of the gospel and then proclaim that truth to the world.
Evangelical churches have little tolerance for being engaged at a hermeneutical level in assessing their theological models inherited through their tradition. To the degree that our evangelical churches simply propagate a certain theological tradition without addressing the biblical challenges to that tradition or fail to provide a biblical, rational defense for it, they have ceased to be engaged in the search for biblical truth and have sanctioned theological relativism. For if an “opponent” can offer a biblically sound interpretation of the text in context that demonstrates a greater degree of coherence on all fronts, and that challenge is simply ignored or suppressed in preference of one’s “theological proclivities,” then this is indicative that the search for biblical clarity and truth has ceased. And if it is not Scripture with which the church is honestly and deeply engaged, other things will have to substitute as the main “attraction” of the church. A superficial “faith” will prevail.
An essential problem in our evangelical churches today is that there is no way to be engaged in the pursuit of the truth about theological differences. This became evident to me in the Reformed and moderate Calvinist churches I have attended where there was a blind conformity to a theological tradition at the expense of intellectual honesty and interpretive integrity. Incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are accepted as legitimate when it comes to the interpretation of the Bible. I have given examples of this above and the next chapter exists to provide clear evidence of this phenomenon within Calvinism.
The Calvinist theological tradition is indifferent to serious rational and moral critique of its exegetical process and theological conclusions. There is a resistance to logical and moral engagement when the Calvinist is challenged or questioned as to the fidelity of their doctrines to Scripture given that those doctrines land the Calvinist in logical and moral incoherence. The Calvinist refuses to address the fact that their preaching, teaching and ministry practices are logically inconsistent with their underlying theological and soteriological positions.
This raises the question whether the evangelical church is even concerned with teaching its people to think, let alone think biblically, which requires a knowledge of hermeneutics. This controversy has deep ramifications for Christian education and ultimately brings into question the purpose of the Bible among us, how we use it, and whether it can ultimately examine us as we claim it should. But how can it if we are not seriously and humbly engaged with it on the hermeneutical level? Without the challenge produced by Osborne’s “hermeneutical spiral,” the Bible’s authoritative position and proper interpretation are in jeopardy. As such, if the Bible’s grand theme is the gospel of “good news,” then this is ultimately and truly an evangelical issue precisely because it is a gospel or “good news” issue. Therefore, those churches who claim to be evangelical must grapple with the negative implications of Calvinism for the gospel message. In that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies are mutually exclusive, evangelicals need to decide what constitutes the truth of the gospel.
This website seeks to engage Christians on these matters. I an seeking to stimulate thinking on what constitutes the precise content of the true, biblical gospel. It is written with the conviction that the true biblical gospel is a message of “good news,” and only that message of “good news” has the power to save souls when proclaimed to a lost world and to sustain and fill the believer with Holy Spirit power for the Christian life of holiness, self-denial, and service in the kingdom of God. This site seeks to reflect on the truth of Paul’s statement in Romans 1:16 when he said that he was “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” What did Paul mean by “the gospel?” What did he mean by “to everyone who believes?” If it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” then it is imperative that the true content of the gospel be delineated, preserved and proclaimed. What is the gospel Paul “proclaimed” and that Paul’s churches “received?” (Gal 1:6-9) Is the Calvinist soteriology the biblical gospel or “a different gospel?” (Gal. 1:6)
I submit that what Calvinist’s teach regarding soteriology is so very different than what the non-Calvinist believes is that message as found in Scripture that these cannot both be the truth of the gospel. They may both be false, but they both cannot be true. These are not at all the same messages. Yet both claim that their message is the biblical gospel message. Both claim that the gospel message is central to all ministry and life. Both claim that their version comes from Scripture. In that the apostle Paul was the great expositor of Christian theology and the bearer of the gospel to the whole world of his time, we must inquire into what was the precise content of his gospel message. How is it that we have two very different explanations of the gospel today? Has the Bible left us in confusion with respect to this essential element of its revelation? I don’t think it has. I have a high view of the revelatory function and capability of Scripture to clearly reveal the truth on this most basic matter of the nature of our salvation. A distinctive Christian worldview will avoid an unbiblical soteriological relativism. It will care about the issues before us, for they ultimately involve a search for truth of the gospel. I submit to you that that truth can be clearly known. In that truth is found in God’s written record of the Truth incarnate, who is the Living Word, the question of proper interpretation comes to the fore. It cannot be ignored.
