Chapter 6 – What’s At Stake? The Character of God and the Truth of the Gospel

Most Christian leaders and laypeople are willing to ignore the negative intellectual and hermeneutical ramifications of Calvinism in the name of Christian love and to avoid ecclesial division.  And as long as Calvinists preach and teach inconsistent with their own theology, non-Calvinists are content to leave well-enough alone.  But this is not an acceptable response for the thinking Christian and is a reason why the controversy continues.  We just will not face the crux of the matter.  Certainly we ought to take the biblical mandates to work towards love and unity seriously.  But surely such commands and exhortations cannot be used to justify interpretive and theological incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, especially when these distort the gospel as “good news.”  Surely we ought to be about the task of seeking and speaking the truth in love concerning the core message of the biblical revelation – the message of the “good news” of salvation in Jesus Christ.

But most evangelicals, along with their leadership, are in denial of the fact that they are embracing two mutually exclusive soteriologies which entail incompatible views on the nature of God and the gospel message.  They are in denial as to the logical entailments of these views along with the hermeneutical implications of thinking that incompatible positions can both be what Scripture teaches.  What is logically and hermeneutically entailed is that they both cannot be the truth of Scripture. Calvinist Greg Gilbert writes,

“There would be nothing healthy at all in Christians who couldn’t care less how we define and understand the gospel.  On the other hand, I think the energy generated by discussion about the gospel points to a general fog of confusion that swirls around it these days.  When you come right down to it, Christians just don’t agree on what the gospel is – even Christians who call themselves evangelical.” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 17)

In contrast to this confusion, we have a biblical mandate to pursue and preserve doctrinal and gospel truth.  Certainly we need to speak the truth in love, but the only kind of love worth having is the kind that will not sacrifice intellectual integrity in the search for the truth we are to speak to one another.  Calvinist John MacArthur states,

“Indifference, timidity, compromise, and nonresistance are all ruled out as options for Christians when the gospel is under attack.” (MacArthur, 2007, p. xxv)

Therefore this intellectual and theological relativism just won’t do.  Two mutually exclusive views on soteriology, the nature of God and the gospel message cannot both be true.  It doesn’t hold intellectually and it doesn’t comport with the doctrines of the inspiration and authority of Scripture.  The Scriptures do not testify to inconsistent or contradictory “truths.”

            Hence we will need to resurrect the discipline of hermeneutics and argue that the cannons of reason and the law of non-contradiction are indispensable to a good, sound hermeneutic to even begin to remedy this situation.  We all need to be pressed for intellectual, logical, moral, theological, and gospel clarity.  We need to pursue this clarity so as to come to the truth, not only about the gospel, but about the nature of God and his relationship to us, for the character of God is also at stake in this controversy.

The Character of God

            For many people the primary objection they have to Calvinism has to do with its implications upon the character of God.  For the non-Calvinist, Calvinism impugns the character of God.  New Testament professor Glen Shellrude writes an excellent chapter titled “Calvinism and Problematic Readings of New Testament Texts Or, Why I am Not a Calvinist” in the work Grace for All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation. He points out several ways in which Calvinism contravenes what Scripture tells us about the character of God. He mentions the moral exhortations God gives us in Scripture and observes,

“If these exhortations are read within the framework of theological determinism, then the implication is that the extent of the believer’s obedience is determined by what God has ordained for them at any moment; it is never by the person in his exercise of the gift of grace-empowered libertarian freedom.  Since God’s grace is “irresistible,” when Christians sin it is ultimately because God withheld the grace that would have enabled obedience.  When Christians divorce their spouses, refuse to forgive, are self-centered, give into temptation, bring shame on the Gospel, and abuse their wives or children, then the explanation must be that in these instances God has withheld the grace enabling obedience to the moral exhortations of Scripture because he wanted these sins to be committed.

It would appear that the positive function of moral exhortations is to inform believers what obedience will look like in those times when God ordains that they will be obedient.  In those times when God withholds the grace that would enable obedience, the moral exhortations function as an indictment on the behavior which God ordains…These conclusions are necessary deductions from the Calvinist view that God ordains everything that happens and that God’s grace is always irresistible.  As Williams and Peterson put it, “God sovereignly directs and ordains…our sinful acts as well as the good that we do.”[1]

            God also gives believers affirmations, warnings and encouragements, but Shellrude observes,

“…in the Calvinist reading of Scripture, the motivational effectiveness of many Scriptural statements is dependent on the reader being deceived.  God’s people are motivated to faithful service and discipleship with the promise of eschatological blessing when in fact God has already determined the precise experience of blessing and rebuke that will be true of each person.  Believers are promised that God will enable them to resist temptation when in reality he has already determined that in many situations they will give in to temptation and sin.  The warnings against apostasy motivate believers to persevere in their faith when in reality apostasy is a theoretical impossibility.  God assures his people that he will enable them to be renewed in their thinking while simultaneously ordaining that they embrace a wide range of erroneous ideas.  The promise is made that the Spirit will enable obedience when in reality God only intends that believers have a very limited experience of obedience. In these and many other instances, the effectiveness of Scriptural affirmations is dependent on the reader being deceived, i.e. reading them on the assumption of libertarian freedom.”[2]

As to the “reveled will” of God that we are to obey and the “secret will” of God that refers to all things which he has predetermined to occur, Shellrude observes that,

“The result is a view of God that represents him as having two distinct wills which are deeply conflicted and contradictory.”[3]

Shellrude also states that Calvinists,

“…typically affirm that God loves each and every person (though some dissent on this point) while simultaneously ordaining that the majority of those he “loves” will have no opportunity to avoid the horror of eternal separation.  Calvinism affirms that God is pure holiness while simultaneously ordaining and rendering certain all the sins and evils in human experience.  Calvinists claim God holds people responsible for their choices even though every single choice has been choreographed by God and people can never do other than what God has ordained they do…Each of these positions is logically and morally offensive as well as being without parallel in human experience.  If human parents were to act with respect to their children in any way similar to how Calvinists claim God acts then those parents would be declared moral monsters.

Edwin Palmer acknowledges the absurdity of what Calvinism affirms: “He [the Calvinist] realizes that what he advocates is ridiculous….The Calvinist freely admits that his position is illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical and foolish.”[4]  However he argues that the Scriptural evidence requires one to embrace this intrinsically absurd view of God.  If God has created us with a rational and moral discernment which to some extent mirrors his own, then the cluster of logical and moral absurdities inherent in the Calvinist system suggests that there is a problem with the theology itself.  The appropriate response is not to celebrate absurdity, or as is more commonly done, to appeal to mystery, but rather to rethink the theology in light of the totality of the Scriptural evidence.”[5]

            We should observe this clear instance of the hermeneutical divide.  Logical and moral coherence are essential elements in Shellrude’s hermeneutic.  That is, he considers the logical and moral incoherence of Calvinism to be indicative of the Calvinist’s misinterpretation of Scripture.  Yet Calvinists, like Palmer, simply ignore their problems of logical and moral incoherence.  For them these have no interpretive significance with respect to the determining whether or not their interpretations are valid.

            A.W. Tozer writes,

               “What is God like?  What kind of God is he?  How may we expect him to act toward us and toward all created things?  Such questions are not merely academic.  They touch the far-in reaches of the human spirit, and their answers affect life and character and destiny.”[6]

            He states,

               “That our idea of God correspond as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us….Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.

               A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well.  It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse.  I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”[7]

            According to Tozer, what is at stake here are matters “that affect life, character and destiny.” Professor Scot McKnight writes the foreword in Austin Fischer’s book, Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed.  He relates Fischer’s conclusions about the nature of the Calvinist God who predetermines all things.

               “No one, [Fischer] learned, can look Auschwitz in the face and not wonder how such a colossal act of barbaric evil can square with a God who determines all things.  No one, he also learned, can stare at the prospects of hell in the traditional sense and not wonder about the goodness of God – or at least ask “Why?”  And why would God create so many – the numbers stagger – knowing that most (again in the traditional Calvinist sense) will be there suffering forever and ever?  In other words, he learned he had to believe some really horrible things about God to sustain his Calvinism.  As Austin says it, “And this is what happened to me at the core of the black hole of self-glorifying deity: the lights went out and I was left sitting in the dark in an absurd universe with an enigmatic deity of naked power.

               And that God, he concluded, was not the God of the Bible.”[8]

            The Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy reveals diametrically opposed conceptions about the nature of God and his sovereignty.  Indeed, I affirm with Fischer, that it can be convincingly argued that the God of Calvinist determinism is not the God of the Bible.

             So, what is God truly like?  Tozer, for one, does not think the Calvinist idea of God corresponds as nearly as possible to the true being of God.  The main problem, as we have already identified, is the Calvinists definition of God’s sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism.  Tozer writes,

               “Here is my view: God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it.  If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, “What doest thou?” Man’s will is free because God is sovereign.  A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures.  He would be afraid to do so.”[9]

He adds,

               “Certain things have been decreed by the free determination of God, and one of these is the law of choice and consequences.  God has decreed that all who willingly commit themselves to His Son Jesus Christ in the obedience of faith shall receive eternal life and become sons of God.  He has also decreed that all who love darkness and continue in rebellion against the high authority of heaven shall remain in a state of spiritual alienation and suffer eternal death at last.

               …There is freedom to choose which side we shall be on but no freedom to negotiate the results of the choice once it is made.”[10]

            So here again the crux of the matter emerges.  A resolution to this controversy is possible, but only if we can agree that our God-given principles of reason and moral intuitions are essential to the interpretive process and reliable indicators of interpretive validity.  To have an exegesis, although essential, is not enough.  It has to be a correct exegesis.  And to secure confidence in one’s exegesis being correct, it has to be subject to superintending hermeneutical principles.  One of these principles is coherence.  Again, McKnight writes,

               “I had Austin’s experience.  As a college student, I fell in love with the architecture of Calvinism.  I read a sermon from Spurgeon each day for months and months, I read John Owen bit by bit, and John Brown on Hebrews, and I drank in the wine of Calvinism until I was inebriated in the best sense of the word.  I loved it – I loved its fine lines of thinking, and I think what I liked best is that it both put me in my place and God in his, and I liked that sense of all things being where they ought to be.  Until I encountered passages in the Bible that shook that theology to the core.

               I had been star-struck by Calvinist theologians and still was, but I found the exegesis less than compelling.  Passage after passage convinced me that while the big picture – God’s glory in the face of Christ – was as good as our theology can get, the finer nuances just didn’t work with how the Bible frames the freedom of God’s love and human responsiveness. …I still read Calvin and Piper and Edwards, but with a hermeneutic of suspicion.”[11]

For many, the fact that Calvinism impugns the character of God is enough for them to reject it.  I submit that we need to continue to thoroughly and honestly think through – both exegetically and philosophically – the problematic implications of Calvinism with regard to the character of God.  We need to point out this serious problem in this theology.  And yet Calvinism also has negative effects upon the nature of salvation and the content of the gospel.  There are profoundly negative ramifications for the gospel as “good news” when the doctrines of an eternal divine decree, sovereignty and election are defined in terms of a universal divine causal determinism.  This determinism not only has adverse implications for the character of God and human freedom and responsibility, but also a knowledge of God’s salvific will and saving relationship to us.  That message must remain the truly “good news” that it is.  To this issue we now turn.

The Truth of the Gospel

Walls, Dongell and Allen on the Importance of the Controversy

The more one ponders the issues inherent in the Calvinist / non-Calvinist debate, the more one comes to recognize their profound significance.  Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell in their book Why I Am Not A Calvinist emphasize the important implications of these matters and the indifference many believers have to them.

               “There is a lot at stake in this controversy, and it is altogether understandable that its participants express strong feelings.  What is at stake is nothing less than the question of how we are saved from our sins and granted eternal life – a question toward which no believer can rationally be indifferent.  If we don’t care about this question, we just don’t understand!  Indeed, the issue is deeper still, for it concerns the ultimate matter of how God is truly worshipped and glorified.  Furthermore, far-reaching practical implications for life and ministry flow from what we believe are the answers to these questions.  Earnest discussion is both appropriate and desirable if it helps us get at the truth.

The widespread doctrinal indifference of our times is in part a failure to recognize the important role of argument and even controversy in the church…when the truth concerning matters of great importance is at stake, indifference is hard to understand and defend.”[12]

            In a discussion with Dr. Leighton Flowers on the issue of the extent of the atonement, Dr. David Allen states,

               “The issue of the extent of the atonement is very near the heart of the gospel…When you get down to the issue of for whose sins did Jesus die, and what 1 Corinthians 15:3 and 4 Paul defines as the gospel, you’re getting very near the heart of the gospel.  I mean it’s huge whether Jesus died for the sins of everybody or whether he died for the sins of only some people.  That is huge.”[13]

            Commenting on the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement Dr. Allen states,

               “…I believe it is wrong.  I believe it’s unbiblical…  I do believe limited atonement is a distortion of the gospel.  I think it has negative implications for missions, evangelism, preaching…I’m just as interested as anybody else with truth.  I want to know what does Scripture say?… It’s not a waste of time to seek truth.”[14]

            He continues,

               “The extent of the atonement is a huge issue.  And it’s worth going to the mat for because it’s very near the heart of the gospel.  And of course…if Calvnism’s understanding of election is also wrong, combined with the extent of the atonement being limited, if that’s wrong, then we’ve got a lot of stuff going out that’s false in the churches and beyond and that ought to be countered.”[15]

The Gospel is at Stake

            Most Christians who consider themselves “evangelical” are indifferent to the fact that two mutually exclusive soteriologies – Calvinist and non-Calvinist – are being taught in their churches.  This obviously raises interpretive and hermeneutical questions regarding how we can know which one, if any, is the proper understanding of Scripture.  It also raises questions about the life of the mind, intellectual integrity and the pursuit of the truth within the evangelical church because two mutually exclusive positions cannot both be true.  The late R. C. Sproul writes,

               “Alternative interpretations which are contradictory and mutually exclusive cannot both be true unless God speaks with a fork tongue.”[16]

            Statements like this are always astounding to me in light of the inconsistencies and contradictions that Calvinism’s theistic determinism generates with other biblical truths – as in those enumerated in chapters 4 and 5 and in this chapter above.

