Example 5 – D. A. Carson’s Bad Advice to Young Reformed Preachers

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

Regarding the nature of the atonement, Calvinist D. A. Carson writes,

“I argue, then, that Arminians and Calvinists should rightly affirm that Christ died for all, in the sense that Christ’s death was sufficient for all and that Scripture portrays God as inviting, commanding, and desiring the salvation of all, out of love…Further, all Christians ought also to confess that, in a slightly different sense, Christ Jesus, in the intent of God, died effectively for the elect alone, in line with the way the Bible speaks of God’s special selecting love for the elect…This approach, I contend, must surely come as a relief to young preachers in the Reformed tradition who hunger to preach the Gospel effectively but who do not know how far they can go in saying things such as “God loves you” to unbelievers.  When I have preached or lectured in Reformed circles, I have often been asked the question, “Do you feel free to tell unbelievers that God loves them?…From what I have already said, it is obvious that I have no hesitation in answering that question from young Reformed preachers affirmatively: Of course I tell the unconverted God loves them.”[1]

Note that something is troubling these young Reformed preachers.  They are grappling with the inconsistency between what they know the Scripture teaches about God’s desiring the salvation of all persons out of his love for them and what they know of the very nature of love itself, with their doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement.  They are recognizing the incoherence between the biblical witness to God’s universal love and character as loving, in light of their doctrines of limited atonement and unconditional election.  This disequilibration of the logical and moral sense in these young Reformed preachers and their direct question posed to Carson is no trivial matter.  It reveals that their logic reasoning and moral intuitions are telling them that there is an obvious inconsistency between their Reformed doctrines and the integrity with which they can believe and preach the love of God to all sinners.  It is a question of believing and speaking the truth.  They need to pay attention to these conclusions and intuitions, even while they listen to Carson’s response to their question.

Carson seems to be seeking some common theological ground between the Calvinist and Arminian positions, but that he wants us to believe God loves those persons he has predestined to damnation is incoherent and implausible, and the two senses in which he proposes we both “affirm that Christ dies for all” are artificially concocted.  That these solutions are acceptable to the Calvinist is not surprising given the hermeneutical divide and suppression of reason necessary to become a Calvinist and remain a Calvinist.  But it is unacceptable to the non-Calvinist whose hermeneutic values logical and moral coherence for discerning the truth of Scripture.  It should also be unacceptable to young Reformed preachers.  Carson would have us think that he is driven by Scripture to make this distinction between the “sufficiency” and “efficacy” of the atonement, but he is only begging the question.  Carson’s proposal is driven by having already presupposed the biblical truth of his Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.  That “the Bible speaks of God’s special selecting love for the elect” and to maintain that “Christ Jesus, in the intent of God, died effectively for the elect alone” just are Carson’s Calvinist doctrines of limited atonement and unconditional election.  But the question before us is how we can discern whether unconditional election and limited atonement are the teaching of Scripture.  I submit that the incoherence these generate is a sure sign they are not the teaching of Scripture. 

What does a Calvinist preacher do with the biblical witness to the love of God for all sinners in relation to the doctrinal beliefs that Jesus did not die for all and that God predestined a host of individuals to an eternity in hell?  How can these “young Reformed preachers,” in all honesty and integrity, tell everyone that “God loves you” or “Jesus died for you?”  Carson attempts to solve his problem by creating an artificial distinction between sufficiency and efficacy with respect to the love of God and the scope of the atonementHe seeks to justify telling people that God loves them while maintaining that God has predestined many to an eternity in hell.  Carson’s God surely loves persons in that he desires their salvation and invites and even commands them to believe in Christ and be saved.  Thus, in this, God’s love is shown to be sufficient and applicable to all.  The other way God loves is by selecting certain particular individuals from among all those God loves in the first sense to actually receive the salvation he has invited all to receive.  This is the efficacy of God’s love and the atonement.  Although it is sufficient for all, it is only efficient, that is, effective or efficacious, for some.  So, among the ones God “loves” in the first sense – those he invites, commands, and expresses a desire to save – he assigns many of them to eternal torment and punishment because they are not among those he loves efficaciously.  The fact that no one but God knows who these elect ones are is to miss the point.  God does.  And the Calvinist preacher is speaking the Word of God to the people.  We do not have a gospel of ignorance to speak to people.  We have a gospel of life and hope.  Or do we?