Calvinists Schreiner and Ware have informed us that “mystery” is “the full and final resolution” to the logical and moral problems of Calvinism. I have stated that given this conclusion, this controversy should therefore be declared futile as to a resolution and a failure in Christian reasoning, interpretation and hermeneutics. If we refuse to come to a decision on the hermeneutics of this controversy, then it will only continue ad infinitum without movement towards a consensus as to the biblical truth. It will not be resolved precisely because the very rational and moral grounds needed to arbitrate what constitutes a valid exegesis have been eliminated from the process. My thesis has been that the Calvinist dichotomizes exegesis from philosophical and moral reflection on that exegesis.
John Hendryx, on the Calvinist website Monergism.com, evidences the Calvinist’s dichotomizing of exegesis from the philosophical and moral reasoning that shows the doctrine of “God’s meticulous providence” to be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory to other biblical doctrines. He states,
“Since the Scripture is our ultimate authority and highest (sic) presuppsosition, the multitude of clear scriptural declarations on this matter outweigh all unaided human logic. We find that almost always the objections to God’s meticulous providence over all things are moral and philosophical rather than exegetical. This means we must strive to consciously affirm what the Scripture declares over all our finite understanding and sinful inner drive for independence.”
A number of responses are in order here.
First, once again, we see the false dichotomy between exegesis and the deliverances of philosophical reflection and moral intuition in the interpretive task. Hendryx echoes the position of Schreiner and Ware discussed above and in chapter 9.
Second, of course one would expect to find “the objections to God’s meticulous providence” to be both moral and philosophical from those who value their presence and clarifying function in their hermeneutic in direct contrast to Calvinists who put them out of court as Hendryx does here. So it needs to be stressed that according to a responsible hermeneutic, the non-Calvinist objections are no less exegetical because they are moral and logical objections, but rather they are more fully exegetical because non-Calvinists believe moral and logical considerations are essential to the exegetical task. Also, Calvinists are prone to forget that sound exegetical material countering the Calvinist interpretations abounds. Non-Calvinists have alternative exegetical explanations of every text Calvinists claim support their “meticulous providence.” Those interpretations are faithful to the text on any criteria required of the historical-grammatical method of interpretation with the added advantage that they better account for the full scope of the material in a coherent and consistent manner. Any attempt to boast that Calvinism is correct on the basis of exegesis while maintaining that any philosophical and moral objections hold no weight against such exegesis seems to misunderstand the reliability, essential necessity and role of reason in the interpretive process. So Hendryx’s statement only confirms that the Calvinist views the philosophical discipline and our moral intuitions as irrelevant to the exegetical task. Indeed, these are considered immaterial when they present a challenge to the Calvinist exegesis and interpretations.But again, non-Calvinists include the logic of philosophy and moral considerations in their interpretive framework.
Third, Hendryx misconceives the moral and philosophical objections brought against Calvinism as “our finite understanding and sinful inner drive for independence.” This mischaracterization is a red-herring meant to divert us from the real problem here. The problem here is not “our finite understanding” nor our “sinful inner drive for independence,” but the violation of the laws of logic and reasoning principles in the interpretive process – laws and principles that are necessary for us to understand anything at all. The problem here has nothing to do with our “sinful inner drive for independence” but the Calvinists inner drive to be free from the logical and moral entailments of their theological system. It seems that the confusion between rationalism and the legitimate use of reason persists in Calvinist thought. To employ one’s moral intuitions and rational faculties in the interpretive task is not to seek autonomous existence from God or any “sinful inner drive for independence.”
Fourth, as the Calvinist attempts to reduce these interpretive matters to mere exegetical support minus the logical and moral objections to their exegesis, well, that cuts both ways. Non-Calvinists also provide exegetical support for their theology and soteriology, but given that the Calvinist has jettisoned logical reflection and moral intuition from the interpretive task, how would the Calvinist be able to refute and reject the non-Calvinist exegesis as unbiblical? How does the Calvinist know that the non-Calvinist view is not the teaching of Scripture? Just because it disagrees with the Calvinists interpretation? So, which exegesis is more faithful to the text? How will we know? This is why the matter is not merely exegetical. It is matter of delineating what constitutes a sound exegesis with respect the reasoning that occurs in the process of exegesis. Exegesis sits within a hermeneutical framework that also needs to be defined, expressed and defended. Our hermeneutic needs to be defined as to whether or not it values coherence and the use of philosophical reasoning (i.e., clear thinking) and our moral intuitions.