            This controversy also has ramifications for how we understand the “evangel” or the gospel as “good news.” One’s soteriology logically entails the content of their gospel message.  Therefore, given these mutually exclusive soteriologies, the gospel is at stake in this controversy.  When being consistent with their soteriologies, each position logically entails very different gospel messages.  Nevertheless, whatever side you find yourself presently on, you cannot escape those who will tell you how important this matter is and what’s at stake here.  Indeed, Calvinist D. A. Carson writes,

               “The objective truth of the gospel, Paul insists, enjoys an antecedent authority; if even an apostle tampers with that, he is to be reckoned anathema (Gal. 1:8-9).  So an authoritative gospel must be passed on.”[17]

            Even in light of the Scripture’s teaching on submission to godly leadership, the truth of the gospel still holds absolute sway.  Carson continues,

               “Whereas Christians are encouraged to support and submit to spiritual leadership (e.g., Heb. 13:17), such encouragement must not be considered a blank check; churches are responsible for and have authority to discipline false teachers and must recognize an antecedent commitment not to a pastor but to the truth of the gospel.”[18]

Carson also adds,

               “…the church is not at liberty to ignore or countermand or contravene the authority of the gospel itself, now at last inscripturated, without sooner or later calling into question its own status as a church.”[19]

            Calvinist John MacArthur states,

               “I don’t like battles particularly, especially battles with other Christians; but they seem to be necessary for the protection of the truth. The apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders that of their own selves men would rise up to lead people astray. The church has suffered through the centuries attacks from the outside from unbelievers, but the most devastating attacks have always come from the inside. And in all the years of my life, now many, many years in ministry, it seems as though there has never been a time when we aren’t engaged in some battle for protecting the truth, clarifying the truth, a battle waged as a kind of civil war, even inside the church. In fact, not just in my lifetime, but there’s really never been an era in all of church history when the gospel was not under assault, under attack usually from within the church.

               The truth is that we would expect that, because the gospel is the only way of salvation. It is the gospel that delivers men out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. And naturally, Satan, as the prince of the power of the air, as the ruler of the kingdom of darkness, wants to hang onto all that he possesses; and so he wages endless war against the gospel. Now sometimes there are direct attacks against the gospel; but the more formidable ones and the more subtle ones are those that seem innocent enough and they come generally from the inside of the church.

               The apostle Paul, as you remember in our study of Galatians, was very clear in saying that if anybody preaches another gospel, if anybody alters the gospel, let him be damned, and he repeats that twice. And Jude reminds that we have to earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

               …Proclaiming, protecting, and defending the gospel is the duty of every preacher and every Christian believer.”[20]

            I believe MacArthur is correct, although we need to point out that he speaks incoherent with his own Calvinism which is a universal divine causal determinism.  When he speaks of the necessity of protecting the truth from “attacks” from unbelievers outside the church and “devastating attacks” from inside the church along with both “direct” and “more subtle” attacks against the gospel, then you should know that according to MacArthur’s theology these “attacks” have been predetermined and caused by God himself.  The same applies to “Satan…as the ruler of the kingdom of darkness” wanting “to hang onto all that he possesses; and so he wages endless war against the gospel.”  MacArthur’s Calvinist theology has God predetermining that there be a Satan and predetermining and causing him to wage “endless war against the gospel,” and yet that is the very gospel God wants people to hear so that they “come to the knowledge of the truth.”  MacArthur’s position is self-defeating. Moreover, among all who hear the gospel and are called to come to Christ and be saved, only those whom God has predestined to salvation will do so.  In short, MacArthur’s Calvinist divine determinism has God working at cross-purposes with himself with respect to the gospel.

            Also, we should ask what MacArthur means when he talks about “the gospel.”  What is the content of the “good news” in light of his Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace?”  You must ask yourself what is the precise content of the message the Calvinist would preach and teach when he is preaching and teaching “the gospel.”  Is it consistent with his underlying soteriological doctrines? Therefore, it is a subsequent and crucial question as to whether the Calvinist soteriology can even provide a message that can be considered “good news.”  This is something to be considered and examined further.

            But even if, as I contend, the Calvinist has no “good news” to proclaim when he is consistent with his soteriological “doctrines of grace,” and MacArthur is speaking inconsistent with his soteriology here, nevertheless MacArthur is right.  The gospel is at stake in this controversy.  If Satan would want to thwart the very essence of the work of God in this world and prevent people from salvation he would do all he could to distort and suppress the gospel message.  If Satan can pervert or prevent the gospel from going out into the world he will keep people from being saved.  This is either a real, sobering truth that should motivate us to pray and work for the promulgation of the gospel, or, as in Calvinism, the outcome has been unalterably predetermined to occur as it will.  Every person’s salvation or reprobation has been preordained by God and will unfailingly unfold according to what God has willed.[21]

            Therefore, the question needs to be asked, what gospel is the biblical gospel that should be defended and what gospel is a distortion of the truth of the gospel?  Given two mutually exclusive soteriologies, which one is a distortion of the “good news?”

Calvinists Claim Calvinism Is the Biblical Gospel

Some Calvinists emphatically claim that non-Calvinist soteriological teachings are incorrect and damaging to the church.  Calvinists Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware state that,

               “…we believe that the teaching espoused by Arminians is incorrect and will, to the degree it is accepted, work to weaken the church of Jesus Christ.”

               “We fear that the denial of the doctrines of grace involves a reduction of the supremacy of God in the minds and hearts of God’s people.”[22]

 Recall, the phrase “the doctrines of grace” refer to the Calvinist soteriological doctrines of total depravity or inability, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the preservation and perseverance of the saints.  Many Calvinists go as far as to state that their “doctrines of grace” are the very definition and content of the gospel.  To preach and teach these Calvinist doctrines is to teach and preach the biblical gospel message.

Non-Calvinist George Bryson documents the testimony of well-known Calvinists themselves on this issue.  He writes,

“The much-loved “prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, boasts:

There is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless you preach what…is called Calvinism…It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”[23]

The very enthusiastic Reformed Baptist, John Piper, claims:

The doctrines of grace (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) are the warp and the woof of the biblical gospel that so many saints have cherished for centuries.”[24]

Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema says:

               … for me the truth of the gospel and the Reformed faith are synonymous.[25]

According to Calvinist David Engelsma:

             Calvinism is the Gospel.  Its outstanding doctrines are simply the truths that make up the Gospel. Departure from Calvinism, therefore, is apostasy from the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ. [26]

Similarly, Calvinist Arthur Custance says:

Calvinism is the Gospel and to teach Calvinism is in fact to preach the Gospel.  It is questionable whether a dogmatic theology which is not Calvinistic is truly Christian.[27][28]

            Engelsma is even more emphatic on this point in relation to the doctrine of unconditional election.  After expounding on the five points of Calvinism as the message of salvation he writes,

              “All of the salvation described above has its source in God’s eternal election. The truth of election is another of the characteristic Calvinistic doctrines. God has from eternity elected, or chosen, in Christ, some of the fallen human race – a certain, definite number of persons – unto salvation. This choice was unconditional, gracious, and free; it was not due to anything foreseen in those who were chosen.  Reprobation is implied. God did not choose all men; but He rejected some men, in the eternal decree. It makes no essential difference whether one views reprobation as God’s passing by some men with His decree of election in eternity (which is, in fact, a Divine decision about their eternal destiny), or whether one views it as a positive decree that some men perish in their sin, their unbelief and disobedience. Election and reprobation make up predestination, the doctrine that God has determined the destiny of all men from eternity. This truth is regarded, not inaccurately, as the hallmark of Calvinism. The very heart of the Reformed Church is election, God’s gracious choice of us sinners, guilty and depraved, worthy only of damnation, unto salvation.

            Election is the fountain of all salvation! As such, it is the ultimate, decisive, convincing proof and guarantee that salvation is gracious – that salvation does not depend upon man, but upon God; that salvation  is not man’s idea, but God’s; that salvation is not man’s work, but God’s; that salvation is not due to man’s decision for God, but to God’s eternal decision for man.

             This is how Calvin himself viewed predestination – as the final, conclusive, incontrovertible testimony to, and guarantee of, gracious salvation. Therefore, in his definitive edition of the Institutes (1559), Calvin treated predestination at the end of Book III, after his treatment of redemption in Christ and his treatment of the application of redemption by the Holy Spirit. Calvin wrote:

               We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with His eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast – viz, that He does not adopt promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what He denies to others” (III,XXI,1).

                              This is Calvinism!

                              This is the Gospel!”[29]

Two Mutually Exclusive Gospels

If, according to some Calvinists, Calvinism is the gospel message, can the non-Calvinist soteriology also be the biblical gospel message?  Many Calvinists are consistent here.  They answer, “No.  There is only one gospel and it is Calvinism.”

David Engelsma states,

“There can be no ignoring of these doctrines, called “Calvinism”; if they are not preached and confessed, they are denied.  Every preacher, every Church, every member of every Church must take a stand regarding them, and does take a stand.  It is impossible not to.  For they are writ large on the pages of Scripture, as essential elements of the gospel.  Whoever rejects Calvinism embraces the only alternative to Calvinism – a system of doctrine that is opposed to Calvinism in every point.

…In the end, there are two, and only two, possible faiths.  The one maintains that all mankind lies in death; that God in free and sovereign grace eternally chose some; that God gave Christ to die for those whom He chose; that the Holy Spirit regenerates them and calls them efficaciously to faith; and that the Spirit preserves these elect, redeemed, and reborn sinners unto everlasting glory.  This is Calvinism.

The other faith maintains that fallen man retains some spiritual ability for good, some life; that God’s choice of men depends upon their exercise of the ability for good that is in them; that Christ’s death depends upon that good in man; and that the attainment of final glory depends upon that good in man. This is the enemy of Calvinism.  This is the enemy of the Gospel!  For Calvinism proclaims salvation by grace; the other faith preaches salvation by man’s will and works and worth.

Calvinism is the Gospel!”[30]

Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams also make clear that these soteriologies are mutually exclusive.

“J. I. Packer once observed that the very terms Calvinism and Arminianism represent an opposition: “The words are defined in terms of the antithesis, and the point is pressed that no Christian can avoid being on one side or the other.”[31]  This suggests that the two ideologies – whatever each might stand for in its own right – are to be considered mutually exclusive positions.  An Arminian is by definition not a Calvinist, and a Calvinist could not also be an Arminian.  Whatever one stands for, the other represents its opposing perspective and thus its denial.”[32]

Prominent Calvinist D. A. Carson writes,

“Today the question most likely to light a fuse is…What is the gospel?  One might usefully add that question’s first cousin, What is evangelicalism?

That these questions engender mutually exclusive answers, often dogmatically defended with only a minimum of reflection on the Bible, is, quite frankly, alarming, because the issues are so fundamental.  When “evangelicals” hold highly disparate opinions about what the “evangel” is (that is, the “the gospel,” for that is what “evangel” means), then one must conclude that either evangelicalism as a movement is a diverse phenomenon with no agreed gospel and no sense of responsibility to “contend for the faith” that the Lord has “once for all entrusted” to us, his people (Jude 3 NIV), or that many people call themselves “evangelicals” who do not have any legitimate right to do so because they have left the “evangel,” the gospel, behind.”[33]

Since the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies are two incompatible expressions of the central message of the Bible, this issue cannot be ignored.  Carson is right “either evangelicalism as a movement is a diverse phenomenon with no agreed gospel and no sense of responsibility to “contend for the faith” that the Lord has “once for all entrusted” to us, his people (Jude 3 NIV), or that many people call themselves “evangelicals” who do not have any legitimate right to do so because they have left the “evangel,” the gospel, behind.”

So, it is incumbent upon us to ask why the existence and acceptance of mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospels in the “evangelical” church, and why this issue is ignored and cannot be resolved.

Clearly the gospel is at stake in this controversy.  Carson is honest enough to admit that we have mutually exclusive gospels within evangelicalism, and if that is the case then one or the other (or both) are not biblical or consistent with the term “evangelical.”  Therefore, which soteriology and gospel message is an accurate interpretation of Scripture?  Which one truly has the right to the label “evangelical?”  The word “evangel” (Gr., euangelion) means “good news.”[34]  Therefore, as far as the right to the term “evangelical” is concerned, that will go to the soteriology that contains a message about which the “news” it contains can truly said to be “good.” 

Calvinists claim their Calvinism is the gospel message and therefore all other soteriologies are false gospels.  Indeed, according to Engelsma anything other than Calvinism is “the enemy of the Gospel!” Hence, the first and most important question that we must answer is, “What is the definition and content of the biblical gospel?” 

Most of the time this fact of soteriological mutual exclusivity is overlooked.  Sometimes Calvinists and non-Calvinists speak as though ultimately each has the same gospel message to share.  For instance, within the Southern Baptist Convention they urge “‘to grant one another liberty on Calvinism’ while joining arms for the Great Commission” and state the “hope for the future of the SBC is based on cooperation to carry out the Great Commission.”[35]  This is admirable and we should strive for cooperative unity wherever possible.  But “the Great Commission” is integrally bound up with a message that has a definitive content.  Therefore, “‘to grant one another liberty on Calvinism’ while joining arms for the Great Commission” is to promote a contradictory position.  Calvinism just is incompatible with other non-Calvinist soteriologies and their gospel message.  They therefore have contradictory messages and mandates as to “the Great Commission.”

Therefore it seems to me that especially at the level of “the Great Commission” this gospel divide cannot be ignored.  As much as it is indicative of an attempt to live and work at peace with one another, it is also indicative of an intellectual disconnect between one’s soteriological doctrines and the gospel message.  It is to adopt a soteriological, gospel and theological relativism.

An example of this disconnect can be found in this dialogue between Calvinist Albert Mohler and non-Calvinist Eric Hankins[36] as documented by James A. Smith Sr. who writes,

“Mohler responded that it’s good that young believers are interested in these issues. “I don’t think you can be too excited about theology or the truths of God’s Word” he said.  “You can just be too excited about your system.”

He added, “If there’s a young Reformed guy who’s more interested in traveling across the state to argue about John Calvin when he is not talking to his next-door neighbor about the gospel, then there’s a huge problem.”

Hankins suggested a “rule” for both sides of the debate: “You only get seven days to talk about [Calvinism] and for another seven days you have to actually share the gospel.”  The truth, he added, all Southern Baptists are failing to share the gospel.”[37]

This exchange raises several issues.  The first is the question, “What is the gospel?”  What is the content of the gospel that “a young Reformed guy” is going to speak to his next-door neighbor?  Can he really share his “doctrines of grace” as the gospel?  If the young Calvinist did share with his neighbor the “doctrines of grace,” would the neighbor hear these as a message of “good news” for him personally?  Would the young Calvinist share a message consistent with his fundamental Calvinist soteriological doctrines or will it be a gospel message along the lines that Hankins as a non-Calvinist would share with his neighbor?  And if it is the latter, what should we think of the young Calvinist’s inconsistency between his doctrine and his message?  Is that intellectually and interpretively significant?  My point is that we need to stop using the phrase “the gospel” without further definition as to what we mean by it.  As Calvinists and non-Calvinists, what “gospel” are Southern Baptists failing to share?

