Example 16 – Greg Koukl on Why Jesus Spoke in Parables

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

In a November 4, 2015 Stand To Reason podcast titled “Questions and Answers”,[1] Greg Koukl provides an answer to a caller who is inquiring about how Greg, as a Calvinist, would understand the reason Jesus gives for speaking in parables to the people (Matt. 13:10ff).  In the context of the parable of the sower, the caller raised the point that Jesus seemed to be saying that “the ones who are gonna get it are gonna get it, the ones who are not gonna get it are not gonna get it.”  Greg responds with the more accurate wording,

“Well the language he uses is “to you it has been granted,” so it isn’t a passive getting it, it’s an active granting it to them…Which does seem to me to comport more with a sovereign grace perspective.”

The caller affirms that this “fits lockstep with a Calvinist view.”  But then he asks,

“Why not just speak plainly anyway because those who have been chosen will…receive it and put it to use, those who are not, aren’t going to make sense of it anyway.”

Now surely the caller’s question is raising the problem of the practical implications of unconditional election.  Greg then says,

“By the way, it strikes me that the same question could be raised regarding the Arminian perspective, so this issue is not specific to one view or another.  This would be true with any view, that those who are gonna get it are gonna get it and so why speak in parables to anybody for that matter.”

Greg does not explain his statements here and we are left wondering how this problem is one that is inherent in an Arminian view.  An Arminian would not say that certain one’s are divinely predetermined to “get it” while others are not, which seems to be what the caller is curious about.  But the conversation continues and it certainly seems that Greg wanders into incoherence given his Calvinist theology. Greg states,

“And I will tell you what I think is a fairly standard response to this.  There seems to be an indication in the Scripture, particularly in the gospels, that those who are given more revelation have greater responsibility for that revelation and therefore greater culpability for rejecting it.  Ok?”

But what’s the difference in how something is said – whether in parables or otherwise – if there are those predestined to hear and “respond” and those who are not?  Now Greg’s response seeks to explain Jesus’ words to the disciples about them having “been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” and to others “it has not been given.” (ESV)  He does so by bringing in the scriptural principle “to whom much is given, much is required.”  This leads to the moral corollaries of responsibility and culpability for what has been given and revealed.  But as true as that might be, how would that apply to a person’s salvation given the doctrine of unconditional election?  Regarding salvation based in an unconditional election it is incoherent to speak of “greater responsibility for that revelation and therefore greater culpability for rejecting it.”  Those who reject this revelation are the non-elect, and therefore it is God himself who has assured that they will never accept it.  How then can it be coherently said about the non-elect that they have any responsibility for accepting that revelation and have “greater culpability for rejecting it?”  The elect will receive that revelation and the non-elect cannot receive it.  So how is culpability based on rejecting the revelation coherent given Calvinist unconditional election?  This highlights the moral incoherence inherent in Calvinism.  Greg continues,

“The one who is given more revelation has greater culpability for rejecting it, greater culpability means greater judgment.”

Here Greg makes it clear that people will be judged by God for rejecting God’s revelation to them despite the fact that according to Greg’s Calvinism many have been predetermined to do nothing at all with God’s revelation, for God has predetermined that they will do nothing with it.  What Greg says next is astonishing.  He states,

“And so, this could be seen quite naturally as an act of mercy for those whose heart is already hardened, or closed – that the message then is given in a veiled fashion so that only those who have ears to hear, from an Arminian perspective or Reformed perspective, are the ones who hear.  And the ones who aren’t going to listen, don’t hear, and so they are not held further responsible for it.”

I submit that this is confused and incoherent.  According to Koukl, Jesus speaks to people in parables as an act of divine mercy.  Through parables God withholds from “those whose heart is already hardened, or closed” the “message” so that “they are not held further responsible for it.”  Hence, they will not incur further judgment.

We must ask what meaning and relevance the phrase “those whose heart is already hardened, or closed” has given unconditional election.  For on unconditional election, and the theistic determinism of Calvinism, it is God who would have predetermined that they have “hardened” or “closed” hearts.  But also perplexing is Koukl’s assertion that God is being merciful to those he has predestined to an eternity in hell separated from him.  How can this be understood in any meaningful way as “merciful,” especially when God could have originally predestined them to salvation?

