Chapter 12 – A Hermeneutic of Coherence: Principles and Issues in Exegesis and Interpretation

Inspired Scripture as Our Common Ground and Authority

            Since divinely inspired Scripture is the final authority for all orthodox, evangelical Christians, it is ultimately with Scripture that we have to do.  This needs to be clearly stated at the outset.  We should not merely be interested in maintaining our established theological traditions or attempting to convince others of our theological position by concocting rationalizations to defend those traditions, rather, we should be willing to examine whether any position put forward is an accurate reflection of the meaning of the biblical text.  Thus we have a responsibility to come to the text with a sound and rigorous hermeneutic by which we do our biblical interpretation and develop our Christian theology.  All conservative evangelical Christian theological differences already have a common ground – the text of Scripture.  And the fact that there are mutually exclusive differences about what a text is communicating means that someone is misunderstanding the text in some respect.  On a positive note, our common acceptance of the inspiration and authority of Scripture means that we need not perceive our differences in an adversarial light, but in light of our common concern to interpret Scripture correctly.  For instance, we hope that we can agree that we want to know, as accurately as possible, what the authors meant to say to their original readers or hearers.  To have in mind authorial intent is one of the first principles of hermeneutics that makes for good interpretation. Surely, we all have a genuine desire to work towards that goal.  Therefore, hermeneutics, or those principles that make for good interpretation, will be the means by which a consensus regarding the meaning of the relevant texts in this Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy can be achieved.

            Hence, essential to achieving consensus as to the true meaning of a text is the need to agree that certain interpretive principles are essential for validating one’s interpretive conclusions.  Interpretive conclusions may be proposed on the basis of an exegesis of a text, but determining whether or not they are valid conclusions is the more fundamental hermeneutical issue before us. The issue of validation is crucial. Therefore, my fundamental concern is whether or not we can be assured that a theological position is a valid interpretation of the Bible.  I maintain that the issue of validity involves the logical and moral entailments of one’s interpretations. I also maintain that certain interpretations, particularly the Calvinist interpretations, have serious ramifications for the gospel message – that it remains “good news.” So the main issue here is the proper interpretation of the Word of God.

To be hermeneutically engaged with the Word of God requires the approach that Grant Osborne described as the “hermeneutical spiral.”[1] It is the approach in which the person who holds a certain position remains genuinely open to challenges to their position by those who differ and can rationally support their own alternative position. This prevents us from simply go around in a “hermeneutical circle” but causes us to spiral up closer to a consensus about the true meaning of the texts in question.  Those who believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture should have a concern for biblical truth.  This requires that we come to grips with how we get at this truth.  It involves deciding whether or not the means for getting at biblical truth necessitates the use of our logical reasoning and moral intuitions.  I contend that these must be acknowledged as reliable for the task and constantly engaged in the interpretive process.  They are essential for the verification of the validity of any biblical interpretations and propositions.

Calvinism v. Non-Calvinism: The Hermeneutical Divide

In previous chapters I have attempted to demonstrate what I believe is the most fundamental issue in the controversy between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  What is at the heart of the controversy is the very different perspectives each side has on the necessity for their interpretations to exhibit logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  This controversy reveals the degree to which each side either values or dismisses rational coherence and moral intuition with respect to their interpretive propositions and conclusions. It reveals their hermeneutic.

I have argued that our logical reasoning and moral intuitions play an essential role in the interpretive task.  Coherence is, therefore, an indispensable hermeneutical principle.  Incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction betray the fact that the interpreter has erred.  This principle of coherence – both logical and moral – serves the interpreter in discerning valid from invalid interpretations.

To provide strong and convincing evidence that Calvinism suffers from the violation of the principle of coherence has been my purpose in the previous chapters.  I have argued that the problem here is essentially a hermeneutical one.  As such, it is to a consideration of what constitutes sound hermeneutical principles that we now turn in further support of the thesis that valid interpretation necessitates coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.

To identify and debate the doctrinal differences, or offer proof-texts to support either position, or even claim to have done an exegesis of the controversial texts, has failed to resolve the controversy.  As much as all these have their place in attempting to get at the meaning of a text – especially the exegetical process – the problem lies at a deeper interpretive level.  It lies at the level of the principles upon which good exegesis and interpretation rest. It lies at the level of the delineation of sound hermeneutical principles.

Therefore, this controversy, at its most basic level, involves a difference in at least one important hermeneutical principle, that is, whether or not rational coherence matters in the interpretive task.  The acceptance or rejection of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction as a hermeneutical principle is at the heart of the Calvinist / non-Calvinist divide.  The controversy is not primarily exegetical or theological. It is hermeneutical. There is a hermeneutical divide.

The key question is whether or not the interpreter of Scripture should affirm that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are both reliable and necessary indicators for determining the validity or invalidity of one’s exegesis and interpretation of a text.  This is the bottom-line of this controversy.  If coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are factors that are reliable and necessary for an interpretation to be considered valid, then interpretations that are incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory would not be accurate interpretations.  Of course, coherence is not a sufficient condition for validity, but it would be a necessary condition.  If coherence must be acknowledged as a hermeneutical principle, then this would be common hermeneutical ground to which all evangelical interpreters would adhere and a consensus as to the meaning of the controversial texts could be reached. If agreement could be reached on this matter, the controversy could finally be resolved.  At the same time I also believe it serves to reveal whether one is held interpretively captive by a theological tradition or is open to letting the biblical text inform one’s theology.

Now, if this principle be rejected by some, they would have to demonstrate how it is that a hermeneutic that jettisons coherence, consistency and non-contradiction could ever be a hermeneutic that could lead to what the author intended to say in the text.  They would have to demonstrate how it is that an interpretive process that can dismiss coherence, consistency and non-contradiction among its interpretive conclusions could ever be said to properly and meaningfully reflect not only the already accepted and indispensable principle of authorial intent but also that of context.  For to read a passage in context entails reading what an author writes in one place coherently with what he writes in another place. Except for possible stylistic literary exceptions, author’s generally intend to be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory in what they communicate. Authorial intent is disclosed and affirmed by the coherence and cogency of what one claims the author means to say. Therefore, it seems to me that incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory interpretations would, by the nature of the case, be violating these tried and true principles of authorial intent and context. We presume that an author, especially the authors of Scripture, meant to write in a coherent, consistent and non-contradictory manner. Both authorial intent and context presuppose coherence in thought and word.

The Westminster Confession on Coherence, Perspicuity and Scripture Interprets Scripture

Along with the hermeneutical principles of authorial intent and context, we can include here the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture.  This principle states that Scripture is clear to the common reader as to “those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed, for salvation.”  These things are “clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or another.”[2]  This principle raises questions about why and how there are differences among the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and gospel content, and especially in that these are mutually exclusive interpretations.  For if, in relation to salvation, the Scripture speaks so clearly to all readers, then why the vast, incompatible differences in soteriology and gospel content?  If, in relation to salvation, the Scripture speaks so clearly to all who read it, given the incompatibility of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and gospel content, there is obviously a serious interpretive problem here, and the problem is not in the scriptures.

The Westminster Confession is instructive in this regard.  In chapter 1 “Of the Holy Scriptures,” section 6 we read,

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…”[3]

Here we see the use of human reason and the principle of coherence.  The phrase “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” implies that we can read and understand the relationship of the biblical texts on these subjects in a coherent manner.  It also speaks about the use of our reasoning faculties so as to see these proper relationships among the various texts.

Section 7 of the confession sharpens the point as it relates to salvation.  We read,

“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”[4]

Of course all Scripture is not uniform as to its clarity.  That is a major part of why we have these differences in interpretation.  But the Confession is emphatic that “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”  It seems therefore that we all ought to be clear about and agree upon the matter of salvation.  But that, of course, is not the case.

So this is not a matter of exegetical prowess, but simply that Scripture is quite clear about the matters that have to do with our salvation.  But which interpretation is “clearly propounded…not only to the learned but the unlearned” about salvation?  The Calvinist soteriology or the non-Calvinist soteriology? Would an unlearned person, in a due use of the ordinary means, that is, on a simple reading of the Scriptures, come away with an understanding that salvation is limited and exclusive (Calvinism) or unlimited and inclusive (non-Calvinism)? 

Section 9 of the confession affirms certain key principles of interpretation.  It reads,

“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, (which is not manifold, but one) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”[5]

Here we have the affirmation that some Scriptures are clearer in their meaning than other Scriptures and therefore when there is “a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture,” as there certainly is in this controversy, Scripture itself should be consulted and the clearer parts inform the less clear and questionable parts.  I submit that the Scriptural themes of sovereignty, election and predestination are more difficult to expound and understand because of their nuanced roots in salvation history and the need to interpret them in light of the Scripture as a whole, especially the Old Testament.  Obviously there is “a question about the true and full sense” of these texts and doctrines.  Therefore, the “true and full sense” of these biblical themes and doctrines “must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”  These texts, and our doctrinal conclusions about these texts, should be referred to the clearer Scriptures that inform us as to the nature and scope of salvation and the content of the gospel as “good news.”  This is a point made by non-Calvinists against Calvinism.  The non-Calvinist regards passages like John 3:16-18, 20:31; Rom. 5:8; 1 Tim. 2:3-6, 4:10; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2, et al. as quite clear regarding “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation.”  They are “so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other” that there is little doubt that the Calvinist soteriology, being in contradiction to these passages, must be a misinterpretation of the Scriptures on these matters.  The “true and full sense” of the Calvinist’s interpretations of sovereignty and election lead to incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, when they are “searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”  It is hermeneutically incumbent upon us to recognize this.  Calvinism, as incoherent with other Scriptures, should submit itself to correction by the clearer texts on the matter of our salvation.  This is an insurmountable hermeneutical problem for Calvinist exegesis and interpretation.

In addition, from the hermeneutical principle that Scripture interprets Scripture,[6] which is affirmed in section 9 of the Confession, there are two points that arise that are relevant to our discussion. The first is that this principle is akin to the principle of context which we have already seen rests upon the principle of coherenceScripture interprets Scripture, or the principle of context, requires the principle of coherence.  These are all in play here.  The confession instructs us, as I talked about above, to relate the clearer Scriptures to those we question as to their “true and full sense.”  The Calvinist interpretations of God’s sovereignty, election, predestination and its other soteriological “doctrines of grace” certainly raise problematic questions that cast doubt about their “true and full sense.”  The clearer Scripture is to inform these questionable texts as to what they might mean.  We have these clearer Scriptures, especially with regard to salvation.  This obviously requires that we seek a relation and interpretation of these two types of Scriptures (i.e., the “questionable” and those that “speak more clearly”), that is marked by coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  Such coherence is logically presupposed and essential to the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture or that Scripture is self-interpreting.  If the way we practiced this principle ignored coherence we wouldn’t have Scripture interpreting Scripture, we would have Scripture contradicting Scripture.

That coherence is an indispensable hermeneutical principle is affirmed by the second relevant point in section 9 of the Confession which is that the meaning of a text “is not manifold, but one.”  The meaning of a text is singular.  The author’s words should not be taken to mean several things or anything we would like them to mean.  As applicable to this controversy, we have the same texts being interpreted in mutually exclusive ways.  Given the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies, there are two incompatible interpretations of the same Scriptures with both sides claiming to be the correct interpretation of those Scriptures.  Obviously, therefore, we must conclude that one or the other party in this controversy is not properly interpreting the Scriptures with regard to soteriology, salvation and the gospel.  The confession rejects the soteriological and gospel relativism that marks this controversy.  Therefore, this controversy needs to be addressed by reaching a consensus about what makes for sound hermeneutical principles. More particularly, should we accept interpretations that generate incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction among the relevant scriptures?

Hence, it certainly seems that the principles of the perspicuity of Scripture and that Scripture interprets Scripture require acknowledgment that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential to a proper hermeneutic.  The fact that “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other,” and that Scripture interprets Scripture, especially with reference to our salvation, it therefore follows that there should be a coherence among what is clear and what is less clear.  It follows that what is clearly taught in one place should not be understood as in contradiction to what is proposed to be taught elsewhere.  It follows that what one interprets as doctrinal truth gleaned from certain texts of Scripture be consistent with what one interprets as doctrinal truth gleaned from other parts of Scripture.

The main point here is that certain hermeneutical principles demand that our interpretations between texts exhibit logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction. Also, according to the Calvinist’s own Confession of faith, the common man’s common sense reading of the Bible makes clear the way of salvation. Who can be saved and the way of salvation is clearly stated on the basis of the common man’s common sense reading of the Bible. Therefore, because Calvinist soteriology is unclear and baffling, we ought to doubt the Calvinist’s reading of the Bible on the matter of salvation. The perplexity we all experience in attempting to understand Calvinism (i.e., their “doctrines of grace,” “sovereign grace” or TULIP doctrines) which lead us into incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions, let alone its exclusivity (i.e., unconditional election) in the midst of the overwhelming witness of Scripture to the universally inclusive salvific will of God (2 Tim. 2:3-5, Jn. 3:16-18, et al.), should tell us that something is wrong with the Calvinist’s interpretation of Scripture.

Is coherence therefore a recognized and established indispensable principle within the discipline of hermeneutics? Is it a principle universally accepted by prominent evangelical biblical scholars?  It is to these questions we now turn.

Hermeneutics and Exegesis Defined

            Anthony C. Thiselton, in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible defines hermeneutics as follows.

               “”Hermeneutics” denotes critical reflection upon processes of interpretation and understanding, especially the interpretation of biblical texts or texts that originate from within other cultures.  However, this may include all kinds of communicative processes, from signs and visual art to institutions and literary phenomena.”[7]

            Professor A. Berkeley Mickelsen offers this definition,

               “The term “hermeneutics” designates both the science and art of interpretation.  The Greek verb hermeneuo means “to interpret or explain.”  The Greek noun hermeneia mans “interpretation, “explanation.”  In both the Greek counterpart and the contemporary technical term, interpretation has to do with meaning.  Interpretation as a discipline is important because meaning has to do with the core of man’s thinking.”[8]

           Interpretive scholar Milton S. Terry writes,

               “The Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics are those governing laws and methods of procedure by which the interpreter determines the meaning of Holy Scripture.  These principles are of the nature of comprehensive and fundamental doctrines.  They become to the practical exegete so many maxims, postulates, and settled rules.  He is supposed to hold them in the mind as axioms, and to apply them in all his expositions with uniform consistency.

               The importance of establishing sound and trustworthy principles of biblical exposition is universally conceded.  For it is evident that a false principle in his method will necessarily vitiate the entire exegetical process of an interpreter.”[9]   

He adds,

               “Hermeneutics…aims to establish the principles, methods, and rules which are needful to unfold the sense of what is written.  Its object is to elucidate whatever may be obscure or ill-defined, so that every reader may be able, by an intelligent process, to obtain the exact ideas intended by the author.”[10]

            There is a direct and mutual relationship between hermeneutics and exegesis. Biblical scholar Grant Osborne defines exegesis.

               “Exegesis means to “draw out of” a text what it means, in contrast to eisegesis, to “read into” a text what one wants it to mean.  The process is complex and forms the heart of hermeneutical theory, which seeks first to determine the author’s intended meaning…and then apply it to one’s life… Exegesis proper could be subdivided into linguistic and cultural aspects.”[11]

            In addition, Terry states that,

            “Exegesis is the application of these principles and laws, the actual bringing out into formal statement, and by other terms, the meaning of the author’s words… The exegete takes up these words, and by means of the principles of hermeneutics, defines their meaning, elucidates the scope and plan of each writer, and brings forth the grammatico-historical sense of what each book contains.”[12]

            So hermeneutical principles provide the foundation upon which exegesis rightly proceeds. Exegesis mainly deals with the technical linguistic aspects of interpretation, which broadly speaking concern grammar, semantics and syntax.  Exegesis also deals with cultural aspects like geographical, historical, social and cultural backgrounds. But broader, more fundamental principles of hermeneutics guide the process of exegesis.

            Terry also distinguishes hermeneutics from exegesis and other branches of theological science such as textual criticism and biblical introduction.[13]  Yet he also observes the mutual relationship between hermeneutics and exegesis. He writes,

               “But while we are careful to distinguish hermeneutics from these kindred branches of exegetical theology, we should not fail to note that a science of interpretation must essentially depend upon exegesis for the maintenance and illustration of its principles and rules.  As the full grammar of a language establishes its principles by sufficient examples and by formal praxis, so a science of hermeneutics must needs verify and illustrate its principles by examples of their practical application.  Its province is not merely to define principles and methods, but also to exemplify and illustrate them.  Hermeneutics, therefore, is both a science and an art.  As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results.  As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult scriptures.  The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes valid exegetical procedure.”[14]

            So hermeneutics is not merely a technical discipline, yet its principles are worked out in the practical exercise of exegesis.  Exegesis is dependent upon the principles of hermeneutics. In other words, hermeneutical principles inform exegesis and exegesis gives expression to those principles while illustrating and maintaining them.  It is important to note what Terry says here about the nature of hermeneutics as to its principles and their purposes.  “As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult scriptures.  The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes valid exegetical procedure.”  This raises a pertinent question. Are exegetical procedures that result in incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory interpretations hermeneutically sound procedures?  Does coherence rise to the level of an indispensable, necessary hermeneutical principle? Given the definitions of both hermeneutics and exegesis, along with the nature of their tasks which is the “elucidation of the more difficult scriptures,” I submit that coherence is an essential hermeneutical principle.

            Hermeneutics deals with whether or not what constitutes exegesis and the way it is being performed will properly disclose the meaning of the text, especially the difficult texts.  In other words, the discipline of hermeneutics asks questions like, “Is it possible to establish principles upon which we can definitively say that one interpreter is doing what he is doing better than another?”  And, “Is it possible to say that one interpretation has been arrived at through considerations and means that better lead to the proper interpretation of the text than some other considerations and means?”  And, “If these aims and goals are possible, then what are those principles and considerations?”  Therefore Mickelsen states,

               “Principles of hermeneutics are precepts which express or describe the various ways followed by interpreters to get at meaning.  They are statements of procedure…”[15]

            For purposes of biblical interpretation, hermeneutics is the search for and the delineation of principles that when worked out in practice lead us to a correct understanding of what the author intended to communicated by what he wrote.  Again, does coherence rise to the level of a necessary hermeneutical principle? If we are attempting to understand the author’s intended meaning we presume therefore that the author wrote to be understood, that is, he wrote with coherence, consistency and without contradiction.

            Mickelsen concurs with Terry that hermeneutics is both a science and an art.  He writes,

               “The interpreter should realize that principles are not fixed formulas.  The mechanical rule approach to hermeneutics builds mistaken ideas from the start.  Finding a correct interpretation cannot be achieved in the way a druggist fills a prescription.  The druggist mixed ingredients in the exact proportions demanded by the physician.  Everything is precise.  But synthesizing or analyzing thought is not like synthesizing or analyzing chemicals.  Ideas are imponderable: they cannot be weighed, measured, or counted.  Hence they cannot be exposed to light by following set formulas.  The interpreter uses the valid principles which are relevant to the particular task, but he must do so with imagination, sympathy, and judgment.  He must recognize that ideas belong to persons, and the personal factor inevitably introduces an element of subjectivity.”[16]

            Given these definitions and perspectives, I view hermeneutics as the delineation of those principles by which sound exegesis and interpretation proceeds.  Our approach to the biblical text should not be overly ridged, but we do need to concern ourselves with settled interpretive principles, and these principles are to serve as reliable guides in the technical practicalities of exegesis.  Therefore, although there is a reciprocal relationship between hermeneutics and exegesis, hermeneutics is fundamentally prior to the technical practices and processes of exegesis.  This is what Thiselton means in his definition by “critical reflection upon processes of interpretation and understanding.”  Hermeneutics informs exegetical practices with sound principles which will determine the validity or invalidity of those exegetical practices and processes.  And a determination of the validity or invalidity of an interpretation can be achieved.  I will examine this more fully below.

            We can state it this way.  Hermeneutics is the discipline whereby we seek to determine how to determine the meaning of Scripture.  The technical work involved in examining a text so as to glean its meaning (i.e., exegesis) is one thing.  Thinking about the broader, more encompassing purposes, procedures and principles that need to inform that technical work and how it should proceed so that it actually achieves what it is supposed to do is another.  Although there is no clear-cut demarcation between hermeneutics and exegesis, generally speaking hermeneutics deals at the level of the principles of exegesis and interpretation.  Some of these principles are seeking authorial intent, attending to the logical context, comprehensiveness of context, considering literary genre, examining one’s presuppositions, the simplicity and clarity of Scripture, the unity and diversity of Scripture, Scripture interprets Scripture, progressive revelation, critical thinking, logical and moral reasoning (i.e., the laws of logic, coherence, consistency and non-contradiction), et al.

            The soundness of hermeneutical principles are established when they show “their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult scriptures.”  These principles have to do with disclosing the meaning of a text and are important “because meaning has to do with the core of man’s thinking.”  As Terry states, “They become to the practical exegete so many maxims, postulates, and settled rules.  He is supposed to hold them in the mind as axioms, and to apply them in all his expositions with uniform consistency.”  The important point to note for our purposes is that hermeneutics requires exegesis to proceed according to “the laws of thought.” And the laws of logic are prerequisite to our “laws of thought” if our thoughts are to make sense.  Broadly speaking, exegesis is the “science” of interpretation whereas hermeneutics is the “art” which provides the principles by which exegesis proceeds.  These principles are essential to achieve a proper exegesis and interpretation of the text.  Terry quotes Schleiermacher on this matter.

               “The perfect understanding of a discourse,” says Schleiermacher, “is a work of art, and involves the need of an art-doctrine, which we designate by the term Hermeneutics.  Such an art-doctrine has existence only in so far as the precepts admitted form a system resting upon principles which are immediately evident from the nature of thought and language.”[17]

            Hermeneutics admits only those precepts that are “immediately evident from the nature of thought and language.” I therefore take it that critical reasoning based in the laws of logic is essential to hermeneutics and everywhere presupposed in the interpretive task.  Good hermeneutical principles are grounded in the canons of reason, logic and moral intuition.  I summarize these principles that are evident from “the nature of thought and language” in the word coherence.  Coherence encompasses logical consistency and non-contradiction in thought and language.

            I have shown that Calvinism violates certain of these “laws of thought” and the “principles which are immediately evident from the nature of thought and language” in its exegetical procedures and interpretive results – particularly by dichotomizing these “laws of thought” from their exegesis thereby discounting coherence in the interpretive process.  This discussion is necessary because Calvinist’s disregard coherence in their exegesis and interpretive conclusions.  Coherence, therefore, should be emphasized as an important hermeneutical principle that needs to be evidenced for an exegetical procedure and its interpretations to be valid.

            Therefore, once we are persuaded that coherence is necessary for an interpretation and theology to be true, once the need for coherence is seen as essential in the interpretive task, we will see that it too is a hermeneutical principle that cannot be ignored without violating several other essential hermeneutical principles such as the analogy of Scripture, the perspicuity of Scripture, authorial intent and context.

            Let’s revisit coherence as a hermeneutical principle in more detail, not only in relationship to the principles of authorial intent and context, but also to the principle of comprehensiveness.

Coherence as Integral to Authorial Intent, Context and Comprehensiveness

            The exegetical or interpretive process has as its primary task and goal to disclose as accurately as possible what the author intended to communicate to his original readers. The practice of exegesis should have as its primary goal the disclosing of authorial intent.  Authorial intent is one of two fundamental hermeneutical principles that serve to guide the purpose and practice of exegesis.  The other fundamental hermeneutical principle is context.  I submit that coherence is an essential element of these two most fundamental hermeneutical principles – authorial intent and context.  Coherence is what gives these their meaning and functional usefulness as hermeneutical principles.  Let’s briefly define the principles of authorial intent and context and then discuss why coherence is essential to their meaning and function.

Authorial Intent

            Mickelsen recognizes the importance of authorial intent as one among several hermeneutical principles that determine either the validity or invalidity of an interpretation of a text.

               “These principles of hermeneutics are valid or invalid depending on whether or not they really unfold the meaning a statement had for the author and the first hearers or readers.  They are valid or invalid depending on whether or not readers get the idea that the original author intended to convey.”[18]

            Calvinist scholar Kevin Vanhoozer writes,

               “E. D. Hirsch led the “intentionalist backlash.”  His Validity in Interpretation (1967) defended “the sensible view that a text means what its author meant.”  Hirsch argued that the author’s intention – the willed verbal meaning – is the only practical interpretive norm, the only scholarly standard for judging right and wrong interpretations.  It is the author’s will alone that determines which of the possible verbal meanings a sentence (e.g., “He’s hot) or text actually bears.”[19]

            Vanhoozer also states that,

               “A text is a set of verbal signs intended by an author to bring about understanding in a reader.  Intention pertains to what authors are doing in tending to their words.  To interpret is to describe what an author is doing in a particular sentence or passage by paying attention both to its formal features (e.g., the words, the structure) and to its broader context, to the text as a whole (e.g., the literary genre).  The relevant context is the one that allows one to offer a sufficient description of the author’s action, a description that admits of no more relevant questions.  Note that what an author does with words may occasionally have little to do with the meaning of the words themselves.  We ascribe ironic intentions to authors, for example, not because the verbal meaning demands it but because other relevant contextual clues tip us off as to what the author is really doing.  Irony could not exist apart from authorial intention.  To generalize: every appeal to the text as evidence for one’s interpretation turns out to be a tacit appeal to the author’s probable intent (Juhl).”[20]

            Note that to adopt an exegesis that slavishly adheres to the technical elements in examining a sentence would lead one astray when it comes to detecting irony, for instance. Accurate interpretation also requires a sensitivity to the author’s words and intentions in the immediate or broader context.

