This chapter provides examples of the non-Calvinist’s hermeneutic. Non-Calvinists insist upon a hermeneutic of coherence, that is, the expectation that the text be handled with logical consistency. The non-Calvinist maintains that one can discern when the text is being interpreted with logical and moral incoherence which is unacceptable for the responsible exegete. This chapter will also point out other concepts, methods or doctrines that the non-Calvinist values as ways to discern the validity of textual interpretations and other propositions. These are just some of the non-Calvinist’s “participating” principles, concepts, doctrines and experiential truths by which interpretations and theological conclusions are examined so as to determine their validity. As was discussed in Chapter 12, it is a continual process that involves a constant comparison and forthright examination of interpretive propositions for their coherence with each other across the whole spectrum of the biblical witness. Here are some examples of the non-Calvinist hermeneutic of coherence at work in contrast to the Calvinist’s hermeneutic of incoherence. As such, this chapter provides more examples of the hermeneutical divide.
Leighton Flowers and David Allen: The Extent of the Atonement, Election, Logic and Consistency
In this “Soteriology 101” podcast, non-Calvinist Biblical scholar Dr. David Allen speaks with Dr. Leighton Flowers about the extent of the atonement as properly distinguishable from the intent of the atonement and the application of the atonement. Regarding the intent of the atonement, Dr. Allen states,
“The intent of the atonement answers the question, what’s the purpose for the atonement? What is God’s own intent and purpose?…There are two primary ways of viewing that. The Calvinist says that the intent of the atonement – and by the way this would be true of all Calvinists – would argue that the intent of the atonement is to redeem, to save, only the elect… All non-Calvinists affirm…that the intent in the atonement is to save all who believe…The difference on the intent question is whether God’s intention is to save the elect, as elect or defined by Dort, which we differ with, or all of the elect defined biblically, which we would argue would be a Christological and corporate form, aspect of election…
Regarding the question of the extent of the atonement he states,
“That issue deals with this question, for whose sins did Jesus die? That is the question. For whose sins did Jesus suffer? For whose sins did Jesus substitute? And that’s the issue – the question of the extent of the atonement. In that, there are only two views…either Jesus substituted for the sins of only some people, namely, the elect, or, Jesus substituted for the sins of all people. Alright? And that’s the discussion that we’re having. Now, when it comes to the extent of the atonement you have many Calvinists who affirm with all non-Calvinists that the extent of the atonement is unlimited – that Jesus actually suffered for the sins of all people…In fact, all of the first generation of the reformed – not just the Reformers like Luther and Zwingli – but the reformed, like Calvin and Bucer…all of those people…affirmed an unlimited atonement. You’ve got to get to Beza and Perkins and that era about the mid 1580’s before you find limited atonement coming on the scene. So it’s important to understand that the question at hand is the extent of the atonement. For whose sins did Jesus die?
Alright. And the third issue is the application of the atonement. And the correct biblical view there is the atonement is applied to those who believe in Christ. And then the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of the atonement to those who meet God’s condition of salvation which is repentance of sin and faith in Christ. The atonement is not applied in eternity, nor is it applied at the cross. Those are two errors that are common to hyper-Calvinism.
Their discussion goes on to make the point that many of the Reformers advocated unlimited or universal atonement. For instance, Calvin advocated unlimited atonement. Limited atonement was a doctrinal tradition that began with Theodore Beza and William Perkins and much later with John Owen in his influential work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. In contrast to high-Calvinists who hold to limited atonement, moderate Calvinists believe in unlimited atonement. They do so because they believe that is what Scripture teaches.
But it is also important for our purposes here to note that these moderate Calvinists also recognize the logical and moral inconsistency in the limitarian position of their Calvinist colleagues, that is, the non-limitarian Calvinists feel they would not be bringing a sincere and genuine gospel call to all they are speaking to if the atonement were limited. Jesus needs to have died for all because if he did not then the message and the call to repent and believe would be insincere and disingenuous with regard to the non-elect.
Dr. Allen eloquently points out this problem as he responds to a question Dr. Flowers raises about the implications of unconditional election on this issue of consistency.
Dr. Flowers: “Here’s a question. Why does it matter if you’re a Calvinist and you believe that God’s intention is only to save the elect ultimately and application is only to apply to those he’s elected to believe by effectual means, then does it really matter as to the difference between the various views of the extent? For all practical purposes aren’t those who hold to the intention and the application as being limited in the way that Calvinists do, aren’t for all practical purposes – don’t they ultimately land in the exact same place? In other words, what benefit is it for a Calvinist to still say the extent of the atonement is unlimited while maintaining the rest of their Calvinistic doctrines? Does that make sense?
Dr. Allen: Right, that’s an excellent question. Of course it has to do with the consistency of the so-called five point system of TULIP verses four point Calvinists who would agree with us on the actual question of extent. The reason it does – for the most part it does make a difference, and I’ll try to explain why it makes a difference – I try to do this in the book. But now once we shift to talk about election I would argue that our four point Calvinist brothers and sisters are still in a problematic situation. Again, that is a different issue because I think their understanding of election is wrong and therefore their understanding of the intent of the atonement is also not right. But when it comes to the four pointers, where they’ve got the right situation is they understand, number one, that exegetically the Scripture teaches an unlimited atonement. Also they recognize that in order to be able to fully give credence to God’s universal love, they’re going to have to affirm a universal atonement. Because it’s going to become very difficult to affirm God’s omnibenevolence, his universal love, regardless of describing the distinctions within the love of God as Carson does in his book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, and by the way I would argue that the doctrine of the love of God maybe is not quite as difficult as Carson thinks it is, but nevertheless, that creates a problem for the love of God. And this is of course where moderate Calvinists are critiquing their high Calvinist brothers and sisters on that issue.
Where else it makes a difference is on the question of the well-meant gospel offer. Because if you’ve got in a preaching situation, you’re preaching to a crowd of people, and from a Calvinistic perspective you’re going to have some that are unsaved and some that are saved in that crowd, or you could have a crowd that is fully unsaved and non-evangelized, total crowd of people that are non-believers, well then in that crowd there are probably going to be some, again, from a Calvinistic perspective, some who are elect but some who aren’t. Now, only God knows who those people are. So the usual argument is, well I’m a high-Calvinist, I believe in limited atonement, so I preach to everybody because I don’t know who the elect are. Well, here’ your problem. You don’t know who the elect are, but God does. And for those among that group who are non-elect, if you are a high-Calvinist, by definition you believe Jesus only died for the sins of the elect. He did not die for the sins of the non-elect. Therefore you are offering to people who are non-elect – even though you don’t know who they are – but you’re offering – and here’s what’s even worse – God is offering through you – 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 – God is offering through you to people who are non-elect the opportunity of salvation, but there’s no atonement for their sins. They cannot be saved. Even if they wanted to be, even if they did say “I’m ready to believe in Jesus.” “Sorry there’s no atonement for your sin.”
So moderate Calvinists recognize that problem. And they point out that “Hey you can’t have that both ways. There’s a real problem.” So their understanding of the extent of the atonement as being for everybody is crucial for the preaching of the gospel. Now, I might add this Dr. Flowers. Hyper-Calvinists recognize that problem, and they carry it to the logical conclusion and say “Well, you shouldn’t be offering the gospel to everyone.”
Therefore you can’t have a well-meant gospel offer on a limited atonement platform, and hyper-Calvinists recognize the contradiction, and then they go to that extreme. Now, they still believe in preaching to everybody, but they just believe in giving the bare facts of the gospel and not particularly inviting anyone and not offering the gospel because they can’t know who the elect are and God can’t be offering that which doesn’t exist. So that’s something that is important to keep in mind. So in that sense, it does matter – a moderate Calvinist is on more firm grounds when it comes to preaching and evangelism and missions than is the high-Calvinist in that sense. Now, that’s not to address the problems that we think that the moderate Calvinist has based on their concept of election. And we think there’s still some contradictions that are wrapped up in there, but again, that’s a different issue.”
What this lengthy section points out is the identification of the inconsistency and contradiction in the Calvinist’s position and how this is unacceptable to Dr. Allen and Dr. Flowers as non-Calvinist seeking to interpret Scripture. The interpretive and hermeneutical implications of the Calvinist’s inconsistencies and contradictions with respect to determining the validity of their exegesis and interpretations need to be teased out further here. Dr. Allen goes on to state,
“You cannot offer to someone that which doesn’t exist for them. And that’s the problem with limited atonement. You can’t offer salvation – obviously salvation is based on the work of Christ on the cross. So if someone that God knows is non-elect, even though you don’t know their non-elect, on a limited atonement platform there’s no gospel to offer them, because they can’t be saved because there’s simply no atonement. Therefore to offer them something that doesn’t exist for them is disingenuous. And your high-Calvinist will say, “Well, yeah, but we don’t know who the elect are.” But that totally misses the point. God knows who they are and it’s not you offering – you’re just the delivery boy – God’s the one who’s doing the offering. And so it creates a problem for the character of God. In fact, what it does, it creates a situation where God is offering to people something that he himself knows does not exist. That is a disingenuous offer and that actually impugns the character of God.” 
Therefore, what should we make of interpretations of Scripture that when followed to their logic and moral conclusions impugn the character of God? For the non-Calvinist, such interpretations are simply wrong-headed. And as much as Calvinists attempt to dismiss these problems with “mystery,” “antinomy,” “incomprehensibility,” or “the Bible teaches both,” Calvinists can’t seem to shake these problems (and as I contend, they will not be able to shake them precisely because they are real logical and moral inconsistencies and contradictions). Even moderate Calvinists critique their hyper-Calvinist limitarian brothers on the grounds of insincerity and disingenuousness in preaching to the non-elect. So moderate Calvinists apprehend and acknowledge this problem caused by limited atonement. David Allen states,
“Now it’s important for your hearers and listeners to know…that argument is made by all Calvinists that reject limited atonement. That’s the point. And…ever since from Dort on you have the moderate Calvinists, those who affirm an unlimited atonement, are pressing this argument against their high-Calvinist brothers because they recognize that is a problem.”
So moderate Calvinists themselves acknowledge that there is a moral problem between the preaching of the gospel as “good news” to all who are hearing it while also holding to the doctrine of limited atonement. As much as this acknowledgment is to be commended, the whole Calvinist system or “doctrines of grace” (or any theological system) ought to be assessed in light of the proposition that the presence of logical and moral inconsistencies and contradictions are reliable indications that something is amiss exegetically within that system.
But now, the moderate Calvinist should apply the same philosophical reflection or clear thinking to their own doctrine of unconditional election. The moderate Calvinist still has his own difficulties of incoherence generated by his Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. This was the point of Dr. Flowers’ question. In seeking to avoid the problem of the insincerity and disingenuousness of preaching “good news” given limited atonement, the moderate Calvinist, along with the high-Calvinist, runs up against the same problem given their doctrine of unconditional election. That is, even if the atonement is unlimited, the non-elect still cannot be saved even if one believes in or preaches unlimited atonement. To believe in or to preach an unlimited atonement does nothing to free the moderate Calvinist from the insincerity or disingenuousness he has chided his high-Calvinist limitarian brothers for exhibiting. The doctrine of unconditional election still causes this insincerity and disingenuousness in preaching.
So, limited atonement is not the only problem the Calvinist must deal with. For both the high and moderate Calvinists, as far as they are attempting to preach “the gospel,” their doctrine of unconditional election also lands them in an insincere and disingenuous situation. The fact that this doctrine lurks in the background of the Calvinist’s attempt to proclaim something that is akin to “good news” also creates disingenuousness between the content of the message and the divinely preordained reality that for many hearing that “good news” it simply does not apply to them. Even if the atonement is unlimited, this makes no difference for the non-elect hearer. It is not “good news” for them and therefore is not the biblical gospel.
Now, I suppose believing in an unlimited atonement may ease some of the angst the Calvinist preacher feels as to their moral psychology, but that has no effect on the reality that the non-elect cannot be saved. Regardless of the fact that the moderate Calvinist believes they can now sincerely and genuinely say to all that “Christ died for you,” what they feel they can give with one hand (unlimited atonement), they quickly take with the other (unconditional election). As I say, this seems to me to be a “sincerity” that involves the moral psychology of the speaker, but it does not involve the truth of the situation regarding the non-elect. In addition, the fact that in the truth of the gospel as “good news” it is God who is speaking and offering salvation to the non-elect, such a theology makes God himself out to be false and disingenuous. As such, the character of God is certainly impugned. Indeed, not only can we say that the character of God is impugned, we can conclude that it is impossible for God to speak such if there really is a group of non-elect persons. Therefore, the fact that God cannot lie, be insincere or disingenuous in his message of salvation means that there is no such entity as the “non-elect” as defined in Calvinism. Because of who God is as holy, righteous and true, God cannot speak a falsehood or be disingenuous. This confirms that the doctrines of limited atonement and unconditional election are inconsistent with both the character of God and the word of God in the gospel as “good news” and are therefore unbiblical and erroneous doctrines.
Moreover, both the moderate and high-Calvinist have the related problem of proclaiming the love of God to those listening who are among the non-elect. But can one avoid the universal love of God in the gospel message if it is to be “good news” and not just “news?” Hardly. And again, not knowing who the non-elect are misses the point. God knows who they are, and for him to say “I love you, yet I have predestined you to an eternity apart from myself” is hardly “good news.” It is also rationally or morally incoherent and makes God out to be as C. S. Lewis said, “an omnipotent Fiend.” In contrast to the confusion and incoherence caused by these Calvinist doctrines is the refreshing simplicity of the proclamation of the biblical gospel of a universal atonement and the love of God in Christ for all sinners and God’s sincere offer of salvation to all who hear and believe.
Similar logical and moral problems occur when many Calvinists admit that a proper exegesis of Scripture teaches that God desires the salvation of all people (1 Tim. 2:4-5; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Jn. 2:2, et al.), and yet they also maintain he has only atoned for a limited number of particular elect persons. Non-Calvinists deem this incoherent. To be consistent, many of these hyper-Calvinists will not make an offer of “the gospel” or salvation to anyone. They will not tell people en masse that God loves them. They will not offer or invite persons to “accept Christ” or call them to “repent and believe the gospel” lest they speak disingenuously to the non-elect. They will just give “information” about salvation to the people and let God do the work of regeneration according to their theology of unconditional election, effectual calling and irresistible grace.
But surely this is all misconceived. For the content of the gospel message as “good news” is incoherent with such doctrinal beliefs. The content of the gospel message – “gospel” means “good news” – is contrary to the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.” If the Calvinist is to maintain that they can preach the gospel to all people, then what message could they give to the non-elect hearer that wouldn’t merely amount to “information” about the Calvinist “doctrines of grace?” What could the Calvinist say so as to bring a sincere and genuine word of truly good news from the Lord to all who hear? If the Calvinist does preach some form of truly good news to all, then that would be disingenuous as it relates to the non-elect. As far as I can tell, to avoid insincerity and disingenuousness, the hyper-Calvinist would have to completely avoid anything that resembles the “good news” of the true, biblical gospel message.
And this, it seems, is what is being done in the Calvinistic churches and ministries. But this has profoundly disturbing implications. The moderate Calvinist’s concern about consistency is to be commended, but given their doctrine of unconditional election this consistency comes at the expense of proclaiming the true biblical gospel as “good news.” The atonement might as well be limited. They cannot and will not present Christ or salvation as something to be offered to all sinners. No decision is to be encouraged due to their attempts to be consistent with their doctrines of “total inability,” unconditional election, effectual call and irresistible grace. Salvation must be all of “grace,” with “grace” defined as the doctrine of predestination. “Grace” equates to “God having predetermined whom he would save.” Given their doctrine of “total inability,” Calvinists will not invite people to “receive Christ as their Savior and Lord.” Nor will they offer salvation to all who hear in the sense of making a decision to believe “the gospel.” The “gospel” is depersonalized as it is reduced to the theology of “sovereign grace.” Any assurance to the sinner that God loves them and Christ died for them, and that God desires them to be saved and that they can and must respond in faith and trust in God to be saved and that they can be saved, that is, all that is personal with respect to the sinner’s relation to God and need of salvation, is logically and morally excluded given the five point Calvinist theological system of TULIP, or, for that matter also the four point system of TUIP. That is why non-Calvinists will say that as long as the Calvinist is preaching and teaching inconsistent with their theology it is likely the biblical good news is being preached. And that is what ultimately matters. And for that we are thankful. But of course, no intellectually responsible and honest Christian can rest content with a situation in which the Calvinist preaches truly “good news,” but that happens either unwittingly or with an awareness that the message preached is inconsistent with the Calvinist preacher’s underlying soteriology. Sooner or later the hypocrisy between the preacher’s words and the preacher’s soteriological system (TULIP) is exposed, causing confusion about the gospel as “good news” and damaging the credibility of Christianity.