Carson’s solution to this problem is obviously no solution at all.  It is both disingenuous in that God invites these non-elect persons to a salvation that they could never receive, and espouses a much distorted view of love that arguably amounts to divine hate.  In no meaningful sense can it be said that God loves the non-elect.  Only the specially selected people whom he loves in the efficacious sense from among those he also “loves” in the sufficient sense, will be saved.  All others who are not elect and that God supposedly “loves” in the sufficient sense – the reprobate – he unalterably and unconditionally predestined to eternal damnation.  So the God who desires the salvation of all, predestines many to eternal death and others to eternal life and Carson feels comfortable stating that God loves both categories of persons.

That Carson is willing to overlook his moral incoherence here is a glaring example of the suppression of reason and the hermeneutical divide.  When the biblical concept of love, whether with respect to God’s nature or his desire for the salvation of all, or simply in reference to what we know love to be, runs up against the Calvinist’s doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement, then the Calvinist must somehow rationalize his way out of the incoherence caused by his doctrines.  Love and the atonement becomes artificially categorized into “sufficient” and “efficient” to accommodate unconditional election and limited atonement.  Since the Calvinist interprets Scripture as teaching unconditional election and they cannot avoid the obvious teaching that God loves all sinners, therefore there must be a certain type of divine love for all non-elect persons that is different than the divine love for the elect.  But this doesn’t work logically, morally or biblically.  It just results in more incoherence.  There is no way it can be meaningfully or plausibly stated that God, who is a God of all goodness, mercy, compassion and love, loves those people that he predestined to eternal separation from himself on no conditions other than his own will.  In fact, he creates them for the very purpose of casting them from his presence for an eternity of loneliness, punishment and pain.  Instead of going back to the text in search of a coherent interpretation, the Calvinist maintains his doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement despite the incoherence they generate with other biblical truths like the nature and universality of God’s love.  The bottom-line is that incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are not hermeneutically significant for the Calvinist.  Therefore, the only way Carson’s solution “must surely come as a relief to young preachers in the Reformed tradition” is if they too forfeit their logical reasoning and moral intuitions and adopt a hermeneutic of incoherence. But that’s just a bad hermeneutic.

In contrast, the non-Calvinist is inclined to reject the Calvinist doctrines and this sufficiency/efficiency rationalization precisely because of its incoherence, let alone that it is ad hoc.  Of equal importance the non-Calvinist also finds Carson’s doctrines and rationalization unpersuasive because there are other sound interpretations of election and the atonement that do not generate Carson’s incoherence.  For the non-Calvinist, incoherence is a reliable indicator that the text has been misunderstood.  The non-Calvinist need not, and should not embrace the Calvinist interpretation because the non-Calvinist can provide an interpretation that “makes sense” of the disputed texts within their immediate contexts and within the full scope of the biblical witness.  This the Calvinist cannot do.  Ultimately Calvinists are forced to flee to mystery.

The young Reformed preachers should pay attention to what their logical reasoning and moral intuitions are telling them on this matter.  As young Reformed preachers, their judgement is probably not as clouded as Carson’s who long ago must have crossed over a critical intellectual and moral threshold into accepting a hermeneutic of logical and moral incoherence.  These young Reformed preachers ought not to cross that threshold and suppress their logical and moral reasoning.  There is no need to do so.  If the young Reformed preachers would consider the essential role coherence must play in biblical interpretation, and adopt non-deterministic alternative views of sovereignty, election and the atonement then their moral problem would disappear.  A tremendous weight would be lifted from their mind and conscience.  They would not struggle with the disingenuousness of believing one thing and speaking another.  Nor would they have to make the intellectual sacrifice of accepting the incoherent and unbiblical solution that Carson offers.  Rational and moral coherence is the result of a sound hermeneutic and indicative of valid interpretations.

The obvious incoherence here is that Carson uses “love” in two contradictory senses.  He is equivocating on the meaning of “love.”  With respect to the non-elect, God’s “love” is at the very least God’s indifference if not hate towards them.  We are at a loss to understand how God “loves” a person by unconditionally and unalterably determining them to eternal damnation and separation from himself who is the source of all that is good and loving; a destiny which the Calvinist says these non-elect persons were specifically created for by this God of “love.”  Add to this the Calvinist’s claim that these non-elect persons are said to make a genuine decision to reject Christ for which God will hold them responsible, and the incoherence mounts.  Calvinists want us to believe that God “loves” the ones he predestined to hell and it is just and right for holding those persons culpable for their decision which the Calvinist asserts they made freely despite the fact that God determined their every thought, desire, attitude, belief and action.