Fifthly. Philosophy just is the discipline of clear thinking. To raise philosophical objections to a position is to raise substantial issues that must be addressed and cannot be cavalierly dismissed. Ultimately Calvinists recognize this because they try to maintain a semblance of logical credibility in defense of their Calvinism, but this is impossible once you are trapped in the vortex of theistic determinism. I would like to know how we “strive to consciously affirm what the Scripture declares” exegetically without using our moral and philosophical reasoning? How do you “affirm what the Scripture declares over our finite understanding” when we must employ our “finite understanding” to affirm what Scripture declares? Thus the Calvinist position here is circular and self-defeating.
Sixthly, if our understanding is so marred by sin, as the Calvinist claims, then what warrant does the Calvinist have to think that his exegesis is correct?
Seventh, what is “unaided” human logic? Is that different than “human logic” as it stands? What would “aided human logic” amount to? Would it be a different logic? It is not clear what the difference is between logic, unaided human logic or any other kind of logic. Rather, the rules of logic are clearly defined and are always applicable and necessary for any inquiry or discussion to be meaningful and productive. Logic is an established discipline with axiomatic rules. It seems that the Calvinist cannot bring himself to dismiss logic wholesale, but he wants to pick and choose when it applies. This seems a convenient way to maintain his theology when it runs afoul of logic. We can use logic as long as it affirms our theology, but when our theology violates logic it becomes “finite understanding” or in need some kind of “aid.”
Eighth. This reveals that the place of reason in interpreting divine revelation needs to be clarified. It’s the “divine” aspect of the text that the Calvinist employs to dismiss the rules of logic and our moral intuitions from applying to their interpretations. But by virtue of its also being a written text certain rules of interpretation established by reason apply (e.g., coherence, consistency and non-contradiction). And if there are first principles of logic and morality, by virtue of their being first principles they must apply.
I, like all evangelicals, grant the indispensable and foundational role of exegesis and the historical-critical method to biblical interpretation. But disparate theological and soteriological positions are in essence arguments about whether one’s proposed meaning of a literary text – which is based on their exegesis – is valid. And as arguments, both the laws of logic and the sound hermeneutical principles governing the interpretation of a written text apply to biblical exegesis. Hermeneutics, or the principles of interpretation are grounded in the cannons of reason. Therefore, exegesis is also grounded in the canons of reason or the laws of logic. Why? Because to jettison the laws of logic in exegesis is to allow our exegesis to be untethered from reason and the inevitable result must be that any proposed exegesis of a text becomes “valid” because it cannot be critiqued with respect to its coherence, consistency, and non-contradiction and as such it cannot be known to be in accord with the author’s intended meaning.
In conclusion we should recall Schreiner and Ware’s quote from their book Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace. They write,
“…we are convinced that the central reason that the doctrines of grace are questioned is not because of scriptural exegesis, although we grant that those who disagree with us would interpret many Scriptures differently. But their fundamental objections are certain logical problems that are provoked by the Augustinian-Calvinist theology we affirm. It should be granted that the logical difficulties raised pose legitimate and difficult questions for those who embrace Calvinism. The objections go something like this: If God chooses only some, then how can he be loving? If God’s grace is irresistible, then what happens to human free will? If God saves those he has chosen, why pray or get involved in missions? If God is in control of the world, then why do anything at all? If God is sovereign, then why is there suffering in the world? If God governs all events, then why is evil our responsibility, not his?
Calvinists would not answer all of these questions in the same way. In fact, as careful readers will surely observe, there are differing opinions even among the contributors to this work as to the most satisfying answers to these questions. Nonetheless, there would be agreement among Calvinists that God is sovereign, and that his free election of individuals to receive his efficacious grace alone accounts for personal salvation. God’s unconditional election and irresistible grace cause all who believe to put their faith in Christ to be saved. We suggest that the answers to the preceding questions are often complex because the reality of life as portrayed by the Scriptures is complex. God is completely sovereign, and yet human choices and responsibility are not a charade. God ordains all that comes to pass and is good; and yet evil exists, and it is really evil. God chooses only some to be saved, and yet there is also a true sense in which he desires the salvation of all. Those who are elect will never lose their salvation, and yet those who do not persevere to the end will not inherit the kingdom of God. All Calvinists we have ever read acknowledge that the full and final resolution of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a mystery. People do not become Calvinists because Calvinism solves all such logical problems. Rather, the fundamental reason people should embrace the Calvinist doctrines of grace is because they believe these doctrines are taught in Scripture. Our attempt to solve the problems posed by our theology, then, is an example of “faith seeking understanding.”
