In the previous chapters I introduced you to the basic tenets of Reformed Calvinism and the various problems those tenets raise. I also touched upon the Calvinist mode of interpretive thought and their approach to reasoning about the difficulties inherent in their theology. I submit that this reasoning is quite perplexing. In this chapter, along with 9, 10 and 11, I will examine in more detail how the Calvinist reasons about interpretive matters. Indeed, I will examine the seriously troubling Calvinist suppression of reason which is encouraged to get people to embrace Calvinism or remain Calvinists. These chapters contain the crucial evidences and arguments that support my thesis. They provide crucial evidences and arguments against Calvinism. I will attempt to demonstrate that the explanations Calvinists give to justify the logical and moral difficulties of their theology are not only unconvincing but intellectually dangerous. I will also seek to demonstrate why they are hermeneutically unsustainable.
Both the number and nature of the logical and moral problems inherent in Calvinism are obvious to many, including Calvinists. The resolution to those problems is therefore somewhat obvious to most Christians, that is, to embrace the interpretations that are more coherent, consistent, and non-contradictory. Non-Calvinists provide interpretations that are exegetically responsible and hermeneutically sound in that they do not generate logical and moral incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradiction among clear biblical teachings. This is because non-Calvinist reject the Calvinist worldview of universal divine causal determinism. So, in the face of their acute logical and moral interpretive difficulties, why do Calvinists remain Calvinists? I submit to you that it is ultimately because they have a flawed hermeneutic that rejects coherence, consistency and non-contradiction as reliable indicators of the validity of one’s exegesis and interpretation.
It is interesting to observe that Calvinists, practically speaking, are non-Calvinists when it comes to daily living, ministry and evangelism. Listen to any sermon by a Calvinist pastor and you will observe obvious inconsistencies with their deterministic doctrines of the divine decree, sovereignty and unconditional election. Therefore, Calvinist attempts to justify their inconsistencies and contradictions become quite complex and confusing. Many amount to rationalizations that are logically and linguistically torturous. This makes it challenging to identify and untangle the underlying issues in Calvinism and address them because one must decipher not only the definition of their words and the content of their propositions, but also the mode of reasoning by which they defend their doctrines, while all along engaging Scripture on these issues. Therefore, we ultimately must wrestle with the validity of the Calvinist’s approach to biblical interpretation. This is indeed very difficult to analyze due to the Calvinist’s mode of reasoning – logically, morally and biblically. It is that mode of reasoning that produces the division with non-Calvinists. Therefore, I want to examine the Calvinist’s reasoning here. I will expand upon the basic thoughts given in previous chapters and clarify the mode of thinking by which Calvinists defend their interpretations of the Scriptures.
I will first comment on the determinism of Calvinism which is at the heart of the problem Calvinists must attempt to address with further explanations that I will discuss in this chapter. The problem Calvinists must address is how their theistic determinism can be logically and morally compatible with human freedom and responsibility. I will then begin with an assessment of the primary Calvinist attempt to argue that theistic determinism is logically compatible with human free will. That position is called compatibilism. But first, their determinism.
I have shown that Calvinists believe that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” This is what Calvinists refer to a God’s eternal decree. This means that all things, down to the minutest details, are predetermined to occur as they do by God’s will alone. God is the cause of every historical event in every minute detail, which includes every attitude, belief, desire, decision and action, whether for good or for evil, of both men, angels and demons, as well as their eternal destinies. And all this was predetermined before they were even created or born. Note that this would include the thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, desires and actions of Satan himself. Hence, it is God who causes all things to occur according to his predetermined plan. Things must and will occur as God has predetermined. This is also how the Calvinist defines God’s sovereignty. Divine sovereignty equates to theistic determinism. Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig has aptly labeled this view universal divine causal determinism.
Therefore, a central tenet of Calvinism consists in striving to exalt God’s sovereignty, glory and majesty by stressing his absolute control over all creation defined as his predetermination of all things or theistic determinism. When Calvinists speak of God’s “sovereignty” and “control” they mean it in the deterministic sense. For the Calvinist, this definition of God’s sovereignty is a primary and an unalterable doctrine of Scripture.
The soteriological entailments of this determinism should be clearly stated and understood. I have discussed these in previous chapters. What the Calvinist calls their “doctrines of grace” includes their doctrine of unconditional election. Calvinists believe that without consideration of anything apart from God’s will he has chosen certain individuals to eternal salvation and therefore all others, being left in their sin, have been chosen for eternal damnation. Sinners themselves have absolutely nothing to do with determining whether they will spend eternity in heaven or hell. Salvation is not conditioned upon anything persons themselves do, including believing in Christ for salvation. The sinner cannot exercise any personal response of faith in God or Christ in relation to their salvation unless God has predestined them to that salvation, that is, decided to save them. This means that sinners who hear the gospel message have no ability to believe that message unless God himself effectually and irresistibly regenerates them first. He does so only in those he has elected to salvation. This is the doctrine of unconditional election.
Their “doctrines of grace” are expressions of a soteriology consistent with this universal divine causal determinism. Whether it is an expression of the soteriology found in Scripture and how would we know is the question before us.
Therefore, unconditional election is the logical extrapolation of this overarching doctrine of deterministic sovereignty. In turn, limited atonement rests upon unconditional election. Jesus’ death effects salvation only for the elect. This salvation is sovereignly administered only in the elect through an “effectual call” or “irresistible grace.” No man, due to their total depravity which precludes them from responding to the offer of salvation in the gospel message, can repent and believe unless God regenerates them first. Faith is impossible without a prior regeneration. God regenerates only those he has chosen to save. That God, being under no obligation to save any sinner, has predestined the salvation of certain chosen individuals, is an act of grace on his part. Grace, therefore, is defined as God’s premundane decision to save some and not others. Therefore Calvinists describe this deterministic soteriology as “sovereign grace” or “the doctrines of grace.”
Calvinism, in its fundamental theology and soteriology, presents a deterministic worldview. Despite Calvinist attempts to argue otherwise, non-Calvinists are convinced that Calvinism is a theistic form of determinism and therefore has all the incoherencies and contradictions inherent within determinisms per se. Whether naturalistic or theistic, determinisms have insuperable logical and moral difficulties due to the determinism itself. There is no logically coherent way to avoid the conclusion that Reformed Calvinism is a determinism and therefore a fatalistic worldview.
I submit that the fact that Calvinism evidences incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in its textual interpretations, theological constructs, and practical ministry, these are reliable indications that their exegeses and interpretations of Scripture are in error. In that these concerns are ultimately ignored by the Calvinist, I describe their interpretive approach and practice as a hermeneutic of incoherence. I submit that even a cursory examination of Scripture, supported by the observation of human experience, reveals that this comprehensively deterministic understanding of the will and ways of God is logically, morally, and biblically incoherent. It cannot coherently incorporate the full testimony of Scripture to the nature of God and his relation to the world and human beings. But as coherence is indispensable to meaningful thought and theological discourse, it is also indispensable to textual interpretation and hermeneutics. Therefore we must adopt a hermeneutic of coherence as necessary for determining the validity of our interpretations.
I submit that on the basis of a full consideration of the biblical teachings in light of a hermeneutic of coherence we can assuredly say how God’s sovereignty cannot be defined. The biblical teachings on God’s sovereignty, election, predestination, etc. should not be construed as logically and morally inconsistent with other Scriptural truths. Neither should we understand God’s sovereignty to cause a lack of existential assurance regarding the divine disposition and intent to save any of us as sinners. Moreover, we cannot condone the hesitancy and disingenuousness that Calvinist determinism creates with regard to preaching to all persons the gospel message which biblically defined is “good news.” Given the Calvinist’s exclusionary doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement, God’s universal salvific love and Jesus death on behalf of all sinners cannot be proclaimed with honesty and integrity. Therefore, to pit the various biblical doctrines against each other in logical, moral, and epistemological incoherence and contradiction hardly amounts to a hermeneutic worthy of Scripture. In short, biblical divine sovereignty cannot equal determinism.
William G. MacDonald makes the following important observations as to why the Calvinist interpretation of God’s sovereignty is misguided.
“When scripture says God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11), it means that he has no one but himself to consult in matters of decision and is responsible only to himself for what he does. It does not mean that all operation of “will” in the universe is nothing less than the expression of one absolute Will. That would destroy the concept of “person,” since generically there would be only one Will at work in the universe, absorbing all others into itself. God’s will is limited by two factors: (1) his holy, loving nature that determines his will; (2) his granting of miniature sovereignty within the limits of finitude to man. A theology built on the “decrees” of God, that has to be interpolated between the lines of scripture, instead of clarifying God’s plan, ultimately wraps up the will of God in inscrutability. Such unintelligibility of the will of God results in grace being clouded over too. No one can be sure that God indeed loves him, if God has willed by eternal decision to love some and reject others according to an undisclosed schema…The will of God is this: that where sin reigns grace will reign instead. The will of God for man, therefore, is grace. His will is gracious, but grace is not another name for will, much less irresistible will. Grace, having personal dimensions of comity, flows from God’s whole personality to man’s whole personality without violating man’s right by creation to choose his destiny…God has freedom to love man precisely because he is love, and not raw power…God’s sovereignty, therefore, is his administrative role or work to which his nature is perfectly suited. His sovereignty is his rightful relationship to his creation. It is derived from his nature as the One best suited for rule as well as the One whose sole right it is to rule by virtue of being Creator.”
Contrast this with the statements of Calvinist James Montgomery Boice, the late pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He stated emphatically that,
“We can never exaggerate the importance of God’s sovereignty, for God is the greatest of all realities, indeed, the very ground of reality, and sovereignty is the most important thing that can be said about him. The other attributes of God are also important. But if in our minds we ignore, distort, or deny God’s sovereignty, meaning the absolute determination and rule by God of all his works and creatures, God will no longer be God for us. His decrees and acts will be determined by something else, either by mere human beings or by circumstances or by some other cosmic power, and these other things (or nothing) will be our actual God. In order to be sovereign, God must also be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free. If he were limited in any one of these areas, he would not be truly sovereign. Yet the sovereignty of God is greater than any one of these attributes.” (Italics mine)
Pertinent to our concerns here about the role rational coherence plays in proper interpretation we must inquire into whether Boice’s definition of “sovereignty” as a theistic determinism is an accurate biblical definition. How is this to be ascertained? I am suggesting that a critical element in that determination will be the logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical coherence or incoherence generated by such a view. Boice’s sovereignty cannot be left to stand in isolation from other biblical truths like those of personhood and the full complement of the attributes of God that MacDonald pointed out above. The rational coherence of Boice’s “sovereignty,” that is the impact his view has upon the harmony, unity and consistency of the biblical testimony, will determine whether it is a valid interpretation of that testimony. This ultimately involves acknowledging that rational and moral coherence play a critical role in a proper biblical hermeneutic and are reliable indicators of valid or invalid interpretations.
William MacDonald’s interpretation of Eph. 1:11 is placed in context, and that means that it is understood in coherence with other biblical data that needs to be considered. In contrast, Boice’s definition of sovereignty contains a clear non-sequitur and a striving to maintain sovereignty as theistic determinism. The non-sequitur is that if all things are not predetermined by the will of God then he is not sovereign and “something else” will usurp his sovereignty and will be the determiner of all things. How so? For Boice, God’s “sovereignty” is his “absolute determination…of all his works and creatures.” This is a statement of hard determinism. God has either determined all things or the world must be out of his control. To Boice’s mind, if God has not determined all things then God cannot accomplish anything he has decreed or purposed to do. Apart from a universal divine causal determinism, God cannot achieve what he has decided to achieve. But is this an accurate assessment of all the biblical data about the God/world/man relationship or is Boice imposing a default theological paradigm upon us that safeguards God from a supposed “sovereignty of man?” But ironically, according to Boice God is actually less than sovereign. There is one thing that God cannot do, but it is not like those things we know God is not capable of doing given his nature like telling a lie, contradicting himself, creating another God just like himself, sinning, etc. No, it is not one of these types of violations of his nature. According to Boice God cannot create a world in which there resides genuinely free creatures and where all things are not determined by God’s will alone. God cannot do this and still remain a sovereign God.
Note also that Boice includes in his definition of God’s sovereignty the fact of his “rule” over “all his works and creatures.” But what meaning does “rule” have once Boice has established that God has absolutely determined “all his works and creatures?” To “rule” may be construed as introducing a non-deterministic dynamic into the God/world/man relationship – as a good king rules over the subjects in his kingdom. That does not mean nor require that he determine every thought, desire, and action of every one of his subjects – past, present and future. And just because God can do this, where a human king cannot, does not mean God does so. The description of God as ruling or reigning over his works seems, if not merely redundant, void of meaning in a world where all is predetermined. What is there to rule and reign over? Everything functions according to God’s universal causal determinism. All things are pre-programmed and God caused by God to be what they are and do what they do. This may be described as God sustaining his creation, but God ruling and reigning suggest an active participation in a non-deterministic set of affairs involving human creature who have wills of their own with whom God interacts, not only in his sovereignty, but given all of his other attributes.
We should also ask how it is that a “decree” or “act” of God can be “determined by something else.” Boice is afraid that a “mere human being” (human free will), “circumstances” or “some other cosmic power” can thwart God’s plans and purposes or alter a decree or act of God. Surely this is a low view of God and weak view of sovereignty. Boice’s God seems to be incapable of “ruling” apart from guaranteeing his success via his causal predetermination of all things to occur as he wills – past, present, and future. Contrary to Boice’s contention, we non-Calvinists do not desire to “ignore, distort, or deny God’s sovereignty.” We only desire to probe into whether it can be understood as a more coherent concept than Boice offers us while also proving to be a sound interpretation of Scripture. Boice will claim his view comes from Scripture, but you can see then how this becomes a hermeneutical issue when Boice will not consider the incoherence of his view with other biblical truths as an indication that his interpretation is incorrect. The only thing that will alter his interpretation is if he were to agree that incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in interpretation is a sure sign of misinterpretation. Until that happens Boice has no reason to think his interpretation is incorrect. So this controversy is not ultimately a matter of one’s exegesis but one’s hermeneutics.
William MacDonald provides the following insight regarding Calvinism’s emphasis on the primacy of the will of God determining all things.
“In the non-Christian religious world Islam (lit., “surrender”) is a most pronounced exemplification of deterministic theology. Islamic theology makes the supreme will of Allah the all-important determinant of the affairs of men, and the Spirit of God seems at best aloof and remote. Christians should be alerted by this to the fact that a transbiblical view of the will of God can be propounded at the expense of the love of God, that making sovereignty the center and circumference of a theological system is no guarantee in itself that the system will be biblical and reveal the God who rules in love, as opposed to a god who merely loves to rule.”
MacDonald’s warning is applicable to Boice’s conception of God. Recall Boice saying that “…sovereignty is the most important thing that can be said about him. The other attributes of God are also important. But if in our minds we ignore, distort, or deny God’s sovereignty, meaning the absolute determination and rule by God of all his works and creatures, God will no longer be God for us… In order to be sovereign, God must also be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free. If he were limited in any one of these areas, he would not be truly sovereign. Yet the sovereignty of God is greater than any one of these attributes.” Boice has completely missed the biblical emphasis that God is “the God who rules in love, as opposed to a god who merely loves to rule.” Boice has done this because he has violated the principle of context, which is to say he is ignoring the incoherence his definition of sovereignty generates with other important biblical truths. He has ignored the logical, moral and theological implications of an “absolute determination” by God of “all his works and creatures” with the biblical witness to the realities of indeterminacy, contingency, potentiality, human freedom, personal responsibility, and just judgment.
Regarding the implications of Boice’s exhaustive, deterministic sovereignty for the knowledge and appropriation of salvation, it appears that Boice cannot distinguish a comprehensive eternal decree from the biblical emphasis on Jesus Christ as the complete revelation of God’s salvific will for all persons and coherently incorporate the biblical witness to the non-deterministic nature of reality and the God/man relationship (i.e., the nature of faith) that is the overwhelming testimony of Scripture. Again, we can see that this is an issue of hermeneutics, that is, that the principle of context consists in reading the text coherently with what the author has written surrounding that text and coherent with the broader canonical context. Boice, like most Calvinists, may speak of Christ as the revelation of God’s salvific will, faith alone as the accepted response to God by man, and attempt to affirm a non-deterministic reality, but my contention is that they does so at the expense of logical, moral, epistemological and theological coherence. They do so at the expense of their intellectual and theological credibility.
And again, if God’s interaction with his world and human beings was other than God’s “absolute determination” of all things, would that logically require that God’s “decrees and acts will be determined by something else?” Can anyone else determine anything about themselves or their circumstances without God becoming subject to their will and control? Why is it that if human creatures can genuinely will and determine some things with respect to their existence that God would not be able to determine whatever he desires so as to accomplish his purposes? Does divine sovereignty require that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass?” God is necessarily who he is by definition. Literally, what on earth could possibly alter who God is by nature and attribute? Can the human beings God himself has created actually subvert his sovereignty? The notion is ridiculously unworthy of God and any sober theology. The mistake here is to think that the only biblical options are absolute control by God over man or absolute control by man over God. But man does not have absolute freedom. He is a creature, not the Creator. Even if man did have absolute freedom, he would not have any such absolute control over God. God retains the freedom of his sovereignty even though he gives true freedom to those creatures made in his image. Only God is able to accomplish his purposes without hindrance. This is what it means for God to be “free” and “sovereign.” This is not a freedom to be arbitrary, but a freedom to act as ruler over mankind in accord with his plans and purposes which also accord with his nature. So man, even if he has a degree of “self-control,” and was given by God dominion over the earth to tend to it and subdue it (Gen. 1:26, 28) – a mandate that both implies and requires reason and freedom of the will to fulfill – does not have control over God. God designs and accomplishes his purposes in accord with the panoply of his attributes and according to the fullness of his own nature and not merely his will as MacDonald reminds us above. We are fortunate that God is an immutable God of love, grace and wisdom as well as a God of sovereign omnipotence, otherwise we would not know what God is truly like and whether or not today he will act arbitrarily upon us merely by his sovereign power and will. Ironically, in Boice’s attempt to exalt God and his glory, due to his unbiblical definition of sovereignty as determinism his god turns out to be too small.
This issue involves us in the theology of the nature of God and how that nature was expressed in the nature of man as made in God’s image. Did God make man in his own image and yet he needed to absolutely determine everyone’s every thought, attitude, belief, desire, choice, and action along with their eternal destiny? It is a scheme, that a reading of Scripture with an eye for coherence, consistency and non-contradiction, would soon be seen as foreign to that Scripture. We should ask whether this scheme presents a biblically coherent view of what it means to be “created in the image of God?” On biblical, logical, moral, epistemological, and practical grounds I think not, for it seems that as we think along the lines of the Calvinists presuppositions we are inevitably led to incoherence in all these areas. Is this an indication that this Calvinist definition of deterministic sovereignty is biblically incorrect? I believe so. Is it possible to conceive of theistic determinism as compatible with the way God made man in his image and as retaining a will by which he is capable of being the sole author of his actions with an ability of contrary choice? I think not. Granted, man is not absolutely free and is in an inescapable relationship to God. The Bible makes this clear in more ways than one. Yet, God absolutely determined he would come to man in mercy and goodness. God sovereignly predetermined that individuals, as sinners, must intentionally respond to God’s intentional love in repentance and faith; giving their lives in service to God in response to God’s love for them. God sovereignly determined that Christ would die for your sins and mine on the cross. God sovereignly determined that what Christ’s death accomplished could be appropriated by sinners by faith alone. That is the way God predetermined it should be and therefore God remains sovereign in the midst of human freedom.
It is nonsense to think that God could do anything that would jeopardize his own sovereignty and Godhead. Certainly the creature can do nothing to usurp the sovereignty of the Creator. Can God, if choosing to create a creature in his own image with libertarian freedom, somehow be flirting with the usurpation of his own sovereignty as Creator? Perhaps. But only if your God is something other than the personal, sovereign God of the Bible. What kind of “Creator” would create creatures in his own image and not have them be substantially free to love and serve him voluntarily, and, given their fallen nature, even more so, so as to exalt in his glorious love and grace offered to them in the gospel? What plan would exalt his grace that the accomplishment of their salvation which they can appropriate to themselves by simple faith in Him? There is no problematic incoherence in this God/man relationship and method of salvation. There is no incoherence in understanding God’s sovereignty as his ruling and reigning according to all that he is in his divine nature. God wills, acts and functions in personal relationship with his human creatures as he has made them in his image. That divine image vests them with libertarian freedom by which they are the sole authors of their actions and able to exercise their wills and make choices. They can choose to other than their own sinful nature and any internal and external influences may press upon them. They especially can respond to the “good news” that God himself calls them to respond to by believing. The power of the Spirit in the gospel enables the sinner to respond positively to the salvation being offered in Jesus through that message. Yet the sinner also may resist and ignore that offer of salvation. This must be so, otherwise moral responsibility and moral effort, along with salvation by faith, which is much of what the Scripture is about, are rendered nonsense.
God’s sovereignty, biblically defined is of the nature of “the God who rules in love.” So there is problematic incoherence and contradiction between God’s sovereignty defined as his eternal, absolute predetermination of “whatsoever comes to pass” by his will alone and the biblical witness that humans are endowed by God with substantial and genuine libertarian freedom of will which makes them responsible moral agents who are culpable for their disobedience to God and the gospel. Contrary to Calvinist determinism, we know libertarian freedom to be true on the basis of moral and judicial “common sense” and the logic and innate standards placed in us by God himself. We know this by our God-given reason and moral intuitions.
The Calvinist’s fear that man will have absolute control over God if God does not have absolute control over man by predetermining “whatsoever comes to pass” is a fear of the Calvinist’s own making. It is not the conclusion one comes to given a full biblical reckoning that values a hermeneutic of logical and moral coherence. It is a ‘logical’ extrapolation of a faulty monolithic view of God as an absolute tyrant – “a god who merely loves to rule.” For Boice, sovereignty equals an unbiblical absolute control defined as an absolute, exhaustive, theistic determinism.
The hermeneutical issue that develops from this discussion involves discerning whether or not real logical, moral, and biblical contradictions and incoherencies are generated by this theistic determinism, or whether they are only “apparent” as Calvinist’s claim. How will we determine this? We must inquire as to whether we can know contradiction and incoherence when we see it and determine whether this proposition of deterministic sovereignty is rationally, morally, epistemologically, and theologically coherent or incoherent given the full scope of the biblical testimony. Thus far this inquiry has been the subject of chapters 4, 5 and 7. There I argued that Calvinism is not rational and presents a real contradiction and is therefore a flawed theology as far as the relevant issues and texts are concerned. My contention has been that if a theology is incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory, it is not an accurate interpretation of Scripture. We have seen, and I will continue to demonstrate, that the Calvinist’s theological propositions are incoherent with their own statements and other biblical doctrines. Calvinism has forced us to inquire into whether or not we can trust what we know of the laws of logic and our moral intuitions, and also what role they play in the interpretation of Scripture. It has forced us to ask whether or not logical reflection and moral intuition are essential to a sound hermeneutic, that is, whether or not interpretive incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction are reliable indicators of the invalidity of a textual interpretation or theological position. I sought to establish in chapter 7 that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential for discerning valid interpretations. Even the Calvinist justifications for any incoherence within their theology must be evaluated upon some coherent basis. This is what it means to think biblically.
This inquiry is essential to the recognition of a sound, evangelical hermeneutic. I believe it forces us to face the question of whether or not rational coherence and incoherence are discernible, hold interpretive weight, and therefore must be incorporated in any hermeneutic that claims to be biblical. This is an especially acute concern for Calvinistic interpretation as I will continue to demonstrate in the following chapters, especially in the examples of chapter 11.
For instance, note the title of Boice’s book, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? “The gospel of grace” for Boice is the Reformed doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance and preservation of the saints. Boice’s definition of the ‘gospel’ and ‘grace’ include his doctrines of sovereignty and unconditional election. God’s grace is his decision to save some sinners from among all sinners who are undeserving of any salvation. The “grace of God” is primarily the decree of God that determines “whatsoever comes to pass” with respect to the limited number of people who are predestined to salvation. God’s “grace” just is the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. But I contend that this understanding of grace is inconsistent with the biblical data. The issue involves the locus of God’s grace and its intended scope. Biblically speaking God’s grace is present in his work of salvation in Christ. It is a grace that comes to all undeserving sinners in the gospel message where it is offered to them and can be received on the basis of faith alone. Grace is not the decision of God made in eternity past to save a limited number of particular undeserving sinners out of the mass of undeserving sinful humanity, but God’s work of providing and offering salvation to all of undeserving sinful humanity who could not otherwise be saved.
Furthermore, the nature of the gospel proclamation as warning, invitation, command, summons, ultimatum, etc., and its content as “good news” as spoken to the non-elect, creates logical and moral incoherence with the message as the word of truth coming from a God of truth. For the message of unconditional election is not and never can be “good news” for the non-elect and neither is it true for them. So this message which comes from God himself, offering salvation to many of those that God himself does not allow to respond to the message. This, in effect, makes God out to be disingenuous and a God who mocks the non-elect. For these reasons and many more which I will elaborate on in later chapters, I submit that Calvinism has an incorrect definition of God’s grace and also must be deemed christologically deficient. What I am saying is that because the Reformed proposition regarding sovereignty generates rational, moral, epistemological and theological incoherence with other biblical doctrines it is suspect as a valid interpretation of God’s sovereignty. It cannot be integrated into a coherent biblical theology or put in the service of the proclamation of the “good news” and as such is suspect as a valid coherent biblical theology. Notice I have emphasized coherent biblical theology. It is not enough to apply the grammatical-historical methodology to the text and draw a conclusion. We must evaluate the conclusion as to whether or not it produces coherence with the full scope of the biblical testimony. Don’t misunderstand. I am not claiming that coherence is a sufficient condition of a theology to be biblical and true. I am saying it is a necessary condition for a theology to be biblical and true. For the non-Calvinist, consideration of logical and moral coherence is an essential hermeneutical element for discerning valid interpretations. The question the Calvinist has to ask, and you have to ask yourself is, shouldn’t this also be the case for the Calvinist? And if not, why not?
Here is an example of this matter of interpretive coherence and the hermeneutical divide. Bruce A. Little evaluates the arguments of Calvinist Gordon Clark in Clark’s book, God and Evil: The Problem Solved. On whether theistic determinism (i.e. “necessity”) is compatible with human free will (i.e. “choice”) and moral responsibility Little writes,
“Clark anticipates another question, namely, how can something be called a choice if it is a necessity? That is, if God wills something (actually all things), in what sense could a person be said to have a choice? Clark answers that by saying:
Choice and necessity are therefore not incompatible. Instead of prejudging the question by confusing choice with free choice, one should give an explicit definition of choice. The adjective could be justified only afterward, if at all. Choice may be defined, at least sufficiently for the present purpose, as a mental act that consciously initiates and determines a further choice. The ability to have chosen otherwise is an irrelevant matter and has no place in the definition.
He is emphasizing that the will is only something that initiates and determines a further choice. The will is not a kind of self-determiner as Augustine and many of the church fathers taught, but rather the will only initiates what God has willed. It is how the will of God gets into history…Clark seems to be saying that man has the ability to choose but not the freedom to choose. It is curious how this comports with the idea of moral responsibility…In the end the will in Clark’s terms is no will at all.
The logical end of the Calvinist position on the question of sovereignty leads to a strong form of determinism, which is not the necessary outcome of biblical sovereignty. In addition, moral responsibility for sin must find its final causal agent to be God. The protest against drawing this conclusion involves an argument that commits the fallacy of equivocation (particularly with the word “will) and the fallacy of explaining by naming – just saying it is so makes it so.”
The point here is not only that Little and Clark will disagree on textual grounds, but also that Little exposes Clark’s reasoning as faulty. Little sees Clark’s view as inconsistent with moral responsibility and understands “freedom” to be more than simply “ability.” Little also points out two logical fallacies Clark commits – equivocation and naming. The issue therefore involves whether Little’s observations are true, and if so, whether Clark is intellectually, morally or interpretively bound to acknowledge them and incorporate the necessity of logical and moral coherence into his hermeneutical methodology. According to non-Calvinists like Little, Clark at least has to explain how moral responsibility can be coherently maintained given his theistic determinism. If Clark will never consider the non-Calvinist’s alternative exegesis of the relevant texts to be more accurate than his own, then shouldn’t Clark admit that if his exegesis leads to incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions, then he must acknowledge that on hermeneutical grounds his exegeses must be flawed? In other words, can incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction be possible and legitimate results of valid interpretations of the text?
Note also that when Clark says that “Choice may be defined, at least sufficiently for the present purpose…” he is tailoring his definition to suit his own theological presuppositions. Defining “choice…sufficiently for the present purpose” is not the same as defining choice as the Bible requires and as we experience it. To tweak the definition of “choice” to fit “present purposes” is very different than desiring to get to the truth about the nature of human willing and choosing by an exegetical methodology that values logical, moral, and biblical coherence.
Little continues with a textual and theological refutation of Clark’s theistic determinism.
“Yet the Bible seems to say something different. In the Scriptures humans can choose between contraries such as life and death (Deut 30:15-19; Josh 24:15; Isa 56:4). The Old Testament is a story of God’s responding to the checkered history of Israel in which at one time she is acting faithfully and the next minute she is playing the harlot. The book of Judges is a sad story revealing a pattern where Israel freely chooses unfaithfulness against God’s command, and how God intervenes. Consider the review of God’s curses and blessings in Deuteronomy 28. There, if Israel obeyed, blessing followed (v.1); but if Israel disobeyed, the curses would come upon Israel (v. 14). Either this account is real history, or God makes it look as though the people have real choices when, in fact, they do not, if the Calvinists are right. If it was not a free choice, then moral responsibility cannot be imputed. Whereas definite, different outcomes resulted, depending on whether the people of Israel obeyed or disobeyed, the common sense understanding is that they freely chose between contraries. Otherwise, the whole episode is meaningless. In the end their choices may be worse than meaningless – more like illusionary and deceptive as far as the record goes. To say they chose but were not free is to void the meaning of “to choose,” and then language means nothing. Not only that, but it destroys the entire notion of justice…to affirm that God ordains but is not morally responsible cannot be solved by simply appealing to mystery.
While Calvinists…can be respected for their desire to honor the Lord, in this issue, they are simply wrong and their position is incoherent.”
Note that Little points out that a) the Bible presents humans as choosing between contraries – they can obey or disobey, b) that God intervenes, implying non-determinism, c) that on Calvinist determinism what God is doing is making it seem like humans have free choice when they really don’t, which is to impugn the character of God as deceptive, d) concluding that where there is no free choice moral responsibility cannot be imputed, e) the accounts become meaningless and language means nothing, f) the entire notion of justice is destroyed, and g) the Calvinist’s flight to mystery is no solution to the difficulties raised by their theistic determinism.
We must note the “integrative reasoning statements” in Little’s critique. For instance, take the issue of moral responsibility. Little writes,
“Clark seems to be saying that man has the ability to choose but not the freedom to choose. It is curious how this comports with the idea of moral responsibility…” (Italics mine)
I think we can see that the Calvinist’s compatibilist definition of human freedom is purely instrumental in that the human creature is simply performing the will of another, in this case, God. But doesn’t this render moral responsibility meaningless? Moreover, can we or can we not reliably identify the association of statements and concepts that are truly meaningful from those that are not? Do we know incoherence when we see it, and doesn’t the presence of incoherence argue against the validity of one’s interpretation? That is the hermeneutical question before us. For the non-Calvinist the possibility of making contrary choices is essential for moral responsibility to remain a coherent concept. Not so for the Calvinist. Whose understanding of this matter of coherence is hermeneutically sound and whose is hermeneutically flawed?
Little stated above that,
“…a strong form of determinism…is not the necessary outcome of biblical sovereignty.”
The biblical testimony to God’s sovereignty does not necessarily lead to a strong determinism. But the Calvinist interprets God’s sovereignty as a universal divine casual determinism. Therefore, if such a determinism generates logical, moral, and theological incoherence, can we confidently say it is an inaccurate interpretation of the biblical data? Little would say it is inaccurate on the basis of what determinism logically entails. Little states that on determinism,
“…moral responsibility for sin must find its final causal agent to be God.” (Italics mine)
Clark’s theistic determinism must logically lead to God being responsible for sin and evil. Question. Is Little’s conclusion on the logic of the matter crucial for a proper understanding of the matter? Or is textual meaning immune to the deliberations of logical and moral reasoning when subject to some “higher” criteria that trumps logical and moral reasoning? It seems that would have to be the Calvinist’s position. And it is. The Calvinist trumps logical and moral reasoning with the question-begging response that “the Bible teaches both, and how they can be reconciled is a mystery.”
Regarding God’s dealings with Israel and their potential response of obedience or disobedience, Little also concludes that,
“…the common sense understanding is that they freely chose between contraries. Otherwise, the whole episode is meaningless.” (Italics mine)
Here Little invokes the “common sense understanding” of the text as a determiner of valid meaning and presupposes that rational coherence reliably discerns between what is meaningful and what is meaningless. What is meaningful or meaningless is readily identifiable on the basis of our logical and moral reasoning. The question is, if Little cannot escape all these rational conclusions given Clark’s “strong form of determinism,” why doesn’t Clark also acknowledge them as interpretively significant? How and why does Clark reason differently from Little? Is something driving Clark to reason differently? Perhaps, as Boice insisted above, the Calvinist is compelled to hold to their understanding of what it must mean for God to be “sovereign” regardless of the logical and moral implications. But then we must ask whether this method of “reasoning” (and it is a method of reasoning that foregoes reasoning to some degree), is incorrect or inappropriate for discovering the meaning of the text and therefore the alternative method of coherence is correct in that it handles the text in a way that the author’s intent is brought forth.
In confirmation of my thesis, Clark is simply ignoring elements of reasoning that are essential for Little. Clark simply overlooks what are “common sense,” self-evident or problematic associations for Little among Clark’s theological propositions. Moreover, Clark does not have a rationally coherent explanation for holding to his theological propositions in light of the logical and moral problems they generate.
We see that according to Little, Clark simply redefines choice “as a mental act that consciously initiates and determines a further choice.” For Clark, God is the determiner of the “mental act that consciously initiates and determines a further choice.” But that “further choice” must also be determined by God, and so on and so forth. So God is in complete control of the person’s “choices” ad infinitum. And for Little, Clark’s definition of the will as only “something that initiates and determines a further choice” is insufficient. Little says that Clark’s understanding boils down to “man has the ability to choose but not the freedom to choose.” For Little there is an important distinction between mere “ability” and ability that includes the element of “freedom.” Merely having the ability to do something does not mean that the person is choosing to do it nor does it define genuine “choice.” Having the ability to do otherwise or the ability of contrary choice that is grounded in a person’s own will is essential to the concept of moral responsibility. Clark asserts that, “The ability to have chosen otherwise is an irrelevant matter and has no place in the definition [of choice].” Therefore, the essential problem that Little has with Clark’s viewpoint is the logical and moral incoherence generated by Clark’s theistic determinism. Determinism precludes genuine choice or free will, and therefore, moral responsibility. Little concludes,
“It is curious how this comports with the idea of moral responsibility…In the end the will in Clark’s terms is no will at all.”
So when Little attempts to integrate Clark’s determinism with moral responsibility, Little reaches a point of incoherence which he deems to be a rational dead end that nullifies the position. Again, note Little’s final conclusions,
“The logical end of the Calvinist position on the question of sovereignty leads to a strong form of determinism, which is not the necessary outcome of biblical sovereignty. In addition, moral responsibility for sin must find its final causal agent to be God. The protest against drawing this conclusion involves an argument that commits the fallacy of equivocation (particularly with the word “will”) and the fallacy of explaining by naming – just saying it is so makes it so.”
“…their position is incoherent.” (Italics mine)
All Little’s reasoning converges to a conclusion that the Calvinist is “simply wrong and their position is incoherent” because it cannot account for the phenomenon of moral responsibility, and moreover “moral responsibility for sin must find its final causal agent to be God.” For Little and all non-Calvinists this is just biblically and theologically unacceptable. The reason is obvious – God does not originate sin, God does not himself sin, nor does God cause others to sin. In addition, the Calvinist commits certain logical fallacies in the way it attempts to address this incoherence.
Now this is a serious hermeneutical issue, for the Calvinist is dismissing the very laws of reasoning to maintain his position. But is this legitimate? If so, the Calvinist is going to have to explain why. This is no longer a matter of defending a particular interpretation of the text on exegetical grounds, but a matter of defending one’s exegesis as coherent, consistent and non-contradictory. For claims about the accuracy of one’s exegesis that prove to be incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory must surely be a flawed exegesis because if such can be the case, then we are at a loss to discern the accuracy of any interpretive claims.