So here we have Carson suggesting contradictory definitions of love without any coherent logical or moral grounds for doing so.  He simply makes a bold assertion.  Whether the Bible teaches this is the question before us.  We can conclude that this is not “love” regardless of whether he claims to have exegetical grounds for this theological perspective, for remember, the validity the Calvinist’s exegesis is what we are trying to determine.  We are trying to determine whether his claims to having biblical, exegetical grounds are valid claims and whether his teaching here reflects a valid interpretation of the text.  If he is speaking nonsense about God and love, and we can know nonsense when we see it, and believe the Bible does not speak nonsense, then we know for certain that he has no legitimate biblical grounds for what he claims the Bible says in regard to this matter, that is, this distinction between the love of God and the death of Christ being sufficient for all but only efficient for some.  We can know he is misinterpreting Scripture.

So, is Carson’s position and apparent solution nonsense?  The young Reformed preachers sensed the inconsistency between theology and proclamation.  Carson attempts to deal with it given a certain line of “reasoning” about the nature of God’s love.  But what is Carson’s grounds for thinking that it is love that God is exhibiting to the non-elect when he predetermines them to eternal punishment and separation from himself?  It is worth repeating what C. A. Campbell identified as the essential problem here.  Carson is uniting differents simply, as a bare conjunction, unmediated by any adequate ground.  And that is the definition of a contradiction. “The crucial point is that thought cannot, qua thought, accept their union unless it conceives some actual or possible ground for their union.”[2] Carson provides us with no ground for the union of the interpretive propositions he has offered us.

So the young Reformed preacher’s problem is not solved by Carson’s explanation.  His position is still plagued by troubling practical ministerial implications.  The young Reformed preachers need to pay very careful attention here.  Granting Carson’s “dual atonement” of “sufficiency” and “efficacy,” what does it matter that the atonement is “sufficient” for everyone and that Carson can tell me “God loves me” if he cannot assure me that the atonement is “efficient” for me?  Perhaps it is only “sufficient” for me because God has predetermined me for an eternity in hell.  This is a legitimate question for the unbeliever sitting under Reformed preaching and teaching.  It is a crucial question for young Reformed preachers.

So, Carson’s Reformed theology dictates that God has a limited number of elect that he will unfailingly save.  Yet Carson also wants to preserve some “good news” for the non-elect unbeliever.  He therefore has to create an artificial distinction that preserves his doctrine of unconditional election (efficacy).  Carson is proposing that God’s love be defined and understood as Jesus’ death being “sufficient” for those God predetermined for eternal damnation and punishment.  Again, this seems to me to be a very convoluted and confused kind of “love.”  It surely can be argued that this is not the biblical witness to God’s love (and that argument would stand or fall on the same criteria by which we are subjecting Carson’s propositions), but also note that Carson’s statements are certainly perplexing and beyond our comprehension with what we know of love.  How can this “sufficient” but non-“efficient” love ever be understood to be divine love?  It is impossible to do so.  We are not talking about God imposing some temporal affliction upon those he loves for their discipline and personal and spiritual growth.  We are not even talking about God’s temporal judgment upon persons for their stubborn willful rejection of God and his ways. In the end Carson is telling us God “loves” whom he unconditionally predestined to hell for eternity.  That’s absurd. 

And that is precisely the point to be noted.  That is precisely the point Campbell makes above.  Carson’s propositions cannot be held rationally because they are not grounded in anything we know of God or love.  They elude our thinking and find no resting place in our logical and moral framework of thought.  The young Reformed preachers detected this.  Now they have to be talked out of it.

Therefore, the laws of human reasoning and logical and moral coherence are the only bases left by which we can know if what Carson is saying to us is biblically true or false.  If we ask, “Does this reflect the meaning of the text?”  And Carson claims that it does, all we can ask then is “But does this make sense?”  The answer is clearly that it does not.  This is not to make reason alone the ultimate arbiter of truth, the Bible is that ultimate arbiter. But it is to say that proper interpretation of the Bible must include sound reasoning about the text. That is what is missing in Carson’s claims to have correctly exegeted the scriptures. My point is that it is on this basis we are warranted to conclude that the text has been misunderstood.  For if this criteria of coherence is jettisoned we cannot discuss the meaning of any texts with objectivity.  We cannot even have a rational discussion.  In the end we are left with proof-texting.  The only recourse is to bandy about the texts we believe suit our subjective predilections, religious sensitivities and believe support our own presupposed theological doctrines.

Given this incoherence, Carson should be driven back to the biblical text to see if there is an interpretation that exhibits logical, moral, and epistemological coherence, thereby presenting an interpretive candidate that possibly reflects the true meaning of the text.  We can be sure that the interpretive candidate that proves to be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory does not reflect the true meaning of the text.  I submit that the hermeneutic that includes coherence, consistency and non-contradiction is the better hermeneutic that will most likely lead us to the true meaning of the text all other factors being equal.