This statement, among other things, provides us the definition of the Calvinist’s hermeneutic. I have thoroughly examined this statement in chapter 9, but it should be repeated here that it essentially dismisses any bearing the “logical problems” that “raise legitimate and difficult questions” might have upon determining the biblical validity of the Calvinist interpretations of God’s sovereignty as deterministic and election as unconditional. As such, Schreiner and Ware’s approach is lacking credibility at too fundamental a philosophical level to be plausible. The cannons of reason, which just are the foundation of thought as thought, just cannot be ignored and one still claim their interpretation is valid. Rather, given the nature of the Calvinist interpretations as incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory, they are thereby known to be nonsense. How are these “doctrines of grace” to be deemed “what Scripture teaches” when as Luther confessed they give “the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason?” So we see that for the Reformed thinker “common sense and natural reason” are not allowed to play their proper role in determining the validity of an interpretation.
According to Schreiner and Ware, “the reason people should embrace the Calvinist doctrines of grace is because they believe these doctrines are taught in Scripture.” But upon what bases can we discern whether these doctrines are really the teaching of Scripture? What would cause a person to doubt that these Calvinist doctrines may not be an accurate reflection of biblical teaching except upon a due consideration of the logical, moral, epistemological and biblical problems the Calvinist definitions of sovereignty and election generate? Without the deliberations of logic and the use of our moral intuition being applied in the interpretative process, one’s conclusions simply cannot be verified as to their validity. All we are left with are bald assertions being made about the meaning of the text. But almost anything can be proposed as the teaching of Scripture simply from the ink on the page. What then should convince us that one or the other interpretation is an accurate interpretation except it give due consideration to rational, moral and theological coherence with the full biblical witness. In view of the whole of biblical teaching about the nature of God and man, faith and the gospel, etc., the theological position on sovereignty and election that best provides resolution to the “logical problems” which are “legitimate” is the position to be preferred over that which places Scripture in a dichotomous, conflicted and incoherent relationship with the deliverances of philosophical reflection and moral intuition.
But Calvinists insulate their theology from these logical, moral, epistemological and theological concerns. They boast that there exegesis leads to their doctrinal conclusions, but it is an exegesis that allows for conclusions that are logically and morally incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory. They do not allow logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction to enter into the exegetical process, nor do they allow them to scrutinize the accuracy of their exegesis and their theological and doctrinal conclusions. The very logic and detailed evidences, exegetical and otherwise, that would inform us that these doctrines are biblically suspect is put “out of court” by the unsubstantiated claim that the contradictions, incoherencies and inconsistencies are only “apparent,” “beyond human reason,” a “high mystery,” the result of the “complex reality of life,” etc. This amounts to the claim that the Calvinist interpretations are correct regardless of the fact that they generate logical and moral and theological difficulties and despite any contention that these are indispensable to a sound hermeneutic. The Calvinists traditional interpretations hold sway over these concerns. Ultimately, their interpretations are not subject to such concerns.
Does Scripture teach a contradiction or not? Do we have carte blanche to claim our preferred contradiction is only “apparent” and not real? Do we have the prerogative to dismiss contradictory interpretations just because the Bible is about God and spiritual things, which it is suggested are of course “beyond reason?” The answer, if we are to remain rationally coherent, must be, “No.” Schreiner and Ware state that Calvinists have already concluded “that the full and final resolution of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a mystery.” This is what they believe is taught in Scripture about God’s sovereignty regardless of the final logical and moral difficulties or incoherence with other biblical teachings. Rational coherence gives way to certain fixed textual interpretations and the problematic results are declared a “mystery.” Given this approach, any suggestion that Calvinists are genuinely involved in an “attempt to solve the problems posed by our theology” seems hollow and predestined (in the truest sense of the word) to go nowhere. It has already been decided that the problem is “a mystery.” If this “mystery” theology takes precedence over rational considerations based upon alternative exegetical examination of the pertinent texts, then no rational considerations hold any weight in the discussion. They are not allowed to enter and perform their proper role. We ask therefore, what is left by which the Calvinist himself can attempt to solve the problems posed by their theology?
