Example 22 – Os Guinness: Both Are True, Use Them As Needed


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Calvinist Os Guinness in his book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times 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.  This leads Guinness to reflect upon the sovereignty/free will issue.  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 his point is that “human significance” is a corollary of human freedom, that is, that even given God’s sovereign activity in the world each of us retains “significance” because, in a genuinely meaningful sense, it is truly we who freely do what we do.  This includes that our actions have meaning, value and purpose.  “Significance” and free will, or human freedom, are integrally related.  But given a deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty the problem remains, and Guinness admits the controversy 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.”[1]

            Note the “simple truths” that Guinness brings to bear on this problem here.

            First, he presupposes that the biblical definition of sovereignty is the deterministic Calvinist definition of sovereignty.  But why should that be the case?  Where does the Bible indicate that divine sovereignty must equal an exhaustive divine determinism?  I could very well be that the “perennial debate” is the result of a misinterpretation of the biblical texts on the part of Calvinists.  I believe God is sovereign and humans are significant, but don’t see why this should lead to a fruitless controversy.  I don’t see any problem between divine sovereignty and human freedom and significance, unless you define divine sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism.  This is not necessarily what Scripture teaches.  In fact, the types of rational and moral problems Guinness runs into by embracing Calvinist determinism are indications that it is not what the Scripture teaches about God’s sovereignty.  So, as far as the definition of God’s sovereignty goes, I consider Guinness a Calvinist. 

            Second, Guinness dismisses the cannons of reason as not applicable here and by doing so adopts a hermeneutic of incoherence.  Regarding two mutual exclusive theological propositions he says, “Human reason cannot explain both truths.”  He also states, “Reality contains both truths, and not just one or the other.”  When Guinness states, “the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths,” he reveals that he has a hermeneutic of incoherence and has adopted interpretive relativism.  The fact that the two “truths” are contradictory does not matter to Guinness.  This does not cause him to question the interpretive validity of one or the other of these supposed “truths.”  It is an example of the hermeneutical divide and reveals why the controversy is “fruitless” and prolongs the “perennial debate.  If Guinness and Calvinists were to adopt a hermeneutic of coherence the debate would come to an end.  And why shouldn’t it be able to be resolved?  Surely there is one doctrinal truth that all evangelicals can affirm that will guide the way here, that is, that Scripture cannot contradict itself.

            In addition, Guinness’s interpretive relativism and hermeneutic of incoherence insulates the first “simple truth” that Scripture teaches the Calvinist definition of sovereignty as deterministic, from any rational interpretive or hermeneutical critique, and allows for Guinness’s “third lesson of the Scriptures and Christian history.”

            This third “lesson” or “truth” is, “apply the one we most need when we most need it.” And this brings us to a third problem.  Guinness has not only adopted an interpretive relativism along with a hermeneutical relativism, he has embraced a practical application relativism.  You pick and choose which ever of mutually exclusive “truths” that will address the situation at hand.

            Let’s move on to answer Guinness’s question, “For when we are thinking of cultural change, is the real work God’s or ours, or both?”  Certainly the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths – God is sovereign and humans are significant in the sense that they are substantially free.  But I submit that the Scriptures do not contain both truths as Reformed Calvinism understands those truths.  On Calvinism the correct and only answer is that the real work is God’s.  Full stop.  “Ours” or “both” are not an option because of the Calvinist definition of sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism.  God, having predetermined all things by his will is the source and cause of all that occurs – both good and evil.

            What we see here is that for many theologians Calvinism is the default position on divine sovereignty that is not to be questioned.  All other biblical data on the nature of Man and salvation has to somehow be manipulated to “fit” into the Calvinist mold.  If such manipulation runs roughshod logically and morally over other biblical doctrines, so be it.  Calvinism is biblical bedrock.

            But, when the Calvinist claims the Bible teaches both, this is recognizably incoherent.  And this is the fundamental hermeneutical issue before us that Guinness does not acknowledge.  I submit that the Scriptures do not “show plainly” that sovereignty must be defined as an exhaustive theistic determinism as in Reformed Calvinism, precisely because such an interpretation leads to logical and moral incoherence.  This fact must be incorporated into our hermeneutic.  When it is incorporated, and not ignored, it serves as a reliable indicator of the validity or invalidity of an interpretation.  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.  Guinness is willing to ignore coherence in favor of maintaining a deterministic view of sovereignty – the very view of sovereignty that generates the unfruitfulness and non-productive discussions he decries.  But this fruitlessness and unproductiveness is precisely what one would expect in a dialogue where one party can dismiss logical and moral considerations.  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 Calvinist definition of sovereignty.