            As to the possibility of spiritual and theological interpretations of the Scripture, Vanhoozer asks,

               “How, for example, could one read the OT as pointing to Christ if the human authors did not consciously have Christ as the content of their message?  Yet some ascription of intentionality to biblical texts appears inevitable, for someone is doing something with these words.  To understand textual meaning, then, is just to impute intentions; the only question is whose, the author’s or the readers?”[21]

Authorial Intent and Coherence

            In light of the above statements, integrally related to the key principle of authorial intent is the fundamental principle of authorial coherence.  Authorial intent means that the author had a particular something he wanted to communicate to the original hearer or reader.  Thus, the principle of authorial intent presupposes authorial coherence. That is, by wanting to communicate something to his readers, it was necessary that he do so coherently.  We presuppose that authors intend to write coherently – as I am attempting to do right now.  Obviously, if an author did not intend to be coherent in his communication and for whatever reasons was incoherent, the communication of a certain thought or truth would fail.  Coherence is essential in any attempt to communicate otherwise we are left in confusion. Even if an author is clear in one portion of what he writes and equally clear in another portion but those two portions are incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory with each other, his overall communication would only produce confusion for the reader. Hence, we can presuppose that overall the author intends to write clearly enough to be understood, that is, that he writes coherently.

            Therefore, if we want to be true to the principle of authorial intent, we need to be true to the principle of authorial coherence.  If we want to glean the author’s meaning, we need to acknowledge that he also intended to write without inconsistency or contradiction. Claims to have correctly interpreted the author’s intent that show themselves to be incoherent with other things that the same author or other authors in Scripture have written are certainly suspect as to their validity.  If an author wants to communicate some point, he must at least be coherent, consistent, and non-contradictory.

            This is especially pertinent from the point of view of the inspiration of Scripture.  The Bible is the inspired Word of a single divine Author whose intended messages we are responsible to carefully handle, put into proper relationships and rightly disclose (2 Tim. 2:15).[22]  Vanhoozer writes regarding the divine intention.

               “Acknowledging Scripture as the word of God does not militate against intentionality but calls for and qualifies it.  Specifically, it calls for recognition of dual authorship where the divine intention appropriates, superintends, or supervenes on the human intention.  God speaks in Scripture by way of human discourse, but not by outshouting the human authors.  God identifies his word with just these texts because they already communicate a good number of his intentions.  We may legitimately presume that the divine intention corresponds to the human intention unless there is good reason – given the nature of God or broader canonical context – to think otherwise.  Recognizing Scripture’s divine authorship ultimately requires us to read the biblical texts as one book.  As with any action, we can adequately identify what has been done in Scripture only by considering its action as a whole.  The divine intention most comes to light when God’s communicative acts are described in canonical context.

               …we know the Word of God primarily by attending to God’s Word written.  Luther observed that all books are to be interpreted in the spirit of their author, and that author’s spirit is nowhere more on display than in his or her writings.  In the case of Scripture, the divine author’s spirit is the Holy Spirit; the word in the enactment of the Spirit’s communicative intention.  To read theologically is to ascertain the intention of the Spirit speaking in and through Scripture.”[23]

               “Whose intentions guide interpretation?  To interpret Scripture theologically is to read for the divine intention, and this means reading each part in light of the canonical whole.  The canonical context alone forms the proper context for describing what God is doing in his word and for understanding the purpose for which God’s word was sent (Isa. 55:11).  To limit oneself to recovering only the human authorial intentions is to fall short of theological interpretation.  And to impose one’s own intentions or the intention of one’s own community is to fail to guard oneself from potential idols.”[24]

            Given that God is a rational being, and given the principle of reading within the whole canonical context, this implies that this divine Author’s messages are consistent and coherent, not inconsistent or contradictory.  Our theology ought to be derived from a coherent consideration of the canonical whole. This is especially applicable to the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy. The question needs to be asked as to whether or not the Calvinist is interpreting the verses they use to support their universal divine causal determinism in a way that is coherent with the canonical whole that testifies to a non-deterministic reality. Coherence among one’s interpretations is just what it would mean to be “reading each part in light of the canonical whole.” Vanhoozer, who is a staunch Calvinist, should apply his own hermeneutic to his own theological exegesis and interpretive conclusions, for his Calvinist interpretive conclusions are in contradiction to many other of the clear texts in Scripture. The point is that whatever the divine Author of Scripture intended to say via the human authors, he intended to say coherently.  Since we can assume that both God and the human authors intended to be coherent and consistent in what was recorded for the original recipients and for us, this principle also applies to the different “message intentions” across the spectrum of the written Word of God.  Each part of the Bible should cohere with the other parts.  Biblical theology should demonstrate that the whole of biblical revelation is a coherent message.  In short, our interpretations need to make sense because the authors – both human and divine – wrote to make sense.  Therefore, our interpretations of them should not result in nonsense.

Indeed, the Reformers laid out certain principles for proper interpretation, but it seems to me that Calvinists do not carry these through regarding their own theology.  Theologian Henri A. G. Blocher writes,

“There is little hope of a fruitful interpretation of Scripture as such if one discards the canonical principle,[25] presupposes that various authors held contrary views, or that their witness lies on a plane altogether alien from the quest of intellectus fidei.[26]  The presupposition of classical Christianity affirms that all the Scriptures, owning to their common inspiration, reflect the same, homogeneous, mind – despite striking differences in angle, aspect, emphasis, vocabulary, and conceptual apparatus (in the sense, there are many theologies of the atonement in the Bible, but they are not incompatible with one another).

This entails the Reformers’ hermeneutical principle: Scriptura sacra semetipsam interpretans.[27] It implies several things: The lack of a clear statement of a view in a book should not count as a sign of rejection (the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence) – contrary to much current practice. Various presentations should be interpreted as convergent and complementary, not opposed.  And theological “hygiene” should banish dichotomies between biblical themes (e.g., initiative of love/appeasement of wrath).  Sound method will then extend to the whole of Scripture the import of more explicit passages, whose “natural” meaning (as Calvin would say) remarkably resists efforts at circumventing it, such as Isa. 53; Rom. 3; 2 Cor. 5; Gal. 3; Heb. 9.  Other presuppositions on Scripture and its relationship to theological reason hardly generate similar interpretations.”[28]

Note that a good hermeneutic does not have the biblical authors holding contrary views and that their common inspired texts should reflect “the same homogeneous mind.”  Moreover, the Scripture interprets itself which entails convergence and complementarity, not opposition and dichotomy.  In addition, the weight of the clearer texts whose “natural” meaning remains persistent should control and shape the interpretations of more obscure or theologically nuanced texts when the latter are set in logical or moral opposition to the former, clearer texts.

I contend that these principles apply to Calvinism.  The logical and moral incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions generated by the Calvinist’s theological determinism do not reflect “the same homogeneous mind.” The Calvinist cannot explain away their logical and moral problems by dichotomizing exegesis from the necessity for their interpretations to be logically and morally coherent. The clearer texts that teach God’s universal love for all sinners, the nature of faith as the possibility for anyone to believe in Jesus, along with substantial human freedom and responsibility, must control the more historically and theologically nuanced themes of divine sovereignty, human sin, election and predestination.

These hermeneutical principles of authorial intent and authorial coherence are obviously problematic for the Calvinist.  Calvinism is not able to achieve the authorial coherence, consistency and non-contradiction entailed in the principle of authorial intent.  This, again, is especially troubling from the point of view of divine inspiration and intention.  As the divine Author of Scripture, God did not intend to be, nor could he be, incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory in what he has written through these human authors.   The divine intentions expressed in Scripture rightly interpreted are coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.  As such, Calvinism does not properly reflect, nor is it able to conform to this sound, fundamental hermeneutical principle of authorial intent.  Vanhoozer writes,

               “The final word belongs to Jerome: “It was my purpose not to draw the Scriptures to my will but to say what I understood to be the intention of the Scriptures.  For it is the duty of the commentator to set forth not what he himself wants but what the one whom he interprets means.  Otherwise, if he says contrary things, he will not be so much interpreter as opponent of him whom he attempts to explain (Letters XLVIII.17).”[29]

            If we come up with incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory interpretations then we have not gleaned the author’s intent, and as such, we certainly have become the opponent of the one we are attempting to explain.

            My point is, and I think we can all agree, that we will have missed the author’s intent when our interpretations and explanations result in the author speaking incoherently, inconsistently or in contradiction with himself, either in the immediate or broader contexts, or in relation to the clear statements and teachings of the biblical witness found in the canonical context as a whole.  This, I contend, is a serious flaw in the Calvinist’s hermeneutic.         

Context and Coherence

            I have sought to show how coherence in related to the hermeneutical principle of authorial intentCoherence is also the most essential component in the fundamental principle of context.  The importance of the principle of context can hardly be overstated.  Interpretive scholar Grant Osborne writes,

               “The first stage in serious bible study is to consider the larger context within which a passage is found.  Unless we can grasp the whole before attempting to dissect the parts, interpretation is doomed from the start.  Statements simply have no meaning apart from their context.  If I say, “Give it all you’ve got,” you would rightly query, “What do you mean by “it?” and “How do I do so?”  Without a situation to give the command content, it becomes meaningless.  In Scripture the context provides the situation behind the text.

               Two areas must be considered at the beginning of Bible study: the historical context and logical context.  Under the first category we study introductory material on the biblical book in order to determine the situation to which the book was addressed.  Under the second category we use an inductive approach in order to trace the thought development of the book.  Both aspects are necessary before we begin a detailed analysis of a particular passage.  The historical and logical contexts provide the scaffolding upon which we can build the in-depth meaning of a passage.  Without a strong scaffolding, the edifice of interpretation is bound to collapse.”[30]

And also,

               “In a very real sense, the logical context is the most basic factor in interpretation. …the immediate context is the final arbiter for all decisions regarding the meaning of a term or concept. …only the immediate context can narrow possibilities to the actual meaning.”[31]

            The principle of context also applies to the technical elements of exegesis, like word studies.  New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass warns us that,

               “Discerning how specific words convey meaning is obviously crucial, but exegesis is much more than words studies.  In fact, word studies are often misleading.  Words do not have meaning that can be assessed by some formula.  Words have a conventional range of meanings, ways we expect them to be used.  These meanings (the dictionary definitions) make up the semantic field of a word.  Any aspect of a word’s meaning – but not all of it – may be used in a given context, or the word may be used creatively in a new way. …Such work must be done, but it does not show what a word means in a given context.  One can only know that meaning by discerning the relations in the context.” [32]

            To say that “one can only know meaning by discerning the relations in the context” is to say that meaning is dependent upon coherence, which is presupposed in the phrase “discerning the relations.”  We assume that what the author wrote he wrote in order to be understood, and therefore, he wrote coherently.  It is reasonable to expect that “discerning the relations in the context” will produce coherent thoughts and meanings.  So the hermeneutical principle of context is integrally related to the hermeneutical principle of coherence.

            Therefore, we can say that coherence is the expression of the principle of context in its logical outworking.  That is, the principle of reading and interpreting in context just means the integration of the immediate or broader context in a coherent manner with the text being examined.  To read with an eye for the coherence among the words, sentences and thoughts of the author is what it means to read in context.  To read and interpret in context means to read and interpret coherently with respect to what is written around the text being read and interpreted.  To read and interpret in context is to read and interpret with a concern for coherence, consistency and non-contradiction with the meaning of the texts surrounding the particular text of interest.

            If this were not the case, if coherence is not integral to the principle of context, then the text becomes a proof-text for whatever number of meanings the reader wishes to impose upon it, or however the reader desires to employ the text.  The text being read or studied would have no control upon its meaning from within the text itself.  It becomes ripe for eisegesis, or reading one’s own meaning into the text. It would be subject to whatever meanings the interpreter wants it to have.  This is to disregarded and nullified both the principles of context and authorial intent.  What the author intends to communicate goes by the wayside.  If coherence is not integral to the principle of context, the principle would be rendered meaningless.  Data points like dates and places could still be incorporated into one’s interpretation, but the flow and relationship of the author’s thoughts, i.e., coherence, would be lost.

            Given this indifference to coherence, the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture would also be violated.  Without thinking coherently, the meaning of one Scripture could never lend its input into the meaning of another passage in a way that we could comprehend.  Therefore we would not even know what it means for Scripture to interpret Scripture.  Without the principle of coherence we could never properly relate one biblical passage to another.

            Non-Calvinists Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell affirm that logical consistency or coherence is a hermeneutical principle that is necessary for showing that an interpretation or theology is true.  They write,

               “While logical consistency may not be a sufficient condition to show that a theology is true, it is a necessary condition.”[33]

            Indeed, even the prominent Calvinist preacher and teacher Erwin Lutzer affirms the importance of context.  He states,

               “We live in a time when there is so much heresy on television by many television evangelists – not all of them, but some of them – who are receiving these special words from heaven, verses of Scripture taken out of context… Scripture out of context, unbalanced, wrested out of its proper hermeneutical context can be heresy.”[34]

            In this Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy we are dealing with the validation of the accuracy or truth of one interpretation as compared to another.  I am arguing that this requires the incorporation of a criteria of coherence or logical consistency into one’s hermeneutic.  For it appears that interpretive differences between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist are not a matter of complexity or inherent obscurity.  Nor is this a matter of mystery or incomprehensibility as Calvinists claim.  As to complexity, we would have found our way through such interpretive issues over time, especially given the extreme length of time this controversy has gone on.  As to inherent obscurity, granted there are difficult texts to understand, but the texts on these most important matters of our salvation are not inherently obscure, for that would be to say that God was not capable of clearly revealing or simply did not what to clearly reveal his most important message to us and it would nullify our principle of the perspicuity of Scripture in this regard.  As to the differences and problems that are involved in the interpretation of the relevant texts being a mystery or incomprehensible, such “explanations” are not plausible simply because we can identify the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions in certain interpretations.  They are not mysterious or incomprehensible at all.  We understand certain interpretations perfectly well to be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory.  So why these irreconcilable differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinist?  It is a matter of whether or not one finds coherence to be interpretively significant as to determining the validity of a proposed exegesis and interpretation.

            Milton S. Terry is clear on the cause of such profound and lasting differences in interpretations.  He writes,

               “When we find that in the explanation of certain parts of the Scriptures no two interpreters out of a whole class agree, we have great reason to presume at once that some fatal error lurks in their principles of interpretation.  We cannot believe that the sacred writers desired to be misunderstood.  They did not write with a purpose to confuse and mislead their readers.  Nor is it reasonable to suppose that the Scripture, given by divine inspiration, is of the nature of a puzzle designed to exercise the ingenuity of critics.  It was given to make men wise unto salvation, and in great part it is so direct and simple in its teachings that a little child can understand its meaning.”[35]

            Thus the divide between Calvinists and non-Calvinists is a hermeneutical divide.  “Some fatal error lurks in their principles of interpretation.”  The divide is a result of a flawed hermeneutic.

            I contend that the evidence points to an error in the Calvinist’s hermeneutic.  That error is their refusal to take logical and moral coherence on board in their hermeneutic.  By rejecting coherence, consistency and non-contradiction, the accepted and abiding hermeneutical principles of authorial intent, context, the perspicuity of Scripture and that Scripture interprets Scripture are all, sooner or later, abandoned by the Calvinist in favor of a definition of God’s sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism.  But I have demonstrated that divine sovereignty according to this definition creates incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction with particular biblical texts, the comprehensive biblical worldview and its witness to the nature of reality, and most importantly, the “good news” message of the gospel.  This incoherence, which is ignored by the Calvinist, indicates a misinterpretation of the text.  Incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions in one’s interpretive conclusions are indicative of a misinterpretation of the text at some point.  Therefore, coherence is a necessary hermeneutical principle on par with authorial intent, context, the perspicuity of Scripture and the analogy of Scripture.  Indeed, as I have argued, it is integral to these.  These other principles become nonsense without the principle of coherence.  Coherence cannot be ignored or separated from these already accepted principles which are essential elements in good interpretation.  The problem Calvinism raises is ultimately a hermeneutical one of the dismissal of coherence which is created by the Calvinist’s deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty.

            Now, if the problem is one of hermeneutics, then in hermeneutics we will find the solution.  The Calvinist needs to come to grips with whether their deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty can be correct if it creates incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction with what the majority of the Scriptures tell and teach.  If they believe their definition of divine sovereignty to be correct, then they will have to deal with the logical and moral entailments of that definition.  But then again, if the Calvinist does not value coherence, consistency and non-contradiction, they probably feel no need to defend their interpretations against charges of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, and that whatever defenses they do provide need not demonstrate coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  But interpretive relativism would allow for both their interpretations and explanations to “be true for me but not true for you.”  And therefore, we can see once again, that the issue reduces to the acceptance or rejection of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction in Calvinist interpretation and thought.  And unless that changes, the controversy will continue ad infinitum. The only way it will cease is if the Calvinist incorporates coherence in their hermeneutic and follows through accordingly in their exegesis and interpretations, or, the non-Calvinist simply gives up on engaging the Calvinist in the attempt to persuade them otherwise.  But that would require the non-Calvinist to give up on the defense of the truth of the gospel as “good news.”  And the apostle Paul, who was as magnanimous as possible in all other matters of controversy, does not allow for such accommodation regarding the gospel message (see Gal. 1).

            But things need not be this way.  Mickelsen mentions the growing interest after World War II in “the theological science of hermeneutics” and its potential for reaching agreement and as a unifying force in the Christian church.  He writes,

               “This serious interest in hermeneutics has helped to show why Christians differ with each other.  Different principles and procedures yield different results, and even the same basic principles may be applied differently.  Such an understanding of differences, however, is necessary to helping others and to being helped by them in one’s own interpretive endeavors.

               The same serious interest in interpretation has also brought into focus agreements among various interpreters.  When interpreters from various groups have worked together to unfold the meaning of a passage, agreement on many significant conclusions has been reached.  Thus hermeneutics is a potent unifying force in the Christian church.”[36]

            If the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy is one of a difference in hermeneutical principles, as I argue it is, then identifying those differences and coming to agreement on what constitutes a sound hermeneutic is where the resolution and unity will be found.  I have stated that this is not merely an issue to be bandied about by theologians and philosophers for the intellectual and theological exercise.  This issue has a unique urgency because the gospel as “good news” is at stake.  Mickelsen also recognizes that gospel proclamation is at stake here.

               “The impelling motive for learning to interpret the scriptures correctly is the necessity to understand clearly for ourselves exactly what we are trying to communicate to others.  The need to communicate all of the gospel message is urgent: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16); but double is the woe to one who, though he claims to be preaching the gospel, does in fact not do so because he has misinterpreted the written record that presents the gospel.  It is my earnest desire that every reader of this book shall proclaim the truth of God with new urgency, and with greater understanding.”[37]

            The need of the hour is to admit that serious misinterpretation exists with regard to the gospel as good news.  Obviously, given the fact that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies are two mutually exclusive interpretations of Scripture on the gospel, one or the other (or both) are not preaching the truth of the gospel according to Scripture.  One or the other (or both) have seriously misinterpreted the text.  This should be a concern for all Christians who call themselves “evangelicals,” which refers to those who believe and proclaim the “good news.”

            The evangelical church, therefore, needs to acknowledge that coherence is an essential hermeneutical principle that cannot be violated.  This is not merely a matter of two “non-essential” or “secondary” doctrinal differences that are both legitimate biblical options for Christian believers.  The church’s denial in this regard is a serious intellectual and interpretive matter that has to be faced and addressed.  Its present attitude amounts to an interpretive relativism that leads to theological, soteriological and gospel relativism.  And a “gospel” that means any number of things to any number of people becomes meaningless.  And that is the state of the word in the evangelical church today.  It is a vacuous term in that it is being defined in accord with at least two mutually exclusive soteriologies.  I suggest that the evangelical church’s refusal to admit to the true nature of this controversy has allowed it to last so long.  Incoherence, and the relativism it has generated, has been accepted as legitimate at the exegetical and interpretive level.  The incoherence, inconsistency and contradictory results of the Calvinist’s exegesis have not been evaluated at the hermeneutical level, that is, in light of coherence as an essential hermeneutical principle.  I can think of fewer things that can generate or sustain interpretive differences and theological perplexities than a disregard of the incoherence of one’s interpretations.    

Comprehensiveness, Consistency and Coherence

            There are other hermeneutical principles that are inseparable from coherence.  Two more are comprehensiveness and consistency.  Henry Thiessen makes the following interpretive observations regarding the non-Calvinist view of election.  That view of election,

               “…has fewer objections than any other, and best commends itself in the light of what we know of the righteousness and holiness of God on the one hand, and of human responsibility on the other.”[38]

            “Fewer objections” speaks to coherence and consistency of thought.  “Best commends itself” as to God’s nature and human responsibility speaks of coherence, consistency and comprehensiveness.  It is the view that best takes into account in a coherent and consistent way all the things that need to be accounted for which is indicative of the better interpretation.  New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass writes,

               “Thought is always structured or it is nonsensical.  In discerning the structure of a passage, we are able to follow the flow of the author’s logic and come to understanding.”[39]

            Again, here we have the principles of coherence and consistency.  As to the importance of interpreting a particular passage or verse in relation to the broader canonical context or the principle of comprehensiveness, Snodgrass writes,

               “Exegesis usually focuses on specific passages of a document, but a given pericope can be understood only in light of the whole.  Understanding of the whole, however, presupposes understanding the individual parts. This is the horizontal hermeneutic circle; interpretations takes place in the continual movement of knowing the part from the whole and the whole from the part.  Attention must be given to the purpose and “location” of the whole document and then to the location with the document of the passage in question.  The relation to passages immediately preceding and following the pericope being studied is among the most important relations for understanding.”[40]

            Grant Osborne states the principle of comprehensiveness this way.

               “…the parts have no meaning apart from the whole.  Only when the message of the whole passage is considered can the parts be studied for details of this central message.  In reality, the hermeneutical process can be summarized in this way: first, we chart the whole book to analyze it flow of thought in preliminary fashion; next, we study each part intensively in order to detect the detailed argumentation; finally, we rework the thought-development of the whole in relation to the parts.”[41]

            These are important statements about the principles and processes of interpretation.  Note that in Osborn’s second step he speaks of “detailed argumentation.” This speaks to the coherence of authorial intent, that is, that many times an author (e.g., the apostle Paul) presents an argument that can and needs to be followed as he has laid it out.  In that he desires to be persuasive he therefore desires to be understood.  What he has written he has written with thoughts and words that are coherent and consistent.  As such, coherence and consistency, along with non-contradiction are indispensable hermeneutical principles.  Indeed, coherence is imbedded in the text itself in the coherence of the arguments and statements of the author’s themselves.  To ignore coherence in interpretation is to disregard the fact that author’s intend to convey a certain meaning.  It is to ignore the way the text itself is structured.  Authors write in a coherent and consistent manner, especially when presenting a specific flow of thought in making an argument.  To ignore coherence by accepting incoherent interpretations as valid, is to ignore the principle of authorial intent.

            Furthermore, the last step Osborne mentions has to do with his “hermeneutical spiral.”  What is happening in this process is a refining of the meaning of the text with the whole informing the parts and the parts informing the whole.  The “spiral” analogy is appropriate in that it describes a process that safeguards against becoming trapped in one’s a priori traditional meanings of particular texts.  If you are not intentional about a reciprocal sharing of meaning between the whole and the parts you may be stuck in an interpretation that accepts incoherence within a passage and inconsistency among the whole of Scripture.

            This, I contend, is an error found in Calvinist interpretation.  In that sovereignty is defined as theistic determinism and this is a non-negotiable for the Calvinist, they are unable to incorporate the clear meanings of other texts into the immediate or broader contexts that mitigate against their theistic determinism.  For instance, they cannot coherently incorporate the biblical testimony to human freedom and responsibility and contingency, all of which are in direct contradiction to theistic determinism.  They therefore may claim authorial intent as a principle, but it is an intent minus coherence.  Hence, the principle is vacuous.  They in effect have the author writing incoherently and inconsistently, and therefore we can never be sure of his intent.  They then have to devise explanations as to how and why their exegesis of the text is not really incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory.  But this ultimate fails.  That is why they resort to mystery or incomprehensibility.  In effect, the Calvinist is stuck in a “horizontal circle” that goes nowhere.  They need to embrace a “hermeneutical spiral” which will allow the whole text to inform the parts and the parts inform the whole in a process that brings us closer to the author’s intended meaning.  I think it obvious that such a process presupposes coherence as essential to that process.  You cannot allow the whole of Scripture to inform the parts of Scripture and the parts to inform the whole unless you take coherence on board in that process.  Without doing so coherently the process would not even make sense.