If the exegesis which the non-Calvinist places before the Calvinist better accounts for (which can only mean “provides coherent thought to”) more of the biblical data is summarily dismissed by the Calvinist simply because it disagrees with his traditionally held interpretation, then the Calvinist interpretation will stand, just as any other interpretation based upon the simple assertion “we believe the Bible teaches that…” has a right to stand. But I don’t think that “we believe the Bible teaches…” is enough to give the belief the right to stand as biblical truth that should translate into Christian belief. The point is that there must be something that arbitrates between two or more exegetical processes that yield conflicting results. That “something” is the integration of those conclusions with other exegetical conclusions such that coherence, consistency and comprehensiveness are achieved. These are the indicators that verify and validate accurate interpretations. I will deal with this in detail in chapter 12.
Therefore, on the basis of the Calvinist approach stated here, one cannot have a rational discourse concerning the Calvinist doctrines. Without acknowledging that reason is the only arbiter available to us to discern a true proposition or interpretation, then all the Calvinist will do is state their theological propositions, and if they prove contradictory, simply claim “mystery.” We cannot inquire into, verify or validate their truth value. Moreover, the non-Calvinist could never convince the Calvinist that they have misinterpreted the text and that their interpretations are not valid. In essence, the Calvinist has informed us he will not, regardless of reasons, be convinced otherwise regarding his theological position. Calvinism is, therefore, in the true sense of the word, irrational. This is why “discussion” on these matters, if the Calvinist is inclined to be engage at all, can lead nowhere. The non-Calvinist and Calvinist process the biblical data with very different rational presuppositions; with the Calvinist ignoring reason altogether on particular doctrines. Furthermore, if as Schreiner and Ware state, that “mystery” is “the full and final resolution” to the logical and moral problems of Calvinism, then this controversy should be declared futile as a failure in Christian hermeneutics and interpretation. If we refuse to come to a decision on the hermeneutics of this controversy, then it will only continue ad infinitum without movement towards a consensus as to the biblical truth. It will not be resolved precisely because the very rational and moral grounds needed to arbitrate what constitutes a valid exegesis have been jettisoned.
We may therefore conclude that there can be no resolution about the truth or validity of theological propositions unless we reach a consensus that essential to biblical hermeneutics are the logical and moral entailments of one’s exegetical and theological propositions and conclusions. It needs to be reiterated that one’s interpretations need to make sense. They cannot land us in nonsense and yet lay claim to being valid interpretations.
 For instance, John Piper attempts to argue that there are “two wills” in God. See “Two Wills in God: I. Howard Marshall’s Critique,” p. 157.
 Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 25.
Legerdemain – 1. slight of hand, 2. trickery; deception, 3. any artful trick. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/legerdemain.
 John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (London: James Clarke and Co., 1961), 124. Quoted in Leighton C. Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017, 54-55.
 See John Calvin, The Secret Providence of God, ed. Paul Helm, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 23.
 Ibid. 25.
 R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 1992), 67-69. As found at https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/wills_sproul.html Last accessed 2/9/2019.
 J. I. Packer, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 93. Italics mine.
 Ibid. 94-95.
 Ibid. 12.
 Ibid. 26.
 Ibid. 23.
 Ibid. 16-17.
 Ibid. 18.
 Ibid. 18.
 Ibid. 21.
 Recall that Calvin does the same with his problem of how God is not implicated in transgressions given Calvin’s theistic determinism. He states, “How it was ordained by the foreknowledge and decree of God what man’s future was without God being implicated as associate in the fault as the author or approver of transgression, is clearly a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind, that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance…I daily so meditate on these mysteries of His judgments that curiosity to know anything more does not attract me.” – John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (London: James Clarke and Co., 1961), p. 124, as found in Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 77-78.
 J. I. Packer, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 16.
 Ibid. 11.
 Ibid. 16-17.
 See chapter 8 – “What is a Real Contradiction?” There I have included the critique offered by Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell regarding whether Packer’s “bona fide” offer of salvation to all persons genuine. It serves as another excellent example of the rational incoherence in the Calvinist position.
 C. A. Campbell, On Selfhood and Godhood, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1957), 391-392.
 Isaac Watts (1674-1748), English divine and hymn writer.
 Jerry L Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 185.
 “Ephesians: Mystery & Clarity” Series. “Mystery #1: We Are Chosen. Ephesians 1:3-14.” Sermon by J. D. Greear, Jan. 24, 2010, https://www.summitrdu.com/message/mystery-1-we-are-chosen-ephesians-13-14/ Last referenced June 10, 2019. The transcript of the sermon is also available at this link. The page numbers here refer to the transcript.