Professor Donald Lake points out that it is “too obvious to even question” the meaning of the texts pertinent to the atonement are universal in scope. He adds an observation which speaks to the way Carson is reasoning.  Lake believes that within Calvinism rationalization has taken precedence over scriptural support.

“Recent converts and not a few laymen are puzzled when they hear that there are some theologians who argue that the atoning work of Jesus Christ is limited in its efficacy…To the casual reader of the New Testament, the universal significance of Christ’s death and resurrection as well as his present priestly ministry seems too obvious even to question.  Digging a little deeper into the theological basis for such discussions, one finds more theological rationalization than scriptural support.”[3]

Furthermore, if Carson can tell all people that “God loves you” then in order for the statement to be the truth, God must actually love them.  But again, as spoken to the non-elect, it is surely a warped understanding of “God loves you” that also has him predestining the one “loved” to eternal torment and separation from the divine “lover.”

Thus when Carson’s claims to be able to say to all, “God loves you,” he must also be stating, if he is to be truthful, rationally coherent, and biblical, that “Jesus died for you” not with any artificial distinction between its “sufficiency” and “efficacy.”  If God really loves them as Carson states, then God must have good and not evil designs and intentions towards them.  Hence, the intention of the work of Christ applies to all.  Simply put, as the Bible states, “…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)  Therefore the eternal destinies of the persons Carson preaches to cannot be predetermined.  Jesus’ death would have to be “efficient” and able to be appropriated by faith for it to be said to them in truth that “God loves you.”  Therefore, Carson’s “sufficiency” rationalization does not provide the moral justification he is seeking for telling people “God loves you” while he holds to his doctrines of deterministic sovereignty, unconditional election and limited atonement.  All he does by holding to these doctrines is introduce incoherence and confusion.  And that must cause us to question the biblical validity of those doctrines.

Carson’s “approach” of a distinction between “sufficiency” and “efficacy” is incoherent with respect to the definition and nature of God’s love and his claim to its universality.  And here is the point to note.  This incoherence does not matter to Carson hermeneutically.  Carson is not concerned about the incoherence between telling all people that “God loves you” and desires your salvation while maintaining his Reformed doctrines of unconditional election and a limited “efficacious” atonement, which is to say that God only loves certain people such that he grants them eternal life.  So in Carson’s own mind he has constructed a rationalization that allows him to say “God loves you” while in reality it may not be so.

This is surely a disingenuous statement, ignoring the fact that his theology generates an unknown as to whether or not God loves that particular person Carson is speaking to.  Unless Carson can coherently argue that God’s love is exhibited in His predestination of the non-elect to an eternity of torment and separation from himself, Carson is foisting a serious confusion and deception upon his young Reformed preachers, and the unbelievers they are speaking to.  His proposition fails on two fronts, that of the definition and nature of the love of God and the universality of Carson’s claim in light of his theology of limitation and exclusion.

In contrast, the non-Calvinist maintains that Jesus died for all thereby atoning for everyone’s sins (e.g., “all,” “the world,” “whosoever,” etc.), this is the sufficiency of Christ’s death.  Why then are all not saved?  Because the efficacy to the individual of that atoning work of Christ on their behalf is appropriated under one condition.  That condition of course is the response of faith.

Carson’s advice to young Reformed preachers smacks of an artificial justification for Calvinists to salvage some “good news” from a theology that in and of itself it cannot provide.  Carson is trying to convince us that the “good news” is that Christ’s death is sufficient to take away the punishment due me for my sins, but perhaps does nothing of the sort for me as an individual.  It is sufficient, but it may not have been determined by God to be effective in my case.  For it to be effective, I would have to be among the elect that God has chosen to receive salvation, which is something that I cannot assuredly know.  In Carson’s mind, this artificial distinction justifies telling all people that God invites, commands, and desires their salvation because he loves them.  But if God’s love is proclaimed to all indiscriminately, which he has no reason not to do because he does not know who is elect and who is not, that would of course be also proclaiming that “God loves you” to the non-elect.  But such a proclamation would be false.

Therefore, can it possibly be maintained that this message as spoken to the non-elect is sincere and true?  It certainly is not true for those whom God does not intend to save.  He neither loves them nor desires there salvation otherwise he would have made a way for them to be saved and efficaciously saved them.  Can it plausibly be proclaimed that God loves and desires the salvation of those he himself has predestined to hell?  The non-Calvinist concludes, “Of course not!”  But, and this is the crux of the matter, in Carson’s thinking it is perfectly plausible to proclaim that God loves and desires the salvation of those he himself has predestined to hell.