So we are confronted with two important questions. The first is whether the truth of the gospel is at stake in this controversy. The second is, in light of the Calvinist doctrines, and their inability to sincerely, genuinely and coherently proclaim to non-elect sinners the essentials of the “good news” (i.e., “God loves you,” “Jesus died for you,” “God desires that you come to Christ and be saved,” etc.), whether or not this matters hermeneutically in determining the biblical truth of those doctrines. Do these types of logical and moral problems and their result of suppressing, restraining or even distorting the gospel and its proclamation, let alone impugning the character of God, reflect the fact that there are serious flaws in the Calvinists exegesis, interpretations and the theology built upon them? For the non-Calvinist, the answer is “Yes!”
Now, if according to the non-Calvinist these issues surely reflect an interpretive problem, and yet the Calvinist deems that these issues have no bearing upon their exegetical and interpretative methods and conclusions, then there can be no resolution of this matter. Two incompatible hermeneutics and their resultant soteriologies and “gospel” messages will continue to exist in the evangelical church.
If a theological position creates acute logical and moral difficulties with respect to the truthfulness of our speech, the gospel proclamation as truly good news, the impugning of the character of God and incoherence with other theological truths, the question as to whether these difficulties serve to indicate the biblical invalidity of that theological position cannot be cavalierly dismissed. If our reasoning and moral intuitions can discern certain acute problems in our biblical interpretations, theologies and soteriologies, why would these problems not be reliable indicators of flaws in our interpretations? For the non-Calvinist, they are reliable indicators of interpretive flaws. But for the Calvinist, they are not.
Christ’s Death for “The Many,” “The Sheep” and “The Church”: Unconditional Election or the Negative Inference Fallacy?
Exegesis is also on the side of the non-Calvinist position regarding the extent of the atonement. Dr. Allen states,
“There is no single text anywhere in Scripture – period – that says that Christ died only for the sins of a limited number of people. And most high-Calvinists admit that…Calvinists cannot win the exegetical debate on the extent question. In fact, that’s why they avoid it, because they know that the evidence exegetically is not there. There is no statement in Scripture that affirms that Christ died for only the sins of some people.”
Dr. Flowers then interjects and provides these examples from Scripture that Calvinists claim teach limited atonement: Christ died for “the many,” Christ lays down his life “for the sheep” and Christ died “for the church.”
With respect to the word “many,” Dr. Allen explains that Paul’s use of “all” in 1 Tim. 2:4-6 echoes the usages of “many” in Isaiah 53, esp. v. 12 and as is found in Mk. 10:45 and Mt. 20:28. But Paul changes “many” to “all” because he knows “many” is a Hebrew idiom for “all.” It doesn’t mean “many” as distinct from “all” or “everybody,” but rather “many” as distinct from “one” or “a few.”  Paul takes the prerogative to change “many” to “all” to clarify the idiomatic sense of the word and teach an unlimited atonement. Dr. Allen points out that Calvin, in his sermons and commentary on Isaiah 53 explicitly says “many” means “all people,” that is, “all without exception.” Indeed, Calvin himself affirmed an unlimited atonement.
In regard to Jesus having died for “his sheep” or “the church” or “his friends,” Dr. Allen observes that when the Calvinist uses these to refer to the unconditionally elect or the doctrine of predestination he is committing the negative inference fallacy. He states,
“Of course all of that is true. When a biblical author is…talking about a group of people that are saved, you do not want to draw the logical inference that he means that Christ only died for that group that’s being referenced. That’s called the negative inference fallacy…the negative inference fallacy simply says that the proof of a proposition cannot be used to disprove its converse. And so you’re assuming, well, Christ only died for “the sheep” – the text doesn’t say that – or he only died for “the church.” Of course he dies for “the church,” but the text doesn’t say that he didn’t die for others who are not within “the church.” And the way I like to illustrate this is Galatians 2:20…Paul says…”the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Alright. Well see, I could take that passage and say well it’s obvious that Jesus died for Paul and he only died for Paul. Well, everybody would laugh and say well you’re absolutely a candidate for the lunatic asylum. Yes indeed. Why? Because I’m invoking the negative inference fallacy, which is exactly what high-Calvinists are doing to all these other texts. Those texts don’t state that Jesus didn’t die for others. In fact, that’s the logical mistake that all limitarians make. They all make that mistake.”
The point is this. When the Calvinist employs these descriptions – “his sheep,” “the church” and “his friends,” etc., to support a limited atonement, or interprets them to refer to the limited number of unconditionally elect persons, they are committing a “logical mistake” (the negative inference fallacy), and because that mistake is a mistake in logic, we can therefore know the limitarian interpretation of these phrases is incorrect. The Calvinist has an exegesis of the text, but that exegesis needs to be evaluated on some rational basis for us to know whether it is legitimate or not. Here the application of philosophical reflection reveals a logical fallacy in the exegesis, and because it violates a rule of logic we are not only justified in concluding that the Calvinist exegesis and interpretation is erroneous, we are compelled to do so. Intellectual integrity demands it. As Dr. Allen points out, “Those texts don’t state that Jesus didn’t die for others. In fact, that’s the logical mistake that all limitarians make.” So, in a priori fashion, Calvinists are imposing their theological doctrine of limited atonement upon the text rather than letting the text inform their doctrine. Therefore, simply to have an exegesis of a passage does not guarantee one is correctly understanding the passage. Dr. Allen’s hermeneutic places high value on the rules of logic and logical consistency. The Calvinist’s hermeneutic can ignore these at will.
Pastor and theologian Ronnie W. Rogers makes a similar observation when he writes the following in his book Reflections of a Disenchanted Calvinist.
“I actually believe that many Calvinists…would become disenchanted Calvinists if time were taken for true reflection on all that Calvinism entails and consistency was sought between the thoughts and words of their prayers, proclamations and teaching from Scripture. My prayer is that this book would contribute to such consistency.” (Italics mine)
For non-Calvinists like Rogers, the logical entailments of the Calvinist doctrines and the matter of their consistency with other biblical doctrines and the Calvinist’s own proclamations and teachings, are considered essential to a proper hermeneutic and therefore are reliable for determining the validity of those interpretive propositions. For the non-Calvinist, exegesis, interpretation and the theological conclusions derived from these need to be consistent. They are therefore inseparably linked with logical reasoning and moral intuition. These are hermeneutically significant and indispensable. We can observe this again when Rogers states,
“The reality is that Calvinism proves to be uncompelling for most of the Christian community. Hence, I love and respect my Calvinist friends, but I do not wish to imbibe at the cisterns of Calvinism, for I have come to believe that they are contaminated with faulty theology and logic.” (Italics mine)
Note that for Rogers logic is an essential element in discerning the validity of Calvinism. It is clear that for non-Calvinists logical and moral reasoning are essential for evaluating the validity of biblical interpretations and the theologies built upon them. Philosophical reflection and the canons of reason reliably expose and judge our thought processes and conclusions, including the validity of exegetical processes and conclusions.
If the rules of logic and our moral intuitions aren’t necessary for determining the validity of our exegesis and interpretation, if these can be put aside and claims about what the text means still be made, then what is it within the interpretive process working without these that will assure us we have come to the correct meaning of the text? Certainly there are many criteria which need to be exercised in doing good exegesis, but when all these criteria have been diligently followed and the results are incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory with either one’s own exegetical conclusions on a range of texts and topics or within that text’s very context, then what can we say about the validity and accuracy of that exegesis? It seems to me that the one whose exegesis is incoherent must decide on the matter whether that can be a valid exegesis and why that is so? They must defend their position in all ways – exegetically, interpretively and hermeneutically.
I submit that we have to let logical inference and moral intuition play their proper roles. If we will not let them examine our proposed interpretations for logical fallacies then there is no way to discern whether an interpretation is true to the text, even when the many other hermeneutical and exegetical principles are adhered to. For instance, although the Calvinist has an exegesis of the texts mentioned above, they fail to see that they are committing the negative inference fallacy. But to commit the negative inference fallacy is to know that the interpretation is incorrect.
In addition, note that we are evidencing and practicing logical thought that is suitable for coming to rational conclusions when we detect the negative inference fallacy. The reliability of our rational faculties is what the Calvinist would have us doubt or ignore when evaluating their interpretations of the text. But if we can detect the commission of the negative inference fallacy we can also detect incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in interpretive conclusions. Our logical and moral senses are in play and they serve us well enough to discern good from bad interpretations. We cannot simply ignore the canons of reason and our moral intuitions while simultaneously claiming we are doing proper exegesis with intellectual integrity.
John Lennox Assesses Boettner and Sproul on the Divine Decree and Unconditional Election
Oxford mathematician, apologist, and theologian John Lennox provides the following rationale in critiquing the Calvinist doctrines of the divine decree and unconditional election. After quoting Calvin on predestination, Lennox writes,
“A much more recent formulation is due to Loraine Boettner who is regarded as an authority in the field:
The Reformed Faith has held to the existence of an eternal, divine decree which, antecedently to any difference or desert in men themselves, separates the human race into two positions and ordains one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting death.
Boettner holds that such an eternal decree is unconditional in the sense that it has nothing to do with the human objects of the decree – not even with their choices as foreseen by God.
The obvious rejoinder is that, if this is the case, it is difficult to see why God doesn’t save everyone. The efforts of those committed to unconditional election to answer this question are not convincing. Sproul writes,
The only answer to this question is that I don’t know. I have no idea why God saves some and not all. I don’t doubt for a moment that God has the power to save all, but I know that he does not choose to save all. I don’t know why… If it pleases God to save some and not to save all, there is nothing wrong with that. God is not under any obligation to save anybody. If he chooses to save some, that in no way obligates him to save the rest.
I am not surprised that may people react against statements like this with anger. It sounds callous, hard, and even cruel to say, “I don’t know the answer, but God can do what he likes and that is it.” I am well aware that this view is often supported by appealing to Romans 9-11, and we shall devote several chapters to that later on. Sufficient to point out here that what appears to be missing in statements like Sproul’s here is any sensitivity to any characteristic of God beyond his sovereignty. What about the love of God? And what about the love of Christians for their relatives and friends who are not believers? Is that all that can be said of them – if God chooses to save some and not others, what is wrong with that?
There is everything wrong with it if that selection is mysterious or even arbitrary. There is everything wrong with it if God is the God who loved the world that he gave his Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. There is everything wrong with it if God is the God who inspired the apostle Paul to write, encouraging all believers to pray: This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4 ESV). There is everything wrong with it because it points to a God who hates rather than who loves.”
Note the interpretive concerns and principles that are essential for Lennox in processing the truth or falsity of unconditional election. They are first, comprehensiveness with respect to the character of God. Lennox observes that “what appears to be missing in statements like Sproul’s here is any sensitivity to any characteristic of God beyond his sovereignty. What about the love of God?” The Calvinist position lacks the inclusion of all the biblical data related to the issue that needs to be considered. Our exegesis and interpretations need to be comprehensive. Secondly, Scriptural coherence. Lennox quotes John 3:16 as inconsistent with unconditional election and 1 Tim. 2:3-4, which explicitly states that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” contradicts unconditional election. The logical reflections and moral intuitions that these and other passages inject into the issue have interpretive implications for Lennox. He attends and gives weight to them in discerning the validity of Sproul’s doctrine of unconditional election.
The point is that these concerns are essential elements in Lennox’s hermeneutic, but they are not essential for Sproul. Note that Lennox is forced to the conclusion that unconditional election “points to a God who hates rather than loves.” How is it that Sproul does not even see these conclusions? And if he does see them, how can he completely ignore them? It seems to me that to preserve his a priori traditional theological tenets of the divine decree and unconditional election he has to eliminate the above principles from his hermeneutic.
Lennox goes on to point out that the doctrine of unconditional election has negative implications for the proclamation of the gospel. He writes,
“In light of these moral problems it is not surprising that the doctrine of unconditional election has been seen by many as a barrier to the free preaching of the gospel. Unconditional election assumes that humans are incapable of responding to God, otherwise would it not mean that they are contributing to their salvation?”
Lennox then quotes from Packer and Johnson in their introduction to Luther’s Bondage of the Will. They write,
“…Here is the crucial issue; whether God is the author, not merely of justification but also of faith…What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which it is left to man to fulfill? Is it part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it man’s own contribution to salvation.”
Lennox is pointing out how the Calvinist soteriology distorts the gospel as “good news” for all sinners. Calvinists teach that humans cannot respond to “the free preaching of the gospel.” Faith has to be “God-given.” It’s “part of God’s gift of salvation.” It is therefore only for a limited number of elect individuals. According to the Calvinist, if faith is not given by God as part of one’s unconditional election to salvation, then it must be a meritorious work or a contribution to one’s salvation on the part of the sinner. But if that were the case, then where has the gospel as “good news” gone? Where is the message that each and every sinner may be saved simply by believing in Christ? We are left with the mere information that there is an elect number of individuals in whom God will work faith. You may be one of the elect or you may not. This is a distortion of the biblical gospel as the “good news” that God, out of his grace and love to all sinners, has demonstrated this grace and love in sending Christ to die for us and that this salvation is offered and available to all precisely because it is a salvation by faith.
The interpretive presuppositions of a non-Calvinist like Lennox are that there must be sufficient demonstrations of logical and moral consistency among theological concepts, statements, other scriptures, and doctrines. Coherence, consistency and comprehensiveness are very important and cannot be ignored. There is no justification for thinking that coherence need not apply to the interpretation of written revelation about God, theology, spiritual things, or matters of faith. Coherence, as a criterion of a sound hermeneutic, cannot be ignored because of the “spiritual” nature of the literature. And any genuine “mystery” that may be inherent in the divine revelation should not be used as an excuse to forfeit the logical and moral reasoning that constitute a sound hermeneutic. Mystery is to be expected given the revelation of divine attributes and actions. But mystery should not be confused with incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction. Coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are indispensable hermeneutical elements and the distinction between these and legitimate mystery does not seem to find a place in the Calvinist’s hermeneutic. Non-Calvinists ultimately rest their disagreement with Calvinists on the exegesis of Scripture, but insist that it is essential to incorporate rational coherence into one’s hermeneutic to properly exegete the text and come to a proper understanding of it. Biblical interpretations that create incoherence with other biblical texts and interpretations along with reliable observations of the nature of the world and reality are invalid.
It would be wrong to think that the non-Calvinist’s contention with Calvinism is not exegetically based and is simply a theological preference based in merely a rational and/or philosophical opposition to Calvinism. The non-Calvinist understands the text to be primary, but also is compelled to deal coherently and consistently with that text. The Calvinist is not compelled to do so. Hence the hermeneutical divide. Non-Calvinists observe troubling inconsistency in both the Calvinist’s exegesis and their mode of thought. Non-Calvinists seek to provide a sound exegesis of the texts and also maintain that a deciding factor in determining the validity of one’s exegesis is to attend to whether or not the resultant interpretation is logically, morally, epistemologically, and theologically coherent with other moral and biblical truths, doctrinal propositions and practical experiences. For the non-Calvinist, to ignore these matters is to interpret poorly.
For instance, the Calvinist maintains that God predestined a limited number of elect to salvation and therefore effectually calls them, regenerates them, grants them faith and secures their perseverance in that faith until their death at which time they are taken to heaven. This soteriology is completely deterministic and therefore eliminates any contingency. Yet Paul writes about salvation as a contingent matter.
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:1,2)
“…we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” (2 Cor. 6:1)
“Did you suffer so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain?” (Gal. 2:4)
“…holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” (Phil. 2:16)
“…when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.” (1 Thess. 3:5)
Paul’s statements about having labored “in vain” or the early Christians having “believed in vain” have to be coherently incorporated into one’s theology if it is to be biblical. These, and statements like them that are explicit about both the nature of salvation as conditioned upon faith and the contingent nature of human actions and historical events throughout Scripture, just cannot be ignored. Non-Calvinists are more inclined to interpret these statements in accord with their plain non-deterministic, contingent implications thus creating no logical incoherence, whereas Calvinists require that their determinist interpretations of God’s eternal decree, sovereignty, total depravity, unconditional election, and effectual call (irresistible grace) be maintained despite however “labored in vain” and “believed in vain” must be understood. Hence the Calvinist will simply leave such scriptures in logical conflict with his theistic determinism and offer additional explanations to justify this conflict.
But there is another option. They can adopt a hermeneutic that incorporates a serious consideration of interpretive coherence thus allowing these phrases to inform their theology with regard to its theistic determinism. But this they will not do. Their theology of God’s eternal decree and deterministic sovereignty, which in turn forms their understanding of election, predestination, effectual call, faith, etc., is a non-negotiable. And the point is that it is non-negotiable despite the logical and interpretive incoherence they generate. In contrast, non-Calvinists understand these statements as communicating genuine contingency and conditionality with respect to faith and salvation. As such these statements, and hence Paul himself, would be rationally incoherent if Paul also taught a deterministic predestinarian view of faith and salvation as Calvinists claim. These verses communicate a dynamic of conditionality in the nature of believing and a definition of “the grace of God” as something that is to be received (Rom. 5:17) and may be received without benefit if not persevered in by the power God provides to guard those who continue in faith (1 Pet. 1:5). The rational incoherence such verses generate with interpreting Paul as also teaching theistic determinism must be taken seriously as to discerning the validity of such a determinism.