A second issue raised here is that for those Calvinists whose gospel is their “system” or “doctrines of grace,” Mohler shouldn’t chide them for being excited about that “system” as opposed to “the gospel” if that “system” is “the gospel,” that is, the full and final explanation as to why one person is saved and another person isn’t. Indeed, if for these young Reformed believers Calvinism is the gospel, then they should not be less excited but more excited about their Calvinism.  Indeed, traveling across the state talking about John Calvin may be part and parcel of what it means for those Calvinists to “share the gospel.”  Bringing the gospel would certainly include talking about Calvinism if Calvinism is the full and final explanation of a persons salvation or reprobation.

Another point to stress here is that some Calvinists disagree with Engelsma’s claims that Calvinism is the gospel.  They would say that Calvinism is not the gospel and that Calvinism per se should not be made synonymous with “the gospel.”  This seems to be implied by Mohler when he says “You only get seven days to talk about [Calvinism] and for another seven days you have to actually share the gospel.”  He distinguishes Calvinism from “the gospel.”  But coming from a Calvinist this is baffling.  It leads to several questions.  The first is, what then is the content of “the gospel” message for these Calvinists?  What do these Calvinists say to their neighbors when they are speaking “the gospel?”  An obvious concern is whether their message is consistent or inconsistent with their Calvinist soteriology.  If it is consistent then they would be telling their neighbors about the “doctrines of grace.” But how is that “good news” for the neighbor? So their “gospel,” in order for it to be “good news” for the neighbor, must be a message inconsistent with their “doctrines of grace.”  They must be telling people “God loves you and desires that you be saved.” That “God is offering salvation to you in Christ.” That, “Jesus died for you and if you believe on him you will be saved from your sins.” And also, “You must accept this free gift of God’s grace by faith.  Put your trust in Christ for salvation.  Don’t reject him.  Your eternal destiny will be determined by your response to his gracious offer of salvation, come to Christ, believe and be saved.”  If that is what the Calvinist is saying, that’s problematic, for it is inconsistent and contradictory with his “doctrines of grace.”

Hence, if their “gospel” is not their “doctrines of grace,” then to what do the “doctrines of grace” refer?  What is there meaning or purpose?  How can the Calvinist’s “gospel” be divorced from their Calvinist soteriology?  One’s soteriology entails the content of their gospel message.[38] 

Other questions can be posed to those Calvinists who maintain “the doctrines of grace” are “the gospel.”  As suggested above, what do these Calvinists say to their neighbors?  That God predestined certain people to be saved and only those will be saved apart from any conditions involving the elect person.  The salvation of the elect is solely the work of God’s grace defined as an irresistible work of regeneration in them which causes them to love God, believe that Christ died for them and that they are saved.  If this is the “good news” (and I don’t see how it could be for the one hearing it), then this ought to be what is proclaimed as the gospel by Calvinists.  So again, I am curious as to what the content of “the gospel” would be for those Calvinists who say that their “doctrines of grace” are “the gospel.”

When Calvinists do not preach a message consistent with their “doctrines of grace,” the are demonstrating that they do not value coherence and consistency between their soteriological doctrines and their “gospel” proclamation.  Therefore, the all-important question becomes, does such inconsistency matter in determining the interpretive validity of their soteriology?  I think it does matter because we must seek to remain intellectually responsible, honest and credible.  Our message of “good news” must be consistent with what we say we believe soteriologically lest we become duplicitous and disingenuous.  Therefore, if one values consistency between their soteriology and their gospel message, then one’s soteriology should constitute the definition and content of their gospel message.

My point is that one’s soteriological doctrines just are what constitutes one’s gospel.  And this is the way it should be lest we become hypocritical, disingenuous and lose credibility.   Depending upon whether one is a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist, the gospel message will be different, and should be different, because there is a difference in one’s underlying soteriology.  This fact cannot just be brushed aside when there is talk about “sharing the gospel” or fulfilling “the Great Commission” or being “a gospel centered ministry.”  One’s soteriology is integral to and definitive of what it means to proclaim the gospel.  And because the gospel means “good news,” it is necessary that one’s soteriology provide “good news” to the hearer. 

The problem is that Calvinists, whether they affirm their soteriology is the gospel or not, end up proclaiming a gospel message that is like the “good news” given by non-Calvinists.  Therefore, those Calvinists who affirm the Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace” but claim that those doctrines are not the gospel message, and those Calvinists who do claim their “doctrines of grace” are the gospel message but preach a non-Calvinist gospel, are both being disingenuous when they do not teach and preach their “doctrines of grace” as the gospel.  They seem rather to be seeking to avoid the logical and moral difficulties raised by their Calvinist “doctrines of grace” and the inconsistency of those doctrines with the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news.”  So, for both types of Calvinists the crucial question still remains, “What is the biblical gospel in light of a Calvinist soteriology?”  This still needs to be addressed.  If this is not addressed we would have to conclude that their Calvinist soteriology is not “evangelical,” that is, it contains no truly “good news.” The Calvinist “doctrines of grace” cannot be put into the service of a truly evangelical gospel ministry. According to the biblical definition of “the gospel” they are irrelevant to a truly evangelical ministry.

Indeed, even a cursory examination of Calvinist preaching and teaching will show this inconsistency.  Calvinists jettison their Calvinist soteriology and become non-Calvinists when preaching and teaching on the gospel or from the Bible in general.[39]  This penchant to dismiss their incoherence is inherent in the Calvinist mindset.  Once this is pointed out to them and they continue to speak inconsistent with their soteriology and theology it is very hard to avoid concluding that Calvinists are being disingenuous. 

I suspect that it is hard for many Christians to see how Calvinism is “good news.”  I for one have never heard a Calvinist preacher or teacher proclaim their “doctrines of grace” as the “good news” of the gospel.  I can’t imagine how they could do so.  Rather, I have seen and heard many times where Calvinists change their message or adopt a non-Calvinist gospel when teaching, preaching and evangelizing.  I ask myself, how is it that Calvinists can preach and teach in direct contradiction or incoherently with their Calvinist soteriological and theological doctrines?  As far as I can see they simply cannot coherently maintain their doctrinal claims.  They do not preach Calvinism when they preach the gospel. So another thing that is at stake here is intellectual and moral congruity and integrity. We ought to speak coherently and consistent with our soteriological beliefs and believe soteriologically that which is coherent and consistent with what we speak.

Moody and Bryson on What Is At Stake in This Controversy: The Gospel

The Calvinist pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL, Josh Moody, exposits Galatians in his book titled, No Other Gospel: 31 Reasons from Galatians Why Justification by Faith Alone Is the Only Gospel.  In it he shows the ways Paul confronted theological and doctrinal error and how in Galatians Paul revealed his passion against the Judaizers with strong of words (Gal. 5:12).  Moody makes application of these to today’s church.  First he asks,

“When did we last contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3)?  Jude advises that in some situations we need to do that, but it almost never happens these days.  It isn’t because there aren’t matters of faith for which to contend; perhaps it’s because we are too politically correct.  No longer do we have problems: we have “issues.” We are taught to be tolerant and never say that anyone’s opinion is wrong.  We are taught to have an open mind, but some people’s minds have been open so long that their brains have fallen out.  We wouldn’t call anyone a heretic, and we wouldn’t describe anything as wrong, bad, or evil.  We certainly wouldn’t tell a church that the false teaching within it is so bad that, if they believe it, they will go to hell and that those who preach it are going to hell; nor would we wish that those who preach it would dismember their most private part of their anatomy.  For such things as this, you get kicked out of denominations not lauded as “valiant for truth” today.”[40]

I agree with Moody.  But I do think he is incoherent here.  As a Calvinist who believes that God has ordained “whatsoever comes to pass,” I don’t see how it makes any sense for him to lament over the things he points out in the above statements.  Especially when he says, “we certainly wouldn’t tell a church that the false teaching within it is so bad that, if they believe it, they will go to hell and that those who preach it are going to hell.”  He speaks as though believing the false teaching in a church is a contingent matter, that it shouldn’t be the case, and that it could alter the people’s eternal destinies.  Yet he believes that God has unalterably predetermined each person’s eternal destiny before they even existed, let alone the false teachers and their teaching!  According to Calvinism perhaps the false teaching would be the “means” God has ordained to bring about his predetermined purposes, one of which is to send certain non-elect people to hell along with those non-elect persons who preach it.  Given Moody’s Calvinist determinism God has certainly ordained the false teachers and their teaching and therefore Moody lacks the rational grounds to level any criticism against the church and believers as if things should not be what they are.  He states, “We wouldn’t call anyone a heretic, and we wouldn’t describe anything as wrong, bad, or evil.”  But why should we when God has predetermined, caused and is therefore responsible for the heresy, the wrongs, the bad things and the evil.  Who are we, and who is Moody, to resist God’s will and complain against God glorifying himself is all things – good and evil – which is what Calvinist’s like Moody believe.

What is interesting is that if Moody has correctly interpreted and applied Jude 3 and rightly depicted the situation that confronted Paul in Galatians, then he has undercut his own position of biblical support.  Given his Calvinism, Moody not only lacks rational support for his statements as inconsistent with his theology, but in light of his proposed interpretations here and what he has gleaned from them about earnestly contending for the faith, he also lacks biblical support for his Calvinism.  On Calvinism there is nothing to contend for in the sense of “contention” implying a real change from what otherwise could be, and should be, but is not.  There is no “what otherwise would be” or “could be” or “should be” given Calvinist determinism.  Rightly interpreting Jude 3 and Paul’s attitude and actions in Galatians, these passages contradict Moody’s theistic determinism.  He gets no support from these passages for the Calvinist doctrines of an eternal decree that predetermines all things which renders human freedom and contingency impossibilities and lays responsibility for the presence and doings of error, wrong and evil upon God himself.  Moody’s own interpretation of these passages show his Calvinist determinism to be a serious error.  It appears to me therefore that Calvinism is precisely one of those “matters of faith against which we need to contend.” We know that Calvinism is false precisely because it is in coherent and contradictory. We know that Calvinists misinterpret Scripture because they have adopted a hermeneutic of incoherence, that is, they have let stand interpretive results that prove to be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory. In contrast, a responsible hermeneutic maintains that interpretations and propositions, even in theology, that violate the laws of logic are simply false. Following Moody’s own encouragements above, we need to put aside “evangelical political correctness” and state that for the reasons given above and throughout this website, Moody’s interpretation of Scripture is just wrong. He himself is so “open-minded,” and has had his mind “open” so long to Calvinism that he is no longer affected by his own Calvinist incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions. Moody gives us permission to declare his Calvinism a “false teaching” because as pointed out above, it is self-defeating. He may have his exegesis of Scripture to lean on, but an exegesis that leads us into incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, is a just wrong-headed. Perhaps, therefore, in the spirit of Moody’s own conviction that we need to be “valiant for truth” today, we can honestly conclude and declare Moody’s Calvinism to be heretical.

As regards the gospel, Moody states one way we must “stand up for truth and confront error,” that is, “…to realize that being a little bit off on the gospel matters massively: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump…”[41]  And therefore “…we must make a big deal of the central matters of the gospel…”[42]    Obviously then, Calvinists too should acknowledge that we have a serious problem when there are two mutually exclusive gospels being taught in the evangelical church today. So, which is the true gospel and which is the heresy?

As a non-Calvinist I believe there are eternal destinies at stake in this controversy because when sinners equate Calvinism with Christianity, rather than being drawn by the good news of God’s love for them demonstrated in his gracious saving work on their behalf in the death of Jesus on the cross, they will only be confused and placed in doubt as to the saving disposition of God towards them and whether or not they are among the elect and predestined to salvation or not.  The Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy is a crucial matter for each individual and the evangelical church to come to grips with, that is, assuming that the outcome for each individual and the church has not been predetermined by God.  Question: Do you believe that you make up your own mind in light of the evidences presented to you “for” or “against” a position, or, are you predetermined by God to think as you do on these and all matters?  See how important this issue is.  I assume that if you believe that all things have been preordained and caused by God, then you need not be interested in this issue at all.  It would seem to me that Calvinism naturally breeds indifference, especially to any and all things non-Calvinist.  This makes sense as the explanation of the response of silence that is common from Calvinists to the critiques of their theology.  It would be natural for them to think “Why get exercised over what others are saying.  God has sovereignly ordained our belief in the truth and their belief in error.”

It certainly seems that non-Calvinists have been “taught to be tolerant” of the logical, moral and interpretive incoherence and contradictions that Calvinism generates as identified here in Moody’s own protests.  Therefore, I believe that on rational grounds alone we have warrant for rejecting Calvinism, but that said, exegesis cannot be divorced from rational, clear thinking (i.e., philosophy). Therefore, claims of exegetical support for Calvinism that lead us into incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions must be misinterpretations of the texts, especially when sound alternative exegetical interpretations that are not incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory are being offered. And in that the philosophical cannot be dichotomized from the exegetical in good interpretation there are no exegetical reasons for believing Calvinism is biblical. Calvinism fails on the exegetical and philosophical fronts which are both part and parcel of an intellectually and literarily responsible hermeneutic. Perhaps this is the kind of critique for which “you get kicked out of denominations.”  But I believe that in exposing the incoherence of Calvinism we are being “valiant for truth” today.    

A second way to “stand up for truth and confront error” is “to declare at times the repercussions for deliberately misleading God’s people: “The one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is…”  Moody elaborates.  “…When you stand behind the pulpit, or a lectern, or with the Bible open on your knee in a Bible study group, when you talk with authority over coffee afterwards about some theological matter…when you write books that are creative and innovative – realize that there is a judgment for what we teach.  That is why my main advice to teachers of God’s Word is to be just that.  Do not be a teacher of your own agenda, but be an expositor, and explainer of God’s Word.  Hide behind it and declare it, and let God do with it as he wills.”[43]

I take it that Calvinists sincerely believe the Bible teaches their Calvinist theology and soteriology.  But what of the logical contradictions and moral incoherence their interpretations generate, not to mention the inconsistencies in their preaching and disingenuousness of their evangelism with their foundational deterministic beliefs?  Moody says, “Do not be a teacher of your own agenda, but be an expositor, and explainer of God’s Word.”  But we should ask whether one’s exposition or explanation of a text is truly “God’s Word” when it results in incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions among the various portions of that very same “Word.”  Do such acute difficulties indicate that someone is teaching their “own agenda?’  If Scripture cannot be inconsistent or contradict itself, can we conclude that the Calvinist is deliberately misleading people when they simply ignore these difficulties inherent in their theology and when they speak duplicitously when presenting the gospel – both of which I demonstrate in the many examples I give throughout this site.  I am curious as to how Moody would respond to these questions and issues in his interpretations and hermeneutic.