How does Little know the Calvinist position is “simply wrong?” Because “their position is incoherent.” If the position was not incoherent Little might be able to claim it to be “simply wrong” on other exegetical grounds – perhaps providing additional historical or grammatical data that better supports his position over Clark’s position. But when Clark and his fellow Calvinists will not agree that the exegeses that Little and other non-Calvinists offer is the more accurate interpretation of the relevant texts, then all that us left is the hermeneutical question as to whether or not coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are necessary if one’s exegeses and interpretations are to be considered valid. A position can be coherent yet wrong on other exegetical and interpretive grounds. But surely coherence is necessary for one to claim their exegesis is correct. Coherence may not be sufficient for determining exegetical accuracy, but it is certainly necessary. But Clark and Calvinists do not accept this need for coherence as a hermeneutical given.
Even if one were to claim their position accurate “on exegetical grounds,” if reason is dismissed from the means by which we can determine the validity of that claim, the exegete would be left with no grounds to make that claim because he would have no reason to support that claim. When the Calvinist sidelines logical and moral coherence as reliable arbiters of the validity of their exegesis and interpretations they forfeit the grounds upon which their interpretive claims rest. So the Calvinist’s hermeneutic allows for putting logical reasoning and moral intuitions aside, which I think most philosophers and theologians would say are indispensable tools for doing proper exegesis in the first place and also for determining valid interpretations. Most theologians would say that in doing exegesis and constructing one’s theology, that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential.
Again, we can determine a position to be “simply wrong” on exegetical grounds, even if the exegesis exhibits coherence. A flawed exegesis, even if coherent, will produced flawed interpretive results. Certainly there can be two different treatments of a text that come to diverse conclusions. If both of those exegetical treatments of the text are coherent in themselves and as far as we can tell with other established biblical truths and doctrines, then the challenge would be to revisit whether or not all the hermeneutical criteria that need to be considered to exegete and understand a text are being considered. We may need information which we do not have to land on a single, best interpretation of the text. That is, the data we have may not be sufficient to produce a confident interpretation, and the text itself may be underdeterminitive of the questions it raises. It just will not yield the information we are looking for and wish we could glean to answer the questions the text itself may have raised. But more times than not, texts want to surrender their full meanings and we may have to go deeper into the text or take a step back from the text into the relevant contexts to discern which of the interpretative offerings better reflects the author’s intent. Perhaps something has been overlooked that will help us to decide which of the various options is the more plausible interpretation. In certain cases we may not be able to come to a definitive answer. This is acceptable as far as it goes. But the difference here in this Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy is that it involves interpretive claims that are mutually exclusive and that the Calvinist interpretations prove to be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory. The point is that when one’s exegesis lands us in the incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction in relation to other interpretive claims or established biblical truths, as in Calvinism, then that exegesis disqualifies itself as valid on rational grounds.
So we are faced with some critical hermeneutical questions that must be answered. Is rational coherence essential to valid interpretation? Is logical and moral coherence important for discerning the truth and validity of a proposed interpretation? Is logical and moral coherence an indispensable element in a properly biblical hermeneutic? If it is, then we are intellectually and morally bound to discern and incorporate coherence into our hermeneutic and we may with confidence determine valid from invalid biblical interpretations. The Calvinist claim that the objections against Calvinism, being mainly philosophical and moral as opposed to exegetical and therefore are not substantial objections, would hold no weight. Of course exegesis is a necessary endeavor to achieve proper interpretation, but it is not sufficient because one’s exegesis must also exhibit logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction. And this is precisely what the Calvinist’s exegesis, interpretations and doctrines do not exhibit. And this precisely the issue that divides the non-Calvinist from the Calvinist. One may have performed the necessary exegesis without concern for the equally necessary coherence, consistency and non-contradiction of their interpretive results. Exegesis goes hand-in-hand with coherence. Incoherent interpretations must be deemed invalid.
What the Calvinist would have to acknowledge is that logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are indispensable characteristics of valid interpretations. The Calvinist would have to accept that philosophical deliberations and deliverances as well as moral intuitions are a necessary part of a sound hermeneutic. Logical and moral reasoning cannot be jettisoned when their deliverances show up the Calvinist’s determinism as generating incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction among other biblical truths. Logical and moral reasoning are necessary for doing exegesis and discerning the validity of an exegesis. If the Calvinist will admit to this hermeneutical principle we would be on our way to knowing the biblical truth regarding the theological propositions that presently divide Calvinists and non-Calvinists.
Below I will give many examples of how differently Calvinists and non-Calvinist reason, thus coming to diametrically opposed understandings of the same biblical texts. In the minds of non-Calvinists, the Calvinist’s theological determinism is in conflict with other biblical themes, teachings and texts. My point is that when these biblical themes, teachings and texts intersect with theistic determinism and generate logical and moral incoherence and contradiction, then this is hermeneutically significant with regard to determining the validity of the Calvinist interpretations that lead them to their determinism and the Calvinist theology that rests upon it. The Calvinist’s definition of sovereignty as absolute determinism injects incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction into biblical theology. Non-Calvinists value rational coherence – not to exalt human reason as the determiner of truth – but because the fundamental laws of human reason and morality are given to us by God and they are the basis of all meaningful thought and discourse. These are the only arbiters we have for discerning the truth among conflicting interpretations. The fundamental laws of human reason cannot be sacrificed lest all rational discourse cease. To discount the rationality of biblical propositions and theological statements is indicative of invalid interpretation.
If these fundamental laws of reason and morality are summarily dismissed then the search for and knowledge of truth has ended. This is precisely why this controversy has lasted for centuries. The Calvinist will not acknowledge a hermeneutic of coherence. Those who expect interpretation and theology to be reasoned cannot communicate meaningfully with those who do not. And as long as this remains the case, no rapprochement can occur; no consensus on the truth of the matter can be achieved.
Therefore, an essential part of the theological task is to dialogue about the logical, moral, epistemological and biblical ramifications occurring at the intersection of determinism and other theological propositions and to come to define what constitutes an incoherent or contradictory theological construct and what does not, and also deciding whether the presence of incoherence or contradiction has bearing upon the validity of determinism as a biblical interpretation.
When each side of a controversial theological issue quotes verses in support of their position and this leads nowhere, then we need to lean on whether a position is rationally and morally coherent with other clearly understood, fundamental texts and doctrines. The Calvinist must either acknowledge the function and necessity of coherence in interpretation or justify dismissing it. Mystery is not a justification. It is a diversion. Biblical hermeneutics must include direct, intentional discussion of the logical, moral, epistemological and biblical coherence of a position and acknowledge that the degree of coherence or incoherence in a theological position is indicative of its biblical validity or invalidity.
In contrast to the Reformed Calvinist decretal theology of Boice and Clark, MacDonald’s observation that God’s sovereignty is a function of his relationship to his creation by virtue of being the Creator is a pertinent one. When God created, he brought into existence things that are not God himself. He created space, time, matter and energy as the context in which he would display his grand spectacle of designing wisdom, power, beauty and diversity. He took joy in creating all that is both inanimate and living, with the apex being the grandest of his creative ideas – to make a special creature made in his image and likeness. Much more can be said here about the purpose of such a creation, but suffice it to say that it allows for a divine bestowal upon those human beings of dominion over the creation that God brought into existence. This mandate to have dominion over the earth and to take care of it would require these human persons to have both rational capacities and the freedom to make decisions. They would need freedom of the will. They would also be in loving, trusting relationship with their Creator who gave them life and would continue to do so. God is the sovereign Creator and could never be otherwise. But the Creation account provides us with a perspective on divine sovereignty that requires careful consideration.
Note that the created order along with these human persons made in God’s image are not simply a extension of God’s essence or will. God has the freedom to create that which is not himself, that is, things that are distinguished from his essence. Sovereignty therefore refers to God’s ruling and reigning over his individuated creation, not his absolute identification with the creation by virtue of his detailed predetermination of all that is and occurs according to his divine will. Thus humans may be granted by God to have wills of their own. They are free, like God is free, to reason, decide and act. Thus a divine sovereignty defined by a personal God’s ability to rule and reign, not by a monolithic, exhaustive predetermination of events, is the biblical testimony to God’s relation to a world of free beings. We have to be true to that testimony. Being true requires being coherent. We maintain that God is sovereign over all his creation. But when we talk of ‘sovereignty’ we need to carefully define it according to Scripture, and doing so means reducing any logical or moral incoherence between one’s interpretive propositions. God is free to create, and while this certainly means that all that exists depends upon the life of God for its sustenance and is subject to the will of God as he sees fit to will and act through or upon his creation, it also implies differentiation, distinction of being and therefore a genuine, meaningful interaction of God with his created order. His human creatures, made in his image, have been created with a self and therefore as selves that has the capacity to will. This entails being the sole author of one’s actions and having the ability of contrary choice.
An interpretation of ‘sovereignty’ informed by the full scope of the biblical witness establishes the freedom of God to create as he saw fit. But this freedom is not an arbitrariness in the divine nature which may overturn what we know of divine justice and equity. Yet the doctrine of unconditional election maintains that God chose certain sinners to salvation out of all who are equally sinners for reasons we know not why. The freedom of God and the sovereignty of God are in accord with the character of God as immutable not arbitrary. Therefore, God’s sovereignty is especially to be considered in light of the ultimate revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. What the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has done “in Christ” is the rule here. The very fact that the Bible depicts the world as contingent and containing contingencies, possibilities and potentialities, and that God is in genuine interaction with his world, acting consistent with his nature as revealed in the Old Testament and “in Christ,” whether in mercy or judgment in rewarding faith and obedience or condemning unbelief and sin, only confirms that God works determinatively as to his plans and purposes while also confirming that God’s will has not predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass.” God does rule and reign over all that occurs given creaturely differentiation and freedom, but this freedom does not threaten God’s sovereignty and certainly cannot be viewed as divine determinism.
If we value logical and moral coherence, Calvinist theistic determinism is not a biblical option. God has creative freedom. When we say God is free, we do not mean he can act contrary to his nature or in an arbitrary fashion. We mean that he is not ‘bound’ by his creation or his creatures in any way that he has not determined that he would be. This is no forfeiting of his sovereignty and it does not generate incoherence across the spectrum of scriptural themes and doctrines. God remains in “control” but does not “control” every event in the sense of willing and causing it to happen as it does.
What is amazing is that God has determined that he would exercise his sovereignty and control to provide for the salvation of the creature. This is God’s amazing love and grace. This is why his judgment in the end is just. We do not deserve such favor. But because he first loved us is the reason why, in genuine reciprocal response, we should and can love him in return. Those who have not believed in this salvation that he alone has worked by his own will and expression of sovereignty – “God’s purpose in election” (Rom. 9:11) – will be judged for rejecting it. But all sinners can positively respond to him because we can be assured that this love applies to every one of us. He has not decreed to banish a certain number of his own human creatures from himself for all eternity. The creature banishes himself by spurning the love and grace provided “in Christ.” Hence, the reality of moral responsibility finds a coherent place in this biblical theological paradigm of libertarian freedom, but not in Calvinist determinism. The hopeless mystery of Calvinist eternal predestination provides no grounds for moral responsibility, reciprocal love, or unfettered worship of such a God. It reduces to only an anxious fear and a C. S. Lewis put it the worship of an “omnipotent Fiend.”
A. W. Tozer helps us understand the nature of God’s sovereignty and its personal implications. He writes,
“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…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.
Reducing the whole matter to individual terms, we arrive at some vital and highly personal conclusions. In the moral conflict now raging around us whoever is on God’s side is on the winning side and cannot lose; whoever is on the other side is on the losing side and cannot win. Here there is no chance, no gamble. There is freedom to choose which side we shall be on but no freedom to negotiate the results of the choice once made. By the mercy of God we may repent a wrong choice and alter the consequences by making a new and right choice. Beyond that we cannot go.”
God bestows freedom yet remains sovereign. God is sovereign over salvation, not in the sense of predetermining whom he would save and whom he would reject, but how he would provide salvation and on what terms it is to be received. Tozer adds,
“The gospel message embodies three distinct elements: an announcement, a command, and a call. It announces the good news of redemption accomplished in mercy; it commands all men everywhere to repent and it calls all men to surrender to the terms of grace by believing on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
We must all choose whether we will obey the gospel or turn away in unbelief and reject its authority. Our choice is our own, but the consequences of the choice have already been determined by the sovereign will of God, and from this there is no appeal.”
Creation is therefore not the extension of God’s essence and the expression of his absolute, dominating will. This is a tenet of Reformed decretal scholasticism, but it is not the biblical definition of divine sovereignty. Therefore, the resultant sovereignty of God over creation is the freedom of God to actively rule. Sovereignty is not rooted in an eternal decree by which all things proceed and to which God himself is bound so that he becomes something less than the personal and active God of the Bible who is also love, mercy and compassion (Ex. 34:5-7); the one who intervenes in our lost and hopeless existence to provide hope and salvation.
William MacDonald adds these further insights on the sovereignty of God. He writes,
“If one insists that sovereignty is of the very essence of God, an attribute of his nature without which he could not be God, then his very deity itself is imperiled. For such a position requires someone other than God from eternity for him to rule. Creation, then, would have been necessary to his very existence of being, and would not have been the gratuitous overflow of his love and glory. We would be compelled to posit always something other than God, ancillary to him. He would no longer be the first and last, the eternal, but co-eternal with “governees.”
God is free, therefore, to be the sovereign Lord; he is not free to lie. This means that he can delegate – surrender if you please – part of his sovereignty without ceasing to be God. On the other hand, God cannot surrender, relinquish, give up, or otherwise divest himself of his truth for any moment of time, for truth is eternal, or else it is not true…Now when we ask the question of the nature of man’s freedom, we must look at the first man. To him God gave the right to make himself independent as well as the privilege of staying with God and living forever. If the opening chapters of Genesis mean anything, they mean that God actually – not speciously – gave Adam the freedom to determine his own destiny.”
MacDonald observes that God’s sovereignty is not of his essence but is a function of him having created. God is sovereign as the corollary of him being Creator. Sovereignty was realized when God chose to create something that was other than himself. His sovereignty initiated with his creation of the universe. God can still be God, existing in triune relationship, without being “sovereign” over anything. The exercise of his sovereignty is not essential to God’s being. Yet, once he creates, in addition to all else that he is, he cannot be anything but sovereign. But a divine sovereignty characterized by ruling and reigning over creation does not necessitate the predetermination of “whatsoever comes to pass.” This is to highlight the fact that what the Bible describes as God’s sovereignty is preceded by a certain disposition within God by which he decided to create. He freely decided to create the phenomenon of freedom. We know that God is love and we know that he loves his creation and human creatures. C. H. Dodd wrote, “To say, ‘God is love’ implies that all His activity is loving activity. If he creates, he creates in love; if He rules, he rules in love; if He judges, He judges in love (C. H. Dodd, Johannine Epistles, 110).” Thus sovereignty is his ruling and reigning over his creation from that disposition to love, give and be merciful and compassionate.
The proposition that sovereignty involves God’s eternal predetermination of “whatsoever comes to pass,” including each person’s eternal destiny – some being predestined to eternal life and all others to eternal death – becomes tortuously incoherent when we attempt to incorporate these other biblical truths of divine and human freedom and love. In contrast to Calvinist determinism, God’s sovereignty involves loving and giving and investing his human creatures with a measure of self-determination of their own actions. Within the boundaries of God’s sovereign determinations, God also bestowed upon men the self-determination of their own eternal destinies. Such a world is in accord with God’s character and freedom to initiate. His sovereignty begins at creation and takes its definition from the way God decided to make the world. From the laws he determined would govern natural events to the freedom he determined to invest in man as the creature who was to “subdue” and have “dominion” over the earth, the Bible testifies to a God who displays his sovereignty and sets the physical and moral boundaries for mankind, without testifying to a theistic determinism. He rules from his unalterable position of Creator over his creation.
We need to be clear that unconditional election is based upon the Reformed Calvinist presupposition of God’s eternal, absolute decree and a definition of the sovereignty of God as absolute, comprehensive determinism. Everything that happens occurs as it does because God willed it to be that way, and therefore he causes all that occurs. Thus certain people are chosen by God for eternal salvation and all others for eternal damnation.
It bears repeating that in stating that Reformed Calvinist sovereignty is deterministic, I base that judgment on the belief that there is no logically coherent way to avoid this conclusion. This important point about rational coherence maintains that we are required to make a judgment about the truth of the Calvinist doctrines and any other doctrinal position and everything else in life, on the basis of some evidence, and that our judgment of what is a valid biblical interpretation rests more fundamentally upon the logical, moral and biblical coherence of that evidence. MacDonald helps us to see this in the points he raised above. We have the Calvinist interpretation of Eph. 1:11 and the resulting determinism that conflicts with the concepts of divine and human personhood while also obscuring the grace of God and our knowledge of God’s love for us individually. It is also at variance with the clear teaching of Genesis regarding the cultural mandate given to Adam and the freedom given him to determine his own destiny.
Therefore, “sovereignty” ought to be more carefully defined in harmony with all these biblical truths, especially those regarding the divine nature. Good interpretation is therefore a comparative exercise – the “hermeneutical spiral” as Osborne depicts it. The principles and issues that make for a sound hermeneutics will be fully discussed in chapter 12.
Traditional doctrinal propositions ought not to be recklessly forced into the biblical witness with the result of wreaking logical, moral and theological havoc. In other words, I maintain that it is crucial to conscientiously consider and weigh theological propositions by their logical and moral coherence. We must ask, “Does this make sense with the doctrine of…?” Or, “How is this coherent with the following text…?” I am also stating what seems obvious to most Christians, that if it doesn’t “make sense” then something is amiss, and the interpretation that does “make sense” is to be preferred as directing us towards the truth. This is an interpretive principle because in the end, “sense,” defined as our logical and moral deliberations upon the Scriptural witness, is all we have to go by.
Given the hermeneutical thesis I have laid out above and the Calvinist definitions of God’s eternal decree and sovereignty as deterministic, and the absolute sway these hold over Calvinist thought, it is imperative to investigate whether the Calvinist is able to interpret the balance of Scripture coherently in light of these doctrines. I believe the result is not encouraging in this regard. It also appears that these deterministic doctrines are fixed as to their meaning and role for interpreting all other texts and the logical, moral and theological incoherence they generate is insurmountable. Determinism is the interpretive grid by which the meaning of other texts are processed and restricted. But this becomes highly problematic for Calvinists. The crucial thing to note is that this idea of sovereignty is maintained regardless of its negative logical, moral and theological implications. Therefore, Reformed Calvinist thought subsumes, suppresses and distorts the overwhelming biblical witness to a non-deterministic reality under a deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election. The fact that the Calvinist summarily dismisses or suppresses the implications of rational coherence for a proper hermeneutic is the interpretive phenomenon that allows the theology to survive. The textual, hermeneutical and intellectual legitimacy of this interpretive maneuver is what we must seek to examine and address. Is this an intellectually and hermeneutically legitimate move for the Christian student of the Bible and does it have bearing for a proper understanding of the scriptures? The problematic results generated by Calvinist theology lead us to conclude that it is resolutely imposing its deterministic doctrines of sovereignty, predestination and election upon the biblical text rather than letting the text inform and shape these doctrines. I therefore submit that the rational incoherence of Calvinist thought is an indicator that its basic theological presuppositions are biblically erroneous.
Many Calvinists state that the Bible teaches that the atonement is limited. Jesus died only for those particular individuals God has predestined to salvation. Regarding the extent of the atonement, we could cite all the verses that for many of us obviously teach that it is unlimited, that is, that Jesus died for you and me and all individual persons throughout all history. That is what is meant by the words “all” and “world” in the pertinent texts such as Is. 53:6; Rom. 5:18-19; 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:22; Jn. 1:29; 3:16-18; 4:22; 6:33, 51; 12:47; 14:31; 16:8; 17:21, 23; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Tim. 2:6; 4:10; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:14.
In that Jesus died for all sinners, we also take it as biblically obvious that God desires that every individual be saved. According to Romans 5:6-10 Christ’s death is the expression of the love of God and the means by which we are reconciled to him. As such the Bible is teaching us that God loves each and every sinner. Moreover, verses such as Jn. 5:34; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 4:10 and 2 Pet. 3:9 clearly reveal the mind and heart of God and explicitly state that God “wants everyone be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4) In 1 Tim 2:6 Paul says that Jesus gave himself “a ransom for all.” And in 4:10 Paul writes about the hope there is “in the living God, who is the savior of everyone, especially of those who believe.”
Therefore the Bible indicates that God designed salvation by faith so that anyone may receive it as a free gift (Rom. 5:15-17; Eph. 2:8-9). Thus we take the meaning of the word “whoever” that is found throughout John’s gospel to refer to all persons without exception. Therefore, all persons can and should believe in Jesus and be saved. So, non-Calvinists understand these verses to be clear, convincing biblical evidence that the atonement is unlimited.
Now, the thing to note is that for many Calvinists these verses are not clear evidence that the atonement is unlimited. In fact, they understand these verses not to be teaching that the atonement is unlimited but somehow these verses are compatible with other verses that they claim teach the atonement is limited. Other texts compel the Calvinist to maintain that these verses do not necessarily support an unlimited atonement. They point out that Jesus died for “his sheep” (Jn. 10:11, 15), “his church” (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25), “the elect” (Rom. 8:32-35) and “his people” (Matt. 1:21). In light of these verses the “all,” “world” and “whoever” verses should be interpreted in a way that somehow coincides with limited atonement. Thus, these verses hold interpretive sway over the universal texts that for many of us clearly state the atonement is unlimited.  I think the verdict of Vernon C. Grounds is correct when he states,
“It takes an exegetical ingenuity which is something other than learned virtuosity to evacuate these texts of their obvious meaning: it takes and exegetical ingenuity verging on sophistry to deny their explicit universality.”
And this brings us to our central concern – how is it that well-meaning, intelligent Christian scholars, applying all their highly experienced exegetical skills and prowess to the task, who know the original languages, grammar, biblical history and the writings of other theologians, can read the same biblical texts yet come to diametrically opposed interpretive conclusions? More simply put in logical terms, can the same text mean two opposing things at one and the same time? In hermeneutical terms, are individual texts and the biblical testimony so obscure that it can only remain a “mystery” as to what the text truly means? In terms of a theology of revelation, inspiration and authority, does the Bible contradict itself?
In this regard we should make the following observations. First, evangelical scholars agree that proper exegesis is foundational for accurate interpretation. Applying the grammatical-historical method of interpretation, attending to the literary genre, examining the original languages and grammar of a text along with the literary, cultural and historical contexts, is essential for coming to an accurate understanding of a text. They know that they must let the text speak its own word to them in context according to the intent of the author. But both Calvinist and non-Calvinist scholars maintain that they are applying this sort of exegesis, yet they still come to diametrically opposed soteriological interpretations. This tells us that exegesis, at least in this limited technical sense, is not enough to provide us with the confidence we need as to the text’s meaning regarding this subject matter.
Assuming these scholars are doing proper technical exegesis, what else can we suggest regarding interpretive methodology in light of these disturbing incompatible results? Why is the meaning of Scripture so elusive in regard to the soteriological issues raised by the Calvinist / non-Calvinist debate? Would the Bible leave us in doubt and confusion concerning who can be saved, how this salvation comes about and the assurance of our eternal destinies? One would think if the Bible would be clear about anything it would that! Is the performance of standard exegetical practices sufficient for arriving at the knowledge of the true meaning of a text? If so, why the mutually exclusive interpretations? Can we detect whether or not theological presuppositions, unique thought processes and the subjective concerns of the interpreter have influenced their interpretations? Perhaps our exegesis needs to incorporate other observations and safeguards for it to be a truly biblical exegesis. Perhaps it is possible to do what seems to be a thorough exegesis of a passage but at the same time be doing something else either with the passage or in our thinking process that amounts to a degree of eisegesis. It appears that to conscientiously perform the one (exegesis) is no guarantee that the other (eisegesis) will not occur. Good exegesis and the phenomenon of eisegesis also occurring somewhere or somehow in the interpretive process may not be mutually exclusive. So what is going on that explains how it is that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist can read and interpret the same verses and come to conflicting conclusions as to their meaning? Is there something going on that one or the other is not taking into consideration in their exegetical process and in the interpretive task? I contend that the answer is “Yes, it is the Calvinist’s disregard of the incoherence of their interpretive conclusions.“
The answer to these questions involves something we all take for granted in all our decision-making, yet Calvinists believe is dispensable in ‘spiritual’ matters. That is, the presence or absence of rational coherence. I contend that proposed interpretations of particular texts and the theological paradigms developed from those texts ought to exhibit rational coherence, logical consistency and avoid contradictions. No matter how exhaustive the technical exegesis of a passage may be, the interpretive results must be rationally coherent with that text’s immediate and broader context along with the truths expressed in the biblical cannon taken as a whole. I submit that both historical-grammatical exegesis and interpretive logical and moral coherence are essential for reaching theological conclusions that can plausibly be put forward as valid, accurate reflection of what the author intended to say to his original readers. In that Scripture is inspired by God and therefore is a coherent Word, interpretive coherence is an indispensable check against misinterpretation or forcing a passage to conform to a presupposed theological viewpoint rather than letting the passage inform that theology. I also submit that within the context of the technical aspects of exegesis, the presence of interpretive logical and moral coherence are reliable indicators of sound interpretation and evident to us. That is, incoherence is a sure indicator of invalid interpretation, and, we know such incoherence when we see it. How do we gain a sense of certainty that an interpretation of the text is actually what the text means to communicate? By embracing an interpretive methodology that acknowledges that proposed meanings cannot be incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory. If we do not hold fast to this obvious hermeneutical principle we will be left without the means to make judgments as to whether or not proposed interpretations and theological constructs are biblically accurate. Conversely, to attempt to dismiss these as unimportant with respect to our theological propositions would not only indict Scripture as incoherent, but discredit one’s position and enable one to justify even the most bizarre claims on the basis of “the Bible teaches both” or “it is “beyond our finite comprehension” or it’s a “mystery.” But we must reject such claims and interpretations because we know incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction when we see it. Therefore to cavalierly dismiss incoherence and inconsistency or attempt to rationalize these away is both disingenuous and reckless. It is to ignore what is fundamental to all meaningful thought and discourse. Meaningful thought and discourse cannot proceed to the goal of getting at the true meaning of a text or determining the biblical validity of our theological constructs without agreement on the hermeneutical necessity of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction. And this is the reason why this controversy continues. It has been my experience, and therefore my contention here, that Calvinists do not acknowledge the importance of logical and moral coherence in their theological and soteriological formulations. For them coherence is not an essential element in determining valid interpretations and theological constructs.
We must therefore concern ourselves with two matters. Of course we must present the evidence, that is, exegete and explain the texts. But equally important, we must also weigh the evidence, that is, determine whether or not the meanings proposed “make sense.” But how do we weigh evidence? We do so on the basis of consistency. We do so by evaluating the texts according to what is rationally and morally coherent and consistent with respect to other textual and theological conclusions. Every day and in every way we are continually engaged in “common sense,” rational decision-making. We all use and depend upon the fundamental laws of reasoning to determine what is true from what is false. Yet, when speaking about God or “spiritual” things or doing theology, “common sense” seems to be dispensable for the Calvinist. Non-Calvinists feel this acutely with respect to Calvinism. The non-Calvinist observes that legitimate challenges to the logical and moral coherence and consistency of Calvinist thought and word tend to be dismissed by attempts to explain them away as only “apparent contradiction,” “high mystery,” “incomprehensible to fallen human reason” or that “the Bible teaches both” (that is, sovereignty and free will as contradictory propositions). Furthermore, to persist challenging the rational coherence of Calvinism is, according to them, an exhibition of sinful pride and a striving for human autonomy which refuses to bow to God’s sovereignty. But if in all these “explanations” the stated concerns about interpretive logical coherence and consistency are summarily dismissed to preserve a certain theological viewpoint, we then have every reason to believe that that viewpoint is invalid. In that God is the author of the laws of reason, and has made us rational beings who, despite the fall, retain and function on the basis of these laws, we will persistently be confronted by the necessity that our interpretations demonstrate logical and moral coherence. The mind seeks logical and moral resolution of the propositions that confront it, and rightly so. The mind does everything it can to find the rational coherence of a position to determine the truth or falsity of that position. If it cannot find this resolution, then it knows it is up against a contradiction. For the fundamental laws of reasoning set the propositional bottom-line which no one can ignore without being deemed “irrational” in the truest sense of the word. (See Chapter 7 and “Ravi Zacharias on How to come to Grips with the Truth”)
Most Calvinists know that they cannot summarily dismiss the biblical testimony to the reality of contingency, human freedom and moral responsibility. They also cannot dismiss that these realities are evidenced all around them and that they themselves live their daily lives based on the presupposition of the truth of these realities. We human beings think and act as if we are creatures with substantial freedom of the will. In direct conflict with these beliefs and practices, the Calvinist also holds fast to a deterministic understanding of an eternal divine decree and sovereignty. Hence, revealing that they actually do affirm the necessity that our beliefs must be rational, the Calvinist feels pressured to show that their theistic determinism is logically compatible with human free will. Hence, the name compatibilism. The Calvinists who adopt compatibilism differ from Calvinists who also believe in divine determinism but see that the logic of such determinism requires them to deny human free will. Calvinists that flat out deny human free will are called “hard determinists.” Calvinists who adopt compatibilism are called “soft determinists.”
Theologian John S. Feinberg is a soft determinist who embraces compatibilism. He writes,
“Unfortunately, some Calvinists, because of their understanding of God’s sovereignty, have denied that humans are free. Yet some of those Calvinists maintain that we are morally responsible for our sin, while God, who decreed our sin, is not morally accountable. When asked how this can be true, they respond that it is a paradox which nonetheless must be true because Scripture demands it.”
Let us pause here to make some observations.
The first is that there is this common moral idea or intuition that Calvinists are struggling with here. This intuition is telling these Calvinists that something is not quite right about the “paradox,” that is, the claim that “we are morally responsible for our sin, while God, who decreed our sin, is not morally accountable.” Hence, we need to ask what this moral idea or intuition that seems to want to reject the “paradox” is all about. Is our moral intuition accurate and valid? Is it reliable for knowing what’s true here? And we need to ask where does it come from and in what is it grounded? This will have implications as to what conclusions we reach regarding the plausibility of compatibilism.
The second observation is that for the “hard determinists,” both the logical incoherence and the moral intuition that tells them something is not quite right about the “paradox,” are so essential to their interpretive thinking that they are compelled to deny human freedom. They obviously see their understanding of God’s sovereignty as logically and morally incompatible with human free will, that is, that there is a real contradiction here. The two are mutually exclusive. Therefore, it appears that the “hard determinists” believe that rational integrity demands making a choice between the two, and they choose to deny human freedom. The point to note is that if the “hard” determinist’s logical reflections and moral intuitions are reliable and inviolable, and these create a contradiction between sovereignty and free will, then these Calvinists are taking rational and moral coherence seriously. Whether they let it guide their interpretation of Scripture is another matter. At least they are rationally compelled to either deny God’s sovereignty as they understand it from Scripture as theistic determinism, or deny human freedom which presumably they take as ultimately illusory. But since human freedom and responsibility have “real life” experiential and practical weight that cannot simply be ignored, these Calvinists must make a “hard” choice. And since they cannot see how any biblical alteration can be made to their definition of God’s sovereignty as deterministic, they therefore deny there is any such thing as human freedom. And although this requires them to ignore the overwhelming testimony of Scripture to libertarian freedom that brought them to this crossroad, at least they are attempting to be logically and morally consistent with their determinism, if not interpretively consistent.
The third observation is that the “soft Calvinists” who see a problem with the “paradox” that “we are morally responsible for our sin, while God, who decreed our sin, is not morally accountable,” but do not solve it by an outright denial of human freedom, do so rather by developing a way that they believe the two can be responsibly understood as compatible. Along with the rest of us they obviously sense the logical and moral problem that causes them to ask, “How can this be true?” They will provide reasons that, if not able to persuade the non-Calvinist, are at least intended to intellectually satisfy themselves. But there is going to be another alternative that persistently presents itself. That is, even upon hearing the compatibilist’s reasoning as to how theistic determinism is compatible with human freedom and responsibility, when our logical and moral reasoning are baffled by their “paradox,” perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether this “paradox” is really a paradox or actually a real logical and moral contradiction, and therefore the problem lies in the Calvinist’s interpretation of Scripture.
That said, Feinberg continues,
“I do not affirm this paradox. Instead, like many other determinists, I claim that there is room for a genuine sense of free human action, even though such action is causally determined. This kind of freedom cannot be indeterministic, of course. Instead, determinists who hold to free will distinguish two kinds of causes which influence and determine actions. On the one hand, there are constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will. On the other hand, there are nonconstraining causes. These are sufficient to bring about an action, but they do not force a person to act against his will, desires or wishes. According to determinists such as myself, an action is free even if casually determined so long as the causes are nonconstraining. This view is often referred to as soft determinism or compatibilism, for genuinely free human action is seen as compatible with nonconstraining sufficient conditions which incline the will decisively in one way or another.”
Now, red lights probably flashed in your mind when you read “I claim that there is room for a genuine sense of free human action, even though such action is causally determined.” It is this kind of Calvinist thinking that we need to carefully examine. Note further that Feinberg rejects the “paradox” explanation that accepted that we are morally responsible for our sin when it is God who decreed our sin and somehow he is not morally responsible. Feinberg rejects this view for its incoherence, revealing that he is aware of the need for rational coherence in one’s interpretations. But as a determinist he doesn’t seem to be doing any better on the coherence front than those who hold to the “paradox” view because with regard to his kind of “human freedom” he sates “This kind of freedom cannot be indeterministic, of course.” This kind of “freedom” has to be “deterministic” freedom. But is this possible? Does deterministic freedom even “make sense?” Do we even have to “make sense?”
Therefore, if “making sense” or maintaining coherence is essential to establishing the validity of an interpretation, then we have to discern whether or not there is a real logical contradiction and/or moral incoherence here. And if there is, we have to grapple with whether inspired Scripture can teach logical contradictions and moral incoherencies. Just to label this problematic a “paradox” begs the question as to whether the Scripture has been rightly interpreted. And Feinberg rejects the “paradox” view. He believes he needs to “make sense” if he is going to espouse that the Bible teaches theistic determinism and human freedom. So I hope you can begin to see that this is a question of whether our logic and moral intuitions are hermeneutically significant or not, and whether it is hermeneutically legitimate to cavalierly claim “paradox” to gain spiritual and scriptural clout for one’s position. The claim that “Scripture demands it” begs the question. How we know that Scripture actually teaches what one claims it teaches is what we are attempting to discern. It seems that “soft determinists” like Feinberg also feel the pressure of rational coherence, otherwise they would not be bothered by attempting a reconciliation between determinism and human free will. Why the need for compatibilism?
Feinberg maintains that “there is room for a genuine sense of free human action, even though such action is causally determined.” But will Feinberg’s compatibilism be a logically and morally coherent explanation that avoids the hard determinist’s denial of human freedom or the Calvinist who holds to “paradox” and just states the Bible teaches both without any attempt to “make sense” of the matter? Can there really be a genuinely free human action while such actions are causally determined by God? Let’s examine his view further.
Let’s make two observations about what Feinberg has said above. Now, do not forget that Feinberg is a theistic determinist, that is, he believes that everything that occurs happens because God predetermined and causes it to happen that way. So, the first and most important observation is that Feinberg states that “determinists who hold to free will [i.e., Feinberg] distinguish two kinds of causes which influence and determine actions.” So there are two causes which determine actions. Feinberg states, “On the one hand, there are constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will.” But then Feinberg says “On the other hand, there are nonconstraining causes. These are sufficient to bring about an action, but they do not force a person to act against his will, desires or wishes. According to determinists such as myself, an action is free even if casually determined so long as the causes are nonconstraining.” Now presumably the type of cause God always effects is the latter “non-constraining cause.” God can determine all things and persons still be free. But Feinberg has also talked about the existence of “constraining causes that force an agent to act against his will.” Now if Feinberg is making a statement about what actually can and does happen to people – that they experience constraining forces that cause them to act against their will – and I think he is, then he has defeated his own compatibilist determinism. Remember that compatibilists are determinists, which means they believe God alone has willed, predetermined and causes all things. Yet Feinberg speaks of two types of causes – “constraining” and “non-constraining.” Now if God works through “non-constraining causes” or works his will through “nonconstraining sufficient conditions” to bring about all human actions, then who or what is causing the “constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will?” As a theistic determinist, Feinberg believes that God is the cause of all human actions. Now if God is also working his will through “constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will” then human freedom is not preserved and compatibilism fails. But if God causes all things and Feinberg is admitting that there are times that people are forced to do things against their will by constraining causes, then either God works through constraining causes to force people to do things against their wills, thus defeating compatibilism, or there are causal agents other than God at work in the world, thus defeating theistic determinism. Therefore, Feinberg and all compatibilists are inconsistent if they admit that “there are constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will.” What are these “constraining causes” and where do they come from such that they “force an agent to act against his will?” Has God allowed some other “will” to slip in and be at work alongside or contrary to his non-constraining causal activity which has supposedly ordained “whatsoever comes to pass?” Given compatibilism, these “constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will” cannot come from God, for God works through “nonconstraining causes” or “nonconstraining sufficient conditions which incline the will decisively in one way or another.”