            Luther and Calvin readily accepted the incoherence their theistic determinism created with other established doctrines, even to the point of defining those doctrines to fit that “system” (e.g., total inability, faith is granted by God per predestination, pre-faith regeneration) despite the predominance of the biblical witness to the contrary.  Osborne makes this observation about Luther’s propensity to retain his “system” of theology over the sound hermeneutical principles of coherence and non-contradiction. 

               “In contrast to the regula fidei (“rule of faith”) of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther propounded the analogia fidei (“analogy of faith”).  Luther opposed the centrality of ecclesial tradition and believed that Scripture alone should determine dogma.  On the basis of the unity and clarity of Scripture, he proposed that the basic doctrines must cohere with and cannot contradict the holistic teaching of Scripture.  However, for Luther the system still had a certain predominance.  Therefore, I would suggest the analogical scriptura (“analogy of Scripture”) as an alternative.  Terry’s dictum still stands: “No single statement or obscure passage of one book can be allowed to set aside a doctrine which is clearly established by many passages” (1890:579).  I would strengthen this by adding that doctrines should not be built upon a single passage but rather should summarize all that Scripture says on that topic.  If there are no clarifying passages (for example, on baptism for the dead in 1 Cor. 15:29 or a compartmentalized Hades in Lk 16:22-26), we must be careful about seeing a statement of dogma.

               Moreover, all such doctrinal statements (for instance, on the lordship of Christ or on eternal security) should be made on the basis of all the texts that speak to the issue rather than on the basis of proof-texts or “favorite “passages.  Such an approach results in a “canon within a canon,” a phenomenon in which certain passages are subjectively favored over others because they fit a system that is imposed on Scripture rather than drawn from it.  This is a dangerous situation, for it assumes that one’s preconceived ideas are more important than is the text.  Also, it misinterprets Scripture.”[42]

            There are important hermeneutical principles here, and they all rest upon the matter of coherence.  One principle is that the many passages that clearly establish a certain doctrine must not be set aside or be made to read incoherently or inconsistently with some other single statement or obscure passage.  The point is that passages need to be interpreted with a concern for the coherence and consistency among those passages and the whole of Scripture.  Again, this is encompassed in the principles of comprehensiveness and context.  

            Snodgrass adds the following on the principle of comprehensiveness,

               “The process described above is focused on determining the author’s communicative intent, but exegesis also has larger concerns, or at least may be seen in a broader set of relations.  Biblical exegesis does not deal merely with individual books but also with the relations between them (doing biblical theology).  The understanding of a canonical work is augmented and nuanced when that work is seen in relation to other documents in the canon.”[43]

            We must attempt to apply these interpretive principles to both Calvinist and non-Calvinist thought and theology to either verify our interpretations as valid or reveal their flaws.  In that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist interpretive differences present two diametrically opposed perspectives on the nature of God’s relationship with the world and his human creatures, the nature of salvation, and the precise content of the gospel message, and in that both claim to be what the Bible teaches on these matters, the issue of what constitutes proper biblical interpretation becomes crucial.

            Reason tells us that two mutually exclusive positions cannot both be true.  No matter what deficiencies one believes human reason has in comprehending God himself, this is rather a matter of making a judgment regarding the meaning of a written text.  We are not at a loss for hermeneutical principles which guide our thinking about what a text can or cannot mean.  We are not first and foremost attempting to exhaustively understand God and his ways, but rather with delineating sound principles of interpretation.  This controversy is primarily about whether one is doing good or bad interpretation.  We are therefore dealing with the discipline of hermeneutics, that is, we are identifying and practicing those principles that make for good interpretation that leads us to a proper understanding of what an author intended to communicate.

            Calvinists are wont to raise issues regarding the unreliability of human reason so as to sustain their interpretive conclusions which contain logical and moral difficulties.  But surely both Calvinists and non-Calvinists work on the premise that human reason functions well enough to conclude that one or the other of two incompatible interpretations cannot both be true.  This is just to agree that there are laws of logical thought without which we could not even have a rational discussion on the matter.  As mutually exclusive or incompatible interpretations, surely our human reason functions well enough to conclude that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist interpretations cannot both be the true, objective representations of the meaning of the text.  To think otherwise is to terminate all productive and meaningful hermeneutical thought and discussion.  The non-Calvinist would not sanction distrusting or dismissing their reason in this regard, whereas the Calvinist will distrust and dismiss their reason in order to retain their doctrine of the sovereignty of God defined deterministically.  This determinism defines and holds absolute sway over their interpretations of other passages, especially regarding salvation.  But this determinism produces incoherence with all the biblical data that needs to be taken into consideration.  Hence, the incoherence inherent in Calvinism raises the question of whether or not the Calvinist’s interpretations are correct, especially their understanding of God’s sovereignty.  Moreover, we need to inquire as to whether or not the Calvinist explanations like “God’s ways are higher than our ways” satisfactorily address the multifaceted problems raised by Calvinism.

            To verify the validity of a proposed biblical interpretation we must evaluate its plausibility in light of certain interpretive criteria or principles like authorial intent, context, the perspicuity of Scripture, consistency and comprehensiveness.  I have argued that these criteria or principles rest upon other essential hermeneutical concerns summarized in the word coherence.  This coherence includes logical and moral consistency and non-contradiction.

            I contend that the fundamental problem in this controversy centers on the acceptance or rejection of coherence as a hermeneutical essential.  The problem of incoherence is particularly acute for Calvinists.  It extends to ethical and epistemological matters, that is, whether what is said is genuinely honest and forthright and whether a person can know the true nature of God and his salvific disposition and will for them.  Logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction of textual meanings and theological propositions are necessary for an interpretation to be valid.  Incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are indicators of invalid interpretations.  We thus take philosophical reflection and our moral intuitions, primarily defined simply as coherence or clear thinking, on board as essential to proper interpretation.

            As I see it, Reformed Calvinist soteriology reflects a faulty interpretation of Scripture precisely because it dismisses coherence as hermeneutically or interpretively significant.  As such, all other things being equal, it is therefore less plausible than the non-Calvinist position.  Granted, the coherence of a position alone does not guarantee that an interpretation is correct, but coherence is necessary for an interpretation to be correct. Because Calvinism is fraught with incoherence, inconsistency, lack of harmony and the presence of contradiction, it betrays itself as a faulty interpretation of the biblical texts.  I. Howard Marshall writes,

               “It should be clear from what has been written above that we have no desire to deny or quarrel with the biblical teaching on election and predestination, but rather to expound it correctly; and our contention is that the apparently rigorous teaching of certain passages is modified by other teaching in such a way that the biblical teaching as a whole will not fit into such a rigid, logical framework as that provided, for example, by the Five Points of Dort.”[44]

            Calvinist’s just cannot make their interpretations of particular texts along with the “ridged, logical framework” they have developed from them (i.e., TULIP), “fit” together with “the biblical teaching as a whole.”  Therefore Calvinism is not a coherent or comprehensive witness of the Scriptures, especially with regard to the nature and scope of salvation.  Hence, I submit that the Calvinist doctrines cannot command, nor do they warrant, our intellectual assent nor personal belief and trust. 

The Hermeneutical Circle and the Hermeneutical Spiral

            I referenced the “hermeneutical circle” and “hermeneutical spiral” above.  The “hermeneutical circle” refers to the process by which one refines their understanding of the meaning of a text.  That process involves the reciprocal consideration of the individual “parts” of a text in relation to the text viewed as a “whole.”  Anthony Thiselton explains,

               “The term “hermeneutical circle” has two separable but closely related meanings.  One concerns the relation between understanding the “parts” of the text and understanding it as a “whole.”  A “circle” arises because each process depends reciprocally upon the other.  To understand the parts (grammar, vocabulary, and individual elements in the context), we need to have some inkling of the whole, including what the text is about.  Yet to understand the “whole” depends on an apprehension of its elements.  These two processes together form a progressive dialectic.  Hence, “spiral” might be less misleading than “circle.”[45]

            The advantage of the term “hermeneutical spiral” lies in the idea of advancement in interpretive accuracy, that is, that with each reciprocal study of the “parts” in reference to the “whole” and vice versa, we come closer and closer to the authorial intent.  We “squeeze out” incorrect presuppositions, perspectives and flawed meanings.  The interpreter does not get “stuck” by merely self-referencing his interpretations to his presupposed theology, rather, he references his exegetical work to the sense of the whole – an exercise that requires attention to coherence

            Let us examine these and other hermeneutical principles more fully via the writings of two preeminent literary scholars – E. D. Hirsch and Grant Osborne.

E. D. Hirsch

E. D. Hirsch and Certainty

The discussion above has been about the principles that are necessary for good interpretation.  One of them is the principle of coherence.  I also discussed the process of exegesis that needs to be informed by these hermeneutical principles.  We touched upon the hermeneutical spiral as a process by which we come to a better understanding of texts that are not so clear in their meaning.  And since interpretation is a process, we must ask whether we could ever achieve certainty of meaning in the interpretation of these text.  E. D. Hirsch, in his book titled Validity in Interpretation, writes,

“The activity of interpretation can lay claim to intellectual respectability only if its results can lay claim to validity.  On the other hand, its claims need to be moderated to suit the peculiarities and difficulties attending the interpretive enterprise.  Aristotle made the appropriate remark on this point in his Ethics, where he observed that no conclusion should arrogate to itself a greater certainty or precision than its subject matter warrants.  In this section I shall describe a fundamental difficulty of interpretation which hinders any neat formulation of correct methodology and must sober any self-convinced interpreter of a text.  The fact that certainty is always unattainable is a limitation which interpretation shares with many other disciplines.  The special problem of interpretation is that it often appears to be necessary and inevitable when in fact it never is.  This appearance of inevitability is a phantasm raised by the circularity of the interpretive process.  The belief that written language carries its own indubitable force has a lineage as ancient as the primitive belief in the magical properties of words.  But a nearer source for the endemic (and now epidemic) belief in the semantic autonomy of language is the fact that interpretation very often induces a profound sense of conviction.  The interpreter is convinced that the meanings he understands are inevitable, and this timeworn experience (quite aside from any of our peculiarly modern proclivities) has always lent credibility to the idea that meanings are directly given by words.  When an interpreter maintains his unruffled certainty in the face of contrary opinions, we may assume that he has been trapped in the hermeneutic circle and has fallen victim to the self-confirmability of interpretations.”[46]

Although I believe we can debate the degree to which Hirsch places “certainty or precision” of interpretive conclusions beyond our grasp, his point is well taken with respect to maintaining an “unruffled certainty,” especially in the face of interpretations that can be seen to be incoherent. Hirsch places a check upon our tendency to think that “certainty is always attainable.” He warns against thinking that interpretation amounts to a “neat formulation of correct methodology.”  I do believe in the perspicuity of Scripture that informs us that we can be certain about the meanings of many biblical texts.  But even if we grant Hirsch’s point that interpretive certainty is unattainable, surely we need to maintain – and this is my main point – that no adjudication, validation or decision on the probability that one interpretation is better than another can proceed or be established if the cannons of logic and our moral intuitions are not kept in play.  Putting the issue of certainty aside for the moment, the laws of thought are presupposed in the exegetical and interpretive enterprise no matter what amount of certainty or uncertainty can be claimed from the interpretive task. And as we will see, Hirsch certainly agrees with this fundamental point.  He will maintain that “objectively grounded discriminations between conflicting interpretations – despite the circularities and complexities which bedevil the interpretive enterprise” are possible.  We can make objective judgments as to the validity of interpretations.[47]

“The only proper attitude is to look upon a successful interpretation, a correct understanding, as a triumph against odds.”

I. A. Richards

E. D. Hirsch on the Hermeneutical Circle and Interpretive Responsibility

Hirsch also warns us that,

“Every interpreter labors under the handicap of an inevitable circularity: all his internal evidence tends to support his hypothesis because much of it was constituted by his hypothesis…

Thus the distressing unwillingness of many interpreters to relinquish their sense of certainty is the result not of native closed-mindedness but of imprisonment in a hermeneutical circle.  Literary and biblical interpreters are not by nature more willful and un-self-critical than other men.  On the contrary, they very often listen patiently to contrary opinions, and after careful consideration, they often decide that the contrary hypotheses “do not correspond to the text.”  And of course they are right.  The meanings they reject could not possibly arise except on the basis of a quite alien conception of the text.  It is very difficult to dislodge or relinquish one’s own genre idea, since that idea seems so totally adequate to the text.  After all, since the text is largely constituted by the hypothesis, how could the hypothesis fail to seem inevitable and certain?

This circular entrapment is not, unfortunately, merely a psychological difficulty.  The problem of correctly judging between interpretations is not solved simply by the interpreter’s determination to entertain alternative hypotheses about his text – though that is the necessary precondition for objective judgment.  The interpreter faces the much more difficult problem of comparing hypotheses which are in some respects incommensurable: when a text is construed under different generic conceptions, some of the data generated by one conception will be different from those generated by the other.

This tendency of interpretations to be self-contained and incommensurable is, I believe, the principle handicap that will always plague the discipline of interpretation.  Interpretations have a propensity Pope observed in eighteenth-century watches – none goes just alike, yet each interpreter believes his own.”[48]

Note that a necessary aspect of interpretation is “comparing hypotheses which are in some respects incommensurable.”  This is descriptive of the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy. These are incompatible interpretive schemes.

Is there any hope for achieving an accurate understanding of an author’s intended meaning?  Hirsch speaks of an “unwarranted interpretive optimism” and an “equally unwarranted cynicism.”  He states,

“The optimist assumes that so many convinced and competent readers cannot be wrong, and he therefore views their divergences not as representing genuine disagreements but as reflecting different aspects and potentialities of the text.  In criticizing this conception, I have already observed that different interpretations can indeed be reconciled, not because they are complementary but because they sometimes take different paths toward the same generic meaning.[49]  However, I also observed that sometimes the generic meanings implied by interpretations are disparate.  To dream that all expert interpretations are ultimately members of one happy family is to abandon critical thinking altogether.”[50]

The evangelical church seems unable to face the fact that the meanings implied by the Calvinist and non-Calvinist interpretations are indeed disparate.  They are not “ultimately members of one happy family.”  They are not merely different ways of saying the same thing nor are they secondary or non-essential issues.  To believe this is to “abandon critical thinking altogether,” which sadly seems an apt description of contemporary evangelical Christianity.  Hence, “critical thinking” will always be involved in good interpretation.  Hirsch continues,

“The optimist does, in one respect, push closer to the truth than the invincible cynic who disbelieves all interpretations equally.  His willingness to adjust and reconcile in order to demonstrate the “area of agreement” shared by different interpretations at least avoids the futility of controversy over merely verbal issues and dispels merely apparent disagreement where no substantial divergency exists.  But the optimist also glosses over disagreement where it does exist and thereby avoids the responsibility of rational choice.”[51]

Hirsch’s analysis here describes many contemporary evangelical Christians.  And although the “optimist” strives for “areas of agreement” and “at least avoids the futility of controversy over merely verbal issues and dispels merely apparent disagreement where no substantial divergency exists,” they are prone to overlook issues of substantial divergence, the importance of which cannot be ignored.  This is generally the case in this controversy.  The evangelical optimist thereby forfeits their intellectual responsibility in this matter.  They “avoid the responsibility of rational choice.”  

“The cynic, on the other hand, quite rightly perceives that disagreements are sometimes final and irreconcilable.  He observes that one interpreter rarely if ever persuades another, because each feels as convinced of his own view as does the cynic himself.  He therefore concludes that the interpreter’s sense of conviction cannot be objectively based but must arise from the peculiar constitution of the interpreter himself – his historicity, psychology, personality, and so on.  Ultimately the critic’s choice of a reading must be ascribed to his personal preference.  The cynic naturally prefers his own competent reading to that of another, yet he open-mindedly recognizes the right of another to be just as blithely closed-minded as himself.  Secretly he may consider other views to be silly or tasteless, but since he has no objective grounds for rejecting them, he equably tolerates all interpretive views which do not conflict with known facts.  On a practical level it is thus sometime difficult to distinguish such a tough-minded cynic from his optimistic counterpart, since both of them preserve an identical tolerance to a wide variety of readings.  Both represent the same abject intellectual surrender, the abandonment of responsibility.”[52]

Here Hirsch is describing an unacceptable “intellectual withdrawal.”  He warns against “personal preference” and “tolerance to a wide varieties of readings.”  He adds that “abject intellectual surrender, the abandonment of responsibility” is unacceptable in the interpretative task.  He also hints that there are “objective grounds” for rejecting certain interpretations and presumably for accepting others.

So we have the optimist and the cynic.  But Hirsch then speaks of a third approach to interpretation.

“In contrast to such intellectual withdrawal there persists among many interpreters a continuing faith in the possibilities of self-critical and rational thought.  Indeed, every written interpretation…is implicitly or explicitly an argument that attempts to convince a reader.  The use of quotations, for example, aims not only to illustrate an interpretive theory but also to support it – which is to say, validate it.  Validation is practiced by the most unsystematic and arbitrary interpreters, and the principles of validation are put into practice even by those who are most scornful of self-critical habits of mind.  Furthermore, the attempt to win adherents to an interpretive theory by means of validation is generally an implicit attempt to convince readers that other theories should be rejected or modified.”[53]

So what is the way out of this soteriological interpretive controversy?  It certainly is not the way of the naive optimist who refuses to acknowledge “genuine disagreements” and embraces an interpretive relativism that sees the various interpretive conclusions as “reflecting different aspects and potentialities of the text.”  The optimist may avoid controversy over non-essential matters, “but the optimist also glosses over disagreement where it does exist and thereby avoids the responsibility of rational choice.” This kind of optimistic interpretive relativism is commonplace in the evangelical church today.  It is found whenever a small group Bible study devolves into each person’s perspective on “what the passage means to me.”  This interpretive relativism can also be found in the pulpit and lies behind statements such as “I’m a Calvaminian” or “the Bible teaches both” or “We’ll never figure this out this side of heaven.”

On the other hand, the cynic’s reaction of close-minded dismissiveness can also be found amidst this controversy.  You find this mainly among pastors and teachers who simply avoid the issues.  They are exasperated with the matter.  They are unresponsive to legitimate questions or avoid materials – including the biblical texts – that may challenge their presently held views or involve them in thinking afresh about this controversy.  Both the optimist and the cynic exhibit “the same abject intellectual surrender, the abandonment of responsibility.”

And this is a major part of the problem.  We have abandoned critical thinking rather than being intentional about incorporating it into our hermeneutic.  I pose these questions.  What hope is there that our disparate interpretations of a text can move closer to a more accurate interpretation if we have abandoned the “possibilities of self-critical and rational thought?”  What potential is there in coming to theological and soteriological truth if logical and moral reasoning, that is, critical thinking, is dismissed from our hermeneutic?  When an interpretation is critiqued on the very objective grounds that it is logically and morally incoherent, and those grounds are considered unimportant or ultimately ignored, how can we even begin to approach a definitive understanding of the author’s intended meaning?  What hope is there when an alternative contrary interpretation is presented on the grounds that it is more coherent with all the data that needs to be considered and yet is rejected by discounting coherence as a relevant factor for discerning the validity of an interpretation?  What hope is there for better understanding a text if when it is pointed out that one’s own interpretations yield incoherent results, this fact holds no weight in determining the validity of that interpretation?  There would be no intellectual grounds left by which we could even compare interpretations or deem an alternative interpretation “contrary,” let alone determine their validity.  There would be no objective means by which to declare inconsistent, incoherent or contradictory interpretations to be just that, let alone decide on their validity.  Interpretive relativism would prevail.  Claiming mystery or incomprehensibility would be the only way to “justify” such interpretations.  And there would be no criteria by which an interpretation could be dislodged out of its own “hermeneutical circle.”

Objective judgment is ultimately necessary, and that cannot occur on any other basis than including rational and moral givens in the interpretive process and calling out inconsistency, incoherence or contradiction in one’s exegetical and interpretive conclusions.  This would apply not only to disparate interpretations but to different hypotheses within one’s one theological framework (e.g., deterministic sovereignty and human freedom).

E. D. Hirsch on Genre and the Hermeneutical Circle

All theological traditions embrace certain presuppositions that they feel spring from accurate interpretations of the biblical text.  Yet given the nature of interpreting a written text, let alone a text that is divinely inspired, the question arises as to whether these presuppositions can so control one’s theological “stance” such that when various evidences are brought forth that suggest an interpretation may not be as accurate as first thought they are deemed to hold little weight in changing that “stance” to more accurately reflect the truth of Scripture.

Hirsch calls this presuppositional stance “the concept of genre.”  “Genre” here is a large concept referring to all that a person brings to the reading and interpretation of verbal or written utterances.  It encompasses all their “meaning expectations.”[54]  Hirsch maintains that,

“…an interpreter’s preliminary generic conception of a text is constitutive of everything that he subsequently understands, and this remains the case unless and until that generic conception is altered.”[55]

Given the fact of our controlling generic conceptions, how then can we come to know the author’s true meaning?  How can our “generic conception” be altered if necessary to take a step closer to the intent of the author?

Hirsch points out that we become conscious that we were under the influence of a controlling generic conception when we experience the realization that we had misunderstood someone and now due to new information we come to more fully grasp a person’s meaning.  Hirsch states that,

“If the generic idea of the meaning as a whole could not be defeated and baffled by the experience of subsequent details, then we would never recognize that we had misunderstood.”[56]

We have all experienced this and know when it happens.  Some new way of thinking or new information has helped us understand what a speaker or author has been meaning to say to us and it strikes us as an obvious revelation.  It strikes us as something new, something that now having grasped makes us realize that we formerly misunderstood the issue.  What Hirsch is pointing out is that the experience of coming to realize we had misunderstood something is proof that the generic conception that once controlled our understanding can be defeated.  If it couldn’t, we would never come to understand a thing or person other than how we have always understood them and presently still do.

Hirsch points out that this involves,

“…the interdependence of part and whole: the whole can be understood only through the parts, but the parts can be understood only through the whole….this encounter could not occur if the parts did not have an autonomy capable of suggesting a certain kind of whole in the first place.”[57]

We can recognize here the principles of coherence, consistency and comprehensiveness discussed above in relation to the “hermeneutical circle.”  Hirsch is saying that one should not remain stuck in a hermeneutical circle.  The circle must be broken to move towards a clearer understanding of competing textual interpretations.  The “parts” have a certain autonomy that adds definition to the “whole.”  This is the “hermeneutical spiral” that Osborne spoke about.

So what “parts” have the strength to alter our “generic conception” and at the same time offer the credible assurance that in the alteration we are coming closer to the author’s intended meaning and thereby clarifying biblical truth and not vice versa?  And what has the strength to challenge our propensity to statically abide in the safety of a traditional textual interpretation that may not be as close to the true meaning of the text?   With regard to Calvinism, should these traditional positions be maintained by resorting to their divinely revealed “spiritual” nature which is ultimately incomprehensible to human understanding despite being logically, morally, textually and theologically incoherent?  Should these traditional positions be maintained in that they establish some other single, particular doctrine (e.g., divine sovereignty defined deterministically), to which all other interpretive propositions must be referred and made to align, while the context of “the whole” remains in logical and moral conflict with that single, particular doctrine which remains exempt from logical and moral reasoning and critique?  In other words, should a “part” – perhaps a certain exegesis of a particular text – be left to hold sway over “the whole” that messages something in contradiction with that “part?”  If incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction between the “the part” and “the whole” is allowed to stand, then interpretation has gone serious astray.   Neither will the claim of mystery or incomprehensibility due to the document being divine revelation hold weight here.  The author’s intent should be able to be clarified even when we are dealing with divine revelation.  Even though divine, it is still revelation, implying it is to be understood. And it is written revelation, implying that the author had coherent thoughts that he has attempted to express in written words.  Therefore, the doctrine of inspiration cannot be used as an excuse for logical and moral incoherence.  “Incomprehensibility” is not an excuse for an improper hermeneutic.  Any incomprehensibility about God or his ways should not be equated with one’s incoherent interpretations.  Interpretation is a process of coming to better understand the meaning of the words on the page.  God is incomprehensible, but that is very different than interpretations that lead us into logical and moral incoherence and proceed to attempt to justify those interpretations as the “incomprehensibility of God’s will or ways.”  More likely this incoherence is simply a failure in the interpretive process.  The words of Milton S. Terry bear repeating here.  He writes,

               “When we find that in the explanation of certain parts of the Scriptures no two interpreters out of a whole class agree, we have great reason to presume at once that some fatal error lurks in their principles of interpretation.  We cannot believe that the sacred writers desired to be misunderstood.  They did not write with a purpose to confuse and mislead their readers.  Nor is it reasonable to suppose that the Scripture, given by divine inspiration, is of the nature of a puzzle designed to exercise the ingenuity of critics.  It was given to make men wise unto salvation, and in great part it is so direct and simple in its teachings that a little child can understand its meaning.”[58]

Indeed, we may discern a failure in the interpretive process in many different ways, but surely an interpretation that is incoherent with its own immediate context or the broader teachings of Scripture must be deemed to have gone amiss.  This is why we cannot cavalierly dismiss the importance of the concerns of philosophy and morality intuition. These will demand we adhere to an interpretive process characterized by clear thinking.