The non-Calvinist contributors in Grace Unlimited agree with Moody that we should be teachers of God’s Word and not our own agendas.  They rest their theological conviction that God is unqualifiedly good and desires the salvation all sinners upon the words of Jesus and Paul in the Scriptures.  The exposition of the Word of God is primary.  And it teaches that God is good and God is love.  They state,

“The most important theological presupposition of all of us writing in this volume is our conviction that God is good in an unqualified manner, and that he desires the salvation of all sinners.  To each human being God offers forgiveness in Jesus Christ and the gift of sonship.  We delight in our Lord’s word: “It is not the will of the Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt. 18:14).  We reject all forms of theology which deny this truth and posit some secret abyss in God’s mind where he is not gracious.  We consent to Paul’s judgment that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” and to Peter’s conviction that God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9).  If it seems controversial to assert this conviction boldly and unashamedly, then it ought at least to be admitted that here is a truth far more deserving of controversy than many which are debated.  On it hangs, we believe, the validity of the universal offer of the gospel, and the possibility of Christian assurance.  If we do not know that God loves all sinners, we do not know that he loves us, and we do not know that he loves those to whom we take the gospel.”[44]

Moody says “…we must make a big deal of the central matters of the gospel…”[45]  I agree.  But this would seem to require that we make a big deal of resolving the soteriological differences that exists among Christians today so we can come to a conclusion as to which “gospel” is the better interpretation of salvation from the Scripture. Indeed, “…here is a truth far more deserving of controversy than many which are debated.” But the resolution of the debate is not going to be found in the Calvinist or the non-Calvinist forfeiting their “proof-texts.” Neither is it found in their exegesis of the texts, for both sides are convinced that their exegeses are correct. Rather, the crux of the debate is going to be found in coming to a consensus as to whether or not coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential considerations in interpretation and that they are determinitive for discerning the validity of one’s exegeses and interpretive claims. As long as the Calvinist can ignore the logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions that their exegeses and interpretations produce, there will be no resolution to this debate. This is something exegesis will not solve while the Calvinist continues to hold to a hermeneutic in which logical and moral coherence ultimately hold no weight in determining which exegesis better represents what an author meant to communicate by what he wrote. Exegesis cannot provide resolution to this controversy while the Calvinist refuses to submit their exegeses and the theology built upon them to the canons of reason or the laws of logic (e.g., the law of non-contradiction). Exegesis cannot solve a problem that is rooted in explaining away the logical and moral incoherence of one’s exegeses that becomes reflected and magnified in the theology that arises from those exegeses. Once that stance is taken, the Calvinist has in effect adopted a hermeneutic of incoherence in which the fundamental laws of reasoning have been jettisoned from the interpretive process and there is nothing left to adjudicate on the validity of one’s exegetical and interpretive claims. The Calvinist interpretations and theology will just stand on mere assertions of what the text means as read from within the Calvinist’s exegetical meanings which are presupposed to be correct.

Non-Calvinist George Bryson, author of The Dark Side of Calvinism, rightly states,

“If the distinctives of Calvinism are as unscriptural as I believe (and will prove them to be), then Calvinism undermines the scriptural doctrine of salvation (John 5:16-18, 1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:8, etc.).  That being the case, I just cannot leave the matter alone.  By extension, Reformed Theology must also represent a serious threat to at least some of the people for whom that salvation was provided by Christ’s death on the cross (I John 2:2, 1 Tim. 2:5-6, Heb. 2:9, etc.).  The salvation that is provided is also the salvation that is offered to them in a truly scriptural proclamation of the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (I Cor. 15:1-3).”

Bryson continues,

…I would, therefore, be spiritually derelict not to impress upon the reader the seriousness of this misguided, no matter how well intended, theological system called Calvinism.  As most if not all Calvinists will agree, a great deal is at stake in the debate over the issues involved in this controversy.  How we understand the doctrines of salvation and damnation in general, and the gospel of Jesus Christ in particular, is of great biblical, spiritual, and practical importance.  In fact, this is the very argument often used by Calvinists to persuade other Christians to reconsider their non-Reformed views in favor of Reformed Theology.  So Calvinists should not cry foul when their views are subjected to the same scrutiny for reason they feel justified in challenging alternative and competing views.  Besides, those who advocate Reformed Theology are typically not the “can’t we all just get along?” or “you believe what you believe and I will believe what I believe” kind of Christian.”[46]

Therefore we must conclude that the very gospel is at stake here and that in one or the other of these soteriologies and “gospels” we have a false gospel within the evangelical church today.  If that is the case we cannot be indifferent to this problem.

Bryson adds,

…It should, therefore, be emphasized that the doctrinal differences that divide equally sincere and devout believers on both sides of the Calvinist controversy are substantial and serious.  To suggest, as some have, that the differences between Calvinists and other Evangelicals are merely semantic and superficial reveals a serious misunderstanding of the core issues involved in this long-standing controversy…If you grant these two points (i.e., these issues are central and our differences are substantial) and couple them with the also indisputable fact that many Calvinist feel a need to reach out to and into the non-Calvinist world of Evangelical believers, you should understand that there is simply no reasonable way to avoid this controversy.”[47]

So according to some Calvinists, Calvinism is the gospel and it is mutually exclusive of the non-Calvinist content and definition of the “gospel.”  Therefore, the precise content of the central message of the Bible – the “good news” of the gospel – is at stake.

For instance, Dr. Philip Ryken, former senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and now president of Wheaton College, believes that Calvinism is the biblical gospel and longs for it to be the pervasive soteriology in the evangelical church.  Ryken writes,

“The old Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield claimed, “Evangelicalism stands or falls with                Calvinism” (that is, the gospel of grace stands or falls with the doctrines of grace).”[48]

He also states,

                    “We long for the evangelical church to rediscover a theology of grace.  Reformed theology is the system of doctrine that seeks to give God all the glory for his grace in the gospel.  Thus its recovery furthers the greatest goals and the highest of all purposes: the glory of God.”[49]

            Moreover he says,

                    “It is impossible to be jealous for God’s glory without having an equal passion for correct doctrine, because doctrine is what preserves the graciousness of the gospel.  It was said of George Whitefield: “He knew errors in the great truths of the Gospel are not indifferent, but dreadful and fatal; he knew it was not candour and charity to say that errors in judgment are not hurtful, but the greatest unmercifulness and cruelty; therefore he often reproved such sharply.  Whitefield knew all this because he knew the New Testament, in which there is a constant concern for sound doctrine.  From the time of the apostles, the church has been in constant danger of succumbing to the counterfeit grace of a false gospel.  Thus it has always been necessary to teach sovereign grace, as well as to refute all those who oppose it.  As Whitefield rightly understood, defending the doctrines of grace is not simply a matter of duty but also a matter of charity.  The New Testament that preaches the good news about Jesus Christ is the same New Testament that teaches how to defend this gospel against error.  And it does both of these things – preaching the gospel of grace and teaching the doctrines of grace – out of a love for the lost souls of humanity.”[50]

            Note that Dr. Ryken insists, as do non-Calvinists, that correct doctrine is essential, but he also states that Calvinism reflects “the system of doctrine that seeks to give God all the glory for his grace in the gospel.”  He also perceives anything but “sovereign grace” (a euphemism for Calvinism), as “the counterfeit grace of a false gospel.”  Ryken says the New Testament is doing both of these things – “preaching the gospel of grace and teaching the doctrines of grace.”  Unless Ryken is equivocating on the word “grace,” having it mean in the former phrase ‘God’s saving work in Christ intended for all who are undeserving of this love and mercy,’ and in the latter phrase ‘God’s predestination of certain sinners to salvation from among all sinners deserving of his wrath,’ then he must be equating his “doctrines of grace” with “the gospel of grace.”  In other words, according to Ryken, the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” are the biblical gospel and all other soteriologies are false gospels.  Therefore Calvinists are intent upon both disseminating Calvinism and refuting non-Calvinists.

            In stark contrast to this claim the non-Calvinist scholars and contributors to the book Grace Unlimited contend that,

“…we are opposing a powerful effort in Protestant orthodoxy to limit the gospel and to cast a dark shadow over its universal availability and intention, manifesting itself most overtly in classical Calvinism.  This theology which, in its dreadful doctrine of double predestination, calls into question God’s desire to save all sinners and which as a logical consequence denies Christ died to save the world at large, is simply unacceptable exegetically, theologically, and morally, and to it we must say an emphatic “No!”[51]

Calvinists of course say an emphatic “Yes!” to their “doctrines of grace.”  But these non-Calvinist scholars are pointing out the “unacceptable” nature of Calvinism exegetically, theologically and morally.  They see problems in all these areas.  The question will be whether the Calvinist will take the exegetical, theological and moral incoherence these scholars point out on board in their hermeneutic.  Does the incoherence within Calvinism invalidate it as a correct interpretation of Scripture?  The answer the overwhelming evidence points to is “Yes.”  That the Calvinist does not incorporate logical and moral coherence into their hermeneutic and exegesis, but rather explains these away in a question-begging fashion, is precisely the dividing issue between non-Calvinists and Calvinists.  The matter of whether or not logical and moral coherence are essential for discerning valid interpretations of the text needs to be decided upon once and for all.

The Evangelical Church in Intellectual, Soteriological and Gospel Denial

The use of the word “gospel” is of course commonplace in the evangelical church.  It is bandied about in every Bible study, sermon, religious podcast, Christian book and conversation.  There’s much talk about “gospel renewal,” “unity in the gospel,” “gospel ministry,” “the proclamation of the gospel” and there are groups called “The Gospel Coalition” and “Together for The Gospel,” etc.  The preaching and teaching of “the gospel” is the stated goal of evangelical churches and Christian ministries.  But for the most part the meaning of the word is taken for granted and left undefined.  It is one thing for various pastors, teachers, and theologians to use the word, but it is another for them to state what they mean by it.

The point is that further inquiry reveals two very different “gospels” within evangelical Christianity today in the Calvinist and non-Calvinist understandings.  This is of course not new, but I am concerned about our present day lack of awareness and indifference to this matter.  This controversy has profound implications for defining and proclaiming the biblical gospel.  So we need to acknowledge that Christians can mean very different things when they use the word “gospel.”  And to the degree that we cannot reconcile these mutually exclusive meanings, the word “gospel” remains enigmatic in the church.  There are several observations that can be made regarding this problem.

The first is that Calvinists often preach and teach a “gospel” message in outright contradiction with their underlying Calvinist soteriology. They sound just like Arminians. This problem of inconsistency and incoherence between word and theology is important with respect to the intellectual credibility of Christians and the discipline of Christian theology. It is important for presenting an intellectually credible Christian theology to thoughtful unbelievers and believers alike. And to the degree that this inconsistency and incoherence is maintained on the basis that it is what the Bible is teaching, it has implications for inspiration, authority and hermeneutics, that is, for discerning the validity of one’s interpretations.

Secondly, many pastors and teachers who are in leadership positions and Christians attending evangelical churches don’t have any conviction on the matter.  They either have not had occasion to give thought to this issue in their Christian intellectual journey, or worse, they dismiss the issue claiming that we cannot know how Calvinist sovereignty and human freedom can be reconciled or they say it doesn’t matter and will never be figured out this side of eternity.  This is most likely a symptom of the intellectual and spiritual malaise that characterizes the evangelical church today.

Apologist and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig addresses this indifference among Christians today to the issues raised in the Calvinist / non-Calvinist debate and what is at stake in these differences.  A person from the Christian Apologetics Alliance posed the following question to Dr. Craig.

Questioner: “Most of the people in my congregation hold to the belief that one’s views on say Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism – all theological interpretations of God’s sovereignty in regards to freedom of the will – don’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things; that we don’t and can’t know at the end of the day.  And that these issues aren’t even worth discussing or debating.  I’d be interested in hearing Dr. Craig’s response to this emerging viewpoint.”

Dr. Craig: “Well there are several objections that are raised here.  One is that these things don’t matter at all.  Another is that you can’t know the answers. And the third one, finally, is that they are not even worth discussing or debating.

Now the easiest one of those to dismiss is the third one.  That attitude represents a profound anti-intellectualism on the part of these people.  These are certainly worth debating and discussing for no other reason that they’re mind expanding.  They will stretch your mind and your appreciation of God and his truth beyond the normal bounds of the superficial Christian who never thinks about these things.  And so the intellectual exercise of considering these things is worth it even if you cannot come to some final answers.

With respect to whether it matters at all, that seems to me to be, again, pretty false.  I would think that it matters a lot if you have the free will to determine your eternal destiny or if God has predestined you unilaterally to be damned forever.  That seems to me to be just a huge difference in the nature of God – the person you worship and serve.  So I think that it matters a lot in the grand scheme of things theologically.

And as for whether we can know or not, well I guess you won’t be able to assert that until you’ve debated and discussed the issue.  In other words, you can’t say you can’t know the answer to this until you’ve at least tried to find the answer.

So there is either an intellectual laziness being expressed here or a kind of anti-intellectualism that wants to cut off the debate even before its begun. And I think that you can at least know that certain of these options are coherent, that they’re possibilities, and indeed that they’re not implausible.  And that can help to answer important objections to Christianity as well as to illuminate other Christian doctrines, such as I’ve tried to do in my application of Molinism to questions of divine inspiration, perseverance of the saints and so on.”[52]

In affirmation of my main thesis, note that for Dr. Craig coherence is essential for even considering whether a theological position is a possible option. He states, “And I think that you can at least know that certain of these options are coherent, that they’re possibilities, and indeed that they’re not implausible.” Notice that coherence is necessary for an interpretation to even be possibly true. Coherence is necessary for an interpretation to even be considered plausible.

Thirdly, others condone using Calvinist sovereignty or human freedom and responsibility as suits the need of the hour.  As mutually exclusive concepts and soteriologies this is disingenuous and confirms the confusion that exists in the contemporary evangelical church.  For instance, Os Guinness writes,

“Few controversies among Christians are so fruitless as the perennial debate over God’s sovereignty and human significance, and it even pokes its nose into the issues we are discussing here too.  For when we are thinking of cultural change, is the real work God’s or ours, or both?  Overall, it is quite clear that the general discussion of the issue has commonly been unproductive.  Far too many hours have been wasted, far too much ink spilt, and because of the disagreements far too many have dismissed others as not being Christians and have been dismissed by other Christians in their turn.