Therefore I do not see how these texts with their element of contingency and conditionality can coherently be incorporated into a theistic determinism or a predestinarian view of faith and salvation that espouses unconditional election and “irresistible grace.” I contend that when the Calvinist speaks on the plain import of these texts, they speak incoherently with their underlying deterministic theology. When they speak about texts like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 and interpret them in terms of a theistic salvific determinism they speak incoherent with texts like those cited above or the fuller contexts of Romans and Ephesians. I submit that this interpretive incoherence is precisely what we find in Calvinist preaching and teaching. When the occasion demands they adopt a more Arminian soteriology. This observation about the coherence or incoherence of one’s theological propositions is hermeneutically significant for non-Calvinists.
Of course texts can be bandied about with each side believing their verses support their position. Although proof-texting can highlight certain texts that need to be dealt with by both sides, the point is that depending upon whether or not the interpreter values and incorporates logical and moral coherence in their hermeneutic will determine how the interpreter handles all the controverted texts and the interpreter’s exegetical conclusions. If logical and moral coherence are dismissed as essential to hermeneutics then the Calvinist / non-Calvinist theological divide will continue. The non-Calvinist will view the Calvinist exegesis as involving Scripture in a perplexing soteriological system that produces salvific incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction and therefore the text is being misunderstood. The Calvinist will continue with their present soteriological and theological “reasoning” which ignores the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in their theology. I believe the latter is an unacceptable position hermeneutically because it is incoherent. If the Calvinist wishes to maintain their hermeneutic of incoherence then they must deal with the question of how incoherent interpretations can be true to a divinely inspired text and a contradictory theology can be a true biblical theology.
As divinely authored, the Bible is univocal in its message of “good news.” This message finds its focus in the living Word – Jesus Christ. In that “good news” message, all sinners are told plainly that they are confronted with a crisis of decision about their eternal destiny. They either believe to the saving of their souls or continue in unbelief to their own condemnation and destruction. God would have them be saved and through the peaching of the gospel enables them to respond positively to the “good news.” The reason they are not saved is because they reject the “good news” for themselves. The point is that when Calvinists preach and teach this gospel, their deterministic theology is in contradiction with this “good news.” A deterministic view of faith is incoherent with the very purpose of the written Word, the purpose of which is explicitly expressed and exemplified in John’s gospel. John writes,
“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn. 20:30-31, NIV)
Therefore, anyone who reads or hears these words can be saved. The logical implication for the Calvinist must be that God providentially arranges that no non-elect person can ever read or hear these words, otherwise they would be false and disingenuous words to them. But God does not and cannot speak false and disingenuous words. The other logical implication would therefore be that God providentially arranges that only elect persons read or hear these words, because they are the only group for which they can apply. But of course this is the type of logical nonsense that the Calvinist soteriological doctrines lead us into and the Calvinist simply ignores. But rather than ignoring the incoherence and contradiction the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election produces with a text like John 20:30-31, I am arguing that this needs to be taken into consideration in any determination of the validity of that doctrine. Calvinist rationalizations will not do here. To hold to a theistic determinism with the qualification that what we observe is only an “apparent” contradiction is ad hoc. And the attempt to justify it with “the Bible teaches both…” is question begging. Ironically enough, it is an attempt to rationalize away the obvious contradiction so as to defend the rational coherence of the Bible. Calvinists know the Bible cannot teach a contradiction. Therefore, these attempts at rationalization are tacit admissions that coherence is essential for the credibility of one’s interpretations, the divine revelation, and biblical faith. But mere assertions that their interpretations produce what only “appear” to be contradictions, or that “the Bible teaches both without concern for logical and moral consistency” are just that – mere assertions. They are not conclusions born of sound hermeneutical principles but rather the preservation of their traditional Calvinist theological position that they take as a priori biblical truth. Yet, some Calvinists do “bite the bullet” and finally admit that their position does not and need not make sense. But they too jettison logical and moral reasoning from their hermeneutic. These Calvinist rationalizations suppress legitimate inquiry as to whether or not their interpretations are a real contradiction and seek to ignore the possibility that those interpretations might therefore be the real culprit in this problematic controversy.
Therefore, with respect to hermeneutics and our doctrine of Scripture, if we seriously believe in the authority of the Bible we cannot maintain that real propositional contradiction, inconsistency, or incoherence lies in the objective text. A written text, especially one inspired by God, cannot send two or more conflicting or confusing messages. We would not expect this to be the intention of the human author, let alone Scripture’s ultimate divine Author. When this occurs we must presume the difficulty lies in the thought processes or methodology of the interpreter.
I submit that the rational coherence or incoherence of the stated conclusions of an interpreter are indicative of valid or invalid, true or false interpretations. Calvinists and non-Calvinists may passionately seek to persuade each other to their side by quoting verses they claim support their positions. This has its place in that the meaning of most of the Scripture is transparently clear, especially with regard to salvation and the gospel as “good news,” and therefore these clear texts should serve as guides as we wrestle with the more obscure or historically and theologically complicated texts. How is it then that these same texts, and the Scriptures as a whole, end up being understood with diametrically opposed meanings? Most of time any discussion there may be on these matters remains at this hermeneutically superficial level. But things become more complex when grappling with the intellectual and theological reasoning by which each sides arrives at their beliefs and whether those beliefs can be evaluated to determine whether or not they are true or false. The non-Calvinist is baffled by the fact that Calvinists actually suppress logical and moral reasoning, thereby arriving at their doctrinal conclusions. Non-Calvinists deem the logical and moral incoherence of the Calvinist conclusions to be a tell-tale sign that something is not quite right in their exegesis and interpretations. To the non-Calvinist’s way of thinking the influence of the Calvinist’s determinism, especially upon their soteriology, renders most of what is clear in Scripture illogical and incoherent. Therefore, what is at stake for both sides is a battle for right interpretive thinking. This must be the interpretive ground upon which there is agreement if there is to be any rapprochement between the opposing sides of this controversy. Many scholars would like to see this happen. This is where the two sides can come together – on the field of the biblical text. But this exegesis and interpretation must be done in the context of a discussion and determination as to whether or not logical and moral reasoning are essential to and necessary for one’s interpretation to be deemed valid.
What is at stake for the Calvinist? The answer is most likely the sovereignty of God as they understand it as an absolute theistic determinism. Such determinism is the cause of incoherence with the balance of the biblical witness to contingency, human freedom and moral responsibility. Therefore, hermeneutically, it appears to me that the Calvinist must train their minds to think, or not to think, in a certain way hermeneutically for them to embrace their Calvinism and continue in it. This was obvious to me in the advice given by Luther, Mayhue, MacArthur and Packer to suppress one’s reason so as to be able to accept the Calvinist doctrines as I documented in chapter 10. I submit that this advice required us, under the guise of “faith”, to abandon what is essential to thought as thought – the fundamental rules of logic. These are required for us to process the truth or falsity of any theology. When contemplating Calvinist theology, contradictions and incoherencies come to the fore and the question of whether or not these serve to determine the validity or invalidity of one’s interpretations is the crux of this controversy. Refusal to deal with it enables the controversy to continue. But these cannons of reason are the warp and woof of intellectual inquires because we were designed to think and act according to their guidance. As such they are from God and constitute an aspect of his intellectual life that is essential to his nature. He cannot but think rationally. That being the case, these rules cannot be avoided without generating further incoherence. Therefore, the suggestion that the rules of logic don’t apply in understanding the Bible because it is divinely inspired is both intellectually and theologically wrong-headed. It is not at all convincing on the grounds that we cannot function intellectually without these rules, even in the interpretive task, and that they are of the very nature of God himself, and what God is in his nature cannot simply be ignored in dealing with his written word. Proper reasoning, both logically and morally, cannot be cavalierly ignored in doing interpretation or theology.
My fear is that to require the suppression of logical reasoning and moral intuitions is to manipulate thought so as to make the Calvinist position acceptable when it cannot be justified via a hermeneutic that incorporates logical reflection and moral intuition. Rather than suppress reason and our moral sense we should be about coming to consensus on the interpretive validity of contradictory propositions. We should be engaged at the hermeneutical level so as to flesh out the principles by which we can affirm an interpretation as valid or invalid. The Calvinist will argue that they are letting the authoritative text determine what they need to believe despite any incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction that may be identified in their interpretive results. According to the Calvinist mode of thought we are required to embrace the “doctrines of grace” regardless of the “logical problems” that they produce with other portions of Scripture.
Therefore, what needs to be decided is whether coherence or incoherence in interpretive conclusions and theological doctrines has bearing upon determining the validity of those interpretations and doctrines. This involves the substance and weight one should place on common sense, fundamental laws of reasoning, logical coherence, moral knowledge, intuition and experience or whether one is advising us to ignore, rationalize away, or suppress these.
Luther’s acknowledgment of this substantial problem of the incoherence between his theology and our logical sense, moral intuitions, the nature of God, along with the personal, emotional and psychological conflict it generates, is worth repeating.
“Doubtless it gives the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of his own mere will abandon, harden and damn men, as though he delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such poor wretches. It seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been a stumbling block to so many great men down the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wished I had never been made a man.” (Italics mine)
It is critical to ask whether or not a proper interpretation of Scripture would lead us to think thoughts about God that are “iniquitous, cruel and intolerable” or give “the greatest possible offence to common sense or natural reason.” What I am contending is that Luther, and present day Reformed Calvinists, cannot simply dispense of these essential concerns and maintain a credible, biblical theology. They are essential to a sensible, sound hermeneutic. Therefore, when biblical, theological, logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are the result of one’s textual interpretations, we can confidently say that they have misinterpreted the text in some important respect. These are warning signs of erroneous interpretations, and rather than summarily dismissing them on the basis of mystery or incomprehensibility, they should foster a re-examination of one’s interpretive presuppositions, premises, methods and conclusions.
Therefore, the two questions before us are these. First, is there a real problem of intellectual incoherence inherent in Calvinist propositions such as these, a) God sincerely offers salvation to the non-elect persons who he has unalterably predetermined to hell, and b) God speaks conditionally about salvation to all whose salvation he has unconditionally predetermined. And the second question is, if it can be determined that there is a real problem of intellectual incoherence here, does it matter?
I contend that there is a real problem of intellectual incoherence here and that it does matter tremendously with respect to our hermeneutic and determining what constitutes a valid interpretation. I contend that this real problem of intellectual incoherence is a reliable indicator of interpretive error. In other words, the rational coherence of what is being proposed is knowable as a fact and matters very much in determining a proper interpretation. For non-Calvinists, rational coherence or incoherence in thought and word are indicative of the truth or falsity of a proposition or textual interpretation. This is what Leighton Flowers, Dr. Allen, Pastor Ronnie Rogers, and Dr. Lennox have been showing us.
Donald Lake: 1 John 2:2 – The Atonement, Obvious Meaning, Textual Harmony and Avoiding Eisegesis
Calvinists maintain that the atonement is limited, that is, that Christ died only for the elect, despite the biblical texts that state plainly that Christ died “for all” or the “whole world.” Regarding this universal applicability of Christ’s death and God’s saving intentions for every individual, non-Calvinist theologian Donald M. Lake states,
“To the casual reader of the New Testament, the universal significance of Christ’s death and resurrection as well as his present priestly ministry seems too obvious even to question.”
Note first that a non-Calvinist hermeneutic includes and sanctions the claim of “obviousness.” Granted, discerning the “obvious” meaning of a text warrants some discussion of the essentials of exegesis and a sound hermeneutic. Yet, here it seems that we are faced with the most basic of hermeneutical principles – whether or not there is a sufficiently obvious, unambiguous or “transparent” meaning to the words of a biblical text. Most evangelicals would agree that there is a high level of perspicuity in Scripture, that is, the majority of it is clear enough to the common reader. It is not only the scholarly elite or professional clergy that are able to understand its meaning, especially with regard to the gospel message. Ironically, the protestant Reformers argued this very point of the perspicuity of Scripture against the Roman church’s hierarchical elitism in which only the priest could read and interpret the Bible to the people. In contrast, Reformation thought maintained that the Scripture can be understood by the common man and should be put into his hand for his reading, study, interpretation and spiritual edification. There is a “face-value” quality to the words in the Bible which all can understand, and for the non-Calvinist the biblical statements about the universal significance of Christ’s death exhibit this quality. If more can be gleaned from them by further informed study, which is true of any biblical text, so be it. But the Bible is nevertheless transparent as to its primary message, a message that even though it may be expanded upon will not generate theological inconsistency or contradiction.
This is why the negative reactions of most common folks to Calvinism should not be dismissed. What theological perspective does one glean from their simple, straightforward reading of Scripture? It is not the exclusion, limitation and determinism of Calvinism. The reader would not understand that all things are predetermined to happen by God and that only his will is done in all things. The reader would understand that reality exhibits a large degree of contingency and that there is human freedom and responsibility, which when it exhibits itself in evil actions, is certainly not something predetermined and caused by God to occur. The reader would understand that Scripture’s promises and challenges apply to themselves personally. That they can know God’s love and his desire that they be saved. They would not conclude that humanity is divided into two classes of people, with one class being eternally, unconditionally, effectually loved and favored by God and predetermined to receive salvation, and all others being eternally, unconditionally, hated and spurned by God and unalterably predetermined to condemnation. The so called “popular” understanding of what the Bible says about the universal love and salvation of God should never be discounted. And what should not be ignored is the fact that most people, upon hearing the Calvinist doctrines, are left dumbfounded and confused as to how they cohere with Scripture and the nature of God. Therefore, when ordinary people take up the Bible and read it for themselves, they perceive that what they read about applies to them, that they are sinners in need of salvation, that Christ came to die for them and they can put their trust in him and have eternal life. Hence, interpretations that contradict these obvious universal and personally applicable truths should be seriously questioned. The meaning of the texts that speak of Christ’s death for all, or the whole world, are transparently clear.
For instance, Lake evaluates Calvin’s interpretation of 1 John 2:1-2,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Now Lake reminds us that the issue of limited atonement does not appear in Calvin. It is an issue that was raised by second generation Calvinists. Lake observes that for Calvin “the question is rather: does God will to save all men? That is a question of election, not of the atonement.” Lake then observes, “This fact is all the more surprising, since Calvin is one of the church’s greatest exegetical theologians.”
Nevertheless, in his commentary on the Catholic Epistles, Calvin remarks on this text. He concludes that,
“…the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those scattered through various parts of the world.”
“Calvin’s point is to deny the universality of the atonement by making the word all refer to the worldwide distribution of the church, rather than the universally potential redemptive work of Christ. Is such an interpretation of the text legitimate and natural?” (“Natural” italics mine)
Lake then makes these hermeneutical observations.
“The critical judgment remains: has Calvin been consistent with the text and its most obvious meaning? Personally, I cannot help but give a negative answer to this question. If we allow the passages to stand themselves without bringing a theological perspective from outside the text, we may be able to harmonize John’s apparent intentions in a manner that does justice both to his universalism as well as his particularism.” (Italics mine)
Lake is pointing out that Calvin’s interpretation of 1 John 2:1-2 is strained. It is not “natural.” It is inconsistent and ignores the “obvious meaning” of the text. If this is true, the pressing question is whether or not Calvin is simply reinterpreting the text because of its inconsistency with his a priori acceptance of election as exclusive and unconditional which seems also to require a limited atonement. Is Calvin engaged in eisegesis instead of legitimate exegesis?
Lake contends that the universal scope of the death of Christ is the “natural” meaning of the text and that Calvin is imposing a foreign theological perspective upon John’s words, that is, “bringing a theological perspective from outside the text” to avoid logical incoherence with his more fundamental doctrines of deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election. Calvin cannot maintain doctrinal integrity and coherence with the obvious meaning of John 2:1-2. If Lake is correct and the meaning is obvious, we must presume Calvin saw it and understood it, but simply had to reinterpret it according to his more fundamental theological convictions.
The point is that rather than suppress the obvious meaning of John 2:1-2, Calvin should have attended to the incoherence his exclusionary and limiting interpretations of Scripture generated with this passage, the meaning of which seems very clear. He should view his incoherence as a reliable indication of an interpretive error in his deterministic doctrines of the eternal divine decree, sovereignty, unconditional election, and for his second generation followers, their limited atonement. For Lake, as a non-Calvinist, interpretive incoherence equates to misinterpretation. The point is that to Dr. Lake this Calvinist incoherence is interpretively significant, but to Calvin and Calvinists it is not.
Note that what is the “obvious” meaning of “all” or “whole” for Dr. Lake, is hermeneutically compelling and trumps the incoherence generated by the Calvinist understanding of 1 John 2:1-2. The incoherence of the Calvinist’s interpretation here is not hermeneutically significant or compelling for him. But why not? Is Lake correct in noting that Calvin and Calvinists must be avoiding the obvious meaning of 1 John 2:2 to maintain his prior theological commitment to limited atonement? Perhaps Lake is imposing a prior commitment to universalism upon the text. But Lake cannot avoid the “truly biblical universalism” in the text. The words “for the sins of the whole world” have an obvious meaning that cannot be subverted. Therefore, Lake sees John’s obvious universalism as inconsistent with Calvin’s interpretation of John’s particularism as predetermined and unconditional and this inconsistency is meaningful for Lake’s hermeneutics and interpretive conclusions. Lake’s interpretive approach therefore would be as follows,
“…a truly biblical universalism demands that we interpret our doctrine of election in a manner consistent with this theological perspective.”