            I contend that biblically speaking divine sovereignty need not be and is not presented as a universal divine causal determinism.  I also submit that if Guinness would define sovereignty biblically as God’s non-deterministic but sure reign over all his creation, his problem disappears.  We affirm God can be sovereign in the sense that Scripture presents sovereignty as God’s active participation and intervention in history and in the ruling and reigning over all his creation to bring what he has willed to pass while humans freely and significantly live in responsive relationship to each other and God.  Scripture does not require a definition of sovereignty defined as God having preordained “whatsoever comes to pass” which entails that he is the sole will and cause behind and in all that occurs, including evil.  This is nothing other than theistic determinism, and any determinism is antithetical to the biblical witness to human freedom, sin, potentiality, possibility, and contingency.

            If Guinness is going to make these claims presupposing a Reformed deterministic definition of sovereignty, then he cannot merely dismiss the logical and moral ramifications.  He is going to have to show how that view of sovereignty is logically compatible with human freedom, or as he puts it “human significance.”  Interestingly, he seems to soften his determinism when he says “God is sovereign, humans are significant, and it was God who made us so.”  So “sovereignty” may include God’s prerogative to make creatures that are substantially free from his control and yet he remains sovereign.  Creaturely freedom is no threat to a sovereign God’s “sovereignty.”  This would be a non-deterministic definition of sovereignty; one that a non-Calvinist maintains is closer to the biblical testimony and that he could embrace.  One wonders why Guinness does not pursue this option further.  Perhaps this indicates the strong hold that the Calvinist traditional interpretations have on the minds of many Christians.  It seems Guinness ultimately holds to the Calvinist deterministic view of sovereignty because of his study of “the Scriptures and Christian history.”

            In addition, he takes the typical “outs” of incomprehensibility and soteriological relativism – the Bible teaches both and use them as needed.  The rational and moral incoherencies that his deterministic sovereignty generates do not influence his hermeneutic and subsequently his interpretations as to the matter of their validity. 

            Surely the canons of rationality hold in biblical interpretation.  If they don’t, Guinness and the Calvinist 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 Reformed definitions of sovereignty and election, then why is there a problem?  He should explain how this is so.  Again, if Guinness maintains that they are incompatible, he is also going to have to defend the idea that logical and moral coherence is not an essential part of good interpretation.

            I find it interesting that Guinness’s reasoning faculties can detect that something is problematic between the Reformed 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” but human reason detects a problem between both propositions, then 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.  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?  Perhaps, rather, Reformed Calvinism does not have an accurate interpretation of Scripture on the matter of divine sovereignty.

            Whether or not the Calvinist’s interpretations of sovereignty, election, predestination, etc. are accurate and true is the ultimate issue at hand.  And if deterministic sovereignty is a priori declared to be an inviolable 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 incoherence or contradiction, then nothing more can be said regarding the validity of those interpretations.  This is how Calvinism insulates itself from rational theological critique.  It is the cause of the perpetuation of this controversy.  It is what causes the non-Calvinist to be left scratching their heads perplexed while the Calvinist claims that because Scripture is divine revelation and the mind of man is affected by sin that gives him the prerogative to dismiss interpretive incoherence.  The best that the Calvinist can do is chalk his problem up to “mystery” or “incomprehensibility of the ways of God.”  The response that “the Bible teaches both” is of course question-begging.

            I do not think this controversy is “fruitless.”  Rather, the controversy has been subverted by outright indifference, various rationalizations, the suppression of reason, and other avoidance mindsets that seek to insulate the Reformed doctrines at the cost of clear thinking while deflecting Calvinists themselves (and others) from grappling with the hermeneutical implications of their problematic definitions of sovereignty and election as unconditional.  The “perennial debate” persists only while divine sovereignty and election are defined as they are in Calvinism.  This division amongst 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 interpretations are presupposed to be the true biblical teaching while any substantive logical, moral and theological critique of them is put out of court.  This theological position is held regardless of the negative logical, moral, theological and ministerial implications.  My thesis is that this amounts to a deficient hermeneutic.

In that Guinness’s Calvinist determinism has a profound effect on the content and proclamation of the gospel as “good news,” it seems to me that he is going to have to take a stand regarding what he believes the content of “the good news” to be and whether that content is consistent and coherent with his Calvinist determinism.  But then again, perhaps he will hold to the Calvinist deterministic, exclusive soteriology and “gospel” as defined by their “doctrines of grace” in one situation, and yet also hold to the free will, inclusive soteriology of the non-Calvinist in another situation, without a concern for their incompatibility due to his relativism that allows him to apply the one he most needs when he most needs it.


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

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