Some simple truths are worth recalling in order to apply the point to this discussion.  First, the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths, and not just one or the other.  God is sovereign, humans are significant, and it was God who made us so.  Second, history shows equally plainly that human reason cannot explain both truths.  Those who try to do so almost always end up emphasizing one truth to the exclusion of the other, one side majoring on divine sovereignty and the other on human significance.  Third, the lesson of the Scriptures and Christian history is that we should rely firmly on both truths, and apply the one we most need when we most need it.”[53]

The Calvinist definition of “divine sovereignty” as a theistic determinism is presupposed here. And this typical. The Calvinist interpretation of the pertinent texts holds absolute sway in much of evangelical Christianity. This determinism causes the suppression of reason here when Guinness says “that human reason cannot explain both truths.” The problem with this statement is that it both admits the deterministic definition of divine sovereignty while also ignoring the fact of the mutual exclusivity between divine sovereignty and “human significance” or human freedom. To ignore the logical and moral incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions this determinism generates is to embrace a hermeneutic of incoherence. Guinness is clear on this. He states, “…the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths, and not just one or the other.” But to say this about what are clearly incompatible propositions is interpretively problematic. This is not a matter of one’s capacity to embrace biblical mystery. It is a matter of affirming or rejecting that the Bible contradicts itself. It is either to affirm or deny the use of reason and logic in the interpretive task. Guinness’s position also feeds into the false dichotomy of “one side majoring on divine sovereignty and the other on human significance.” But perhaps most disturbing is when Guinness encourages us to apply either of these two mutually exclusive doctrines when needed. He states, that “we should rely firmly on both truths, and apply the one we most need when we most need it.” This is nothing less than theological and ministerial relativism. These incompatible propositions are both “true” and either can be applied as the circumstances demand. But this, to me, is to forfeit intellectual responsibility and interpretive integrity in the search for truth in this matter of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. When we say that the Bible teaches two mutually exclusive or contradictory ideas, it is to tell people that the Bible is confused and that the canons of reason and logic don’t matter here. This “just ignore the apparent contradiction, the Bible teaches both” response is the standard Calvinist approach to the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions their universal divine causal determinism produces.

Fourthly, there is what appears to be a growing clandestine Calvinism.  What I mean by this is the reticence of Calvinist teachers and preachers to make their Calvinism clearly known to those they teach.  There is a growing number of Calvinists who are not willing to clearly state they are Calvinists or preach consistent with their Calvinist theology and soteriology.  This is a concern because it is disingenuous. When these pastors and teachers are asked what they believe about the meaning of a passage relevant to this controversy (e.g., Eph. 1, Rom. 9) or for their soteriological convictions, for them to give a vague, evasive answer when they otherwise hold to a definite position is disingenuous.  If they do not hold a definite position, they should state as much.  It is hypocritical to pretend that you believe something you do not believe, or, not to present your beliefs clearly, or to withhold what you do believe when it is appropriate and necessary to disclose those beliefs.  If a pastor or teacher claims that they believe contradictory propositions, then that too is a serious problem.  It needs to be addressed, not hidden.

Therefore it is incumbent upon us to be engaged at the hermeneutical level to come to the truth of this matter.   It is one thing to state a position and another to justify it. A proposed doctrinal position needs to not only biblically justified (and not by superficial proof-texting), but philosophically and morally justified as well.  The discipline of philosophy, which simply put is the study and practice of what constitutes clear thinking, tells us that two mutually exclusive soteriologies cannot both be true. Both may be false, but they both cannot be true.  This eliminates the “Calviminian” option that so many preachers and teachers would like us to accept on the premise that “the Bible teaches both.”  This only highlights the lack of clear thinking in general in our contemporary evangelical churches, even among our leadership.  But despite clear statements about the incompatibility of Arminianism and Calvinism from both sides, the Calvinist will inevitably backtrack to a “Bible teaches both” position, which is to affirm the Bible contains incoherence and contradiction in its teachings.  They will claim the Bible teaches both a deterministic sovereignty and human freedom, with their deterministic definition of sovereignty being non-negotiable.  But this inevitably sets up incoherence and contradiction in their theology and soteriology.[54]  Therefore, to avoid the appearance of cavalierly violating the cannons of reason, thereby affirming their position to be irrational, they flee to “mystery.”  But because this is a mere assertion, it does nothing to address or explain what remains incoherent and contradictory in their soteriology and theology.  In fact it affirms this incoherence.  For if their position were not incoherent they would be able to demonstrate that it is not and would not have to resort to mystery.  What is not illogical can always be explained.  What is illogical can never be explained.  Therefore, when a position is illogical, accompanied by a refusal to acknowledge or adopt valid logical alternatives, the flight to “mystery” is predictable and inevitable. In the light of a discernible incoherence or contradiction, to assert “mystery” does nothing to prove it is so.  If the position was truly a biblical mystery, there would be no obvious problem in logical or moral reasoning. The issue would not be seen to contain contradictions.  It would just present itself as something beyond our knowing unless supernaturally revealed, not against our reason as God-given.  An example would be how God created all space, time, matter and energy (i.e., the universe) out of no preexisting space, time, matter or energy.  There is no contradiction here, just the inability to comprehend the matter. 

In this controversy theologians are generally too lax in their approach to discerning what makes for an accurate interpretation of the biblical text.  Serious considerations of the laws of logic, philosophical reasoning, apologetic insights and the implications of Calvinism on apologetic arguments are rarely fully incorporated into their hermeneutic.  That is, theologians are prone to ignore the matter of rational and moral coherence as critical to determining the validity of their interpretations.  They tend to engage in exegesis without due consideration as to whether that exegesis creates logical and moral incoherence with other of their exegetical and theological conclusions. Exegetical justifications given for a certain interpretation of the biblical text must include coherent philosophical and moral justifications as integral to a sound hermeneutic. These various elements of grammatical-historical exegesis, logical reflection and moral intuition are all essential to a sound biblical hermeneutic and a thorough exegetical methodology.  They are all indispensable elements in a proper hermeneutic.

I submit that the inclusion of these elements of a sound hermeneutic can advance the discussion and lead us closer to the biblical truth precisely because this is where the problem lies.  If the Calvinist theology creates real contradictions between propositions then logical reasoning demands us to conclude that either both propositions are false or one or the other is closer to the truth.  They cannot both be true.  For too long the evangelical church has tolerated an intellectual relativism that translates into a soteriological relativism.  This stems from an indifference to the life of the mind in the church.  We are just not interested in thinking clearly.  In my experience the common approach is to evade the passages and suppress the questions regarding divine sovereignty, election, predestination, and human freedom.  The evangelical church is in denial on this matter.

I support this contention in my other writings on this site. (Also see my other papers here). But we should ask why the evangelical church is so indifferent to this controversy, especially as it involves the heart of the biblical revelation – the gospel message.  Here are a number of reasons and observations that I believe contribute to this problem.

  1. A de-emphasis on the life of the mind in evangelicalism.  There is a dumbing down of Christian belief within most churches today.  It is marked by an anti-intellectual, non-reasoned faith resulting in favoring personal, subjective, relativistic experience over the pursuit of objective, substantive truth.
  2. A result of this is a lack of theological instruction and reflection in the contemporary church and the Christian life.  Ironically, it is in the Reformed tradition that the life of the mind and theological instruction are still evident and cherished, albeit, because of their adoption of a hermeneutic of incoherence, with erroneous conclusions regarding sovereignty and the gospel.
  3. Calvinists deal with the problematic nature of their theology and soteriology by the suppression of reason.  To avoid the logical and moral incoherence of their theology and soteriology there is a certain type of intellectual reorientation that must occur in order to embrace Calvinism. It requires ignoring what your reason and moral intuition tell you about the incoherence and contradictions generated by the Calvinist doctrines – particularly their determinism. You are required to redefine and accept the contradictions and incoherencies inherent in Calvinism as only “apparent” and affirm them as a “high mystery.”
  4. In the evangelical church today there is a failure to make the search for truth, especially the biblical truth on the message of the gospel, a high priority.  Hermeneutics, exegesis and interpretive skills are not intentionally taught.  Asking what the text “means to me” is the “hermeneutic” of the contemporary evangelical church.
  5. We have not learned how to present a biblically based, substantive, reasoned argument for a position.  Apologetics is not taught in our churches.  This inability to present a reasoned argument on the basis of evidence has led to the prevailing attitude of interpretive and theological relativism.  “Your theology is good for you, and mine is good for me.”  “Your interpretation is fine for you, it’s just not how I see it.”   “Live and let live” prevails.  “Don’t rock the boat” is the common mindset.  “Peace” and “unity” at any cost along with the fear of controversy and division has overtaken the search for truth.  We have not learned the value of controversy or to argue our case on the basis of substantive reasons and therefore we unnecessarily quarrel.  Sadly, if you inquire of your pastors and teachers on these matters, I can almost guarantee the response will either be “the Bible teaches both and this is just a mystery,” or, you will just be ignored.

            Therefore I want to suggest ways of thinking about this controversy that I hope will open new avenues in the debate and bring us closer to its resolution.  A resolution can be had precisely because the competing views are inconsistent with each other.  A resolution can be reached because good philosophical and apologetic thinking teaches us that two contrary views cannot both be true.  I suggest that these disciplines of philosophy and apologetics have not been fully applied to this matter and go a long way to settling the issue without sacrificing biblical exegetical fidelity.  In fact, biblical exegetical fidelity demands them.  To think otherwise would be to propose that good exegesis leads us to conclude that God desires us to believe contradictory things about the central message of the Bible pertaining to His great work of our salvation in Christ.

            Therefore the question before us is “What is the biblical gospel?”  And the answer is going to involve both sides acknowledging that two mutually exclusive interpretations cannot both be true. There is a starting point to answering this question if both sides can agree that the canons of reason must continually apply and play their role as arbiter between such conflicting propositions and doctrines supposedly derived from an exegesis of the text. But it is an established fact that the Calvinist feels free to jettison logical and moral reasoning when these present formidable challenges to the validity of their interpretations. See Chapter 9 – Reason as Problematic for Calvinist Interpretation.

The interpretive incoherence of Calvinism is an issue of intellectual and spiritual integrity.  The nature and weight of the problems Calvinism generates are not non-essential differences between Christians.  Those problems have direct bearing upon whether or not Calvinism is a biblically flawed theology.  I submit that along with the interpreter’s degree of competence in historical-grammatical exegesis, the degree to which an interpreter allows logical, moral and theological consistency to check his interpretations is the degree to which those interpretations will be biblically accurate.  And the degree to which interpreters are indifferent to these, is the degree to which their interpretations and the theologies constructed upon them will lack intellectual and biblical credibility.  In Calvinism, exegesis appears to be held hostage to a presupposed traditional theological position centered in an unalterably deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty.  It is not an exegesis that can stand the test of textual and theological coherence, integrity, integration, and harmony.  As such it contains a deep hermeneutical flaw – that of dichotomizing exegesis from logical and moral reasoning. On this hermeneutic of incoherence there is no way to be assured that any particular text is being correctly understood.

Coherence is the quality of being logical or consistent.  It implies the rational comparison of two or more concepts in the construction of an integrated and unified whole.  It seems that the dividing line for the Calvinist/non-Calvinist controversy is that certain concepts, definitions or principles of coherence are valued differently for inclusion into one’s hermeneutic.  These concepts and principles of coherence are either applied to the interrelation of interpretive conclusions or simply left unapplied and a variety of assertions made to provide some resolution, e.g., mystery, paradox, antinomy, human incomprehensibility, the Bible teaches both, etc.  These are attempts at “explaining” or “rationalizing” the incoherence to preserve the interpretive conclusions and theological constructs built upon them.  Whether or not interpretive conclusions cohere, find resolution, or are simply left in logical and moral abeyance is the major difference between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist hermeneutics.

The Full Revelation of God’s Thoughts and Saving Will for Us “In Christ”

In Christian theology two truths come to the fore in the matter of salvation.  The first truth is the recognition of our need for revelation from God himself to come to fully understand our situation before him.  The second truth is that Christ is the final and ultimate revelation of God to us.  We can only know God through his initiative to make himself known and by how he has ultimately determined to do so “in Christ.”

What makes Christian theology Christian is that we can confidently say that given the history of God’s revelation of himself to mankind, the purpose and fullness of that revelation culminates “in Christ.”  As such, Jesus Christ fully reveals the heart and mind of God towards all of us as sinners, and that revelation focuses upon the cross and therefore what God has done in Christ to accomplish our salvation.  Hence, in the gospel of our salvation we find the central and definitive revelation of God of himself to us as sinners and what he thinks about us as sinners and what he has done for us as sinners.

“The issue of salvation is clearly at the heart of Christian theology…”  

~ Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist

God’s revelation of himself is a revelation of salvation.  This saving purpose of God indicates the nature of God and reveals his salvific thoughts and disposition towards us.  God is our salvation.  He has planned and accomplished our salvation in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is our Savior.  Because of Christ’s death on the cross on our behalf we can be saved.  As sinners, any one of us can appropriate that salvation by faith in Christ. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (Jn. 3:16-18)  All this is encapsulated in the biblical term “gospel” (euangelion), which means “good news.”  It is the word from which we get our designation “evangelical.”

Therefore the content of the gospel message as revelation is of crucial importance.  The content of the gospel as “good news” corresponds with a true knowledge of the thoughts of God towards us.  God is made known to us in Christ.  God’s love is demonstrated to us in the death of Christ on the cross (Rom. 5:8).  Therefore, God’s thoughts towards us are thoughts of love, grace, goodness, and salvation.  Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us and it is He who is proclaimed as the Savior of sinners in the gospel.  We therefore know God and his relationship to us “in Christ” through the gospel message.  We know what he wants us to know in the precise content of that gospel message.  The content of that message is “good news,” therefore it is and remains “good news” for each and every sinners who hears it.

It is therefore imperative that the precise content of the gospel be delineated, understood, preserved, and proclaimed, because God reveals himself and his glory “in Christ” in relation to his plans and purposes for our salvation.[55]  And the gospel of Christ is the essence of what God willed to speak and has therefore spoken to us.[56]  In this sense, to understand and daily live out of the gospel is our greatest need and the essence of the hope of restored relationship with God and others.  The foundation for all of life’s meaning and purpose springs from this one unique message of “good news.”  We can either say with confidence that, “God loves you,” and give hope and meaning to every sinner, including we who believe, for we all need to hear those words of hope and joy. If this gospel is not applicable to every sinner and may be received by any and all sinners, we leave God’s salvific will and disposition towards us as individuals in abeyance, thereby creating doubt and a lack of assurance of God’s love.  Therefore, we have to get the gospel right.