Now, whether Lake is doing what we accused Calvin of doing, that is, presupposing “biblical universalism” and reinterpreting the “obvious,” “natural” meaning of the texts on election to accommodate that presupposition, needs to be examined. But let us at least note Lake’s hermeneutical principle – the demand for “consistency.” Lake understands “consistency” and “harmony” among interpretive conclusions to be important indicators that one is keeping true to the author’s intent. Lake presupposes that John would not have intentionally contradicted himself as to his universalism and particularism, therefore either Lake’s understanding of John’s universalism or Calvin’s understanding of John’s particularism, is in error. Lake wouldn’t suggest John intended to express a universalism and a particularism that would contradict each other. And this is where the important difference lies. Calvinists embrace a hermeneutic that accepts contradictory interpretations and doctrines. Calvinists leave the texts in contradictory abeyance while asserting that what we discern of this contradiction is only “apparent.” Lake cannot accept this approach and therefore concludes that Calvin’s understanding of John’s particularism is incorrect because of the obvious nature of the universalism in this text. Therefore we must understand John’s particularism differently than Calvin would suggest because we must construct our theology with consistency. Does John’s text itself place the necessity upon us to understand John’s universalism and particularism as logically and theologically inconsistent and leave it at that? What was John’s intent? Was it to be inconsistent or consistent in his theological thought and presentation? Or, should we take the inconsistency as a clue that another interpretation of either John’s universalism or particularism would bring us closer to the true message of these texts and John’s intended message?
Lake concludes that Calvinist particularism, that is, unconditional election and limited atonement, is the culprit. The thing to note is that Lake concludes this because he cannot escape the obvious meaning of 1 John 2:2 and he cannot allow an interpretation that is inconsistent with it to stand. He values rational coherence. It is an interpretive guide to discern a valid interpretation of John’s universalism and particularism. He will not leave them in contradiction and then declare the contradiction to be only “apparent” or a “mystery” or “incomprehensible,” as if any of these are a plausible solution to this interpretive difficulty. It doesn’t appear that Lake would assent to Packer’s “antinomy” as a credible way to deal with the interpretive issue before us. For Lake, the universalism in the text is clear, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
I submit that we should reject J. I. Packer’s criticisms of those like Lake who prize consistency in their hermeneutic. Packer says Lake’s interpretive methodology amounts to “the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic?”  This is simply an expression of the suppression of reason and spiritual manipulation that is essential to Calvinism. Packer would rather have us all accept that our interpretations can be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory precisely because it gives him permission to hold onto his a priori Calvinist determinism and ignore the intellectual and moral havoc it wreaks with the majority of Scripture. But the problem with such a hermeneutic of incoherence is that it does not do justice to the nature of a written text, context, comprehensiveness, authorial intent, divine inspiration and authority and our capacity to effectively and accurately reason, which is given to us by God as made in his image. On Packer’s hermeneutic of incoherence, Scripture can mean anything any one wants it to mean.
It is worth noting here that Calvin strives for consistency too, but at the expense of the obvious meaning of the text and injecting into the text thoughts that are not present. He wants to remain theologically consistent so he reinterprets 1 John 2:2 to harmonize with his understanding of deterministic sovereignty and election as unconditional. For Calvin, John’s intention was to make the benefit of Christ’s death “common to the whole Church. That under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those scattered through various parts of the world.” So, John’s words, “He is the propitiation for our sins” refer first to “the whole Church.” Then the words “and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” has a double reference also to a limited number of elect persons “who should believe” and are “those scattered through various parts of the world.” The meaning is not that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of each and every individual in “the whole world.”
But what, in the text itself, supports this interpretation? Where does Calvin’s conclusion that “he does not include the reprobate” come from? It is difficult to derive from the words of the text, which plainly state that Christ is the propitiation for “our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” the meaning that “Christ is the propitiation for a limited number of the elect persons located throughout the whole world; a propitiation that excludes the reprobate or the non-elect.” You would not naturally think in terms of limitation or exclusion from the words in this text. In fact, you would think in terms of universality and inclusion. Furthermore, it is very difficult to see how exclusion and limitation is the correct interpretation given what is said within the immediate context of the epistle, his own gospel and the broader canonical context.
Perhaps Calvin believes that he is interpreting according to the whole scope of the scriptural witness which according to his interpretation of certain texts speak of a deterministic sovereignty, election as unconditional and therefore divide humanity into the elect that will be saved and the reprobate that will be damned. Such comprehensiveness would be a good thing for it is an essential hermeneutical principle. But in his comprehensiveness is Calvin also interpreting according to the principle of logical and moral consistency as he attempts to be comprehensive in his outlook? Is he concerned that while he is interpreting according to the whole scope of the biblical witness, he is doing so with coherence, consistency and non-contradiction? What good is a comprehensive outlook if it is unconcerned with the harmony, coherence and consistency of the data and doctrines gleaned from that outlook?
It seems to me that when all is said and done Calvin and Calvinists end up dichotomizing the full scope of the biblical witness. We can see this when we attempt to reconcile their doctrinal conclusions with other biblical truths. Calvin and Calvinists have constructed a theology marked by logical, moral, epistemological and biblical incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction. That much is obvious to all honest observers. And yet they insist that their interpretations are correct regardless of this incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction. This is a sure indicator of a misunderstanding of Scripture.
So, do inconsistent and contradictory interpretive and theological conclusions reflect a true and sound biblical hermeneutic? Is it proper to give priority to certain theological concepts (e.g., deterministic sovereignty, unconditional election) gleaned from certain interpretations of certain texts and interpret all other texts accordingly despite the incoherence generated with the plain import of these other texts as seems the case with 1 John 2:2? As a hermeneutical principle, are there texts that are more straightforward, where the meaning is unambiguous, and other texts that speak of more complex biblical themes (i.e., sovereignty and election) that are more theologically and historically nuanced, thereby requiring the later texts to be interpreted harmoniously in light of the former? And as a hermeneutical principle it seems that Calvinist’s are indifferent to such principles. They are indifferent to them because they would require Calvinists to revisit their interpretations of certain key texts that that due to the priority of maintaining their traditional theological position simply will not be understood in any other way.
According to Dr. Lake, Calvin imposes upon John’s words an interpretation they cannot bear, or rather a meaning quite less and restrictive than they project, in order to remain coherent with his doctrine of unconditional election. But Lake argues his interpretation of 1 John 2:2 is more coherent given the Bible’s witness to universalism and particularism than Calvin’s interpretation given his understanding of deterministic sovereignty and election as unconditional. Lake senses that Calvin must misrepresent John’s universal intentions here to maintain his own interpretation of John’s particularism elsewhere. Should Calvin modify both to achieve textual harmony and rational coherence? Is such required of a truer biblical theology? Is the universalism so obvious that we must rule out Calvin’s understanding of predestination and election and brand his interpretation of 1 John 2:2 as an unacceptable example of eisegesis? Is Calvin’s violation of the obvious meaning of 1 John 2:2 an indication that he has it wrong on predestination and election?
In seeking to answer these questions we gain a more complete picture of how both the Calvinist and the non-Calvinist interpret passages on election and predestination, and on the other hand, how the Calvinist interprets the texts dealing with human freedom and universal salvation. We must gain a larger viewpoint and broader perspective. Only then we will be able to detect the degree of logical, moral and biblical coherence or incoherence in the non-Calvinist and Calvinist interpretations and theological models and discern how interpretively significant these matters really are. What affect does Calvin’s understanding of sovereignty as deterministic and election as unconditional have upon the Scriptures that clearly speak about the contingency and conditionality of our relationship to God and salvation? Do these contradictions indicate textual misinterpretations of key texts? Do the Calvinist or non-Calvinist interpretations better integrate the full scope of biblical truth?
Robert H. Culpepper provides this defence of unlimited atonement and against Calvinist predestination or unconditional election. He writes,
“To those who hold the position of unlimited atonement – that Christ died for all, but that only those who respond in faith are saved – the issue centers around the love of God, the scriptural teachings that Christ died for all, the sincerity of the invitation of salvation which goes out to all, and the freedom of man. How can God be said to love the world, as John 3:16 states that he does, if he sent his Son to die only for the elect? Or in what sense could it be said that he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (II Pet. 3:9), if Christ did not die for all? Are we to suppose that the elect are the only ones who labor and are heavy laden and that they are the only ones to whom the invitation of Jesus is issued (Matt. 11:28) or that the elect are the only ones who are invited to take the water of life without price (Rev. 22:17)? Do not these very invitations presuppose that the free response of man, though not meriting salvation, is nevertheless the condition upon which the benefits of the atonement are dispensed? Moreover, there are clear assertions in Scripture that Christ dies for all (II Cor. 5:14), that he gave himself a ransom for all (I Tim. 2:6), that he is the expiation of the sins of the whole world (I John 2:2; cf. also I Tim. 4:10; Tit. 2:11), and that he tasted death for every man (Heb. 2:9).”
Donald Lake: Louis Berkhof and Limited Atonement
Professor Donald Lake critiques Louis Berkhof’s view of limited atonement. Berkhof believes Jesus died only for a limited number of elect persons, and yet states that “the satisfaction rendered by Christ was in itself sufficient for the salvation of all men.” Berkhof then goes on to say that,
“…it should be pointed out that there is an inseparable connection between the purchase and actual bestowal of salvation. The Bible clearly teaches that the design and effect of the atoning work of Christ is not merely to make salvation possible, but to reconcile God and man, and to put men in actual possession of eternal salvation, a salvation which many fail to obtain, Matt. 18:11; Rom. 5:10; II Cor. 5:21: Gal 1:4; 3:13; Eph. 1:7.”
So according to Berkhof, if Christ dies for someone, that person must inevitably be saved. So if Christ’s death is “sufficient for the salvation of all men” and the connection between the purchase and bestowal of salvation is “inseparable,” then wouldn’t Berkhof also believe that all men will be saved? Can Christ’s death, if it “was in itself sufficient for the salvation of all men,” be understood in any sense other than a “purchase” that applies to all men? How is it a “sufficient” death for all, and also a “purchase” inseparable from the bestowal of salvation without bestowing salvation on all men?
Berkhof plays both sides of the issue. He preserves whatever comfort there is in knowing that “the satisfaction rendered by Christ was in itself sufficient for the salvation of all men” but then makes a distinction that allows him to maintain his exclusive doctrine of unconditional election which is incoherent with the inclusive nature of Christ’s death he has just asserted. He states that although Christ’s death is sufficient for all, it is only efficient for the elect. Here the Calvinist feels the pressure of the biblical testimony to a universal atonement yet he wishes to maintain his doctrine of a limited atonement which accords with his propositions on God’s eternal decree, sovereignty and unconditional election. But the two are incoherent. The Calvinist maintains that Christ’s death is sufficient for all but only efficient for the elect. But given “an inseparable connection between the purchase and actual bestowal of salvation” the logic is forced. This is an artificial distinction not found in Scripture. It is devised to acknowledge what is found in Scripture as to the universality of the atonement and the offer of salvation to all sinners while also attempting to maintain the atonement as limited and effectual only in those God has predestined to salvation.
Berkhof also wants to maintain his doctrine of an effectual call. How is Christ’s death sufficient without being an actual purchase? And how is it an actual purchase without being an actual bestowal? It is hard to get our mind around these dual assertions that Christ’s death is sufficient for all and that there is an inseparable connection between his death and the actual bestowal of salvation and at the same time claim that his death is efficient only in the elect. The distinction seems ad hoc.
And on that basis we must ask, “Where is the biblical warrant for such a distinction between “sufficiency” and “efficiency” except that the Calvinist is attempting to preserve his doctrines of unconditional election and an effectual call while affirming some sort of universal benefit of the atonement for all individuals. This artificial distinction is only required when one thinks in terms of the determinism of Calvinism and election as unconditional.
Therefore, what is being left out here is the biblical doctrine of faith. It is faith that moves a person from the benefits of their being “purchased” by the death of Christ to the “bestowal” of that salvation upon them. The salvation God accomplished is sufficient for all and efficient only in those who believe. This is more coherent and in accord with the biblical testimony to faith. But faith, given Berkhof’s explanation of the atonement is a dynamic that is ancillary and merely redundant as produced by God only in the elect simultaneously with or after their regeneration. A more biblical soteriology holds that Christ’s death is sufficient for all men – Christ died for all – and that on the basis of a faith response, the salvation Christ provided for that sinner is appropriated by them. When they believe, it is at that point that God bestows upon them the salvation Christ purchased for them on the cross. This is certainly more biblically comprehensive in that it sensibly includes the dynamic of faith and is more coherent in that it does not require the forced distinction between an atonement that is sufficient for all while being efficient for some on no other basis than that God makes it efficient for some.
Calvinists are right to emphasize the rich theological depths of the meaning of Christ’s atoning death. But if we cannot know that this work of Christ assuredly applies to us and our hearers, and that anyone can appropriate it personally and individually for themselves, then it is easy to see how any “theological depths” of the death of Christ lose their purpose and the proclamation of a “gospel” of limited atonement and unconditional election loses its meaning as “good news.” The gospel, biblically defined as good news is at stake because of the Calvinist doctrines of limited atonement and unconditional election. Given these doctrines, to claim the atonement is “sufficient” for all becomes immaterial. It is only efficient for some chosen by God, and no one knows who they are.
In that the atonement is integrally associated with the grace of God to sinners, Calvinist theologians also define this “grace” in an exclusive manner by their distinction between “sufficiency” and “efficiency.” But Vernon C. Grounds comments that,
“Theologians who align themselves with John Calvin, proudly naming fourth century Saint Augustine and twentieth century Benjamin B. Warfield as representative spokesmen, contend that divine grace, though unlimited in its sufficiency, is nevertheless limited in its efficiency – and limited by God himself. According to this major tradition in Christian thought, grace does not universally and indiscriminately provide every human being with an opportunity for a redemptive relationship to God that includes the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal beatitude. Instead, as Calvinistically interpreted, grace in its effective outworking and outreach avails only for elect individuals, those human beings whom in his sovereignty God has predestinated from all eternity to be the recipients of his mercy. Whatever linguistic and logical legerdemain is employed to mitigate the inescapable corollaries of this position, it maintains that non-elect individuals are outside the orbit of God’s effective grace.”
Hence, in this distinction between “sufficiency” and “efficiency” Grounds senses a linguistic and logical rationalization that is an attempt to remedy the problems introduced by the doctrines of limited atonement and unconditional election or predestination. The distinction between “sufficiency” and “efficiency” is a foreign and artificial construct imposed upon the biblical witness in an attempt to relieve the problems created for the nature and extent of God’s grace and the atonement by limited atonement and unconditional election or predestination.
What I want to highlight here is that the non-Calvinist’s objection to Calvinism is that it maintains interpretations of God’s sovereignty, predestination and election that when taken together with other clear teachings of Scripture, like the atonement, faith and God’s grace, produce troubling and insurmountable incoherence and contradiction. And to compound the problem for the Calvinist, contradictory interpretations and a theology of incoherence need to be justified. But their own explanations at justification, as we see in the sufficiency / efficiency distinction above, only produce further perplexities. Hence, given this quagmire of inconsistency and incoherence we must ask whether or not the whole deterministic worldview of Calvinism derived from certain texts that are cited in support of their doctrinal propositions are being properly interpreted.
For Lake, proof-texting is not enough if one’s logic is faulty. Lake concludes,
“His [Berkhof’s] reasoning is grounded less in the exegesis of Scripture than it is in a priori theological reasons…Berkhof is not without his biblical texts, and the section lists approximately fifteen central texts; however, the argument turns not upon biblical proof texts but rather upon the nature of his logic.”
Lake is making a crucial interpretive observation and statement here. He is saying that the interpreter must exhibit logical consistency in his reading of Scripture. Lake is pointing out that proof-texting is fine as far as it goes, but it is subordinate to the nature of one’s logic in employing those proof-texts to support their position. In other words, one cannot just claim to have texts that support their position when that position can be shown to be logically problematic.
Lake is also observing that when one’s position is logically problematic the exegete may be overlooking the true import of his proof texts in favor of his own theological doctrines which he holds as true a priori. He may be engaged in eisegesis not exegesis. The point is that as a non-Calvinist, Lake sees the logical problems in the Calvinist position as significant as to determining the validity of that position’s interpretations of Scripture.
There is an obvious and natural meaning to the words of a text. If no ambiguity is raised by the text itself as to its meaning upon reading it, we should simply take it at “face-value.” But Calvinists will make the same claim for their texts about God’s sovereignty and predestination. These texts also have to be taken at “face-value.” And that is precisely the point that needs careful scrutiny. What will advance our knowledge of the biblical truth given these incompatible interpretations? Do we claim that both are the teaching of Scripture? Non-Calvinists don’t think so. No meaningful advance on the truth or resolution in this matter is going to come by simply proof-texting ad infinitum or dismissing the contradictory Calvinist interpretations of the relevant texts as only “apparent” or a “high mystery.” We will make an advance on the truth only by checking and adjusting our interpretations in light of some criteria of verification and validation that limits what these texts could possibly mean. That criteria, if it includes anything more, must at least include consideration of the logical, moral, epistemological and biblical coherence among one’s interpretations.
