Example 2 – Jeremy Evans’ Intellectual Movement Away From Calvinist Thought

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

Jeremy Evans, assistant professor of Christian Philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina describes his movement away from Calvinist thought.  He writes,

“I moved from a Reformed view of the will to a libertarian view during my time as a seminary student.  Interestingly, the move occurred not because of my professors; most of my professors were admittedly Calvinists.  Instead, I grew to consider libertarianism as the view with the least pressing problems ranging over the most significant areas of inquiry.  It was hard enough reconciling determinism with a meaningful account of human freedom and even harder to understand how God, knowing that everyone is in need of a Savior, would not enable everyone to accept the offer of new life in Christ.  I felt the intellectual transition away from Geneva was needed to avoid what I considered to be problems bigger than those faced by non-Reformed views of the will.  Ken Keathley makes an excellent point here in defense of Molinism (a libertarian view of freedom):

If Molinists have to appeal to mystery…they do so at a better and more reasonable point.  I’d rather have the Molinist difficulty of not being able to explain how God’s omniscience operates than the Calvinist difficulty of explaining how God is not the author of sin.  In other words, Molinism’s difficulties are with God’s infinite attributes rather than His holy and righteous character.[1]

These same sentiments provided the impetus for my journey away from Geneva.”[2]

What is important to recognize here is that the reasons for Evan’s shift away from a Reformed view of the human will fall into two categories.  1) The first category is found in the words and phrases such as “the least pressing problems,” “reconciling,” “harder to understand.”  These are logical considerations that speak of the coherence or incoherence between ideas.  2) The second category is that Evans saw Keathley’s  Molinism as establishing “mystery” at a “better and more reasonable point” by making a choice between the difficulties of understanding “God’s infinite attributes” in contrast to the Calvinist difficulties that cast a shadow over “His holy and righteous character.”  These are interpretive and moral considerations involving coherence and consistency between what we are being told a text means and what we know about the character of God.

What all these words and phrases reveal is that the contributing factor whereby Evans and Keathley came to reject the Calvinist position was the conviction that rational and moral coherence are reliable indicators as to the validity of one’s interpretive claims.  Calvinism fostered confusion regarding God’s character.  This signaled an interpretive problem. Both Evans and Keathley are confidently employing what they know to be rationally and morally coherent or incoherent, logically consistent or inconsistent, morally plausible or implausible, as factors in deciding the proper interpretations of biblical texts and the validity of the theology developed from those interpretations.  They are putting stock simply in what “makes sense.”  Taking logical and moral coherence on board, one view is discerned to be more plausible than another. 

In his book Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, Kenneth Keathley states this outright when he considers the “two wills” view of Calvinist Robert A. Peterson.  Keathley writes,

“Peterson, in his defense of the Reformed position on God’s two wills, states, “God does not save all sinners, for ultimately he does not intend to save all of them.  The gift of faith is necessary for salvation, yet for reasons beyond our ken, the gift of faith has not been given to all.”[3]  But then he concludes, “While God commands all to repent and takes no delight in the death of the sinner, all are not saved because it is not God’s intention to give his redeeming grace to all.”[4]  I must be candid and confess that to me the last quote makes no sense.”[5]

The point here can hardly be missed or overstated.  Evans and Keathley are placing value on rational and moral coherence in discerning valid interpretations.  They let these play a positive role in their interpretive method and theological conclusions.  They do not place these in opposition to the text in some either/or dichotomy, but form their interpretation on the basis of a reasoned explication of the text. Simply put, they allow rational and moral coherence to inform their hermeneutic.  Interpretations must make sense. This is not to say that there are things in scripture that are beyond our reason, but something that is beyond reason is a very different thing than something that is against reason.  And surely we know the difference between the two. The function of Evans and Keathley’s reasoning capacities and their moral intuitions clue them in as to the severity of the logical and moral problems a particular interpretation is generating.  They also are concerned with discerning the rational and moral impact Calvinism has on our understanding of God.  They value the view that is less problematic as to what we know God to be like. Their worldview needs to account for as many of the biblical and theological facts as possible while remaining coherent.  This is the hermeneutical principle of comprehensiveness.  Our interpretations must account for, in a coherent manner, as much of the data as possible that needs to be considered. 