It therefore seems that Koukl presents God as morally confused.  If God wanted to be merciful to “those whose heart is already hardened, or closed” then he could have predestined them to salvation.  What kind of “mercy” is it for God to assign someone to an eternity separated from himself and then speak in parables so that they would have no greater judgment meted upon them for their “rejection” of the gospel; a “rejection” God himself predetermined for them?  What lesser judgment could their possibly be than an eternity in hell?  Does Koukl think that there are gradations of judgment or suffering in hell that make it better or worse for those already assigned there?  

To his credit Greg goes on to say,

“Now it is a conjecture, I mean, cause there’s no direct statement here one way or another…not in this passage.”

So perhaps, for the sake of the caller, rather than making theological conjectures that Koukl suggests are not even based on the text in question, he should seek a proper exegesis of the text that doesn’t land us in incoherence.  We could perhaps agree with Koukl’s interpretation here, although I think it has missed the primary purposes for why Jesus speaks in parables. But note that it is the Calvinist deterministic doctrine of unconditional election that lurks behind the scene that presents the problem for the caller and causes the incoherence with Greg’s explanation of the text.

Greg continues,

“Now Jesus – for goodness sake – I’m just looking here in chapter 12…verse 41, ‘The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.’  In other words, with that lesser revelation they were responsive.  These people have greater revelation and they are rejecting it.  So this is greater judgment.  In fact, in another place Jesus says it’ll be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgement than it will be for you.  So I think this principle of greater revelation brings greater responsibility and rejection greater culpability and therefore greater judgment is a sound principle.  And it seems like it fits very nicely right here in Jesus’ comments in Matthew 13.”

But the problem Koukl doesn’t see is that this “sound principle” doesn’t fit at all with his Calvinist determinism and doctrine of unconditional election.  This principle has done nothing to address the incoherence within his position which the caller was attempting to uncover.  Simply put the caller was asking, “What does it matter if Jesus speaks in parables if the eternal destiny of each of us is unalterably predetermined by God himself?”  Greg’s explanation only highlighted the moral incoherence in his Calvinism.  He had to put his Calvinist theology aside to attempt to answer the question coherently according to the text.  How can God hold people personally responsible, morally culpable, and then judge them for something in which they have no freedom to do otherwise?  So this “sound principle” really does not “fit” in with Jesus’ comments in Matthew 13.  Koukl maintains that Jesus speaks in parables as an act of divine mercy to the non-elect by withholding further revelation from them so that they do not experience further responsibility, culpability and judgment?  The non-elect cannot “experience further responsibility, culpability and judgment.” They have been assigned by God to an eternity in hell. And how can people – elect or non-elect – be held responsible, culpable or be justly judged for their actions when it is God who predetermined and causes all people to do what they do? This is the teaching of Calvinism. Is this really a proper exegesis of the text or has the text been distorted by reading into it the non-negotiable doctrines of “a sovereign grace perspective?”

Koukl adds to this incoherence when he goes on to state,

“Well I actually think that to [whom] much has been given much will be required, that’s the verse you probably heard.  I think if you go back to the text its first application is to revelation and unbelievers. …It’s talking about what I’m talking about, and there’s been a secondary application made to Christian stewardship.”

Here again we must ask how it is that God gives much and requires much from those he has predetermined to not respond to his revelation of himself or the gospel?

So how do we know that Greg’s “sound principle” and his interpretation does not properly reflect Jesus’ comments in Matthew 13:11 ff. in answer to the disciples question in verse 10?  Because Greg’s prior commitment to a Calvinist soteriology has forced him into an incoherent explanation of the text.

Greg will go on to say that he does not read biblical texts through his Calvinist theological grid.  But I submit that the exegesis of this passage has been distorted precisely because of his Calvinist grid because Koukl will attempt to deal with this incoherence in typical Calvinist fashion, labeling it “mysterious” and describing the “problems” in his position as a “tension.”  He continues.