Therefore, in that God ordains “whatsoever comes to pass,” the compatibilist admits to an inconsistency when they admit to the reality of “constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will.” It would seem that the compatibilist is admitting that there is more going on in our world than can be explained by universal divine causal determinism working through non-constraining causes. And to admit that is to admit his view is incoherent.
The second observations is that when Feinberg talks about “constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will,” he is admitting to a certain nature of “the will” as something that is of that person – it is “his will.” That is, “the will” seems to be an aspect of the person themselves and therefore separate or individuated from the will of God. But universal divine causal determinism seems to entail that there is only one causal “will” at work in the world, and that is God’s. More on this below.
The third observation is that even though Feinberg uses the term “agent” only once in this paragraph, he never uses the phrase “free human agency,” it is always “free human action.” And when he does use the term “agent” it is in the negative context of “constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will” which the compatibilist denies is what is happening in compatibilism. Now to be charitable, perhaps when Feinberg writes about “free human action” he is not losing sight that humans are also free agents. After all, compatibilism is the way he and most Calvinist deal with the problem of the incoherence between determinism and genuine human freedom. Perhaps he is stressing the idea that determinism has to do with the cause of a person’s actions, which it certainly does. It explains why people act as they do. But it will also deal with the ultimate origin of these acts, that is, from where or from whom do they originate, and how are they brought about. Would Feinberg be comfortable with the position that God determines the desires and actions of “free agents?” Would that be too obvious a contradiction?
I just want to mention this observation because it may be significant. Feinberg may be avoiding the phrase “free human agency” because the contradiction between free human action and determinism is made more evident when the term agency is used. For instance, if we have Feinberg saying,
“Instead, like many other determinists, I claim that there is room for a genuine sense of free human agency, even though such agency is causally determined.”
“…genuinely free human agency is seen as compatible with nonconstraining sufficient conditions which incline the will decisively in one way or another.”
It is the difference between one causal agent (God) causally determining every thought, desire, belief and action of another causal agent, as compared to one causal agent (God) causally determining a human action. To talk of a free agent comes smack up against determinism. What is a “human agent” if not a being with a substantially independent will of their own? One can stress the cause of a free human action being determined by God, which is a contradiction in itself, but this downplays the human as a free agent which to me seems to sharpen the point of the problem here. Feinberg’s language focuses on actions being free even though causally determined by God (“free” being defined by acting according to your desires, which are determined by God), rather than on a free agent being caused or made to act according to God’s will. The latter seems to be a logical impossibility.
In fact, Dr. William Lane Craig observes that,
“…it’s logically impossible for God to make someone freely do something. If he does it freely, he cannot be made to do it. If God makes him do it then he doesn’t do it freely. It is as logically impossible to make somebody do something freely as it is to make a round square or a married bachelor. That’s just logically impossible, and being all-powerful doesn’t mean the ability to do the logically impossible.”
Therefore, it is more problematic to conceive of a free agent being causally determined to act according to another’s will, than merely the creature’s act being causally determined by another’s will and yet claiming it is a free act. More on the importance of free agency to personhood below. There’s no need to split hairs over my observations here. The main point still stands. The Calvinist has to attempt to alleviate the logical and moral conflict his determinism creates with human agency and human freedom.
So, since the compatibilist is going to maintain their theistic determinism, they therefore must offer a definition of human freedom rationally coherent with that determinism. In short, compatibilists maintain that as long we are able to act according to our desires, wants and wishes we are acting freely, that is, without constraint or coercion. So the compatibilist maintains their determinism by having God determine what we desire, want and wish for. If all things are determined by God, how is it that we are acting freely? By defining “freely” as being able to act according to our desires. The determinism is maintained by stating that it is God who determines our desires, wants and wishes, and therefore you act “freely” out of “your” desires and without constraint or coercion.
But this raises certain problems and questions. Look at it this way. When personal being #1 (you) is acted upon by personal being #2 (God) such that personal being #1 (you) irresistibly and imperceptibly performs the will of personal being #2 (God), even though it is via “nonconstraining sufficient conditions,” and personal being #1 (you) cannot do otherwise, is there any meaningful sense in which we can say that personal being #1 (you) freely willed to do what you did? Is personal being #1 (you) doing what you will to do in the sense that it is the person (you) via that person’s own will (yours) that is doing it and not just your physical body via your desires as willed and determined by personal being #2 (God)? Are you, as a personal being, willing and acting freely in any meaningful sense if you are acted upon deterministically by another’s will? Are you willing and acting freely if you are merely instrumentally and inevitably moved by the will of another, even if through the “nonconstraining sufficient conditions” of your own desires being determined by God?
Calvinists will attempt to alleviate their incoherence by focusing on the fact that God is a personal being and therefore determinism avoids the puppet and robot analogies often brought against it. The determinism takes on a personal aspect as God determines all the desires, wants and wishes of every one of his human creatures. But how can the comprehensive predetermination of the will, desires, wishes, beliefs and actions of another person be said to be “nonconstraining” even though the cause of these predeterminations is a personal God?
Moreover, just because the person doesn’t realize their will, desires, beliefs, wishes and actions are being determined by God’s will, does that establish that their actions remain their own, that is, that they are acting according to their own will freely? It is hard to see how that is the case.
And what are we to think once “the cat is let out of the bag” and we all learn that our wills, desires, wishes, beliefs and actions are meticulously and exhaustively determined by God and we are merely “performing” accordingly? The result is that we must acknowledge that our willing, desiring, wishing, believing and acting are not of us or our own but are being determined by God. We are not willing anything of ourselves, rather we are being willed to will as we do and therefore act as we do. As such, we do not do what we do freely. We can sense the inescapable force of this conclusion on becoming aware of the truth of theistic determinism. But do we really experience and think that theistic determinism is really the way things are? I don’t think so. We sense even more powerfully the force of the conclusion that life as we know and experience it as personal beings is not deterministic. Indeed, the problems of impugning God’s character as being the author of evil and the demise of personal responsibility and culpability return to haunt us.
The more fundamental issues here involve the meaning of personhood and what is entailed in a person acting freely. Personhood is what I was attempting to stress in the awkward paragraph contrasting person #1 (you) and person #2 (God) above. Obviously the determinist presupposes in their discussion that individuals have, as integral to their personhood, a will of their own. They presuppose that there is a will that is uniquely theirs – with the accompanying desires, wants and wishes – in each human person by virtue of their human personhood. Feinberg clearly implies this when he states,
“…determinists who hold to free will distinguish two kinds of causes which influence and determine actions. On the one hand, there are constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will.”
The fact of an individuated will is presupposed in the debate itself. So, what happens to that individuated will on compatibilism? The person’s will obviously stays with or within the individual person, yet it is irresistibly and undetectably altered by God according to God’s will. This is important so let’s try to give it careful thought.
What makes us human beings different from other creatures is not only our rational capacity but also our personhood. At a minimum, personhood entails the individuation of a self from another selfs. It is fascinating to contemplate that each of us is a unique individual. No two human beings are the same regarding their personhood. We each person is different from all other persons. Hence, when one self or person seeks to “influence” the thinking, desires, beliefs and actions of another self or person to act differently, that presupposes two wills that are under the control of those two selfs or persons. To have “a will” is entailed in what it means to be a person. Integral to being a person is to have an individuated will under the control of the person, which is to say that they are something more than the random firing of electrical impulses in the brain and atoms in motion. They are also of the nature of a soul. Therefore, to have “a will” is to say that the person’s desires, wishes, beliefs and actions are under the control of that person to a significant degree. That person, or self, always retains the ability to will to think and act differently than another self would will that person to think and act. As such, the self has a will of its own that cannot be decisively, irresistibly, undetectably and unalterably either predetermined or determined by another self no matter how the determination occurs (i.e., coercively or non-coercively, constraining or non-constraining). Changes of will, desires, wants, beliefs, actions, etc. can happen among persons by persuasion. A person may be persuaded, but such persuasion presupposes an individuated self and a will that can do otherwise because, on the other hand, that person may not be persuaded.
Therefore, it is always the determinism of compatibilism that is problematic. That Calvinist theistic determinism is defined as “I (God) will unfailingly have the other person to do what I (God) will them to do” is what creates the real logical contradiction with personhood because human free will is integral to personhood. The fact that we can add to, “I (God) will unfailingly have the other person do what I (God) will have them to do,” the phrase, “nonconstraining sufficient conditions,” does not relieve the contradiction inherent in Feinberg’s claim that there is here “a genuine sense of free human action, even though such action is causally determined.” There is a genuine sense of human action, but it is not free human action. Just because an act issues from a person’s desires does not make it free, it only makes it occur. This issue is not merely about what actions God wants performed in the world through instrumental human means, it’s about discerning what kind of world he willed to create.
It is a baffling conception of human free will that has one’s desires, wishes and beliefs caused by what another (God) has unfailingly and unalterably determined these to be solely according to his own will. “Free human action” implies not merely the performance of an action by a human creature, but that the source of the action is the person’s own will, and not merely their desires divorced from their will. The problem is precisely that one’s desires, wishes, beliefs, and therefore their will and actions, have been determined by the will of another. It is both an issue of the source of the willing and the removal of the ability to will otherwise due to the determinism of the causal influences of another’s will that renders the claim to “a genuine sense of free human action” meaningless within the context of determinism.
It is the determinism, even if achieved by “nonconstraining sufficient conditions,” that is destructive to the retaining of personhood as entailing a self which entails the substantive independence of the exercise of one’s own will. If “a genuine sense of free human action” is to be retained, it must retain the ability to do otherwise. This requires an individuated will within that person themselves. From a theological point of view it is the ultimate and inevitable theistic determinism, not the “nonconstraining sufficient conditions,” that is the crucial problematic issue. The determinism annihilates personhood. When “nonconstraining sufficient conditions” are employed by one person to determine the thoughts and actions of another person we have the same end result – the obliteration of any meaningful sense of personhood which must include the free human action rooted in the will of the person themselves.
With regard to persons and personhood, it is incoherent to speak of “nonconstraining causes” or “nonconstraining sufficient conditions” which “incline the will decisively in one way or another” and also talk of “genuinely free human action.” I should say here that this does not mean that God does not have the prerogative to determine people’s actions however and whenever the accomplishment of his will, plans and purposes require – even if these require foregoing the free will of the person. And when he does so determine their actions, they are not at that point exercising their free will. Human freedom is not absolute, but it is of a certain nature that is logically and morally incompatible with theistic determinism. So when God determines to do what he wills for reasons he may reveal or not reveal, he has the right to circumvent human freedom. But that is not the same as the universal divine causal determinism that characterizes both “hard” and “soft” determinists. To understand the activity of God as a universal divine causal determinism goes against the Scriptural witness to the nature of God, human freedom and responsibility and a contingent reality. And therefore, due to this incoherence, we know it to be a flawed interpretation of Scripture.
Moreover, in the context of claims about there being “genuinely free human action,” determinisms, and the causes and “sufficient conditions” that are a result of them, are, by definition, “constraining.” Just because Feinberg reaches one step back to “inclining the will,” does not mean there is no “constraining” going on. According to Feinberg’s determinism the desires, wishes, and beliefs of a person are both affected and effected in their totality by God alone. Rather than holding a gun to their head, the constraining is present in the supernatural activity at the point of the desires, wishes and beliefs in the person, which will lead them to perform the actions that God has willed they perform. It is only verbal legerdemain to claim “God is not forcing a person to act against his will” when God is rather preempting his will altogether! Surely Calvinists like Feinberg believe we have wills. Well, what then is a will for? Feinberg’s compatibilism has subverted the whole concept and meaning of will. Sure the person is acting according to their will which has now become identical with the will of God, but for an individual to will identically in concert with the will of God by him irresistibly and undetectably causing you to do so, is for you to no longer have a will. It is not that due to the free assent of their own will you choose to do the will of God, but rather by God working irresistibly and determinatively through “nonconstraining sufficient conditions” to alter your will, desires, wishes and actions to accord with what God wills. And, according to Calvinism, it is God who wills what is to be with respect to all things. Certainly this is not to “force a person to act against his will” precisely because the whole of the will has been preempted! There is no will here to be forced and therefore nothing here to be willed by the person themselves. Indeed, to incline “his will” decisively would leave no will for God to forcefully act against! Therefore, it makes no sense to speak in those terms. To decisively determine a person’s desires, wishes, beliefs and actions is to completely overtake them. Personhood, will, etc. become irrelevant if not non-existent. And this is precisely the problem. “Calvinist-speak” will not work here. The bottom-line is that one person (God), who has the power to do so, is unfailingly substituting the will of the human creature with his own will. Simply because it is not a physical event of coercion, it is nonetheless, if the person has a will of their own, some kind of constraint, and that for the purpose of absolute control.
In contrast to Calvinism’s universal divine causal determinism, C. S. Lewis writes the following about God’s relationship to the human persons he has created.
“[God] has provided a rich, beautiful world for people to live in. He has given them intelligence to show them how it can be used, and conscience to show them how it ought to be used. He has contrived that the things that they need for their biological life (food, drink, rest, sleep, exercise) should be positively delightful to them. And, having done all this, He then sees all His plans spoiled – just as our little plans are spoiled – by the crookedness of the people themselves. All the things he has given them to be happy with they turn into occasions for quarrelling and jealousy, and excess and hoarding, and tomfoolery.
You may say it is very different for God because He could, if He pleased, alter people’s characters, and we can’t. But this difference doesn’t go quite as deep as we may first think. God has made it a rule for Himself that He won’t alter people’s character by force. He can and will alter them – but only if the people will let Him. In that way he has really and truly limited His power. Sometimes we wonder why He has done so, or even wish that he hadn’t. But apparently He thinks it worth doing. He would rather have a world of free beings, with all the risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn’t do anything else. The more we succeed in imagining what a world of perfect automatic beings would be like, the more, I think, we shall see his wisdom.”
Calvinists claim that there is no “constraining” or “coercion” going on in compatibilism. But I submit that the will of a person is integral with and inseparable from that person’s desires, wants, and wishes. That is just what it means to will. To will means to have one’s own desires, wants and wishes, that is, one’s own as the person being the source and originator, not merely as an instrumental means by which God’s will is done. If this is what it means “to will,” then if God is the sole determiner and cause of the person’s desires, wants and wishes, then he has in effect completely overtaken or totally preempted their will. Technically speaking, of course there is no “constraining” or “coercion” of the person’s will going on. But this is a distinction without a difference. There need be no “constraining” or “coercion” because the will has been totally preempted by God to do as he has predetermined; which is to say as he has willed. And by this undetectable, irresistible “force,” the will of the individual has been extricated and their personhood violated. The compatibilist’s insistence that there is no “constraining” or “coercion” here seems to be false. If there is a will that God is acting upon, and the person themselves is not exercising that will in consenting to allow God to work in him to do his will, then this certainly is “constraining” or “coercing” that person’s will. What would we call the undetectable, irresistible influencing of a person’s will without the person’s knowledge or permission? “Permission” implies the distinct, separate willing capacities of persons. But on Calvinist compatibilism God doesn’t ask the person for permission. He just goes about substituting their thoughts, attitudes, desires, wants, wishes, beliefs and actions with his. Basically the will of the person is being excised from them. The thoughts and desires that are occurring are no longer their thoughts and desires. And if a will is still located in the physical human creature, it is no longer their will in any meaningful sense.
The Calvinist will grant that you have desires, but they will not grant you your will from which your own desires, wants and wishes would flow. But the will cannot be divorced from desires, wants and wishes, and therefore these cannot be divorced from the will. They form an integral whole. Therefore, if we are going to retain a genuine will, these desires, wants, beliefs, wishes and actions need to be ours. The only way they can become in sync with God’s will is as we surrender our wills to his as he reveals it to us.
Again, if our wills cannot be separated from our desires, wishes, beliefs, and actions, then for the compatibilist to claim that God determines all things by determining everyone’s desires, wishes, beliefs and actions is to say God determines all things by annihilating everyone’s will. Therefore some form of “constraint” or “coercion” is in play, but there is a point at which these terms no longer have relevance as God fulfills his predeterminations in all things. Even this is not an accurate way of describing what happens for there is no moment at which God has not already fulfilled what he has predetermined. Yes, time reveals that determinism, but time is not meaningful in the sense that we participate in it as free agents. History has no meaning to which we are genuine contributors. “Constraint” or “coercion” are no longer applicable when God takes total control over everything about a person, which somehow extends to even before they were born. Each of us is in a situation in which our will has been so effectively and totally edited and dominated by divine influence, such that in every minute detail of thought, desire, belief and action we are doing what God has predetermined before the foundation of the world that we do. In what sense then can it be said that we even exist and function as human persons? In light of divine determinism, the compatibilist’s point that God doesn’t accomplish his will by constraining, forcing or coercing the human will rings hollow. The Calvinist’s justification of God’s effectual work on our wills as “non-constraining “or “non-coercive” is incredible and also irrelevant. If to have a will means anything at all, and we are not voluntarily involved in consenting to do God’s will, then God must be constraining or coercing our wills, while sooner or later completely taking them over as the Calvinist doctrines of the eternal divine decree and sovereignty require.
Therefore, this issue of “constraint” or “coercion” is a red-herring. It is not germane to discerning the truth or falsity of compatibilism. What is relevant is that every action of all persons has been caused to be put into effect by God having commandeered every thought and desire of those persons to be those that he has predetermined solely of his own will. The point is that the person’s will is no longer the person’s will. Indeed, God has seen to it that the person’s will is no longer, but that the “person” is in every way and at all times doing God’s will. Even the human will is swallowed up in the vortex of determinism.
So “compatibilism” doesn’t seem to be able to relieve the logical and moral difficulties produced by theistic determinism by indicating that if God changes the person’s desires, wants and wishes, then the person is still acting according to their free will. But compatibilism is just Calvinist determinism under another name. Dr. Craig explains,
“…everyone agrees that human beings are free. The real question is: is freedom consistent with causal determinism or not? Compatibilists maintain that you can be causally determined to do what you do and still be said to be free. If you interpret freedom along compatibilist lines, then there is no problem in reconciling freedom with universal divine causal determinism. Indeed, compatibilism entails determinism. According to compatibilism, if you are free you are causally determined. However, the problem with this solution is that adopting compatibilism achieves a reconciliation of these Scriptural streams of tradition only at the expense of denying what that one stream of tradition seems to affirm; namely, genuine indeterminacy and contingency. Because on compatibilism, there really isn’t any contingency or indeterminacy – everything is causally determined. So I don’t think that universal divine causal determinism gives a coherent interpretation of Scripture. It affirms divine sovereignty but it is forced to ride roughshod over all of those texts that affirm contingency and indeterminism in the world.”
It is important to note that for Dr. Craig comes at the expense of denying what is everywhere obvious in Scripture, that is, “genuine indeterminacy and contingency.” Dr. Craig’s hermeneutic requires coherence. Coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are imperative for both doing proper interpretation and for evaluating the validity of interpretive claims. He states that universal divine causal determinism does not give “a coherent interpretation of Scripture.” He adds that, “It affirms divine sovereignty but it is forced to ride roughshod over all of those texts that affirm contingency and indeterminism in the world.” Dr. Craig has a hermeneutic of coherence. In contrast, compatibilist Calvinists do not consider coherence to be hermeneutically or interpretively significant. They hold to a hermeneutic of incoherence that is supplemented with “mystery” to divert attention from that incoherence. So we can see that this this controversy is ultimately a hermeneutical issue and has its foundations in a hermeneutical divide. A hermeneutic of coherence is devastating to the Calvinist’s universal divine causal deterministic interpretation of Scripture.
Calvinist’s who are “soft determinists,” that is, those who still define divine sovereignty deterministically and yet want to affirm human free will, have a vested interest in developing an argument in defense of their position that is logically coherent. Compatibilism is supposed to be that argument. I submit that compatibilism fails in this regard and sound principles of interpretation which include logical and moral reasoning still support the conclusion that instead of being a “paradox,” the Calvinist definition of sovereignty as theistic determinism finds itself in real contradiction with human freedom. Hence, if Calvinist compatibilism can be shown to be untenable with respect to human freedom, as I have attempted to show above, and incoherent with the witness of Scripture to indeterminacy and contingency, as Dr. Craig has pointed out, then we have further established the implausibility of Calvinism. In addition, if Calvinist compatibilism can be shown to be logically contradictory, then, on the basis of the the rules of logic which are necessary for rational thought and discourse, compatibilism would surely be false. More on this issue can and needs to be said.
Philosopher Jerry Walls in his essay, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist”,  seeks to show that determinism and free will are logical contradictions. He demonstrates the problematic nature of Calvinist compatibilism with regard to moral responsibility, the problem of evil, and eternal damnation, as well as the logical contradiction inherent in compatibilism. He contends that “no one who is a serious theist, let alone an orthodox Christian, should accept compatibilism.”
Walls defines theological determinism and theological compatibilism as follows.
“By theological determinism I mean the view that everything that occurs happens exactly as God intends because he has ordered all things in such a way that there are sufficient determining causes for everything, including human actions. By theological compatibilism, I mean the view that rational beings who are determined by God in all their actions, can still be fully free and responsible for those actions. … for now let us simply note that such compatibilists, like compatibilists simpliciter, insist that freedom and responsibility are entirely compatible with complete determinism. The Westminster Confession, a classic theological statement in this tradition, famously puts these claims as follows.
God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
A particularly striking, and poignant, aspect of classic theological determinism is the doctrine that God has determined from all eternity who will be saved and who will be damned. Again to cite the Westminster Confession: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others ordained to everlasting death.”
The confession goes on to explain that God determines means as well as ends. “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will ordained all the means thereunto.” He moves upon these elect persons in such a way that he enlightens their minds and changes their hearts, thereby “renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ, yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by grace.”
Now what I want to highlight about theological determinism is that it is underwritten and scripted by a personal God who determines all things according to “the most free purpose of his will.” God was under no necessity to determine things in the specific way he did, nor to choose to save or damn the particular people he did, nor perhaps to save or damn anyone at all. Indeed, in agreement with the majority of the theistic tradition, theological determinists typically hold that God did not need to create at all, so his very choice to create anything is most free, not itself determined in any way.
This notion that all things are “unchangeably” determined, yet radically contingent upon the will of a personal being who causes them is what distinguishes theological determinism from naturalistic determinism, and theological compatibilism from compatibilism simpliciter. Not only is everything determined, everything is intended. The determining cause of our actions that preceded our birth by countless years is not merely impersonal forces of nature, but an intelligent agent who executes his intentions in every detail of what happens as well as every human choice. It is the difference between being determined by blind forces and being determined by the most perspicacious sight possible.”
Let’s continue with Wall’s argument which will demonstrate that there is a logical contradiction within compatibilism. And as most of us think, where there is a logical contradiction there is a false belief.
He begins by identifying the compatibilist position as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Section X of the Confession, titled “On Effectual Calling,” begins in sub-point 1 by stating,
“All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone and giving them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” (Emphases mine)
Walls points out that to most of us this seems incoherent. Common sense tells us that there is a conflict between God determining certain persons “to that which is good” and also being “effectually” drawn to come to Christ, and the claim that “yet so as they come most freely.” What is obviously problematic is the claim that a person can be acted upon deterministically and effectually by God, and yet also claim that the person is acting freely. The Confession seems to incoherently assert that God is able to determine that persons do “that which is good,” including effectually calling them to “grace and salvation” and yet that they do it “most freely.” Walls states that the compatibilist maintains “There is no logical inconsistency between freedom and determinism. Freedom and responsibility are compatible with total determinism.” But how can this be? Either the determinism or the free will has to be sacrificed. What the compatibilist does is offer a definition of “free will” that can accommodate their determinism.
First Walls defines what most of us think “free will” means, that is, libertarian freedom. He states,
“A free action is one that is not determined by prior causes or conditions. As he makes the choice, the agent has the power to choose A and the power to choose not-A, it is up to him how he will choose.”
Walls points out that the compatibilist does not agree with the libertarian definition of free will. Rather, the compatibilist argues that free will is defined by three things.
- A free act is not caused or compelled by anything external to the agent who performs it.
- It is, however, caused by something internal to the agent, namely a psychological state of affairs such as a belief, desire or some combination of these two.
- The agent performing the act could have done differently if he had wanted to.
Number 1 addresses being physically forced into an action against your wishes. This would not be a free act. The libertarian would agree here. It also qualifies “cause” and “compelled” by “external to the agent.” The key word here is “external.” The Calvinist will make much of the difference between “external” and “internal.”
Number 2 maintains that acts that spring from your internal psychological states of affairs, such as your beliefs and desires, constitute free acts. These can be and are formed by factors and experiences external to you, but once you have formed these internal thoughts, beliefs, desires, wishes, etc. you will act according to them – you will do what you desire and want to do and although you cannot act differently you are still acting freely. The point to grasp is that acting according to your beliefs and desires is to act freely. The key term here is “internal” and the key point is that those internal states of affairs are the cause of your actions which the compatibilist claims are free actions.
Number 3 states that if you had been caused to have other thoughts, beliefs, wishes, and desires then you could have acted differently. But of course since you do not have other beliefs and desires than the ones you do have, you cannot act differently. So this point is stated as a counterfactual. It is true that if you were to have other beliefs and desires you could act differently than you do, but you can’t act differently because you do not have other beliefs and desires. You could act differently if you wanted to, but you don’t want to, so you can’t act differently. So, for the compatibilist, free will is defined as being able to do what you internally desire and will to do.
Now the determinism is preserved by claiming that it is God who gives you your internal desires, beliefs, thoughts, wishes, etc. For the compatibilist, the fact that God determines what you internally desire and will to do does not constitute a violation of your free will. As long as you are able to act according to your beliefs, thoughts, desires, etc., you are acting freely.
So reflecting again on the Westminster Confession section X.1 we see how God acts upon those he has “predestined to life.” He a) enlightens their minds, b) changes their hearts, and c) renews their wills. In all this he, “by his almighty power,” is “determining” them “to that which is good.” And yet it is said that “they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” Those who do good and come to Christ do so freely because they are “made willing by his grace.” And here we have the essential phrase in this compatibilist view. “They are made willing…” This will constitute the definition of “free will” for the compatibilist. As long as someone is acting out what they will to do, they are acting freely, yet, they are “made willing” by God.
Walls stresses that we must understand this difference in the definition of free will if we are going to understand Calvinism and the deeper issues at stake here. There is a significant difference between libertarian freedom and compatibilist freedom. Walls states that compatibilism is coherent as long as you understand freedom the way the compatibilist defines freedom. He observes that any attempt to reconcile determinism and libertarian freedom will lead to logical inconsistency. But if you define freedom the way the compatibilist does, that is, acting according to your desires, determinism and free will are consistent. He also points out that “philosophically sophisticated Calvinists” (e.g., John Feinberg) admit that if they are going to hold to determinism they must either give up freedom altogether or embrace compatibilism. But this, of course, leads us to ask whether this compatibilist definition of freedom is plausible. Is it true?
Here Walls examines what he calls the “Huge Implication” of the compatibilist definition of freedom. He quotes the prominent Calvinist philosopher and theologian Paul Helm who states,
“If we suppose some form of compatibilism, then God could have created men and women who freely (in a sense compatible with determinism) did only what was morally right.”
Indeed, the implication of compatibilism is profound – God could have made us do only good, be in right relationship with him, believe in him, acknowledge Christ and be saved, etc. and never have violated our free will. The implication is that God could have created us in such a way that we would freely always do the right thing and always love, trust and serve him. Walls emphatically states that “God could have determined all people to freely, gladly, joyously worship him and praise his holy name forever and ever! But he didn’t want to do that. But he could have, at least as far as freedom is concerned.” So we are left with the question, “Why didn’t he determine all people to love him freely?” If God is always and only good, then why didn’t he create the situation Walls describes above? Since God has not created such a situation, and he is of course unchanging in his goodness, we can justifiably conclude that compatibilist determinism is not an accurate understanding of how God established his world or relates to it. We have good reason to think that compatibilism is wrong-headed due to the theistic determinism that required it. Compatibilism is an attempt to explain and relieve the logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction which the Calvinist’s theistic determinism generates.
C. S. Lewis lends insight into how God did create us and why. He writes,
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.
Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on. If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.”
In addition, on Calvinist compatibilism, God enlightens the minds, changes the hearts, and renews the wills of only certain persons, determining them to that which is good and effectually drawing them to Christ, being made willing by his grace. As for all others, God has not predestined them to salvation and therefore he has not determined to provide them with this change of desire and will, effectual drawing, and saving grace. In fact, he has predestined them to eternal punishment and separation from his presence. This leads to what Walls calls the “Calvinist Conundrum.” It goes like this.
Premise #1 – God truly loves all persons.
Premise #2 – Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you can.
Premise #3 – The well-being and true flourishing of all persons is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.
Premise #4 – God could determine all persons freely to accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.
Conclusion: Therefore, all will be saved.
Remember that premise #4 states the compatibilist view of freedom – that freedom and determinism are compatible. That is, God could have determined that all people freely love him, desire a right relationship with him, accept Christ as savior and be eternally saved. Premises 2 and 3 argue what it means for God to be loving and good. The logical conclusion drawn is that “all will be saved.”
But here is the problem or “conundrum.” All Calvinists are not Universalists. They do not believe all people will be saved. In fact, most Calvinists believe that much of the human race is predestined for eternal damnation, and that by God himself (either by positive divine decree or by God merely “passing over” them).
Now, Walls points out that if the argument is logically valid (and I believe it is), in order to reject the conclusion you have to reject one or more of the premises. But which premise is the compatibilist going to reject? They cannot reject number 3 which is basic Christian anthropology. If they are compatibilists they cannot deny premise 4 because that states the compatibilist’s position. Premises 1 and 2 talk about God’s love for all persons and what it means to love someone. To most of us these premises certainly seem to reflect the teaching of Scripture and our moral intuitions or “common sense.” Who would not be stunned to hear a Christian say “God does not love everybody.” So what is the Calvinist to do?
Walls proceeds to examine how some Calvinists who hold to compatibilism define love in “idiosyncratic ways” to avoid this conundrum of Universalism. He writes,
“For instance, theological compatibilists claim that God loves even those he has not chosen to save since he provides material blessings for them in this life. God shows his love for such persons by sending the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, along with other provisions that are available to the inhabitants of this good earth. There are glaring difficulties, however, with this account of God’s love, for temporal blessings cannot begin to underwrite a sober claim of divine love for persons who are determined to damnation by God’s unconditional choice.”
Recall the “hard determinists.” They are the Calvinists who do not find refuge in compatibilism. They believe that libertarian free will is the only meaningful type of free will there is and therefore they forthrightly conclude that determinism and free will are incompatible. They clearly admit the implications of Calvinist determinism and unconditional election and do not try to rationalize how God loves those he unconditionally assigns to eternal damnation. They readily admit that God does not love everyone.
Arthur W. Pink falls into this “hard determinist” category. Walls calls them “consistent Calvinists.” They are those who will admit that determinism and free will, understood in libertarian terms, are not compatible. Hence Pink seems to deny premise 4. He seems to hold that if God determines who will be saved – and according to Pink he certainly does – then it cannot coherently be claimed that these people freely accept a right relationship with him. But in order to remain a consistent, honest Calvinist, that is, to admit that by unconditional election God does not desire the well-being of all persons or desire that all persons be in a saving relationship with him, he must therefore deny premise 1, that “God truly loves all persons.” And that is precisely what Pink does. He states,
“When we say that God is sovereign in the exercise of his love, we mean that he loves whom he chooses. God does not love everybody.”
Pink is, at least, a “consistent Calvinist.” He understands the logic of Calvinism and is willing to “bite the bullet” as to the scope of God’s love. He does not try to make determinism compatible with human freedom. Walls is pointing out that Pink understands the implications of his Calvinism, and consistent with it concludes that “God does not love everybody.” To be an honest, consistent Calvinist, Pink is willing to deny premise one.
This honesty is to be admired. The problem is that very few Calvinists are this forthright. And as Walls points out, we would be shocked if someone taught or preached “God does not love everybody!” This raises the ethical specter of insincerity due to the moral disconnect between what most Calvinists teach and preach, that is, that God loves everybody, and their underlying theological belief that God predestines a vast number of people to eternal damnation. That certainly does not sound like God loves everybody! Now, employing their typical tactics of redefinition and evasive maneuvering so as to get around this problem, Calvinists will place certain limits on the word “love,” restricting it to God’s physical and temporal blessings which he showers on all people. But the point here is to show that compatibilism does not seem to be a plausible explanation of the problem deterministic sovereignty poses for human freedom and responsibility.
Walls then goes on to examine the statements of “inconsistent Calvinists.” For instance J. I. Packer states,
“Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent.”
“The reality of human moral agency and responsibility in a world where God is Lord is one of the mysteries of creation, which we reverently acknowledge, but do not pretend fully to understand.”
The mark of an inconsistent Calvinist is their flight to mystery, tension, antinomy, incomprehensibility, the Bible teaches both, etc. But these “explanations” raise a question. Is the Calvinist here presuming libertarian freedom instead of compatibilist freedom? The whole purpose of compatibilism is to relieve the logical and moral “tension” of theistic determinism with human free will. So why, if determinism and freedom are compatible, is “divine control” or “a world where God is Lord” and the presence of genuine “human moral agency and responsibility” a “mystery” or a “tension” or an “antinomy” or “incomprehensible?” If Packer understood or accepted the compatibilist definition of freedom there would be no mystery. There would be the incoherence of the “Calvinist Conundrum” as the above argument points out, but there would be no mystery, tension, antinomy, incomprehensibility, etc. So those Calvinists who “punt” to these “explanations” seem to be admitting the Bible teaches a libertarian view of free will which certainly is inconsistent and incoherent with their determinism. It is as Walls points out about “philosophically sophisticated Calvinists” (e.g., John Feinberg). They must admit that if they are going to hold to determinism they must either give up freedom altogether (e.g., A. W. Pink) or embrace compatibilism.
What then is Packer’s advice when he is challenged with the incoherence his determinism generates with human responsibility? Defending what he concludes is an antinomy he writes,
“Accept it for what it is and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding.”
In their book Why I Am Not A Calvinist Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell write,
“Some of Packer’s fellow Calvinists have been concerned that his appeal to antinomy has left him open to serious misunderstanding, that it may be understood as suggesting that there are actual contradictions in divine truth. R. C. Sproul, for instance, insists that truth would lose its meaning if contradictions of any kind were affirmed. If contradictions can be true, we would be at a loss to separate truth from falsehood…
Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm is critical of Packer for similar reasons. He points out that if statements seem to us to be contradictory and we have no hope of reconciling them in this life, then we have no way to distinguish seeming contradictions from real ones. He asks, “In these circumstances, what is the difference between an apparent inconsistency and a real one? How do we know that what is called an antinomy might not turn out to be a real inconsistency?” To avoid such difficulties, Helm believes some effort should be made to show how that Calvinist account of sovereignty can be logically compatible with human freedom and responsibility. And not surprisingly, Helm opts for a compatibilist account of freedom to achieve this.
We fully agree with Helm and Sproul that logical consistency is non-negotiable. And happily, many other Calvinists agree as well. While some Calvinists make a hasty retreat to mystery when faced with charges of inconsistency, most of whom we have read are committed to logic and would reject out of hand the claim that divine truth contains contradictions. Of course, this is not to deny that divine truth contains mysteries that elude our understanding. But mysteries are very different from logical contradictions. It isn’t a sign of true piety for one to be willing to dispense with logical coherence in the name of mystery.
While logical consistency may not be a sufficient condition to show that a theology is true, it is a necessary condition. When inconsistency is exposed, we know that something is awry…to succeed in showing that a theology is inconsistent is to show that it can’t be altogether true as it stands.”
So even fellow Calvinist Paul Helm rightly holds Packer’s advice in check by raising two crucial hermeneutical questions. They are worth repeating. Recall that Helm asks,
“In these circumstances, what is the difference between an apparent inconsistency and a real one? How do we know that what is called an antinomy might not turn out to be a real inconsistency?”
These are profound and important questions, and I have dealt with them in chapter 7. They raise an issue that every Calvinist must come to grips with. For if what the Calvinist is proposing is a real contradiction, which certainly seems to be the case, Calvinism would suffer a substantial defeater in that to violate the laws of logic is by definition to speak nonsense and hold to a falsehood.
In the next sections Walls provides us helpful examples of what is and what is not a contradiction and discusses the problematic nature of Calvinism.
In his article, Walls goes on to pursue an answer to the question, “What is a real contradiction?” He points out two types of contradictions – explicit and implicit.
An explicit contradiction is a statement that is simultaneously affirmed and denied. For example,
Premise #1 – Bach is a bachelor.
Premise #2 – Bach is not a bachelor.
This explicit contradiction is relatively easy to identify. On the law of non-contradiction the thought relation between premise 1 and premise 2 is nonsense, not a “mystery.” It is a violation of a “first principle” of logical thought – the law of non-contradiction. This law states that something cannot be both true and false in the same sense at the same time. This principle, among others, is essential to any rational thought and coherent discussion.
Now, an implicit contradiction is harder to identify, but it can be made explicit by adding definitions and employing basic logic. For instance,
Premise #1 – Bach is a bachelor.