 See “Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence, Example 19 – J. D. Greear’s Gospel Inconsistency” for a full critique of J. D. Greear with reference to both his book, J. D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2011) and his sermon on Ephesians 1, “Ephesians: Mystery & Clarity” Series. “Mystery #1: We Are Chosen. Ephesians 1:3-14.” Jan. 24, 2010, https://www.summitrdu.com/message/mystery-1-we-are-chosen-ephesians-13-14/ Last referenced June 10, 2019. The transcript of the sermon is also available at this link. The numbers after the quotes refer to the page number in the transcript.
 For a thorough critique of Greear’s sermon and interpretation of Eph. 1, and a logically and theologically coherent alternative, listen to “Critique of Calvinist Pastor J. D. Greear on Eph. 1” by Dr. Leighton Flowers at https://soteriology101.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/ephesians-1-critique-of-calvinist-jd-greear/ Last accessed Dec. 22, 2107.
 Crossway Podcast Series, “Calvinism 101 with Kevin DeYoung, Doctrines of Grace,” June 3, 2019. https://www.crossway.org/articles/podcast-calvinism-101-kevin-deyoung/ See the Full Transcript. Last accessed June 10, 2019.
 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Revell, 1957), 217.
 John Piper, “Ask Pastor John” Podcast, “Does God Predestine People to Hell?”, Episode 450, Oct. 14, 2014. See also the audio transcript. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-god-predestine-people-to-hell Last accessed 3/6/2019. All the quotes in this section are taken from the transcript at this link.
 John Piper, “An Interview with John Piper,” eds. Piper and Taylor, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, 220-21. From Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), 12.
 Ligonier Ministries, “Tough Questions Christians Face: 2008 West Coast Conference”, Message 6, Questions and Answers #2 https://www.ligonier.org/learn/conferences/tough_questions_christians_face_08_west_coast/questions-and-answers-2/ (1:58 – 2:23) Last accessed on Nov. 17, 2018. Also on YouTube, “Duncan, MacArthur, Sproul, Question and Answer #2”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DM3AjBdTYM&index=7&list=PL30acyfm60fUh-75cdv5S8NoSpN2zDfOP&t=0s Last accessed Nov. 17, 2018.
For a non-Calvinist assessment of this exchange and critique of MacArthur, Sproul and Duncan on the matter of the universal offer and access to God’s grace see Leighton Flowers, “Is Grace Available to All.” Oct. 8, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQMaai4LyX4
 Ibid. (2:25 – 2:46)
 Ibid. (2:47 – 2:50)
 Ibid, (2:50 – 4:02)
 For more on how the Calvinist uses the word “responsibility” differently than what it actually means – “able to respond” – see Leighton Flowers, “Is Grace Available to All.” Oct. 8, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQMaai4LyX4
 Tough Questions, (4:02 – 4:24)
 Tough Questions, (4:24 – 4:37). Sproul goes on to misrepresent the various non-Calvinist soteriologies. For an examination of his remarks see Leighton Flowers, “Is Grace Available to All.” Oct. 8, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQMaai4LyX4
 Tough Questions, (5:01 -5:11)
 Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not An Arminian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 16.
 I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, chap. xxv. (from C. S. Lewis, Miracles, chap. III.)
 Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not An Arminian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 16.
 In a future chapter I document the obituary of a Calvinist woman who stated, “As a convicted Calvinist, moving beyond my long life on this earth, I am confident that my predestined fate is in God’s hands and that He knows best. Amen.” (The obituary of Martha Alexander Hazel, The Charlotte Observer, Friday, June 2, 2017, p.12A.) By using the word “fate” this woman understood and described the true nature of Calvinism. It is indeed fatalistic.
 Mirriam Wbster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed.
 Miriam-Webster Dictionary – https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fatalism
 Oxford Living Dictionaries – https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fatalism
 Leighton Flowers, Soteriology 101 podcast “Do Calvinists Affirm Fatalism?” http://soteriology101.libsyn.com/do-calvinists-affirm-fatalism Last accessed July 26, 2018. Time 4:55-6:40
 Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 156.