So considerations of the rational and moral coherence of our interpretations are essential to alter our generic conceptions and assure us that we are moving closer to the author’s intended meaning thereby clarifying biblical truth. 

E. D. Hirsch on Exegesis, Context, Plausibility and Coherence

Certainly, exegesis is essential to the interpretative task.  Hirsch states,

“To establish a reading as probable it is first necessary to show, with reference to the norms of language, that it is possible.  This is the criterion of legitimacy: the reading must be permissible with the public norms of the language in which the text is composed.  The second criterion is that of correspondence: the reading must account for each linguistic component in the text.  Whenever a reading arbitrarily ignores linguistic components or inadequately accounts for them, the reading may be presumed improbable.  The third criterion is that of generic appropriateness: if the text follows the conventions of a scientific essay, for example, it is inappropriate to construe the kind of allusive meaning found in casual conversation.[59]/ [60]

These three exegetical concerns are essential to a good hermeneutic.  Giving careful attention to grammar, vocabulary, context and literary genre are what it means to do good exegesis.  The interesting problem is that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists claim they perform this type of grammatical-historical exegesis on the text yet they come to different conclusions.  Now, it may be that an interpreter thinks he has sufficiently taken these criteria into consideration, but that may not be the case.  Another interpreter may come along and show where, for instance, important contextual matters have been missed or ignored.  These exegetical “glitches” are the primary reasons that two scholars can exegete the same text and come to very different conclusions about its meaning.  Nevertheless, once these exegetical flaws are pointed out on either side, why does an exegesis of particular passage convince one biblical scholar of a certain meaning but not the other biblical scholar?  Why is it that the non-Calvinist exegesis of a text, like Romans 9 for instance, is rejected by the Calvinist and vice versa?  What else could be influencing the interpreter’s perspective in their interpretive process?  What are we to do with this Calvinist / non-Calvinist interpretive conflict?  Hirsch continues,

“When these three preliminary criteria have been satisfied, there remains a fourth criterion which gives significance to all the rest, the criterion of plausibility or coherence.  The three preliminary norms usually permit several readings, and this is by definition the case when a text is problematical.  Faced with alternatives, the interpreter chooses the reading which best meets the criterion of coherence.  Indeed, even when the text is not problematical, coherence remains the decisive criterion, since the meaning is “obvious” only because it “makes sense.”[61] (Emphasis mine)

This is the crucial point in the Calvinist/non-Calvinist controversy that confronts us.  Hirsch says, “The criterion of plausibility or coherence” is what “gives significance to all the rest.”  One may do a thorough exegesis of a text, but without assessing that exegesis according to logical and moral coherence we would not know if the exegesis is valid.  And if the exegesis fails the test of logical and moral coherence, it cannot be established as plausible.  It is not valid.  As Hirsch states, “even when the text is not problematical, coherence remains the decisive criterion, since the meaning is “obvious” only because it “makes sense.””  Our interpretations have to “make sense.”  They cannot lead to nonsense and still be touted as valid interpretations of the text.  So, this matter of discerning a valid interpretation has more fundamental roots in a hermeneutic of coherence.  The Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy extends beyond producing a formal exegesis to judging which interpretations evidence coherence and are therefore more likely correct.  As Hirsch puts it,

“Everybody who thinks he understands an utterance certainly does understand some meaning or other.  The appropriate subject for this discussion, therefore, is not how to understand but how to judge and criticize what one does understand.  The problem is to decide whether one’s understanding is probably correct.  This is ultimately the problem of validation.”[62]

Hirsch observes that a sense of the meaning of the whole of a passage in context, which is to say with coherence, is crucial to its proper understanding.

“It is possible that details of exegesis can be brilliantly right while the tendency of the whole is wrong…”[63]

So, an exegesis of a text does not, in and of itself – that is, simply be being an exegesis of the text – guarantee that the correct meaning of the text has been explicated.  Even an exegesis must be assessed as to its accuracy.  That means it needs to be assessed as to its coherence with the immediate and broader contexts.  To claim that a text means x on the basis of one’s exegesis does not tell us anything about the accuracy of the exegesis.  It may present a meaning, but we need to establish the validity of that proposed meaning.  Exegesis occurs in the context of a particular broader hermeneutic.  That hermeneutic must include interpretive plausibility or coherence. 

A sound hermeneutic includes exegetical methods and principles like original language vocabulary, grammar, historical and literary context, authorial intent, flow of thought and literary genre.  These are, of course, essential.  But as one’s exegesis suggests a meaning of a text, that meaning must be a meaning that contributes to a coherent understanding of the text as a whole and in relation to the meaning of other texts.  The exegetical parts lend their input into determining the meaning of the text, but that meaning should be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory within its own context, in relation to other texts in the broader context, and characteristic of the theology built upon them.  For instance, as biblical scholar Henry Thiessen observes, the non-Calvinist view of election,

“…has fewer objections than any other, and best commends itself in the light of what we know of the righteousness and holiness of God on the one hand, and of human responsibility on the other.”[64]

Thiessen is weighing an interpretation on the basis of its ability to coherently account for more of the data that needs to be accounted for.  Hirsch also emphasizes the role of context here.

“Coherence depends on context, and it is helpful to recall our definition of context: it is a sense of the whole meaning, constituted of explicit meaning plus a horizon of expectations and probabilities.  One meaning coheres with another because it is typical or probable with reference to the whole (coherence is thus the first cousin of implication).  The criterion of coherence can be invoked only with reference to a particular context, and this context may be inferred only by positing the author’s horizon, his disposition toward a particular type of meaning.  This conclusion requires elaboration.

The fact that coherence is a dependent quality leads to an unavoidable circularity in the process of interpretation.  An interpreter posits meanings for the words and word sequences he confronts, and, at the same time, he has to posit a whole meaning or context in reference to which the submeanings cohere with one another.  The procedure is thoroughly circular; the context is derived from the submeanings and submeanings are specified and rendered coherent with reference to the context.  This circularity makes it difficult to convince the reader to alter his construction, as every teacher knows.  Many a self-willed student continues to insist that his reading is just as plausible as his instructor’s, and, very often, the student is justified; his reading does make good sense.  Often, the only thing at fault with the student’s reading is that it is probably wrong, not that it is incoherent.  The student persists in his opinion precisely because his construction is coherent and self-sustaining.  In such a case he is wrong because he has misconstrued the context or sense of the whole.  In this respect the student’s hardheadedness is not different from that of all self-convinced interpreters.  Our readings are too plausible to be relinquished.  If we have a distorted sense of the text’s whole meaning, the harder we look at it the more certainly we shall find our distorted construction confirmed.

Since the quality of coherence depends upon the context inferred, there is no absolute standard of coherence by which we can adjudicate between different coherent readings.  Verification by coherence implies therefore a verification of the grounds on which the reading is coherent.  It is necessary to establish that the context invoked is the most probable context.  Only then, in relation to an established context, can we judge that one reading is more coherent than another.”[65]

As I have stated before, Hirsch reminds us here that coherence is not a sufficient condition for declaring an interpretation valid.  An interpretation may be coherent but wrong because it misconstrues the context or sense of the whole. Yet Hirsch affirms, and rightly so, that coherence is a necessary condition.  And where an interpretation is coherent but wrong, then the interpreter must also be misconstruing the context – that is, failing to establish coherence between the interpretation of the particular text and its context.  Good interpretation has the two working in tandem on the basis of their coherence with each other.

Calvinism is a “self-sustaining” system of theology.  It can be seen as somewhat coherent within itself.  The elements of TULIP stand in logical relation to each other and indeed if one element falls they all fall with it.  But that is not the only sense in which coherence matters.  What makes Calvinism wrong, in my opinion, is what Hirsch points out – that the interpreter “misconstrued the context or sense of the whole.”  It is this coherence with the whole that is primary.  Coherence with elements in the context, or in this case the biblical canon as a whole, is essential.  It is incumbent upon us to “posit a whole meaning or context in reference to which the sub-meanings cohere with one another.”

Note that coherence is incumbent upon the interpreter, even if it entails circularity.  The point is that it is not dispensable.  What will justify a textual interpretation as correct will be whether it properly reflects the context.  Note also that the “context” for biblical interpretation is the whole Bible – and that includes all its various divine acts, words, statements, themes, etc.  I affirm Hirsch’s point about the relation of context to coherence.  Yet, I submit that our ability to “make sense” of the context and contextual relationships involves affirmation of the usefulness and trustworthiness of our faculties of reason and our moral sense.  These are presupposed in any type of interpretive endeavor.  These are presupposed in the detection of what constitutes a coherent or incoherent interpretation within the various contexts.

All this may seem somewhat obvious to most of you. But it needs to be kept in the forefront because my observation is that Calvinism discounts this issue of rational coherence to preserve their theology from interpretive critique.  If both the Calvinist and non-Calvinist are trapped in an interpretive procedure that is thoroughly circular, how will we move closer to the truth of the text?  Hirsch’s point about context applies.  One’s interpretations may cohere internally but do they cohere externally with the context and other evidences to be considered?  We should note that the whole of Scripture is the context in which we interpret portions of Scripture.  Scripture interprets Scripture.  Recall that Hirsch states,

“Verification by coherence implies therefore a verification of the grounds on which the reading is coherent.  It is necessary to establish that the context invoked is the most probable context.  Only then, in relation to an established context, can we judge that one reading is more coherent than another.”

Therefore, as we examine Calvinism we must be looking at how their various exegetical conclusions and the doctrines built upon them cohere with other exegetical conclusions and theological themes that are integral to the whole of Scripture.  We must examine the Calvinist understanding of soteriology to see if it’s exegesis and doctrines “make sense” not only within their own TULIP construct, but in relation to the larger context of the Bible as a whole.  But we must also note that this task requires the acknowledgement that logical reasoning and our moral intuitions are necessary for the task.  These cannot be dismissed and still think that one can affirm coherence.  To dismiss these is to dismiss the principle of coherence which to dismiss the principle of context.  These are the means by which we discern the coherence of an interpretation, that is, the means by which we interpret in context.  These cannot be dismissed if we are going to progress towards the most probable meaning of a text. 

One short-coming of Calvinism is its failure to attend to context.  We can detect this by the rational and moral incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions that are characteristic of Calvinism.  These are substantial “defeaters” of the Calvinist’s “generic idea” which is its theistic determinism.  This produces the incoherence of Calvinism.  But logical, linguistic, moral, epistemological, and biblical coherence and integration are the “parts” that contribute to the interpretive “whole” by which the Calvinist hermeneutical circle that theistic determinism creates can be broken.  Determinism creates a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling interpretive conclusions.  But they result in incoherence.  This “hermeneutical circle” has to be broken.  But it can only be broken if the Calvinist acknowledges that incoherence is indicative of a violation of the principle of context.  Only then will they see the unbiblical nature of their universal divine causal determinism.  Only then will they understand that it cannot be the true meaning of the text and therefore begin the hermeneutical spiral that brings them closer to the truth about these difficult issues.  A vicious circularity will only leave us hermeneutically and theologically perplexed.  In contrast, a hermeneutic of coherence allows all the “parts” to play a significant role in the interpretive process.  The result is an inevitable movement to the very different “generic idea” of non-determinism while embracing a more biblical understanding of divine sovereignty.  A non-deterministic “generic idea” better accounts for “the meaning as a whole” within which the many “parts” of the biblical text are known to logically, linguistically, morally, and epistemologically cohere.

The presence of a spectrum of incoherencies is a reliable indicator that one’s interpretive approach and driving theological presuppositions are faulty in and of themselves and need to be re-examined in light of the biblical text under a sound hermeneutic.  When all the dust clears from even a careful exegesis in support of one position or another, and there is no agreement on the meaning of various texts and their theological import, I find that what constitutes rational thought and moral clarity lay at the heart of the problem.  What constitutes coherent interpretive thought is at the center of the Calvinist / non-Calvinist hermeneutical divide.  Whether an interpreter considers rational and moral coherence in their interpretive process and theological discourse or not, along with the weight each assigns to rational and moral coherence in determining interpretive and theological validity, is at the heart of this controversy. This matter of interpretive coherence enables one to accept, or compels them to reject, certain theological propositions.  I would argue, not only that we can know and should attended to the principles of interpretive practice (i.e., the historical-grammatical-literary method of exegesis), but we can know and must attend to the principles of interpretive thought (i.e., coherent thought and speech, logical, moral, and epistemological consistency, non-contradiction, comprehensiveness, integration, harmony amongst the whole, etc.).  Sound exegesis and hermeneutical principles are both essential for proper interpretation.

E. D. Hirsch on Validation, Probability and Plausibility

Given that Calvinists and non-Calvinists hold to mutually exclusive interpretations, is it possible to determine which one is the valid interpretation?  Hirsch asks the following important questions.

“Is there really a possibility of showing that an interpretation is valid?  Can knowledge of a text’s meaning be established objectively like other forms of knowledge?  Can an interpretation be validated in a way that will compel assent from all or from most qualified observers?  Finally, is interpretation really a discipline, or is it just a playground for the jousting of opinions, fancies, and private preferences, where the stake is not knowledge but the so-called higher humane values?”[66]

Hirsch answers,

“Understanding achieves a construction of meaning; the job of validation is to evaluate the disparate constructions which understanding has brought forward.  Validation is therefore the fundamental task of interpretation as a discipline, since wherever agreement already exists there is little practical need for validation…I now prefer the term “validation” to the more definitive-sounding word “verification.”  To verify is to show that a conclusion is true; to validate is to show that a conclusion is probably true on the basis of what is known.  From the nature of the case the goal of interpretation must be the modest one of achieving validations so defined.  But it also follows from the nature of the case that interpretation is implicitly a progressive discipline.  Its new conclusions, based on greater knowledge, are more probable than the previous conclusions it has rejected.

               With respect to the discipline of interpretation, the demonstration that a reading is valid implies, therefore, a great deal more than individual interpreters generally provide.  A validation has to show not merely that an interpretation is plausible, but that it is the most plausible one available.”[67]

Is a consensus agreement on the meaning of a text possible?  Hirsch states,

“Validation has the more ambitious goal of showing not only that an interpretation is legitimate but that its likelihood of being correct is greater than or equal to that of any other known hypothesis about the text.  The aim of validation is to give objective sanction to a particular interpretive hypothesis and thereby to provide the only possible foundation for a consensus omnium with regard to the text.”[68]

Hirsch’s seeks to establish

 “…that interpretation does at least have a determinate object of knowledge – the author’s verbal meaning – and…such knowledge is in principle attainable.”[69]

He goes on to say that,

“Validation is the process which shows that in a particular case such knowledge has probably been achieved.  Without validation no interpretation could be shown to be more probable than another, and no interpreter could hope to achieve knowledge in any objective sense.  The practical and theoretical exigencies of validation, knotty as they are, must finally be faced.”[70]

How do we reach a valid conclusion?  Hirsch states,

“I am assuming, however, most readers feel as I do, that in everyday usage a “valid” conclusion implies one that has been reached by acceptable reasoning.”[71] (Emphasis mine)

Can we reach a “consensus omnium” on this Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy?  I believe we can if we attend to the matter of interpretive validity which Hirsch says is “reached by acceptable reasoning.”  The issue of “acceptable reasoning” cannot be sidelined and still think that we will be able to discern a legitimate, valid interpretation.

Hirsch also states that all the relevant data is to be considered.

               “A validation requires a consideration of all the known relevant data…in making a validation we cannot rest content with the fact that one single kind of evidence favors one of the hypotheses.  We want to know how the hypotheses stand with respect to all the relevant evidence that has been brought forward.  Internal evidence…is least likely to enable a decision on its own grounds.  …there always exists relevant evidence beyond such internal evidence, and failure to use it simply makes our guesses unreliable and all attempts at adjudication well-nigh impossible.”[72]

It seems to me that the non-Calvinist position is better able to coherently incorporate “all of the known relevant data” of Scripture into their theological and soteriological doctrines.  In contrast, the Calvinist does “rest content with the fact that one single kind of evidence favors” their hypothesis, that being their deterministic interpretation of the “sovereignty of God.”  That they “rest content” in their theistic determinism is evidenced in that they must ultimately flee to mystery and incomprehensibility.  Ultimately they avoid and dismiss “acceptable reasoning.”  For instance, Calvinist Edwin Palmer acknowledges the absurdity of what the Calvinist affirms.  He states,

 “He [the Calvinist] realizes that what he advocates is ridiculous….The Calvinist freely admits that his position is illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical and foolish.”[73]

So what kind of hermeneutic is at work here?  Palmer explains,

“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?[74]

The hermeneutic at work here accepts the “principle” that the Word of God can teach nonsense.  Palmer admits to and accepts the nonsense of holding to both deterministic sovereignty and human responsibility because he believes the Bible teaches both.  So for Palmer, a choice has to be made regarding what will be our authority.  Will it be the Word of God or human reason?  But this is a false dichotomy.  It betrays a flawed hermeneutic that rejects the deliberations and deliverances of logical reflection and moral intuition in the interpretive task.  But this hermeneutic leaves us asking how we, or Palmer, could ever validate Palmer’s claim that the Bible correctly interpreted teaches both his deterministic definition of divine sovereignty and genuine human responsibility?  The answer is that we cannot validate Palmer’s interpretation.  We can go no further without employing “acceptable reasoning” in the interpretive task – something Palmer has forfeited. There can be no “objective sanction” given to his interpretive hypothesis.  He has removed “the only possible foundation for a consensus omnium with regard to the text.”  Palmer’s “interpretation” becomes merely a question-begging assertion.  In contrast, the non-Calvinist’s interpretation incorporates “acceptable reasoning” and thereby provides the objective knowledge upon which validation rests.

Whether Calvinists admit it or not, Calvinism fails to coherently incorporate all the relevant data the Scripture presents and must be accounted for if we are going to come to interpretations that can be seen to be valid, that is, move towards the more probable meaning of a text.

Hirsch addresses the search for “practical interpretive canons” or interpretive rules that if applied will lead to valid interpretations.  He concludes that rather than simply applying a set of rules to the text we need to make “informed probability judgments.”

“The notion that a reliable methodology of interpretation can be built upon a set of canons is thus a mirage.  Precooked maxims carry less authority than informed probability judgments about particular cases, and verbal constructions cannot possibly be governed by any methods.  No possible set of rules or rites of preparation can generate or compel an insight into what an author means.  The act of understanding is at first a genial (or a mistaken) guess, and there are no methods for making guesses, no rules for generating insights.”[75]

The biblical interpreter will insist for more objectivity here through the process of exegesis and the very hermeneutical principles Hirsch himself has set forth and I will discuss in the section below on Grant Osborne’s observations in this regard.  I maintain that the technical aspects of exegesis are necessary for coming to a valid interpretation, and we would hope that they would “generate or compel an insight into what an author means.”  We are not relegated to “making guesses.” But Hirsch’s point here is also well-taken.  If our exegesis devolves into “precooked maxims” or static rules to follow in examining the ink on a page, we may miss the intent of the author altogether as a person in a particular context writing about particular issues.  And it behooves us to ask whether a technical exegesis that leads to diametrically opposed interpretations within Scripture has failed to serve its purpose, or only has limited possibilities, and at times is therefore not enough to lead us fully into what the author wants to communicate.

Be that as it may. Whatever Hirsch is warning of here, he cannot be contradicting his clear statements about the necessity for “acceptable reasoning” or coherence in interpretation.  We also need to have insight into what the author means to say, and this will require attention to coherence and consistency in interpretive analysis and non-contradiction between interpretive conclusions.  The point here is that there is a science and art to interpretation.

Hirsch makes the point that the probability judgments that are essential for validation are based upon both “large scale probability judgments” at the generic level as well as “small-scale evidence” or “internal” evidence gleaned from the text itself.  Hirsch writes,

“The small-scale evidence is sometimes called “internal” since it comprises individual words and phrases of the text, but the appellation is misleading, since “outside” information must necessarily be applied in order to make a probability judgment about these elements in the text.”[76]

            We cannot come to the most likely interpretation of a text only by applying the grammatical-historical method of exegesis.  That is not to say that the exegetical task is not essential for interpretation.  Of course it is.  But other considerations from the broader scope of Scripture and even outside Scripture from other disciplines (i.e., the empirical and social sciences, philosophy, apologetics, etc.) and our experiences of reality are necessary to take into consideration for properly interpreting the “small-scale evidence”.  Hirsch goes on to conclude,

“In the course of making any of these probability judgments, the interpreter’s chief concern is to narrow the class; that is to say, his chief concern is to find out as much as he can about his text and all matters related to it.  That everyone has always known this conclusion is another illustration of the fact that the logic of uncertainty is the logic of common sense.[77] (Emphasis mine)

Exegesis finds out as much as possible about a text, yet we must also find out “all matters” relating to the text which ultimately involves us in “the logic of common sense.”  Hirsch writes,

“It is possible that details of exegesis can be brilliantly right while the tendency of the whole is wrong…”[78]

This point is obvious in the controversy before us.  The Calvinist exegete comes up with a certain meaning of the text while the non-Calvinist comes up with a disparate meaning.  Hence, probability judgments are also necessary.  But how are “probability judgments” to be made?  Hirsch continues,

“The methodical activity of interpretation commences when we begin to test and criticize our guesses.  These two sides of the interpretive process, the hypothetical and the critical, are not of course neatly separated when we are pondering a text, for we are constantly testing our guesses both large and small as we gradually build up a coherent structure of meaning.”[79] (Emphasis mine)

            And here is the important element and conclusion of the search for validity.  Foundational to the interpretive processes of the hypothetical (suggesting a meaning) and the critical (testing the suggested meaning), there is the indispensable hermeneutical principle of coherence which must be acknowledged and ultimately be evidenced by the whole interpretive affair and its conclusions.

            Certainly an exegesis that claims to have laid bare the meaning of a text needs to be validated.  Hirsch argues that no set of rules or “canons of construction” applied to the text will automatically produce a correct interpretation.  Therefore, all suggested interpretations must also be subjected to a process of critical evaluation or “acceptable reasoning,” especially those disparate interpretations.  Hirsch states that,

“Both processes are necessary in interpretation, but only one of them is governed by logical principles.”[80]

            Interpretations must be brought to the bar of criticism, not to dismiss their ultimate incoherence, but to have their validity confirmed by the criteria of coherence.  Interpretations must be judged and tested not only by what is found internally within the text, but in relation to other interpretations of that text and the meaning of other texts.  A sound hermeneutic will “gradually build up a coherent structure of meaning.”  This criteria of coherence implies correspondence of a broad scope of textual data to achieve validation of one hypothesis over a competing hypothesis.  One’s biblical textual interpretations and the theological construct built upon them, must evidence rational coherence in order to be deemed valid.  I submit that the evidence given in the previous chapters and in those to come, shows that this necessary coherence is lacking in the Calvinist’s interpretations.

We have seen that validity in interpretation involves “acceptable reasoning” and the gradual building up of “a coherent structure of meaning.”  Hirsch goes a step further to talk about the role of logic in establishing interpretive validity.

E. D. Hirsch and a Logic of Validation

Hirsch states,

               “Conflicting interpretations can be subjected to scrutiny in the light of the relevant evidence, and objective conclusions can be reached…Even the fact that some un-self-critical or fractious souls might stubbornly refuse assent to conclusions so reached does not exclude such conclusions from the domain of genuine knowledge.  For when a scholar has said, “Here is all the relevant evidence that has been brought forward, and here are the conclusions which that evidence requires,” his statement is no longer subject merely to opposition by rhetorical posturing.  His claim can be shown to be false – either because he has overlooked some of the known evidence or because he has made a mistake in logic.  Such an exposure of his oversight or his mistake can objectively overturn his conclusion, but nothing else can.  His conclusion must stand until new evidence is brought forward.

               The discipline of interpretation is founded, then, not on a methodology of construction but on a logic of validation…the root problem of interpretation is always the same – to guess what the author meant.  Even though we can never be certain that our interpretive guesses are correct, we know they can be correct and that the goal of interpretation as a discipline is constantly to increase the probability that they are correct.  In the earlier chapters of this book, I showed that only one interpretive problem can be answered with objectivity: “What, in all probability, did the author mean to convey?”  In this final chapter, I have tried to show more particularly wherein that objectivity lies.  It lies in our capacity to say on firm principles, “Yes, that answer is valid” or “No, it is not.”[81]  (First para. emphasis mine)

We should not misunderstand Hirsch as advocating that interpretation amounts to “guesswork.”  From what he says here in context, this is obviously not what he is saying.  He is making the point that even though certainty is never achievable, we can know which interpretations are correct by bringing forth “all the relevant evidence” for one’s interpretations.  The goal of the interpretive discipline is “to increase the probability that they are correct.”  And to do this there must be standards or principles by which to judge correctness.