The fact that this “common sense” decision-making is taken for granted in all other areas of life should give us pause when it is dismissed as to its role in determining valid biblical interpretation and theological conclusions.  And we should not accept incoherence in theology just because we are talking about God or reading divine revelation.  We are constantly making decisions of all sorts on the basis of logical coherence and consistency.  Yet, because of certain erroneous ideas about the function of human reason – that “spiritual things” involving faith and religion have little to do with human reason, or that the application of reason is a threat to certain theological traditions, or that the will and ways of God are unfathomable to our fallen sinful minds, or that faith is opposed to reason – the place of rational and moral coherence in our hermeneutic is being overlooked in the discussions between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  But this issue is at the core of the divide between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist.  Non-Calvinists don’t disagree with Calvinists that God is sovereign over his creation, or that he can overrule the will and actions of men, or that there is a biblical doctrine of election.  They disagree about these because when the attempt is made to incorporate the Calvinist definitions of sovereignty and election as a theistic determinism into the broader teaching of Scripture, our lives and Christian ministry, incoherence results.  Therefore, ultimately Calvinists and non-Calvinists differ on points of doctrine because they differ on the weight that is to be given to the presence of rational and moral coherence or incoherence in one’s hermeneutic.  There comes a point where proper exegesis must also center on the rationale behind the interpretation of a text and the logical and moral entailments of that rationale. Technical exegesis does not stand in isolation from its logical and moral entailments.

It is troubling that respected Calvinist scholars can, for instance, make the words “all,” “world” and “whoever” involve limitation and exclusion in direct opposition to their clear meanings in context of universality and inclusion. Why do Calvinists and non-Calvinists arrive at such dichotomous meanings with such simple words?  It was demonstrated in Example 1 by David Allen that John Owen was engaging in eisegesis – he was reading his theology into the text of John 3:16.  As far as Owen was concerned, I’m sure he thought he was properly exegeting the text.  Hence, one can thoroughly “exegete” a text, but the validity of that exegesis needs to be determined.  To merely provide an exegesis is not the terminal point for determining the validity of the meaning of the text. An indispensable indicator as to whether that text has been properly exegeted is going to be the “sense” or “nonsense” it generates within its own context, with other pertinent texts, and the many other things we are confident of knowing through our daily life experiences.  Ultimately, one’s exegetical and theological conclusions must be coherent with the whole of Scripture and coherent with life as we live it. Hence it is an improper response to any incoherence in interpretation to simply leave it in abeyance.  If a person cannot, in the end, admit to obvious interpretive incoherence, or, when admitting to such incoherence refuse to place any weight upon it as a determiner of the validity of their interpretations, it seems to me that the person is being intellectually dishonest and has taken a large step towards being written off as hypocritical.  They will find themselves forced to speak one thing while having to believe another while also having to further distort and even conceal their own theological beliefs as they seek to maintain such a conflicted theology.  This duplicity is what many people observe about Reformed Calvinism.  Calvin himself could not consistently apply his doctrine of predestination.  John T. McNeill in his book, The History and Character of Calvinism, describes Calvin’s sentiments and hesitation to teach his doctrine of predestination to children.  McNeill writes,

“Double predestination is a doctrine not to be rashly proclaimed.  Calvin avoids it in his catechism for children, which teaches very simply that God is ‘almighty and altogether good,’ and that each of us ‘should be assured that He loves us and wishes to be our Father and Savior.’” [6]

“Rashly” or not, it appears rather that Calvin’s predestination is a doctrine that cannot at all be proclaimed as consistent with the gospel as “good news.”  Calvin’s words here are disingenuous with his underlying soteriology.  When he tells the children that “each of us ‘should be assured that He loves us and wishes to be our Father and Savior’” he is not being forthright with respect to what his doctrine of predestination actually teaches. Moreover, Calvinists hold the position that their doctrine of unconditional election is not to be spoken about to unbelievers or to those new believers not firmly established in the faith.  Their reason for this is that it is a “high mystery” that is only for the mature in the faith.  But one can also see that it is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a doctrine that is logically and morally problematic with what the scriptures teach elsewhere, especially about the character of God. It is not a “high mystery.” It is a misinterpretation of the relevant texts. Note therefore that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination or election as unconditional cannot be coherently put in the service of the gospel as “good news.”  In fact, I would argue that it is ultimately antithetical to the biblical message of “good news.”

This Reformed “mystery” approach fosters a superficial “Christian” mind, at least with respect to these issues.  Meaningful pursuit of answers to these baffling doctrines and further discussion is truncated by what the Calvinist claims is our inability to understand the mind of God.  Substantive questions can be asked, but for the Calvinist they need not be answered, being subsumed under the category of mystery or human incomprehensibility of the divine will and ways.  Indeed, according to the Calvinist it would amount to human pride and lack of submission to pursue the issue further.  The Canons of Dort, with some degree of spiritual intimidation, warn us against “vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High” or being among “those who murmur at the free grace of election.” The Canons state the following regarding the doctrine of unconditional election.