Premise #2 – Bach is a married man. (There is no explicit contradiction here.)
Premise #3 – All bachelors are unmarried men.
Premise #4 – Bach is an unmarried man. (2 and 4 are now explicitly contradictory).
The explicit contradiction is exposed by defining “bachelor.” Therefore, we have here another violation of the law of non-contradiction. To affirm #2 and #4 would be to affirm nonsense. Walls says that implicit contradictions are the kinds of contradictions we find within Calvinism. They are those I delineated in chapter 5.
Sometimes you will hear Calvinists claim that this issue of sovereignty and free will is a paradox. Walls defines paradox as “a surface contradiction that is merely verbal, but not real.” For example,
- I am crucified with Christ.
- Nevertheless I live.
On the surface this seems contradictory, but once the terms are explained according to Paul’s intended message and elaborated on theologically, what seemed a contradiction disappears. There is no real contradiction here. It truly was only an apparent contradiction or paradox. In a paradox, further explanation of the terms and the intended meaning relieves what was thought to be a contradiction.
Another thing a contradiction is not, is a “mystery.” Walls defines a mystery as “a truth that, while not contradictory, is beyond our full understanding. Unlike a paradox, it cannot be easily resolved by making terms explicit.” For example,
- There is only one God.
- God exists in three persons.
If we said, “God exists in one person and three persons” we would have a contradiction. If we said, “There is only one God and three Gods” we would have a contradiction. But to speak of one God existing in three persons is not a contradiction. Examples of things beyond our full understanding (and more or less mysterious to us) but not contradictory or incoherent would be how God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), what gravity is, how God’s foreknowledge works, how God put life into inanimate creation, what life actually is and how it works, how Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary, how Jesus accomplished our redemption on the cross, how Jesus healed the sick and calmed the storm, how God raised Jesus from the dead, etc.
So if Calvinism fails on logical grounds, and I think it does, it must be false and the Calvinist, if intellectually honest, must seek to reckon with their interpretations of the relevant texts and readjust their theology accordingly.
Calvinism also presents difficulties on the moral front with its offer of salvation.
Walls stresses that Calvinists like J. I. Packer insist that God makes a “bona fide” (“good faith”) offer of the gospel to all persons. But this is inconsistent with the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election an morally problematic. Walls points this out by outlining “Core Calvinism” as,
- Only the elect can actually accept the offer of salvation.
- Not all are elect.
- Not all persons can actually accept the offer of salvation and be saved.
But recall that Calvinists like Packer insist that God makes a “bona fide” offer to all persons which Walls outlines as follows.
- God makes a bona fide offer of salvation to all persons.
- A bona fide offer is one that can actually be accepted by the person to whom it [is] offered.
- All persons can actually accept the offer of salvation and be saved.
Notice that Walls has revealed an explicit contradiction here between the Calvinist’s unconditional election and the claims of Calvinists like Packer that God makes a bona fide offer of salvation to all persons. Premises 3 and 6 contradict each other. Hence, the Calvinists fundamental theological beliefs contradict their verbal claims, teaching, and proclamation about the gospel. Walls states,
“…that is an outright contradiction… You cannot make both of these true by appeal to mystery, by appeal to antinomy. It doesn’t make you pious to think you can. It makes you confused.”
So where have we come to thus far. In dealing with this problem of divine determinism and human freedom we have seen that compatibilists will define freedom as the ability to act according to our internal desires and beliefs while also maintaining that it is God who determines these internal desires and beliefs. This position is at least consistent, but as Walls has also pointed out it leads logically to Universalism. And the compatibilist’s rejection of Universalism lands them in the “Calvinist Conundrum.” So their compatibilism becomes incoherent with respect to their rejection of Universalism to which it logically leads.
We may also add that this obviously only pushes the problem back a step or “kicks the can down the road” as they say. To have your desires and beliefs predetermined by God does nothing to avoid the problem determinism created in the first place. It doesn’t provide meaningful human freedom. All things are still determined. Compatibilism does nothing to relieve its essential problem which is the annihilation of what it means to be a person made in the image of God. To have one’s own will that is substantially free to produce one’s own thoughts, desires, beliefs, etc., seems essential to personhood and a meaningful, loving relationship with God and others. Such loving relationship is necessarily genuinely reciprocal in nature. One person (God) cannot predetermine the thoughts, desires, beliefs and actions of the other person (you) and still have a meaningful definition of loving relationship and personhood. The essential issues involve the origination and causality of our desires, beliefs, attitudes and actions. That is, where do your thoughts, desires, beliefs, attitudes and actions come from? Who is the essential cause of these? On theistic determinism your desires, beliefs, and actions do not come from you. They are not yours. Rather, “you” function merely as an instrumental cause of another’s will, therefore, the thing that makes “you” you vanishes into the divine will. More on this later.
We have seen that “consistent Calvinists” or the “hard determinists” like A. W. Pink will forthrightly assert that “God does not love everybody.” At least they are consistent. But most Calvinists cannot bring themselves to face this conclusion about their theology. Hence, the “inconsistent Calvinists” like J. I. Packer will assert their “doctrines of grace,” despite their being incoherent and contradictory with human freedom and their negative implications upon the nature of God’s goodness and love. They maintain that Scripture teaches these doctrines, but the inconsistency is redefined as an “antinomy” or “mystery.” The Calvinist insists that we simply cannot comprehend the resolution of sovereignty and human responsibility.
Hence, this theology leaves us perplexed as to how such a determinative action towards the elect can be conceived of the elect freely accepting God and salvation, and how God could in anyway be conceived as “loving” the non-elect he has predestined to eternal damnation, that is, as desiring their well-being or promoting their true flourishing. Indeed, it is impossible to think this. Our God-given moral intuitions are perplexed by these doctrinal propositions. Therefore, on logical and moral grounds we have sufficient reasons to reject Calvinism as implausible and therefore unbiblical.
Therefore I submit that there are substantive reasons here for evangelical Christians to resist accepting Calvinism, as many if not most evangelical Christians already do. Recalling Wall’s argument against compatibilism, many evangelicals hold to premise 1, that “God truly loves all persons.” They also would agree with premises 2 and 3. That “to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you can” is what it means to be good and loving and the well-being and true flourishing “is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.” But how do most evangelicals avoid Universalism? By denying the truth of premise 4. They do not think it is coherent to say God can determine persons to freely love him. Yet Calvinists teach that this good and loving God, according to his own sovereign will, predestined certain people to eternal damnation while affirming these people freely reject his offer of salvation. Calvinists also teach that God alone has sovereignly willed and predestined certain people to love him and be eternally saved while also affirming “yet so as they come most freely.”
For these reasons we should not uncritically embrace Calvinism, but rather thoroughly examine its teachings and implications with regard to their logical, moral, theological, and practical coherence. We can see our major concerns emerging in this discussion, that is, how Calvinists deal with the logical and moral problems in their theology and whether they take these as significant in determining the validity of their exegetical interpretations and their “doctrines of grace.” Another important and related issue this exchange highlights is the question of what must be included in a sound, biblical hermeneutic. We need to answer this question to gain clarity as to which position in this controversy is closer to the Scriptural truth.
This will require the church to employ all the God-given tools at its disposal, including philosophically rigorous thinking and principles from the discipline of apologetics. These are indispensable disciplines for the development of a sound, biblical hermeneutic. Let’s take a look at how some of these can be productively employed in the theological enterprise.
Philosopher Jerry Walls points out that given an atheistic evolutionary perspective, determinism is to be expected due to the fact that we would ultimately only be acting out the influences of the undirected processes of the chemical reactions and electromagnetic firings in our brains. As purely physical creatures we would simply be directed by the chemical and physical laws of nature. Physical matter, under the direction of these laws, would be the sum total of reality. There is no Mind or intention above or beyond physical reality. There is nothing supernatural. All is determined by natural processes. These processes are completely mindless and have no intention about them. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that we are completely directed by such processes. Hence, there is no reason to think that we are acting freely. The idea of acting “freely” seems to require another component to our being other than mere physicality – perhaps a “soul” or “will” – something that gives us control of ourselves. Therefore, on naturalism, given that matter and energy are the sum total of reality with no remainder, there cannot be anything like genuine human freedom.  Yet, Walls notes “the curious fact that we seem to be hardwired to believe we are undetermined in our free choices as we choose between “alternative possibilities.”” (78) So given naturalism, evolution has obviously fooled us in this matter. We think we have free will, but we really do not.
Yet some atheist naturalists attempt to argue that their determinism is compatible with human freedom. Hence Walls points out that,
“So here we might note the curious fact that atheistic philosophers and scientists are bedfellows with Reformed theologians in their common cause of defending compatibilism, even though they do so for very different reasons and motivations.”
The Calvinist also holds to determinism, only for the Calvinist it is God, rather than physical laws, who determines all things. Walls writes,
“Now let us turn to the more decisive considerations, which are overtly moral in nature. To put the point most bluntly, if compatibilism is true, it is all but impossible, in the actual world, to maintain the perfect goodness of God, and altogether impossible to do so if orthodox Christianity is true.”
He supports his position on the basis of these “decisive considerations.”
“…bringing God into the equation should radically alter our judgment on this ongoing controversy. In particular, if freedom and determinism are compatible, then God could have created a world in which all persons freely did only the good at all times. Given this implication of compatibilism, three issues that are already challenging become extraordinarily more difficult, if not insuperable, namely: moral responsibility, the problem of evil, and the orthodox doctrine of eternal damnation.”
Walls will show that if God could have caused persons to do the good and come to Christ without violating their free will, then this leaves us wondering about the goodness of God with respect to holding people morally responsible for their actions, how this divine ability and goodness of God fits with the problem of evil, and why God did not have all people freely come to him and be saved but rather that most end up being judged for their sin and eternally separated from God’s presence.
But Walls goes on to say is that on theism, what we intuitively think and experience regarding human freedom, that is, that it is a true and genuine freedom, is to be expected. We are not being misled. He writes,
“…a theist who holds that God is perfectly good and that he is the ultimate designer of human nature should be much more reluctant to think that God has implanted within us the tendency to believe deeply misleading things. This is not to deny that we are fallen, or that sin distorts our perceptions, nor is it to trust our intuitions uncritically. Nor again, am I claiming that our intuitions here are as certain as, say modus ponens or 3 + 7 = 10. However, if our clearest, most vivid perceptions and intuitions are fundamentally misleading where they bear on morally significant matters such as freedom and personal responsibility, this is hard to square with God’s perfect goodness. If Mother Nature was acting alone in the evolutionary process, then perhaps she cannot be trusted to prevent Cartesian-style demons from haunting us with deeply illusory beliefs. But if God is the ultimate Creator and director of the evolutionary process (assuming one accepts evolution), we have much more reason to think our most fundamental intuitions are reliable and point to truth.”
The point is that a good and truthful God would not mislead us into thinking we have free will and moral responsibility when we really do not. On the presupposition that there is a God and he is just and good, we have grounds to think that when we believe we are experiencing human freedom and moral responsibility, we are not being deceived.
Walls adds the following response to the atheist naturalist who points out that “libertarian freedom requires us to believe that there is a self “inside” each of us that is capable of interfering with the order of nature, of making molecules swerve from their paths, and the like” which does not fit with their naturalistic determinism.
“If libertarian freedom requires the belief that molecules can be made to swerve from their paths by something nonphysical, theists can cheerfully admit that such a scenario is perfectly possible on their premises. For it is just basic theism that ultimate reality is not particles and their relations and that all such particles and their relations owe their very existence to an intelligent being who is himself a free being who is not composed of physical particles. He was free not only to bring such particles into existence or not, but also free to move them as he wills.”
Therefore, on theism we have good reason to think that free will is not illusory as it must be on naturalism.
But let us return to compatibilism for a moment to briefly point out the three insuperable difficulties of Calvinist determinism. Recall that compatibilists argue that freedom and determinism are compatible. Now, if God could have caused persons to do the good and come to Christ without violating their free will, then this leaves us wondering about a) the goodness of God with respect to holding people morally responsible for their actions, b) how this divine ability and goodness of God fits with the problem of evil, and c) why God did not have all people freely come to him and be saved but rather that most end up being judged for their sin and eternally separated from the presence of God.
Regarding a), Walls discerns what he calls “the Provenance Principle” which states that,
“… when the actions of a person are entirely determined by another intelligent being who intentionally determines (manipulates) the person to act exactly as the other being wishes, then the person cannot rightly be held accountable and punished for his actions.”
Walls also discerns what he calls “the Evil Manipulator Principle” which states that,
“… a being who determines (manipulates) another being to perform evil actions is himself evil. It is even more perverse if a being determines a being to perform evil actions and then holds him accountable, and punishes him for those actions.”
“… we are not responsible for our actions if all our actions are determined by causes outside our control. This common intuition is more pronounced on the scenario that all our actions are deliberately determined by an intelligent being, a being who could have determined us to act differently, and for many people it is especially strong where evil actions are concerned.”
Regarding b) Walls states,
“Perhaps even though God could have determined Nero, Attila the Hun, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and others of their ilk in such a way that they would freely have chosen to live in a productive manner and been remembered for notable deeds on behalf of humanity, he has inscrutable reasons for determining them to perform the atrocities they did. The same could be said for serial killers, rapists, child molesters, racists and economic oppressors. God could have determined them to have freely nurtured and loved their fellow human beings, but may have inscrutable reasons for determining them to perform the sort of actions that make our blood run cold. I am more than happy to concede that we may not be very good predictors of what a perfectly good God might do. And all of us who believe in such a God have the challenge of dealing in some way with these problems. No theist gets a free pass on Nero, Hitler, and Ted Bundy. But…it is highly implausible to think such things would occur if we are not free in the libertarian sense, and that there are goods essentially related to such freedom that are worth the awful price of such evil. We may underline this point by noting that compatibilists face another difficulty that libertarians do not when acknowledging the limits of our understanding as to why evil occurs. Whereas libertarians face the puzzle of explaining why God allows the sort of moral evil just noted, compatibilists have the more difficult challenge of explaining why he causes or determines it to happen and in so doing, they seem to be endorsing moral consequentialism. Since no one has libertarian freedom on their view, God need not allow or permit anything he does not prefer to happen, as he may have to do on the libertarian scheme.”
Walls adds that compatibilism,
“…makes altogether understandable why skeptics would be completely dubious of the notion that any God could be good, let alone perfectly good, who would create a world full of misery and intense suffering when he could just as easily have made one relatively, if not altogether, free of evil.”
Regarding c), Walls states,
“Now we come to the third reason, which I think is the breaking point for any sort of plausibility compatibilism might hold for theists, especially orthodox Christian theists. The third point has to do with the orthodox doctrine of divine judgment, particularly the ultimate judgment of damnation that falls on the finally impenitent. Eternal damnation, moreover, has often been seen as the most intractable form of the problem of evil because it is never redeemed. Furthermore, damnation is the worst thing that can befall a rational creature, and because of its eternal nature, it is incomparably worse than any evil of this life, however terrible.”
Walls lays out this challenge to the Calvinist.
“… let them openly and without equivocation declare that it is the need to manifest God’s very justice that requires, or at least makes it fitting, that he determine some, perhaps many, to resist him forever, and then punish them with eternal misery, persons he could otherwise determine to freely accept his grace and joyfully worship him forever. Let them forthrightly say God is more glorified and his character more fully manifested in determining those persons to hate both him and each other than he would be in determining those same persons to gratefully adore him and love their neighbor as themselves. Let them insistently refuse to obscure matters with misleading rhetoric that implies that God loves the nonelect in a way that he does not on their view, as well as language that suggests their sinful choice to reject him is anything less than fully determined by God in order to display what they call justice.”
“The obvious question this raises is why, if God can determine all persons freely to accept salvation eventually, he could not do so now. Or why would he not do so now? In the same vein, why could he not determine all persons freely to do good and love him and each other at all times? Going back to our discussion in section V, perhaps there are some kinds of knowledge God wants us to have that we can gain only if he determines a certain amount of evil to occur. But recall, what is at issue here are the actual horrific evils in this world. Is it plausible to think God would have determined these evils to occur, that he preferred a world with these crushing evils rather than a world with much less evil? Unless compatibilists think that God could not have determined things so there would have been less evil than there is, that is what they must be prepared forthrightly to affirm.”
We have seen how compatibilism has failed as a logical or moral justification of Calvinism. It does not provide a reason to believe in Calvinism. Faced with the logical and moral difficulties of their theistic determinism, the Calvinist offers various other “explanations” in an attempt to justify and convince us of the legitimacy of that determinism – “the Bible teaches both,” “apparent contradiction,” “tension,” “incomprehensibility,” “mystery,” etc. I will examine these below. The problem with these “explanations” is that they are either question-begging, ad hoc, or amount to mere assertions that do not serve to demonstrate the biblical truth of the Calvinist’s doctrinal claims. They do not support or advance any determinations as to the accuracy or validity of the Calvinist interpretations. Most importantly, they ultimately fail in legitimizing the process by which the Calvinist soteriological and theological conclusions are reached because, rather than provide consistent coherent resolution to the difficulties raised by the theistic determinism, they merely divert our attention away from the interpretive and hermeneutical issue of Calvinist incoherence. Whatever hermeneutical principles and interpretive processes the Calvinist operates under, they obviously cannot bring us to the point of a reasoned resolution of the issue at hand. If they could, these “explanations” would not be necessary.
Many Calvinists will assert “the Bible teaches both” their definition of God’s sovereignty as his eternal decree that determines “whatsoever comes to pass,” and genuine human freedom, responsibility and culpability. We do not doubt that Calvinists hold sincerely to this conviction. We concur that if we take the authority of the Word seriously, the conviction that “I believe that is what the Bible teaches” is the best reason for one to hold to their position. But as much as Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike uphold sola scriptura as a necessary Reformation truth, there still remains the question of proper interpretation of that Scripture. In addition, there is the Reformation conviction that the Church is to be continuously “reformed” by the Word of God. Therefore we must inquire into the implications of claiming “the Bible teaches both” and how Calvinists handle this problem in their theology.
Os Guinness is a Calvinist who affirms “the Bible teaches both” position. In his book, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, he writes about the history of the influence of Christianity in the world and the responsibility of Christian’s to effect change within their culture while also realizing that a sovereign God is continually at work to accomplish his purposes which will culminate in the consummation of all things under the Lordship of Christ. A non-Calvinist would heartily agree with this assessment. But this leads Guinness to reflect upon the sovereignty/free will issue, evidently revealing Guinness’ definition of sovereignty as theistic determinism.
Although the controversy is usually stated as the problem between God’s sovereignty and human freedom or free will, in chapter 5 titled “The Dynamics of the Kingdom,” Guinness briefly addresses the relationship between “God’s sovereignty” and what he calls “human significance.” I take it that the issue of “significance” is closely related to that of human freedom, and that given Calvinist determinism, if human freedom is lost so is human “significance.” By significance I mean that it is us as truly free agents who through the exercise of our minds and wills – which are genuinely “of us” – perform actions that have a real impact in the world, that is, have significance in it to the point that things are different than they would have otherwise been if not for our actions. This “human significance” is lost when all things, including what we think and do, are completely determined by the will of God alone. It seems that human freedom is integral to human significance in that each of us retains significance because it is truly we who will to do what we do. Only then are we significant with respect to what it means for us to do what we do and why we do it. On Calvinist determinism human actions may have meaning and purpose, but since they are not our actions with respect to their ultimate source in our wills, we, as persons, do not have any meaning, value, purpose or significance. We are merely the instrumental means by which God does what he wants done. “Human significance” with respect to genuine personhood and free will are integrally related. But given a Calvinist definition of sovereignty as theistic determinism the problem of who we are and whether what we do has “significance” still remains. Is our significance diminished by being meticulously determined solely by the will of God? In a meticulously determined world, how is it that we have any real significance?
As a Calvinist himself, Guinness admits to the problem and proceeds to handle it as follows.
“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.” (Emphasis mine)
Putting aside the point that all human beings have significance because they are made in the image of God, which is a biblical truth that does not conflict with “God’s sovereignty” and which is why Guinness’ word, “significance,” is not the best way to describe the libertarian freedom he must be referring, what is of interest here is how Guinness deals with what he claims are incompatible concepts “that human reason cannot explain” and yet the Scriptures affirm.
Note the “simple truths” that Guinness brings to bear on this problem. First, he presupposes that the deterministic Calvinist definition of sovereignty is biblical truth. Second, he presupposes that “human significance” is also a biblical truth. Third, he recognizes the two “truths” to be logically incompatible. Fourth, he uses his reason to recognize this. Fifthly, he asserts that human reason is incapable of reconciling both truths. He clearly states, “Human reason cannot explain both truths.” Sixth, he does not consider the logical incompatibility of “both truths” as hermeneutically significant. He does not question on the basis of the laws of logic that one or the other or both may not be biblical truth. Note that the assertion that “human reason cannot explain both truths” is a move which insulates the first presupposition from any rational interpretive and hermeneutical critique and allows for the final “truth,” which is, use each as needed.
Certainly the scriptures plainly reveal that reality contains both truths – God is sovereign and humans are significant which entails that they are substantially free. But I submit that the scriptures do not contain both truths as Reformed Calvinism understands those truths precisely because Calvinism presents them as recognizably incoherent. That is the hermeneutical problem Guinness has run up against here. And the point is that we see that Guinness does not consider this problem to be of hermeneutical significance. The incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction his theistic determinism generates has no bearing upon determining the validity of his interpretations. For Guinness, these interpretations are a priori biblical truths despite their logical and moral incompatibility.
I submit that the Scriptures do not “show plainly” that sovereignty must be defined as universal divine causal determinism, precisely because such an interpretation leads to logical and moral incoherence. This fact must be incorporated into our hermeneutic. If you are going to talk about sovereignty as divine determinism then you cannot talk coherently about human significance. They are mutually exclusive. And if your hermeneutic insists that you may employ either of these “truths” in whatever context you deem appropriate, then you will present both the Bible and Christianity as sheer nonsense. It is to condone interpretive and practical duplicity. This is not indicative of an “intolerance for mystery” as Calvinists are wont to characterize those who disagree with them. Rather, we have an intolerance for Calvinist’s ignoring the deliberations of reason and logic as a convenient way to insulate their theology from substantive rational and moral critiques so as to preserve their determinism. We have an intolerance for ignoring what our faculties of reason and moral intuitions clearly show are inconsistencies and contradictions that impugn the character of God. We think it essential to be true to what Scripture teaches us about the nature and attributes of God – especially his perfect holiness, goodness, love and justice. We have an intolerance of a hermeneutic of rationalization and incoherence.
If Calvinists choose to say Scripture teaches an absolute predetermined “sovereignty” of God along with human freedom and either of these mutually exclusive doctrines should be used when and where they are needed most, you have not succeeded in saying anything about the nature of Scripture or its inspiration that adds credibility to the Calvinist form of these doctrines. What was nonsense apart from Scripture doesn’t “suddenly acquire meaning” by simply claiming “the Bible teaches both.” Contradictions cannot be sanctified by merely declaring that “the Bible teaches both.” To suggest that just because Calvinists are referring to God and divine Scripture they are no longer talking nonsense when they hold to determinism and human freedom and claim that “human reason cannot explain both truths,” is to hold to a seriously misconceived notion of God, Scripture and human freedom. If we believe that we know nonsense when we see it, and nothing has been offered to convince us otherwise, then what C. S. Lewis points out with respect to God’s omnipotence applies here. He writes,
“You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to his power. If you choose to say “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words “God can.” 
There is another option than sheer nonsense. When coherence is incorporated in one’s hermeneutic, it does not throw the Scripture into a one side or the other competition with either side to be used when it fits the circumstances. This is to speak and act hypocritically. It is not the case that we end up emphasizing one truth to the exclusion of the other as need be – at one time telling people all things are predetermined by God and at another time telling them that all things are not predetermined by God and that they have human freedom and significance. This confused situation that Guinness finds himself in results from defining “sovereignty” as determinism. It is this determinism that a rational, hermeneutically sound reading of Scripture cannot abide. This is obvious to all, even to those who insist on maintaining it as the truth of Scripture. This obvious because they maintain their determinism despite the contradiction it causes. The problem here is in the “despite.” When the Calvinist maintains their determinism despite the contradiction it causes, what they are demonstrating is their jettisoning of the laws of logic and moral reasoning in the interpretive process. No matter what the logical and moral entailments are of their determinism, the determinism must stand. This is nothing other than the very practice of eisegesis. And eisegesis only breads more eisegesis. I submit this to your consideration by asking, “Can you dismiss logical reflection and moral intuitions and still determine whether an interpretation is valid or invalid; whether and interpretation is to be identified as a possibly legitimate exegesis or is definitively an improper eisegesis of a text?” If you can dismiss logical reflection and moral intuitions, then on what basis can you discern the validity or invalidity of an interpretation? My point is that you cannot cavalierly throw out logical and moral reasoning so that you may make the claim that “the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths.” How would we know that is true apart from the use of logical reflection and moral intuitions in the interpretive process? Suppose there is a misinterpretation of the text in the claim “the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths.” If we don’t care that an interpretation of Scripture leaves us with contradictory “truths,” then we are affirming that Scripture contradicts itself and we are left untethered from discerning the true meaning of a text. Scriptures do show plainly that reality contains both truths, but it cannot be that the Scriptures teach that one of those truths amounts to determinism lest we make that Scripture contradict itself. When Guinness states, human reason cannot explain both truths then he is begging the question as to whether Scripture actually teaches what he claims it teaches. It may very well be that biblically speaking, “sovereignty” is not to be defined as theistic determinism. Perhaps in Scripture the word “sovereignty” does not equate to theistic determinism. Perhaps these are not are not the same thing.
Coherence, consistency and non-contradiction cannot be ignored in interpretation. These serve as reliable indicators of interpretative validity. Coherence must be incorporated into one’s hermeneutic for us to discern a valid interpretation of the biblical texts. Rationally sound, coherent interpretation is biblically faithful interpretation. Although Guinness recognizes via his human reason the contradictory nature of the two “truths,” he nevertheless asserts that “human reason cannot explain both.” This is inconsistent and self-defeating. Therefore, what he is doing is simply ignoring the contradiction he knows is present by virtue of his reasoning abilities. He is ignoring the contradiction that is interpretively significant in favor of maintaining a deterministic view of sovereignty – the very view of sovereignty that generates the “fruitless” and “unproductive” discussions he mentions. But this fruitlessness and unproductiveness is precisely what one would expect in a dialogue where one party can dismiss logical and moral reasoning in the consideration of the matter at hand. When the laws of logic have been dismissed all rational thinking, dialogue and inquiry stops Perhaps the inquiry would not be fruitless or unproductive if we incorporated logical and moral coherence into our hermeneutic which would cause us to re-examine the “truth” of the Calvinist definition of sovereignty and/or the “truth” of human significance.
Biblically speaking, divine sovereignty need not be interpreted as and cannot rationally be held as a universal divine causal determinism. William Lane Craig demonstrates this in his five-fold critique that I provided in chapter 4. I also submit that if Guinness would hold to a consistent interpretation of his own definition of sovereignty as God being continually at work to accomplish his purposes which will culminate in the consummation of all things under the Lordship of Christ, he would not run into the contradiction he is wrestling with here. He should embrace a biblical, non-deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty as his capability, given all his attributes, to rule and reign over all his creation and unfailingly accomplish his plans and purposes. Within a biblical non-determinism, Guinness’ problem disappears. We affirm God can be sovereign in the sense that Scripture presents sovereignty as God’s active participation and intervention in the history and in the ruling and reigning over all his creation to bring what he wills to pass while humans freely and significantly live in responsive relationship to each other and God. Certainly God has the prerogative to accomplish his plans and purposes by a hard determinism that involves him controlling people and events. God accomplishes his plans and purposes despite human freedom. But the Bible tells us he does this by hardening their wills, which is an implicit admission that human beings have libertarian free will. Yet God also accomplishes his plans and purposes through human freedom, that is, with those who love God and seek to do his will. None of these modes of God’s operation entail a definition of sovereignty defined as God having preordained “whatsoever comes to pass” which requires him to be the sole determining will and cause of all that occurs – including all evil.
If Guinness is going to make these claims presupposing a Calvinist deterministic definition of sovereignty, then he cannot merely dismiss the logical and moral entailments of that definition of sovereignty. Surely the canons of rationality hold in biblical interpretation. If they don’t, Guinness would have to explain why they don’t and what the interpretive implications would be if they don’t. Or, on the other hand, if human freedom and significance are logically compatible with the Calvinist deterministic definition of sovereignty, then why is there a problem? He should then explain how they are logically and morally compatible. But he does not seem to be a compatibilist. He seems to simply avoid the problem by merely asserting that “the Bible teaches both.” And this is no help at all with respect to the real and present difficulties raised by his determinism.
With respect to talk about “human significance,” we should remind ourselves of another problematic Calvinist doctrine that is incoherent and inconsistent with “human significance.” That is the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election or predestination. This is a doctrine in which non-elect humans beings could not have any less significance. Recall Calvin who 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.”
I find it interesting that Guinness’ reasoning faculties can detect that something is problematic between the Calvinist definition of sovereignty and human significance, but he does not have the confidence that this same reasoning should inform his hermeneutic. If “human reason cannot explain both truths,” why then does human reason discern the contradictory nature of both “truths?” And if this is so, why then dismiss what human reason detects as a contradiction between both “truths,” especially when the laws of logic tell us that a contradiction must be deemed false as it stands. If the contradiction is real (and Guinness doesn’t argue against this), then what Guinness claims are “both truths” are not both truths. One or the other, or both, are false. Therefore, perhaps the problem is not with human reason but that one of the “truths” is not true. Perhaps one of the “truths” is not really an accurate interpretation of the biblical text.
Furthermore, if “human reason cannot explain both truths” how would we know whether both are “truths” of Scripture? Why would “human reason” fail us in arbitrating this problem and yet be reliable in identifying the problem? Why would “human reason” be reliable to serve us in interpreting the Scriptures when “human reason” fails to reliably indicate that we have a contradiction in our interpretations? Well, our “human reason” is not failing us in this regard. It tells us that we have a contradiction here and therefore the Calvinist needs to revisit his textual interpretations.
I submit that Calvinism does not offer an accurate interpretation of Scripture on the matter of divine sovereignty. Whether or not the Calvinist interpretations of sovereignty, election, predestination, etc. are accurate and true to Scripture is the ultimate issue at hand. And that makes then a hermeneutical issue. And if deterministic sovereignty is a priori declared to be an inviolable biblical truth when it is not, then of course “reason cannot explain both truths” precisely because something unreasonable is afoot. If reason is put out of court when reason sends up its red flags of interpretive incoherence or contradiction, then nothing more can be said regarding the validity of those interpretations on the criteria of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction. Any exegesis can be offered and will survive, not on the basis that it is a sound exegesis, for the rules of logic and moral intuition upon which we evaluate exegetical soundness and validity have been dismissed. It survives on other bases like the peer pressure of tradition, spiritual manipulation or intimidation or perhaps theological “pride of place,” that is, taking pride in being humble enough to maintain, defend and exalt the sovereignty of God by which he determines and causes “all things,” including evil. Or perhaps these deterministic Calvinist doctrines survive through a gross misapprehension of the character of God and the gospel evidenced when Calvinists state that “even if God has predestined me, before I was even born, to eternal torment, yet will I worship, praise and adore him.” There are also the mere assertions of determinism that avoid the application of the canons of reason to the interpretation of the relevant passages.
It is to be noted that there are non-Calvinist exegetical treatments for all the relevant passages in this controversy that do not produce incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction. So the issue is not solely exegetical, but the way exegesis is thought of in relation to the most fundamental principles of hermeneutics, which include the laws of logic as an essential element of all sound reasoning, thought and interpretation. Therefore, any exegesis must be assessed by some criteria that ultimately requires confidence in the cannons of reason. By ignoring reason in interpretation and fleeing to mystery is how Calvinism insulates itself from rational theological critique. This is the cause of the continuation of this controversy. It is what causes the non-Calvinist to be left scratching his head perplexed while the Calvinist claims that because Scripture is divine revelation he may dismiss his interpretive incoherence. One way this is done is by telling us “the Bible teaches both.” But this amounts to mere assertion. It is telling us to look away from the obvious logical, moral and theological problems created by theistic determinism. These problems and how they are handled speak to one’s hermeneutic. Therefore, there are two types of hermeneutic at work in this controversy – a hermeneutic of coherence and a hermeneutic of incoherence.
I strongly disagree with Os Guinness. I do not think this controversy is “fruitless.” Rather, the controversy has been subverted by outright indifference, various weak rationalizations, directives to suppress one’s reasoning and embrace the “antinomy,” and other avoidance techniques and mindsets that seek to insulate the Reformed Calvinist doctrines from the clear thinking that exposes them as unbiblical. All of these mindsets and directives serve to deflect Calvinists themselves and others from grappling with the hermeneutical implications of their problematic deterministic definitions of sovereignty and election. The “perennial debate” persists only while divine sovereignty and election are defined as they are in Reformed Calvinism. This division among Christians will persist as long as evangelicals refuse to delineate a hermeneutic that embraces logical, moral and theological coherence. If you think a sound hermeneutic must include these, then you cannot be a Calvinist. We cannot gain biblical clarity regarding these key doctrines as long as the Reformed Calvinist interpretations are presupposed to be the true biblical teaching while logical, moral and theological coherence is put out of court. Calvinism is held as biblical regardless of its incoherent logical, moral, theological and ministerial implications. I contend that this amounts to a deficient hermeneutic and is the ultimate divide between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.
Finally, if my observations are correct, Guinness is going to have to grapple with the issue of biblical authority and inspiration when he maintains that the Bible teaches contradictions and incoherencies. Again, his “human reason” seems to recognize them as such. More importantly, Guinness is ultimately going to have to take a stand regarding what precisely he believes “the good news” to be and whether his Calvinist soteriology is coherent with his definition of the gospel. He must reckon with whether what is coherent with his definitions of sovereignty, election, predestination, etc. can be called “good news,” and if not, what the implications are, not only for his hermeneutic, but for the gospel message, evangelism and the character of God.
Faced with their interpretive conviction that sovereignty is to be defined as theistic determinism and the contradiction this produces given the biblical witness to human freedom, responsibility, culpability, contingency and indeterminacy, rather than reevaluate their doctrine of sovereignty by allowing rational coherence to inform their interpretations of Scripture so as to establish a harmonious univocal message, Calvinists assert that this fundamental contradiction is only “apparent.” But what is meant by an “apparent contradiction?” Don’t we know a contradiction when we see one? What makes this problem only “apparent” and not real?
This Calvinist “solution” only seems to deepen the confusion here. Why should we accept the contradiction produced by Calvinism’s determinism as only an “apparent contradiction?” I contend that we shouldn’t for the following reasons.
- It’s a Mere Assertion. The Calvinist’s claim that the contradiction perceived here is only “apparent” is a mere assertion which does nothing to address the issue. Why it is only “apparent” the Calvinist cannot tell us. If it is because the Bible cannot contain a contradiction (and rightly so), that would be question-begging. It presupposes the truth of the Calvinist interpretation. But whether or not that is the case is the question at hand.
- Acknowledgement of the Indispensability of Rational Coherence. The need for the “contradiction” to be only “apparent” seems to stem from a recognition that a real contradiction in one’s interpretations would be unacceptable. The Calvinist seems to be affirming that if an interpretation lands us in a contradiction or incoherence, it must be wrong at some point. The necessity of avoiding a real contradiction, is an implicit acknowledgment by the Calvinist of the indispensability of reason in interpretation and rational coherence in a proper, biblical hermeneutic. If the Calvinist must avoid a real contradiction, then they are affirming the legitimacy of the canons of reason in the interpretive task.
- We Know a Contradiction When We See One. The Calvinist’s need to avoid a real contradiction in their interpretations, and to assert that their interpretations are only an “apparent contradiction,” presupposes the ability to detect a real contradiction when we see it. Therefore the Calvinist has the challenge of reckoning with a real contradiction in their interpretations and theology. “Mystery,” “incomprehensibility,” and “the Bible teaches both” are all unacceptable Calvinist responses to the real problem of contradiction and incoherence inherent in Calvinism.
- The Bible Cannot Contradict Itself. The “apparent contradiction” assertion is an acknowledgment that the Bible cannot contradict itself. What stems from the Calvinist interpretations of deterministic sovereignty and human freedom cannot, according to Calvinists, be a real contradiction lest the Bible contain such contradictions and their theology be deemed irrational. It also indicates that if there were a real contradiction in Scripture this would have negative implications for the doctrines of biblical inspiration and authority. If the Calvinist claims that the Bible cannot contradict itself, then even the Calvinist would be acknowledging that contradictory understandings of the biblical text would not be valid interpretations. This, again, would be to admit that we can detect a real contradiction and that the Calvinist is ultimately affirming that the principles of logic are indispensable as determiners of valid interpretations. To claim the Bible cannot contradict itself is to admit to knowing a contradiction when one is present and therefore only indicts the Calvinist’s interpretations as flawed on the basis of their incoherence and contradictions.
