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.  Such freedom is required for one’s life to have “significance,” that is, in the sense that the human person owns that significance. “Significance” and free will, or human freedom, are integrally related.  But given a deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty the problem of our living, choices, decisions and actions being genuinely significant 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 – which indicates that he is a Calvinist in this matter.  But why should that be the case?  Where does the Bible indicate that divine sovereignty must equal a universal divine causal determinism?  It 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 I don’t see why this should result in a fruitless controversy.  I don’t see any problem between divine sovereignty and human freedom and significance. The controversy (which is not “fruitless”), only arises given the Calvinist deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty. Unless you define divine sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism there is no controversy like the one Os Guinness would have us think there is.  His definition of sovereignty 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.  Again, the way Guinness frames the issue of divine sovereignty and human significance or genuine freedom being at odds with each other and resulting in a fruitless controversy tells me that 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 adopted a hermeneutic of incoherence and has embraced 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 this “perennial debate” be able to be resolved?  Surely there is one hermeneutical 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 a hermeneutic of incoherence and an interpretive relativism, but he is also advocating a pick-and-choose approach to the practical application of these conflicting “truths.” You pick and choose which ever of these mutually exclusive “truths” that you feel 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?”  Guinness says that the answer is both. Now, 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.  Therefore, God acts in history for cultural change in different ways (e.g., either directly or through human persons), and human persons act in history for cultural change (e.g., in ways that affirm and cooperate with God, but often in ways contrary to God’s will). But I submit that Guinness’s answer cannot be “both” given how he understands God’s sovereignty according to the Calvinist’s definition. For on Calvinism the correct and only answer is that the “real work” is God’s.  Full stop.  “Ours” or “both” are not an option within the Calvinist’s theological paradigm because the Calvinist’s definition of sovereignty is a universal divine causal determinism.  God, having predetermined all things by his will alone is the source and cause of all that occurs – both good and evil. For Guinness to hold to “both” is incoherent with his definition of divine sovereignty. We can therefore confidently say that the Scriptures do not contain both truths in light of how Reformed Calvinist’s and Os Guinness understand divine sovereignty. 

            What we see Guinness doing here exemplifies the fact that for many theologians Calvinism is the default position on divine sovereignty, and that position is not questioned.  All other biblical data on the nature of man and salvation has to somehow be manipulated to “fit” into the Calvinist mold of theistic determinism.  If such manipulation runs roughshod logically and morally over other biblical doctrines, so be it.  The Calvinist definition of God’s sovereignty as a theistic determinism 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 a universal divine causal determinism as in Reformed Calvinism precisely because such an interpretation leads to logical and moral incoherence.  This fact must be incorporated into our hermeneutic (see Chapter 4).  When logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are taken into account and incorporated into our hermeneutic and not simply ignored, these serve as reliable indicators 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. Incoherence is a tell-tale sign that the text is being misunderstood.  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 fruitlessness and non-productive discussions he decries.  But this fruitlessness and non-productiveness 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. And yet of course, neither is human freedom to be understood as absolute. It is God’s prerogative to so move a person or persons to do that which he wants accomplished in certain situations, but such divine means are not of the nature of a mere determinism. But such means, from a biblical perspective, are certainly not the explanation behind “whatsoever comes to pass.”

            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.  I submit that 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.” But for the reasons I gave above and provide throughout this website, this cannot be the proper interpretation of either.

            In addition, he takes the typical Calvinist “outs” of incomprehensibility and soteriological relativism – the Bible teaches both and use each as needed.  The rational and moral incoherencies that his deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty generates do not influence his hermeneutic and therefore these logical and moral problems do not translate into determining factors as to the validity or invalidity of his interpretations. 

            Surely the canons of reason 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, 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 are not an essential elements of good interpretation.

            I find it interesting that Guinness’s 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” 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 non-Calvinists 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 permission 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.”  And 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 Calvinist 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 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 Calvinist interpretations are presupposed to be the true biblical teaching while any substantive logical, moral and theological critique of them is put out of court.  The Calvinist 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 soteriology and “gospel” of exclusion as defined by their “doctrines of grace” in one situation, and yet also hold to a free will soteriology and gospel of inclusion as defined by 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.


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


Go to Example 23 – Mohler on Naturalistic Determinism and Theistic Determinism: A Distinction without a Difference


[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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