“I was just actually reading through this the other day, and I think there’s a number of things that are bit mysterious about this but, and raises questions, but I will offer another thought and that is I don’t exactly read my texts from a Calvinist perspective. …What I try to do is I read the text and within the text there are certain tensions that exist, so I’m not trying to solve the problems.  But the places where it seems that there is a statement that is dramatic in the inference of a sovereign grace perspective, then it jumps out at me, and that’s why I mention this about verse eleven, Jesus answers them, ‘To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.’  Ok?  So why has it been granted to some and not to others, that’s another question.  But see, that jumps out to me and that speaks of sovereign grace.  But I’m not trying to take passages, generally speaking, and trying to read them in light of Calvinist doctrine as [if] that’s my grid.  There are plenty of passages that focus very squarely on our human responsibility and culpability.  And when they do that I’m going to focus on that in my own reading and understanding of the passage.  Alright?”

Well, with all due respect, from a hermeneutical perspective that’s not alright.  Again, because of the “problems” his theology generates, we see the Calvinist flight to “mystery” and the euphemism of “tensions” for the incoherence of his statements here.  We also sense the Calvinist hermeneutical approach that tends to dismiss the need for “solving the problems.”  A charitable reading would take it that Greg is not trying to “solve the problems” then-and-there in the midst of his reading, but the mindset of avoiding the incoherence generated by his “sovereign grace” position is still present.  As he says, “There are plenty of passages that focus very squarely on our human responsibility and culpability.  And when they do that I’m going to focus on that in my own reading and understanding of the passage.”  And as exegetically sound as that approach is, it is hermeneutically unacceptable when such passages generate contradictions and incoherencies with his Calvinist view of divine sovereignty and his doctrine of unconditional election.  The point to note is that Koukl does not see the problematic nature of his Calvinist doctrines as hermeneutically significant and a determining factor as to the accuracy and validity of his interpretations.  This is a key issue here.

Koukl also dichotomizes his exegetical conclusions about “sovereign grace” from the input of philosophical reflection that tells him this interpretation is incoherent with the “plenty of passages that focus very squarely on our human responsibility and culpability.”  His hermeneutic does not include examining his exegesis in light of the deliberations and deliverances of philosophical reflection.  He does not attempt to reconsider his interpretations in light of the incoherence they generate.[2]  This is another important hermeneutical issue.

The hermeneutical point is this.  Koukl has not attended to the incoherence in his explanation of the text with his underlying Calvinist theology.  Nor has he allowed that incoherence to check his interpretation of the text.  His statements above demonstrate that his Calvinist hermeneutical mindset that discounts rational coherence in one’s interpretation remains firmly in place.

So why did Jesus speak in parables?  Regarding Matthew 13:11, Mark 4:11, and Luke 8:10, Denver Seminary professor Dr. William W. Klein writes,

“One can hardly find in the Gospels verses – and the pericopes of which they are a part – that are more perplexing or that have generated more debate than these.  We must understand them, for here Jesus gives his disciples and explicit explanation of the acquisition of the mysteries of the kingdom.  First, we take the phrase “mysteries of the kingdom” (KJV) to be those truths about the in-breaking of the reign of God that Jesus reveals in his person and preaching.  The kingdom and its promise of salvation have arrived for all those willing to submit to the reign of God.  That we take to be clear from the wealth of references to the kingdom in the synoptics.  Much more problematic is the way Jesus appears to distribute the kingdom’s secrets…

The passive verbal phrase dedotai (gnonai) – “it is given (to know)” – clearly implies the divine agent.  Only God can be the source of revelation about the mysteries of the kingdom.  Does this mean that God specifically chooses some to enlighten, while he withholds that light from others?  And, noting Mk. 4:12 and Luke 8:10b, does God purpose to darken the minds of some and so keep them from coming to the truth?

… So God reveals mysteries to some but not others.  The question naturally arises: Does Jesus convey some principle or criterion that marks the basis for God’s enlightening some and not others?  In fact, all three do give further explanation, but their answers do not appear univocal.  Matthew appears to give a “palatable” explanation while the other two go another, more difficult, way.