That said, the most important points here that are relevant to our controversy are the two things that Hirsch states will show an interpretive claim to be false.  They are, failing to adhere to the principle of comprehensiveness, and, to make a mistake regarding coherence or logic.  Hirsch states them as “he [the interpreter] has overlooked some of the known evidence” and “he has made a mistake in logic.”  I submit that these are two of the most egregious errors Calvinists make in their interpretation of the text.  They fail at the principle of comprehensiveness, which is akin to the principle of context as I discussed previously.  That is, they do not take some of the “known evidence” from the immediate and broader contexts into consideration in their interpretation of certain texts.  But also, and this directly related to the principle of comprehensiveness, they dismiss logic.  They do not merely make a “mistake” in logic, they ignore it altogether in their interpretations when their interpretations run afoul of logic.  I have demonstrated this in previous chapters and described it as “the suppression of reason” within a hermeneutic of incoherence.  I have argued that this is the hermeneutic of Calvinism.  

Therefore, according to sound hermeneutical principles, when the non-Calvinist exposes the logical flaws in Calvinism they have objectively and successfully demonstrated Calvinism to be false. The Calvinist would have to present new objective evidence to defeat the non-Calvinist’s critique of Calvinism.  Furthermore, when the non-Calvinist faithfully and as fully as possible implements the principles of comprehensiveness, context and coherence, they have defended the validity of their position and it cannot be overturned merely by “rhetorical posturing.”  The non-Calvinist has more successfully approached the goal of interpretation as a discipline, which is “constantly to increase the probability that they are correct.”  Hirsch has argued that one question can be answered with objectivity, that is, “What, in all probability, did the author mean to convey?”  He has also “tried to show more particularly wherein that objectivity lies.”  He has said that, “It lies in our capacity to say on firm principles, “Yes, that answer is valid” or “No, it is not.”

I submit that on the basis of these “firm principles” of interpretation it can be said of the non-Calvinist position, “Yes, that answer is valid.”  And to the degree that the Calvinist is indifferent to these “firm principles” it can be said of their position, “No, it is not.”  In that the Calvinist jettisons coherence in the interpretive task, which involves violating other accepted hermeneutical principles (e.g., context, authorial intent, comprehensiveness, Scripture interprets Scripture and the perspicuity of Scripture), we can confidently say there is little probability that their interpretations are valid.

What I am arguing for here is a broadening of the grounds upon which the validity of competing hypotheses can be determined.  Validation requires due consideration of all the relevant data with respect to the logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical coherence of that data.  And I am arguing that coherence is as much an evidence to be brought to the validation process as any of the evidence gleaned from a technical exegesis.  All technical exegetical data requires being placed in relation to other data, and these relations must stand as coherent relations if they are going to support the claim that we are involved in a legitimate, biblically faithful hermeneutical process.

 I am not primarily arguing for “rules” of interpretation here.  I am arguing for the incorporation of what makes thought about anything rational thought – the rules of logic.  Sound interpretation presupposes the avoidance of inconsistency, incoherence and contradiction.  Recall what Hirsch has said about an interpreter’s claim to validity, that is, “His claim can be shown to be false – either because he has overlooked some of the known evidence or because he has made a mistake in logic.” 

Again, this applies to anyone’s interpretations and the theologies built upon those interpretations.  Indeed, as Hirsch points out, determining validity is an exercise that involves the coherence of certain interpretive claims in relation to other interpretive claims.  Yet they cannot stand in static relationship to each other or to the text.  What must be determined is which is closer to the truth, and for that to happen there must be a criteria for determining textual meaning and truth statements about the text.  I am suggesting that logical, moral and biblical coherence are indispensable for this task.

“…when interpretive disagreements do occur, genuine knowledge is possible only if someone takes the responsibility of adjudicating the issue in the light of all that is known.  That few such adjudications exist merely argues strongly that many more should be undertaken.  An interpreter is usually deceiving himself if he believes he has anything better to do…”[82]

The mutual exclusivity of the Calvinist / non-Calvinist interpretation of Scripture is a situation ripe for adjudication and validation.  Given Hirsch’s assessment of the means of validation, I am attempting to demonstrate that when we engage in such adjudication, the Calvinist soteriology is not “the most plausible one available.”  The essential interpretive issue is whether the Calvinist’s deterministic view of God’s eternal decree and sovereignty is a valid interpretation of Scripture.  Validity has to do with plausibility, and I contend plausibility has to do with logical, moral and biblical coherence, consistency, harmony and non-contradiction.  Interpretations that are incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory are not plausible interpretations.

We therefore have a hermeneutical divide that centers on validation which involves us in the question of whether or not rational coherence is an indispensable element in a credible, biblical hermeneutic.  This is the question the Calvinist must answer.  But it seems to be a question they refuse to answer.  It is what creates the hermeneutical divide between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist with respect to the interpretive conclusions.  I submit that discerning whether or not Calvinist theology is inherently rationally and morally coherent in relation to the full scope of biblical and doctrinal considerations, that is, whether it conforms to the canons of reason in its interpretive processes and conclusions is an essential factor in determining the validity of those processes and conclusions.

We should observe that there is an interaction among types of evidence that requires a thought process of comparing and contrasting that evidence.  And it is the intellectual processing of the relationship among these evidences that I am highlighting here which is crucial for the proper validation of the meaning of a text.  It involves “the logic of common sense.”  It involves rational coherence among interpretive possibilities.  “Probability judgments” involve judgments, and judgments, in order to be sound judgments, require not just any mode of reasoning, but a particular mode of reasoning that distinguishes sense from nonsense.  It requires the acceptance and exercise of logical thinking.

Now, although Calvinists generally ignore the question as to whether rational coherence is indispensable to a credible, biblical hermeneutic, they nevertheless endeavor to respond to the problems inherent in their theology.  But these responses must also be examined for their rational coherence.  Are the explanations given by Calvinist to justify their theistic determinism intellectually sufficient?  Are they also incoherent?  Do these Calvinist responses vindicate Calvinism from its unique, inherent inconsistencies?  Is the Calvinist response that “the Bible teaches” God’s sovereignty defined as theistic determinism and human freedom defined as the ability to do what one desires with these desires being determined by God a plausible attempt at harmonizing human freedom with determinism?  What are the implications for our doctrine of Scripture as to its inspiration, authority, and perspicuity if it is the case that diametrically opposed theologies and soteriologies can be gleaned from the same Bible?  Is it convincing that the inconsistency between sovereign predetermination and human freedom is only an “apparent contradiction?”  Do the logical and moral quandaries generated by the propositions that God predestined every thought, desire, action and eternal destiny of every person for all time and yet God is not responsible for the evil they do, and yet each person is responsible for accepting or rejecting God’s salvation in Christ and their eternal destiny, tell us anything about the biblical validity of those propositions?

If the deterministic Calvinist doctrines of God and salvation generate logical, moral and theological incoherence with other biblical doctrines and themes and fail to clarify our understanding of God, secure our trust in Him, provide the grounds for a proclamation of the gospel as “good news,” honestly summon the sinner to faith in Christ, edify believers in their relationship to God and provide them with the assurance of God’s love and salvation, how can it be maintained that these doctrines accurately reflect the meaning of Scripture?

Each Christian must come to their own convictions on these matters.  But upon what grounds can a conviction be legitimately and sufficiently founded?  Personal preference for one’s theological tradition is one thing.  Conviction based upon biblical truth is another.  And my point is that the search for and a conviction based on biblical truth involves us in the interpretation of a text. And interpreting a text accurately involves us in principles of interpretation. For us to know whether or not our convictions are based on biblical truth, they must be grounded in a process of interpretation that can be shown to be valid.  Merely to present an interpretation does nothing to establish its validity.  Among other things, the principles of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are necessary for one to claim their interpretative process and conclusions are valid and warrant our belief.

Many who embrace Calvinism do so without consideration of the fact that Calvinism is plagued by incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  And when Calvinist’s are willing to examine their theology with respect to its rational and moral coherence, they either add to their incoherence with the explanations they devise in defense of their theology because they refuse to alter the source of their incoherence which is their universal divine causal determinism, or more often than not the various incoherencies in their position are summarily dismissed as having no hermeneutical weight in determining the biblical validity of Calvinism.

I contend that on Calvinism Scripture cannot be read coherently precisely because Calvinism is a universal divine causal determinism and this determinism is contrary to the overwhelming witness in Scripture to a non-deterministic reality.  It is because the Bible witnesses to a non-deterministic reality and that a hermeneutic of coherence is the hermeneutic that makes the best sense of all the data that needs to be considered in the interpretive task, that I am compelled to draw the conclusion that Calvinism is a misinterpretation of divine sovereignty.  It is only when you adopt a hermeneutic of incoherence that you can embrace Calvinism or remain a Calvinist.  The Calvinist’s reading and interpretations of Scripture must ignore the non-determinism that is everywhere testified to throughout Scripture.  Therefore, if one is going to require coherence, consistency and non-contradiction from their interpretations and incorporate these in their hermeneutic, they cannot be a Calvinist.  If these are not required of one’s interpretations or within their hermeneutic then they may become or remain a Calvinist.  Thus the “genre concept” of non-determinism provides a coherent explanation for more biblical data than the “genre concept” of the theistic determinism of Calvinism.  It is this rational and moral discrepancy within Calvinist interpretation, along with all the problems that it generates, that the Calvinist is able to dismiss.  And the Calvinist, not being able to extricate himself from the negative rational and moral entailments of theological determinism, must attempt to rationalize both the text and the reality of human freedom of thought and action – for good and evil – that he finds everywhere around him.

If the distinctions we make between things coherent and incoherent are real and fundamental to rational thought and discourse and for coming to know what is true from what is false, and if they must be incorporated into our hermeneutic if it is to be biblically and intellectually sound, then this failure to do so is what betrays Calvinism, or any other theological model, as an erroneous portrayal of the biblical data and the Christian faith.

E. D. Hirsch on Particular Exegesis, Interpretation of the Whole and Probability

            Good interpretation requires engagement and challenge at the hermeneutical level which is broader and more encompassing than what is involved and can be discovered in the exegesis of a particular text alone.  The exegesis of particular texts must be integrated into a biblical whole.  And integration requires the application of the parts into the whole in a rationally coherent manner.  Whether a theological viewpoint is biblical truth and worthy of our belief ultimately rests upon the validity of its interpretations of the text.  E. D. Hirsch writes,

               “Since all humane studies… are founded upon the interpretation of texts, valid interpretation is crucial to the validity of all subsequent inferences in those studies.  The theoretical aim of a genuine discipline, scientific or humanistic, is the attainment of truth, and its practical aim is agreement that truth has probably been achieved.  Thus the practical goal of every genuine discipline is consensus – the winning of firmly grounded agreement that one set of conclusions is more probable than others – and this is precisely the goal of valid interpretation.”[83]

            If Hirsch is correct about the possibility of attaining consensus about the truth via valid interpretation, even if it always remains a question of which conclusion “is more probable than others,” then the incompatible differences between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologies and soteriologies indicates a static state of affairs that is indicative of serious interpretive failure within evangelicalism.  Evangelicals have been indifferent as to “the attainment of truth” in these matters.

            I have attempted to show that contributing to this static state of affairs is the fact that Calvinism dismisses the essential criteria by which the validity of their biblical interpretations and theological model can be verified.  It is this, along with the manipulation of other religious sensitivities, that sustains the Calvinist soteriology, not that it is hermeneutically and biblically justified.  And in the spirit of what I have affirmed about the “hermeneutical spiral” and in support of being challenged by those who hold to a different point of view, I remain open to correction of my present perspective.

            When someone claims, “the Bible says…” we immediately are engaged in the question of proper interpretation.  When claims about what “the Bible says” become incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory with other things also claimed to be what “the Bible says” – as I believe I have sufficiently demonstrated is the case in Calvinism – then we are certainly duty-bound to raise the question as to how we know such claims are true.  I contend that the incoherence which is inherent within Calvinism makes it suspect as a valid interpretation of biblical theology and soteriology.

            I submit that such incoherence is not sufficiently considered with respect to the implications for a biblical hermeneutic and the search for truth.  I maintain that there are good reasons for believing that certain essential Calvinist doctrines and much of their soteriology is unbiblical and that a necessary means by which this can be verified is the application of principle of coherence to their interpretations of the biblical texts.

            When rational and moral coherence, logical and linguistic consistency, and non-contradiction are jettisoned as unimportant for verifying the validity of one’s interpretive propositions then creative rationalizations, unbiblical notions, philosophical speculations, historically contextual religious influences, and personal spiritual proclivities will be imposed upon the text, shaping particular texts to mean what the settled theological tradition asserts rather than what the author intended.  Once these critical elements of a sound, biblical hermeneutic are put aside simply to maintain a tradition that is convinced it does the most to “give God all the glory in salvation” [84] despite the logical, moral, epistemological, and theological incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction that that tradition generates, even well-meaning religious intentions can trump an honest engagement at the hermeneutical level resulting in the propagation of unbiblical positions.  I contend that this is nowhere more self-evident than in the Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  And most importantly therefore, these doctrines cannot preserve “the gospel” in accord with its biblical definition as “good news.”

            Judging between alternative interpretations and discerning which interpretation is probably correct is the essence of validation.  This distinction between formal exegesis leading to proposed understandings and the ability to discern the more plausible interpretation among competing understandings, what Hirsch called “probability judgments,” is something akin to Grant Osborne’s “hermeneutical spiral.” It is to Osborne’s hermeneutic that we now turn.

Grant Osborne

The Hermeneutical Spiral and Interpretive Coherence

New Testament scholar Grant Osborne states, “Hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word meaning “to interpret.”  He says that the traditional meaning is “that science which delineates principles or methods of interpreting an individual author’s meaning.”  Although in more recent times many would want to restrict the term “hermeneutics” solely to the meaning the text has for us today, Osborne uses it to refer to gleaning the meaning of the text as the author intended to be understood as well as its significance for us today.  So he sees hermeneutics as an “overall term while exegesis and “contextualization” (the crosscultural communication of a text’s significance for today) are the two aspects of the larger task.”[85] 

He states that,

“…biblical interpretation entails a “spiral” from text to context, from its original meaning to its contextualization or significance for the church today.  Scholars…have been fond of describing a “hermeneutical circle” within which our interpretation of the text leads to its interpreting us… A “spiral” is a better metaphor because it is not a closed circle but rather an open-ended movement from the horizon of the text to the horizon of the reader.  I am not going round and round a closed circle that can never detect the true meaning but I am spiraling nearer and nearer to the text’s intended meaning as I refine my hypotheses and allow the text to continue to challenge and correct those alternative interpretations, then to guide my delineation of its significance for my situation today.  The sacred author’s intended meaning is the critical starting-point but not an end in itself.  The task of hermeneutics must begin with exegesis but is not complete until one notes the contextualization of that meaning for today…

Moreover, preachers or teachers must proclaim the Word of God rather than their own subjective religious opinions.  Only a carefully defined hermeneutic can keep one wedded to the text.”[86]

“The concept of God’s plan as it affects his Son, the creation of the world, the redemption of mankind, and the individuals who compose the church, is clearly present in the New Testament, and it is no part of our purpose to obscure this fact by hiding any of the evidence; our task in this volume is to be true to Scripture. But it is one thing to state what Scripture says; it is another to understand it and to bring it into relation with the rest of what Scripture says.”

I. Howard Marshall, Grace Unlimited, 130.

            The idea behind the hermeneutical circle and Osborne’s hermeneutical spiral is that exegesis must include a process through which the text is allowed to serve as the authoritative check on previous interpretive conclusions.  We must proceed in a way that progresses in interpretive accuracy and relevant present application.  Osborne puts it this way,

               “I am spiraling nearer and nearer to the text’s intended meaning as I refine my hypotheses and allow the text to continue to challenge and correct those alternative interpretations…”[87]

            But how does the interpreter “refine [his] hypotheses?”  What will “allow the text to continue to challenge and correct those alternative interpretations?”  I contend that an essential hermeneutical element in this process must be the weight one puts on the coherence of the interpretations produced in the exegetical process.  One must include in their assessment of their interpretations whether or not they are coherent, consistent and non-contradictory with the immediate context and the canon as a whole.  What else can “challenge and correct those alternative interpretations” except to subject one’s subsequent textual interpretations to the question, “Is my proposed interpretation of a particular text coherent with what I have proposed to be the meaning of other texts in other contexts?”  That is, “Am I progressing into a more coherent, consistent and non-contradictory theological position?”  In other words, “Is my theology as a whole a coherent theology?”  “Does it make sense?”

            Interpretations cannot be left to stand as inconsistent or in contradiction with each other while claiming they are valid interpretations.  Such hermeneutical results violate the principle of authorial intent which implies the coherence of the thoughts of the author.  Authors intend to be coherent in what they write.  And as I pointed out previously, incoherent interpretive results also ignore the inspiration of Scripture as coming from a single divine Author who intended to reveal a coherent message.

            In light of Osborne’s imagery of the “spiral,” I submit that what occurs in Calvinist interpretation is more like a “hermeneutical cul-de-sac” that goes nowhere but round and round in logical and moral difficulties, leaving us with no way out into interpretive coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  Yet the Calvinist wants us to believe that we are not really in such an intellectual and moral cul-de-sac. They assert that it only appears that way.  Any incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction in their interpretive conclusions are redefined as incomprehensible mysteries.  In contrast, the “hermeneutical spiral” takes incoherence on board as indicative of the need to move closer to the author’s intended meaning which we can safely presume would have been coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.  I contend that it is proper to proceed upon the hermeneutical principle that what an author writes he writes with coherence and consistency so that he may be clearly understood.  Therefore, the meanings derived from the biblical authors, and therefore our theological constructs, should evidence coherence and consistency.  What is missing in a “hermeneutical cul-de-sac” is this principle of interpretive coherence.  To be led out of the “hermeneutical the cul-de-sac” requires that one take logical and moral coherence on board in their hermeneutic.

            A due consideration of the issue of coherence is missing from the Calvinist interpretive method.  Reformed soteriology never spirals upwards towards the human and divine author’s true intent with respect to sovereignty or election and predestination or the gospel, but is rather stuck in a repetitive interpretive cycle marked by incoherence, inconsistency, and contradiction.  If the Calvinist wishes to declare that these three characteristics are legitimate elements in a biblical hermeneutic then let him say so and defend that position as a valid hermeneutic.  I don’t think the Calvinist can do so and remain credible as an interpreter or theologian.  In contrast, I contend that these characteristics are reliable indicators that such interpretations and theological models are misinterpretations of the text.

            I believe that coherence is the controversial hermeneutical principle that is not allowing Calvinists and non-Calvinists to come to agreement on the authorial intent of many of the passages of Scripture relevant to this controversy.   Most importantly this problem affects the central message of the Bible which as it is defined biblically is “good news.”  Subjecting one’s interpretations and theological conclusions to the very basic considerations of rational and moral coherence is an essential element in a sound, biblical hermeneutic.  Therefore, interpretations that provide greater clarity, harmony, consistency and non-contradiction between biblical truths are to be preferred.  These prove to be more plausible interpretations and thereby there validity is affirmed in conjunction with other considerations that make for responsible interpretation.

            For instance, here is a simple example of coherence at work in interpretation.  B. A. Milne addresses the “anonymous Christian” interpretations of Jesus’ parable about the final judgment in Mt. 25:31-46.  These interpretations have atheists, agnostics and people of other faiths acquitted in the final judgment because in their ministering to the needy they have done it to Christ.  Milne makes the following observations which are clearly hermeneutical in nature.

               “Such interpretations, however, suffer from a critical weakness; they require us to interpret one parable (which is not a straightforward piece of Scripture teaching anyway since it is a parable) in a manner which yields conclusions at plain variance with many other clear sections of the Bible in general and the teaching of Jesus in particular.  Conversely, if we are able to interpret this parable in a manner which does not involve any basic contradictions but which enables it to be integrated harmoniously into Jesus’ other teachings, then clearly that ought to be the course to follow on any sound hermeneutic.”[88]

            The point to note is that Milne’s hermeneutic identifies and considers the nature of the literary genre being interpreted (i.e., parable), rejects “conclusions at variance with many of the clear sections of the Bible in general” and seeks the interpretation that “does not involve any basic contradictions but which enables it to be integrated harmoniously into Jesus’ other teachings.”  Milne concludes that such are the marks of a “sound hermeneutic” and they are “the course to follow” to a proper interpretation of the text.  He recognizes the standard hermeneutical and exegetical principles like sensitivity to literary genre (i.e., the parable as a distinct, unique mode of teaching) and the perspicuity (clear, obvious meaning) of most other teaching passages.  But note that these exegetical procedures must necessarily exhibit comprehensive interpretive harmony and non-contradiction among the interpretive conclusions of these various texts.

            The hermeneutical element of coherence is evidenced herein and serves to verify and validate the biblical accuracy of interpretive and theological propositions.  Whether or not in the end one’s interpretive conclusions and theology exhibit coherence in its various ways (e.g., logical, linguistic, moral, epistemological and theological), is a tell-tale sign of whether or not one’s interpretations accurately reflect the intent of both the human writers and the divine Author.  As Milne concludes, non-contradiction and harmonious integration are “the course to follow on any sound hermeneutic.”

Osborne also points out that hermeneutics is both a science and an art.  The science “provides a logical, orderly classification of the laws of interpretation.”  As an art, it is an acquired skill demanding both imagination and an ability to apply the “laws” to “selected passages or books.” 

Normally this “common sense” coherence approach to interpretation goes without saying.  I consider it to be an aspect of both the “science and art” of interpretation.  It’s “science” aspect is found in its grounding in the laws of exegesis.  The “art” aspect has to do with understanding and interpreting texts in light of the whole harmonious “big picture” that Scripture presents in a way that attends to coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  It is a sensitivity to not run roughshod over the integrity of the whole to which each book and paragraph and sentence and word contribute their information.  I submit this needs to be stressed because it can be demonstrated that within Calvinism there exists the implementation of the “laws” of interpretation (exegetical “science”) without adhering to sound hermeneutical principles (the “art” of coherence.)

            Most importantly, interpretation is “a spiritual act, depending upon the leading of the Holy Spirit… We must depend upon God and not just upon humanly derived hermeneutical principles when studying the Bible.”[89]  True.  But should this be used as an excuse for interpretive incoherence?  Osborne observes,

               “Moreover, by the very fact that scholars differ so greatly when interpreting the same passage, we know that God does not miraculously reveal the meaning of passages whenever they are read.  While gospel truths are simple, the task of uncovering the original meaning of specific texts is complex and demands hard work.  We can fulfill this enormous responsibility only when we develop and apply a consistent hermeneutic.”[90]

            Why is it that “scholars differ so greatly when interpreting the same passage?”  As far as conservative evangelical scholars are concerned, presumably they employ the same “laws” of interpretation according to the grammatical-historical method.  And more importantly, if the “gospel truths are simple,” why then is there such disagreement as to the content of the gospel and soteriology?  In reality there is vast disagreement between Calvinists and non-Calvinists over key passages and these “simple” gospel truths.  The Calvinist “gospel” is very different from the non-Calvinists understanding of the gospel, which is to say that to some degree one or the other of these soteriologies is not the truth about salvation or the gospel message.  If there is no agreement about the meaning of even the most fundamental texts that directly bear upon the central message of the Bible – the gospel message – then something else is at work hermeneutically to obscure the intent of both the human and divine authors.  One of the other of these interpretations is flawed.  How can we determine the true meaning of the texts upon which there are such significant differences?  Have we taken up Osborne’s exhortation to “develop and apply a consistent hermeneutic?”  What would this “consistent hermeneutic” be?

            I submit that a “consistent hermeneutic” would demand consistency from the interpreter.  A “consistent hermeneutic” would include an acknowledgement of the sufficient reliability and necessity of human reason understood as the employment of the laws of logic and logical inference in the interpretive task.  It would require all interpreters to acknowledge the necessity of coherence and non-contradiction, attention to moral givens and intuitions, and the integration of other disciplines like philosophy and apologetics into their hermeneutic.  These need to be intentionally applied to the interpretive process and conclusions, not just subconsciously taken for granted let alone dismissed altogether.  They contribute to determining a valid from an invalid interpretation.  These essential components of the “science and art” of interpretation cannot be summarily dismissed when one’s traditional interpretations are shown up as incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory with other clear texts and teachings of Scripture.  Logical and moral reasoning are necessary to discern the truth about anything, including biblical revelation.