- No Such Thing as an “Apparent Contradiction.” If we can detect a contradiction when we see one, then there is no such thing as an “apparent contradiction.” Something is either a contradiction or it is not.
Therefore, when the Calvinist labels the contradiction inherent in their theology only “apparent,” this smacks of an intellectual cop-out for the purpose of protecting their traditional doctrine of deterministic sovereignty over an honest, rational assessment of the meaning and message of the text. It appears to amount to a disregard of the Reformation tenets sola scriptura (”Scripture alone”) and semper reformanda (“always reforming”).
So we pose the question to the Calvinist, “Why should we believe that these so-called “apparent” contradictions are not real contradictions?” The Calvinist has the burden of proof to demonstrate that his theological propositions are not real contradictions. But how would the Calvinist show this? Why would this problem even surface if there wasn’t a real contradiction here? Is “apparent contradiction” merely a Calvinist assertion that safeguards their deterministic definition of sovereignty? At face value, it would seem that their sovereignty / human freedom interpretation is a real contradiction because if it weren’t we would not know it as such, it never would have presented itself to our minds as such, and there would be no “contradiction” to avoid by having to label it “apparent.”
Furthermore, if it is possible that something presents itself to us as a contradiction, whether a strictly logical contradiction (e.g., a married unmarried man), or a broadly logical contradiction (e.g., a married bachelor) and it actually is not a real contradiction, then one should be able to discern how and why it is not a real contradiction, otherwise the law of non-contradiction could never hold as a basic law of rational thought. It should identify as some other form of thought or language that may baffles us, but is ultimately resolvable, like a conundrum, enigma or anomaly. And looking at it the other way around, if we cannot detect a real contradiction, how is it that the law of non-contradiction was ever recognized as a basic law of logical reasoning in the first place?
So the Calvinist insists our human reason fails us in understanding how divine determinism and human freedom are compatible. In addition they add one other point on this matter. That is, that God understands the relationship between these perfectly. This raises other questions as to why it is that God understands the relationship between determinism and human responsibility, but we don’t. After all, we were made in the image and likeness of God, something that, on the interpretation of having been given a mandate to have dominion over the earth and tend to it, ultimately must entail reason and free will.
In addition to “apparent contradiction” the Calvinist will also label their problem a “paradox.” Philosopher David Basinger probes this issue in more depth quoting prominent Calvinists J. I. Packer and R. B. Kuiper.
“Does the Bible clearly assert truths that are incompatible from a human perspective? Many theologians have thought so…
But such paradoxes, it is emphatically argued, are not really contradictory. It may be true that they can never be shown to be compatible at the human level. However, Packer tells us, we must “refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real.” We must rather “put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of [our] own understanding.” Or as Kuiper states the point, although the Bible does present us with truths that are irreconcilable at the human level we must deny that such “truths are actually contradictory.” But why? Why can we not claim that Scripture gives us truths that are really contradictory?”
Basinger explains why we cannot claim Scripture gives us truths that are really contradictory.
“We cannot, in the words of Cornelius Van Til, because a real contradiction destroys “all human and divine knowledge” while seeming contradiction does not.”
Basinger then asks,
“What are we to make of this allegedly crucial distinction between real and apparent contradictions? Does it actually make sense to claim that, although no Biblical truths are really contradictory, some such truths cannot in principle be shown to be compatible at the human level?”
“…to claim that certain Biblical truths are only apparently contradictory is to claim that, although they are in fact contradictory at the human level, from God’s perspective such is not the case. That is, let us assume that to claim that certain Biblical truths are apparently contradictory means that while from a human perspective such truths are on a logical par with the contention that something is a square circle, from God perspective they are not. For from God’s perspective the Biblical truths in question are actually self-consistent.”
But a serious problem with this approach of the “theologians of paradox” is this.
“If concepts such as human freedom and divine sovereignty are really contradictory at the human level, then, as has already been stated, they are at the human level comparable to the relationship between a square and a circle. Now let us assume that God has told us in Scripture that he had created square circles. The crucial problem would not be that we would not know how this could have been accomplished. For no one assumes that all divine activity must be comprehensible from our perspective. Nor would the fundamental problem be one of truth. If God had said it, then it would be true. The fundamental problem would be one of meaning. We can say the phrase “square circle,” and we can conceive of squares and we can conceive of circles. But since a circle is a nonsquare by definition and a square is noncircular by definition, it is not at all clear that we can conceive of a square circle – that is, conceive of something that is both totally a square and totally a circle at the same time. This is because on the human level, language (and thought about linguistic referents) presupposes the law of noncontradiction. “Square” is only a useful term because to say something is a square distinguishes it from other objects that are not squares. But if something can be a square and also not a square at the same time, then our ability to conceive of, and thus identify and discuss, squares is destroyed. In short, “square” no longer remains from the human level a meaningful term. And the same is true of the term “circle” in this context.
But what if we were to add that the concept of a square circle is not contradictory from God’s perspective and thus that to him it is meaningful? Would this clarify anything? This certainly would tell us something about God: that he is able to think in other than human categories. But it would not make the concept any more meaningful to us. Given the categories of meaning with which we seem to have been created, the concept would remain just as meaningless from our perspective as before.
The same holds for the “apparent contradictions” of which the theologians of paradox speak. We can, for example, say, “An event can be the result of free human choice and yet totally determined by God.” But if we mean by saying that a human makes a free choice that no one or no thing apart from the person (not even God) can totally determine what that choice will be, then this concept of “controlled freedom” is no more meaningful than the concept of a square circle at the human level, whatever may be the case from God’s perspective.” 
So Basinger concludes that this is a question of meaning for us at the human level. The Calvinist’s “apparent contradiction” leaves us with a meaningless combination of thoughts and theological propositions. It does not help the Calvinist to resolve his problem.
In addition, in a paradox we are able to show the “apparent” contradiction as truly apparent by adding further information or clarifying the meaning of terms, words and phrases. This is not so in a real contradiction. Unless someone can explain how it is that the Calvinist doctrines are not contradictory, and they should be able to do so if they are a genuine paradox, we are within our intellectual and interpretive rights to conclude that Calvinism is involved in a real contradiction. Therefore, as such, it does not warrant our belief.
Now, is there any basis or evidence upon which the Calvinist can justify his claim that what we have observed as a contradiction in their theology is really not a contradiction? Is there any basis or evidence upon which we should accept the claim that the contradictions in Calvinism are only “apparent” and not real? To resort to the answer that “the Bible teaches both” would only be question begging because whether the Bible teaches the Calvinist doctrines is the question before us.
I contend that Calvinists have not provided such a basis or evidence and therefore their claim amounts to a mere assertion. Calvinists state that this “apparent contradiction” position is akin to claiming that the Bible teaches an ‘antinomy’ regarding God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.
I should reiterate that this discussion presupposes that what appears to those engaged in this inquiry as contradictions are in reality precisely that – contradictions. It presupposes that our knowledge of such things is reliable. So a critical question is going to be whether or not the contradictions generated by Calvinism are real contradictions, and if so, whether the presence of contradiction is a trustworthy indicator of misinterpretation which would invalidate the related theological doctrine. We can also ask, why is it that what for many persons is determinative of truth and validity (non-contradiction), is not so for the Calvinist? And more essentially, should it be? Worth repeating here is C. S. Lewis’ affirmation that our thinking must be counted on as reliable for discerning truth.
“…no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.”
Is our thinking valid as it pertains to interpreting Scripture? More accurately, when applied to interpreting and understanding does the Scripture itself provide us with the confidence that our thinking is valid with respect to our interpretations of that Scripture?
We are compelled to conclude that what we know of “contradiction” applies to sovereignty and free will as Calvinists present the relationship. As far as we can tell they stand in real contradiction with each other. In chapter 7, C. A. Campbell helped us define the nature of true contradiction and we have seen that this is precisely what Calvinism leaves us with by their deterministic interpretation of Scripture. Again, most Calvinists sense the gravity of this problem in their doctrinal stance but feel compelled to dismiss it despite the evidence to the contrary.
We therefore must question the grounds upon which Calvinists provide for this dismissal of reason and contradiction. We must ask, given the amount and nature of the evidence against their determinism, whether such a dismissal credible and therefore whether it can or cannot be done. If the nature of the evidence is compelling, and no explanation can be provided to resolve the logical and moral problems inherent in the position, then we would be justified in concluding that the problem is interpretive and everything from fundamental Calvinist exegesis to Reformed theology as a paradigm of Christian thought, at least in reference to the relevant texts, must be revisited. Of course this does not mean that the Calvinist must “start from scratch” so to speak. What needs to be done is to reevaluate motives and preconceptions, presuppositions and traditions, and grapple with the central issue of whether a sound, biblical hermeneutic must integrate and harmonize the various biblical texts rather than create unbiblical dichotomies. Let’s explore this reasoning of “apparent” contradiction a bit further.
As we have already noted, Calvinists will declare that their contradiction is only “apparent” so as to avoid the problem inherent in claiming “the Bible teaches both” and having to acknowledge what seems an inescapable conclusion, that is, that their theistic determinism is in real contradiction with human freedom, But this claim has three difficulties that seem to undercut it and and lead us to affirm we have a real contradiction here.
The first difficulty is the Calvinist’s own admission that the Bible cannot teach a logical contradiction. The need to assert that the contradiction must be “apparent” implies that the Scripture cannot abide a contradiction due to the fact of its divine inspiration. God does not contradict himself because, by his very nature, he cannot do so. Therefore, if this is a real contradiction, then there is a misinterpretation of Scripture somewhere.
The second difficulty is that we know a contradiction when we see one. To talk of a contradiction being “apparent” presupposes that we know what a contradiction is. If we don’t know a contradiction when it presents itself, there would be no need to talk of one being “apparent.”
The third difficulty is that Calvinists also ultimately affirm the reliability and necessity of the role of logical reasoning in interpretive decisions. Our human reason, working according to the law of logic, plays an indispensable role in discerning the truth of a matter. What the Calvinist is affirming is that a contradiction requires logical reasoning to expose it. And it is such reasoning that tells us that a contradiction cannot be true. But if logic is fundamental to know what is true, this implies an affirmation of the role logic plays in interpretation. The Calvinist is admitting to the necessity and utility of logical reasoning as a principle of interpretation. The Scripture should not be interpreted in logically contradictory, incoherent or inconsistent ways.
The Calvinist therefore finds himself in the awkward position that by arguing that his difficulty is only “apparent,” yet admittedly a “contradiction,” he is presupposing that he knows a contradiction when he sees one, and therefore that he should conclude that we have one here. He is in effect confirming that his “apparent” contradiction can be nothing of the sort, for he has already conceded it to certainly look like a contradiction. It is, as it has presented itself, a real contradiction. But this only goes to point out that the label “apparent” is a mere assertion about what we otherwise know to be a real contradiction. Hence, what we know to be a real logical contradiction, the Calvinist is merely asserting is not. For the Calvinist, it is only “apparent.” But that is only for the Calvinist within Calvinism. It is not so in reality. Thus, the Calvinist has to learn to suppress what his reason tells him about the logical difficulties in his position. I deal with this suppression of reason in Chapter 10 “The Calvinist’s Suppression of Logical Reasoning, Moral Intuition and Common Sense”
Therefore, this real contradiction reveals that the essential problem is ultimately one of erroneous interpretation regarding the sovereignty of God or human freedom. Not only are we back to the original problem, but this reasoning simply dismisses the implications of the fact that we have legitimate contradictions, incoherencies and inconsistencies on our hands. On what basis is the claim that the contradictions are only “apparent” founded? To simply dismiss what logic dictates as contradictory without any further proof that that knowledge is mistaken is to undermine the process of knowing. As the Scottish metaphysician Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856) wrote,
“Logic is the science of thought as thought, that is, the necessary conditions to which thought, in itself considered is subject.”
Certainly, therefore, logic also applies in biblical interpretation. Hamilton is pointing out that you cannot think properly without it. To dismiss the laws of logic at your own convenience is to not be thinking properly. Logic reveals the presence of contradiction which tells us something is amiss. For Calvinists simply to claim that what we know and perceive as contradictory does not apply to their interpretations is an ad hoc dismissal of a real logical problem that needs a real logical solution. To preserve Calvinist determinism, Calvinists assert that any perceived contradiction with human freedom and responsibility is only “apparent.” On the basis of the above discussion, this lacks credibility. If we have identified a real contradiction and Scripture cannot contradict itself, it must be that the interpretation has erred.
Let’s pursue our inquiry from a slightly different perspective. Let’s suppose for a moment that the contradictions are only “apparent” as Calvinists claim. We need to ask why Calvinists believe the contradictions in their doctrines are only “apparent?” Do they believe that the contradictions, in the end, must be only “apparent” because their conclusions are intolerably inconsistent with their idea about God’s person and character and the nature of the world which they are somehow sure could never involve such contradictions? Do they feel that they must avoid contradiction at all costs because a position that is logically contradictory must be false? In other words, are they not themselves confessing that they know God and the world must be other than what their doctrines portray them to be and they know that logic and moral intuition cannot be violated and their position remain credible? Are they not also confessing that they do reliably know the presence of real logical contradiction and this knowledge must be determinative of the truth or falsity of interpretive propositions?
Why then doesn’t this “reliable knowing” apply to the contradictions of Reformed theology and convince Calvinists, as it has for so many other believers, that their interpretive conclusions are incorrect and need to be amended? Are they admitting that “the Bible teaches both” is an insufficient position to take because it still leaves us with contradictions that are unacceptable on logical and theological grounds? Are they also admitting that “the Bible teaches both” position cannot be sustained when exposed to the rigor of logical and moral examination? If this is so, if the contradiction must be only apparent, which is to admit that we cannot abide a genuine contradiction as a valid theological conclusion, then which doctrines, God’s sovereignty or human freedom, God’s election of certain ones to salvation or a gospel of “good news” that all may obtain salvation by faith, need to be amended? Are Calvinists willing to amend their doctrines in light of true contradiction? Are there sound, biblical interpretations that relieve us of these contradictions? Are the presence of logical contradictions and moral incoherence reliable indications that the Calvinist theological conclusions are biblically wrong-headed? I believe so.
By declaring the contradictions we detect in Calvinism only “apparent,” the Calvinist is claiming we cannot know a real contradiction when we come up against one. Yet at the same time they are admitting that their theology demonstrates the presence of contradictions, after all what is there to declare only “apparent” if one is not admitting that what we detect surely looks like a real contradiction. But declaring these contradictions only “apparent” and not real amounts to declaring them to be something other than a contradiction and therefore explicable on rational grounds. The failure of Calvinists to explain their position on rational grounds, that is, with rational and moral coherence, indicates that their determinism presents a real contradiction, and as such, it is a real misinterpretation of Scripture. What the Calvinist is ultimately doing is declaring their interpretations to be correct on the basis that they are their interpretations and nothing more. But this is question-begging. To retort that, “we believe the Bible teaches both, but the Bible cannot contradict itself so we conclude the contradictions generated by our interpretations to be only “apparent” is to reason in a circle. What the Bible actually teaches and how we know it is the interpretive issue before us. The contradiction we detect is cavalierly dismissed by the Calvinist as “apparent” without asking what determines the validity of such an interpretation. I contend that logical and moral coherence are necessary to a sound hermeneutic. But the Calvinist does not. He has created a hermeneutic that can embrace incoherence. But to dismiss the principles of logic and our moral intuitions as inapplicable when it comes to interpreting the text and speaking about God is not only poor hermeneutic, it also terminates all further inquiry and rational discourse on these matters.
Now we must ask a corresponding question, that is, how do Calvinists know these contradictions are only “apparent?” What tells them this must be the conclusion? Do they know it from Scripture? Obviously not. For it was from Scripture that they learned of both sovereignty and free will in “tension.” They both stand in Scripture side-by-side. Therefore, the Calvinist suggested that the Bible teaches both as authoritative truths. Evidently the Bible itself says no more about these contradictions and leaves them unresolved. But if Calvinists claim that a contradiction they gleaned from Scripture is only apparent, that is, there really is none, then what of the reality of the conclusion we have gleaned from the intersection of a deterministic definition of sovereignty with human freedom? Is either the determinism or the human freedom not what it appears to be? Hence is there a misinterpretation of either or both? Or, is our perception of contradiction, incoherence and inconsistency unreliable and incorrect? If this is so, what then of valid reasoning?
Furthermore, recall that Calvinists claim “the Bible teaches both” as authoritative truths and their exhortation that we accept these “truths” without resolution. If that is the case, then why are Calvinists themselves continually seeking some kind of explanation or resolution to this problem in their theology? They should just bite the bullet and admit that the Bible contradicts itself. But they know they cannot do this for they really do adhere to logical reasoning and know that contradiction leads to nonsense and the Bible does not contain nonsense, and they certainly do not want to believe or teach nonsense. To reiterate the point, if it is the case that “the Bible teaches both” as authoritative truths, Calvinists must derive their sense of “apparent” from some other source since they didn’t get it from Scripture. If, according to the Calvinist, the Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of the contradiction between determinism and free will or lend us revealed truth on the matter, then where does the sense of contradiction come from? If Scripture doesn’t contradict itself, then why do we end with what seems to be a contradiction from reading Scripture? It certainly seems that we get this from our faculty of logical reasoning. And if this is even somewhat practically reliable, and when we read Scripture as the Calvinist interprets it and run up against these logical and moral difficulties, but Scripture doesn’t contain contradictions, inconsistency and incoherence, then the problem must be in the Calvinist’s interpretation.
Our ability to reason logically and morally is so fundamental to all correct thinking and interpretation that these faculties cannot be dismissed and must be allowed to function in their corrective capacity even when handling divine revelation. The question again therefore is to what degree our logical and moral reasoning abilities, even as fallen, sinful human beings, are still reliable indicators of what is true? To what degree are they a sufficiently accurate reflection of the character and nature of God himself and therefore reliable discerners of truth? There are good reasons to believe they are reliable. If they were not we could not engage in rational thought or discourse. If they are reliable, Calvinists find themselves in the incredible position of asking us to dismiss the foundational grounds of valid thinking – to make ourselves believe that what we know of logical and moral contradictions we really don’t know is this case – thus clearing the way to embrace their definition of sovereignty as determinism in conjunction with human freedom. Should we do this? Can we do this? I don’t think so. I think the question of validity in interpretation should be raised before we jettison rational coherence as an essential element for a sound, biblical hermeneutic.
Thus far the Calvinist has not presented any convincing argument or evidence to alter our conclusion that what we know of real contradiction applies in their case. When they claim “the Bible teaches both” and “apparent contradiction,” this, in effect, is to claim that their interpretations cannot be in error even in the face of the logical and moral difficulties outlined above. It is to defy common sense and sound reasoning. So they never will acknowledge that they may have been “proven” incorrect because the logical and moral grounds upon which we “prove” anything have been put out of court. What enables us to detect true and false interpretations have been rationalized away. God is still sovereign, as Calvinists understand sovereignty, that is, as theistic determinism. And God always will be “sovereign” in this sense no matter the negative logical and moral entailments of their theistic determinism. This leads us to believe that the one alternative the Calvinist refuses to consider is precisely the case – their interpretations are in error. They refuse to consider this because they have adopted a hermeneutic that accommodates incoherence, that is, a hermeneutic in which the logical and moral difficulties we have been pointing out hold no weight in determining the validity of interpretations.
The majority of Reformed Calvinist pastors and teachers seek to be true to what the Bible teaches. Yet the question as to precisely what the Bible does teach comes to the fore when they find themselves in the awkward position of not being able to reconcile their interpretations of passages like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 and the biblical witness to human freedom and responsibility along with the definition of the gospel as “good news.” Rather than question their interpretive conclusions they label the problem a “tension.”
These Calvinists, and many preachers and teachers of whatever stripe who are very influenced by Calvinism, handle such passages in a cursory and “tense” fashion. Having being influenced by the Reformed Calvinist perspective they are eager to get past the supposedly deterministic, anti-gospel message of texts like Jn. 6, Eph. 1 and Rom. 9. It seems that such passages, given the Calvinist understanding, cannot be logically and morally reconciled with human freedom and responsibility and a gospel that is truly “good news.” If the truth be told they themselves must admit that the “good news” in Scripture seems to be at odds with passages about election and predestination as they interpret them. But they are content to live with this “tension” and attempt to convince others that it is a legitimate way of reading and interpreting Scripture.
In reference to the gospel as “good news,” this message can only be “good news” to sinners when it is proclaimed that God loves all his human creatures and desires all men everywhere to be saved and that he is genuinely calling them to come to Christ for salvation simply by faith alone. But the Reformed doctrines are inconsistent with such a gospel. The gospel is truly “good news” because God’s love and grace are extended to all and all may be saved. Calvinist soteriology in its doctrine of unconditional election or predestination is in conflict with the biblical testimony that the eternal destiny of each person living is an open issue and dependent upon their faith response to God’s grace that is found “in Christ.” The irony is that most Reformed “gospel” preaching is inconsistent with their underlying theology. For instance, preaching on the seven responsibilities of a pastor in today’s culture, Calvinist Erwin Lutzer states that the first responsibility is to be “gospel centered.” He states,
“Number one, we must be gospel centered. By that I mean we actually lead with the gospel. I’m not talking about simply tacking the gospel on at the end of a sermon. I am speaking about having a ministry, that in the words of Wilberforce, that the free offer of the gospel through Jesus Christ who died as a substitution for our sins, who is to be received by faith alone by grace alone, Wilberforce…says that should be the sun around which all of the other planets orbit…All of our ministries, gospel centered. Not tacked on, but we lead with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because at the end of the day that is the one message that saves people. I mean the stakes are high – it’s heaven and hell.” 
We can see that Lutzer’s words here are inconsistent with his Calvinist theology and not fully forthright. Lutzer’s Calvinism amounts to a universal divine causal determinism in which each person’s eternal destiny is already predetermined by God. Yet, Lutzer speaks about salvation in the language of contingency. He speaks of the “free offer” of the gospel. The “free” in “free offer” implies that salvation is without restriction as to both recompense and to a “predestined elect.” God desires that all who hear the message of the good news of their salvation should indeed be saved. It is something that is freely given. The word “offer” implies that anyone hearing it is free to accept it or reject it. It is being offered to all sinners. And in that God does not lie, they may be saved. When God offers us something – like salvation – he does not do so disingenuously. His offer is true, and those to whom it is offered may indeed have it, that is, be saved. Lutzer specifically states that the gospel is about “Jesus Christ who died as a substitution for our sins.” Who is the “our” in this statement? It is implied that it refers to all of us. He states that Christ “is to be received by faith alone by grace alone.” This salvation that is offered is the result of God being gracious to us as helpless and hopeless sinners, and the call to receive this salvation “by faith” implies the potentiality and possibility of believing and actually being saved. But the Calvinist deterministic theology and soteriology precludes all this. Lutzer then states that “at the end of the day this is the one message that saves people.” But what message has he so far enunciated. It does not contain any of the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” which are the full and final explanation as to how each person ends up with their eternal destiny in heaven or hell. Inconsistent with his “doctrines of grace,” Lutzer affirms, not an unconditional election, but a contingent, open situation regarding the eternal destiny of persons when he says, “I mean the stakes are high – it’s heaven and hell.” On Calvinism there are no “stakes.” Nothing is left to the decision of the sinner. All has been predetermined, including everyone’s eternal destiny.
Lutzer, in speaking about “the gospel,” never makes this gospel clear with respect to his Calvinist soteriology. Therefore, our first question is, as a Calvinist, what exactly is the precise content of Lutzer’s “gospel?” What is the content of his gospel that would be consistent with his soteriology and also be “good news?” Well, he does provide us an explanation here, but this needs careful consideration in relation to his Calvinist soteriology. Note the following.
As noted above, the phrase, “free offer” is inconsistent with his deterministic soteriology. Furthermore, it would have been more accurate for him to say, “Jesus Christ who died as a substitution for the sins of the elect.” Also, the phrase “to be received by faith” is misleading. Lutzer makes it sound like salvation in Jesus Christ can be received by any sinner simply by their exercise faith. But that is not the case. According to Lutzer’s Calvinist soteriology, the sinner needs to be one of the elect and if they are among the elect they will be regenerated first in order for them to believe. Only the elect will be regenerated by God so that they may believe. One wonders what this call to faith could possibly mean and why the need for faith is not redundant once the elect sinner is already regenerated. So what is “the one message that saves people?” Which “people” can be saved? And again, how is it that there are any “stakes” at all involved here regarding a person’s eternal destiny in heaven or hell? According to the Calvinist’s deterministic eternal divine decree, deterministic divine sovereignty, and deterministic predestination or unconditional election, every person’s eternal destiny is already unchangeably predetermined by God. Those chosen by God for salvation are predetermined to life and all others predetermined to eternal damnation, punishment and death. And finally, we are left wondering what Lutzer means by “we lead with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” I suspect that when Lutzer says, “I am not talking about simply tacking the gospel on at the end of a sermon” he is referring to the invitation to make a decision for Christ and possibly come forward to confirm that decision as is the practice in many churches and in a Billy Graham crusade for instance. This practice of “invitation” is of course conceptually inconsistent with Calvinist determinism. To invite sinners to be saved presupposes that they have the ability to make a decision in the matter, as if their salvation and eternal destiny were up to them. But it is not. So for Lutzer the “gospel” is not “tacked on,” but we still are left wonder what he means by “we lead with the gospel” and what that “gospel” is that is consistent with his Calvinist soteriology.
So, what is Lutzer demonstrating to us here? He is exemplifying the fact that the Calvinist soteriology cannot, in any consistent manner, be put into the service of the gospel ministry biblically defined as “good news.” There is no “good news” in Calvinist theology and soteriology. Calvinists have to speak in vague and inconsistent terms for them to present something that can even be considered “good news” for sinners. It is impossible to preach the Calvinist soteriological doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, and effectual calling as “good news,” therefore, most Calvinists will ignore their soteriology and disingenuously tell all people that God loves them, that Jesus died for them, and that they can be saved by putting their faith and trust in Christ. Yet theologically they hold to doctrines that are in contradiction to these words and the preaching of this “good news.” And one way we have seen that the Calvinist “handles” the problem their determinism creates with human freedom and responsibility and the “good news” is to label it a “tension.”
Most biblically grounded preachers and teachers are concerned that they and their churches remain faithful to the proclamation of the gospel as good news, and rightly so. Indeed, proclaiming the gospel is the very heart of their mission and ministry. Yet the term “the gospel” is bandied about in churches, ministries and various conferences today without theological clarification or consistency. When all is said and done three questions come into focus. The first is, “What is the precise content of your gospel message?” The second is, “Is your gospel consistent with your professed soteriology and theology?” And the third question is, “Does it need to be consistent?” How one answers these questions reveals one’s hermeneutic – whether you have a hermeneutic of coherence or one of incoherence.
The point I am emphasizing is that we should expect one’s definition of the gospel to be consistent with the soteriology one espouses. Soteriology is, after all, the study of the doctrines of salvation. Even if a church or preacher says he believes the “gospel,” if the “gospel” is not further defined, the essence of a truly Christian ministry may be missing. And when he actually preaches the “gospel” what does he preach? The word “gospel” is used daily in Christian preaching, teaching and ministry. All evangelical ministries claim to be “gospel” ministries with the spread of the gospel as their purpose and mission. Yet if the question be asked of various “evangelical” preachers, teachers and organizations, “What precisely is the content of the biblical gospel?” and “Do you believe your answer is consistent with your underlying theology?” I contend that we would uncover a troubling incongruity among Reformed Calvinists. Their answers would be quite perplexing. Their “gospel” content would be inconsistent with their soteriological doctrines. Therefore serious ethical issues come to the fore regarding the integrity of speech when one makes the statement, “Christ died for you” or “God loves you” or “Believe the gospel, receive Christ as your personal savior” while that the speaker holds to a deterministic theology that states God has chosen a limited number to be saved and only those will be given faith to believe. In light of the knowledge of Calvinist soteriology, it appears clear to many evangelical Christians that there are at least two incompatible definitions of the gospel lurking within conservative evangelicalism today.
For example, I attended a Sunday Bible class in which 1 Tim. 2:4 was being taught by the associate pastor of a Reformed Baptist church. The opinions expressed and the conclusions reached were confusing, incomplete, and contradictory. The summary of the matter as to whether God desired all men to be saved and how an affirmative answer here could be coherent with a theology that also teaches that he has only chosen certain ones to salvation was that Jesus himself taught both. What we needed to do is acknowledge “the tension.” Astonishingly, the pastor also pointed out that we, of course, would not speak of the doctrine of unconditional election while witnessing. In that his understanding of the doctrine of election could not be put into the service of the gospel as “good news” to sinners was a tell-tale sign to me that something was amiss in his Reformed Calvinist understanding. The final challenge this pastor gave to the class was “Can you live with the tension?” This was to suggest that this Reformed understanding was the litmus test of Christian humility. It also highlighted the suppression of reason that is required to adopt Calvinism. This “humility” comes at a high intellectual price. Although this “tension” is the bottom-line for a Reformed Calvinist soteriology, to me this line of thought and conclusion is unsatisfactory from the standpoint of biblical interpretation, theological integration, intellectual integrity and honesty in witnessing. We all want to be humble before God, but all these legitimate interpretive and intellectual concerns are never discussed. Biblical humility is not to be equated with intellectual suicide.
Furthermore, as much as this “tension” is integral to the Reformed position, it seems that this associate Reformed pastor and all Reformed Calvinists cannot follow through with this position theologically, for if they did they would not ultimately embrace and identify themselves solely with Reformed Calvinism. As Reformed Calvinists they do not reflect their stated belief that Jesus and the Bible teaches both because they remain staunch Reformed Calvinist predestinarians in their doctrinal statements. If there truly is a “tension” or “the Bible teaches both,” your statement of faith should clearly say so.
What this demonstrates is a crucial flaw in the Reformed Calvinist’s hermeneutic – an acceptance of rational and moral incoherence. Calvinists attempt to be divine determinists and yet also affirm meaningful human freedom and responsibility. But they themselves understand this is impossible. So they embrace an absolute determinism and prefer to speak inconsistently with that theological position. When pressed on the issues, theologically they will default to an exhaustive theistic determinism that logically eliminates the “tension” between God’s desire to save all people and what they call God’s “sovereignty in salvation” (that he actually saves only the elect). Being mutually exclusive positions, theistic determinism annihilates human freedom altogether. It eliminates any possibility of a “tension” between God’s sovereignty in salvation (that only the elect will be saved) and that salvation is available for all people (in accord with God’s desire that “everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” – 1 Tim. 2:4) through the response of faith. Thus what the Calvinist calls a “tension” is really a contradiction. The Calvinist will ultimately acknowledge an absolute divine decree that predetermined who will and who will not be saved. When pressed, his “tension” turns into a single position and a real logical and moral contradiction. It must do so because Reformed Calvinism is a theistic determinism, and as such suffers the incoherence and contradictions of any determinism. Determinism leaves no room for human willing as rooted in an individuated self – that is, decisions or actions that are of the person themselves as the sole author with the ability of contrary choice.
Akin to “apparent contradiction” is the Calvinist’s “flight to mystery.” That is, Calvinists who feel compelled to maintain their deterministic definition of sovereignty as biblical, but also must acknowledge the biblical witness to a meaningful definition of human freedom in which “a human makes a free choice that no one or no thing apart from the person (not even God) can totally determine,” must ultimately resort to “mystery” as an “explanation.” This is the most commonly used assertion.
In an interview question and answer session, John Piper states,
“Now, the first way you asked the question, is it an antinomy, or a contradiction or humanly inexplicable how God can be absolutely sovereign over all human decisions and those decisions still be responsible, accountable decisions, I think that is, the one for me anyway, for which I don’t have an ultimate answer…it doesn’t work for me. So I have no final explanation. So at that level, the antinomy that Packer talks about between humans being held accountable for their actions – which they absolutely in the Bible clearly are – and God being ultimately, decisively in control of all of those decisions – those are two truths in the Bible…I would die for either one of them – I don’t solve that problem with free will. It doesn’t provide any explanatory help to me at all, nor do I find it taught in the Bible. I’m willing to just live with that mystery.”
This “flight to mystery” arises from the contradictions and incoherencies Calvinists themselves recognize in their soteriology. But for Piper,” free will” doesn’t provide any “explanatory help” nor does he “find it taught in the Bible.” But how does “mystery” provide any “explanatory help?” It doesn’t effectively deal with Piper’s interpretive problems. It has no explanatory power. And neither is this type of “mystery” “taught in the Bible.” It doesn’t get us anywhere with regard to dealing with the interpretive issues here. And that’s the point. Incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in one’s interpretations cannot be left in abeyance with “mystery” as an excuse not deal with them. True mystery can be left in abeyance precisely because true mystery doesn’t leave us with contradictory thoughts or propositions. It has the character of being beyond total comprehension, not against reason in terms of its legitimate function for discerning the truth or falsity of a matter. True mystery exists rather in our lack of knowledge into a matter, not when our logical reasoning faculties are telling us that something we have sufficient knowledge about is in conflict with something else we have sufficient knowledge about. True mystery is not a conflict between knowns. False “mystery” is. That false “mystery” is called a contradiction. Our reasoning capacity is suited to discern when two or more thoughts or propositions are in irreconcilable conflict. Our reason is reliable for discerning contradictions. Hence, it is in our very nature as logical, rational beings that we are able to discern interpretations, propositions or thoughts that generate real, recognizable contradiction. And these must find resolution rather than be dismissed by merely asserting them to be a “mystery.” A real contradiction cannot be left to stand. But Piper, as do all Calvinists when all is said and done, states “I am just willing to live with that mystery.” What he means is “I am willing to ignore the contradiction in my theology.” But I contend that for the Calvinist to allow this contradiction in his theology to stand is hermeneutically illegitimate precisely because the Calvinist interpreter is attempting to dismiss what he knows is a contradiction between his definition of divine sovereignty as theistic determinism and human freedom. The hermeneutical divide exists between non-Calvinists and the Calvinists because the Calvinists allow their contradictory interpretations to stand.
In light of Piper’s evasive explanations above, the words of David Basinger are helpful. He states,
“…it must be reemphasized that the concept of contradiction is not nearly so complex and murky as the statements by [Calvinists] would lead us to believe. If two terms are defined in such a way that to affirm one automatically renders the other false, then we have a contradiction.
…The same principle holds with respect to alleged Biblical contradictions. If Biblical truths are defined in such a way that to affirm one automatically renders the other false by definition, then we have a contradiction. Again, for example, if we mean by saying that a human makes a free choice that no one or no thing apart for that person (not even God) totally determines what this choice will be and then say that God totally determines all actions – including free human choices – we have a contradiction. On the other hand, if these concepts are defined in a way that freedom does not entail that humans alone always have some control and/or sovereignty does not entail that God always has total control, then there is no contradiction.
In short, we must not let the fact that we as humans do not have all the pieces to the puzzle lead us to believe that the concept of contradiction is inherently ambiguous. This again is to confuse paradox with mystery. The concept of contradiction is itself perfectly clear, and it is usually quite easy to determine if two concepts are in fact contradictory once we understand how the terms in question are being defined.”
Superficial thinking or casting doubt upon one’s ability to detect a contradiction opens the door to accepting these Calvinist defenses of “the Bible teaches both,” “apparent contradiction,” “tension” or “mystery.” These inadequate diversions from the real issues of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are what help perpetuate Calvinism and the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.
Moreover, I wish to make a more fundamental ontological point that Basinger touches upon in quoting Van Til and when he mentions “categories of meaning with which we have been created.” This relates to the Calvinist assertion that what is a meaningless combination of thoughts and words for us at the human level is not so at the divine level. In other words, can the contradictory concept of a square circle really be non-contradictory in God’s mind? Granted, God is able to think in “other than human categories,” but is “a category” that violates logical reasoning one of them? Or, is the reason humans think in terms of the rules of logic because they are made in the image of God who is a rational being and by nature also must think in these terms? Hence, speaking about square circles and claiming that “an event can be the result of free human choice and yet totally determined by God” are nonsense even to God. I submit that what we know of contradiction is patterned after how the mind of God works.
This is a crucial point because the Calvinist will stress the limitations of human understanding and our inability to comprehend the ways of God. They will also claim that the Bible, precisely because it is divinely inspired, will contain statements or doctrines that are not transparent to human reason and moral intuition. But we have seen that this is a way the Calvinist avoids the conclusion that they are confronted with a real contradiction and therefore their problem is rooted in their interpretations of the text. The issue is not that their problematic doctrines are accurate interpretations of the text but as we might expect beyond our human comprehension or a mystery to our logical and moral reasoning. Rather, the Calvinist’s problems are identifiable as real incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions. So, if the mind of God works in rational and moral ways known to us because we are patterned after him, then using God and Scripture to excuse incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction, is a serious theological and interpretive error.