“…the doctrine of divine election…is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God…without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High (Acts 20:27; Rom. 11:33, 34; 12:3; Heb. 6:17, 18).”[7]

And also,

“To those who murmur at the free grace of election and the just severity of reprobation we answer with the apostle: Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” (Rom. 9:20), and quote the language of our Saviour: Is it no lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? (Matt. 20:15).  And therefore, with holy adoration of these mysteries, we exclaim in the words of the apostle: O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!  For who hath been his counselor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?  For of him, and through him, and unto him are all things, To him be the glory for ever.  Amen. (Rom. 11: 33-36).”[8]

According to the Calvinist we must resign ourselves to an intellectual vacuum and theological silence regarding their doctrine of unconditional election.  This is an example of the Calvinist suppression of reason.  But non-Calvinists submit that passages like Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 do not teach unconditional election and reprobation. Therefore the above verses are misinterpreted and misapplied by the Calvinist as referring to a non-Calvinist interlocutor who is objecting to God’s unconditional election of sinners to salvation. According to the Calvinist interpretation that interlocutor needs to be silenced in humble submission to God who has predestined or elected certain individuals to salvation and reprobates all others “according to the good pleasure of his will.”

All this of course has direct implications for the content and proclamation of the gospel as “good news.”  As Calvinism reigns as the default interpretation of the relevant passages or gains prominence in the evangelical church, an unspoken pretension will characterize evangelical Christianity as if there really is no substantial exegetical, theological, intellectual or practical difference between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, especially with regard to the gospel message.  The evangelical church is in denial of the fact that there are two incompatible soteriologies and “gospel” messages in the church today.  They are in denial of the fact that two incompatible soteriologies cannot both be true.  Therefore, theological relativism is pervasive in evangelical Christianity today.  Calvinists give the impression in their speech and practical ministry that they are in accord with the non-Calvinist, yet when it comes to certain key doctrines and their “doctrines of grace” they confess the very opposite.  Non-Calvinists also are too coy in this regard.  Why do we simply ignore this difference when the very gospel as “good news” is at stake?  Don’t we care about knowing and proclaiming the truth of the gospel? (See Gal. 1:3-9; 2:4-6, 11-16; 3:8, 22) What message are we sending when we refuse to face the fact that two contradictory interpretations of Scripture cannot both be true? What messages are we sending when we refuse to face the true nature of these differences, suppress the fact that they exist, and have no interest in coming to grips with the truth of the gospel?  How are we forming the theological minds of young Christians who are confronted with these issues when they read and study the Bible?  How are we teaching them to think, or not to think, about Scripture and theology?  How are we teaching them to think, or not to think, about the text?  How are we defining the nature and practice of the exegetical and theological enterprise when, in effect, we are communicating a theological relativism that maintains “what is theologically true for you is not true for me, but that’s just fine, as long as we all get along” and/or that we should simply “look the other way” regarding this doctrinal divide and the issues of coherence, consistency and contradiction that are at the heart of it?

The evangelical church is in theological denial with respect to the magnitude of the differences between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and their definitions of the gospel.  The evangelical church is indifferent to the inconsistency between the Calvinist’s underlying theology and what Calvinist’s say in their preaching, teaching, and practical ministry.  Suppressing the search for biblical truth on such important matters about God, man and salvation for fear of division will only continue to foster theological indifference and a superficial, anti-intellectual, minimalist “Christianity.” This will result in the failure of the church to speak the truth of the gospel message into our culture and world so as to be the world’s salt and light. In a day in which we are experiencing the presence of evil forces at work in our land and throughout the world, we need to proclaim the life-changing power of the gospel, not merely to preserve a civilized society based in Judeo-Christian values, but most importantly that sinners may believe in this “good news” of their salvation in Christ by faith and have life more abundant in the present and eternal life with God in heaven.

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


Go to Example 3 – Millard Erickson: A Moderate Calvinist Assesses Limited Atonement

[1] See Ken Keathley, “A Molinist View of Election, or How to Be a Consistent Infralapsarian,” in Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, ed. E. Ray Clendenen and B. Waggoner (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 214.

[2] Jeremy A. Evans, “Reflections on Determinism and Human Freedom,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 274.

[3] R. Peterson and M. Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 130.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 57.

[6] John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 211.

[7] The Three Forms of Unity, “Canons of Dort,” Chapter 1, Article 14, p.77.

[8] Ibid. Article 18, p. 79.

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