Grant Osborne: Coherence and the Role of Philosophy in Theology

            In chapters 13, 14 and Appendix 2 of his book The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Osborne expresses his concern about sifting the truth from Scripture and determining how to verify and validate which of our competing theological interpretations, models and traditions are true to Scripture.[91]  Which theological interpretations and traditions are the biblical truth?  How can we know which interpretations rightly reflect the meaning of Scripture?

            Osborne says there are three levels to the hermeneutical enterprise.  The “exegetical,” which asks, “what it meant,” the “devotional” which asks, “what it means for me,” and, the “sermonic” which asks, “how to share with you what it means to me.”  These are stated as exegesis, meaning and significance.

            In that coherence is also an essential hermeneutical principle, and the time is ripe for re-emphasizing this neglected interpretive element, allow me to modify Osborne’s hermeneutical enterprise.  I suggest that the process needs to be “exegesis – coherence – meaning – coherence – significance.”  “Exegesis” itself needs to be coherent.  For instance, an exegesis needs to be coherent with its context.  The various “meanings” derived from “exegesis” need to be coherent with each other.  If this does not happen we lose the “significance” of the text for us.  The text becomes nonsense and we become confused as to what it really means to say.  Without a concern for coherence from exegesis to meaning to significance the revelatory purposes and content of the Word of God become distorted.

            I am calling for the recognition of the essential role coherence plays in the interpretive process and in the development of one’s theology.  Coherence must permeate these three hermeneutical concerns.  But all three – the “exegetical,” “devotional,” and “sermonic” – become especially problematic for Calvinism when set against the criteria of hermeneutical coherence.

            Osborne affirms this concern for coherence in interpretation by highlighting the need for philosophical reflection and assessment of interpretive processes and claims.  The thinking skills of the evangelical philosopher need to be involved in the processes of interpretation and theological construction.  Basically, clear thinking is important and necessary.  He writes,

               “…philosophy helps the theologian to avoid subjective reasoning and to ground theological formulations in critical reasoning, coherence and rationality.”[92] (Emphasis mine)

In addition,

               “…philosophy provides the logical cast that determines the organization and development of dogma.”[93] (Emphasis mine)

            He goes on to mention Calvinist Kevin Vanhoozer’s call for balance between philosophy and theology in three ways and adds his own perspective.

               “Vanhoozer calls for three characteristics in such a balance: (1) individual integrity, as philosophy critically reflects upon the current situation and theology critically reflects on biblical truth; (2) relative autonomy, with each having a different starting point (world and Word) and serving a different community (academy and church) but mutually integrated at the level of world view, that is, the nature of reality and the meaning of life; (3) mutual accountability, as theology transforms the biblical world view into a coherent and relevant world view for the contemporary setting.

               I would add that in the final analysis Scripture has the normative voice, and philosophy is a supplement to theology in helping the latter reformulate biblical truth rationally and coherently in order to address the current situation.  They are not equal partners, for theology contains the ultimate truth, but philosophy forces the theologian to be both logical and open to new expressions / clarifications of the timeless truths.”[94]

            The point is that Scripture alone is the source for substantive truth about life, yet there must be some foundation or framework of reasoning when performing biblical exegesis, drawing interpretive conclusions, and constructing theological and doctrinal formulations.  To say that “Scripture has the normative voice” is vacuous if we do not know how to hear that voice as coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.  Hermeneutics concerns itself with the reasoning processes, or lack of them, in the exegetical and interpretive enterprise.  Call this reasoning “philosophy” if you like, nevertheless, the justification of an interpretive proposition and theological model must rest on more than simply “I believe that is what the Bible says on this matter regardless of the logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical difficulties.”  We have to be able to say “I believe that is what the Bible says on this matter because it presents the least logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical difficulties.”  The presence of these elements of coherence are not the only tests for validity, but they are necessary factors in determining valid interpretations.  What anyone claims the Bible says on a matter must be rationally coherent.  That is the role the discipline of philosophy serves in its own right with respect to all other disciplines.  It monitors what constitutes legitimate human thought on a subject.  And philosophy must be allowed to play its proper role in biblical exegesis, interpretation and the construction of theologies.  Osborne adds that,

               “Biblical theologians must logically consider the data in determining the unifying themes in Scripture…”[95] (Emphasis mine)


               “The Bible must at all times provide a logical control on the domination of divine truth by either existential subjectivism or theological abstractions.”[96] (Emphasis mine)

            Here philosophy, biblical exegesis and theology work together to provide a check on interpretations that are existentially subjective, theologically abstract or illogical.  The check, working to expose all deficient interpretations, is grounded in the priority and authority of Scripture logically interpreted.

            Additionally, although in his quote above Vanhoozer rightly calls for “individual integrity” of philosophy and theology, “relative autonomy” yet “mutual integration” when speaking about the nature of reality and the meaning of life, and “mutual accountability, as theology transforms the biblical world view into a coherent and relevant world view,” I submit that his Calvinist theology ultimately rejects these functions of philosophy and runs counter to Vanhoozer’s claims for theology.

            Vanhoozer’s Calvinism as a theistic determinism ultimately does not and cannot act with “individual integrity” in relation to the critical reasoning, coherence and rationality provided by philosophy.  It cannot be mutually integrated with philosophy’s observations of the nature of reality and the meaning of life, because as a universal divine causal determinism[97] it ultimately must reject the mutual accountability the deliberations and deliverances philosophy offers in critique of Calvinist theology.  It is found wanting in coherence and consistency when examined by the critical reasoning of philosophy.[98]  Calvinism does not “transform the biblical world view into a coherent and relevant worldview for the contemporary setting.”  Rather, under the scrutiny of sound philosophical reasoning, Vanhoozer’s deterministic theology transforms the biblical worldview into an incoherent and irrelevant worldview for the contemporary setting.  Calvinist determinism is plagued by incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions.  Determinism is antithetical to the biblical worldview.

            Therefore, for the Calvinist, there can be no “mutual accountability” between theology and philosophy.  Philosophy shows up Calvinism as untenable as a biblical theology.[99]  Calvinist determinism prevents any meaningful prospect for the “integration” of theology with philosophy.  Calvinists dichotomize their exegesis, and the theology built upon it, from philosophical critique.[100]

The Calvinist prefers Vanhoozer’s first point of “individual integrity.”  And for all practical purposes remain there.  Philosophical critiques of Calvinist interpretations remain subject to those interpretive conclusions.  Calvinists do not allow the philosophical reflection that reveals the logical and moral difficulties inherent in their theistic determinism to inform or alter their exegetical processes and interpretive conclusions.  Hence, philosophical thinking plays no meaningful role in the Calvinist’s hermeneutic.  Again, there is no “mutual accountability.”  Under the scrutiny of sound reasoning, Calvinist determinism resorts to mystery and incomprehensibility. Calvinist determinism, given the nature of determinism per se, remains averse to philosophical integration.

Grant Osborne: On Coherence, Comprehensiveness, Consistency, and Non-Contradiction

            Osborne goes on to discuss the provisional nature of theological assertions and models of theological thought in chapter 14, “Systematic Theology.”  He asks, “How does one assess the degree of tentativeness and authority of various theological constructions or the success of a particular dogmatic model?”  He points out an intriguing and unfortunate reality that definitely applies to the Calvinist / non-Calvinist hermeneutical and theological divides.

               “…both sides believe that their doctrinal formulation is correct and neither will budge.  Moreover the layperson is rightly confused, since both sound viable when taken separately.  One of my advisees in seminary a few years ago went to a visiting Calvinist scholar (the student was a moderate Arminian) and asked, “What is the basic difference between my position and yours?”  The professor answered (somewhat in jest), “Mine is biblical!”  Yet how do we verify which is more biblical?””[101]

            How would the professor justify his claim?  Can we discern the validity of one’s claim to a biblical interpretation?  That is the crux of the matter.  I contend, as does Osborne, that ultimately the validity of one’s interpretations and theological models rest upon their comprehensive coherence.  In section 6 entitled “Verification or Validation of Theological Assertions” Osborne deals with this fundamental hermeneutical issue.  He writes,

               “The method I have chosen for verification is “critical realism”…critical realists never assume that they have achieved the “final” statement of theological truth; the process of validation and improvement never ceases, for there can be no facile assumption that they have “arrived,” though of course one can verify that a particular statement is an accurate depiction of the biblical norm.

               The process of validation within a critical realist approach is at once simple and complex.  It is simple because the verification comes via criteria of coherence, comprehensiveness, adequacy and consistency.  It is complex because each criterion must be applied hermeneutically to the many interpretations and organizing patterns of the competing systems.  The most difficult (many would say impossible) aspect is to recognize one’s own preunderstandings and to seek as objective an examination of the data as possible.  This in fact is the most important contribution of critical realism, for it refuses to take itself too seriously and attempts to learn from competing schools of thought via an honest recognition that the others might be correct.”[102]

            This posture of not taking one’s own position too seriously is to be commended, for it allows for open discussion of the issues causing division.  But we also want to avoid laissez-faire interpretive relativism.  Therefore, Osborne then explains each of the criteria by which we can verify the biblical validity of one’s interpretations.  Here Osborne is discussing how to determine the validity of a “theological construction,” but we can extend this to the validity of one’s exegesis in that theologies are built upon the exegesis and interpretations of individual texts.

               “The first step in validating a theological construction is to see whether it fits the biblical data (criterion of coherence):  Does it provide a better map of the biblical doctrine than do the other systems?  This concerns the “explanatory success” (van Huyssteen 1989:152) of the model, whether it accurately portrays the scriptural teaching (tested by exegesis of the relevant texts) and has clarity, that is, makes the complex doctrine understandable.”

            Let’s pause here just to ask whether a Calvinist or non-Calvinist theology and soteriology better “fits the biblical data” as judged by the criteria of coherence.  Which provides “explanatory success” tested by the “exegesis of the relevant texts.”  That is, which one results in “clarity, that is, makes the complex doctrine understandable.”  I think the demonstrable fact that Calvinism is plagued by incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction indicates that it fails of these criteria. As such, it is not a valid theological construction.  Osborne continues.

               The second step is to ascertain whether the dogmatic assertion is a true model of the biblical material taken as a whole (criterion of comprehensiveness):  Does it account for all the statements of Scripture on that issue or does it merely arise from selected portions (a canon within a canon)?  At this level too the theologian must compare the theological model with competing systems to see whether the others are in fact more comprehensive.

            Let’s pause again and ask whether or not “proof-texting” and decontextualizing is a characteristic of Calvinist interpretation because it cannot coherently integrate “the biblical material taken as a whole.”  For instance, does the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 as teaching unconditional election to salvation ignore the biblical material within its context of chapters 10 and 11 which mitigate against such a doctrine, let alone the information gleaned from the broader canon of Scripture?  Paul’s reasoning and statements in chapters 10 and 11 are inconsistent or in contradiction with the Calvinist’s deterministic rendering of Romans 9.  It certainly seems to me that such an interpretation does not “account for all the statements of Scripture on that issue,” nor does it fulfill the previous criteria of coherence in light of the comprehensive teachings of Scripture.  Hence, the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 arises from linking only “selected portions” of Scripture while ignoring others, even in the immediate context.  Again, according to these interpretive criteria Calvinism is found wanting.

            Osborne continues.

               “Third (the criterion of adequacy), does the formulation provide a better description of the doctrine than do those of competing schools?”

               “Fourth (the criterion of consistency), does the system fit together and form a viable pattern?  If some portions contradict others, this calls for re-examination and modification; if there is inconsistency throughout, the system may be fatally flawed.”[103]

            Let’s pause again and ask whether Calvinism forms a “viable” system.  By viable we mean that it is able to present itself as coherent and convincing.  Internally, the Calvinist TULIP soteriology forms a “pattern.”  But I submit it is not coherent with the Scriptural witness on other important doctrines like man as created in God’s image, the fact of human free will and responsibility, the nature of faith, the universal scope of the atonement, the definition of the gospel as “good news,” etc., and is therefore not convincing.  Calvinist soteriology is inconsistent with the universal provision of salvation testified to in the Old and New Testaments along with the nature of faith as personal decision made in light of the hearing of a gospel that is defined as “good news.”   Calvinism is not the biblical “good news.”  Furthermore, the Calvinist theology of theistic determinism is inconsistent with the contingency and human responsibility testified to throughout Scripture.  It is contradictory for the Calvinist to maintain that God predetermines all things, including everyone’s eternal destiny, and yet humans are responsible for their actions and their eternal destinies.

Dr. Richard Land, President of Southern Evangelical Seminary, writing on the doctrine of election, expresses the principles under discussion by Osborne.  Land states that the,

“…Word of God does not contradict itself.”[104]

“Christians must always seek an ever deepening and widening grasp of a totality of doctrine that is as congruent with as much of scriptural revelation as possible.  What understanding of a doctrine of election is in accord with the entire body of revealed Scripture – not just with certain proof texts?”[105]

He adds,

“We must seek a conceptual understanding of each doctrine of the faith, including election, that allows us to preach on every passage of Scripture without contradiction, confusion, or hesitancy, and without ignoring some “problem” passages in favor of others more easily harmonized with our particular doctrinal model.”[106]

Note Dr. Land’s emphasis on some of the very criterion Osborne has been delineating – congruence, non-contradiction, non-confusion and genuineness and truth in delivery.  Dr. Land also points out that the better interpretation will be the one that evidences explanatory scope, or Osborne’s criteria of comprehensiveness.

            Osborne cites two other criteria.  The fifth is the criterion of continuation or durability.  Can the theological assertions withstand sustained scholarly critique?  I don’t believe Calvinism will be able to as long as scholars continue to expose Calvinism’s logical and moral difficulties.  But they also must press the Calvinist to decide whether or not these difficulties are reliable indicators of the invalidity of the Calvinist’s interpretations of Scripture.  They must press the issue as to whether coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are necessary to the claim of interpretive validity.  This question as to the necessity of coherence as a hermeneutical essential is what has been missing in critiques of Calvinism.  As much as non-Calvinist critiques are adept at pointing out the incoherence of Calvinism, these critiques fail to take this next step of delineating hermeneutical requirements.  We have made no progress in discussing whether the Calvinist’s incoherence is hermeneutically significant with regard to the validity of their exegesis and interpretations.  Calvinists defend their theological conclusions on the basis that their exegesis takes priority over philosophical or moral objections to Calvinism. They presume that exegesis can occur apart from a philosophical and moral assessment of their exegetical conclusions.  They dichotomize exegesis from an assessment of its conclusions by logical and moral reasoning.  Therefore, scholars have made no pronouncement as to whether or not the logical and moral difficulties of Calvinism speak to the validity of the Calvinists interpretations.  If we do not come to grips with the Calvinist’s incoherence as it bears upon hermeneutics, then Calvinism will “withstand sustained scholarly critique” because the scholarly evangelical community will be granting the Calvinist permission to be incoherent and avoid such critiques by their flight to mystery and incomprehensibility.  The Calvinist has a vested interest in obscuring the logical and moral problems in its theology and convincing other non-Calvinist Christians to permit them to carry on in their hermeneutic of incoherence.  For Calvinism to survive, Calvinists need non-Calvinists to turn a blind eye to their interpretive, theological and soteriological incoherence.

            Generally speaking, evangelical pastors, teachers, leaders and theologians seem amenable to this type of compromise for the sake of “unity.”  But this amounts to interpretive, theological and soteriological relativism.  One would think that theologians should know better that to adopt this relativism.  But they seem prone to do so for certain reasons.  One is that they can easily get lost in exegetical details and fail to see the comprehensive big picture of the Scriptural message.  Another reason may be that they are not trained in the disciplines of philosophy and logic.  They may have the idea that since Scripture is divine revelation that incoherence is part of the mystery of trying to understand God and his ways.  Calvinist theologians seem prone to failing to see or acknowledge how what they glean from their exegesis is incoherent and that such incoherence is significant as to determining the validity of their exegesis.  Sadly, they seem to be indifferent to the fact that their exegetical conclusions result in incoherence and that this has hermeneutical significance.  It is no part of their hermeneutic that their exegesis should foster coherent interpretations and be able to be integrated into consistent and non-contradictory doctrinal conclusions.  These concerns are essential for doing good interpretation.  Many evangelical leaders prize unity above truth and have therefore given up a hermeneutic of coherence and the search for an objective truth in this controversy.  They favor adopting a traditional theological position for its functional expediency.  That position can be Calvinist, non-Calvinist or “the Bible teaches both.”  Generally, the position is held, not out of sound reasoning brought to the text to glean the truth out of the text on these issues of sovereignty, free will and the gospel of salvation, but because it is the preferred position for whatever other reasons.

            Therefore the last great hope may lay with the evangelical Christian philosopher.  The wool is not so easily pulled over a trained evangelical philosopher’s eyes.  It seems that evangelical philosophers are sorely needed to bring clear thinking to the interpretive task with respect to the controversy.  Whether or not interpretive coherence is a hermeneutical principle needs to be soundly argued and finally established.  Osborne writes,

               “The theologian must truly be a renaissance person, for it is necessary to exegete Scripture, collate the theological threads via biblical theology, be aware of the development of dogma throughout church history, then contextualize all this for the modern situation; and at each stage philosophical reasoning plays a critical role.”[107]

            I submit that Osborne is correct, and yet, Calvinists shun the input of philosophical reasoning as a check upon their exegesis and in doing biblical theology.  Moreover, theologians and laypersons seem to be held at bay by the ad hoc “explanations” Calvinists offer in defense of their problematic interpretations.  This only confirms the Calvinist’s dichotomizing of philosophy from exegesis.  Since the deliverances of philosophical reflection are put out of court in biblical interpretation by the Calvinist, the Calvinist is not held to Osborne’s criterion of coherence, clarity, comprehensiveness, consistency and non-contradiction regarding their exegesis, interpretations and their theological or doctrinal formulations.  Therefore, this problem needs to be assessed and discussed by both philosophical and theological scholars.  Perhaps members of the Evangelical Philosophical Society will begin to see the importance of this matter, especially with regard to the gospel message and evangelism, and begin to take up this task.

            Osborne’s sixth criterion is cross-fertilization, where many different schools of thought in various geographical areas accept the viability of the assertion.  Here I would like to add that as long as the church continues in denial of the fact that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist positions are mutually exclusive soteriologies, and thereby express mutually exclusive gospel messages, then the church will be prone to continue to accept the viability of the Calvinist’s assertions.  Add to this the church’s predilection to avoid controversial subjects and the legitimate Christian sentiments and commands regarding the pursuit of peace, brotherly love, unity of mind and purpose, yet lacking the realization that truth – which needs to be spoken in love – is also important, and that without truth the other virtues cannot be genuinely realized, Calvinism will always be considered as a viable Christian theological option.  This phenomenon of two mutually exclusive theologies and soteriologies coexisting within Evangelicalism as if they are both valid interpretations of Scripture will only continue to promote the anti-intellectualism that is already taken hold in our evangelical churches and erode the biblical gospel as the “good news” that it is.  As such, the church will no longer be truly “evangelical.” It will not be fulfilling its calling to proclaim this “good news” to all the world.  I contend that given the continued influence of Calvinism, ultimately it will have no “good news” to proclaim.

            These six criteria for the validation of theological assertions serve to identify and affirm the cardinal doctrines upon which all Christians can agree.  What is to be emphasized here is that the use and reliability of one’s reasoning faculties are presupposed as reliable and indispensable for discerning valid interpretations.  Valid interpretations are those that exhibit logical and moral coherence, comprehensiveness, consistency or “fit,” and non-contradiction.  In light of these criterion, I don’t see how Calvinism can be embraced as a viable biblical Christian position.  Only when these criteria can be summarily dismissed as interpretively irrelevant, and such a hermeneutical stance become acceptable within Evangelicalism, can Calvinism survive.  But it would survive for reasons other than those that provide warrant for thinking it is the correct interpretation of Scripture.

Carson, Osborne and Hirsch: Preunderstanding, Coherence, Adequacy and Comprehensiveness

            Scholars read, study, and exegete the same texts and come to contradictory conclusions about what those texts mean.  A contributing factor to this problem is that of the preunderstandings and presuppositions that influence interpretation.  These are not bad in and of themselves, but this issue does stress the fact that an essential component to a sound biblical hermeneutic that will challenge and correct these powerful biases and move us towards textual clarity and theological consistency is the incorporation of logical, moral and theological coherence as determiners of valid interpretations.  These cannot simply be dismissed or rationalized away.  Philosopher J. P. Moreland states,

               “We are committed to Christianity in general, or some doctrinal position in particular, because we take that commitment to express what is true.  And we are committed to the importance of our God-given faculty of mind to aid us in assessing what is true.”[108]

            Cultural and ecclesial proclivities, systematic theological preconceptions and the prejudices of one’s theological tradition must remain open to critical dialogue.  Osborne, referring to the six hermeneutical principles discussed above, writes,

               “…while the act of interpreting the truth content or validity of a statement is difficult, it is not impossible.  If the attempt is sophisticated and aware, the objective features above can enable one to decide between competing theories.

               The primary barrier to a valid interpretation is, as already stated, one’s preunderstanding.  On the basis of differing presupposed systems, one interpreter may see coherence and adequacy in a particular theory of meaning while another may reject it.  Is there any way out of the impasse?  In many cases there is not, for the competing preunderstandings are not open to a critical dialogue.  In this case the original meaning can never be recovered.”[109]

            What Osborne is saying here is that many interpreters will shun the several critical criteria that Osborne delineated above and refuse to dialogue about their interpretation of a text in light of those criteria.  The result is that they remain wedded to their traditionally accepted understandings of that texts in question. Osborne rightly stresses critical dialogue as necessary for us to get past our preunderstandings and to see the text more objectively.  Yet critical dialogue can only take place on a mutually agreed criteria of what constitutes “critical.”  There must be a common commitment to logical and moral coherence in hermeneutics in order to engage in critical dialogue about the meaning of texts.  Moreland pointed this out above.  The “God-given faculty of mind” is there to aid us “in assessing what is true.”  In other words, if we are to reach consensus about the true meaning of a passage or a theological proposition, there must be a consensus that the meaning or proposition that is true is the meaning or proposition that provides interpretive coherence, comprehensiveness and consistency and that identifying these is not an impossibility.  Within such a hermeneutical framework, the Calvinist / non-Calvinist debate would be transformed into a fruitful discussion and progress towards the true meaning of the disputed texts.  Outside these criteria this debate only serves to testify to others that the essential Christian doctrines pertaining to salvation and the gospel are hopelessly enigmatic and Scripture’s meaning in this regard is lost to us.  Not even those who call themselves evangelical Christians can agree on the meaning of the evangel.  But Osborne states that this need not be the case and cites D. A. Carson, a prominent Reformed Calvinist who,

               “…notes a semantic shift between two types of preunderstanding: (1) A “functional non-negotiable” is an accepted position that remains open to the evidence; if Scripture should so dictate, the position will change.  (2) An “immutable non-negotiable” is not open to correction but twists the data to cohere with the preconceived theory.  I would add another category: a “negotiable” that seeks challenge and, if necessary, correction in order to ascertain truth.”[110]

            Although Carson is somewhat confusing here in speaking of a “functional non-negotiable” that is an “accepted position that remains open to the evidence” (wouldn’t that be a negotiable?), he does mention what is at the heart of the matter.  Carson speaks of an openness to “the evidence” so that “if Scripture should so dictate” this “functional non-negotiable” would change.  But the crux of the matter is “if Scripture should so dictate.”  We are pressed back into the realm of hermeneutics.  Upon what basis can we know what it is that Scripture is dictating?  The Calvinist perceives Scripture to be dictating one thing while the non-Calvinist another.  There is evidently something about the handling of Scripture that sustains the controversy.  But if the crux of the controversy has to do with the Calvinist accepting incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in their interpretations and theology and the non-Calvinist insisting on coherence, consistency and non-contradiction, then this is precisely the issue that needs to be resolved.  If it is not resolved then the biblical truth cannot be affirmed by all those who call themselves “evangelicals.”  Surely coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are important “evidence” that one has to “remain open to.”  Indeed, the second “preunderstanding” certainly seems to be the approach Calvinists like Carson ultimately display.  Their definition of God’s sovereignty as deterministic is certainly an “immutable non-negotiable.”  More on this below.  But suffice it to say here that this is a hermeneutical issue because the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions that their understanding of divine sovereignty creates with other biblical truths has no significance for the Calvinist with regard to determining the validity of their interpretation.

            What is needed is to affirm certain principles that establish interpretive objectivity and therefore move us closer to the true meaning of the text.  E. D. Hirsch writes,

               “…the objectivity of interpretation as a discipline depends upon our being able to make an objectively grounded choice between two disparate probability judgments on the basis of the common evidence which supports them.  Unless firm principles exist which permit such comparative judgments to be drawn, neither interpretation nor any other discipline built upon probability judgments can aspire to objective knowledge.  The existence of such principles does not guarantee that men will apply them – any more than the existence of logic can guarantee that men shall think logically – but their existence does guarantee the possibility of objective knowledge, and that is the major thesis which this book undertakes to defend.”[111]

            Given “two disparate probability judgments,” what “firm principles” will permit the necessary “comparative judgments” to be drawn so that we can “make an “objectively grounded choice” between them as to their interpretive validity?  Can we properly identify these principles that allow us to process the evidence supporting these disparate interpretations?  Can we “remain open to the evidence and let Scripture “so dictate” our theological propositions and search for the truth?  I believe so.  We can do this by adopting sound hermeneutical principles which would include both Hirsch’s and Osborne’s criteria for verification or validation of theological assertions.  Certainly what Hirsch observes is true, that “the existence of such principles does not guarantee that men will apply them – any more than the existence of logic can guarantee that men shall think logically – but their existence does guarantee the possibility of objective knowledge.”