The Spirit as the Spirit of Truth Affirms the True Gospel

The Spirit is the Spirit of truth. (Jn.14:17; 15:26; 16:13; Eph. 1:13; 1 Jn. 4:6; 5:6)  As such, the Spirit cannot affirm a false or inaccurate gospel.  William Lane Craig has said, “The Holy Spirit bears witness to the great truths of the Gospel.”[57]  This is correct.  But note that it is to the great truths of the Gospel to which the Holy Spirit bears witness.  Therefore to the degree that Christians are preaching two incompatible gospels, one or both of them are false gospel(s). As such, that is the degree to which the Spirit is not at work in the false gospel.  To the degree Calvinists or non-Calvinists are inconsistent, incoherent and contradictory in their soteriology and the “gospel” message, is the degree to which the Spirit, as the Spirit of truth, cannot witness to the soteriology or message that is in error.  The Spirit will not be at work in and through a distorted or false message.  To the degree that one’s gospel is no gospel at all, the Spirit of truth cannot be at work in it to draw people to Jesus.  The evangelistic and cultural implications are profound.

We may reflect upon whether or not the present deterioration of our American political and social fabric is directly linked to the rise of a false gospel within evangelicalism today. If, as I contend, that Calvinism is a flawed soteriology and therefore does not consistently reflect the truth of the biblical gospel as truly “good news,” and therefore cannot be put into the service of a truly evangelistic ministry in which “good news” is proclaimed, and this soteriology continues to influence our Evangelical Christian churches, then we will have no true gospel message that the Spirit can affirm and work through in the lives of sinners. The result will be a dearth of gospel truth, the salvation of souls and the changed lives that only the Holy Spirit brings about which in turn would renew our political and social spheres in ethical and moral uprightness. The present deterioration of American culture and civilization may be directly related to the neutralizing of the “good news” and its proclamation due to the rise of Calvinism within evangelicalism.

Calvinists and non-Calvinists both acknowledge the essential role of the Spirit in conversion.  It is the Spirit’s work to convict the sinner of their sin and draw them to the hope of salvation held out to them in Christ.  But there must be a hope held out to them.  The content of what is proclaimed and taught is crucial.  The sinner must hear the great truths of the “good news” as found in Scripture, not a distortion or negation of the “good news.”  Simply put, each unsaved hearer needs to know that God has a loving, saving disposition towards them such that the atonement provided by Christ can be theirs by faith.  If evangelical ministry does not accurately reflect the biblical gospel as “good news” then it is not evangelical and at some point it will hinder the proclamation of “the gospel of Christ which is the power of God unto salvation.” (Rom. 1:16, 17)  God is the God of truth and the Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and therefore God’s Spirit can only affirm the preaching of the truth and the true gospel.  Where the truth is, there the Holy Spirit is at work – and only there.  The Spirit can only bear witness to the true gospel message. 

But how do we come to know the truth of the gospel?  In and through the Word of God.  But that requires that we correctly interpret that Word. And when we handle the Word of God we must not dismiss the role that logical reasoning and our moral intuitions play in the interpretive task.  Calvinist Kelly M. Kapic, author of A Little Book for New Theologians, writes,

“…the Spirit does not work against reason, but rather the Spirit empowers us, in and through our rational faculties, to acknowledge the truth by redirecting us to the trustworthy God as he has made himself known in his Word.”[58]

The Spirit, as the Spirit of truth, cannot sanction the dismissal of logical and moral reasoning from our hermeneutic.  If the gospel is the message of God and the heart of the power and ministry of the evangelical[59] Christian church, it behooves us to ask, “What is the content of the biblical gospel?”  If we find that the Calvinist soteriology produces a definition of “the gospel” that lacks “good news” and runs afoul of logical and moral reasoning, and therefore jettisons these in favor of “incomprehensibility” or “mystery,” then we have good reasons to conclude that the Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace” are no gospel at all.  If the true gospel is the message God uses to convict and draw sinners to himself, let us then be about “defining and defending” the biblical Gospel so that it may go forth in the power of God for the salvation of sinners.  Any other “gospel” (which according to Paul would be no gospel at all) will not do.  As it stands there are two incompatible “gospels” in the church today, which means that something is very wrong with one or the other or both of them.

The first step for the evangelical church to become truly evangelical once again is to acknowledge that there are two diametrically opposed “gospels” in their midst.  One of them cannot be the biblical gospel.  As such, that “gospel” will not be accompanied by the Spirit to any saving purpose, for it is not the true gospel.  Hence, true, Spirit-empowered evangelism wanes.  Whereas when we get the gospel message right, it will be spoken and proclaimed in the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit of Truth will be present to work conviction and hope in the hearts of the hearers.

The Theological and Hermeneutical Divides

And here we have a fundamental theological divide between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  Each holds to a vastly different definition of “the gospel” and what can be known of God’s salvific will for each of us personally and individually.  Therefore, this controversy is important because the precise content of the biblical gospel and its credible proclamation as “good news” is at stake.  There are important evangelistic implications here.  As the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit only accompanies the proclamation of the truth, which would include the true gospel message.  Therefore, the true biblical gospel must be zealously preserved and accurately proclaimed.

Now, at its deepest level, this controversy is rooted in a hermeneutical divide.  It is precisely because of this hermeneutical divide that there is a theological and soteriological controversy between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  Indeed, the theological and soteriological differences have their source in the hermeneutical divide.  The essence of this hermeneutical divide is a follows. Non-Calvinists maintain that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction should be present and are essential evidence that one is correctly exegeting and interpreting a text. These are a necessary condition for claiming that one’s exegesis and interpretation is valid. A proper interpretation of a text results in coherence, consistency and non-contradiction within that text’s immediate context and in relation to the the interpretive conclusions the exegete comes to regarding the meanings of other texts throughout Scripture. Simply put, this is not so for the Calvinist. The Calvinist’s hermeneutic allows for their interpretations of certain texts to exhibit incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction with the clear meaning of other texts in Scripture. I contend the Reformed theological and soteriological “doctrines of grace” cannot provide the logical, moral, epistemological, or biblical coherence that is essential to sound, biblical hermeneutics and indicative of valid interpretation.  They rather produce logical, moral, epistemological and biblical incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions.  And these logical and moral difficulties are very well demonstrated and documented by non-Calvinists in their critiques of Calvinism.  For the non-Calvinist, having identified incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions within Calvinism is sufficient evidence that the Calvinist is misinterpreting Scripture. For the non-Calvinist, interpretations that land us in incoherence, inconsistent and contradictory beliefs are inaccurate interpretations of Scripture. This is not the conclusion the Calvinist comes to when their interpretations are critiqued on these criteria of logical reasoning and moral intuition. At some point the Calvinist must simply ignore their logical and moral difficulties so as to maintain their exegesis and interpretations of the controversial texts (i.e., Jn. 6, Eph. 1, Rom. 9-11, et al.). Rather than return to these texts to investigate whether there are exegetically responsible alternative interpretations that do not lead us into logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions with the clear teachings of other texts in Scripture, the Calvinist ignores these problems so as to maintain their interpretations of these controversial texts. For the Calvinist, the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions generated by their interpretations do not have hermeneutical significance, that is, they do not inform or direct their exegetical or interpretive processes or conclusions. These problems do not move the Calvinist to return to the text with an open mind to see if there are other exegetically responsible interpretations and understandings of these controversial passages that do not lead us into incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction. The non-Calvinist attends to interpretive coherence, consistency and non-contradiction as indicative of interpretive validity while the Calvinist does not. This is the hermeneutical divide.

Therefore, we need to understand the reasons why the Calvinist takes the hermeneutical position that they do. Notice that I am not saying that we need to understand why the Calvinist takes the theological or soteriological position that they do. To that question they they will of course answer that the Bible teaches it. And that, you can see, leads us to the deeper issue of how we can know that the Bible teaches it. It leads us to ask how we know whether or not this Calvinist claim is true. So we need the Calvinist to respond to this issue at the hermeneutical level, that is, to ask them whether or not the incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions that are the result of their interpretations have any bearing on the validity of those interpretations. Can interpretations that are incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory with the clear meanings of other Scriptures be valid interpretations? Are incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction sure signs of misinterpretation? Are coherence, consistency and non-contradiction necessary conditions for an interpretation to be rendered valid? We need to hear Calvinists answer these questions – which are questions about what constitutes a sound evangelical hermeneutic. We need to bring the discussion down from the level of “I believe the Bible teaches it” to “the criteria by which we can know that one’s claim about what the Bible teaches is actually what the Bible teaches.” Are coherence, consistency and non-contradiction among those criteria? These are not merely exegetical questions, they are the hermeneutical questions that dictate how we are to evaluate the validity of one’s exegesis and the interpretations that rest upon that exegesis. What is causing this Calvinist hermeneutic of incoherence? Is such a hermeneutic legitimate? Is coherence a necessary hermeneutical principle for determining valid from invalid interpretations? The issue of whether coherence is to deemed essential to a a sound evangelical hermeneutic or not is one of the most important questions that evangelical philosophers, apologists and theologians need to address. This problem must be resolved because the gospel is at stake.

I do not think Calvinists are pressed sufficiently on this hermeneutical point.  They are not queried as to whether the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions non-Calvinists identify in Calvinism speaks to the validity of the Calvinists exegesis and interpretations of the text.  So the divide lies in whether or not one believes that logical and moral coherence are essential elements in a sound hermeneutic and that interpretations that lead to incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are not valid interpretations of the text.  The non-Calvinist believes such coherence is essential.  The Calvinist does not.  What needs to be pursued further are the reasons why the Calvinist does not.  This hermeneutical problem must be resolved.

Furthermore, Calvinists are wont to point out that ultimately God’s glory is at stake in this matter.  This is true.  Yet God has chosen to glorify himself in Christ who is the very image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).  God’s purpose was to reconcile us to God through his death on the cross (Rom. 5:6-11; 2 Cor. 5:17-20; Col. 1:19-23).  Therefore, it is the true gospel of Christ that reflects back upon God for his glory. And because the gospel is a stake in this controversy, God’s glory is also at stake. This is why we must get the gospel right.  Everything God does brings glory to himself and we ought to take care not to presume he needs us to secure his glory by devising theological hedges that allow no place for a response of the human will to God’s revelation “in Christ.”  Theistic determinism per se does not glorify God. It is not a matter of “the less of man, the more of God’s glory.”  The gospel as “good news,” as God’s ultimate message, reflects who he is in himself, reveals his nature and ways, discloses who he is to us, and establishes our practical relationship to him.  In this God is glorified.  It is incumbent upon us to take care not to devise a scheme of salvation based upon speculations about what it means for God to be sovereign that lead to theistic determinism.  We should think carefully about what it means to glorify God, not circumventing the way God has chosen to glorify himself.  It’s incumbent upon us to take care not to devise a theology of theistic determinism that runs roughshod over other biblical truths by generating logical and moral contradictions and incoherencies.  It is incumbent upon us to admit that when this does happen we have adopted a flawed hermeneutic because it ultimately fosters intellectual confusion, ministerial disingenuousness and theological relativism.

God’s gracious provision of salvation in Christ by faith for a sinful world is the primary focus of the Bible.  One’s hope, meaning, purpose for living, and eternal future are all wrapped up in these soteriological and hermeneutical issues.  A correct understanding of the precise content of the gospel message seems to me to be of utmost importance because it bears upon the ultimate issues of our eternal destiny and the spread of the gospel as “good news” throughout the world in our time, which is the essence of what it means to give God all the glory in salvation.

Critical Hermeneutical Concerns for Reformed Calvinists

To claim certain textual interpretations to be true, there must be a foundational form of reasoning that produces, supports, and justifies those interpretations as valid.  It is essential that the grammatical-historical method of exegesis and interpretation be applied to the biblical texts to arrive at a proper understanding of what the author intended to communicate. But as essential as this method is to proper interpretation, it is only reliable to the degree it also incorporates logical reflection and moral intuition. It is reasonable to believe that an author intends to be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory in what he writes. Therefore, exegeses and interpretations that that evidence incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions would be deemed to be misunderstanding what the author intended to communicate. The grammatical-historical method provides certain safeguards in reading, studying and interpreting the text so that it is not misinterpreted. But surely the grammatical-historical method rightly employed should not lead to understandings of the biblical texts that are incoherent, inconsistent or in contradiction with each other. Grammatical-historical exegesis offers certain safeguards that when applied lead us closer to what the author intended to say. But it is critical to see that the mere use of the grammatical-historical method does not guarantee that there will be a conscious effort put forth to check one’s interpretive conclusions for coherence, consistency and non-contradiction. Whatever it means to apply an interpretive method to a text and to think about what that text means, the process must adhere to sound principles of reasoning.  Therefore, when exegetes interpret various texts in ways that generate incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction one’s exegesis must be assessed or reassessed at a more fundamental hermeneutical level.  That level involves the hermeneutical principles by which we discern authorial intent. Among those principles are logical or philosophical reflection and moral intuition. These are not only fundamental to proper interpretation, but to the very nature of thought itself. We cannot reason without them, and therefore we cannot interpret in disregard of them. I submit that any hermeneutic worthy of our attention must incorporate logical and moral coherence.  I contend that the root problem in this controversy is that the Calvinist refuses to embrace a hermeneutic of coherence.  Calvinists dichotomize exegesis from the deliberations and deliverances of logical or philosophical reflection and moral intuition. They therefore ignore the force of the critique these level against their exegeses and interpretations. As fundamental to proper interpretation and reasoning itself, the Calvinist’s dismissal of the essential canons of reason and our moral sense as determiners of invalidity of their interpretations is the root cause of the Calvinist/non-Calvinist controversy. 

If the Calvinist exegetical assertions produce identifiable and real incoherence, inconsistency, or contradiction (that is, they are not of the nature of biblical mystery, paradox, apparent contradictions, antinomy, etc.), and if they conflict in so many ways with the clear meaning of other texts and established theological truths, how is it that those assertions, propositions and interpretations can be biblically accurate?  I contend that we have no more fundamental way of processing a written text, even if divinely inspired, or discerning the validity of an exegesis, interpretation or theological paradigm, or for that matter engaging in rational inquiry and discussion on these matters, than on the basis of what is rationally coherent, consistent, and non-contradictory.  Indeed, a sound biblical hermeneutic requires rational and moral coherence.  When something can be shown to be contradictory, it has therefore also been shown to be false. The rules of logic and our best moral intuitions must apply to determine the validity of interpretations and propositions – even in “spiritual” matters.  We need to abide by logic to meaningfully discuss or determine the truth about anything.