 Leighton Flowers, Soteriology 101 podcast “Do Calvinists Affirm Fatalism?” http://soteriology101.libsyn.com/do-calvinists-affirm-fatalism Last accessed July 26, 2018. Time 7:04-7:12
 John Piper, “Ask Pastor John” Podcast, “Does God Predestine People to Hell?”, Episode 450, Oct. 14, 2014. See also the audio transcript. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-god-predestine-people-to-hell Last accessed 3/6/2019. All the quotes in this section are taken from the transcript at this link.
 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Revell, 1957), p. 217.
 They are Eph. 1:11; Prov. 16:4; 1 Pet. 2:7-8; Jude 4; 2 Pet. 2:3; Rom. 9:11, 22.
 For more on this inconsistency see Leighton Flowers’ critique of John Piper titled “Romans 9: Are Calvinist’s Consistent?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqI1kJw5Q0Y Feb. 4, 2019. Last accessed 4/4/2019. It can also be found at: https://player.fm/series/soteriology-101-former-calvinistic-professor-discusses-doctrines-of-salvation/romans-9-are-calvinists-consistent Last accessed 4/4/2019.
 John Piper, “The Absolute Sovereignty of God.” – Sermon delivered 11/3/2002. Last accessed 3/3/2020.
 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 100.
 Ibid. 80, 81. (Italics mine)
The irony here is that Luther applies “resistless logic” when speaking about God’s foreknowledge and will but does not apply the same “resistless logic” in contemplating the logical, moral, epistemological problems this understanding creates with other biblical truths and doctrines. From within his own Reformed presuppositions he applies “resistless logic,” yet he dismisses such logic from applying to other biblical doctrines that create logical incoherence with his Reformed doctrinal system.
 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 100.
 Ibid. 217.
 Again, I am not here defending rationalism which holds that the supernatural or the miraculous cannot occur on the basis of a presupposed naturalism. What I am defending is that the common use of human reason is essential to proper interpretation. It is perfectly rational to hold to the existence of the supernatural and the miraculous. It is not rational to propose interpretations that are contradictory, inconsistent or incoherent. See chapter 7.
 Jerry L. Walls, “Divine Commands, Predestination and Moral Intuition” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 261-276.
 John S. Feinberg, “God Freedom, and Evil in Calvinist Thinking.” Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, eds. The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids, Mich.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 24.
 George Bryson, The Dark Side of Calvinism: The Calvinist Caste System (Santa Ana, Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2004), 17-18.
 John S. Feinberg, Ed. by Basinger and Basinger, Predestination & Free Will (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 986), 24.
 Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1999), 85-87.
 George Bryson, The Dark Side of Calvinism: The Calvinist Caste System (Santa Ana, Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2004), 19.
 From the edited transcript of an April 24, 2010 interview titled “Has God Predetermined Every Tiny Detail in the Universe, Including Sin?” https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/has-god-predetermined-every-tiny-detail-in-the-universe-including-sin Last accessed 1/30/2018.
 “Election and Predestination: The Sovereignty of God in Salvation,” a Grace Bridge Panel Discussion, held at the Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California, September 26, 2001. John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, Richard Mayhue. Carey Hardy – Moderator. Copyright by John MacArthur. All Rights Reserved. This discussion can be found at http://www.gty.org/resources.php?section=articles&aid=231301
I highly recommend reading through the transcript of this discussion with an eye towards discerning the coherence (or lack thereof) of the logical and moral reasoning and inferences generated by the Calvinist doctrines of election and predestination. One should ask, are these men convincing? If so, why? If not, why not?
See also the transcript of a radio broadcast by John MacArthur on the doctrine of election. The transcript of this radio program can be found at: http://www.gty.org/resources.php?section=transcripts&aid=231193
Another link that may also be of interest is http://www.gty.org/gcc_distinctives/Sovereignty_of_God.pdf It will take you to a short excerpt on the Sovereignty of God by John MacArthur. It is from his book Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993). It is a good example of the fundamental lines of reasoning within Calvinist thought.
 For example: 1) God has predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass,” yet human beings have genuine human freedom, making decisions for which they will be held accountable. 2) God unconditionally elects who is to be saved and grants faith only to the elect, yet each person is responsible to believe the gospel and will be held accountable for their unbelief. 3) God predestined only certain people to be saved, yet the “good news” of the gospel that calls each hearer to come to Christ and be saved is a genuine and sincere call for every sinner who hears it, even the non-elect.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 37-38.