“The theologians of paradox are surely right in maintaining that God’s ways are above our ways. It would be foolish to contend that we as finite humans could understand God exhaustively. But it is unjustifiable to use this fact as a basis for affirming biblical paradox. It is unjustifiable, for example, for Packer to support paradox by arguing that “a God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of Himself confronted us with no [paradoxes] whatsoever, would be a God in man’s image.” For to ask whether a biblical concept is paradoxical is solely to ask whether it is logically consistent – that is, it is to ask whether the terms are being defined in such a way that to affirm one is to deny the other. And the fact that we do not know how or why God has done certain things is irrelevant to this point. In other words, we can readily admit our human finitude without granting that Biblical truth is paradoxical. To maintain otherwise is, as I have repeatedly argued, to confuse paradox with mystery.”
Note that when Basinger states, “For to ask whether a biblical concept is paradoxical is solely to ask whether it is logically consistent – that is, it is to ask whether the terms are being defined in such a way that to affirm one is to deny the other” we have here an example of a hermeneutic of rational coherence being employed. He exhibits a high view of reason’s ability to discern contradiction and uses this to judge an interpretation as being valid or not. We have seen that Calvinists like Packer and Piper do not incorporate concerns of rational and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction into their hermeneutic. Presupposing the truth of their interpretations that have led them into their determinism, they would rather, and indeed must, let these rational and moral difficulties stand in abeyance. Hence we have the Calvinist’s attempts at “explaining,” dismissing and diverting our attention away from those difficulties that we have been discussing.
Therefore, Calvinists are quite confused on this score. The Calvinist’s implicit affirmation that the Bible, as divinely inspired, cannot contain a contradiction, again implies that we can know a contradiction when we see one. Moreover, this is also to affirm that the reasoning that identifies contradictions is rooted in the divine nature. If the Bible is divinely inspired and that is the reason it cannot contain contradictions, and this is what compels the Calvinist to deem the contradictions they observe in their theology to be only “apparent,” then the Calvinist is affirming that the laws of logic are indispensable and applicable because they are grounded in the very nature of God. There would be therefore no mysterious dichotomy between the reasoning and laws of logic we employ on the human level with those employed by God on the divine level. Certainly his thoughts can be far greater than we can comprehend, but they would not require from us a reversal of our reasoning about the things that we do comprehend. In that God is the paradigm of reason and logic, and we are created in his image and dependent upon him for all things, we can presume that our reasoning is patterned after God’s and that we should able to detect real contradictions when we see them. God designed us with the capacity to reason and therefore it serves reliably for that which it was given. We can reason because that is what God is like in his essential being. John’s gospel reflects this truth in the prologue. Jesus is called the logos or “the Word” from which “logic” or “reason” are derived. Hence, these laws of logic and reasoning are inviolable and therefore also reliable for discerning the meaning of the inspired text. Therefore, the nature of Scripture as divinely inspired cannot be used to explain away contradictory interpretations. Hence, logical and moral reasoning are integral to discerning the true meaning of biblical texts. They cannot be dismissed. Therefore, coherence, consistency and non-contradiction must be deemed interpretively significant and essential to our hermeneutic, that is, the principles by which we discern the true meaning of a text. To label as an “apparent contradiction” what can be identified through this divinely given logic and reason to be a real contradiction is ad hoc. It is a red-herring and unconvincing as a reason to embrace Calvinism.
“I have argued that the widespread use of the phrase “apparent contradiction” is inappropriate. The Biblical truths in question are either contradictory from a human perspective or they are not. If such truths really are contradictory from a human perspective, then at the human level they must be viewed on a logical par with concepts such as square circles, which even Packer grants to be nonsensical. The fact that God has presented us with such truths is irrelevant. They remain meaningless at our level, whatever may be the case for God.
On the other hand, if such truths cannot be shown to be contradictory – that is, if it cannot be shown that to affirm one Biblical truth is to deny another – then it is quite misleading to claim that certain Biblical tensions have no logical solutions or that they require us to defy logic. For the puzzles in this case are not primarily logical in nature.
…But if concepts that are really self-contradictory at the human level are meaningless while concepts that have not been shown to be self-contradictory can be affirmed with logical impunity, then to label any such ambiguity or puzzle an “apparent contradiction” that “defies logic” is a confusion that ought to be avoided.”
We may add to “apparent contradiction” these other inappropriate phrases – “the Bible teaches both,” “tension,” “paradox,” “antinomy” and “mystery.”
Due to the ontological grounding of the laws of logic in God himself and their nature as essential to all meaningful thought and discourse, the Calvinist’s inability to deal with the presence and persistence of contradiction and incoherence in their theology is an indication that their interpretation of the Bible is incorrect on this score. As such, reinterpretation of the text in accord with a hermeneutic that incorporates rational coherence is necessary. If they choose to continue to reject a hermeneutic of coherence it will not even be possible for them to resolve this confusion in their theology, and those who do adopt a hermeneutic of coherence will make no progress in discourse with them. Once the Calvinist dismisses from their hermeneutic the dictates of logical reasoning, the biblical text is left hermeneutically untethered. It is open to interpretations for which no coherent explanation need be given. This “hermeneutical divide” is the reason the controversy continues.
In addition, as far as the Calvinist employs this “flight to mystery” and “apparent contradiction” to defend their position, they are merely presupposing the biblical truth of their soteriological interpretations, thus begging the question.
Basinger recognizes all this is ultimately a hermeneutical issue and concludes,
“But the real issue of import here…is hermeneutical in nature. …the primary purpose for attempting to determine whether certain Biblical statements are self-contradictory…should be to attempt to identify the truth. For, given my analysis, if two seeming truths are really incompatible, then reinterpretation or suspension of judgment is necessary.
In short…”self-contradictory” is not simply the label for a category into which some Biblical truths may need to be placed, as it appears for the theologians of paradox. Rather the law of noncontradiction is a tool that must be used to identify Biblical truth in the first place.
To view things this way is not to give human reason preeminence over revelation or faith. It is simply to take a certain position on the essential categories of thought with which God made us. And while this stance may be wrong, to claim that it is any less consistent with Biblical teaching, as the theologians of paradox sometimes imply, is simply hermeneutical question-begging.”
Therefore, as it stands, we can conclude that there are no good reasons why we should think the Calvinist interpretations that yield incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are valid. Indeed, if incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are not reason enough, I do not know what reasons could be given as to why the Calvinist interpretations are correct and should be believed.
So the problems the Calvinist has in relation to all these arguments are as follows:
- The laws of logic are grounded in God’s nature. We have them by virtue of being created in his image. Therefore we are on solid theological footing in thinking that the logical problems inherent in Calvinism can be identified as real problems of reasoning (i.e. incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction). We know a contradiction when we see one, let alone incoherence and inconsistency.
- If the laws of logic are rooted in God’s nature as a rational being and God has an intellectual life, this is good reason to think that God himself abides by those laws of logic accordingly. Indeed, in that they are of his very nature he cannot but adhere to them, unless one wants to argue that God can violate his own nature.
- As such, the inspired Scripture, precisely because it is inspired, does not contain contradiction, incoherence and inconsistency in its teachings.
- Inspired Scripture, precisely because it is inspired by a rational God, cannot be used to dismiss interpretations that can be seen to be incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory. To claim that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” or “the ways of God are beyond our comprehension” or “the Bible teaches both” cannot justify interpretations that are perfectly comprehensible as incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory. These are mere ad hoc assertions that fail to address the interpretive issues at hand.
- As rooted in God’s nature, non-contradiction, coherence and consistency are hermeneutically non-negotiable. They are integral concerns for discerning valid interpretations. The canons of reason are essential elements in the interpretive task and can be relied upon to discern valid from invalid interpretations.
- As such, the Calvinist must substantively address the rational and moral problems in their theology and soteriology. These cannot be cavalierly dismissed.
- To dismiss the problem by attaching the word “apparent” to contradiction is a mere assertion. It is not a substantive argument as to why what is otherwise recognized as a contradiction isn’t a real contradiction.
- The explicit meaning of the “apparent contradiction” claim is that the Calvinist understanding of sovereignty is not in contradiction with human freedom. If that is the case, the Calvinist has the burden of demonstrating that there is no contradiction here. They do this mainly through compatibilism. But if the Calvinist claims these doctrines are not contradictory then as Basinger observes, “…it is quite misleading to claim that certain Biblical tensions have no logical solutions or that they require us to defy logic.”
- When the Calvinist maintains that their position is only an “apparent contradiction” they are implicitly affirming a sufficiently reliable knowledge of the laws of logic. They imply that a real contradiction can be discerned by their human reason, for how else would they know a contradiction to be only apparent if they could not discern it from a real contradiction?
- When the Calvinist maintains that their position is only an “apparent contradiction” they are implicitly affirming that a real contradiction would be unacceptable, thereby affirming the presence, virtues, importance and the applicability of the laws of logic in human reasoning and interpretation. In essence the Calvinist is unwittingly acknowledging that the laws of logic are indispensable in the interpretive process. They cannot be dismissed as essential to a sound hermeneutic.
- To dismiss the problem by asserting “mystery” is a mere assertion. It is not a substantive argument as to why this problem is a true biblical mystery. The “flight to mystery” remains unjustified. It fails to reckon with the role of logic and rational coherence in hermeneutics.
- To dismiss the problem by asserting “incomprehensibility” due to the fall and sin is inconsistent with what all philosophers and theologians recognize – even given the fall into sin, there are fundamental rules of thought without which no rational thinking, reasoning or discussion would be possible.
- To dismiss the problem by asserting “incomprehensibility” due to the fall and sin is inconsistent with the reasoning the Calvinist otherwise encourages and brings to the interpretive task and broader life experiences. Obviously these laws and our thinking about them are not so distorted by the fall that they cannot be trusted to produce sound conclusions in everyday life.
- Even given the fall and our sinful natures, we should not expect that a complete reversal of the dictates of logic or morality are a possible option just because a matter is talked about of God or an action willed by God. To claim that what sound reasoning indicates to be a contradiction actually may not be, or to think that what our moral intuitions tell us is wrong is really right needs substantive justification; a justification the Calvinist has not provided.
- It is not as difficult to identify a contradiction as the Calvinist makes it out to be.
- For the Calvinist to assert that the non-Calvinist, because of sinful pride which seeks human autonomy from God, simply does not want to bow to the Scriptures in regard to divine sovereignty, election, predestination, etc. as the Calvinist understands these is to commit both the ad hominem and question-begging fallacies. The question before us is whether or not the Scriptures really do teach these doctrines as the Calvinist understands them.
- All these Calvinist assertions presuppose the truth of Calvinist determinism and therefore amount to theological and hermeneutical question-begging. How we can discern whether or not the Calvinist (or non-Calvinist) interpretations are the meaning of a text is the question we are seeking to answer.
- All these assertions reveal the Calvinist’s inconsistency regarding their hermeneutic. They employ logical reflection and moral intuitions in actual life experiences, but they will not take these on board as essential elements in their interpretive process and hermeneutical framework.
- Given that the Calvinist dismissals of the problems of logical and moral incoherence and contradiction inherent in their soteriological doctrines amount to hermeneutical question-begging, we can add that there is no good reason why we should think the Calvinist interpretations of the text that yield this incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are valid.
- Given all these considerations and concerns about Calvinism, it is more plausible to think that interpretations that evidence textual and theological non-contradiction, coherence and consistency, along with other necessary exegetical and interpretive criteria, are the more accurate interpretations. It is more plausible to think that non-contradiction, coherence and consistency are indispensable elements in a responsible hermeneutic that is trustworthy to help us discern valid interpretations.
In summary, there are certain laws of logic that are grounded in God’s nature. We have, by virtue of our creation in the image of God, been given the ability to reason according to these laws. Hence our rational faculties function on the pattern of the divine rationality. As this rationality is rooted in the divine nature itself, it is paradigmatic of all rationality bequeathed to the human creature. All meaningful, coherent thought and discussion depends upon these laws of logic and the proper functioning of human reason that employs them. Granted, because we are fallen, sinful creatures our thinking does not function with precise and perfect clarity. Most things are not immediately transparent to our understanding. We need to think hard and long about many things. But this does not mean that our thinking is so distorted such that we cannot discern a real contradiction when we run up against one. By virtue of the fact that humans can engage in meaningful thought and discourse, we therefore take it as evident that our reasoning processes function via these laws so as to expose irrational, faulty and fallacious thinking and conclusions. These laws are essential and our noetic faculties function accurately enough to discern violations of these laws. Thus the “theologians of paradox” i.e., Calvinists, cannot flee to “apparent contradiction” to avoid what we can discern as a real contradiction.
Therefore it is incumbent upon the Calvinist to demonstrate how it is that their deterministic theology does not produce a real contradiction with a biblical theology of human freedom. As far as I can see they cannot do this successfully. And a theology that is incoherent is indicative of interpretations that have gone awry. Hence, such a theology does not warrant our belief. People believe what they do for many reasons, but what we are learning here is that to believe in Calvinist determinism will require one to ignore the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction inherent in that theology. One means of doing that is to adopt these various rationalizations Calvinists employ to avoid the probative force of logical and moral reasoning upon their theology. What these variously asserted rationalizations demonstrate is the Calvinist’s ultimate rejection of any assessment of the validity of their interpretive conclusions by logical reasoning or moral intuition. They claim human reason and intuition are flawed when it comes to the critiques that logical reasoning or moral intuition level against their exegetical and theological conclusions. Calvinists work within a hermeneutic that embraces incoherence as a normal by-product of interpretation.
Therefore, the Calvinist’s reasoning goes like this.
“Our interpretations of sovereignty as deterministic and human thought and action as free and responsible certainly seem to result in a contradiction. But God has revealed both to us in Scripture and therefore we need to believe both as truths from God. The Bible teaches both.”
At this point the Calvinist is begging the question as to how we can know the Bible teaches what they say it teaches. They are also making a bald assertion that “the Bible teaches both.” The Calvinist will continue,
“Again, these doctrinal beliefs certainly seem to be contradictory, but of course we do not understand everything about God with our finite, fallen human reason. Therefore, as far as God is concerned, these doctrinal beliefs are not in contradiction, because there cannot be contradiction in God’s thinking or revelation. Therefore, we may say that this is an “apparent contradiction.””
Again, we have the question-begging presumption that the Calvinist interpretations are correct along with their statements about their beliefs and God that imply we can know a contradiction if we were to see one. Yet, the Calvinist must not affirm that there is a contradiction in their doctrinal beliefs, so they make a second bald assertion of “apparent contradiction.” The point is that they do not take what they know of contradiction and allow that to question their interpretations of Scripture. There theistic determinism remains unquestioned and fixed. Therefore the Calvinist acknowledges the use of reason to determine valid propositions until they present a challenge to their own theology. At that point what reason detects as contradiction becomes only “apparent.” They take it that their interpretations are a priori correct. Incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction are not sufficient grounds to doubt the validity of their interpretations. What this tells us is that coherence, consistency or non-contradiction are not essential to the Calvinist’s hermeneutic.
So for the Calvinist to claim “apparent contradiction” or “the Bible teaches both” doesn’t address the more fundamental problem that serious contradictions exist within Calvinism. They dismiss the interpretive importance that should be attached to that fact. These are contradictions that even the Calvinist implicitly admits cannot be inherent to Scripture or the nature of God. It may be a genuine Calvinist conviction that “the Bible teaches both” but that conviction comes at a high intellectual, moral and theological price. Perhaps too high a price for it not to be suspect as an accurate interpretation of biblical truth.
We have seen that Calvinists state that the contradictory elements within their theology – theistic determinism and human freedom and responsibility – are simply a “divine mystery.” Now, we may appreciate the intention in this standard response. Of course God is above our complete comprehension. But genuine biblical “mystery” refers to the revealing of what was once hidden.
The interpretive “mystery” we find ourselves up against in thinking about Calvinist soteriology is very different than the biblical use of the term. The Calvinist use of the word “mystery” is exegetically illegitimate. Legitimate interpretive or exegetical mystery is to be understood as a limitation of further knowledge beyond what has been revealed. It is not interpreting what has been revealed, finding that one’s interpretations contain incoherence or contradiction with other interpretations of the text, and merely asserting this situation to be a “mystery” to justify those interpretive difficulties. True mystery involves something about the full knowledge of which is beyond our intellectual apprehension and reach, not something we sufficiently apprehend that is placed in logical or moral incoherence with something else we also sufficiently apprehend. Biblical interpretations that can be fully apprehended to be incoherent, and even contradictory, do not constitute a mystery in the biblical sense. Mystery cannot be employed as another name for interpretive incoherence of contradiction. Examples of true mystery would be creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), the trinity, the divinity and humanity of Jesus, etc. These constitute true biblical mysteries, but they are not incoherent or contradictory, they are not against reason, that is, in conflict with other biblical teachings, but merely beyond our reason to fully apprehend.
In contrast to this, the claim that the Bible teaches that God deterministically ordained “whatsoever comes to pass,” that is, God alone has determined and therefore causes every human attitude, belief, desire and action, and yet, humans remain free and responsible creatures, involves us in numerous logical, moral and theological incoherencies and contradictions. The former examples (i.e., the trinity, the incarnation) highlight known revealed truths about which further knowledge is left unknown. These do not present incoherence or contradiction but only lack of full knowledge or understanding of the powers and ways of God. But Calvinist soteriology presents two (or more) claims to biblically revealed truths that are in contradiction or incoherent with each other. This is a very different matter that involves us in interpretive concerns that are too cavalierly dismissed by the flight to “mystery” or “high mystery” as the Westminster Confession puts it.
Theologian Kenneth Keathley notes that the Church Councils had this concern about coherence and non-contradiction as a hermeneutical criteria in discerning biblical truth regarding the humanity and divinity of Jesus. He writes,
“…as the approach taken by the early Church to the Christological controversies demonstrates, affirming mystery is not the same as embracing illogical contradictions. In his book, The Logic of God Incarnate, Thomas Morris showed that the Councils were careful to describe the mystery of the hypostatic union of Christ in such a way that did not involve a logical contradiction. For example, the early Fathers declared Jesus to “truly” and “genuinely” possess the essential attributes of each nature, rather than saying that Christ was “totally and “completely” human or divine. Such nuances are necessary to avoid gibberish. There is a place for mystery. However, in the divine sovereignty/human responsibility paradox, sometimes my Calvinist brethren appeal to mystery in order to avoid the harsh and contradictory conclusions of their own system. “Mystery” and “contradiction” are not synonyms.”
So to claim parity of “mystery” between the nature of the incarnation or the Trinity, with the problematic nature of the Calvinist’s eternal decree, deterministic sovereignty, unconditional election, etc. and human freedom, moral responsibility, the nature of faith, just judgment, etc., seems to me inaccurate and inappropriate. It is not what we don’t know that is the issue here, rather, it is what we do know, and know all too well.
The contradictory nature of the elements of Calvinist theology are rooted in the Calvinist’s deterministic definition of sovereignty. Rather than having the characteristic of true biblical mystery which involves something formerly unknown but now revealed, or something although not fully known that is plausible and consistent with other divine special and general revelation, Calvinism generates incoherence and inconsistency between at least two knowns – the human freedom testified to throughout Scripture and sovereignty as Calvinists define it deterministically. But determinism is logically incompatible with the clear biblical teaching about the nature of God and man, and when two or more things can be shown to be logically incompatible they are therefore not a “mystery” but an impossibility. Illogical combinations of words or propositions do not constitute mystery but remain illogical combinations of words and thus meaningless – like a married bachelor or a square circle. And they remain such even when we are talking about God. Recall the words of C. S. Lewis that apply here. He writes,
“His omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to his power. If you choose to say “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words “God can.”
“It is not more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
Keathley accounts how R. C. Sproul Sr., a prominent Reformed Calvinist preacher and teacher, is forced to recognize the incoherence of his determinism with the introduction of sin and evil into the world. On theistic determinism God is the ultimate source and cause of sin and evil. But Sproul, of course, has to deny this. He quotes Sproul as saying,
“In spite of this excruciating problem we still must affirm that God is not the author of sin. The Bible does not reveal the answers to all our questions. It does reveal the nature and character of God. One thing is absolutely unthinkable, that God could be the author or doer of sin.”
Note that Sproul flees to mystery in an attempt to relieve the theological incoherence in his position. He admits it is an “excruciating problem” but then merely asserts that “the Bible does not reveal the answers to all our questions” and that “God is not the author of sin.” To state “the Bible does not reveal the answers to all our questions” is question-begging. It merely presupposes the truth of the Calvinist determinism. Furthermore, given his theistic determinism, why isn’t God the author of sin? Sproul merely asserts he is not. There is no further inquiry regarding on what basis we might discern whether Sproul’s determinism constitutes an erroneous interpretation of divine sovereignty, that is, whether or not there is a real logical incoherence here. In this regard Keathley concludes that,
…Calvinists need to face the implications of their theological system. “Mystery” is not a universal Band-Aid to which one can appeal every time his conclusions appear to contradict the Bible.”
Interestingly, Sproul is sure that the Bible “does reveal the nature and character of God.” And Sproul must be thinking that what is revealed about the nature and character of God is incompatible with God being the author of sin. He states that it is “absolutely unthinkable” that “God could be the author or doer of sin.” He is correct. If anything is clear from Scripture it is the holiness, purity and sinlessness of God. In God there is no evil or sin and he cannot cause evil or sin. But note that Sproul does not give any hermeneutical weight to what is logically entailed by his determinism – that God is “the author and doer of sin.” He dismisses the incompatibility his theistic determinism sets up with the doctrine of the fall and the entrance of sin into the world. He will not consider the hermeneutical implications of the incoherence inherent in his position. In contrast, Keathley recognizes and states the hermeneutical and interpretive implications. He writes,
“If determinism is true, then God is the first cause of sin….However, since God is not the cause of sin, then causal determinism cannot be true. If a starting assumption logically compels one to a conclusion outside the boundaries set by Scripture, then the starting assumption must be wrong. The vast majority of Calvinists who hold to soft determinism reject the notion that sin originated with God, but they do so by a sheer act of will. The logic of their system leads to such a conclusion, but most have the good sense not to accept it.”
But to say they have the “good sense not to accept it” is also confirmation of their inconsistency and the arbitrary nature of their position due to their rejection of logical and moral coherence as essential to hermeneutics. But when logical and moral coherence are included in our hermeneutic the falsity of the Calvinist interpretation of divine sovereignty as a causal determinism is exposed. Incoherence and contradictions in one’s theological propositions are indications that one’s exegesis and interpretations are flawed.
So, how far afield logically and morally can this dismissal of coherence lead the Calvinist? Keathley also contrasts R. C. Sproul Junior’s position with his father’s. He documents the son’s explanation of God’s sovereignty and evil in the world.
“Many determinists, following John Calvin and the framers of the Westminster Confession, have tried to absolve God from blame by distinguishing between primary and secondary causes. But Sproul Jr. does not bother. After all, “we recognize that hiring a hit man does not shift the blame from the hirer to the hiree.” Both the hit man and the one who hired him are equally guilty. “And both can hang for it.” So, Sproul Jr. reckons, God may not have personally pulled the trigger, but He is the one who caused Eve to sin by providing her with the depraved inclinations – “the trail ultimately leads back to God.”
As Keathley sees it, R. C. Sproul Jr’s position here and on other matters is “distressing” and “astounding.” The more fundamental interpretive question that gets raised from the stating of these positions is “Why do these theologians come to such diametrically opposed interpretations of the same texts?” The answer: The non-Calvinist (Keathley) values logical and moral coherence and the Calvinist (R. C. Sproul, Jr., et al.) does not.
What these accounts demonstrate is that Calvinists need to come to grips with whether a sound hermeneutic must incorporate logical reasoning and moral intuition or whether these can be arbitrarily and cavalierly dismissed by disregarding the canons of reason and fleeing to “mystery” and various other “explanations.” I submit that the essence of the Calvinist/non-Calvinist divide lies in an identifiable distinction as to the necessity of logical and moral coherence in interpretive methodology and hermeneutical principles. I call this the hermeneutical divide. The non-Calvinist incorporates logical coherence and moral intuitions in his hermeneutic and interpretations whereas the Calvinist does not. I still await a Calvinists response to this specific hermeneutical divide.
In light of the above discussion we can also see how the Calvinist’s deterministic definition of sovereignty obscures our certain knowledge of the character of God and his salvific will and purposes for us individually. In contrast to this, Jesus himself, as God incarnate, made the knowledge of God and God’s salvific will clear when he said, “If you would have known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him…Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:7, 9)
Jesus, as the divine second person of the triune God, certainly did not teach or represent the Father’s sovereignty as that of an absolute determinism that obscured the salvific will of the Father from individuals. John 3:14-18 makes this perfectly clear.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.” (CSB)
John 20:30-31 also expresses God’s universal saving will.
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (CSB)
Jesus also said, “For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (Jn. 6:40, CSB) And he clearly presented forgiveness of sins as a conditional matter depending upon faith in him when he stated to the Jews that “…Therefore I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.” (Jn. 8:24, CSB) Their eternal destiny was both a present dynamic and an open issue.
The Reformed “salvific unknown” generated by an eternal decree and unconditional election, is not in accord with the true nature of biblical mystery nor is it coherent with what has been revealed regarding the scope of salvation and the nature of faith as the means by which salvation is appropriated. In fact, Paul in Colossians 1:26-27 speaks of “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” That “mystery” which is “revealed” is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Paul even goes on to state his desire “that they may have all the riches of complete understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery – Christ. In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2, CSB) Steve Motyer writes in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology that Paul,
“…frequently associates it [mystery] with words of revelation (e.g., Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:3-9), and this has led some to assert that, paradoxically, “mystery” is for Paul something no longer mysterious but clearly revealed. This is certainly true of Ephesians 1:9 and Colossians 1:26-27 and accounts for the fact that “mystery” is often virtually identical with “gospel” (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:1; Eph. 6:19; 1 Tim. 3:9).”
For the Calvinist to obscure God’s salvific will by teaching a theistic determinism and unconditional election and assert that the logical and moral incoherence and contradiction this generates with human freedom and responsibility is a biblical “mystery,” is to be confused as to what constitutes true biblical mystery as revealed in the gospel message as “good news.” It therefore distorts that gospel good news. God has clearly revealed the “mystery” of God’s saving work. Paul clearly explains this to the Gentile Christians at Ephesus.
“For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles – assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (Eph. 3:1-13, ESV)
The “mystery” is the “good news” of the universal scope of salvation which was God’s eternal purpose realized in Christ. Paul states clearly that, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This is that gospel, or the “manifold wisdom of God,” that the church is to make known everywhere, including to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Indeed, as I argued previously, the gospel is at stake in this controversy.
Paul can speak about “imparting” a “secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7). Note what God has decreed. It is “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). God did not decree which specific individuals would be saved (i.e., “the elect”) but how salvation was to come about. It is what “none of the rulers of this age understood, “for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (v. 8). But what was hidden, “God has revealed to us through the Spirit…who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (vss. 10, 12). The purpose for making known this mystery or its revelation, is that everyone might hear it. As such it is meaningful to all and coherent. It is to be clearly proclaimed to all and can be clearly understood any anyone. It is not one message that is disingenuous to one group of sinners but applicable to another. And it is not two incompatible messages (i.e., the Calvinist’s “doctrines of grace” and the non-Calvinist’s message of truly “good news” for all sinners), but one univocal message of “good news.” God especially wants us to know the “good news” of our salvation, that is, that God has worked a means of reconciliation of himself to all sinners, and by faith in what God has done “in Christ” one inherits eternal life. Yet, even where “Paul does seem to use it [mystery] to convey the idea of ultimate ungraspability (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:7; 13:2; Eph. 5:32; Col. 2:2), or of present incomprehensibility (Rom. 11:25; 1 Cor. 14:2), or of something eschatological which transcends our present experience (1 Cor. 15:51; 2 Thess. 2:7),” this is different than “mystery” as used by Calvinists to justify the contradictory nature of their interpretations which they claim are things God has revealed in that manner. This is very different than any sense of Christian or Pauline “mystery” as referring to some things revealed and other things hidden, which, by virtue of being hidden, obviously cannot be known to be contradictory. Indeed, in the very context of election in Ephesians 1, Paul states confidently that God was “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ…” (Eph. 1:9)
Thus this flight to “mystery” as an “explanation” of the Calvinist understanding of sovereignty and election in relation to human freedom and responsibility remains unpersuasive.
Calvinists claim that because God is incomprehensible, logic and reason fail us as we attempt to understand God’s will and ways. Calvinists claim that non-Calvinists are attempting to understand the infinite God who is above and beyond our comprehension through their own limited, finite reasoning. And therefore the Calvinist concludes that this rational incoherence is the main reason the non-Calvinist rejects the Calvinist doctrines. The Calvinist points out that the non-Calvinist’s objections to Calvinism are not primarily based on the actual exegesis of the texts in question but are philosophical and moral in nature. In “Chapter 9 – Reason as Problematic for Calvinist Interpretation,” I will provide detailed arguments as to why this Calvinist dichotomizing of exegesis from philosophical reflection and moral reasoning is a false dichotomy and flawed hermeneutic. Against the flawed hermeneutic of Calvinists Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, I will argue that good exegesis incorporates the technical aspects of the grammatical-historical method with the deliberations and deliverances of philosophical reflection and moral intuitions.
But the discussion here has to do with properly understanding what is meant by “the incomprehensibility of God” as used in this controversy. Non-Calvinist’s claim that the incomprehensibility of God is misapplied by Calvinist’s as justification for the logical and moral difficulties that plague their interpretations and doctrinal conclusions. They see the Calvinist utilizing “incomprehensibility” to claim that the canons of reason and our moral intuitions are unreliable for discerning the validity of their proposed interpretations. That is, the Calvinist sees incomprehensibility as supportive of their interpretations when they run afoul of what seems to “makes sense” to most of us. So we would say that the thinking of John Piper is wrongheaded on this matter. He writes,
“Theology is the study of God and his works as revealed in the Bible. Now remember, we’re talking about God — infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth (WSC, 4). When we’re trying to understand the ways of someone infinite in wisdom, we should not be surprised when our limited, human logic reaches the end of its understanding and cannot comprehend how everything fits together. In other words, Christians should embrace mystery, because we embrace the God that outruns our own reasoning.
This is one of the most fundamental differences between Calvinists and Arminians — between those who love the sovereignty of God in all things and those who insist on free will untouched by God. The difference between Calvinists and Arminians is capacity for mystery. Do we accept what the Bible puts forward as truth — even when we can’t fully comprehend it — or do we try to fit everything into our own philosophical boxes in order to avoid mystery?”
The problem here has to do with distinguishing a proper theological doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God as gleaned from Scripture from “the incomprehensibility of God” as used to dismiss identifiable interpretive and theological incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction in one’s exegesis and theology. Presupposing the truth of his position (which again is question-begging), Piper uses “mystery” as a cloak for the logical problems created by his deterministic definition of “sovereignty.” Granted, when we are “talking about God” we find that our minds cannot comprehend all there is about him. Our understanding reaches its limits. But that is very different than claiming that “human logic reaches the end of its understanding and cannot comprehend how everything fits together.” Contrary to Piper’s assertion that human logic has reached its limit, human logic has functioned just as it should in detecting a contradiction in Piper’s theology due to his theistic determinism. The deliverances of logic are different than the lack of capacity for reason to fully comprehend God, that is, to grasp the full scope of who he is. This incomprehensibility is not the same as logical inconsistency in interpretive conclusions. We are not dealing here with what we cannot comprehend but with a problematic interpretation of the biblical text. The incomprehensibility of God is very different than Calvinist interpretations of Scripture that land us in logical incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction. We are talking about the nature of God and his works “as revealed in the Bible.” That necessitates interpreting a written text, and that requires discerning whether or not one is interpreting and understanding that text correctly, which requires us to use our reasoning faculties. It is not simply a matter of asserting that since “we’re talking about God…Christians should embrace mystery, because we embrace the God that outruns our own reasoning.” Piper pushes this point because he does not want us using our reason probing into his interpretations lest we see them for what they really are – incoherent and contradictory to other biblical teachings. Rather, we should employ our reasoning to assess whether one’s talk about God is what the Bible is saying about God in the first place. It is not a question of embracing Piper’s “mystery,” but whether or not we are going to affirm the reasoning capacities God has given to us for the purpose of correctly handling or teaching the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). As argued previously, Piper’s fight to “mystery” is question-begging. The question we need to ask is whether via our God given reasoning abilities we can discern whether Piper’s interpretation of “sovereignty” is correct or not. Piper claims that the logical and moral reconciliation of his deterministic sovereignty and free will is ultimately incomprehensible. But is our God-given reasoning capable of discerning between true mystery and nonsense, or, is Piper utilizing an otherwise legitimate doctrinal observation about God to cloak what is obviously a contradiction in his theology? Logic and reason are of the very nature of God. Therefore divine incomprehensibility does not include thinking things about him that are incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory. These, rather, are a reliable signals that something is wrong in the interpretation of the Scripture from which Piper gets his information about this incomprehensible God. One’s logically problematic interpretations cannot be passed off as “mystery.” Understood this way, the difference between Calvinists and Arminians is the Calvinist’s capacity to choose to dismiss the logical and moral problems inherent in their theology while the Arminian cannot.
William Lane Craig comments on God’s attribute of incomprehensibility. He states,
“One of the traditional attributes of God is that God is incomprehensible. Now when they said that God is incomprehensible, that did not mean that God is unintelligible or illogical or incapable of being understood. What they meant was that you can’t comprehend God in the sense of taking him all in. He is infinite, and so even though we gain genuine insight and knowledge about the nature of God (he is omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, eternal, necessary, and a se) – we have knowledge of God – yet we cannot comprehend him in the sense of putting our arms or our mind completely around God and understanding him exhaustively.”
Craig points out that incomprehensibility cannot mean logical unintelligibility. Also, to know about an attribute of God is to have knowledge lends to an understanding of God, not to a mystery that pits one attribute against another. A.W. Tozer writes,
“…an attribute of God is whatever God has in any way revealed as being true of Himself.
…If an attribute is something true of God, it is also something that we can conceive as being true of Him. God, being infinite, must possess attributes about which we can know nothing. An attribute as we can know it, is a mental concept, and intellectual response to God’s self-revelation. It is an answer to a question, the reply God makes to our interrogation concerning Himself.
…To our questions God has provided answers; not all the answers, certainly, but enough to satisfy our intellects and ravish our hearts. These answers he has provided in nature, in the Scriptures, and in the person of his Son.”
Tozer has mentioned an important point about questions we ask about what God is truly like. He states that God has provided enough answers to “satisfy our intellects.” The answers come in nature, Scripture and in Christ. One of these ways of knowing God we will return to and address more fully later, that is, the matter of God’s revelation of himself in Christ Jesus. Tozer comments,
“The yearning to know What cannot be known, to comprehend the Incomprehensible, to touch and taste the Unapproachable, arises from the image of God in the nature of man. Deep calleth unto deep, and though polluted and landlocked by the mighty disaster theologians call the Fall, the soul senses its origin and longs to return to its Source. How can this be realized?
The answer of the Bible is simply “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In Christ and by Christ, God effects complete self-disclosure, although he shows himself not to reason but to faith and love. Faith is an organ of knowledge, and love and organ of experience. God came to us in the incarnation; in atonement He reconciled us to Himself, and by faith and love we enter and lay hold on Him.”
In context with the previous quote, by saying “he shows himself not to reason but to faith and love” Tozer is certainly not saying that reason is in conflict with faith or that faith is believing things contradictory, incoherent or inconsistent about God. Rather, it is to say that in God’s complete self-disclosure, faith, as an “organ of knowledge” is not in conflict with reason but that faith is the only response God looks for with respect to his self-disclosure in the person of Jesus. We may have reasons to believe, but in actually believing or exercising faith, that is the only way we appropriate what God has done in Christ for ourselves. Faith and love are the response we have to God when we know of his grace, mercy and love shown to us in Christ.
Hence, the incomprehensibility of God cannot be used to legitimize doctrines that generate logical and moral incoherence and impugn the character of God. The proper emphasis of a doctrine of incomprehensibility has to do with the limited scope of knowledge we can attain about God, not whether the knowledge we have attained is allowed to be logically incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory. The claim that because God is incomprehensible we may believe what is incoherent or contradictory about his nature, will or ways, is to abandon the life of the mind in the discipline of hermeneutics and jettison reason in exegesis and interpretation.
What are we to make of the Calvinist’s claim that certain doctrines “appear” to be incoherent or contradictory due to “the incomprehensibility of God.” It is just that in the “here and now” on this side of eternity our limited understanding cannot reconcile these doctrines? Is it that because God is “incomprehensible” we are therefore incapable of reconciling the Calvinist doctrines of determinism and human freedom and responsibility?
First, this Calvinist claim seems to me to be self-defeating. If our human reasoning is as fallen, sinful and therefore unreliable as the Calvinist says it is, then perhaps the Calvinist himself has not reasoned properly with regard to their own theology of sovereignty and “doctrines of grace.” If our reasoning is not accurately perceiving what appears to be a problematic relation between Calvinism and other biblical themes and experiential realities, then perhaps the Calvinist is not accurately reasoning regarding his interpretations of Scripture. Perhaps the Calvinist has misunderstood the text. Perhaps our human reasoning is not to be trusted regarding the Calvinist’s interpretations of the text in the first place.