Furthermore, if logical and moral reasoning are integral to a sound hermeneutic, then resorting to “antinomy,” claiming that this is a “high mystery”[60] beyond the capacity of fallen human reason to comprehend, asserting “apparent contradiction,” and concluding that to question the Calvinist soteriology indicates sinful pride or a lack of faith and humility, all constitute a premature dismissal on the part of Calvinists to what amount to actual misinterpretations of the text. Moreover, as to whether the Calvinist interpretations are actually what Scripture teaches, these “explanations” are question begging and ad hoc.  They offer no defense of the interpretations but merely presuppose the truth of those interpretations, and that is to beg the question, because the question before us is how we can discern and know a true or valid interpretation from a flawed or invalid one. When one’s interpretations produce identifiable rational and moral incoherence and the response to that incoherence amounts to a refusal to address whether such incoherence bears upon discerning the validity of the exegesis that produced the incoherent interpretations, then this refusal is evidence of, not exegesis, but eisegesis.  It is evidence of an a priori belief that one’s theological paradigm just is the teaching of Scripture and allowing that paradigm to take precedence over any logical and moral incoherence that paradigm produces.  At that point it becomes necessary to read one’s theological doctrines into the text, rather than glean the author’s coherent meaning from the text. For the Calvinist incoherence has no hermeneutical weight for determining the validity of their interpretations.

Professor of New Testament Interpretation A. Berkeley Mickelsen writes,

               “Because valid and invalid propositions often lie side by side in theological formulations, it is easy for us to allow our views in theology to control our interpretation and exegesis rather than to let our interpretation and exegesis control our theology.  Theological principles which affect the interpreter must be examined as objectively as philosophical principles.

               If the interpreter is convinced that his influencing framework is the right one and should influence him in his interpretation, then he must be prepared to establish the correctness of his controlling framework.  He must not only know its basic premises, but he must be able to show that none of these premises is in the least bit contrary to the major emphases and assertions of Scripture.  This will make the interpreter aware of the factors influencing his thinking.”[61]

            To the degree that Calvinists cannot relieve the contradictions within their theological position, is the degree to which they are being pressed and influenced by their theological formulations and framework.  The Calvinist’s theology of universal divine causal determinism controls their interpretation and exegesis rather than letting interpretation and exegesis control their theology.  How do we know this is so? Because the Calvinist must be “prepared to establish the correctness of his controlling framework.” But this he cannot do because he jettisons the laws of logic and moral intuition necessary for establishing correctness when his interpretations prove to be incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory. They are incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory because of his theistic determinism. The Calvinist “must be able to show that none of these premises is in the least bit contrary to the major emphases and assertions of Scripture.” But the Calvinists “controlling framework” – again, his theistic determinism – is the cause of contradictions with “the major emphases and assertions of Scripture.” And the Calvinist’s “basic premises” allow for these contraries, and these contraries are acceptable within their hermeneutic.  Mickelsen says we know that the interpreter is being wrongfully influenced when the interpreter’s premises can be shown to be “contrary to the major emphases and assertions of Scripture.” An “influencing framework” is the right one when it does not lead to contradictions with “the major emphases and assertions of Scripture.” The Calvinist’s “influencing framework” which is theistic determinism, is the wrong one because this is precisely what it does. It creates incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in and among the Scriptures.  

            New Testament professor Glenn Shellrude writes,

               “…theological determinism conflicts with the natural, intuitive reading of so many Scriptural texts.  A good hypothesis is one that accounts for the largest amount of data with the fewest number of residual challenges.  It is not the case that reading the New Testament within the framework of theological determinism creates the occasional tension that may require a somewhat counterintuitive interpretation of scattered texts.  The challenges are monumental in that a Calvinist reading requires counterintuitive and ahistorical interpretations of thousands of texts and many different kinds of material.

               A Calvinist reading of the various kinds of New Testament material discussed in this paper is in the end an exercise in eisegesis on a grand scale which in turn generates an enormous amount of textual destruction.  One must impose a deterministic theological framework on texts through the use of consistently counterintuitive and ahistorical interpretive strategies.”[62]

            This is precisely the situation Calvinism finds itself in.  It is characterized by incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction with other clear texts, doctrines, emphases and presuppositions that make up the teachings and worldview of Scripture. Calvinism cannot, as Mickelsen put it, “show that none of [its] premises [are] in the least bit contrary to the major emphases and assertions of Scripture.”  Rather, Calvinism is steeped in such incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions. Now, if the Calvinist cannot extricate his exegeses and theology from its logical and moral difficulties, the Christian student should be aware that the Calvinist is reading their theological framework, which they presupposed to be true, into the text (i.e., eisegesis).  But a good hermeneutic requires that the Calvinist go back to the text to seek interpretations that are coherent within their context and with the broader scope of the biblical witness.

Therefore, Calvinists must reckon with first things first.  The first issue for the Calvinist to decide is whether coherence is essential to a sound, biblical hermeneutic.  They must answer the question whether interpretations and theological constructs that manifest verifiable incoherence and contradiction are valid interpretations of the biblical text.  If they wish to defend the position that an incoherent or contradictory theology can be a true and accurate interpretation of the biblical text, then they must explain on what basis that can be so.  If they wish to defend the position that their theology is not incoherent or contradictory then they would have to provide arguments as to why that is the case.  They would have to explain how the contention that Calvinism contains incoherencies and contradictions is misconceived.  The Calvinist’s attempt at a philosophical explanation via their compatibilism only eventually raises the same problems of incoherence and contradiction their theistic determinism creates with human freedom and responsibility. In addition the Calvinist’s flight to mystery only seems to confirm that their theology is incoherent and contradictory.  The flight to mystery is insubstantial and therefore of no help in convincing us of the biblical truth of the Calvinist theological and soteriological doctrines.

If logical and moral coherence can be put out of court in determining the validity of an interpretation, then what makes those interpretations and the theology built upon them more than mere assertions about the meaning of a text?  Can one claim their exegesis confirms their interpretative conclusions? What do we do when there are differing exegeses with differing conclusions? Is one’s exegesis not subject to logical and moral coherence, consistency or non-contradiction? What kind of exegesis is it that lands the exegete in logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction? The point is that whoever is exegeting the text and deriving from their exegesis what they claim is the definitive meaning of the text, must also do so without incoherence, without inconsistency and without contradiction. To do otherwise is just to demonstrate that the text has been misinterpreted. Are incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory interpretations really Christian “mystery” or a Calvinist display of “faith” and “humility” in light of the “incomprehensibility of God and his ways?” Can the Calvinist so easily dismiss their theological incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions?  Do coherence, consistency and non-contradiction play no role in determining the validity of one’s interpretive claims? The Calvinist would have to tell us why they don’t.  Can it substantially be argued that what shows itself to us as a real contradiction is actually only an “apparent” contradiction? The Calvinist would have to explain why that is the case.  For the Calvinist to merely assert “that is what Scripture teaches,” is to beg the question and indict Scripture in their contradictions.  Is a valid biblical hermeneutic one that is at liberty to dismiss the very foundations of all valid logical and moral reasoning in the name of the “spiritual” or inspired nature of the text we are interpreting?  The Calvinist would have to justify such a hermeneutic.

            The Calvinist’s problems are exacerbated by their own admission of substantial logical and moral difficulties in there theology while maintaining that their doctrines are the correct understanding of the Bible.  This is to state that the contradictions arise from the Bible itself.  But this is also to say the Bible contains an incoherent message.  It is to indict the Scripture as incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory.

Many evangelical Christians retain the influence of Reformed Calvinist interpretation believing it to be the inescapable meaning of certain biblical texts despite the fact that such interpretations generate serious problems of rational and moral incoherence with other biblical teachings.  But the need to resolve the problem by what many label a “tension” between sovereignty and human freedom only presupposes the Calvinist’s deterministic definition of sovereignty.  But raises a crucial prior question that needs to be addressed.  That is, are the Calvinist interpretive claims about the nature of divine sovereignty being a universal divine causal determinism correct?  Is this the biblical definition and teaching on God’s sovereignty?  We need not presuppose that the Calvinist definition of sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism is the biblical definition.

Calvinists hold to their deterministic sovereignty while also affirming human freedom and responsibility because they believe the Bible teaches both.  They state the Bible teaches that both God’s comprehensive, deterministic sovereignty and man’s free-will are genuine realities.  Some Calvinists claim these are ultimately logically and morally compatible if we could only understand things as God does.  Other Calvinists “bite the bullet”, admit to the contradiction, and deny human freedom.  I will examine how this “tension” is supposedly alleviated by Calvinists, but I simply note here that it is proposed that even though the doctrines are expounded in contradiction with each other, the Calvinist maintains that such an exposition is divine revelation on the matter.  I am simply stressing here that if this is at all troubling for the Calvinist, it ultimately does not cause the Calvinist to question their exegesis. Their theological incoherence and contradictions do not have interpretive or hermeneutical significance.

Calvinists obviously feel the force of the logical and moral difficulties of their interpretative conclusions.  This is evidenced by their not only admitting to these difficulties, but also in their attempt to avoid what follows from their logical and moral difficulties, that is, the conclusion that Scripture is self-contradictory.  In addition, when the Calvinist states that the Scripture cannot contain a contradiction, they are implicitly affirming the abiding truth, inviolability and utility of the canons of reason – the same canons of reason they do not find to be interpretively significant. Since the Scripture cannot be contradictory, and the Calvinist’s interpretations present themselves as contradictory, they attempt to divert us from that conclusion by asserting that what we perceive as a contradiction here is only “apparent” and not real.  But this is another, more explicit admission that the canons of rationality cannot be circumvented.  So we would think that the Calvinist is saying that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential to good interpretation.  Hence, they present a confusion here.  Calvinists seem to recognize that non-contradiction is essential in interpretation so they will assert that the contradiction their deterministic sovereignty generates is only an “apparent” contradiction.  But why is it only “apparent?”  The answer must be because Scripture cannot contradict itself.  But what kind of interpretive principles allow for an interpreter to produce interpretations that contradict each other and then label those contradictions only “apparent?”

This certainly seems to amount to a subterfuge from the inescapable demands and validity of reason in the interpretive process.  To say that my interpretations produced what only appears to be a contradiction is merely a bald assertion.  Can it be that we don’t know a true contradiction when we see it?  Why not?  There must be something about the relation between the two theological propositions that strikes us as contradictory.  Are we incapable of sufficiently discerning a real contradiction and the full implications of what is being said in the Reformed position?  It does not seem so.  It seems rather that we fully recognize the contradictory nature of the Calvinists exegetical conclusions.  It is claimed that God has indeed predetermined all things, and yet this only appears to be incompatible with the biblical witness to human freedom, contingency, potentiality, possibility, moral responsibility, etc., which involve human choices and decisions.  How so?  Is this simply a problem of “appearance” or is it real contradiction?  How would we know?  And would it make a difference if it was a real contradiction and incoherence?  Why not?  Can contradictory concepts both be true?  Yes?  No?  How would we know?  Calvinists need to answer these questions.

            When we dig deeper into the Reformed Calvinist teachings we begin to realize that the logical, moral, and epistemological implications are too overwhelmingly problematic to be ignored.  How does a sinner know they can be saved and whether the so called “believer” is really saved given a premundane decision of God to choose some and not others to salvation – a decision none are privy to?  Do they know this by their present personal experience?  Is present personal experience reliable in these matters?  Is it lasting, or might it be temporary?  How do the Calvinist doctrines affect the definition, content and proclamation of the gospel message?  Does Calvinism raise more questions than it could ever possibly answer?  It seems so.  Why does God choose one person for salvation and not another?  Can this be “for reasons known only to himself” given what we know about the nature and character of God through his own revelation of himself in Scripture?  Who has he chosen?  Are those the one’s he loves?  Doesn’t God love all persons?  If not, why not? In what sense can it be said that God “loves” the non-elect?  What is his salvific disposition and will for me?  Am I included in God’s salvation plan?  Does he make a sincere and genuine offer of salvation to all?  What are the existential implications for my life if I cannot be absolutely assured that God loves me and desires good for me; a good that can be obtained and realized?  How am I to respond to God in love and trust without a sure knowledge of his kind and loving disposition towards me?  How would the thought that God has predestined some people to eternal damnation affect my perception of others and my actions towards them?  Does my life have value to God?  How can I know?  What is the purpose of my life?  In what is my purpose grounded?  How does God perceive human persons if He has created many for the express purpose of consigning them to eternal torment forever separated from him in hell?  What does this tell us about God’s nature and character?  Is that consistent with what the Bible tells us about God?  What is the definition of “the gospel” on Calvinism? Does the Calvinist soteriology contain “good news?” If so, how so? On Calvinism, not only do questions abound, but incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions also abound.

            The challenge the Calvinist has is to answer these questions without cavalierly fleeing to mystery or presenting answers that only produce more incoherence.  Indeed, if mystery or further explanations that only in the end prove themselves to also be incoherent are the only options for the Calvinist, is this not a sure sign that Calvinism is a fundamentally flawed interpretation of Scripture? The important point to grapple with is whether interpretations that raise the amount and type of negative logical, moral and existential issues that we find in Calvinism can be valid interpretations.  The subsequent concern is going to be whether the Calvinist’s answers to these questions are going to evidence further incoherence and question-begging, or whether they can produce answers that are intellectually and morally convincing.

The Calvinist usually dismisses most of these questions that have to do with the crucial issues of life under the catch-all of “high mystery.”  It is suggested that the whole sovereignty / free-will complex is beyond human reason in that it cannot be fathomed by the sinful human mind.  But does Scripture bear this out?  If God’s moral nature is not known by analogy with what we know to be moral, just, and good, then the status of one’s relationship to God is beyond knowing and God’s character is not immutable but arbitrary and capricious.  The foundation for intellectual, emotional and psychological peace and stability that can only found in the assurance that God is loving and good to all he has made is undermined.  Furthermore, the true nature of God himself would be beyond our knowing.  If the very revelation of God is logically and morally inconsistent with how we think and what we know of love, goodness and justice then I cannot know God’s disposition towards me; whether it is kind or evil.  What is contrary to our moral reason places beyond us any valid and reliable knowledge about what God is really like.