Matthew 13:12-16 provides an explanation of Jesus’ intent in employing parables in his teaching.  Specifically, in 13:13 Jesus characterizes outsiders as ones who do not see, hear, nor understand.  He quotes Isa 6:9-10 to describe their condition.[3]  They typify many “enlightened” people whose hearts are hard and who refuse to act on what they have heard.  Thus, according to Matthew’s account, those outside have themselves to blame, as the hoti (because) that introduces the Isa 6:9-10 quote in v. 13 shows.  These hard-hearted rejecters have brought their judgment on themselves – because, (although) seeing, they do not see and (although) hearing they do not hear nor do they understand.  They alone bear responsibility for their failure to perceive the mysteries.  Divine rejection has followed human rejection.[4]  In fact, if they had opened their eyes, ears, and hearts to God, he would have healed them (last line if v. 15).  This reaffirms God’s basic stance toward his creatures, to welcome all who come to him on his terms (cf. Mt. 11:28-30).

In many ways 13:12 provides a key to understanding Jesus’ teaching on Matthew’s version.  For those who have responded to the truth already granted, more truth and enlightenment follow.  But those who refuse to hear can never expect understanding.  Kingsbury has it right when he says,

Matthew…does not say that Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables in order to make them blind, etc., but because they are blind, deaf and without understanding.  For Matthew, the fact that Jesus speaks to the crowds in parables substantiates the circumstance that they have already proved themselves to be hardened toward the Word of Revelation.[5]

So, we ought not interpret “it is given” as some divine decree of election, as if God has chosen to enlighten some and to darken the minds of others.”

Hence, there are sound exegetical interpretations of the text that do not lead us into incoherence.  Given a hermeneutic that values coherence as an essential indicator of valid exegesis, interpretations like those offered by Calvinists that do not value coherence and must dismiss their incoherence as a “mystery” or a “tension” are not likely to be valid interpretations of the text.   Calvinism’s determinism inevitably produces incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions with the Scriptural worldview of genuine contingency and human freedom and responsibility.

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence / Table of Contents / Home

[1] Greg Koukl, “Questions and Answers,” November 4, 2015. Accessed May 1, 2020.  http://www.str.org/podcasts/weekly-audio/questions-and-answers-november-4-2015#.Vna-ajtIhD9  (23:23ff.)

[2] Compare how Koukl fails to reason about Scripture here with his clear affirmation of the necessity of the use of reason in biblical interpretation in “Chapter 7 – The Indispensability of Reason and Logic in Biblical Interpretation” in the section “Confusing Reason or Rationalism.”

[3] Matthew quotes from the LXX not the Hebrew MT.  Whereas in Hebrew the first three verbs in v. 15 are imperatives, in the LXX and for Matthew they are aorist indicatives.  Thus, in Matthew, these people’s hearts have become calloused (epachonthe), their ears do not hear (ekousan), and their eyes are closed (ekammysan).  Eakin discusses the passage Isa 6:9-13 and sees a cause-effect relation between the people’s insensitivity to God’s message and their “hardening.”  The people have lived in their insensitivity, now they are left to exult in it.” (F. E. Eakin, “Spiritual Obduracy and Parable Purpose,” in The Use of the Old Testament in the New and Other Essays, ed. J. M. Efird [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972], 91.  He says Eichrodt and Von Rad agree and summarizes their positions: “Israel had refused for o long to be attuned to the word of Yahweh that ultimately her ‘will not’ became her ‘cannot’” (Ibid. 94).  Taylor takes a different approach.  He understands Isa 6:9-10 to be a command that “ironically describes what in fact would be the result of Isaiah’s ministry” (Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 256; his emphasis).  In both cases, however, clearly Israel bears responsibility for her judgment by God.  As Moule says, “It is difficult to believe that, in its original context in Isaiah 6, it was intended as an instruction to the prophet to make sure that his message was unintelligible” (C. F. D. Moule, “Mk 4:1-20 Yet Once More,” in Neotestamentica et Semitica, ed. E. E. Ellis and M. Wilcox [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969], 100.

[4] Gundry says, “…people have refused to understand, and the parables will obscure the truth judgmentally” (Matthew, 256.).

[5] Kingsbury, Parables, 49.

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