Therefore, by the presence of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction we can detect when the text itself is being manipulated by theological presuppositions. Lake has noted that Calvin feels free to engage in eisegesis for the sake of preserving his non-negotiable interpretations of God’s sovereignty as the predetermination of all things and election as unconditional. But perhaps the non-Calvinist is imposing his presupposition of universalism upon the texts which Calvinists claim teach God’s absolute determinism and election as unconditional? Who is to say that this is not the case? What could be a clearer statement that a limited number of elect persons have been predestined for salvation than “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world?” (Eph. 1:4), or, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…” (Eph. 1:11)
So, is it Calvin or Lake that has eisegeted 1 John 2:2 to fit their presupposed theologies? How would we know? We would know in that while we carefully exegete all these texts, we also include as a hermeneutical principle an examination of the logical and moral coherence or incoherence our exegeses generate among these texts and with the broader scope of biblical, theological and experiential truths. This is the interpretive rational of the non-Calvinist. He insists upon a hermeneutic of coherence. But this is not the interpretive rationale of the Calvinist. His is a hermeneutic of incoherence. Thus, it is not the differing exegetical conclusions that are at the heart of this controversy. At the heart of this controversy is the hermeneutical divide by which each side handles those exegetical conclusions either with logical and moral coherence or allowing for logical and moral incoherence. That is what is at the heart of this controversy.
Clark Pinnock: Consistency and “Tension” or Contradiction
Theologian Clark Pinnock writes,
“Therefore, it is imperative that we not only bear witness to the universal grace of God, but also explain this doctrine of election in such a way that the consistency of the Bible’s teaching in this area is vindicated.” (Italics mine)
“Though there remain questions as to emphasis and orientation, and a need to continue theological discussion, we are convinced that the biblical doctrine of election presents no threat and exists in no tension with the scriptural doctrine of universal grace…Only when it is misrepresented does the doctrine of election suggest any contradiction to this biblical truth.” (Italics mine)
Here we see the basic non-Calvinist hermeneutical principles of consistency and coherence, or non-contradiction, being expressed. Non-Calvinists, like Pinnock, see the Calvinist doctrines as creating real contradiction in their interpretations, not merely a “tension.” Calvinists seek to avoid admitting that their problems are real contradictions by labeling them a “tension” or “incomprehensible” or a “mystery.” But in doing this they are implicitly affirming the utility of logic in interpretation and that logical problems in one’s interpretations nullify those interpretations. This is especially so of the interpretation is found to violate the fundamental logical principle of non-contradiction. Therefore, the Calvinist must avoid admitting their interpretations result in a contradiction by referring to this problem as a “tension,” mystery” or just plain “incomprehensible.”
But because this “tension” is a real contradiction it becomes interpretively significant for the non-Calvinist. The non-Calvinist concludes that if the doctrine of unconditional election creates a contradiction with the doctrine of universal grace then the doctrine of election is being misunderstood and misrepresented. The simple point here is that Pinnock, as with all non-Calvinists, believes it important that one’s interpretations demonstrate consistency and avoid contradiction. This is necessary for one’s interpretation to be a plausible representation of the meaning of the text. Interpretations that lead to inconsistency and contradictions are simple wrong because the canons of reason and the laws of logic are essential for our thinking to be valid. Therefore, this also applies to proposed interpretations of the biblical text. As with Lake, for Pinnock the doctrine of universal grace is also transparently clear in Scripture. But this obvious, universal grace of God “in Christ” conflicts with the Calvinist interpretation of grace as God’s unconditional election or predestination of only certain individuals to salvation. Hence, we have two very different understandings and definitions of election and grace.
When we reject inconsistency and contradiction in our interpretations, we can more confidently state what the biblical authors meant to convey regarding these doctrines. Moreover, the non-Calvinist sees a hermeneutic of coherence as necessary for preserving Scripture’s credibility.
John Lennox: The Fall of Adam, “Two-Wills” Theology and Patent Contradiction
Calvinists claim that God decreed or determined that Adam fall into sin by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Obviously, given the Calvinist’s deterministic eternal divine decree, Adam could do nothing other than what God had decreed. Yet Calvinists also maintain that God commanded Adam not to eat of this tree, warning that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” (Gen. 2:17) and that God holds Adam responsible for his disobedience. Dr. John Lennox writes,
“To get around the obvious question of what God meant by commanding Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, some take recourse to the exotic notion that God has two wills: his so-called “prescriptive will,” by which he says to Adam that he should not eat; and his “decretive will”, by which he determined that Adam should eat the fruit. However, the second makes the first completely disingenuous and unreal, and negates any form of true freedom. And with freedom goes responsibility. Once more, excessive extrapolation of the biblical teaching on predestination leads, not to paradox, but to patent contradiction, both logical and moral. How can God, whose love and justice are impeccable, hold guilty those who are incapable of doing what he commanded them to do?” (Emphasis mine)
What is notable here is that Lennox has concluded that the Calvinist explanation of “two wills” in God is “disingenuous and unreal” and “negates any form of true freedom. And with freedom goes responsibility.” This is the way Lennox, as a thinking Christian, processes the Calvinist’s doctrine and explanation here. What the Calvinist claims is a “paradox,” Lennox views as a “patent contradiction,” and that, “both logical and moral.”
What is also important to note is that for Lennox, an explanation of the text that leads to a “patent contradiction” is an unacceptable explanation and reveals an error in interpretation. Lennox identifies the Calvinist’s error as being caused by an “excessive extrapolation of the biblical teaching on predestination.” The hermeneutical divide is present in the fact that the Calvinist does not acknowledge any disingenuousness or contradiction in their theology here while the non-Calvinist does. And if the Calvinist were to recognize and acknowledge the disingenuousness and contradiction in their position, their presence would not play any role in determining the validity of their interpretations. For Lennox this disingenuousness and contradiction between the “two wills” of God, and the incoherence between determinism and responsibility is hermeneutically significant. It means that this “extrapolation of the teaching on predestination” into a theistic determinism is unbiblical because of the confusion it causes.
“This kind of contradiction can make it difficult to understand what people really believe. For instance, in a book authored by fourteen people from the Reformed tradition, we read:
God created Adam upright. He possessed what we might call original righteousness. This was a probationary period in which Adam and Eve were exposed to temptation and capitulated to it. It was possible for them not to sin, and it was also possible for them to sin. God gave man the power of contrary choice. Man of his own will, by no external compulsion or determination, used that power in the commission of sin. There was no necessity arising from his physical condition, nor from his moral nature, nor from the nature of his environment, why he should sin. It was a free movement within man’s spirit.
This sounds unexceptionable. But two short paragraphs after it we read this:
God sovereignly decreed that sin would enter the world, and Adam was responsible for freely sinning.
Apart from the flat self-contradiction within this sentence, it negates the preceding paragraph. How can Adam’s acting “by no external compulsion or determination” be squared with God’s sovereign decree that Adam should sin? In addition, the statement “God gave to man the power of contrary choice” contradicts a prior comment by one of the editors of this book, where he says that he aligns himself with those
who do not hold that human freedom, as power to contrary [sic], is logically defensible in light of divine sovereignty.
This inconsistency does not make it easy to understand what is going on…
It should be noted that these statements just quoted (apart from the last) appear in a book that is written against the following background claim:
Important aspects of Christianity are in danger of being muddied or lost as relativism takes root in our churches today. What was historically agreed upon is now readily questioned and the very essentials of the Christian faith are in jeopardy. It’s time to reclaim the core of our beliefs.
If “what was historically agreed” refers to the central claims of the New Testament regarding the person and work of Christ, and the authenticity of the Scriptures, then I support the author’s desire to combat this trend wherever found. However, if “what was historically agreed” refers to times subsequent to the New Testament, and includes theological determinism, then it needs to be questioned, because it is a real issue as to whether it does or does not belong to the core of Christian belief.
Another example of shrouding the issues in impenetrable mists of secret and mystery appears in a well-known work on God’s sovereignty by A. W. Pink:
That God had decreed sin should enter this world through the disobedience of our first parents was a secret hid in His own mind. Of this Adam knew nothing, and that made all the difference so far as his responsibility was concerned… Though nothing contrary to holiness and righteousness can ever come from God, yet He has for His own wise ends, ordained His creatures to fall into sin… God never tempts man to sin, but he has by His eternal counsels (which he is now executing) determined its course… though God has decreed man’s sins, yet is man responsible not to commit and is to blame because he does.
It is hard to know how to react to this kind of convoluted and self-contradictory language.”
One way we must react “to this kind of convoluted and self-contradictory language” is to do just what Lennox is doing here. We must call out for what it is. This kind of thinking and interpretation truly is – convoluted and self-contradictory. The cavalier way Calvinists simply ignore the “patent contradiction” in their deterministic interpretive conclusions along with the incoherence in their attempts to justify their determinism are unconscionable. We should react to this by clearly teaching Calvinism along with other alternative textual exegeses and interpretations of the relevant texts. We should discuss and debate these alternatives in light of what constitutes a sound, biblical hermeneutic so as to discern the biblical truth on these matters. We must determine once and for all whether theistic determinism is taught in Scripture. It seems obvious to me that it “does not belong to the core of Christian belief” or for that matter, anywhere else in Christian belief.
But it seems to me that in order to rightly approach and rightly interpret the biblical texts it is imperative that we adopt a hermeneutic that incorporates logical reflection and moral intuition. These must be allowed to play the roles for which they were designed and granted to us by God for determining biblical truth. We cannot sanction a hermeneutic that ignores “flat self-contradiction” and accepts interpretive relativism among mutually exclusive exegetical alternatives. Rather than ignore our common sense, we have to apply clear thinking to these matters and come to see that Lennox is correct when he writes,
“The deterministic idea held by some, that Adam’s sin was caused by God’s decree, and therefore Adam could not have done otherwise, is grotesque. Morality would thereby be emptied of all coherent meaning, and the problem of evil would cease to exist (because we could simply blame God for everything). We have seen that Calvin calls his deterministic view “horrible,” but if his view were true, a moral concept would have no meaning.”
We are left without intellectual warrant, and therefore interpretive or theological warrant, to believe Calvinism reflects the true teaching of Scripture.
I. Howard Marshall’s Critique of “Two Wills” In God
We saw above that Calvin offered an alternative interpretation of 1 John 2:2 in order to preserve his own doctrinal consistency. We observed this to be an indication that the Calvinist is compelled to acknowledge to some degree that consistency is essential for valid interpretation. Hence, because of the obvious meaning of such texts and others which tell of God’s desire that sinners should come to salvation (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), some Calvinists wish to acknowledge this universality of the grace of God in salvation. They are compelled by Scripture to admit that the atonement in some way extends to all and that God desires the salvation of all men while yet holding to unconditional election and limited atonement. To maintain this conflicted position, Calvinists therefore state “God has two wills in the matter,” one by which he predetermined all things including whom he would save (his decretive will) and another that expresses his commands to everyone which are to be obeyed and that tells us it is his desire that all be saved (his preceptive will). Yet, according to Pinnock and other non-Calvinists this is an “exceedingly paradoxical notion.” Biblical scholar I. Howard Marshall states that,
“The contrast between the preceptive and decretive wills of God does not really help the situation…This means that his preceptive will and his decretive will stand in contrast to each other on many occasions. In the Calvinist view he gives a man the precept “believe in Jesus,” and at the same time by his decretive will he resolves that this man is not one of the elect and therefore cannot obey his preceptive will. But such a self-contradiction is intolerable…Worse still perhaps is the fact that it makes God out to be hypocritical, offering freely to all men a salvation that he does not intend them to receive…From these considerations it becomes clear that the Calvinist attempt to use the language of predestination with respect to God lands in great difficulties, both logical and moral.” (Italics mine)
This idea of “two wills in God” is a prime example of the compounding of incoherence due to the need for rationalizations when there is the absence of a criteria of coherence in one’s hermeneutic. But we can see that to attempt to coherently justify what is inherently incoherent can only make matters worse. The non-Calvinist deems this Calvinist explanation that God has two wills to be a “self-contradiction” that dichotomizes God’s revelatory words from his decretive actions. Such an understanding of God is “intolerable” for the non-Calvinist. They conclude that it makes God out to be “hypocritical.” The interesting thing to note is that the Calvinist obviously reaches no such conclusion. Even in his attempt to remedy the incoherence his interpretations of unconditional election and limited atonement create with God’s express statements about his desire that all be saved, the Calvinist does not acknowledge that his solution produces the same type of incoherence and contradiction that marked his original interpretations. The Calvinist simply ignores incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in doing interpretation and building his theology. These logical and moral difficulties simply do not hold the same intellectual and theological import that they do for the non-Calvinist. Such considerations simply do not have weight in a Calvinist hermeneutic.
What we can observe at this point is that the Calvinist will say that they are compelled by Scripture to maintain this position of “tension” that makes God out to be duplicitous or self-contradictory. They say that they are only being true to Scripture, even though their interpretation “makes God out to be hypocritical, offering freely to all men salvation that he does not intend them to receive.” Deep down inside the Calvinist also knows this is problematic and that is why he proposes this “two wills in God” idea.
But the hermeneutical point here is that, rather than deepen their confusion with their incoherent and self-contradictory “two wills in God” proposition to remedy an already incoherent interpretation of the relevant biblical texts, the Calvinist ought to inquire whether there are alternative interpretations of all those relevant biblical texts that produce harmony, coherence and consistency among them. It would be those interpretations, and the theological constructs derived from them, that would be the better candidates as the more accurate interpretations. I say “candidates” because coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are not a sufficient condition to determine the correct interpretation of a text, but they are a necessary condition for doing so. The point is that we all, including Calvinists, must confess that that their incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory interpretations are not even possibly correct while one of the coherent alternatives may possibly be correct.
On the basis of sound hermeneutical principles we know that incoherent and contradictory interpretations cannot be valid interpretations of the texts under consideration. We are intellectually and theologically bound to accept that it will be a coherent interpretation and theological model that will be true to the Scripture. As C. A. Campbell indicated in chapter 7, if there is an alternative interpretive model that does not leave us with a “bare conjunction of differents, unmediated by any ground” so that thought need not reject the union of differences as alien to its nature, that is, as truly irrational, then we have found greater warrant in that hermeneutical and theological paradigm for intellectual assent and therefore our faith. A biblical theology, in order for it not to be inherently contradictory and therefore irrational, must conceive some possible or actual ground for the union of its thoughts and propositions. This is the core problem with Calvinist interpretations in general along with their attempts to provide a “rationale” for their incoherent doctrines, like there being “two wills in God.” If there are interpretations that ground both God’s universal grace and salvific intention to all sinners with God’s sovereignty, election, and predestination in a coherent manner, an interpretation that as Campbell pointed out unites differences with a ground or reason and does not simply leave them as bare conjunction, we certainly must give such interpretations serious consideration, and if we are to disagree with them, then a substantial evidential and credible critique that can defeat the coherent explanation must be provided. It must be something more than the further incoherence of a “two wills in God” defense. Any alternative must once again avoid genuine contradiction, that is, avoid compounding bare conjunctions of differents without ground for their union. More contradictions or mere assertions (e.g., “tension,” “mystery,” “incomprehensibility,” etc.), will not suffice as plausible justifications for a contradictory position. Such a hermeneutic only reduces to bold assertions that one’s interpretation are right and all others are wrong. What makes any assertion credible and convincing is to provide for an actual or possible ground for its union with the various other assertions that are being made. This is what the process of establishing interpretive validity involves that I laid out in Chapter 12, “A Hermeneutic of Coherence: Principles and Issues in Exegesis and Interpretation.”
Marshall also makes an observation about the use of language in describing God which also creates difficulty for the Calvinist. In theology, when talking about God, our language must make accommodations due to the limitations of our human understanding about God. Marshall observes that “the Calvinist is using human language without observing that it breaks down when applied to God.” What does he mean by this? Marshall states that,
“…human language cannot be applied to God without qualification. It leads to results incompatible with other statements (as in the Arian controversy) or to self-contradiction.”
It seems that what Marshall is saying is that our talk about God cannot lead to incompatibility with other statements we make about God or to self-contradictions. Certainly, we can only talk about God in terms we understand. And of course God is more than we can describe. But we must be careful that we don’t confuse expressing our limitations of human understanding in speaking of God with speaking nonsense about God. The Calvinist seems to rush headlong into talking about God with the result being that their claims about who God is and what he does are incoherent and nonsensical. I take it that by this language “break down” Marshall is saying that what is being ascribed to God no longer makes sense and therefore is incorrect. Even our talk about the God, who is transcendent and beyond our full comprehension, cannot result in nonsense.