Reformed Calvinism requires us to think about God in these terms.  But we are left with what C. S. Lewis called an “omnipotent Fiend.” [63]  This perplexing, conflicted, existentially insufficient portrait of God that Calvinism provides seeks grounding in the assertion that God as “good,” but that assertion of what is “good” is in conflict with what we know as good and what the Bible tells us about God’s goodness.  It is an unbiblical portrayal of God.  It is also in conflict with our own existential knowledge and practice of goodness and justice which we are to extend to all others of our race as reflective of the both the nature and scope of the goodness and justice of God himself.  Hence Calvinists must assume for themselves a God of a different type.  He is a lopsided, “asymmetrical” God – revealing his will to us when he himself is secretly willing the opposite.  Calvinists therefore suppress the negative implications of their theology and embrace a God who is at least kindly disposed towards them, loves them in Christ Jesus, and presume that He has elected them to salvation.

If we can conclude that God, because of his nature as a rational being, did not and could not incorporate into the fabric of his world real contradictions with respect to his own saving plans and purposes, this eliminates the Calvinist’s theistic determinism and soteriological doctrines, especially that of unconditional election, as being accurate interpretations of the relevant texts. Because no such logical or moral distortions exist in the nature of God himself, there is therefore no such distortions in his inspired Word as we find in the Calvinist’s interpretation of it.  God is the source of logical reasoning and moral standards, therefore logical and moral consistency reflect the will and ways of God.  In other words, God is consistently loving, just, merciful, compassionate, wise, faithful, and true.  Therefore God’s world and his revelation would be inherently coherent, consistent and non-contradictory because of the very nature of God himself.  Here we must distinguish between true biblical mystery and faulty interpretive propositions disguising as “mystery.”  For instance, there is a genuine soteriological “mystery,” which has now been disclosed, in that the Gentles “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13) and “are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6).

There are other biblical “mysteries,” such as the triune nature of God and how God created something from nothing that are known only upon divine revelation, yet these mysteries are oriented to the nature of God himself, they do not constitute contradictory theological propositions supposedly gleaned from that same revelation. Calvinist “mysteries” are erroneous interpretations of the Bible and not true biblical mysteries precisely because they render the revealed truths and teachings of Scripture incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory. They are not things beyond reason but against reason. As such, these “apparent” incoherencies and contradictions are demonstrated to be very real incoherencies and contradictions. Therefore, it is intellectually and spiritually unsatisfactory to claim that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” to justify interpretations and a theology produces logical contradictions and moral inconsistencies among biblical themes and doctrines. Granted, whether or not these issues present real contradictions has to be demonstrated, but surely whenever biblical interpretations and theological models strike us as logically inconsistent and contradictory, it is incumbent upon us to seriously question and examine those interpretations and models. Such is the case with Calvinism.

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Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 17.

John MacArthur, The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007) p. xxv


[1] “Peterson and Williams, Not an Arminian, 161.  To restate an earlier point, this is a mainstream Calvinist position, not some extreme “hyper-Calvinism.”

               Glen Shellrude, “Calvinism and Problematic Readings of New Testament Texts Or, Why I am Not a Calvinist,” Grace for All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation, Clark H. Pinnock and John D. Wagner eds., (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 31-32.

[2] Glen Shellrude, Grace for All, 45.

[3] Glen Shellrude, Grace for All, 46.

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

[5] Glen Shellrude, “Calvinism and Problematic Readings of New Testament Texts Or, Why I am Not a Calvinist” in Grace for All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation, Clark H. Pinnock and John D. Wagner, eds., (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 46-47.

[6] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1961), 21.

[7] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1961), 10..

[8] Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), xi.

[9] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1961), 117-118.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11] Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), x – xi.

[12] Jerry L. Walls & Joseph R. Dongell, Why I am Not A Calvinist, (IVP: Downers Grove, 2004), 18.

[13] “Atonement for All: 1 Tim. 2:1-6 with David Allen.  “Soteriology 101” podcast with Leighton Flowers.  (1:05:12 – 1:05:44).  Last accessed June 13, 2018.

[14] Ibid., (1:05:44 – 1:06:48).

[15] Ibid., (1:07:04 – 1:07:35).

[16] R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), 39.

[17] D. A. Carson, “Church, Authority in the,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 249.

[18] D. A. Carson, “Church, Authority in the,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 251.

[19] Ibid., 251.

[20] John MacArthur, “Social Justice and the Gospel, Part 2,” Sept. 2, 2018.  From the “Grace to You” website’s transcript of the sermon which is incomplete and edited.  Last accessed Nov. 13, 2018.

[21] On Calvinism, we must accept that the eternal destiny of each person has already been determined by God.  Nothing can alter that eternal decree.  As Calvin states,

               “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man.  For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.  Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. – John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 926.

[22] Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) pp. 16, 17.

[23] C. H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sovereign Grace Sermons (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1990), 129.

[24] John Piper, Tulip, The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Salvation (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethlehem Baptist Church, 2000), back cover.

[25] H. Hanko and H. C. Hoeksema and J. Van Baren, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Mich.: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1976), 45.

[26] Professor David J. Engelsma, A Defense of Calvinism as the Gospel (South Holland: The Evangelism Committee, Protestant Reformed Church).  Retrieved May 11, 2004, from

[27] Arthur C. Custance, The Sovereignty of Grace (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979), 302.

[28] George Bryson, The Dark Side of Calvinism: The Calvinist Caste System (Santa Ana, Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2004), 37, 39.

[29] Professor David J. Engelsma, A Defense of Calvinism as the Gospel (South Holland: The Evangelism Committee, Protestant Reformed Church).  Last accessed March 15, 2018, from

[30] Professor David J. Engelsma, A Defense of Calvinism as the Gospel (South Holland: The Evangelism Committee, Protestant Reformed Church).  ).  Last accessed March 15, 2018, from

[31] J. I. Packer, “Arminianisms,” in Through Christ’s Word: A Festschrift for P. E. Hughes, ed. W. Robert Godfrey and Jesse L. Boyd III (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 1985), p. 121.

[32] Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not An Arminian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 9.

[33] D. A. Carson in the Foreword of Greg D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 13-14.

[34] Note that Carson does not use the phrase “good news” here.  My contention is that the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” are not the gospel and cannot be put in the service of true “evangelism” precisely because there is no news in them to be proclaimed that is distinctively good.  Indeed, Calvinists not only default to a non-Calvinist theological perspective in their regular preaching and teaching that is inconsistent with their underlying Calvinist doctrinal position, but they also default to a non-Calvinist gospel message when teaching or preaching directly about the gospel or evangelizing.  I submit, therefore, that it is Carson’s own soteriology that cannot accurately reflect the meaning of the term “evangelical.”  It is the Calvinist that does not have any legitimate right to be called “evangelical” because it is they who in light of their “doctrines of grace” have no “good news” to give.

[35] “Mohler: Southern Baptists Need ‘Table Manners’ When Discussing Calvinism” by James A. Smith Sr., Southern News, Nov. 15, 2013.  Last accessed 5/18/2018.

[36] Eric Hankins is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Fairhope, Alabama.  He is also the author of “An Introduction to “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” which outlines the non-Calvinist (Traditionalist) position on salvation in contrast to the Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  Last accessed 5/18/2018.

[37] “Mohler: Southern Baptists Need ‘Table Manners’ When Discussing Calvinism” by James A. Smith Sr., Southern News, Nov. 15, 2013.  Last accessed 5/18/2018.

[38] That is, only if one values consistency between their soteriology and their message.  But what of the Calvinist that preaches a non-Calvinist gospel message?  Of course the Calvinist would never attempt to justify inconsistency between their soteriology and their gospel message, rather, my observation is that they “explain” away the inconsistency as “mystery” –  that the Bible teaches both theistic determinism and human responsibility and proceed to ignore the problem of inconsistency and contradiction.

[39] For instance, while addressing the subject of victimhood in his series of sermons on “Social Justice and the Gospel,” Calvinist pastor and teacher John MacArthur stressed the need for each individual to take responsibility for their own sins and not blame others for the things that happen to them or the life circumstances they find themselves in.  They should not look to others as the cause or as an excuse for their own attitudes, desires, thoughts, beliefs and behaviors.  But MacArthur’s call to take responsibility for our attitudes, desires, thoughts, beliefs and behaviors or actions is incoherent with his own deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty.  All Calvinists like MacArthur believe divine sovereignty amounts to a universal divine causal determinism. Given this type of theistic determinism, God’s will is the only reason a person thinks desires, believes and behaves as they do.  That’s just what the Calvinist means by sovereignty.  This of course also applies to one’s salvation and hence to the content of the “gospel.” On Calvinism one is saved because God has unconditionally elected them to salvation.  All others not elected cannot be saved.  But MacArthur insists upon ignoring this fact and presenting life and salvation as if people themselves are responsible for what they do despite the fact that MacArthur believes that God has predetermined every person’s thoughts, desires, attitudes, actions and eternal destiny.  He argues that this victim mentality is antithetical to the gospel because the gospel requires that people acknowledge that they are sinners rather than passing their sin off onto someone or something else.  He writes,

               “So I’m not arguing that people aren’t victims; they are, we all are to one degree or another, because it’s a fallen world. And I’m not arguing that we don’t have a responsibility to be kind, we do; and to give mercy and justice and love and compassion, even sacrificially, doing good to all men. What I’m saying is that while we show sympathy – and even God shows a measure of sympathy – don’t think for a moment that that is going to be transferred over to how God deals with a sinner who doesn’t repent and come to Him for forgiveness. Our message to the sinner is, “I want to do what I can to relieve your suffering, if that’s possible; but I’m much more concerned about the eternal suffering that is awaiting you. And God will not be merciful to you unless you have come to Him to receive forgiveness of sins. That only happens through the gospel through the Lord Jesus Christ.”

               So while so many evangelicals are happy to show sympathy and kindness toward those who feel like they are victims, there are many real victims and there are a lot of artificial victims; but while we want to show them kindness we have to remember God will show no [sic] mercy to any sinner who rejects Him and rejects His gospel and rejects His Son. And sooner or later in our acts of mercy we need to address the issue of sin and death and eternal judgment in hell. Whatever your circumstances are, whether you have lived above the fray, whether you have lived in prosperity and wealth, or whether you have lived in poverty and deprivation, the issue is the sins that you commit, the alienation of your entire being from God is going to send you to hell forever, unless you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are forgiven through faith in Him.”

               The point here is that MacArthur, although affirming Calvinist soteriology, preaches a non-Calvinist message involving repentance as a contingent matter; he warns that God will not show mercy to any sinner who rejects God, the gospel or Jesus; he expresses being “concerned about the eternal suffering that is awaiting you” if the sinner doesn’t repent; that God will be merciful if the sinner comes to receive forgiveness of sins, and that “God is going to send you to hell forever, unless you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are forgiven through faith in Him.”  The contingent nature of this presentation is more in accord with an Arminian, Traditionalist or Provisionist understanding of the gospel.  MacArthur completely ignores his own deterministic soteriological “doctrines of grace” because he knows that they cannot be put into the service of evangelism on the basis of the gospel being “good news.”  There is no “good news” in Calvinist soteriology.

John MacArthur, “Social Justice and the Gospel, Part 4,” Sept. 23, 2018. From the “Grace to You” website transcript which mostly is not a word-for-word transcription of the sermon but seeks to give the substantive content of the message throughout.   Last accessed on Nov. 13, 2018.

[40] Josh Moody, No Other Gospel: 31 Reasons from Galatians Why Justification by Faith Alone Is the Only Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 218-219.

[41] Ibid., 220.

[42] Ibid., 221.

[43] Ibid., 222.  And the incoherence here is that Moody is teaching that the nature of the reality that God uses to accomplish a universal divine causal determinism is contingent, that is, the means by divine determinism is brought about are characterized by real contingency.  As such, the means are incoherent with the ends.  If in the end all is explained by universal divine causal determinism there is no such thing as contingency.  There can be no contingent “means” that bring about an absolute determinism. On Calvinism it is hard to see how it is coherent to say that “there is a judgment for what we teach” when “what we teach” has been determined by God.  Moody’s statements only make sense from within a non-Calvinist theological framework. Calvinism is untenable and unliveable, and these are sure signs that it is false.

[44] Clark H. Pinnock, “Introduction,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 11.

[45] Ibid., 221.

[46] George Bryson, The Dark Side of Calvinism: The Calvinist Caste System (Costa Mesa: Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2004), 23-24.

[47] Ibid., 24.

[48] Phillip Graham Ryken, What is a True Calvinist? Basics of the Reformed Faith Series, (Phillipsburg: Puritan and Reformed Publishing, 2003), 7.

[49] Ibid., 29.

[50] Ibid., 29.

[51] Clark H. Pinnock, “Introduction,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 12.

[52] William Lane Craig Podcast, “Questions from Facebook, Part 1,” Time: 3:20 – 6:31.   Last accessed 6/27/2018.

[53] Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 90-91.  (Italics mine.)

[54] To hear an example of the intellectual and emotional disequilibration inherent in Calvinism listen to Leighton Flowers’ critique of John Piper’s teaching on irresistible grace.  Last accessed on Jan. 1, 2018.  Leighton Flowers’ website provides excellent, studied, fair-minded and substantive critiques of Calvinism.  The strength of many of his critiques lies in hearing Calvinist’s explain their views in their own words while Leighton provides detailed comments and teaching on an alternative non-Calvinist position that he calls “Traditionalism,” and more recently “Provisionism.”

[55] See John 1:14; 12:23, 27-32; 13:31-32; 14:6-14; 16:14-15; 17:1-5, 10, 20-24; 21:19; Heb. 1:3.

[56] Heb. 1:1, 2.

[57] William Lane Craig states, “…the Holy Spirit bears witness to the great truths of the Gospel. So how do we find out what those truths are? Well, they are in God’s Word. So God’s Word is the medium by which we learn these truths, and then it is the Spirit that bears witness to that truth. Just like in your experience! You heard this, and I am sure it impressed itself upon you somehow as true, that this is really the Word of God that is speaking to me. The assurance doesn’t come from the Word. It comes from the Holy Spirit who bears witness to that Word. The Word is what gives you the content. It is the medium. But then it is God’s own Spirit that bears testimony to the truth of that. That is why the proclamation of the Gospel and the Word of God is so important because it will be the medium by which we will learn about these truths that the Spirit bears witness to.”

– William Lane Craig, Defenders 3, Excursus on Natural Theology, Part 4.  Last accessed Nov. 9, 2017. 

[58] Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 58.

[59] The word “evangelical,” after all, comes from the Greek euangélion, which means “good news.”

[60] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, ch. III, sect. 8, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 37.

[61] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 18-19.

[62] Glen Shellrude, “Calvinism and Problematic Readings of New Testament Texts Or, Why I am Not a Calvinist” in Grace for All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation, Clark H. Pinnock and John D. Wagner, eds., (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 44.

[63] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 37.

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