Second, this Calvinist claim is question-begging. The Calvinist presumes that their interpretations are accurate and it is only the inability of human reasoning to fully comprehend those interpretations that is the problem. The Calvinist presupposes his understanding of Scripture is true on this point. But is that really what Scripture teaches? That is the question before us. Again, perhaps the Calvinist’s interpretation is simply wrong. Calvinists presuppose the biblical truth of their position on this matter and therefore beg the question.
Thirdly, this claim is inconsistent. The Calvinist reasons logically and morally every day in many ways, especially when they are involved in the interpretation of Scripture, and they seem to trust their reasoning. So in this they are inconsistent. Furthermore, when the Calvinist uses reason to argue and conclude that reason is not able to comprehend certain Calvinist doctrines is inconsistent that would be self-defeating.
It seems that the Calvinist’s fear here is that they would be endorsing rationalism if they were to alter their determinism because of the incoherence it generates. But endorsing rationalism is a different thing than endorsing the use of reason in the interpretive task. I am not, for instance, referring to limiting the miraculous on the basis of what an atheist might presuppose as “unreasonable” on the basis of their naturalism. That would be to subject God to the naturalistic predilections and expectations of those who have a priori decided what can and cannot occur in the world precisely because there is a regular course of nature and that space, time, matter and energy are the sum total of all there is without remainder. God does not enter the equation. If you presuppose that matter is all that there is, of course you will logically conclude that miracles cannot occur. And your logic will lead you to the proper conclusion based on your naturalistic presuppositions. They will not necessarily be true conclusions, but they will be logically consistent. It is the same with theistic determinism. The logic of the Calvinist’s theistic determinism leads us to certain entailments that are in turn incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory with other truths the Scriptures and Calvinists clearly affirm.
In contrast to naturalism, enter the divine and divine revelation. Now we have possibilities that transcend the natural. By virtue of the presence of the divine or supernatural, naturalism and the resultant rationalism is defeated. But even given the presence of the divine, reason itself does not cease to function for the proper interpretation of divine revelation. The proper interpretation of the divine revelation surely includes an affirmation of the supernatural and miraculous. On naturalism, what is against reason with respect to theism, was irrational or against “reason.” But given theism the miraculous is now perfectly rational or reasonable. But what is beyond reason on theism cannot be against reason on theism. Reason still functions in the context of theism in the way it was designed by God to function, especially with respect to the divine revelation given in written form. Reason is integral to interpreting a written text. There is nothing incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory in a divine intervention into the regular order of nature if one presupposes a personal, Creator God. There is nothing incoherent, consistent and non-contradictory in the creation event, the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus, given God’s existence. So the type of problems rationalism raises are not relevant here. This is not a matter of what is a “reasonable” or “unreasonable” occurrence in the natural world depending upon one’s naturalistic presuppositions. It is not even the distinction between “blind faith” and “faith based on evidence.” Rather, the matter before us is more deeply rooted in the canons of reason or the laws of logic as first principles and whether those principles are sufficiently known and are to be applied to whatever question one is pursuing or proposition one is contemplating. We are talking about the first principles of logic to which all reasoning must confirm to be reasoning at all. Therefore, the question is whether interpretations that result in logical and moral incoherence and inconsistency or contradiction are valid, that is, whether they can be said to reflect an author’s intended meaning.
In this controversy neither the Calvinist nor the non-Calvinist is questioning the authority of Scripture. I take it that whatever Scripture teaches is to be fully accepted and believed. But what does the Scripture teach? That is the question. And the answer to that question involves us in issues of hermeneutics and interpretation. Hence, our primary concern is the responsible elucidation and application of the principles that constitute the discipline of hermeneutics. And once those principles are established we must apply them so as to rightly discern the intended meaning of a written text. In this controversy, what needs to be wrestled with is whether the laws of logic and moral intuitions are reliable and indispensable for proper interpretation.
Another way Calvinists dismiss the incoherence in their interpretations is to describe their approach as “faith seeking understanding.” But the incoherence of one’s interpretations cannot be summarily dismissed by the adage of “faith seeking understanding.” Even if initial faith doesn’t always depend upon a completely reasoned-through apologetic, the understanding faith seeks, as far as the Bible is concerned involves the discipline of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics concerns itself with how a written text is to be correctly interpreted. Therefore, it involves our understanding or the principles of reason and our moral intuitions. We are talking about the proper means by which we glean from the biblical text what it is incumbent upon us to think with regard to what it means and therefore what we are to believe. In this sense faith follows understanding. The Calvinists error is that “understanding” gets short-shrift as to logical and moral reasoning. These are cavalierly dismissed under the guise of “faith seeking understanding.” We are talking about the proper means by which further understanding is accomplished so that we might place our faith in the truth of what God has revealed, not adopt a faith that is blind to the incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions produced by the Calvinist interpretations. Faith is believing in what we have good reasons and evidence for thinking is true. The primary evidence comes from Scripture. We do not base justified belief merely on having an interpretation of a text, we need good reasons to believe that an interpretation is an accurate reflection of what the author intended to communicate. And that is where hermeneutical principles come in. In effect, hermeneutics is the discipline that seeks to get at the kinds of things that offer good reasons to think a text means one thing as opposed to another. I contend that these good reasons that are essential to discerning the true meaning of a text have been dismissed by the Calvinist. Certain essential hermeneutical principles – coherence, consistency and non-contradiction – are missing from the Calvinists hermeneutic. Therefore, Calvinism lack these good reasons to believe the Calvinist doctrines. Calvinists have adopted a hermeneutic of incoherence when what we need is a reasonable faith.
When interpretations betray themselves as incoherent or contradictory, belief in those interpretations is unjustified. Such interpretations do not warrant our belief because they do not command our intellectual assent at the most basic level of first principles of logic and our moral intuitions. This is a prior and more fundamental matter than that of the interrelation of faith and reason because the matter of faith and reason presupposes the sufficient and reliable functioning of our human reasoning capacities. And the issue certainly cannot be one of faith determining reason or understanding. Faith can stand apart from reason or understanding, but it will be a faith in process. Rather the issue has to do with faith and reason as complimentary, not in opposition. Especially not as far as biblical interpretation is concerned. Augustine has said that “just because a thing is not yet clear to our understanding, we must not therefore dismiss it from the firm assent of our faith.” Granted. But there is a significant difference between something that is “not yet clear” to our understanding and something that is “contradictory to” our understanding. The former needs more information, the latter has sufficient information but needs correction due to its logical and moral incoherence. The difference can be discerned. The “firm assent of our faith” cannot be used to pry us loose from the use of our logical and moral reasoning in the interpretive task, which, when engaged reveals that many things are perfectly clear to our understanding already. What we find in Scripture as rightly interpreted that is not incoherent, yet beyond our understanding, at least presently, needs to be believed. Faith can then rightly be said to be “seeking understanding.” Regarding certain things, faith may never get the understanding it seeks, as for instance how God created all things out of nothing. But an “understanding” of interpretations of the Scriptures that are incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory, can never provide the basis for a true faith. Certain “understandings” or interpretations of Scripture either become part of a “firm assent of faith” or should be dismissed as incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory. Interpretations that are incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory will never be “clear to our understanding” and therefore must be disqualified as candidates for “the firm assent of our faith.” Indeed, the canons of rationality cannot be violated, for how else will we know when something is “clear to our understanding” or not “clear to our understanding?” To speak of “clarity” of understanding would have no meaning. “Clarity” presupposes the reliability of reason’s deliberations and deliverances in the process of coming to understand the meaning of a text.
Augustine’s admonition seems to me to have a certain, restricted intent and application. It applies to where a thing known, is not yet fully known and therefore a fuller understanding is needed and anticipated. When it cannot be attained, we have genuine biblical mystery. But Augustine’s adage does not apply where two knowns are presented in contradiction to each other with the adage being employed to excuse the incoherence or contradiction in one’s interpretive conclusions. But this precisely what the Calvinist does. “Faith seeking understanding” is not the primary concern here. The role logical reasoning and moral intuitions play in determining the validity of interpretations is.
I submit that a sound hermeneutic will employ the discipline of philosophy (i.e. clear thinking) and our moral intuitions to inform our interpretive procedures and conclusions. Clear thinking is not always the forte of theologians who have often been educated in a particular theological and denominational paradigm in which only one interpretation of certain texts were presented to them. And I would venture to say that they have never formally studied the topic of hermeneutics. And we have seen, that just to have an exegesis of a text does not necessarily mean that exegesis is accurate. Of course, good exegesis is foundational to the interpretive task and must include all the elements of the grammatical – historical method (e.g., investigation of grammar and vocabulary, attention to social and historical context, gleaning the authorial intent, consideration of the immediate and broader literary context, the canonical context, attention to literary genre, etc.) But any such exegesis or interpretation requires validation. And such validation is the nature of the difficulty here. The problem Calvinists have is that their exegesis and interpretations of the relevant texts lead to mutually exclusive, incompatible interpretations of those texts. So, what are we to make of this hermeneutically? Can mutually exclusive interpretations both be true? Here’s where philosophy, which elucidates the rules of clear thinking, can help. I submit that a sound hermeneutic must incorporate logical and moral coherence as the indicator of a valid interpretation. I will discuss the discipline of hermeneutics in “Chapter 12 – A Hermeneutic of Coherence: Principles and Issues in Exegesis and Interpretation.”
When push comes to shove, Calvinists may admit that logical and moral coherence are givens in the interpretive task and that we should not embrace interpretations that are found to be lacking coherence. Non-Calvinists certainly think so. And you too may say, “Of course we cannot dismiss logical reasoning and moral intuitions while still claiming to be handling the text properly and reaching valid interpretations.” But I submit to you that this controversy has lasted so long precisely because at certain points the Calvinist dismisses coherence in their interpretive methodology. When the incoherence and inconsistency of one’s interpretations can be excused by “mystery,” “the Bible teaches both,” “tension,” antinomy,” or “incomprehensibility” then all discussion as to the validity of the interpretation ceases. Such “explanations” are not only question-begging and ad hoc but here the Calvinist commits what in apologetics is called “the taxi cab fallacy.” The Calvinist theologian simply intellectually exists the “interpretive cab” when he has reached his desired non-negotiable theological or doctrinal destination or when his presupposed theological interpretations run afoul of the laws of reason and our moral intuitions. The interpretation will just remain “true” because that is how the Calvinist interpreter has interpreted the text. One cannot argue for or against a proposed interpretation on the basis of its incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction with other interpretations of Scripture, even those texts in which the meaning is quite transparent and about which there is consensus on both sides. I submit that the deliverances of clear thinking provided by a philosophical assessment of the Calvinist doctrines are dismissed by Calvinists like a hack (i.e., taxi-cab) from the exegetical and interpretive endeavor. Absent the consistent application of the laws of logic and our moral intuitions there is nothing left to say. One cannot dialogue or argue for or against a proposition that resides in the realm of “mystery” or “incomprehensibility.” To circumvent the cannons of reason and moral intuition by claiming one’s interpretive conclusions are a “mystery” or “incomprehensible” is to circumvent the only means by which we can ultimately discern the validity of those interpretive conclusions. One cannot discuss or discern the validity of an interpretation with those whose interpretations are marked by incoherence and contradiction when these are put out of court with respect to one’s hermeneutic. The rational and moral grounds upon which the validity or invalidity of the interpretations could be established has been removed. And any reasoned argument against those interpretations can be met with intellectual and interpretive indifference. This probably explains the Calvinists indifference to critiques of their theology and hermeneutic. It expresses itself in a general silence as far as addressing those critiques. This non-responsiveness is a logical entailment of a theology of determinism in which rational and moral coherence do not play a significant role. God has predetermined everyone’s thoughts, desires, beliefs and actions. Logically, any interaction, especially interactions that would attempt to persuade, are senseless. And the Calvinist’s retort that persuasion is a “means” by which God accomplishes what he alone has predetermined is inconsistent, because what is being said is God accomplishes determinism through a contingent means. Recall that God has predetermined all things. That results in theistic determinism. And in a deterministic world there cannot be, logically speaking, any hint of contingency. Determinism and contingency are mutually exclusive. Hence this controversy.
For example, I attended an adult Bible study class in which the teacher presented unconditional election as the reason a person is saved yet also stated that people have free will and are responsible for their rejection of Christ and salvation. When I pointed out that these seem to be mutually exclusive propositions and asked whether that should have any bearing on determining the validity of his interpretations he responded, “No.” In another example, I entered into a conversation with a Calvinist pastor about his interpretations of texts he claimed supported his Calvinism. When I pointed out that his interpretations were in logical and moral conflict with other passages in Scripture and exclaimed, “You can’t do that.” He responded, “Sure I can.”
Given this state of affairs, the non-Calvinist who takes rational and moral coherence on board as essential to their interpretive method could never convince the Calvinist of the validity of their non-Calvinist interpretations nor the invalidity of the Calvinist’s interpretations simply because they are not working with the same hermeneutical ground rules. I guess I should have taken the sage advice of one of my favorite Wheaton professors, Dr. Norm R. Ericson, when he said, “Never try to persuade a Calvinist to change his mind.” The Calvinist exegete who does not take rational and moral coherence on board as essential to their interpretive method could never be convinced otherwise by the non-Calvinist. And likewise, the Calvinist exegete who does not take rational and moral coherence on board as essential to their interpretive method could never convince the non-Calvinist of the validity of their Calvinist interpretations because the non-Calvinist would be left scratching his head as to the the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction of those interpretations. Besides, the non-Calvinist would have alternative interpretations of the texts at issue that do not create incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions among them. Yet, the Calvinist is fine with dismissing logical reasoning and moral intuitions at the point the non-Calvinist critiques Calvinism for its incoherence. Ultimately, for the Calvinist these philosophical reflections and deliverances, along with our moral intuitions and judgments, play no role in determining the validity of their exegetical claims and interpretations. Therefore the Calvinist and non-Calvinist are not working from the same hermeneutical “ground rules” with respect to rational and moral reasoning being essential to those hermeneutical “ground rules.” Hence, the hermeneutical divide.
Calvinists state that their definition of God’s sovereignty as a theistic determinism is biblical truth and cannot be compromised. Therefore they also realize they must somehow grapple with the logical and moral difficulties their determinism produces with human freedom and responsibility. We certainly seem to think and act freely in everyday life. For example, we intend and choose to do or not do certain things and we hold people responsible for their actions and we trying to persuade someone to change their mind about an issue or action. The way we live our daily lives presupposes genuine freedom of the will. Therefore, Calvinist have to make this genuine human freedom and responsibility compatible with their theistic determinism. In addition to the Calvinist’s “two wills in God” defense, they also talk about “secondary causes” and “God works through means.” These ideas are put forth to account for the freedom we know we experience every day and yet maintain that God has predetermined all things. What the Calvinist hopes to achieve by arguing for the ideas that God works what he has his predetermined through “secondary causes” and by “means” is to persuade or convince us that Calvinist determinism is consistent with the inescapable Scriptural witness to human freedom and responsibility. I have already pointed out the incoherence of what the Calvinist is attempting to do here given his determinism. But we must now attend to these “explanations” of “secondary causes” and “God works through means” which are supposed to retain a measure of genuine human freedom and responsibility within the sphere of theistic determinism.
As to “second causes” the Westminster Confession puts it this way.
“God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
It seems that the Calvinist’s claims about “second causes” is supposed to make us believe there is a genuine “liberty or contingency” by which we are truly acting despite their contention that “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” This tack attempts to ward off the negative implications of a hard determinism. But is it convincing? I don’t think so and here’s why.
In that the Confession is asserting that there exists “liberty and contingency,” it is, by definition, contradicting its own doctrines of the eternal divine decree and sovereignty defined as theistic determinism. In this respect the document is self-contradictory. In this context, determinism and contingency are contradictory concepts. The Confession’s attempt to introduce liberty or contingency into theistic determinism only heightens the problem of contradiction that has been at the core of this controversy all along. In a deterministic world in which all things are caused by God according to what his will has predetermined to unfailingly occur, it is incoherent to claim that “the liberty or contingency of second causes” are not “taken away, but rather established.” In a world in which theistic determinism is true, there is no “liberty or contingency of second causes. There is only one cause of all things – God. Calvinists confess this and the Confession is clear on this point. It states,
“God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…”
Hence, the Confession’s determinism stands in contradiction to its assertion of the reality of liberty, or human freedom, and contingency.
The Confession is even bolder in its claim that “the liberty or contingency of second causes” is not “taken away.” It goes even further to state that, “the liberty or contingency of second causes” is “rather established.” So according to the Confession, “second causes” have the nature of “liberty or contingency,” and rather than eliminating these, theistic determinism actually establishes them. This is perplexing and needs further examination.
First, it is important to see that theistic determinism, by definition, subsumes these “second causes” within that determinism. Determinism logically entails that these “second causes” are also predetermined by God. That is just what theistic determinism means. Again, the Confession makes this determinism clear. “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…” Therefore, nothing escapes the vortex of determinism, not even these “secondary causes.”
Secondly, therefore, on a universal divine causal determinism there are no secondary causes or tertiary causes, or any other number or kind of causes that are meaningful as causes. Given theistic determinism you cannot also have human liberty or contingency that is genuinely causal. It is God alone who causes all things to be and act as they do. All “casual” events are merely the expression of the unilateral divine will and therefore they are brought to pass by a divine power that is monergistic. All “causes” are “second” because the first cause is God, but not merely in the way of creation, but in the way of predetermination of “whatsoever comes to pass.” His causal relation to all things is exhaustive. Therefore, “second causes” is a misnomer. The Calvinist must mean “second events,” for that is truly what they are. We don’t “cause” anything in any meaningful sense. We are merely instruments of God’s effective will, bringing about the events he has predetermined. (See the section “Compatibilism: Agency, Personhood and a Free, Individuated Will” in this chapter). It is therefore impossible on Calvinism’s universal divine casual determinism for any kind of “cause” to provide, let alone establish, meaningful liberty or contingency. Determinism and contingency are mutually exclusive concepts and realities. They are logically incompatible. So this “second causes” explanation does not help the Calvinist. Rather, it only pushes the theistic determinism back a step.
Thirdly, when the Calvinist seeks to establish liberty and contingency on the basis of “secondary causes” they state causes that presuppose the reality of contingency, human liberty and freedom. For instance, the “secondary causes” with regard to being saved or not may be the proclamation of the good news that “God loves you” and “Christ died for your sins” along with an invitation to repent and believe and a challenge to either accept or reject this message. Or perhaps one person is presenting evidence to another person in an attempt to persuade that person of their point of view, say in a court case or debate. This implies that these persons are involved in an indeterminate reality, a world in which contingency is real. They can and need to make decisions and may decide one way or the other. It also implies that they would be responsible for the decision they make and that where they spend eternity is an open issue which they themselves decide. There is an ultimatum presented – heaven or hell. Another example would be the remedying of a social injustice like racism or a moral wrong like abortion by presenting arguments for why these are wrong and why people ought to act or vote differently. The point to note is that we are acting as if we live in a contingent reality, and equally important to note is the fact that we employ methods that presuppose contingency.
The point is that these “second causes” are presented as contingent matters, as if things could go one way or the other depending upon some decision the unbeliever or a person needs to make, but given Calvinist determinism and unconditional election such “liberty or contingency” is illusory, and yet the Calvinist claims that God works through such “causes.” The unconditionally elect are brought to salvation by someone communicating to them in both manner and content what only makes sense if reality is contingent in nature. But on Calvinism, reality is deterministic. There are no contingencies. Determinism is in contradiction with contingency. Therefore the Calvinist is being incoherent here.
Calvinists communicate to unbelievers in a manner and with message content that presupposes contingency. But this is disingenuous. Telling them that they must believe the gospel so that they can be saved, without clarifying that their salvation will only happen if they are among the elect, and calling them to faith and holding them responsible for their unbelief without telling them that there are two types of calls – a general call by which God offers salvation to all and a special, effectual call that works salvation only in the elect – is to lie to the non-elect hearers. The general call makes God out to be duplicitous by offering salvation to those that cannot be saved because he has not elected or predestined them to be saved. It is only the effectual call that works salvation in the elect, regenerating them and causing them to believe. To call people by a “gospel” that makes people think that they are loved by God and can come to salvation in Christ by faith, without telling them the subtext of the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” that exclude many from salvation is disingenuous. What it indicates is that there is no good news in those Calvinist doctrines.
We can see why the Calvinist’s “doctrines of grace” are an evangelistic problem for the Calvinist. For the Calvinist to speak consistent with his soteriological “doctrines of grace” would expunge the gospel message of its “good news.” Rather than preach their “doctrines of grace,” which are the sum total of why and how a person is saved, the Calvinist will tell people that they must repent and put their trust in Christ for salvation. They tell them that if they do this they will be saved, but if they don’t then they will experience God’s judgment and wrath. The point to note is that the Calvinist will speak as though a person’s salvation is a contingent matter. What the Calvinist is stating is that we have determinism being brought to pass by means that are inherently contingent. The Calvinist is proposing the realization of their determinism through contingency. It’s through the contingency of believing that God effectually calls the unconditionally elect he has predetermined to save by his will alone. This, I submit, is incoherent.
Now look at the matter from the flip-side. Calvinists will talk about the decisions people freely make to do one thing or another as “secondary causes” or “the means.” And the Calvinist assigns to these the characteristics of “liberty” and “contingency.” And yet these are the “causes” and “means” by which God accomplishes what he has already predetermined. But obviously this does nothing to resolve the incoherence within Calvinism nor its contradictory statements. These “second causes” or “means” are not really contingent. On theistic determinism all “second causes” and all “means” are themselves predetermined. They too merely play a predetermined part towards a predetermined end. They do not have the nature of true liberty or contingency. These “causes” and “means” are not genuinely free decisions.
So the problems here are that the Calvinist seeks to rest his determinism on “secondary causes” that, given determinism, are not only not “second,” but they are also not true causes. They are mere events instrumentally brought about by God’s continual effective causality according to what he has willed to occur in all things. The same can be said for “God works through means.” If “second causes” and “means” are thought of in terms of true liberty and contingency as the Calvinist and the Westminster Confession say we should, then they are contradiction to the Calvinist’s and the Confession’s theistic determinism. If thought of from the point of view of the Calvinist’s and Confession’s theistic determinism “second causes” and “means” lose their meaning of liberty and contingency as the Calvinist and the Confession say that they have.
Fourthly, as touched upon above, these “second causes” and “means” are only of an instrumental nature. They cannot be logically thought of in any sense as causes produced by free agents with respect to the human will. What has happened is that the human will has been completely commandeered by God’s will and therefore whatever and if ever there was a will in his human creatures, it is no longer meaningful. God effects in human beings his own will – all the time and in every way. Therefore, what human creatures do, can only be understood as being done in an instrumental or primarily physical sense and nothing more. All things occur because God causes them to occur according to his will, including what humans think, desire, believe and do. God is the sole agent and therefore the sole cause of every event in the whole universe. People are merely instrumental means by which God accomplishes his will in the world. To say that within a universal divine causal determinism liberty and contingency are not taken away but rather established is incoherent. Therefore, we all need to come to grips with whether or not this incoherence should have hermeneutical significance, that is, whether it is telling us that the Calvinist has misinterpreted the Scriptures in these matters.
Much of what I argued above included the “God works through means” explanation Calvinists offer. To reiterate, Calvinists will state their theistic determinism as biblical truth. When challenged as to the inconsistency of their determinism with the Scriptural witness to human freedom and responsibility, Calvinists will respond that “God works through means” in an attempt to preserve the Scriptural witness to human freedom and responsibility. For instance, the Confession speaks about “all the means” by which the elect are brought to glory. It states,
“As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto.”
But note these “means,” as the Calvinist wants to employ them to supposedly make his determinism compatible with human freedom and responsibility, are of a contingent nature.
For instance, Calvinists will say that the elect are brought to faith by the free offer of the gospel. But this “free offer” presupposes the person’s freedom to accept it or reject it. But both theistic determinism and unconditional election are incoherent with “means” that presuppose genuine human freedom in the potential to accept or reject the “offer.”
Another example the Calvinist will use are the warnings in Scripture against sinning to avoid “falling away” or committing apostasy as we find in the book of Hebrews for instance. These warnings are “the means” for protecting and preserving the elect in their salvation. These warnings are “the means” God uses to accomplish his predetermined ends for his elect, who of course never could commit apostasy (and when they do sin it is because God predetermined them to sin). Therefore, in that such sinning to the point of apostasy cannot happen among the elect, the Calvinist will state that these “means” are merely hypothetical. And yet, it is hard to escape the fact that for the warning to make sense as a warning there has to be some kind of contingency, potentiality or possibility within the situation. That is the very nature of a warning. Warnings entail contingency, potentiality or possibility within the situation. If that is so, then we have the use of a contingent factor to bring about what has been determined by theistic determinism. But these are surely contradictory. Therefore, at best, this “hypothetical” explanation amounts to disingenuousness, and at worst, deception. On this Calvinist interpretation God’s word does not mean what it says, and God has to manipulate the elect into a mindset of faithfulness – a mindset that God has predetermined anyway. So the warning is meaningless linguistically and also ontologically. Once, again God predetermines the responses of every one of those addressed in the letter to the Hebrews.
The point to note is that all the things that we do which certainly seem to us to be of a contingent nature, the Calvinist claims are “the means” by which divine determinism works itself out. By making this claim the Calvinist attempts to ease the logical and moral problems determinism introduces into their theology. By telling us that our free will choices and actions are “the means” by which God works his universal divine causal determinism, it makes human freedom and responsibility sound compatible with divine determinism. But these “means” are also predetermined by God. Through the phrase “God works through means” the Calvinist “can have their cake and eat it to.”
But short of God’s direct interventions, the “means” the Calvinist is referring to we experience as undetermined by God. We perceive these “means” to involve real human decisions that for all practical purposes are under our self-control. We certainly take them to be our own free will decisions for which we are responsible. And this human responsibility is of course something the Calvinist must somehow seek to acknowledge because it is inescapable in Scripture. Therefore, as far as we know our decisions and experiences are of a truly contingent nature and therefore Calvinist determinism, as mutually exclusive with true contingency, is false.
Yet the Calvinist insists all things (which includes “the mean” discussed above) are divinely determined. But what is there to prove to us that is so, especially with respect to these “means?” Is it the mere assertion of the Calvinist? It is a a certain interpretation of Scripture that when assumed to be correct leads us into a morass of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction with the clear meaning of other Scriptures? But even if what we do in everyday life were not of the nature of free will decisions (i.e., determined by God), then the Calvinist could never affirm the biblical witness to human freedom and responsibility. So how does any of this help the Calvinist? We all have to think, work and live on the presupposition of libertarian freedom. And that is just what we all do. Even the Calvinist does this. So we have to wonder whether a theology that has no evidence of its truth in the way we think, what we perceive and the way we function in daily living can be an accurate interpretation of the biblical text on these matters of divine sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility.
Here I can anticipate the Calvinist’s reasoning that we must take into account “spiritual realities.” They will say that we cannot live on the basis of what is seen, but rather, as the apostle Paul enjoins us to live, on the basis of what is unseen (2 Cor. 4:18). But please note the distinction between “what is unseen” and spiritual realities which are coherent with our physical, sensible world, and what the Calvinist proposes as an interpretation of Scripture which generates weighty incoherence with other biblical truths and our practical existence. It has these two strikes against it. The incoherence with other scriptures is enough to deem it a misinterpretation at some point, but the fact that it also has little to no explanatory power as to how we all think and live in this world, also suggests it is not biblical truth.
So these “means,” as having the character of contingency, are incoherent with the Calvinist’s theist determinism. The “means” by which the Calvinist claims God works his predetermined ends entail the fact of human freedom and responsibility, which in turn, logically entails that the Calvinist’s determinism is false. Such “means” are incoherent with the Calvinist’s deterministic doctrines of an eternal decree, sovereignty, predestination, and unconditional election. Hence, the Calvinist is caught between “the rock” of undeniable human freedom and “the hard place” of his own determinism.
In summary, the Calvinist cannot utilize “means” that, by definition, are non-deterministic and at the same time claim the Bible teaches theistic determinism. Therefore, given theistic determinism, to speak of “means” or “second causes” that are characterized by contingency, possibility, potentiality, free will, etc. would, by definition, be incoherent and therefore false. Nothing escapes the vortex of determinism.
The Westminster Confession states,
“God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
We see that the Confession teaches theistic determinism. Yet it attempts to absolve God of being the cause of sin when it asserts “yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin.” But given universal divine causal determinism, if God is not the author of sin, then who is? Satan? Adam? Us? If so, and God is not the author of sin, that it must be by the free will decisions and actions of the creature by which sin comes to be. But how is this coherent with determinism? If any of these are the authors of sin, then what coherent explanation can be given within theistic determinism as to what is going on with respect to their wills as opposed to the will of God? On the determinism of the Confession God must have predetermined and thereby caused them to sin despite the Confession’s protest that “neither is God the author of sin.” How is it that an angelic being or a human being can sin and be responsible for that sin, that is, be the author of sin, and that be coherent with the claim that God “of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass?” If God ordains all things “of his own will” how is he not the author of the evil desires and actions of Satan, Adam, us and every person in all of history? How is God not the author of sin and evil? And if we are the authors of our sins, then how is it true that God ordained “whatsoever comes to pass?” “Whatsoever comes to pass” certainly includes sin? The Calvinist sees their problem of incoherence here and knows it is insurmountable.
It certainly seems that along with moral responsibility, “the liberty or contingency of second causes” just boils down to a delusion that we are freely purposing, planning, believing and changing our contingent circumstances from what they ought not to be to what they ought to be. But that is not what is actually happening. To think that it is what is happening is a delusion. What could we possibly mean by “ought to be” given universal divine causal determinism? “Ought to be” according to who? God? But God’s “ought to be” is already always and in every way the case. God’s “ought to be” is already always and in every way what is happening. And whatever we might deem as “that ought not to be,” was also preordained by God to be. What “ought not to be” and “what ought to be,” both lose their distinctions and meaning on the Calvinist’s theistic determinism. We all, in everything we do, are doing what God wants done because “by his own will” he has “ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Therefore God causes all things to occur as they do, lest there be something that occurs differently than how God has ordained it. But that is impossible.
The Calvinist’s universal divine causal determinism cannot “establish” the “liberty or contingency of second causes” because these are incoherent with that determinism. There are secondary actions – God acting to cause the human to act. But there are no “secondary causes.” It is God alone who causes the thoughts, desires, beliefs and actions of all people everywhere throughout all time. Hence, rather than establishing “the liberty or contingency of secondary causes,” universal divine causal determinism eliminates liberty, contingency and human causality. And with these go moral agency and responsibility. Therefore, to claim that “the liberty or contingency of second causes is not taken away” is a bald assertion. Calvinists provide three explanations to defend this assertion. 1) two wills in God, 2) second causes and means, and 3) compatibilism. Number 2 I have refuted here. Number 3 I have refuted at the beginning of this chapter. I demonstrate elsewhere that number 1 is also incoherent.
We can see how mind boggling and incoherent Calvinism is. We live life thinking we are changing things that ought not to be, to how they should be, or become sad or frustrated when we cannot change things that ought not to be, but these desires and beliefs are a delusion because however things are, whether we are altering them or not, that is how they ought to be because God predetermined all things to be as they are. On Calvinism, nothing is the way it ought not to be, otherwise there would be a will at work making things other than what God would have them be and the deterministic Calvinist doctrines of the eternal divine decree and sovereignty would collapse. Furthermore, God has even predetermined how we will think about these things, as to whether they ought or ought not to be, whether one is or is not a Calvinist. Calvinism is truly dizzying.
Let us grant for a moment that the Calvinist’s claim that “second causes” allow for genuine “liberty or contingency” within their determinism. Even if that is the case, their claim that “second causes” are truly “second causes” is unverifiable. In other words, how do we know whether a “second cause” is not actually a “primary cause” that was originated and brought to pass by the person as a free moral agent? If the Calvinist states, “That is exactly what it is,” then they have again implicated themselves in the contradiction between free will and their determinism. But, due to their determinism, when the Calvinist states that God works his will through “second causes,” what do we have to indicate that what the Calvinist claims about these causes as second is true? Why could they not be initiated by a free moral agent as a first cause? What is it that reveals to us that a “secondary cause” is really “secondary,” that is, that it is God who is ultimately doing the causing and not the person themselves as a free moral agent? Perhaps the cause for an action, especially an evil action, terminates at the person’s human will and decision and goes no further back in the chain of causation, especially not to God. Are there external influences on a person’s thinking and behavior? Certainly. But that a person’s will cannot be the terminus for what he thinks and does is not necessarily so. Why can’t a person themselves, via their own mind, will, intentions, etc., be the originator of their thoughts and actions? It may just be that people are thinking and acting in certain circumstances because they will to do so. Reality certainly seems to bear this out. So here the Calvinist appears to be presuming the truth of his theistic determinism and thus begging the question.
Furthermore, the Confession explicitly states “nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures.” But how so? And as I have argued, how is it that they even have wills of their own, which seems to be implied here. More convincing explanations need to be offered.
So it seems that the claim that “the liberty or contingency of second causes” is not “taken away” but rather “established” by God having “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass” is just logically and morally incoherent. When Calvinists talk about “secondary causes” or “God works through certain means” as ways to incorporate “liberty or contingency” into their theistic determinism, and those “causes” and “means” simply amount to descriptions of human thoughts, belief, desires, actions and events that presuppose a contingent reality, they are incoherent and contradictory with their determinism. Now, in that this theology does not warrant our intellectual assent it cannot warrant our belief. We need to maintain a hermeneutic of coherence and reject the Calvinist’s hermeneutic of incoherence.
In that according to the Calvinist all things have been preordained by the will of God, whenever the Calvinist insists something ought to be other than it presently is, or something should be believed instead of what has been or is presently being believed, and when the Calvinist makes distinctions and protestations about certain things being good and certain things being evil, certain things being right and other things being wrong, these all fall under the condemning inquiry that Calvinists level against those who disagree with their theology – “Who are you O man, to talk back to God?” All that occurs – both good and evil – has its origins in the will of God and is therefore caused by God. Therefore all that is good and all that is evil, all that is right and all that is wrong, everything every person desires, thinks, believes and does, refers back to the fact that “God predetermined and caused it to be that way for his glory.” Therefore, upon what grounds can the Calvinist complain about things from a minor cold to racial injustice; from a family crisis to the abortion crisis? Recall that if God predetermined all things to be what they are, he also causes them to be that way. As argued in the section above “Calvinist Determinism, God as the Author of Sin and the Delusion of Ought,” any complaints or even efforts to change what is, to what we think ought to be, amount to a delusion. The Calvinist would in effect be irreverently demanding that God answer the question, “Why have you made things this way?” This can never be asked on Calvinism, because the answer is, “He has done so for his glory. And who are you, O man, to talk back to God.” Therefore, the Calvinist cannot with theological consistency protest, debate or controvert anything that has, or is happening, or will happen. By looking to the past the Calvinist knows what God’s predetermined will was; that will which he caused to bring to pass. By looking to the present we at least track what his will is bringing to pass. And if we know anything of the will of God for us in the future it can have nothing to do with us lest human freedom and contingency be interjected into the Calvinists deterministic reality. This only produces the incoherence of the “second causes” and “God works through means” explanations that I have critiqued above.
When the Calvinist laments over things and states that they ought not to be the way they are, they must ignore their doctrine of the eternal decree and their theistic determinism. They impugn God’s will and activity. They must ignore their own doctrines, presuppose substantial human freedom and only then does thinking about how things should be and can be changed make some sense. Again, Calvinism is odd in this respect. What can a Calvinist mean by thinking things ought to be different than they are? How can a Calvinist think that it is they who can actually change things from the way they are to the way they believe they should be? Such thinking only makes sense in a reality that contains substantive libertarian human freedom.
A key element in my conclusion that the biblical text is being incorrectly interpreted by Reformed Calvinists is the inescapable comprehensive theistic determinism in the position that contradicts the overwhelming biblical testimony to a non-deterministic reality. That indeterminacy is witnessed to in Scripture in manifold ways – from divine commands, sinful actions, implicit and explicit verses on free will and moral responsibility, the gospel call to faith and the rationale behind a final judgment. What is being proposed in Calvinism is that the Bible presents two contradictory worldviews – determinism and non-determinism. This is not a matter of minor interpretive differences resulting in non-essential doctrinal issues. It is a matter of honestly facing the question whether the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions generated by the Calvinist interpretations are reliable indications that those interpretations are flawed and therefore coherence, consistency and non-contradiction have hermeneutical significance. It is a matter of whether or not these are hermeneutical principles that cannot be cavalierly set aside while claiming one’s interpretations to be an accurate recounting of authorial intent. Intellectual integrity and a sound hermeneutic require us to conclude that two mutually exclusive interpretations of the text cannot both be correct. Our interpretations must be characterized by coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.