The point of hermeneutical interest here is to observe that the way Marshall detects a faulty interpretation or misuse of doctrine is when it generates incoherence or self-contradictions with other biblical truths about God. For instance, Marshall addresses the problem of evil and the issue of moral responsibility given the Reformed Calvinist deterministic propositions of God’s comprehensive eternal decree and sovereignty. He states,
“The problem of evil also causes difficulties. The Calvinist view that God can cause evil and suffering through “free” human agents without himself being responsible is untenable. I am responsible for what my agent does. One may therefore seek refuge in a modified sense of the word “cause,” so that men are not the agents of God, following out his will when they commit evil. But this is another way of admitting that the model of thought we are using, in which God foreordains all things, is breaking down and will not bear the weight that we are putting on it.” (“Untenable” italics mine)
Marshall is simply saying that we know bad theology because it shows itself as “untenable.” The language “breaks down” as incoherent. The Calvinist’s need to rationalize the word “cause” and God’s ultimate responsibility for evil due to their theistic determinism indicates that their theistic determinism is headed in the wrong theological direction. Their determinism is the culprit. The theistic determinist must apply concepts to both God and man that simply “will not bear the weight” that the theistic determinist puts on them. The Calvinist proposition that “God foreordains all things” is generating rational and moral incoherence with the nature and definition of responsibility. The word simply loses its meaning in a deterministic context, and to fiddle with language to force an appropriate justification doesn’t prove rationally or morally credible. The “untenable” Calvinist position seeks some justification which leads to further logical difficulties. Biblical words and themes like “predestination,” when they are proposed to mean things that generate intra-biblical and extra-biblical inconsistency and contradiction, that is, when language begins “breaking down,” should be retracted to find their proper biblical orientation, definition, and role in the full scope of the biblical witness. The term “predestination” would need to be “qualified” as applied to God when the definition assigned to it creates incoherence and contradictions with other biblical terms and doctrines. This incoherence or contradiction is an indication that the fundamental doctrine that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” is saying something about God that is biblically and theologically inaccurate. In the end, the Calvinist is left with the task of pursuing further logical and moral justification for something that is inherently rationally incoherent. It certainly appears that such an enterprise is futile and can only produce more incoherence and inconsistency. The wrong road has been travelled and all the indicators of interpretive validity say “turn back.” Marshall is pointing out that the Calvinist’s doctrine is untenable because it has God predetermining and causing “all things,” including all evil, while also stating that God is not responsible for that evil because he causes it to be done through human agents who do so “freely.” This is inconsistent with the character of God and incoherent with respect to human free agency. The Calvinist doctrines require us to think and talk things about God and man in ways that are self-contradictory and incoherent. So when our language about God becomes logically and morally problematic, or has “broken down,” this is a sure sign of the misinterpretation of the scriptures related to those Calvinist doctrines. It is to talk things about God that we can see result in nonsense. The Calvinist doctrines cannot bear the intellectual, moral or theological weight they would need to bear to be considered viable interpretations of Scripture.
Here we may profit from a brief reminder of some specific elements of a sound biblical hermeneutic that lead to valid interpretations. Regarding certain biblical texts and themes, we see that a responsible exegesis is one that considers the nuances of language usage, historical context, authorial intention and flow of thought, along with Osborne’s injunction that we seek to be challenged and learn from opposing views so that we are driven back to the text to once again examine it with further information and insight. Again, see chapter 12. This method of a “hermeneutical spiral” intends that the text remain the authoritative voice in a process in which untenable interpretations are weeded out as not sufficiently implementing these sound hermeneutical principles and practices.
Marshall provides another example of how a language “break down” reveals a misapprehension of God in the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and double predestination.
“To say that God shows mercy to one sinner and not to the next, i.e., to adopt a doctrine of double predestination (as is done in orthodox Calvinism), is to land in a moral difficulty. In this case, divine mercy is not being understood in terms of divine justice. I cannot see how it can be just arbitrarily to save one guilty sinner and not another; and there can be no doubt that any human judge (for it is the pattern of the judge which provides the model) who behaved in this way, and a fortiori any human father who treated his son in this way, would be regarded as falling below the standards of Christian justice. To this the reply may be made that we cannot understand the secret working of the mind of God, that he has freedom to show mercy or to harden, as he chooses, and that we must be prepared to trust the inscrutable will of God as being ultimately just, even if we cannot see it from our limited point of view. But again this objection misses the point which is that the use of language has broken down; it does not explain, but leaves a mystery…it is one thing to attempt to reconcile experience with faith and another to have a faith which cannot reconcile an apparent contradiction in God himself.”
The basic presupposition here is that we have accurate and sufficient knowledge of what God’s goodness, justice and mercy entail. It may not be an exhaustive knowledge, but it is knowledge that is sufficient and coherent, that is, a true knowledge. Therefore, in that the Calvinist doctrines cast this knowledge of goodness, justice, and mercy as incoherent with respect to God, that is, they make God out to be arbitrary and contradictory, those doctrines cannot be biblically accurate. If language is to mean anything, it has to be governed by rational coherence. To speak about God’s justice in incoherent ways with what our knowledge of justice entails, is to forfeit any true knowledge of what it might mean for God to be good, just and merciful. Professor William G. MacDonald writes,
“Evangelical theology is confined happily to thinking of the metaphysical personhood of God in anthropomorphic categories legitimized by God’s creating man in his own image.”
And as C. S. Lewis put it,
“God may be more than moral goodness: He is not less.”
Hence, the acknowledgement that such logical and moral coherence is a reliable and indispensable factor in determining the validity of an interpretation is what divides the non-Calvinist from the Calvinist. The Calvinist’s doctrines jeopardize the grounds upon which we should define and practice goodness, justice and mercy. The Calvinist can dispense of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction as essential and necessary indicators of a valid interpretation whereas non-Calvinists, like Marshall, MacDonald and Lewis cannot.
Again, as MacDonald instructed us above, this is not to impose our human conceptions of justice and mercy upon God, but simply to acknowledge that any conceptions that we might have of justice and mercy originate with Him. Therefore, they are sufficiently reliable and accurate for us to think about what it means for God to be good, just and merciful. And if immutability means anything with respect to God it means that his goodness, justice, and mercy are unchanging and therefore we can always expect coherence between what we know of goodness, justice, and mercy and what constitutes God’s goodness, justice, and mercy.
Therefore, we can confidently say that we know what it means to act arbitrarily with respect to goodness, justice and mercy and therefore we can also say that God does nothing arbitrarily. He does not change or violate his own nature as good, just and merciful. Therefore, the Calvinist doctrines that present God as arbitrary are false.
In fact, quite ironically, the Calvinist would affirm our reliable knowledge of God’s attributes here. They too concede that we have a true knowledge of what it is for God to be good, just, and merciful. For they will state that although they do not understand God’s ways in salvation when (according to their interpretations) he predetermines certain individual persons for salvation and he also predetermines other individual persons to eternal damnation, yet they believe he is ultimately just no matter how much it may seem otherwise to us. But this “no matter how much it may seem otherwise to us” affirms that God is doing something that goes contrary to our understanding of what it means to be good, just and merciful, which, as we have established, is a reflection of the nature of God because we are made in the image of God. Therefore, God is acting contrary to his own nature. This also reveals how the Calvinist has the ability to divorce his moral intuitions here from his interpretations and interpretive conclusions which make God out to be arbitrary. This is what lands the Calvinist in an incoherence; an incoherence he has learned to ignore as hermeneutically significant. It is to presuppose a certain definition (indeed the same definition the non-Calvinist presupposes), of what it must mean for God to be good, just and merciful while also admitting that God is not being or acting good, just and merciful in light of the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and double predestination, and that this has no hermeneutical significance.
So what are we to do with this confusion between what goodness, justice and mercy are as far as we are concerned but that according to the Calvinist doctrines God is nothing like that? Given that the Calvinist’s doctrines make God out to be something other than good, just and merciful as we understand these, we are left with no place to rest our intellects and moral intuitions. In the doctrines of unconditional election and double predestination we perceive God as not good, unjust, and lacking mercy despite the Calvinist’s insistence that God is good, just and merciful. And yet the Calvinist fully expects this true goodness, justice and mercy to be done despite the fact that God does not exhibit such goodness, justice or mercy to individuals in the doctrines of unconditional election and double predestination. Therefore, the Calvinist, although he has a definite idea of what it is for God to be good, just and merciful, is able to put that aside, or rather, hold it as a contradiction, for the sake of maintaining his doctrines. Rather than allowing this problem to put a check on his interpretations and doctrinal conclusions, the Calvinist teaches himself to accept interpretive incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction. That is, his doctrines are found to be inconsistent and incoherent with human and divine goodness, justice and mercy without due concern that “no matter how much it may seem otherwise to us” he may be misinterpreting Scripture on the matter of election and predestination. The Calvinist assigns to God a goodness, justice and mercy that we simply do not recognize as goodness, justice and mercy. This, I submit, is a sure indication that the Calvinist’s interpretation of election as unconditional and its corollary doctrine of reprobation are not what Scripture teaches.
And the central issue lies right here. Is this “putting aside” of what we all intuitively know to be the nature of goodness, justice and mercy, to embrace doctrines that teach us that God is arbitrary and even contrary as to this goodness, justice and mercy, hermeneutically legitimate? Does this situation of incoherence between what we know of both human and divine goodness, justice and mercy and the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and reprobation that overturn what we know of both human and divine goodness, justice and mercy indicate that the Calvinist has misinterpreted Scripture as to election and predestination? I think so. We need to ask what are the most fundamental and reliable indicators by which we can discern the validity of textual interpretations and doctrinal propositions. By what other means or with what other “tool” could we possible discern proper from improper interpretation except that we include logical and moral coherence? Can technical exegesis alone provide for the validity of its own interpretive conclusions when those conclusions are incoherent, inconsistency and contradictory? I think not. If the Calvinist can explain this, I would like know what within their exegesis itself would compel us to confess that exegesis as biblical truth when it also requires that we embrace the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions which that exegesis and it interpretations produce with other sound exegetical conclusions and interpretations of Scripture.
In contrast, I argue that we are compelled to evaluate the logical, moral, epistemological and biblical coherence or incoherence of theological propositions to determine their biblical validity. Yet, as Marshall observes, the Calvinist resorts to the incomprehensibility of God’s ways as justification for maintaining what is otherwise a logically and morally incoherent doctrinal position. The Calvinist’s hermeneutic allows for him to apply to God what we know to be unjust while also claiming that, in the end, that same God will adhere to what we know to be just. Is this interpretively legitimate? If God’s nature is always to be just (his immutability), and what we know of justice comes from God and is therefore true knowledge of the true nature of justice, then the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and reprobation (i.e., double predestination) are wrong, for it is incoherent with justice as we know it in God and ourselves to mete it out arbitrarily.
Calvinism makes God’s nature out to be judicially incoherent and leaves the problem in moral abeyance. Hence we are running contrary to the true definition and application of the doctrine of the immutability of God. The immutability of God means that because God is consistent in his character and nature, his visible actions and responses are various depending upon the circumstances created by human freedom. God responds accordingly. Therefore, because God acts consistent with his character and nature, and that nature is good, just and merciful, he would never appear to us to be acting arbitrarily. God’s responses and actions of goodness, justice and mercy in differing circumstances would be fitting and suitable for those changing circumstances. For Marshall, it is this “break down” of language, or this arbitrariness and incoherence generated by the doctrines of unconditional election and double predestination with the nature of God and other doctrinal concerns, that indicate that these doctrines are incorrect. This leads Marshall to say, “I just cannot see how it can be just arbitrarily to save one guilty sinner and not another…” The Calvinist doctrines of predestination and unconditional election make God’s nature out to be arbitrary as to goodness, justice and mercy. What we may say is that an immutable divine nature that is good, just and merciful would make a way for all guilty sinners to be saved. That way would be a way that is good, just and merciful. What we cannot say is that God would predetermine to save one guilty sinner but not another and this still be on grounds of what is good, just and merciful. But that is what is going on in Calvinism. To Marshall it makes no sense for God to predetermine to save one sinner and not another for reasons we know not why while at the same time knowing and claiming that God is good, just and merciful. If he is these things, he would make a way of salvation for the one sinner as well as the other sinner among whom there is no difference. That is what we know goodness, justice and mercy to be all about. It is an issue of goodness, justice and mercy as we perceive these which cannot be summarily dismissed. Marshall deems that the Calvinist proposition regarding predestination definitely declares that God is arbitrary.
So, we have come to the hermeneutical divide which is at the crux of this controversy. Note that the Calvinist is less concerned about what to the non-Calvinist is the deciding factor for determining the validity of these Calvinist doctrines of predestination and unconditional election – their logical and moral coherence with respect to, in this case, what we know of human and divine goodness, justice and mercy. To this we can add the biblical worldview in toto and the broad scope of biblical teachings and theological propositions. In other words, Reformed Calvinists feel no compulsion to interpret Scripture in accord with a hermeneutic of rational and moral consistency and coherence. They simply hold it as a priority that God must be “sovereign in salvation” despite the logical and moral havoc that their deterministic definition of “sovereignty” wreaks with other biblical narratives, teachings and doctrines. In this instance, the logical and moral contradictions generated by their doctrinal propositions with the truth about human and divine goodness, justice and mercy is held in abeyance. The Calvinist feels that he does not have to intellectually “explain” or morally “reconcile” his doctrines where explanation and reconciliation are necessary to make sense of Scripture. He only needs to flee to “high mystery” or “apparent” contradiction. According to the non-Calvinist these rationalizations are quite premature and hermeneutically inappropriate.
C. S. Lewis’ comments from The Problem of Pain are applicable to this serious flaw in the Calvinist’s reasoning. He writes,
“Any consideration of the goodness of God at once presents us with the following dilemma.
On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in his eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.
On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our “black” may be His “white,” we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good,” while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what.” And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying him. If He is not (in our sense) “good” we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil worship.”
“Beyond all doubt, His idea of “goodness” differs from ours; but you need have no fear that, as you approach it, you will be asked simply to reverse your moral standards…This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice. He appeals to our existing moral judgment – ‘Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?’ (Luke 12:57)
God’s goodness, justice, mercy, etc. cannot simply be “wholly other” than our knowledge of these, otherwise, as Lewis observes, all we are really saying is “God is we know not what.”
For these non-Calvinist scholars, the fact that God’s grace extends to all sinners is such a clear teaching in Scripture that all the “linguistic and logical” arguments provided to justify the Calvinist doctrines of predestination, unconditional election, and limited atonement amount to unconvincing ad hoc rationalizations. The principle of “obviousness” is firmly held with regard to the texts that speak of God’s universal atonement and salvific justice, mercy and grace (Ezek. 18:23-32, 33:10-20; Jn. 1:29, 3:16; Rom. 5:17-21, 11:32; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Jn. 2:2). And the principles of coherence, or context, and comprehensiveness require that other texts be interpreted in logical, moral, and theological consistency with them.
Vernon Grounds goes on to sternly chide the Calvinist for what he deems a poor attempt to rationalize the texts that speak of the universality of the atonement.
“It takes an exegetical ingenuity which is something other than a learned virtuosity to evacuate these texts of their obvious meaning: it takes and exegetical ingenuity verging on sophistry to deny their explicit universality.” (Italics mine)
All these non-Calvinist biblical scholars maintain it as a basic hermeneutical presupposition that the Bible’s teachings cannot be interpreted in a logically, morally or theologically inconsistent or contradictory manner. The meanings of certain texts are more obvious than others. They believe the language of Scripture regarding the universal scope of the atonement and God’s grace is transparently clear and therefore they seek to incorporate all the biblical language of election and predestination into a logically and morally coherent theology. They feel that if this approach can be circumvented, then something very detrimental to biblical interpretation is at work. A theology marked by indifference to our logical reasoning and moral intuitions leads to hypocritical positions and to teaching and preaching that is marked by disingenuousness. Non-Calvinists believe rational coherence is a necessary element in discerning the true meaning of Scripture. The interpreter needs to construct a theology that is coherent with the whole testimony of Scripture. Such a theology will be marked by a logical and moral consistency in one’s theological propositions. Calvinists, on the other hand, even if they do acknowledge problems of coherence in their theology, maintain that these are not decisive for discerning the true meaning of Scripture. The Calvinist insistence upon maintaining forms of doctrine that generate rather than alleviate these difficulties indicates that this concern about coherence is not an important element in a Reformed hermeneutic. Marshall expresses this problem in terms of the types of language used about God in Scripture and how language “breaks down” at key points when talking about God. The point he raised was what we say about God must remain logically and morally coherent, especially regarding concepts of “willing,” “purposing,” “desiring” and “predestinating.” For instance, Marshall points out that as it is contradictory to require of God’s omnipotence (defined as him being able to do anything) that he therefore be able to create a stone he cannot lift, so it is with trying to conceive of a personal God
“…foreordaining the course of a relationship between himself and another person. The concept is logically self-contradictory…The difficulty arises…as soon as the creator of the universe is himself a participant in it. This produces a self-contradictory situation.”
I believe Marshall’s point runs along the following lines. Realizing that God is also a person, he cannot, by an eternal decree, predetermine every thought, desire, belief, attitude and action of another person, especially when he involves himself in that creation as a person in relation to other persons.