 For a comparable insight into the nature of God see the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. The landowner was gracious to those later workers whom the other early workers thought he should treat differently. Yet, the early laborers were not treated unfairly, and even if correct about the difference in treatment what they were objecting to was the abundant grace the landowner chose to show to those who came later. Who were the early workers to complain about the landowner’s display of grace? “Or are you envious because I am generous?” asked the landowner (Mt. 20:15).
 “Election and Predestination: The Sovereignty of God in Salvation,” a Grace Bridge Panel Discussion, held at the Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California, September 26, 2001. John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, Richard Mayhue. Carey Hardy – Moderator. Copyright by John MacArthur. All Rights Reserved. This discussion can be found at http://www.gty.org/resources.php?section=articles&aid=231301
I highly recommend reading through the transcript of this discussion with an eye towards discerning the coherence (or lack thereof) of the logical and moral reasoning and inferences generated by the Calvinist doctrines of election and predestination. One should ask, are these men convincing? If so, why? If not, why not?
See also the transcript of a radio broadcast by John MacArthur on the doctrine of election. The transcript of this radio program can be found at: http://www.gty.org/resources.php?section=transcripts&aid=231193
Another link that may also be of interest is http://www.gty.org/gcc_distinctives/Sovereignty_of_God.pdf It will take you to a short excerpt on the Sovereignty of God by John MacArthur. It is from his book Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993). It is a good example of the fundamental lines of reasoning within Calvinist thought.
 The logical quandaries only deepen for Reformed thought. For instance, in light of the Reformed position let me ask this question. If I do not embrace the Reformed position, was I predestined to my non-Reformed position? But how is it that God, as the God of truth, can will someone to embrace what is false? Is it in him to do so by merely willing it to be so regardless of any other considerations? Furthermore, would a Calvinist be concerned that I do not embrace the Reformed position as true? On what basis would he have “concern”? What would the word “concern” mean or refer to? My eternal destiny? But that has already been predetermined and cannot be altered. Besides, if the Calvinist, as a mere sinful man, were concerned about my eternal destiny, would not God who is perfect love and compassion also be concerned? But in light of Reformed sovereignty and election, God may be less concerned. But then how can I be and do otherwise? Would you say it is God’s desire that I embrace the Reformed truths since he “desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; see also vs. 6 and 4:10)? Can this be in opposition to his ultimately determining that I do not embrace them? Can God desire things to be other than he predetermined and decreed them to be? Is God’s “desire” (what he wants to happen) in conflict with his “will” (what he has decreed and determined to happen)? Why? How so?
Bringing it down to the level of human affairs and actions – are you trying to persuade me or simply to inform me? What meaning could persuade have for the Calvinist if all is predetermined? Most importantly, can we know the answer to these questions? Can we know from Scripture that God wants me (and you and everyone) to live in the truth and be saved? Even if I come to accept the Reformed view in the future by “sovereign grace,” how would you as a Calvinist explain my present rejection of the doctrines? Would you say that I am presently exercising what might be admitted to be something like “free-will?” Surely one’s stubbornness is not ordained by God…or is it? How does this dynamic fit in the Reformed scheme? It boggles the mind! The real “mystery” lies in the Calvinist thought process not the biblical doctrines. That is why the thought process must be exposed and questioned as to its hermeneutical legitimacy.
I maintain that all this is better accounted from within an Arminian perspective. I can honestly admit that what I appear to be doing is actually what I am trying to do, that is, persuade you of my position!
 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Revell, 1957), 217.
 John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 211.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 37, 38.
 Isaac Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707.
 The obituary of Martha Alexander Hazel, The Charlotte Observer, Friday, June 2, 2017, p.12A.
 “Unbelievable” with Justin Brierley – “Does God Predetermine Everything? Chris Date and Leighton Flowers Debate Scripture.” April 26, 2019 (8:33 – 8:46). https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Does-God-predetermine-everything-Chris-Date-and-Leighton-Flowers-debate-scripture
 D. A. Carson, “Church,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker), 249.
 Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Glory of the Church: Studies in Ephesians, rev. ed., (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 2005), 10-12.
 Ibid. 10.
 Ibid. 11.
 Ibid. 11-12.
 Ibid. 15.
 Ibid. 16-17.
 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991), 304-305.
 Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) pp. 16, 17.
 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 100.
 C. S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 14.
 Ibid. 15-16.
 Ibid. 17-18.
 Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, (New York: Harper Collins, 1979), 35.
 Dorothy L. Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson), 119.
 Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).
 Ibid. 18, 19.
 John Hendryx, Section 44, 1st paragraph. Last accessed 3/10/2020.