A non-deterministic worldview is presupposed throughout Scripture. It can only be coherently understood within such a framework. The biblical witness to the sovereignty of God is not a witness to universal divine causal determinism. Divine sovereignty in the Bible does not require the false dichotomy of divine determinism or divine impotence. It is both explicitly stated and everywhere implied that much that occurs in the world is not in accord with the will of God and can only be coherently explained by the reality of human free will defined in terms of genuine (not absolute) sole authorship of one’s actions and the ability of contrary choice. The majority of Scripture presupposes a non-deterministic reality which is logically and morally incompatible with all deterministic schemes that seek to preserve the Calvinist’s definition of God’s “sovereignty.” It is presupposed throughout Scripture that things past could have been different and things future are yet undetermined in many respects given the degree of decision making ability God has granted to his human creatures created in his image. As to our individual salvation, how it was to be accomplishment and by what means it was to be appropriated have been determined by God, but in that the means of appropriation of salvation to the individual is “by faith,” the individual sinner’s eternal destiny is left open and is determined by the individual sinner’s response to the “good news” of their salvation proclaimed in the gospel. God has determined both the way of salvation and established the boundary of our response – by faith – to his act of grace in providing salvation “in Christ.” Salvation is by faith alone as a personal response of the will which, according to the biblical definition and content of the gospel message, any sinner can make by the Spirit who accompanies the proclamation of that gospel. There are only two options open to the sinner upon hearing the gospel – the response of faith or continued rejection in unbelief. Sola fide is the means by which the sola gratia salvation is appropriated by sinners to themselves through the enabling of the Spirit according to the written or spoken Word. The gospel is a divine call to place one’s faith “in Christ” for salvation. In that salvation is for sinners, any sinner may believe the message and be saved. The content of the message which is accompanied by the Spirit is sufficient for the salvation of all those who chose to believe.
The biblical testimony to the content of the gospel as “good news,” the universality of the call without exclusion or distinction, the Holy Spirit’s presence and confirmation to the hearer when that gospel is given, the simplicity of the nature of saving faith, all make clear that sinners, precisely as sinners yet made in God’s image, have the capacity of personal decision and are enabled by the Spirit to respond to the good news. In that this salvation is for all sinners and may be obtained by all is what makes it good news to the hearers. God accepts the only response appropriate for hopeless and helpless sinners in light of the divine grace offered in the gospel, that is, the response of faith and trust in God. Faith and truth in God is what all those throughout biblical history with whom God was pleased where commended for. In that anyone can believe also makes it good news. Sinners are told to simply trust in God’s saving work in Christ on their behalf for their salvation, and they therefore may do so. This is what is proclaimed in the gospel. The gospel is for sinners as sinners. Therefore any concept of total depravity or total inability which excludes the possibility of believing for any sinner, both distorts the gospel message and diminishes the role and power of the Spirit which accompanies that message. Neither is faith to be defined as “a work” contributing to salvation or meriting it. All such misconceptions result from erroneously presupposing the truth of theistic determinism which obscure the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news” for the hearers.
I submit that the proper biblical interpretation and relation of the doctrines of sovereignty, election, predestination, grace, faith, human freedom and responsibility have not been achieved if they are presented as an inevitable determinism and remain in logical and moral conflict with the predominant thrust of Scripture as non-deterministic. Hence, the “explanations” discussed in this section are question-begging, inconsistent or ad hoc. They do not substantively address the core problem of Calvinism which is its determinism. In addition, these “explanations” do not warrant our intellectual assent and therefore are no foundation for an informed faith.
The biblical portrayal of God’s sovereignty does not conflict with God’s revelation of the nature of man, faith, grace, and salvation. God’s sovereignty must be understood in the context of his self-revelation with regard to all his essential attributes. By virtue of all his attributes God dynamically rules and reigns over substantially free beings made in his image rather than over a static world in which God has predetermined all things. The later position seems to relieve the fear of him losing control of his creation. But this is an unfounded fear. A God who cannot possibly remain sovereign over his creation lest he have ordained “whatsoever comes to pass” is not the divine Sovereign we find in Scripture. The designation, “God,” does not necessarily entail theistic determinism. God need not have predetermined all things to be God. Divine sovereignty defined as a static, universal, causal determinism is a theological proposition incoherent with the relation between God and his creation as portrayed in the Bible. Rather than exalt God, it is not worthy of the God of Scripture. And it may just be that in the Calvinist’s human attempt to exalt God in ways he has not declared necessary nor required, and indeed would reject, there lies the cause of this theistic determinism as an extrapolation of this attribute of “sovereignty” into something foreign to the God of Scripture.
Literary context determines the sense and meaning of the words in any given text which then provide the foundation for the coherent integration of theological propositions and practical implications for living. The plain sense of the majority of Scripture in context is non-deterministic. A comprehensive theistic determinism is excluded as a viable theological option on the basis of textual and contextual logical, linguistic, moral, philosophical, epistemological and intra-biblical coherence, consistency, and non-contradiction. Therefore, if these are essential elements in a sound biblical hermeneutic, any scheme that is inevitably deterministic runs afoul of itself in these several respects and is therefore hermeneutically deficient and biblically inaccurate.
So Calvinism confronts us with the question, “Can incoherent interpretations be valid interpretations?” Calvinists and non-Calvinists point to many Scriptures to make their respective cases. Numerous verses and passages can be produced to support the different points of view. All agree that the Scripture must be the final arbiter in all matters of faith and practice. But since both can produce passages to make their case, the matter involves not only “the Bible says…” but “how do I know the Bible means that?” That is, “How do we know we are correctly understanding the meaning of this text?” And in light of the quantity and nature of the problems inherent in the Reformed Calvinist position, the claim that “the Bible teaches both,” (i.e., determinism and human freedom and responsibility) and hence the contradictions that go along with such a position that must be labeled by the Calvinist as only “apparent,” will require the Calvinist to demonstrate how it is that a position with these kinds of logical and moral problems are the correct interpretations of Scripture and therefore must be believed. Given Calvinism’s logical and moral problems, the burden of proof is on the Calvinist to justify their hermeneutic.
To state, “The Bible says…” is to summon all the authority of the Bible as the Word of God for one’s position. But one’s position is only authoritative to the extent the Bible is being correctly expounded. Given the claim that “the Bible teaches both” as conflicting interpretations of Scripture we certainly are compelled to question whether this is what the biblical witness actually means. Would the proper interpretation of the various texts lead to such contradictions? I submit to you that in a biblical hermeneutic, the harmonious incorporation of logical, moral, epistemological and theological considerations in one’s interpretations are essential. Therefore it seems to me that in addition to Calvinists and non-Calvinists referencing their respective supporting passages of Scripture, another dynamic has, by the very nature of what it means to interpret, been introduced. It is that of determining the validity of an interpretation when that interpretation fosters a theology of logical, moral, epistemological, and textual incoherencies and contradictions. It seems to me that given the Calvinist’s own admission of contradiction and incoherence in their propositions, and their several unconvincing attempts to “justify” their position while still maintaining their position, indicates that logical and moral consistency are not important elements in a Calvinist hermeneutic.
While most Calvinists will confusedly warn against accepting the incoherence generated by their position when it comes to the nature of God and encourage Calvinists to accept the other problematic elements in their theology as “mystery” or only “apparent” contradictions, etc., other Calvinists admit to the incoherence and embrace it fully. The Calvinist’s rare outright admission of incoherence and acceptance of it is perhaps no more clearly stated than by Calvinist Edwin Palmer. Glen Shellrude in his chapter in the book Grace for All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation quotes Palmer.
“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.” 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.”
Whereas for many Christians further considerations about these concerns are in order and play a role in determining valid interpretations, Calvinists dismiss these concerns prematurely by claiming “mystery,” “incomprehensibility,” “apparent contradiction” or simply that “the Bible teaches both.” But this last claim is precisely what we are attempting to determine, and it seems that we are left without the rational wherewithal to do so given the Calvinist’s arsenal of other assertions here which do not adequately deal with their problem of interpretive incoherence.
This leads to a related consideration. As much as a technical, grammatical-historical exegesis of the biblical text is the necessary foundation for discovering authorial intent and meaning, this methodology, in and of itself, may be unproductive for properly understanding those texts if our hermeneutic does not attach equal significance to logical and moral coherence and consistency between texts and characterize our final theological construct. Without this interpretive check of rational coherence I can make the Bible say anything I want supported from a variety of texts of my own choosing, or, I can reinterpret others according to my own presuppositions. I can dismiss what is incoherent as only “appearing” to be such by claiming that a complete understanding of the ways of God are “beyond our comprehension.” A host of problems that may have their origins in a poor interpretation of the texts can be both rationalized and ‘spiritualized’ away under the pretext that we are dealing with the will and ways of an incomprehensible and sovereign God. And ultimately God is to be worshipped and adored regardless of any incoherencies in how one’s interpretations may present him to us. This is precisely what the Calvinist position requires.
But is this really a genuinely biblical portrayal of God’s transcendence and incomprehensible glory? Do those who disagree with the Reformed Calvinist “doctrines of grace” really want to diminish God’s glory among God’s people and in their stubborn pride seek autonomy from this God by refusing to acknowledge that he has sovereignly preordained “whatsoever comes to pass?”
The problem here is that we could never know the answer to these questions or reply to such aspersions for we are required to abandon our ultimate logical and moral reference points through which we determine what is true or false in any and all spheres of knowledge, including theology and our Christian faith. Our faith rests upon proper interpretations of the biblical text which requires the use of logical reasoning and our moral intuitions. Christian faith rests upon the authority of a written text and as a written text it requires an interpretive methodology. Faith does not require the suppression or neglect of reason and common sense in biblical interpretation. I contend that a concern for rational and moral coherence is an essential element in a sound, biblical hermeneutic.
Indeed, a proper accounting for the fundamentals of rational thought is essential if one is to claim knowledge of a subject. Rational thought is essential to knowing what is true from what is false. The fundamental principles of valid reasoning by which we reject heresies and other misinterpretations of Scripture should apply to our more accepted, traditional interpretations also. And I submit that those fundamental principles of valid reasoning must include concerns about logical, moral, epistemological and theological coherence. The problems inherent in Calvinist theology highlight the concern that logical and moral coherence need to be more carefully considered as indispensable elements in a valid hermeneutic. The problems inherent in Calvinism also raise concerns as to whether theological predilections are taking precedence over the text if coherence is determined to be essential to valid interpretation but is being ignored. I contend that the reasons Calvinists give for dismissing these concerns about coherence are weak. Flights to “mystery,” “incomprehensibility,” “apparent contradiction,” or simply to claim that the “the Bible teaches both” are premature and evasive. In addition, the full scope and context of Scripture needs to be carefully and harmoniously incorporated into any dogmatic theological conclusions and convictions. Any resolution to the problems of the Calvinist scheme will involve contextual considerations and an evaluation as to whether or not they have been sufficiently and coherently brought to bear upon the Calvinist doctrinal propositions. This involves delineating the principles of sound hermeneutics. I know of no hermeneutic worthy of the term that requires discounting the logical and moral implications of its exegetical results and interpretive propositions.
Does “the Bible teach both” sovereignty and human freedom as Calvinists understand them? Are the resulting contradictions, incoherencies, and inconsistencies “apparent” or real? Does it matter? Calvinists cannot claim they are real, for then if “the Bible teaches both” then the Bible would be implicated in inherent contradiction, incoherence, and inconsistency. Therefore the Calvinist claims that the problems are only “apparent.” But when the Calvinist proposes that the contradictions are only “apparent,” they are admitting to a confusion. They are admitting that they do know what a contradiction is and can identify one when they see it, but yet they are also asserting that what they know of a contradiction is not real in this case. They are pressing upon us the thinking that what they know of contradiction, incoherence, and inconsistency is not reliable knowledge when it comes to their interpretive results. The question therefore is whether we can discern a contradiction and yet declare it is not or cannot be a contradiction in a certain case, but is a contradiction in all other cases. What makes the Calvinist doctrinal claims a special case of “apparent contradiction” as opposed to a real contradiction? The Calvinist will reply that we are dealing with a divinely inspired Scripture and therefore things are not really how they might seem to be as processed through our logical reasoning and moral sensibilities. But this is just the point. Without these logical and moral categories in play how would we know whether Scripture has been properly interpreted? It seems that what the Calvinist has done is gone against our logical and moral categories not beyond them. It is when we find ourselves reasoning against our logical and moral reasoning that we must take a step back and ask whether we have misinterpreted the text and are insisting that the misinterpretation is correct despite the logical and moral incoherence it produces. And if we can’t trust our logical and moral reasoning, how can we be sure we have correctly interpreted the Scripture in the first place? We can see that this issue has profound implications for our ability to confidently glean accurate interpretations from the biblical text.
Furthermore, note that when the Calvinist insists that the contradictions in their theology are only “apparent,” there is an implicit acknowledgement that rational and moral coherence are after all intellectually discernible and indispensable. That is why they must insist that these contradictions are only “apparent.” If they were real their position would be defeated on the grounds of irrationality. On the one hand, Calvinists are implicitly acknowledging the reality of the logical and moral difficulties inherent in their position, yet, on the other hand, they insist that these difficulties are not applicable when it comes to what is revealed about God in Scripture. They maintain that these logical and moral concerns don’t hold sway for God and his ways given the Calvinist interpretations of various key texts. But they are in effect denying the function and reliability of the fundamental laws of reasoning and their essential role in discerning whether or not they have arrived at the correct interpretation of Scripture. They are denying that these are essential to God’s nature and therefore are dispensable when interpreting the texts that tell us about this God and his ways. It is a troubling conundrum the Calvinist finds himself in, and it is due to the theistic determinism he so adamantly maintains is biblical truth.
So are the problems inherent in Calvinist theology real contradictions and incoherencies or are they only “apparent?” I dealt with this in Chapter 7 – “The Indispensability of Reason and Logic in Biblical Interpretation.” If they are real contradictions that will not be good for Calvinism. In fact, my contention is that violations of the fundamental laws of reasoning are an indication of erroneous interpretations.
Philosopher C. A. Campbell provides insight at this point. The criterion of non-contradiction cannot be contravened. He writes,
“Whatever more specific criteria the intellect may from time to time accept in its endeavors to know the real, there is one general and over-riding criterion from which its allegiance can at no point be withheld, viz. ‘non-contradiction’. An ‘object’ that is self-contradictory, in the sense that the characters we ascribe to it in our conception of it contradict one another, cannot as so conceived be accepted by thought as the reality it is seeking to know…I shall try to persuade you that when the nature of the contradictory is correctly elucidated, certain conclusions of the utmost importance follow about the nature of a reality which, whatever else it may be, must be assumed to be at least such that it does not contradict itself. ”
Therefore, I submit that when it comes to discerning the nature of the “tension” between sovereignty and human freedom, the criteria of non-contradiction plays an indispensable role in discerning proper interpretations and credible propositions. And if it is the case that this criterion, properly understood, is found to be dispensable for the Calvinist to preserve his Calvinism, then this presents an illegitimate intellectual and interpretive move on the Calvinists part. This, in turn, will prove certain of his doctrines to be false.
Presently, the processes of logical and moral reasoning and their resultant deliverances which convince many believers that the Calvinist interpretations are erroneous, do not convince the Calvinist. And in order not to face the hard fact that their interpretative conclusions are incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory they have to obfuscate, complicate and deflect our thinking away from the obvious and onto other “explanations” that serve only as rhetorical devices and not substantive answers to the Calvinists problems. And here is the main point. The Calvinist offers no further convincing reasons as to why fundamental logical thought, moral intuitions, and principles of valid reasoning should not be allowed to evaluate their theistic deterministic interpretation of Scripture given the undeniable biblical witness to libertarian human freedom and responsibility. They offer no substantive reasoning as to why the incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in their deterministic theology are not reliable indicators of the invalidity of their interpretations. Nor do they provide any plausible explanation as to why the resulting contradictions, incoherencies, and inconsistencies in their position should be cavalierly dismissed. “The Bible teaches both” and “divine mystery” are question-begging. “Apparent contradiction” and “human incomprehensibility” are mere assertions. The “explanations” examined above are superficial and amount to summary dismissals of the problems inherent in Calvinism. They amount to a defense that ultimately rests on ad hoc and question-begging assertions.
Human reason and moral intuition are truly problematic for the Calvinist. Therefore they must distance themselves from its deliberations and deliverances. In Chapter 9 – “Reason as Problematic for Calvinist Interpretation” I’ll take a look at other ways Calvinists attempt to circumvent the probative force of reason and moral intuition.
 G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 31.
 Calvinist Erwin Lutzer, speaking about Christian suffering, states, “I am old enough to know that there are some Christians, that when they suffer, become cynical, angry, filled with self-pity, and all of their sorrows are wasted. There’s no benefit to that. God gave them a test and they are failing miserably. Suffering is for those for whom it is appointed. Ultimately if you trace it all back, even if it comes through your parents – a certain disease – ultimately I agree with John Piper who says that it is God who decides who gets cancer, it is God who decides who gets these various diseases. We are under God’s – Oh you say but it’s the Devil. Yeah, of course the Devil may be used by God, but even the Devil’s use and the Devil’s attacks are given to us by God as a test.” – Erwin Lutzer, Running to Win, “You Have Hope in Suffering”, Feb. 6, 2020, (11:52:12:48) https://www.moodymedia.org/radio-programs/running-to-win-15/you-have-hope-suffering-part-2-1/#.Xj7D01VKipo
Piper and Lutzer’s determinism is on display here when Lutzer says “if you trace it all back…God decides…” And according to Lutzer’s determinism when he says “of course the Devil may be used by God” he is not being consistent with his determinism. Yes, Lutzer means that the Devil too is employed by God, as we all are, as mere instruments to do his will. But God is doing more than “using” us, as if we otherwise have thoughts, desires, beliefs, wills and actions that are truly our own. They are not. God is determining all these, and therefore God is determining, motivating and causing all of us, including the Devil, to do what he does. God is the cause of the Devil’s every thought and action. Therefore, God is the author of evil and evil himself. When Calvinists speak of God “allowing” Satan to do what he does, they are, of course, being inconsistent with their theistic determinism.
Yet in typical Calvinist fashion, Lutzer’s determinism is incoherently reflected in other statements he makes here. Although Lutzer’s Calvinism clearly requires a deterministic worldview, he speaks of “the Devil’s attacks” and suffering Christians becoming “cynical, angry, [and] filled with self-pity,” along with “all of their sorrows” being “wasted.” Lutzer states, “There’s no benefit to that” and concludes that “God gave them a test and they are failing miserably.”
But on Lutzer’s theistic determinism, it must be that the same God who gives Christians the “test” of suffering, also predetermined that they should become cynical, angry, filled with self-pity and fail the test miserably. The point being that Lutzer’s statements are incoherent with his underlying determinist theology. Lutzer speaks as if reality is indeterminate and contingent. These Christians become cynical, angry and filled with self-pity. These Christians “fail the text miserably.” Lutzer’s complaints about the attitudes of these Christians are incoherent with God having predetermined them. Who is Lutzer to complain against what God has decreed?
Lutzer also casts an aspersion upon God when he talks about the sorrows God has sent upon these Christians being “wasted.” If God has predetermined their wrong response to their sorrows which were also predetermined and sent by God upon them, how could they be “wasted?” It is what God caused to occur, and that for his own glory.
The only way Lutzer can coherently talk about these Christians being responsible for their attitudes and failure of the test is if they have a measure of libertarian freedom. But such freedom is incompatible with his theistic determinism. Again, Lutzer is incoherent his complaint when it is God who predetermined the response of these Christians. Such complaints only make sense given libertarian freedom.
 William Lane Craig, Defenders 2 Class, Doctrine of Creation: Part 10. Oct. 21, 2012. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-creation/doctrine-of-creation-part-10/ Last accessed Aug. 24, 2018. See Dr. Craig’s five-fold critique of Calvinism that demonstrates Calvinism’s incoherence. I discuss this critique in Chapter 4 – “Why the Calvinist Views of Sovereignty and Salvation Are Certainly False”
 And although a Reformed Calvinist like Kevin Vanhoozer attempts to ease the negative implications of his theistic determinism and justify it as a legitimate biblical position on the basis that it is a personal God who works out his comprehensive, absolute, predeterminations “communicatively,” I will argue that this only exacerbates the incoherence of his Calvinistic “God-in-communicative-act” theology. It too is inevitably deterministic and carries all the negative consequences of any determinism.
 William G. MacDonald, “The Spirit of Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 79-81.
 James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 193.
 William G. MacDonald, “The Spirit of Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 75.
 Bruce A. Little, “Evil and God’s Sovereignty” in David L. Allen & Steve W. Lemke, eds., Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 296-297.
 Ibid. 297.
 Ibid. 296-297.
 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 118-119.
 Ibid. 119-120.
 See James Daane, The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973).
 William G. MacDonald, “The Spirit of Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 79-81.
 1 Jn. 4:8, 16; Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8.
 From H. W. Hoehner, “Love,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 709.
 It is important to note that the “whoever believes” of Jn. 3:15 and 16 is accompanied by verse 17 which states the reason why God sent his Son into “the world.” It was not “to condemn the world” but “in order that “the world” might be saved through him.” And lest we think that God’s love for the “world” should be taken as a generic term from which we can extract a limited elect that he has set his love upon, equally important is verse 18. It clearly indicates the reason why one remains under condemnation. It is “because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” It would be an example of a static eisegesis to simply conclude that this verse is providing us raw theological information about what is characteristic of the non-elect individual – “he has not believed” – because he has not been granted faith by God. Rather, the clear sense of the verse is dynamic. It it is the person themselves who is rejecting the message and who is refusing to believe. The point is that these verses are incoherent with unconditional election. Hence, God’s love for “the world” means his love for the individuals that comprise that “world.” The term “world” is used precisely because of its universal implications and cannot artificially be restricted to a generic reference to an elect in every “tribe, tongue and nation.” Besides, even if “world” were to refer to every tribe, tongue and nation, these are comprised of individual people and therefore John affirms God’s love for them all. The Reformed doctrine of unconditional election must be read into the text. It does not flow from it. Also, other verses in John speak of individuals themselves disobeying or rejecting Jesus. Inherent in the meaning of these words is the implication that they ought not and need not disobey, but should obey. They ought not and need not reject Jesus, but should accept him. This surely indicates that faith or unbelief are not predetermined by God. These texts do not speak of God irresistibly changing people’s desires such that they will to do God’s will. We therefore take it that the Bible testifies to a genuine human response to God and Christ in texts such as Jn. 3:18, 36; 5:34, 37-47; 7:17; 8:24; 12:37, 48. This means that one’s eternal destiny is an open issue and dependent upon one’s response to “the gospel of God” (Mk. 1:14, 15). John’s gospel points out that coming to believe is a matter of a personal reorientation from a temporal, physical, earthly point of view to an eternal, spiritual and heavenly point of view regarding the will and work of Father in Christ (see Jn. 3:1-15; 6:25-65 especially v. 63). This was the very purpose of Jesus’ ministry as the Word of God. Also, the Spirit is at work in this Word. The gospel, if it is to be truly “good news,” presupposes that one can and must willingly acknowledge and come to “know” the will and work of the Father in Jesus (Jn. 7:17; 8:12-59; 15:21-25; 16:3; 17:3; 19:35; 20:24-31). Any sinner can come to this point because the Spirit is at work in the gospel message according to its content of grace by which it calls the sinner to salvation through repentance and faith. This response of faith or unbelief is not presented in these texts as predetermined by God. One can and must believe that Jesus was sent by the Father to be the savior of the world. One can also reject the revelation of God and the salvation found in Christ. And as it clearly states in John 3:18 that person remains under condemnation “because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Reformed deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election are therefore incoherent with this biblical witness to the dynamic nature of the relationship between God and man and the nature of faith. On this basis we are compelled to reject the Reformed viewpoint and seek an understanding of sovereignty, election and predestination that is coherent and consistent with the full scope of biblical teaching.
 See the section titled “David Allen, Leighton Flowers, Exegesis and Contradiction: 1 Timothy 2:1-6” in Ch. 7 – “The Indispensability of Reason and Logic in Biblical Interpretation”
So what does this suggest about the Calvinist hermeneutic? Are Calvinists reading the verses cited above that speak of an unlimited atonement and coming to the conclusion that they actually teach limited atonement or are they suspending their logical faculties to maintain their theological position? It would be very hard to argue that the verses actually teach a limited atonement from the meaning of the words themselves. I do not think that Calvinists would suggest that the explicit meaning or connotation of the words “all,” “world” and “whosoever” is “limitation.” That much seems self-evident. The words themselves certainly connote delimitation. It seems therefore that when the Calvinist claims that “all” doesn’t mean “everyone without exception” but “all types of men without distinction,” and “world” doesn’t mean “everyone in the world” but refers to “the elect throughout the world,” they must be interpreting these words through certain controlling presuppositions. How else could we get from words that in and of themselves mean delimitation to have them in the end support a limited atonement. So the Calvinist interpretation suffers from this degree of incoherence – the actual meaning of the words themselves speak of delimitation, yet somehow they are qualified to come to mean limitation in Calvinist soteriology.
It therefore appears that the Calvinist believes that other texts or theological conclusions take precedence over the plain meaning of these words given their use in context. Now I realize that the same criticism may be brought against the non-Calvinist. The word “elect” in the phrase “even as he chose [‘elect’] us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) and the word “predestined” in “those whom he foreknew he also predestined…” (Rom. 8:29) certainly seem to speak of some type of selection and limitation, but the question before us is whether it is an acceptable hermeneutic simply to leave all these texts in rational abeyance or to pit them against each other in rational incoherence by claiming “the Bible teaches both” as Calvinists do. To add to the confusion, rather than attempt to redefine “all,” “world” and “whosoever” some Calvinists maintain they mean just that, but also maintain that “elect” and “predestine” refer to God predetermining a limited number of individuals to salvation and chalk it all up to an “apparent contradiction.” They say that the Bible teaches both in a way we cannot fathom and that presently only appears to be a contradiction but is not. It is precisely because of the rational dichotomy and confusion presented by the Calvinist understanding of these texts that I am arguing that it is up to our logical and moral reasoning to be the arbiter as to which of these interpretations are valid and which are not. The fact that the Calvinist cannot endure a real contradiction between the biblical data and must designate their position as only an “apparent contradiction” implicitly confirms the fundamental necessity of a hermeneutic of coherence, that is, contradiction cannot be let to stand. The critical question here becomes whether we can discern a real contradiction when we see one.
Where does each theological viewpoint based upon their respective interpretations of all these texts take us logically, morally and epistemologically? Consideration of the logical, moral and doctrinal coherence of each suggested interpretation must be a factor that determines which viewpoint correctly understands the meaning of these texts. On the basis of the “big picture” of rational coherence and consistency in thought and word, and consistency among the full scope of biblical doctrines, the Calvinist interpretations are not at all promising. Non-Calvinist understandings of election and predestination are biblically sound and do not engender insurmountable doctrinal incoherence. My contention is that sooner or later the rational coherence or incoherence of a theology will betray it as true or false. Is the Calvinist treatment of these words a proper exegesis or simply eisegesis? And more specifically to the point I wish to raise here, is the whole Calvinist theological schemata convincingly constructed and in the end plausible? I submit that the ultimate arbiter for whether or not the Calvinist or non-Calvinist is engaged in proper methods of interpretation and valid conclusions is going to be that the interpretations and resulting theology must demonstrate a high degree of coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.. Rational coherence – adherence to the fundamental laws of reasoning – is binding upon us all. It is an indispensable, determiner of valid, credible interpretations.
 Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace”, in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975) 27.
 Dr. Norman Geisler, in his Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, provides a good explanation of the essential role that the fundamental laws of logic have in “spiritual” things and Christian thinking. Many Christians are confused about the role of reason in matters of faith. Calvinists tend to fall back upon the inadequacy of fallen, human reason to justify the incoherence inherent in their theology. But if the first principles of thought, that is, the rules of logic, can be dismissed when it is convenient for maintaining our preferred theology, then reasonable discourse and advancement towards a more sound hermeneutic are no longer possible. A serious consideration of this matter would go a long way towards identifying the essence of the Calvinist/Arminian controversy and correcting poor theological thinking. See the section, “Norman Geisler on the Nature and Use of Logic,” in Ch. 7 – “The Indispensability of Reason and Logic in Biblical Interpretation”
 John S. Feinberg, “God Ordains All Things” in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Huma Freedom, David Basinger and Randall Basinger, eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 24.
 Ibid. 24-25.
 William Lane Craig, Defenders 3 class, “Doctrine of Christ”, Part 49. May 2, 2018. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-christ/doctrine-of-christ-part-49/ Last accessed July 2, 2018.
 See Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
 Ibid. 24.
 C. S. Lewis, God in The Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, “The Trouble With “X”, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 152-153.
 William Lane Craig, Defenders 2 Class, Doctrine of Creation: Part 10. Oct. 21, 2012. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-creation/doctrine-of-creation-part-10/ You can read the transcript or listen to the lecture at this link. Last accessed October 8, 2019.
 Jerry L. Walls, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist”, Philosophia Christi, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2011. See also Wall’s lecture on You Tube, “What’s Wrong With Calvinism” given during the Evangel University Philosophy Guest Lecture Series published on Feb. 19, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Daomzm3nyIg
 Ibid. 77.
 Westminster Confession, III, 1.
 Ibid. III, 3.
 Ibid. III, 6.
 Ibid. X, 1. The Westminster Confession, is not, of course, intended to be a fully precise philosophical statement on the issues. The authors alternately speak of God’s predestining, ordaining, and determining things, and it is arguable that they were claiming only that God always executes his intentions, without necessarily saying he causally determines everything. However, the deterministic reading is also defensible, indeed more so in my judgment, and it is clearly true that many leading spokesmen for this tradition are causal determinists.
 Some theists hold that God’s nature of love necessitates not only that he create a world, but one that includes creatures like us, who can accept and return his love. For a recent example, see Thomas Talbott, “God, Freedom and Human Agency,” Faith and Philosophy 26 (2009): 378–97, esp. 380 and 385n19.
 For argument that John Calvin, John Gill, and Jonathan Edwards were not only determinists, but compatibilists, see Paul Helm’s essay “Calvin the Compatibilist” in his book Calvin at the Centre (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 227–72. Helm points out that while Calvin had certain sympathies with the Stoic view of necessity, he emphasized against the Stoics the personal nature of God’s determining control (see 240–52). For the purposes of this paper, it does not matter exactly how God determines all things, whether by arranging things from the beginning so that all things, including human actions, flow necessarily from those initial conditions, or by directly controlling things as they unfold.
 Here I am following his argument from his lecture “What’s Wrong With Calvinism” given during the Evangel University Philosophy Guest Lecture Series published on YouTube on Feb. 19, 2013. You can find it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Daomzm3nyIg
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1952), 52-53.
 Hence, what we see emerging here is the moral problem inherent in Calvinism. Christians hold that the Bible teaches that God is good and loving. In the church I attend as of this writing they recite a certain mantra in which the pastor says, “God is good” and the people respond, “All the time.” To which the pastor then says, “All the time,” and the people respond, “God is good.” You get the point – God is good in his very nature and he cannot be anything but good. He’s good all the time. But on Calvinism is God really good? What is meant by God’s goodness? Is what God does in predestining certain sinner to damnation before they are born recognizable as good to us?
 As non-Calvinists who believe in libertarian free will we can reject number 4 because we do not believe determinism and free will understood in the libertarian sense are compatible. This is the sense in which most people understand free will. Therefore, by rejecting premise 4 we do not have this “conundrum” of having to accept Universalism.
 Jerry L. Walls, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist”, Philosophia Christi, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2011, 98.
 Walls does not cite the source but it is in the book, Arthur W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God, Ch. 1 “God’s Sovereignty Defined” in the section titled, “God is sovereign in the exercise of His love.” You may find the ebook on the internet or by clicking here.
 Walls does not cite this quote but it may be found in J. I. Packer, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 23.
 Packer, Evangelism, 21.
 Paul Helm, The Providence of God, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 65 Walls and Dongell add, “Helm’s full critique of Packer is found on pp. 61-65.”
 Jerry L. Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 155-156.
 Walls does not cite the quote but it is found in Paul Helm, The Providence of God, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 65. From Jerry L. Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pp. 155-156.
 J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 132.
 For a fascinating discussion on this matter between atheists Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, their candid admission that we humans do not have free will, and an insightful evaluation of the incoherence of such a position by William Lane Craig, see the series of five Reasonable Faith podcasts titled, “Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion” broadcast on Nov. 22 to Dec. 15, 2015. Here is the link to the podcasts on Craig’s Reasonable Faith website: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/reasonable-faith-podcast
 Jerry L. Walls, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist”, Philosophia Christi, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2011, p. 78. Cf. John Feinberg, “And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Calvinist: Atheism, Calvinism and the Free Will Defense” Trinity Journal 1 (1980): 142–52. Feinberg is a Calvinist who acknowledges that the “free-will defense” is unavailable to Calvinists as a solution to the problem of evil.
 Ibid. 80.
 Ibid. 75.
 Ibid. 79.
 Ibid. 87.
 Ibid. 88.
 Ibid. 89.
 Ibid. 91.
 Ibid. 93.
 Ibid. 93-94.
 Ibid. 101.
 Ibid. 103.
 Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014).
 Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 90-91.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 28.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), p. 926.
 David Basinger, “Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30/2 (June 1987) 205-213.
 J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVaristy, 1961) 24.
 R. B. Kuiper in The Voice of Authority (ed. G. W. Marston; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960) 16.
 David Basinger, “Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30/2 (June 1987), 206.
 Ibid. 207.
 Ibid. 208.
 Dictionary.com – antinomy, 2. Philosophy. A contradiction between two statements, both apparently obtained by correct reasoning. A contradiction between principles or conclusions that seem equally necessary and reasonable; a paradox.
 See J. I. Packer, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961.)
 C. S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 14.
 In chapter 10 I will examine this exhortation by J. I. Packer to suppress our reasoning along with such instructions by many other Calvinists in this regard. The suppression of reasoning is the logical extension of the insurmountable problems of logical and moral reasoning inherent in Calvinism due to its theistic determinism. If logical and moral coherence have to be jettisoned to retain theistic determinism, then the suppression of logical and moral reasoning has to be part-and-parcel of the Calvinists indoctrination. Since the use of logic and moral intuition in the interpretive task will not lead you to Calvinism, these habits of mind need to be altered and indeed, abolished as far as questioning Calvinism and the Calvinist interpretations on intellectual and moral grounds is concerned. Those who value and refuse to squelch the deliverances of philosophical deliberation and their moral intuitions cannot become Calvinists.
 Erwin Lutzer, “Seven Responsibilities of a Pastor in Toady’s Culture,” Nov. 6, 2013. (5:14 – 6:09) https://www.moodymedia.org/sermons/-/seven-responsibilities-pastor/
 1 Tim. 2: 3-4
(NRSV) “This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
(NIV) “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
(ESV) “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
 David Basinger’s definition from my previous section, “David Basinger Refutes the “Theologians of Paradox” and “Apparent Contradiction””
 David Basinger, “Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30/2 (June 1987) 210 – 211.
 Ibid. 208.
 J. I. Packer, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 24.
 These matters involve Scriptural inerrancy, infallibility and authority. But ultimately they will bring us to the character of God – particularly in Jesus who is revealed as the Logos, that is, as the ground of the laws of logic, rational coherence, consistency, harmony, etc. If this rationality is bequeathed to us as made in the image and likeness of God (Gn. 1:26, 27), then contradiction and rational incoherence are no part of divine revelation. God cannot deny his own nature.
 J. I. Packer, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 20.
 David Basinger, “Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30/2 (June 1987) 212 – 213.
 Ibid. 213.
 Ibid. 212.
 Steve Motyer, “Mystery” The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, ed., 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 803.
 T. V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell, 1986).
 Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 13-14.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (Macmillan: New York, 1962), 28.
 Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 83.
 Ibid. 118.
 Ibid. 84-85.
 R. C. Sproul Jr., Almighty Over All: Understanding the Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 57.
 Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 82.
 Steve Motyer, “Mystery” The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, ed., 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 803.
 John Piper, “The Difference Between Calvinists and Arminians: Four Reasons Election Is Good News,” Nov. 15, 2014. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-difference-between-calvinists-and-arminians Last accessed July 12, 2018.
 William Lane Craig, Defenders 3 Class podcast “Doctrine of God: Trinity (Part 4).” (28:25 – 29:20) or see Q&A section of transcript. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-god-trinity/doctrine-of-god-trinity-part-4/
 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1961), 21.
 Ibid. 17.
 Augustine, The Trinity 8.1, I/5:242 from Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 54.
 G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Phillipsburg: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978), III.1, p. 30.
 G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Phillipsburg: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978), III.6, p. 35.
 Ibid. III.1, p. 30.
 How do we know they are “unconvincing?” They are unconvincing by the criteria of coherence. We simply cannot get beyond the reliance upon reason and the need for logical and moral consistency in our determining what is true from what is false and whether our theological discussions and propositions can be deemed rational, understandable and worthy of acceptance.
 Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), 106.
 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, eds. Clark H. Pinnock and John D. Wagner, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 46-47.
 C. A. Campbell, On Selfhood and Godhood, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1957), 383, 384.