It is fundamental to biblical truth that God himself enters and participates in human history as a person – Jesus – and therefore the nature of the interaction and relationship between God incarnate and his human creatures cannot be absolutely and exhaustively deterministic. If God is a person involved with human persons, then every minute detail of history cannot be predetermined by God himself otherwise he also would be bound in his actions by his own unalterable decree. God himself would not be a free agent. It appears that a more coherent view of the full testimony of Scripture is one in which God is a person, and therefore personally involved with his creatures within his created order. And as a person involved with persons he would not desire to predetermine and absolutely control every thought, attitude, and action of every other person. For one person to predetermine everything about another person is incoherent with personhood, especially when God is one of the persons involved in his own historical reality. Such an absolute, exhaustive determinism is ruled out simply by God being a person interacting with other persons. Thus the Calvinist doctrines of sovereignty and predestination, which are inevitably deterministic, “break down” when applied comprehensively to the God/man relationship. They become incoherent.
Marshall goes on to observe that the New Testament describes “…the existence of different types of relationship between God and his creatures.” He continues,
“The Calvinist approach regards all God’s dealings with men as being expressed ultimately in terms of his decretive will, which means that his relationship to men is that of a dramatist to his characters; basically, what God does is to predetermine everything that men think, will and do. But this approach has the effect of denying the validity of the other type of language used to describe God. Here God is regarded as standing over against the wills of men. He gives commands to them which they may obey or disobey (his preceptive will). He expresses desires. He speaks of his love for them, demonstrates it in action, and looks for answering love. He can place his will over against their wills, as when he threatens that those who disobey his will shall endure his wrath. This language is as real in the Bible as the predestinarian language, and it cannot be reduced to the latter or expressed completely in terms of it.”
Note the hermeneutical principles Marshall is employing here. They are those of comprehensiveness and coherence. He is taking a comprehensive view of the biblical witness to both the language of the “answering love” God seeks from free men and the predestinarian language. It is important to see that he requires a coherent reading of the Bible as containing both types of language. As such Marshall concludes that the former language “is as real in the Bible as the predestinarian language, and it cannot be reduced to the latter or expressed completely in terms of it.” It is not good interpretation to either ignore one or the other, nor to pit one in contradiction with the other. A proper interpretation seeks the coherence that must exist between the two. Unlike the Calvinist who allows the predestinarian language to run roughshod over the language of divine love for his human creatures who exhibit freedom of the will, Marshall’s hermeneutic requires of him to interpret both of these biblical truths in logical and moral coherence with each other.
Therefore, we must ask two questions of the Calvinist. First, “Is the logical, moral, epistemological and biblical/textual incoherence generated by your understanding of God’s eternal decree and sovereignty an important consideration in determining whether your theology rightly incorporates the full scope of the biblical witness? Secondly, “Is the logical and moral incoherence generated by your understanding of God’s eternal decree and sovereignty indicative of the biblical invalidity of your interpretations and theological conclusions?” Negative answers would admit jettisoning reason’s role in hermeneutics and as the ultimate arbiter of true statements about God. It would be to dismiss the basis for all meaningful thought and discourse. Any true progress in the matter would be impossible. The discussion would end, or continue as it does to this day with one side (non-Calvinists) recognizing the need to interpret and speak with coherence, consistency and non-contradiction and the other side (Calvinists) refusing to recognize any such need. On the other hand, positive answers would be to admit that Reformed Calvinist theology is unbiblical regarding the relevant issues.
My observation is that the negative answer is generally the practical answer the Calvinist gives while dismissing the implications of irrationality by claiming “divine mystery,” “apparent contradiction,” “incomprehensibility” or the “two wills in God” proposition. Add to these the failure of Calvinist compatibilism and “God works through second causes” and “means,” and Calvinism is left with neither a sufficient exegetical nor intellectual grounding. Rather than revisit the biblical validity of their theology, the Calvinist prefers to discount the fundamental laws of reasoning and moral intuition which guide our interpretation of the text and enable sound theological judgments to be made as to its meaning in relation of other interpretive conclusions. Therefore, Reformed theology evidences the result of their negative answers – that logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical incoherence have no bearing upon discerning validity in interpretation.
Therefore, a third question must be asked, “On what basis do you expect others to believe your doctrines of sovereignty and election to be true?” On the basis that you say the texts means such regardless of the incoherence of your interpretive conclusions? How do I know a text means what you say it means except by evaluating the coherence or incoherence of your interpretation as part of what constitutes determining valid interpretations? Any exhortation to embrace a certain theology is a call to reason logically and morally about the biblical text. But no one can be expected to nullify their reasoning in an endeavor that calls them to use their reason. Rather, I submit that in the name of “high mystery” the Calvinist embraces perplexing incoherencies which are clear evidence of interpretive invalidity. The Calvinist states that any contradiction we detect in his theology should be deemed only “apparent.” But that is to merely assert that we should judge as only apparent what reason demands we assign to contradiction. This is simply an unsubstantiated assertion that evidences the suppression of reason which is necessary for embracing Calvinism and to remain a Calvinist. When seen for what it really is and requires, this whole hermeneutical and theological approach is hardly convincing.
Note therefore the essential presupposition here for these non-Calvinist scholars. It is that they feel they can identify contradictory interpretive propositions and these hold weight in determining the validity of an interpretation. Marshall pronounced the predestinarian language that is found in Scripture to be hermeneutically unacceptable when it is understood deterministically. For as understood in this way, as Calvinism maintains, it cannot coherently incorporate the non-deterministic, personal language of divine love and human freedom which is just as real in Scripture. The Calvinist “approach” (deterministic interpretations of sovereignty and election) has the effect of “denying the validity” of the “other type of language” (commands, obedience, disobedience, the nature of love, etc.). This is to say that they contradict each other and that is an indication that something is amiss. The Calvinist’s determinism is “untenable.”
“This should be obvious from the analogy of the dramatist which, as we have already seen breaks down when applied to God. A dramatist may indeed say that he has come to love his characters…but it is obvious that this is a special use of the term “love”; it does not include the possibility of the characters loving the dramatist, and, even if he makes them say, “I love my creator” in his drama, this is not mutual love in the real sense. So too it makes nonsense of God’s joy over the repentance of the sinner if the whole thing, joy and all, has been predestined by God. What the Calvinist approach does is to reduce all this language of interpersonal relationships to the expression of the decretive will of God; and to do this is to turn the story of creation and redemption into sheer farce.” (Italics mine)
“A solution to the problem of predestination must do justice to the way in which the Bible speaks of God as one who places his will over against ours and acts like another person, rather than as a being who does not enter into real relationships with his creatures but simply treats them as the unconscious objects of his secret will.” (Italics mine)
What is it to “do justice” to the way in which the Bible speaks of God? It is to avoid making “nonsense” of what the Bible says about “interpersonal relationships” and avoid making the “story of creation and redemption into sheer farce.” It means nothing less than maintaining rational and moral coherence between the concepts that compose the biblical narrative and are expressed in a comprehensive theological scheme. It is to acknowledge and accept the need for coherence as essential for a truly biblical hermeneutic, accurate textual interpretations and credible theological conclusions.
Note that Marshall holds to certain presupposed truths that reveal to him the problematic nature of the Calvinist approach to predestination. This is a kind of “conceptual coherence” at work. One important value is the nature of love. You cannot predetermine love, for love must include mutuality. If it is to be reciprocated at all (a risk love takes), it must be freely reciprocal. This is incompatible with Calvinist determinism.
That God experiences joy is another incoherence on Calvinism. How is it that God experiences genuine joy upon a sinner’s repentance if that repentance has been predetermined by God? What is the meaning of a predetermined “repentance?” The concept of “repentance” as a personal response between God and man is rendered void. It is worth reminding ourselves here of what C. A. Campbell stated above about the nature of unacceptable thought and the definition of a contradiction. He said that “A merely external union of differences…is not in the end acceptable to thought. It is of the very essence of thought to seek some ground for their union; and so long as no adequate ground is discoverable, intellectual dissatisfaction persists.” This is what we have here between determinism and the concepts of love and joy. No adequate ground is discoverable for a proper union between the determinism of the Calvinist doctrines with the realities of love and joy. A deterministic theology cannot provide a sufficient, grounded union between it and these concepts. Therefore, “intellectual dissatisfaction persists.” Campbell went on to say that,
“A bare conjunction of differents, unmediated by any ground, thought rejects as alien to its nature, as ‘irrational.’…Here…we find our answer to the question of what constitutes contradiction. Contradiction consists in uniting differences simply, in and as a bare conjunction. What the concrete nature of the differences happens to be is not of the essence of the matter. The crucial point is that thought cannot, qua thought, accept their union unless it conceives some actual or possible ground for their union.”
Note the hermeneutical principle in play here. There needs to be a proper, rationally coherent union between theological propositions, biblical doctrines, logical thought, moral principle, human experience, etc. The non-Calvinist places theological propositions in relation to other theological propositions and human experiences with an eye towards the coherence between them. This is to view any one proposition in light of the whole biblical witness and testimony to the triune God and his work of salvation. This adds biblical dimension and fullness along with logical and moral coherence and credibility to what is proposed. It establishes the Bible as credible. We therefore have good intellectual and interpretive warrant for believing its message. Where this coherence and credibility is lacking, we have no moral obligation to give intellectual assent or place our trust in such a theological perspective.
So where have we come to thus far. We’ve reached the hermeneutical divide that is at the heart of this controversy. Most fundamentally, the controversy is not merely a matter of performing an exegesis and stating what one believes the texts mean based on that exegesis, although this is essential. The more fundamental issue is whether or not one believes that the composite of one’s exegeses need to exhibit coherence, consistency and non-contradiction. The non-Calvinist believes that such coherence is integral to good exegesis and interpretation. The Calvinist does not. Therefore, even if we can determine the validity of one or the other of these contradictory interpretations on the basis of exegesis alone, which theoretically I think we can, nevertheless the exegetical conclusions each side provides are not able to resolve the differences. Each side believes the other side does not have a convincing exegesis. What I am contending is that we can determine which exegesis and interpretation is biblically faithful by its ability to provide coherence, consistency and non-contradiction amidst all the theological data that needs to be accounted for from the full scope of Scripture. Given this criteria, Calvinism is found wanting.
Therefore, in coming to a conviction on this controversy, each believer needs to weigh and determine the place coherent exegetical and conceptual evidence plays in determining the validity or invalidity of a proposed meaning of Scripture. This inconsistency persistently presses itself upon us as a genuine interpretive concern with profound spiritual, intellectual, ethical and gospel implications.
If Calvinists do not attend to a proper resolution of these inconsistencies in their theology, the only other alternative is to ignore them while groping to maintain a semblance of rationality and salvific assurance within the darkness of theological and soteriological determinism. In the end, one will have to completely disregard the concerns of logical and moral consistency and become biblically and intellectually disengaged in these matters. If you can do this, then you are a candidate for Calvinism. But this is hardly a rational response, let alone a truly biblical Christian approach to the text and reality. The implications Calvinism has for the content of the gospel, the nature and effectiveness of evangelism, the credibility of Christianity, ethical concerns in teaching and preaching, philosophy of ministry and education in the church are profoundly disconcerting.
The Non-Calvinist’s Hermeneutical Advantage
Is there an interpretative model that does justice to both the language of sovereignty, predestination and election and the language of contingency, human freedom, responsibility, conditionality and potentiality throughout Scripture? Sure there is. These latter biblical themes are more clearly communicated and either more predominantly spoken of or presupposed throughout Scripture. The former doctrines are more theologically nuanced and complex. They need to be exegeted and understood in harmony with the latter themes.
Are we suggesting that human autonomy holds priority over divine sovereignty as Calvinists often suggest non-Calvinists desire to do? No, because for the non-Calvinist there is no dichotomy in Scripture between divine sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility. We do not find that we are compelled by Scripture to place sovereignty, predestination and election at logical and moral odds with a contingent reality and human free will. If the Scriptures speak a unified message, and I believe they do, it is our responsibility to interpret accordingly. If our interpretations have produced a conflicted message, especially a conflicted gospel message, we ought to revisit our interpretive methods and conclusions, for fundamental to discerning authorial intent is the validation of proposed interpretations, and fundamental to validation is the affirmation and use of the laws of logic and moral intuition.
I believe that the interpretive method that does justice to biblical truth regarding the doctrines in this controversy is the method that includes the principles of context, consistency, comprehensiveness, acknowledging the role of logical reasoning and the input of moral intuition as we make probability judgments on what these texts mean. Interpretations that result in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are wrong. It is the acceptance or rejection of these several essential hermeneutical principles that distinguishes and divides the non-Calvinist from the Calvinist respectively. The non-Calvinists acceptance of coherence and the Calvinist’s rejection of it, is the hermeneutical divide.
Furthermore, interpretations should not be driven by faulty trivial theological fears. To suggest that God’s sovereignty, if not a divine determinism, could actually be threatened by anything God himself created (which is everything), is simply ludicrous; a puerile fear and beneath the dignity of the God of the Bible. This is to have God relinquish being God. It is both impossible and contradictory. Such a thing cannot even be comprehended. But this is often the rationale given for a deterministic view of divine sovereignty. Moreover, ironically, the Calvinist’s fear that God’s sovereign rule might be in jeopardy, that is, that he may not achieve his purposes or accomplish his ends for history if his human creatures were genuinely free, ends up exalting man over God, that is, giving man too much credit in being able in his freedom to thwart the workings of God according to man’s own plans, purposes and will. The divine determinism by which the Calvinist defines “sovereignty” seeks to prevent man from usurping God’s authority. But in demanding a theistic determinism of God, the Calvinist unwittingly exalts man beyond his capabilities (no one, however free, can threaten or rival God’s sovereignty!), and lessens the dignity and sovereignty of God by shackling God himself to his own determinism. Ironically the very exaltation of man the Calvinist seeks to avoid at any and all costs, he achieves by assigning determinism to God. A silly “fear” over human autonomy drives the Calvinist to annihilate that “fear” by erroneously extrapolating God’s true sovereignty as his ability to rule and reign over his free creatures and all of creation by virtue of all his attributes and the qualities of his nature, into a sovereignty of theistic determinism. That is, if God has not predetermined all things, then any control he might have would be insufficient for him to be a “God” who is sovereign over his creation. Man would be sovereign. God must have ordained “whatsoever comes to pass” otherwise he would have relinquished his sovereignty to man. The problem with this view is that once you have defined sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism, any deviation from that determinism is perceived as divine weakness which diminishes his sovereignty. Furthermore, as I have made clear, defining God’s sovereignty as determinism wreaks logical and moral havoc with the rest of Scripture. In contrast, I have suggested that we understand divine “sovereignty” and “predestination” in its true biblical light, which on the basis of a sound hermeneutic would be the understanding that fosters coherence, consistency and non-contradiction among the biblical data. The logical and moral problems inherent in deterministic definitions of divine sovereignty and predestination suggest they are not tenable biblical interpretations of those biblical themes.
In addition, to be under the impression that whatever God has revealed himself to be in any particular attribute (e.g., sovereignty), and take it upon ourselves to magnify that particular attribute to the nth degree thinking that we must be enhancing the glory and majesty of God in doing so, is theologically reckless. There is the danger of taking our favorite attribute of God and placing it above all else that Scripture informs us about what God is like such that our understanding of God’s nature, will and ways becomes incoherent and our theology and soteriology distorted. Calvinists justifiably accuse non-Calvinist of doing this with the love of God. But Calvinists who maintain that God’s sovereignty equals theistic determinism require us to embrace an idea of God that does not “fit” with God as he is fully revealed in Scripture. But this can happen with whatever attribute of God that for whatever reasons we come to cherish. We speak of God being infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc. and therefore feel that the more we can foster his omni-being the better. There are of course truths in these theological doctrines. But when this leads to rational and moral incoherence along with inconsistent and contradictory statements about God and salvation then we need to be reined in from our own speculations about what we might think God needs to be in order to be God, reined in from our well-intentioned desire to “magnify” him in ways he himself does not wish to be “magnified,” or simply to rethink what we are presently “convinced” the Bible teaches.
Calvinists exalt God’s “sovereignty” above all else that God is. They claim that without “sovereignty” God would not be God. But it should be noted that his sovereignty is not an essential attribute of God. For instance, William MacDonald provides these insights on the sovereignty of God. He writes,
“If one insists that sovereignty is of the very essence of God, an attribute of his nature without which he could not be God, then his very deity itself is imperiled. For such a position requires someone other than God from eternity for him to rule. Creation, then, would have been necessary to his very existence of being, and would not have been the gratuitous overflow of his love and glory. We would be compelled to posit always something other than God, ancillary to him. He would no longer be the first and last, the eternal, but co-eternal with “governees.”
God is free, therefore, to be the sovereign Lord; he is not free to lie. This means that he can delegate – surrender if you please – part of his sovereignty without ceasing to be God. On the other hand, God cannot surrender, relinquish, give up, or otherwise divest himself of his truth for any moment of time, for truth is eternal, or else it is not true…Now when we ask the question of the nature of man’s freedom, we must look at the first man. To him God gave the right to make himself independent as well as the privilege of staying with God and living forever. If the opening chapters of Genesis mean anything, they mean that God actually – not speciously – gave Adam the freedom to determine his own destiny.”