            Therefore, we cannot dismiss the principles of coherence, comprehensiveness, and consistency from our hermeneutic and claim to be interpreting the Bible correctly.  These principles of logic provide the basis for the “challenge” and “correction” that is needed in this controversy.  Osborne mentions the ultimate purpose, which is to “ascertain truth.”  The essential means by which we can weigh “the common evidence” which supports each position is by applying the principles of coherence, comprehensiveness, and consistency to one’s interpretive propositions.  Hirsch continues,

               “Thus the crucial problem in judging between disparate interpretations is usually the comparative weighing of relevant evidence.  We must be able to conclude that the evidence favoring one hypothesis outweighs the conflicting evidence favoring its rival; otherwise we would have no basis for choosing one hypothesis over the other.  Furthermore, our judgment about the relevant weight of evidence must be objectively founded if we are to claim objectivity for our decision.  However, the objectivity of our decision cannot consist (as in the convenient device of falsification) in finding some means of avoiding a direct judicial comparison.  Our decision is publically compelling only when our probability judgments are sanctioned by objectively defined and generally accepted principles.  We need principles for determining admissibility (i.e. relevance) of evidence and the relative weight of evidence.”[112]

            Without these “objectively defined and generally accepted principles” we cannot come to a resolution to this Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.  I submit that the “objectively defined” principles by which we may make a “direct judicial comparison” of the conflicting interpretations are those of logical, moral and theological coherence.  Making comparative judgments upon these bases is indispensable for determining whether or not “the Scripture so dictates” one’s interpretations.  Any claim that “the Scripture so dictates” a certain interpretation has to be evaluated on some criteria of comparative thought.  As Osborne indicates, I submit that the criteria must take into consideration the coherence, comprehensiveness, and consistency of the interpretive propositions.  One’s hermeneutic, the theological expression of one’s textual interpretations, and the dialogue between parties in search of the truth must be marked by comprehensive coherence.

            Recall Calvinist D. A. Carson’s two types of preunderstandings mention by Osborne above – the “functional non-negotiable” and the “immutable non-negotiable.”  Given the above discussion, I submit that Carson himself, as a Calvinist, falls into the “immutable non-negotiable” type of preunderstanding.  It is “not open to correction but twists the data to cohere with the preconceived theory.”  In fact I contend that we can conclude that Calvinists regularly engage in this twisting of data to cohere with their preconceived theological doctrines.  I say this because of the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction their doctrines generate.  The Calvinist’s doctrine of an eternal decree whereby God preordained “whatsoever comes to pass,” and their deterministic definition of divine sovereignty, establish a series of soteriological “immutable non-negotiables” (i.e., the TULIP doctrines) that are not open to correction under a criteria of coherence, comprehensiveness, and consistency.  Rather, it can be shown that the Calvinist does twist the biblical data to cohere with their a priori theological presuppositions.  The many examples of Calvinist incoherence I provided in other chapters will confirm that Calvinism is an “immutable non-negotiable” theology because its incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions do not act as a check on the validity of their interpretations.  Calvinism is a theology marked by incoherence.  Therefore, to the degree that this incoherence has no significance for discerning the accuracy of their interpretations, they have adopted a hermeneutic of coherence.  The Calvinist is unable to coherently incorporate the comprehensive scope of biblical truths into its deterministic interpretations of divine sovereignty and salvation.  Calvinism’s fundamental deterministic doctrines are in contradiction with human freedom and responsibility and inconsistent with the gospel as “good news” and the majority of their own sermons and teachings.

            In his appendix 2, “The Problem of Meaning: Toward a Solution,” Osborne states that,

               “We must allow good hermeneutical principles to shape our exegesis and to control our tendency to read our prejudices into the text…The question of verification of competing interpretive possibilities is essential for any system such as the one espoused herein.  In a very real sense, every chapter of this book is part of the verification process.  My argument is that this is a threefold process: (1) Inductively, the interpretation appears not from an inspired “guess” but from the structural, semantic and syntactical study of the text itself; in other words, it emerges from the text itself, which guides the interpreter to the proper meaning.  (2) Deductively, a valid interpretation emerges by testing the results of the inductive research via a comparison with other scholars’ theories and historical or background material derived from sources outside the text.  One deepens, alters and at times replaces his or her theory on the basis of this external data, which is tested on the basis of coherence, adequacy and comprehensiveness.  (3) Sociologically, this proceeds via a “critical realism” that governs an ongoing dialogue between the paradigm or reading communities.  The continual challenge and critique from opposing communities drives the individual reader back to a re-examination of the text and his or her reading strategy.  As a result the text continues to be the focus and leads one to the true intended meaning.”[113] (Italics mine.)

            Osborne is clear.  One’s inductive study of the text, that is their exegesis, has to be “tested on the basis of coherence, adequacy and comprehensiveness.”  Good hermeneutics includes testing one’s interpretive theory on the basis of its coherence, adequacy and comprehensiveness.

            But, having abandoned coherence, adequacy, and comprehensiveness – and we can certainly add consistency – as the means of verification of the validity of one’s interpretations, the Calvinist has placed his theological propositions beyond “testing.”  They can never be deepened, altered or replaced.  By deflecting scrutiny on the basis of coherence, adequacy and comprehensiveness, Calvinism places itself outside substantive critique.  The logical common ground for others to evaluate the biblical validity of the Calvinist’s soteriological model has also been taken out from under us.  We can achieve interpretive clarity and true knowledge of the meaning of the disputed texts only if we take coherence on board in our hermeneutic.  Therefore, the controversy can only be resolved by the Calvinist acknowledging coherence as essential to a proper hermeneutic.  Only then will the distinction between Calvinist and non-Calvinist, be dissolved.  But while the Calvinist dismisses coherence as a criterion of determining the validity of an interpretation, they will have to justify why it is that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are not essential to a sound hermeneutic and the principles by which we come to accurate interpretations of the text.

            Through a series of theological and spiritual maneuvers Calvinism insulates itself from the substantive biblical, logical, and moral critiques brought against it.  Its preunderstanding and theological presuppositions are deemed non-negotiable and therefore certain rationalizations are employed to “explain” and justify Calvinism despite the critiques brought against it on the grounds of the sound hermeneutical principles of coherence, adequacy, comprehensiveness, and consistency.  This is subversive of the dialogue necessary to progress towards biblical truth and a sign of a deficient hermeneutic.

An Example of Calvinist Incoherence: Are Our Eternal Destinies Fixed or Unfixed? 

            I attended an Adult Bible Fellowship class on eschatology in an independent Baptist church that was team taught by both the senior and assistant pastor who were Calvinists in their soteriology.  They held to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election or predestination.  They were speaking on the implications of death and dying and made the point that “at death our destiny is fixed.”  There were no qualifications or further elaborations on this statement in their teaching or in the continuing discussion to clarify the meaning of the assertion in light of their Calvinist soteriological doctrines.

            Therefore I took the statement for what it plainly meant to convey, that is, that when we die our eternal destiny – heaven or hell – is fixed at that point in time.  They gave no indication that they were teaching anything other than that once we die our eternal situation cannot be changed which clearly implied that before the point of death our eternal destiny is not fixed; that it was an open issue.  They presented the fact of death in relation to our eternal destiny as if before one’s death one’s eternal destiny is an open issue that depended upon how one responds to the gospel message.  But to say that when we die our eternal destiny is fixed, implying that before death it is not fixed, is inconsistent with their Calvinist soteriology which states that the eternal destiny of every person is fixed from before the foundation of the world, that is, before God created anything and before any of us were even born.  Given the doctrine of an eternal, sovereign decree and predestination or unconditional election, what possibility is there that our eternal destiny could have changed between God’s eternal decree of election, the time we were born, and the time we die?  There is no possibility.  According to Reformed Calvinism, one’s eternal destiny is fixed by God in eternity past.  Your eternal destiny in heaven or hell is unalterable by anyone or anything in this life, including you.  This is precisely the meaning of the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election or predestination.  As Calvin put it,

               “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man.  For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.  Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.”[114]

            Therefore, as a Calvinist it made no sense to speak of our eternal destiny being fixed at death.  We may be ushered into it at death, but it is not “fixed” at death.  So I was perplexed at how one’s destiny could be fixed before the foundation of the world by God himself and it also be said in any meaningful way that at death ones’ destiny is fixed, which implied that it was not fixed before then.

            When I inquired of the senior pastor as to how what was said in class and what Calvinists believe theologically could be reconciled, it was explained that from God’s eternal point of view our eternal destiny is fixed by his election and predestination of those who would be saved and those who would be damned, but from our temporal, finite point of view our eternal destiny is fixed when we die.  But this still left me perplexed.  To me this answer was not intellectually satisfactory.  This answer was incoherent unless something else was meant by “fixed” that was not being clarified.  But that is precisely what was meant – “at death one’s eternal destiny is fixed.”

            The point is that this dividing of viewpoints into a divine, eternal perspective and our temporal, human perspective, does nothing to change the reality that a person’s eternal destiny is fixed even before their birth and therefore is it incoherent and contradictory to also state that one’s eternal destiny is fixed at death.  It is a semantic “trick” that does not alter the ontological reality of a premundane, divinely preordained destiny for each person either in heaven or hell that cannot be altered in time.  The statement and its implication have no substance in light of the fact that there was a point in eternity past where God fixed each person’s eternal destiny as either heaven or hell.  Either it is fixed by God in eternity past or it is fixed at death with the implication that one’s eternal destiny is an open question before death and we have something decisive to do about where we will spend eternity.

            Now, the point to note is that to hold to both of these propositions without sufficient reason is to engage in incoherence.  For those pastor’s to claim that “at death our destiny is fixed,” meaning to communicate that we all need to respond before death to the “good news” of eternal life offered in Christ so that our destiny may be that of heaven instead of hell, is to speak incoherent according to their Calvinist doctrines of the eternal divine decree and predestination or unconditional election that teach that it was in eternity past that our destiny was fixed.  It is clear that what these pastors meant was that death is a point at which beforehand a person’s destiny was undetermined precisely because they were still alive and could determine their own eternal destiny in heaven or hell depending upon their response to the gospel.  If you say that at death one’s destiny is fixed, you must mean that before death it was not fixed.  It cannot be that God alone predetermines our eternal destiny before creation by a comprehensive, eternal decree and we determine our eternal destiny in time by our acceptance or rejection of the gospel.  Any meaningful use of the word “determine,” and who is doing the determining, requires one or the other of these to be the determiner of “one’s eternal destiny.”  It cannot be both.  That is rationally incoherent.  Any meaningful use and implication of the words, “one’s eternal destiny is fixed at death” must mean that our destinies are not fixed before death which is contradictory to the Calvinist doctrines of an exhaustive eternal decree and unconditional election.

            Now the important point to note here is that in their thought processes these pastors felt justified in saying “God fixed our eternal destiny before we are even born” and also saying “at death our destiny is fixed,” implying that “we determine our own eternal destiny” before death by our response to the gospel.  They were able to “make sense” of this by dividing reality into the eternal perspective and the temporal perspective.  But this is ad hoc.  It does nothing to solve the incompatibility of the original statements.  All these statements taken together, as these pastors meant them to be understood, certainly did not cohere.  To me their explanation regarding the different viewpoints from time and eternity – ours in time and God’s in eternity – has no bearing upon the issue created by their determinism.  It provides no rational grounds upon which the original propositions can rest and find intellectual resolution.  As such, the statements about eternal destiny are a contradiction, and as such the eternity/time attempt at an explanation failed to provide some sort of coherence to this problem.  We know it was a failed attempt because the pastors could not further explain how God’s view from eternity and our view in time come to make a difference regarding the fixity of one’s destiny when this point was challenged.  Their determinism left them in the situation that it always produces when attempting to affirm the non-deterministic reality testified to in Scripture and experience – they were left with an explanatory void, which just is the very nature of an incoherence or contradiction.

            Here is a real life ministry example of the failure to apply a criteria of coherence to one’s theological model and interpretation of Scripture.  And I submit that the exhaustive deterministic view of God’s eternal decree and sovereignty that affects the interpretation of the doctrine of election, making it unconditional in reference to how one becomes saved, needs to be revisited.  These Calvinist pastor’s need to let the contradiction between their statements caused by their theology drive them back to the text to seek interpretive possibilities that relieve that contradiction.  What this experience should have done is bring them back to the Bible to reassess their Calvinist soteriological interpretations.  They believed that the Bible teaches that each person determines their own eternal destiny by our response to the gospel, and once we die our destiny is fixed in heaven or hell.  That is why they were stressing with a sense of urgency that “at death our destiny is fixed.”  Yet, they also believe the Bible teaches that God determines each person’s eternal destiny, and this destiny has nothing to do with the person.  It is fixed by God alone before they were born, that is, before the world began.  The two propositions are at logical odds with each other.  They are mutually exclusive thoughts.  They are saying at one and the same time and regarding the same matter that God fixes our eternal destiny and we fix our eternal destiny.  They are saying that our eternal destiny is fixed before we are born and our eternal destiny is not fixed before we are born.  These are clearly contradictory.

            Pertinent to our inquiry here is that these pastors recognized the problematic nature of their thoughts and statements.  And they therefore attempted to give reasons for why what they had said makes sense.  But the reasons were ad hoc and did not alter the problem.   Secondly, this logical incoherence did not play any role with respect to questioning the validity of their textual interpretations. It would not cast doubt in their minds upon the validity of their theology.  Hence, once they did not feel it necessary to fully acknowledge their incoherence or address it, discussion came to an end, for there was no longer any grounds upon which to rationally discourse about the matter.

            The critical concerns here are not only the ministry implications for this intellectual posture, but its hermeneutical or interpretive implications.  It raised the question as to whether all biblical interpreters should incorporate the criteria of coherence, adequacy, harmony, comprehensiveness, and consistency into their hermeneutic as necessary indicators of valid interpretations or whether no interpreter is bound to such hermeneutical principles.  Should rational coherence matter in biblical interpretation, theological constructs and theological discourse, or can coherence be summarily dismissed?  Here was an example where the Calvinist’s determinism generated incoherence but that incoherence clearly did not matter.  It had no bearing upon interpretive validity.

Distinctive Challenges for “Evangelicals”

The Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriological views have been identified and debated throughout church history.  Each side has attempted to justify their view in different ways, all claiming the necessary support of an authoritative Scripture.  But it is precisely this common claim of biblical support for such diametrically opposed viewpoints that raises the question as to whether there are interpretive criteria that serve to identify which interpretation is closer to the biblical truth.  Can we get past “the handicap of an inevitable circularity?”  How can we prevent ourselves from reading into the text our own presuppositions and predilections and thus concluding that is what the text means to say?  How can we objectively compare incommensurable hypotheses?

The fact that such dichotomous views of salvation have been sustained for so long within evangelicalism indicates a failure of the evangelical church to develop a sufficiently biblical hermeneutic so as to arrive at a consensus regarding soteriology and the truth of the gospel.  This is ultimately an issue of validity in interpretation which involves identifying what constitutes a sound, biblical hermeneutic.

Surely, we have come to a point in this controversy where the textual evidence has been fully brought forth and exhaustively vetted.  We know the differences between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist interpretations.  We have sufficiently exegeted the disputed texts.  Therefore, the issue at this point in the history of the controversy is the hermeneutical one of how to arrive at a determination of interpretative validity.  Hirsch and Osborne have argue for rational processing of the exegetical evidence on the basis of sound hermeneutical principles.  The true exegesis must be the one that accords with the laws of logic and our moral intuitions.  It must be the exegesis that is found to be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory within itself and in relation to the broad scope of biblical data, the clearer teachings and the Bible’s practical and metaphysical worldview.  If we refuse to acknowledge these sound hermeneutical principles, then we are left without any check on the meaning that can be derived from the text based on our own “exegetical” conclusions and theological predilections. [115] 

I have argued that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies are incompatible and therefore they entail very different gospels.  The differences in these views of the gospel are profound.  They have to do with whether the message evangelical preach remains true to its biblical definition of “good news” or not.  And because these differences involve a divinely inspired written text they are therefore most fundamentally hermeneutical differences.  But their divine inspiration cannot be used as an excuse to dismiss the fact of the mutual exclusivity of the positions.  The Bible doesn’t teach both of two incompatible soteriologies and gospels.  Neither can divine inspiration be used to justify the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions within the Calvinist position.  Therefore, if we as evangelicals who believe the Bible is the inspired, authoritative revelation of God regarding all matters of faith and practice are to avoid a soteriological relativism, we must become engaged in evaluating and coming to a consensus as to what constitutes a responsible hermeneutic as it applies to Scripture.  Our lack of attention to discerning what constitutes a valid interpretation should not become license for theological and soteriological relativism. 

As such, we have to reckon with what E. D. Hirsch called “the much more difficult problem of comparing hypotheses which are in some respects incommensurable.”[116]  And “comparing” is a rational exercise that involves discerning within a proposed interpretation the criteria Grant Osborne delineated above – coherence, consistency, non-contradiction, adequacy, comprehensiveness, etc.

A review of Hirsch’s observations would profit us here because they describe the present state within the evangelical church.  Hirsch mentions two unacceptable approaches to this problem.  There is the optimist that feels that divergent interpretations do not represent “genuine disagreements” but reflect “different aspects and potentialities of the text.”  In practice, many evangelicals have adopted this perspective.  But Hirsch points out,

“…that sometimes the generic meanings implied by interpretations are disparate.  To dream that all expert interpretations are ultimately members of one happy family is to abandon critical thinking altogether.”[117]

He also states,

“The optimist glosses over disagreement where it does exist and thereby avoids the responsibility of rational choice.”[118]

Hirsch also mentions the “invincible cynic” that,

“…concludes that the interpreter’s sense of conviction cannot be objectively based but must arise from the peculiar constitution of the interpreter himself – his historicity, psychology, personality, and so on.  Ultimately the critic’s choice of a reading must be ascribed to his personal preference.  The cynic naturally prefers his own competent reading to that of another, yet he open-mindedly recognizes the right of another to be just as blithely closed-minded as himself.”[119]

The disturbing characteristic of the cynic is that he secretly considers other views to be silly and tasteless, but since “he has no objective grounds for rejecting them, he equably tolerates all interpretive views which do not conflict with known facts.”[120]  Hirsch observes that there is,

 “…an identical tolerance to a wide variety of readings.  Both represent the same abject intellectual surrender, the abandonment of responsibility.”[121]

And this is my point.  Our hermeneutic cannot be characterized by “abject intellectual surrender.”  I submit that the evangelical church has imbibed some of the thinking Hirsch identifies here.  The evangelical church has embraced an interpretive relativism with respect to the gospel.  We have not claimed nor identified “objective grounds” for rejecting disparate theological and soteriological interpretations.  Although we may not exhibit the essential attitude of “the invincible cynic,” I contend that we have embraced an interpretive and soteriological relativism and have therefore been teaching and preaching two disparate meanings of the gospel and salvation.  We have evidenced “abject intellectual surrender” and the “abandonment of responsibility.”  We have convinced ourselves that these interpretations are not “genuine disagreements” but reflect “different aspects and potentialities of the text.”  We also pretend that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist views of sovereignty and human freedom are “members of one happy family” at the price of “abandoning critical thinking.”   Both the failure to reckon with the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism with respect to the gospel and the failure of Calvinists to reckon with the incoherence its theistic determinism generates are both indicative of an “abject intellectual surrender” and “the abandonment of responsibility.”

“…the outright opposition between some points of doctrine shows that not all traditions are equally valid.”

Kelly M. Kapic, “The Little Book for New Theologians,” p. 98.

Given the presence of such sharply incompatible representations of soteriological doctrines, the content and nature of the gospel message and the problematic deterministic nature of Calvinism itself in light of the overwhelming testimony of Scripture to human freedom, responsibility and contingency, it is obvious that hermeneutical considerations have not been sufficiently attended to and developed by evangelicals so as to reach a conclusion regarding whether the Calvinist view or one of the non-Calvinist views on offer is closer to expressing the biblical truth about God, man and salvation.  I describe this situation within evangelical soteriological interpretation as a theological and soteriological relativism.  Spend a sufficient amount of time in different evangelical churches and you will see this relativism at work.  With regard to attending to hermeneutical considerations in our exegesis of the relevant texts there is an “abject intellectual surrender” and “the abandonment of responsibility” that results in an interpretive relativism.  Opposing interpretations are not considered disparate, they are just how one sees the text and this is just as legitimate as how someone else might see the same text although the two interpretations are inconsistent or contradictory.  It certainly seems that the evangelical church has embraced a doctrinal and theological relativism and pluralism reflective of postmodern developments in interpretation.[122]

Biblical scholars F. F. Bruce and J. Julius Scott Jr. write the following in their survey of the history and principles regarding the interpretation of the Bible in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.

“The most recent developments are those which arise from postmodernism… It adopts an all-pervasive relativism which asserts that truth is that which is “true” for the interpreter or his/her community and holds to a pluralism in which even apparently contradictory truth claims may be true.”[123]

They add that this postmodern view,

 “…offers differing interpretations, based on methods and intuitions of the individuals and groups for which there need be little consistency.”[124]

Although an “all pervasive relativism” would be an overstatement regarding the interpretive posture or method among conservative evangelical scholars, anyone who has attended small group Bible studies knows that the methodology that “truth is that which is true for the interpreter” is quite common.  A “what does it mean to you” approach is common.  And certainly with regard to Calvinism, the pluralism which states even “apparently contradictory truth claims may be true” applies.  “The Bible teaches both in ‘apparent contradiction’” is precisely the claim being made to justify the Calvinist’s interpretation and when this point is pressed rationally and morally the Calvinist must flee to mystery or incomprehensibility.  This is precisely the “abject intellectual surrender,” “abandonment of critical thinking” and the avoidance of “rational choice” in the interpretive enterprise that Hirsch identifies.  Also note that Dr. Bruce and Dr. Scott imply that contradictions and inconsistencies can be identified as actual not merely “apparent.”

In this controversy we have two diametrically opposed understandings of sovereignty, election, soteriology and the gospel.  Either they are both wrong or one must be closer to the truth than the other.  They both cannot be right.  I therefore concur with E. D. Hirsch that, “…two disparate interpretations cannot be correct.”[125]  Furthermore, Calvinism itself generates logical and moral contradictions and inconsistencies.  This is a fact that needs to be reckoned with hermeneutically.

Hirsch also states,

“In contrast to such intellectual withdrawal there persists among many interpreter’s a continuing faith in the possibilities of self-critical and rational thought.  Indeed, every written interpretation with which I am familiar is implicitly or explicitly an argument that attempts to convince a reader.”

In this vein, we must inquire into the role of human reason in interpreting a divinely inspired text and ask whether there are rational criteria upon which proper interpretation rests thereby allowing us to identify a particular interpretation as more plausible compared to its alternatives.  If so, we cannot allow reason and moral intuition to be cavalierly dismissed.  Moreover, these will be the basis for convincing the reader of the plausibility of one interpretation over another.

Hirsch’s comments presuppose certain principles by which interpretations can surely be identified as “disparate.”  I contend that true textual meaning can be validated upon the fundamental, non-negotiable principles of logical thought and discourse along with the possibility of making valid inferences.  Here we can also employ apologetic principles of thought to reach sound conclusions.  On the hermeneutical principle that there is an objective meaning to the text that can be sufficiently understood whereby we must reject contradictory or incoherent interpretations of the same texts we must take a firm stand, otherwise we are set adrift on a sea of interpretive subjectivity and relativism.

God is the God of order and coherence, logic and truth, and therefore these all matter in discerning the proper meaning of what he has communicated to us in his Word.  God’s thoughts are certainly “above and beyond” our thoughts, yet it is important to note that we have no license to think that we will be asked to reverse or dismiss our logical reasoning and moral intuitions.