We must attend to whether or not our theology that we claim we have derived from Scripture presents God coherently with all else that is revealed in those same Scriptures. Perhaps the evangelical church today has been unduly influenced by denominational traditionalism, theological and soteriological relativism, cultural expediency and political correctness and scholastic, philosophical speculations about God’s being, such that interpretive coherence, consistency and non-contradiction have been set aside. When an exposition or teaching is put to substantive biblical critique and is found wanting as to its rational coherence, there is little willingness to examine one’s theological position afresh in light of that incoherence and the evidence presented. There is an indifference to rational thought and theological dialogue and discourse in the evangelical church today. There is a fear of questioning and conducting a thorough biblical examination of the consistency of what is spoken, taught and done in practical ministry. Incompatible theological viewpoints and biblical teachings are presented as biblical truth regardless of their rational, moral and theological incoherence. Where does all this leave the search for truth and the proclamation of the gospel as “good news” in the evangelical church? Where does it leave the next generation who require substantive answers to their questions about God, truth, the meaning of life and salvation?
By not acknowledging the importance of rational and moral coherence the Calvinist can of course continue to maintain his Calvinist doctrines, but he does so at a very high price intellectually, theologically, and with respect to personal credibility. Calvinists, especially pastors and teachers, find themselves speaking and living inconsistently with their professed theistic determinism. Therefore, not only is their personal credibility lessened but the trustworthiness of Scripture and biblical interpretation is diminished because they present their view as scriptural while side-stepping any intellectual or hermeneutical warrant for believing that to be the case.
But most importantly, what is also at stake in this controversy is the assurance of God’s love for all of us as sinners and the definition and proclamation of the gospel as truly “good news.” Indeed, the very gospel message stands in the balance. By valuing and demonstrating logical and moral consistency the non-Calvinist vindicates the Bible as the Word of God, establishes its teachings on plausible grounds, and confirms the integrity and sincerity of its central message. The non-Calvinist can properly perceive and genuinely and credibly proclaim the gospel in accord with its biblical definition as “good news.” For the non-Calvinist, avoiding the “exegetical ingenuity” and “linguistic and logical legerdemain” characteristic of Calvinism and being able to provide sound interpretations that foster doctrinal consistency, goes a long way towards confirming that such a hermeneutic is truly biblical and the resultant theology is closer to what the Bible actually teaches.
William G. MacDonald critiques the Calvinist definition of predestination and concept of grace.
“Grounding grace in intransigent will and hidden decrees would caricature God as a monolithic monster, would make grace as faceless as law (but see 2 Cor. 4:6), and would exchange the openness of the future under the living God for fatalism. What is even worse, as the most elementary logic would demand, we would have to insist that God alone was culpable for having opened the polluted watergate of sin in the world.” (Italics mine)
Note the phrase “elementary logic.” For MacDonald, Calvinist determinism logically entails that “God alone was culpable for having opened the polluted Watergate of sin in the world.” But the Calvinist can completely ignore this logical entailment. It plays no role in either checking or informing his interpretations of Scripture on these matters.
Therefore, it seems to me that the Calvinist is not allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. Therefore, the interpretive advantage the non-Calvinist has is that he can better incorporate the whole scope of biblical data with all its various personal and relational dynamics (contingency, potentiality, decision, commands, obedience, disobedience, the nature of love, the nature of faith, acceptance, rejection, the presence of sin and evil, etc.) into a theology that exhibits a high degree of rational, moral, and biblical coherence. This speaks in strong support of the validity of the non-Calvinist’s interpretations. The non-Calvinist has the hermeneutical advantage in being able to coherently account for much more of the biblical witness than the Calvinist. The Calvinist leaves too many truths logically, morally, and epistemologically unaccounted for, and many texts need to be either reinterpreted in suspect fashion or left simply to contradict other foundational doctrines.
I submit that the non-negotiable Calvinist doctrines of God’s eternal decree, deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election generate substantial rational and moral incoherence and this is highly problematic for establishing a credible, biblical hermeneutic. Non-Calvinists believe they can detect these interpretive problems when they occur. That Calvinists are “bringing a theological perspective from outside the text” is obvious to the non-Calvinist. Whatever interpretive nuances can be legitimately derived from the text, eisegesis is recognizable and unacceptable. Rational and moral coherence are essential for the non-Calvinist to determine valid interpretations. Coherence is an important element in a biblical hermeneutic that seeks to be true to the author’s intent. Ultimately, this is not so for Calvinists as I have heretofore demonstrated.
What are the non-Calvinist perspectives, principles and arguments that lead to sound, biblical interpretations? Let the Bible itself, not a presupposed theological grid, guide interpretation. There is an obvious, natural and clear meaning to most of the texts in Scripture. Subject to sufficient historical, grammatical and contextual considerations, the plain meaning of the words of those texts should shed light on the more obscure and historically and theologically difficult passages. Reaching the truth of what Scripture is saying is a process, but in the end there should be a coherence between the clear and the obscure texts. One is to seek consistency among interpretive and theological claims and avoid imposing theological presuppositions upon a text. Be sensitive to the “break down” of language as it is used of God and interpret with the goal to coherently incorporating the full scope of biblical language. Interpret so as to “do justice” to the nature and character of God, not impugning his character as the author and performer of evil. Take seriously the logical and moral coherence of one’s interpretive and theological conclusions. Avoid contradictions. Interpret so as to harmonize and not dichotomize the biblical testimony. These compose the non-Calvinist’s rationale for rightly interpreting God’s word.
In summary, given the soundness of these hermeneutical principles, the Calvinist’s definition of “God’s sovereignty” as a universal divine causal determinism cannot be a tenable biblical interpretive option. Moreover, in that incoherence is a hallmark of Calvinist theology, and coherence is a necessary condition for an interpretation and theology to be true, we can therefore be confident that the Calvinist interpretations and theology is, in many important respects, unbiblical.
Is Calvinism Convincing?
Can the Calvinist ever convince someone of their theological position? I don’t believe so. If they choose to argue for the truth of their theology, then that would be an explicit admission that logical coherence is necessary for coming to know and accept truth. But what happens when rational and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are cavalierly dismissed by the Calvinist in their interpretive process and the construction of their theology? How would someone argue that others should accept as true theological propositions that are incoherent or contradictory? That doesn’t seem reasonable in and of itself. And what happens when the Calvinist “argues” for the truth and acceptance of their theological doctrines by stating that because they are divine revelation we should expect to read things that are beyond our human comprehension and are a “high mystery” to be revered, not understood. That just comes across as question-begging and dodging the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction that are identifiable in their interpretations and theology. So how would a person know that the Calvinist doctrines are true to Scripture? Well, it would seem this ultimately will not matter much to the Calvinist because given their universal divine causal determinism the truth of the matter is that only those who are predetermined to believe in Calvinism will do so. Indeed, everyone is determined to believe what God has predetermined them to believe. That is the bottom-line for the Calvinist.
So, we should ask ourselves whether or not the presence of incoherence and contradiction are important for determining whether or not Calvinism is biblical truth. How do we know true propositions and interpretations from false ones? If Calvinism is ultimately a mystery or beyond our understanding, it seems to me that the Calvinist has undermined the very basis upon which one person may persuade another person of the truth of their assertions. We are left with no reasons as to why we should believe Calvinism is biblical truth. And when they point to their exegesis as the reason we should embrace Calvinism we still run up against the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions of the very exegesis that is supposed to convince us Calvinism is biblical truth. The same question remains. What do we do with the Calvinist’s exegeses that produce incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction? Calvinism requires a “leap of faith” that their exegeses are correct. So, there is no way of knowing the truth of Calvinism from exegesis or logical and moral reasoning. This does not fare well for Calvinism. It is, in the end, an intellectually irresponsible and non-rational theology. Calvinism doesn’t stand on its own interpretive and theological merits as far as these involve logical and moral reasoning. And again, on Calvinism, each of us will believe or not believe the Calvinist doctrines depending upon what God has predetermined for us. Period.
The point is that in attempting to discern between various truth claims and theological propositions we cannot forfeit the fundamental laws of human reason. When propositional claims are found to be contradictory, they forfeit any claim to being true. Any claim to what the Bible means must include a rational inquiry processed in terms of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction. If one cannot demonstrate such rational coherence, we are under no obligation to follow along with believing. Christian believing is commitment to the truths of Scripture interpreted upon an objectively true and therefore reasonable basis, not a mindless leap into the dark abyss of incoherence. Indeed, it is our intellectual duty to examine what others propose we should trust and believe as to whether it accords with biblical truth, that is, whether it is a valid interpretation of the Bible. To know whether or not an interpretation is valid requires a logically consistent and morally sound hermeneutic. It requires some criteria for the verification and validation of the propositions. For Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike, logical coherence is essential for discerning what is true or false in all other areas of life. I contend it is also essential for discerning the validity of biblical interpretations and theological claims. A sound biblical hermeneutic takes into consideration the fact that we are interpreting divine revelation. But the nature and content of such a hermeneutic cannot extend to the dismissal of rational and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction which are the means by which we perform exegesis, derive interpretations, and can validate their accuracy. Simply to say that the Bible teaches what only appears to be a contradiction because we are dealing with “spiritual things” and that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” when we can see that such teachings are contradictory and incoherent deprives us of the intellectual means of knowing whether or not those interpretations are correct. It is to abandon theology as an interpretive discipline. It is to abandon interpretation to personal subjectivity and interpretive relativism. It is to forfeit Christian theology’s claim that its interpretive goal has “as its object genuine knowledge.”
This is especially disconcerting as it involves the definition and content of the gospel as “good news.” The Calvinist interpretations provide no assurance of God’s kind and loving disposition towards each of us individually and that he desires that we be saved on the basis of faith in Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf. The Calvinist doctrines of deterministic sovereignty, predestination or unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace are logically and morally incoherent with the overwhelming majority of the biblical narrative and teachings. The fact that Scripture is of divine origin and addresses “spiritual” things is no justification for interpretations that leave us perplexed and confused, but rather, the very spiritual nature of the Bible as revelation from our loving Creator God speaks clearly to us about things that we could never know unless they were revealed by God himself. And God has spoken the message of the good news of our salvation that he has accomplished by his grace and love for us all in Christ Jesus to be appropriated simply by faith in him. And it is divine revelation marked by coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.
There are, of course, fundamental doctrines upon which Calvinists and non-Calvinists can agree, but we will not be able to rightly discern or define even these unless rational coherence and right thinking is not preserved and held in high regard in our hermeneutic. What cannot be ignored is the thought processes about the text from which doctrines arise. By not adhering to the rational indicators that something is awry in our hermeneutic we risk establishing ourselves in doctrines that may not be biblically accurate.
I submit therefore that any theological system exhibiting troubling signs of incoherence, inconsistency, and contradiction is biblically inaccurate. This is evidence that the theology should be fundamentally reconsidered.
C. A. Campbell reiterates the main point of this section which is that reason must be admitted to be the ultimate arbiter in religious statements about God’s written revelation, which is different than claiming that reason in and of itself is capable of the full apprehension of God without him taking the initiative and revealing himself to us. He writes,
“In the course of my last lecture I suggested that some part at least of the hostility of so much contemporary religious thought towards philosophy was due to a failure to keep the distinction clear between two possible offices of reason in religion: between reason as an organ for the apprehension of the Divine, and reason as the ultimate arbiter upon claims to such apprehension. It is only in the latter office, I argued, that philosophy is bound by its inherent nature to insist upon reason’s competence…There is no prima facie contradiction in holding that reason is not a competent organ for the apprehension of the Divine, while also insisting upon reason’s supremacy in the determination of religious truth in the sense that it, and it alone, can adjudicate upon conflicting claims to an apprehension of the Divine.”
Note that the fundamental issue is not a matter of degree of revelation as the Calvinist claims in order to justify their logical, moral and theological difficulties. That is, the Calvinist will say, “We don’t know enough about God to understand him fully, therefore theological propositions may appear contradictory or have the problem of logical incoherence yet still be an accurate reflection of what the Bible teaches.” The fundamental issue here is not lack of knowledge but a matter of the nature of the synthesis of one’s declared meanings of what has been revealed and made known, that is, whether or not there is anything left to confirm the claim that one’s propositions are biblical truth once the criteria of non-contradiction, coherence, and consistency are deemed hermeneutically irrelevant. The place Campbell claims for reason in philosophy I believe also applies in biblical interpretation and theology.
 Dr. David L. Allen, Soteriology 101 Podcast. “Unlimited Atonement: 1 John 2:1-2 with David Allen.” Accessed 5/12/2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGGl9NWBbOQ (18:20 – 20:04)
 Ibid. (20:10 – 22.46)
 Ibid. (27:58 – 33:32)
 Ibid. (34:57 – 36:00)
 Ibid. (37:05 – 37:35)
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 37.
 Dr. David L. Allen, Soteriology 101 Podcast. “Unlimited Atonement: 1 John 2:1-2 with David Allen.” Accessed 5/12/2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGGl9NWBbOQ (38:28 – 40:50)
 David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 548.
 Dr. David L. Allen, Soteriology 101 Podcast. “Unlimited Atonement: 1 John 2:1-2 with David Allen.” Accessed 5/12/2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGGl9NWBbOQ (43:33 – 45:21)
 Ronnie W. Rogers, Reflections of a Disenchanted Calvinist, (Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2016), 15.
 Ibid. 16. On page 17 he once again confirms the role logic played in his decision to reject Calvinism. He states, “…when all things are considered, I no longer find their biblical and logical explanations compelling.”
 L. Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, Phillipsburg, P&R Publishing, 1971, p. 102. We should note the doctrine of double predestination is rejected by some theologians who would designate themselves as Calvinists; although, again, it seems logically rather hard to deny that, if God chooses some for salvation, then the others are effectively chosen for rejection.
 John C. Lennox, Determined to Believe: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith and Human Responsibility, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 122-124.
 Ibid. 124-125.
 Ibid. 125. M. Luther, Bondage of the Will, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1990, p. 59.
 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 217.
 Donald M. Lake, “He Died for All: The Universal Dimensions of the Atonement” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 31.
 Ibid. 33.
 J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Catholic Epistles (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), pp. 172-173. Some have suggested that Calvin changed his views later in life, but I cannot find any evidence to confirm these suggestions. From Lake, Grace Unlimited, 40.
 Lake, Grace Unlimited, 40.
 Ibid. 37.
 Ibid. 43.
 J. I. Packer, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 16.
 Robert H. Culpepper, Interpreting the Atonement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), p. 125. From Lake, Grace Unlimited, 48.
 Donald M. Lake, “He Died for All: The Universal Dimensions of the Atonement” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 45. Quoting L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), pp. 393-394.
 Lake, Grace Unlimited, 46. Quoting Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 394-395.
 Legerdemain – 1. slight of hand, 2. trickery; deception, 3. any artful trick. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/legerdemain
 Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 25.
 Ibid. 46.
 Clark H. Pinnock, “Introduction” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 13.
 Ibid. 14.
 John C. Lennox, Determined to Believe: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith and Human Responsibility, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 157.
 Reddit Andrews III, in D. A. Carson and T. Keller (eds.), The Gospel as Center, Wheaton, Crossway, 2011, pp. 10-11.
 D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1994, pp. 208-209.
 A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God, Newberry, Bridge Logos, 2008, pp. 351-354.
 John C. Lennox, Determined to Believe: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith and Human Responsibility, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 157-159.
 Ibid. 161.
 See Gen. 3:15, 12:3; Is. 45:22, 49:6; Jn. 1:29, 3:16-18, 4:42; Acts 17:30; Rom. 5:8, 15-21, 11:32; 1 Cor. 5:14-6:2; 1 Tim. 2:6, 4:10; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 Jn. 4:14.
 For the Calvinist argument see John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God?” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 107-131. Note that the argument implies (or at least Piper concedes) agreement that the universal grace of God is the teaching of Scripture and that rational coherence is important for the credibility of one’s doctrinal stance. Piper attempts to provide a rationally coherent explanation as to how it is that God desires all persons to be saved yet predetermined a limited number of elect persons to salvation. Does he succeed? Or does he simply generate further rational incoherence?
 I Howard Marshall, “Predestination in the New Testament” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 136-137.
 Ibid. 136.
 Ibid. 135, 136.
 Ibid. 136.
 G.I Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1978), 31.
 I Howard Marshall, “Predestination in the New Testament” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 136.
 William G. MacDonald, ““…The Spirit of Grace” (Heb. 10:29),”” Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 76.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 65.
 See Jerry L. Walls, “Divine Commands, Predestination and Moral Intuition” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 261-276.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 37, 38.
 Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace,” Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 27.
 Ibid. 135.
 I. Howard Marshall, “Predestination in the New Testament” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 138.
 Ibid. 138-139.
 Ibid. 139.
 Ibid. 387-389.
 William G. MacDonald, “The Spirit of Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 79-81.
 Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace,” Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 27.
 Ibid. 25.
 William G. MacDonald, “The Spirit of Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 92.
 See E. D. Hirsch, Validity In Interpretation, 205.
 C. A. Campbell, On Selfhood and Godhood, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1957), 18, 19.