Hirsch also points out that “The aim of validation, therefore, is not necessarily to denominate an individual victor, but rather to reach an objective conclusion about relative probabilities.”[126] And here we have the employment of a principle upon which Christian apologetics rests. That principle is that we have to make inference to the best explanation given all the facts presently at our disposal.  Although I believe that the content of the gospel and the way of salvation has been clearly and certainly disclosed to us in the Bible, as pertaining to a rapprochement in this controversy the way forward is going to be to adopt the stance of abductive reasoning.  We have to take an integrative approach given all the evidences for and against each position.  I submit that important and indispensable evidences will come from the logical, moral, epistemological, theological and practical implications of each view.  But it will also be necessary to incorporate those implications into our hermeneutic. We cannot just let them stand idle with respect to a determination as to which evidences and positions more accurately reflect the meaning of the biblical texts.  This not merely a fact-finding mission.  It is ultimately a matter of the validity of interpretations.  As much evidence as possible must be presented to establish one interpretation as more plausible than another, and all the evidence has to be honestly acknowledged and truthfully examined as to its contribution to the rational and moral coherence or incoherence of a position.  If we cannot acknowledge the crucial role of rational and moral coherence for verifying the validity of our interpretations, and if we cannot be transparent and non-defensive of our traditional positions, then consensus on “the truth of the gospel” cannot advance.  Indeed, theological discussion and discovery grinds to a halt.  Theological and soteriological confusion and denial, with all its detrimental effects on evangelism and the credibility of evangelical preaching and teaching only increase.

I contend that presently most evangelicals live in denial of the fact that they are accepting two contradictory soteriologies as legitimate biblical options.  I also contend that this is diminishing the credibility of Christianity, obscuring the gospel message, and disparages the life of the mind within Evangelicalism.  Theological topics that require sustained, accurate thinking are shunned in the church today.  This mindset of denial becomes entrenched and paves the way for superficiality and anti-intellectualism in biblical study and in our Christian experience as a whole.  Hence, the serious study of hermeneutics, theology (i.e., biblical, systematic, historical, etc.), and apologetics are for the most part completely absent in the evangelical church today.

It is also my conviction that evangelical Christians, as evangelicals,[127] need to address any distortion of the gospel message that would turn the “good news” into anything but that, especially distortions that make it a message of doubt and despair.  It will require a refreshing honesty to take the first step of admitting that two diametrically opposed soteriologies and “gospels” reside in the evangelical church today and that this is intellectually and spiritually unacceptable and that one of these soteriologies and gospels must be closer to the biblical truth than the other.  They are not simply two aspects or emphases of the same doctrines of salvation and gospel message.  They are two incompatible views in both content and implication.  It will take an intentional biblical and rational assessment to get a clearer view of the serious nature and implications of this problem.

These writings are my attempt at that biblical and rational assessment.  Hence I resurrect certain lines of evidence that I believe the Reformed Calvinist and those evangelicals who choose non-confrontation over the pursuit of the truth in this matter would rather dismiss.  Most people, like myself, prefer non-confrontation, but an honest look at all the evidence and its implications compels me to conclude that the Reformed Calvinist position does not reflect the biblical truth on divine sovereignty, salvation and the gospel message.  

The hermeneutical divide has serious implications for the Bible as revelation.  The lack of consensus among evangelicals on the biblical doctrines of salvation is troubling.  It needs to be reckoned with.  What precisely is the content and nature of the biblical gospel?  The thoughts presented here are intended to lay bare “the truth of the gospel” and contribute to working towards a consensus among all those who call themselves “evangelicals” to adjust their particular theologies to accurately reflect the biblical gospel, which biblically defined means “good news.”

There is too much at stake in this controversy not to be honest and forthright about the issues involved.  I believe the rational biblical case against Reformed Calvinist soteriology is very strong and needs to be clearly and forthrightly stated.  The essential message of biblical revelation – the “good news” of salvation – is on the line.  Hence, substantive convictions are what I wish to communicate.  And although these are my present convictions, I am open to change.  In stating my contentions I do not wish to be unnecessarily contentious.  This is a legitimate debate that should be characterized by civility and respect.  To pursue the cause of truth spoken in love is an essential task of the supernaturally gifted church (Eph. 4:15) and an element in its unity.  We should not adopt the false dichotomy of either unity or truth.  Without a pursuit of the truth we will not arrive at either truth or unity, a least a unity that is worth having.  It is the substance of what is true that we all must humbly and lovingly reckon with and upon which unity is based.  Truth, when it is disclosed and embraced is what unifies.  Unity in truth is the only unity worth pursuing.  One of my goals is to provide substantive critiques in a non-offensive spirit so as to maintain interest and spur a desire for discovering the biblical truth on these important matters.  To those I critique, please know my sincere intention is not to offend but to preserve and restore the truth of the gospel.

It is in the hope of laying a foundation for meaningful and productive dialogue and pursuit of “the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) and for preserving “the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:5, 14) that this critique of Reformed Calvinist soteriology is written. I welcome evaluation and critique of my own arguments. 

That said, in previous chapters I believe I have sufficiently pointed out the logical and moral incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the Calvinist theological and soteriological system and demonstrated how Calvinists preach and teach inconsistent with their underlying Calvinist doctrines.  Therefore, if logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction mean anything to you with respect to discerning valid from invalid interpretations and legitimate from illegitimate doctrinal propositions, then intellectual integrity requires that you reject Calvinism.  Let me be clear.  To reject Calvinism is not to reject Calvinists either personally or professionally.  But we also must face the fact that if interpretive incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction do not hold hermeneutical significance or interpretive weight for the Calvinist, then it certainly seems that there can be no rational, meaningful or productive discussion about the meaning or validity of one’s interpretations of Scripture.  This is so because Calvinists do not acknowledge that our logical and moral frameworks apply to their interpretations of Scripture.  Non-Calvinists would look forward to further dialogue in this regard, but we need to know whether logical reflection and moral intuitions play an essential role in the discussion.  For if logical and moral categories of thought do not apply, then there is nothing to reason about.  As far as the Calvinist is concerned, there is no logical or moral reasoning that can demonstrate either the truth or falsity of his Calvinist interpretations.  Therefore, the non-Calvinist will always view Calvinism as incoherent and the Calvinist will never be convinced that their interpretations cannot be what the Scripture teaches because there is no common rational ground upon which to do so.

Concluding Observations

In this chapter I have sought to show that Calvinist interpretations of Scripture are not in accord with sound principles of hermeneutics.  Therefore, Calvinism is not a valid interpretation of Scripture. 

I submit that it is an established fact that Calvinists do not value logical or moral coherence as an essential hermeneutical principle.  I have shown that coherence is foundational to the most important and accepted hermeneutical principles, i.e., authorial intent, context, Scripture interprets Scripture and the perspicuity of Scripture.  Indeed, the Calvinist and non-Calvinist theological and soteriological differences are rooted in how each reasons or fail to reason in interpreting the text and the weight each places on what can rightly be acknowledged as logically and morally coherent or incoherent thought.  I submit that coherent reasoning and the weight one places upon it as a reliable determiner of the validity of an interpretation is ultimately not a significant concern for Calvinist interpretive thought.  Calvinist’s embrace a hermeneutic of incoherence.

To put it another way, when reading Calvinist theology and soteriology, or attempting to discuss it with Calvinists, we non-Calvinists are continually intrigued by a certain phenomenon that I am convinced must be more fully explored, clarified and addressed by evangelicals.  This phenomenon is the rational and moral perplexity we experience given the Calvinist’s interpretations of the text and the further “reasonings” they provide in defense of their interpretations.  To put it plainly, the phenomenon is simply this: the Calvinist maintains theological propositions that to the non-Calvinist make no sense and the Calvinist attempts at defending them are, according to non-Calvinists, equally incredible.

Therefore, how is it that in the interpretation of Scripture, what supposedly makes sense to one interpreter is complete nonsense to another interpreter?  I submit that this has to do with defining and identifying legitimate interpretive reasoning and acknowledging whether or not it is important for one’s interpretive methodology and conclusions.  Are rational and moral coherence identifiable and essential principles in a sound evangelical hermeneutic?  I. Howard Marshall refers to the principles of comprehensives and context when he writes, “…it is one thing to state what Scripture says; it is quite another to understand it and bring it into relation with the rest of what Scripture says.”[128]  I assume that bringing it “into relation” with the rest of what Scripture says implies an exercise in logical and moral coherence among the whole scope of one’s interpretive and theological propositions.  Although Calvinists and non-Calvinists are reading the same words of the same text, and may even claim to embrace many of the same basic hermeneutical principles (e.g., authorial intent, context, genre, etc.), the Calvinist finds a completely different meaning in the text than the non-Calvinist.  The troubling aspect for the non-Calvinist is that the Calvinist can rest content pitting a single author against himself or with other parts of Scripture or doctrines with respect to their rational and moral coherence.  That is, the non-Calvinist deems the Calvinist exegesis to be logically, morally, epistemologically and theologically incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory, and the non-Calvinist believes that this is hermeneutically significant as to the validity of the Calvinist’s exegesis and interpretation.  Not so for the Calvinist.

One man claims the Reformed “doctrines of grace” are the biblical gospel, another argues that they are not.  They both use the same Bible to argue their positions.  Therefore, this problem will not be solved by mere “proof-texting,” although this has implications for the perspicuity of Scripture.  Rather, it involves deeper considerations of what constitutes proper interpretation of the biblical texts.  The problem is a hermeneutical one.

And this issue is critical because of its profound implications for the gospel.  How do we discern what amounts to sound biblical teaching on the matter of salvation?  Few theological matters could be more important and relevant to “evangelicals” than the message of salvation.  The gospel is the central message of the Scripture and needs to be proclaimed throughout the world in every generation.  But what needs to be proclaimed is the biblical gospel and not a distortion of it.  If the apostle Paul was so intent upon preserving the “truth of the gospel,” and pronounced that those who preached a gospel contrary to the one he preached should be “accursed,” (Gal. 1:9) then, given that there are two incompatible gospels in the evangelical church today, properly defining the biblical gospel becomes the evangelical church’s highest priority.  We need to discern and preserve the truth of the gospel for the evangelization of those who still need to hear and believe it and for those whose maturity in the faith and sanctification is dependent upon being reminded of it.  This is surely the most important issue facing a church that calls itself “evangelical.”

Furthermore, given Paul’s zeal regarding the preservation of the accuracy and purity of the gospel content, we should ask whether it is plausible that the Bible itself should generate such perplexity regarding its central message and the gospel be left so unclear and mysterious to us?  Which is the gospel that Paul preached?  What is “the truth of the gospel” as Paul proclaimed it?

So it seems we must start with the most basic interpretive question.  How do we objectively determine the validity of an interpretation?  What are the principles by which we can evaluate whether a person has properly understood the meaning of a text?  Once we can identify these principles and examine an interpretation accordingly, we can then discern which doctrines and theologies are biblical. Given the incompatibility between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologies, soteriologies and gospel messages, which theological paradigm is to be accepted as biblical and which is to be rejected as unbiblical?

I submit that the rational and moral incoherence inherent in Calvinism confirms that its “theology of grace” is anything but the biblical “good news.”  The Reformed doctrines prove to be logically, linguistically, morally, epistemologically, and biblically incoherent.  Surely these are serious indicators of textual misinterpretation.  If they are not, then the Bible is open to any and all fanciful meanings.  There is a true biblical gospel, and discerning that gospel and sound doctrine requires a hermeneutic that incorporates rational and moral coherence as a determiner of valid interpretation.

Therefore, something very elusive is at the heart of the Calvinist / non-Calvinist soteriological debate that allows it to continue ad infinitum.  What has eluded us with respect to this controversy?  It is that the intellectual tools that we normally presuppose to be absolutely fundamental for any thought or discussion to be rational to be jettisoned when it comes to the Calvinist interpretations of Scripture. That is, the laws of logic and our moral intuitions have been put out of court when it comes to the Calvinist interpretations of Scripture and determining their validity.  That is a flawed hermeneutic.  But it can be corrected. Therefore, I believe the debate does not have to continue, and indeed it should not.  But I submit that it does continue because of the Calvinist’s indifference to the rational and moral incoherence in their interpretations and the added incoherence of the rationalizations by which they seek to justify those interpretations.

So what does the non-Calvinist think constitutes good exegesis and interpretation? I have discussed many of these principles in this chapter. But in the next chapter I turn to a more focused examination of the non-Calvinist’s interpretive rationale, by giving concrete examples of the non-Calvinist’s hermeneutic at work.  What hermeneutical principles does the non-Calvinist bring to their reading and interpretation of Scripture? Looking at particular examples will be instructive.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991)

[2] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 1.7, p. 12.

[3] Ibid. 1.6, p. 9.

[4] Ibid. 1.7, p. 12.

[5] Ibid. 1.9, p. 18.

[6] The principle of Scripture interprets Scripture is also referred to as “the analogy of Scripture” or “the analogy of faith.”

[7] Anthony C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutics,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 283.

[8] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 3.

[9] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academie Books, 1883), 161.

               Footnote 1 in the text here reads, “The perfect understanding of a discourse,” says Schleiermacher, “is a work of art, and involves the need of an art-doctrine, which we designate by the term Hermeneutics.  Such an art-doctrine has existence only in so far as the precepts admitted form a system resting upon principles which are immediately evident from the nature of thought and language.” – Outline of the Study of Theology,” p. 142. Edinb., 1850.

[10] Ibid. 19.

[11] Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 41.

[12] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academie Books, 1883), 19.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. 20.

[15] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 5-6.

[16] Ibid. 19.

[17] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academie Books, 1883), 161, footnote 1, from Friedrich Schleiermacher, “Outline of the Study of Theology,” p. 142. Edinb., 1850.

[18] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 6.

[19] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Intention/Intentional Fallacy,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 328.

[20] Ibid. 329.

[21] Ibid.

[22] See A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 4, footnote 2.

[23] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Intention/Intentional Fallacy,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 329-330.

[24] Ibid.

            We need to be wary as to what Vanhoozer as a Calvinist means by, “To limit oneself to recovering only the human authorial intentions is to fall short of theological interpretation.”  What does he mean by “only the human authorial intentions?”  Aren’t the human authorial intentions also the divine authorial intentions?  Previously he stated that “God identifies his word with just these texts.”  My point is that for the Calvinist, their universal divine causal determinism is a priori biblical truth.  So, sooner or later, their interpretations have to affirm this determinism.  Therefore, their hermeneutic must allow them the luxury of the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction this determinism produces.  They have to affirm a hermeneutic of incoherence.  They do this in subtle ways, so we have to keep our theological eyes and ears open to what Calvinists might say that will allow them to maintain their hermeneutic of incoherence.    

               Vanhoozer also states, “God identifies his word with just these texts because they already communicate a good number of his intentions.”  What does he mean by “a good number of his intentions?”  Even if the human authors cannot see all the ramifications God might have in mind for what they have written, as in prophecy for instance, we need to guard against introducing incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction on the rationale that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” so the Calvinist may preserve their theological system.  Certainly God may have intentions he has not revealed, but does Vanhoozer mean to say, as Calvinists often do, that because we are dealing with God, our interpretations might very well result in “tensions,” “antinomies,” and “apparent contradictions” that on closer examination are actually genuine incoherencies and inconsistencies along with real contradictions.   “God’s way are higher than our ways” does not justify interpreting the human and divine author as having incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory intentions.  Vanhoozer also states, “We may legitimately presume that the divine intention corresponds to the human intention unless there is good reason – given the nature of God or broader canonical context – to think otherwise.”  Again, what does he mean by “good reason – given the nature of God…to think otherwise?”  Is he referring to the “nature of God” as mysterious or incomprehensible to excuse a “theological interpretation” that ends up in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction?  Or does he find in the “broader canonical context” his “doctrines of grace” that conflict with the clearer texts on the nature and scope of salvation?

               If the Calvinist affirms the principle of authorial intent and by logical inference the principle of authorial coherence, and if the Calvinist affirms the principles of context and comprehensiveness that Vanhoozer enunciates when he says, “The divine intention most comes to light when God’s communicative acts are described in canonical context,” then it is hard to avoid Vanhoozer’s own conclusion that the Calvinist is imposing “one’s own intentions or the intention of one’s own community” upon the text, and they are thereby failing to “guard themselves from potential idols,” when their interpretations result in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.

[25] Generally speaking the canonical principle refers to integrating the full testimony of the Scriptures, faithfully and authoritatively, when interpreting its constituent parts.

[26] “The knowledge of faith.”

[27] “Sacred Scripture interprets itself.”

[28] Henri A. G. Blocher, “Atonement.”  The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed., Kevin J. Vanhoozer. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 74-75.

[29] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Intention/Intentional Fallacy,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 330.

[30] Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 19.

[31] Ibid. 21.

[32] Klyne Snodgrass, “Exegesis,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 205.

               Snodgrass continues, “This also means discerning how words are put together in specific grammatical constructions.  Of crucial importance for both Hebrew and Greek is discerning the use of prepositions, infinitives, participles, and the way nouns are connected, especially with the genitive and dative in Greek.  By way of example, the meaning of pistis Christou (Gal. 2:16 et. al.) is notoriously debated both as to the aspect of the semantic field of pistis and the kind of genitive with Christou.  Does the phrase mean “faith of Christ” (as most translation, but yielding a redundancy in the text) or “faithfulness of Christ”?”

[33] Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 156.

[34] Erwin Lutzer, “Come and See His Temptation, Part 2,” “Running to Win” broadcast April, 20, 2020.  (3:04 – 3:49). Accessed 4/20/2020.

[35] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academie Books, 1883), 161.

[36] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), vii.

[37] Ibid. vii – viii.

[38] Henry C. Thiessen, Introductory Lessons in Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 347-348.

[39] Klyne Snodgrass, “Exegesis,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 205.

[40] Ibid. 205.

[41] Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 22-23.

[42] Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 11.

[43] Klyne Snodgrass, “Exegesis,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 206.

[44] I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God, 3rd ed., (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995), footnote 6, p. 256.

[45] Anthony C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Circle,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 281.

               Thiselton adds, “Elsewhere I have applied this principle to the understanding of Pauline texts.  As Beker urges concerning Paul, a constructive dialectic emerges between the principle of coherence and the principle of contingency.  The first concerns the nature of Paul’s theology and his vision as a whole; the second explores the exegesis of passage written for specific occasions.  Each facilitates understanding the other.  (Beker; Thiselton 237-71).  This also applies to understanding interpreters themselves.” – Anthony C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Circle,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 282.

               This is to say that a reciprocal relation exists between Paul’s theological themes and particular issues addressed in his epistles and these are to be understood as a coherent whole.  These theological themes are on display in the particular issues he addresses in is epistles.  There is a reciprocal interpretive interaction between these themes and the particulars that must be rendered in a coherent manner.

               Interestingly, Thiselton mentions that this process of the “hermeneutical circle” also applies to interpreters themselves.  I take this to mean that not only does a reciprocal interaction help interpreters to understand each other, but each one’s interpretations are either checked or advanced by being examined by the others to “spiral” towards the best interpretation.  Iron sharpens iron.  Yet I would submit again that this process needs to result in coherent, consistent and non-contradictory “parts” and “wholes.”  Coherence impels the “spiral” towards the author’s meaning.  Incoherence truncates the advance towards the authors meaning and allows one to remain in their settled traditional interpretive “circle.”

               Regarding this “inkling of the whole” needed to understand the “parts,” Thiselton writes, “The interpreter begins with what Dilthey calls a prior relationship to “life” (Leben), in contrast to what Lonergan terms “the principle of the empty head.”  The latter leads nowhere.  Bultmann suggests an example: to understand a musical text, we need to have some inkling of what music is; to suppress everything that we may know already about music simply ensures an absence of understanding.” – Anthony C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Circle,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 281.

[46] E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity In Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 164.  The section I am referring to here is in “Chapter 5. Problems and Principles of Validation, Section A. The Self-Confirmability of Interpretations.”

[47] Ibid. 169.

[48] Ibid. 166,167.

[49] See Hirsch Chap. 4, Sec. A.

[50] Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 167.

[51] Ibid. 167-168.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid. 168.

[54] Ibid. 72.

[55] Ibid. 74.

[56] Ibid. 76.

[57] Ibid. 76.

[58] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academie Books, 1883), 161.

[59] This third criterion is, however, highly presumptive, since the interpreter may easily mistake the text’s genre.

[60] Hirsch, Validity In Interpretation, 236.

[61] Ibid.

[62]  Ibid. 134.

[63] Ibid. 172.

[64] Henry C. Thiessen, Introductory Lessons in Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 347-348.

[65] Hirsch, Validity In Interpretation, 237.

[66] Ibid. 163.

[67] Ibid. 170, 171.

[68] Ibid. 169, 170.

[69] Ibid. 163.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid. Footnote 2, p. 171.

[72] Ibid. 192, 193.

[73] Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), 106.

[74] Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, 85-87.

[75] Hirsch, Validity In Interpretation, 203.

[76] Ibid. 194.

[77] Ibid. 198.

[78] Ibid. 172.

[79] Ibid. 203, 204.

[80] Ibid. 204.

[81] Ibid. 206, 207.

[82] Ibid. 171.

[83] Ibid. viii-ix.

[84] Philip Graham Ryken, What is a True Calvinist? (Phillipsburg: Puritan & Reformed, 2003), 29.

[85] Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 5.

[86] Ibid. 6.

[87] Ibid.

[88] B. A. Milne, “Judgment,” New Bible Dictionary, 3rd. ed., (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1996), 633.  (Emphases mine.)

[89] Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 5-6.

[90] Ibid. 7.

[91] Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, see especially Ch. 13 “Biblical Theology,” Ch. 14 “Systematic Theology,” and Appendix 2 “The Problem of Meaning: Toward a Solution.”

[92] Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 296.

[93] Ibid. 297.

[94] Ibid. 296-297.

[95] Ibid. 297.

[96] Ibid. 298.

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

               See William Lane Craig, Defenders 2 Class, Doctrine of Creation: Part 10.  Oct. 21, 2012.  Accessed May 8, 2020.  You can read the transcript or listen to the lecture at this link. 

[98] Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, See especially Chapter 4.

[99] Again, see Dr. Craig’s five-fold critique of Calvinism in which he concludes “that the Calvinistic view of universal divine causal determinism is one that is unacceptable for Christian theology.”  William Lane Craig, Defenders 2 Class, Doctrine of Creation: Part 10.  Oct. 21, 2012.  Accessed May 8, 2020. 

[100] See Chapter 9 – Reason as Problematic for Calvinist Interpretation.

[101] Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 310.

[102] Ibid.  Emphasis mine. The “steps” in the following quotes are from p. 311.

[103] Ibid. 311.  Emphases mine.

[104] Richard Land, “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from a “Eternal Now” Perspective” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds., David L. Allen & Steve W. Lemke, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 45.

[105] Ibid. 45-46.

[106] Ibid. 51.

[107] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991), 296. (Emphasis mine.)

[108] J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), 99.

[109] Ibid. 404.

[110] Ibid. 404-405.

[111] E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity In Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 180.

[112] Ibid. 182, 183.

[113] Ibid. 414-415.  This is precisely the approach I am attempting to foster here.

[114] John Calvin, Institutes, McNeill, 926.

[115] Philosopher, theologian and apologist Ravi Zacharias instructs us in this regard.  He tells us about the three tests for truth in apologetics.  He states,

“…when you deal with apologetics, there are three tests we put for truth normally – logical consistency, empirical adequacy, experiential relevance.  What does that mean? We are looking for this to be logically consistent… Logically consistent, empirically adequate and experientially relevant.  It makes a difference in how you feel and think and act.  There is an existential aspect to it, even if not central, there is an entailment.  It follows naturally.”

These are also tests that apply to biblical interpretation.  They are essential to a sound hermeneutic.

Ravi Zaharias, “East and West, Part 1,” Last accessed 4/20/2020.

[116] E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity In Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 167.

[117] Ibid.

[118] Ibid. 167-168.

[119] Ibid. 168.

[120] Ibid.

[121] Ibid.  Certainly Hirsch’s observations on these attitudes to interpretive objectivity mark most small group Bible studies where the ultimate concern about the text amounts to “What does it mean to you?”

[122] See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Podcast – “Dr. Craig Live at West University Baptist Church, Part 1” January 6, 2020.  Accessed Jan. 24, 2020.  (20:05 – 24:31).  Dr. Craig explains the need for the evangelical Christian and the church to become intellectually engaged regarding theology and doctrine to influence the university, culture and the next generation for the sake of the gospel.

               See also William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Podcast – “In intellectual Neutral.” January 20, 2020.   The “subtitle” of this podcast is “What Would Dr. Craig Say To Your Church If He Were Invited to Speak?”  Dr. Craig encourages Christians to attend not only to their spiritual lives but also the life of the mind.

[123] F. F. Bruce and J. J. Scott Jr. “Interpretation of the Bible,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 615.

[124] Ibid. 615.

[125] E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity In Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 173.

[126] Ibid. 172.

[127] In the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) means “good news.”  The BDAG (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) defines it as “God’s good news to humans.”

R. H. Mounce writes, “The gospel is the good news that God in Jesus Christ has fulfilled his promises to Israel, and that a way of salvation has been opened to all…Mark defines the ‘gospel of God in 1:14 (AV, following the Byzantine text, adds ‘of the kingdom’) as ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’.  To believe means salvation: to reject is damnation (Mk. 16:15-16)…it is by the response of faith that the gospel comes with saving power (Heb 4:2).” – New Bible Dictionary, 3rd. ed., (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1996), “Gospel,” 426.

[128] I. Howard Marshall, “Predestination in the New Testament” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 130.

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