For the Calvinist, the fact that it is God himself who has acted in contradiction to his expressed love and desire to save makes such a proposition credible because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”  For the non-Calvinist, the fact that it is God himself who has acted in contradiction to his expressed love and desire to save makes such a proposition nonsense.  How is it credible to say that the same God who has predetermined the eternal damnation of the non-elect loves them and invites – indeed commands them – to be saved?  All Carson offers us is “a bare conjunction of differents, unmediated by any ground” which “thought rejects as alien to its nature.”  Thus Carson’s proposition is irrational.  It is contradictory.  The hermeneutical divide remains.

It is worth stressing that even the young Calvinist preachers sense the problematic nature of their theology.  This common moral intuition should not be ignored.  Why are young Calvinist preachers baffled about “how far they can go in saying things such as “God loves you” to unbelievers?”  It is because their theology is inherently inconsistent with a universal proclamation of these words and they know it.  They know something is amiss.  To even raise such a question, a question of conscience about whether God’s love can be universally proclaimed with sincerity, reveals a very troubling theological root inherent in the Reformed soteriology.  And this has everything to do with the heart of the gospel as a message of “good news.”

Now, the point that cannot be ignored is the incompatible perspectives between Calvinists and non-Calvinists regarding the role of fundamental laws of rational thought and moral intuitions in discerning the validity and truth of one’s propositions and the associated concern as to whether we can know such incoherence as real incoherence when we come up against it.  The young Calvinist preachers know incoherence when they see it, otherwise they would have never raised the question.  They pose to Carson the difficulty of what they can honestly preach.  Carson gives an explanation that he asserts relieves the difficulty.  How so?  Therefore, the young Calvinist preacher needs to ask why Carson’s resolution is plausible to them.  Why is it not also incoherent?  Can his advice be acted upon in good conscience?  Has it really addressed the problem?  Is there any way that this can be explained further or will Carson flee to “mystery” or claim his contradiction is only “apparent?”  Carson seeks to provide the answer, but I have tried to show that the answer he provides is incoherent.  Should the young Calvinist preacher accept Carson’s answer?  Why?  Why not?  The young Calvinist preacher needs to think this through for him or herself.

It is important to note that Carson is demonstrating to us and these young preachers that for one to embrace Calvinism its logical and moral incoherence must be somehow suppressed or rationalized to a more “acceptable” intellectual and moral posture.  This is what Carson is attempting to do.  But I submit that the fact that the scope and intent of God’s love is such a perplexing question for these “young Reformed preachers,” along with Carson’s failed rationalization, should be an indication that something is seriously amiss in the Calvinist doctrines.  These young Reformed preachers seem to struggle with something they know innately about love, especially what they find in Scripture about God’s love, being contradictory with their Reformed doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement.  And if it has been rightly said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, the doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement certainly fit the category of divine indifference to the non-elect.

What is love?  What is divine love?  Perhaps what these young Reformed preachers needed was for Carson to correct their understanding of the nature of divine love.  But he does not do that.  Perhaps therefore they know enough about human and divine love to know that the claim that “Christ’s death was sufficient for all and that Scripture portrays God as inviting, commanding, and desiring the salvation of all, out of love” simply does not square with unconditional election and limited atonement.  Love cannot also be its opposite, as it certainly appears to be with the non-elect.  That is a contradiction.  Claiming that the God who predestined a multitude of non-elect persons to eternal damnation also loves them is simply ludicrous.  This is incoherent with the God who is love (1 Jn. 4:8) and who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16)

According to Carson, God can love two people in diametrically opposite ways with diametrically opposite results.  God’s love for the non-elect – the “all” that are not designated for God’s “special selecting love” – has no meaning for them and does nothing to prevent their eternal death.   And this is the same love with which he loves the elect – a love which issues forth in eternal life.  Those who receive God’s “special selecting love” gain eternal life.  God’s disposition and determinations in both cases Carson describes as God’s “love.”  What Carson is doing is putting the knowledge of God’s love and moral nature in opposition to our knowledge of love and our moral intuitions about what it is to love.  It is a complete reversal from our moral intuitions and knowledge of what constitutes love.  As such Carson makes God “we know not what.”  It is one thing for God to be beyond our comprehension, it is quite another for his nature to be presented as the reversal of what we know of love and moral uprightness.

What causes this incoherence is that Carson is presupposing a “theology of exclusion or dichotomy” in which God divides the human race into two classes with fixed destinies.  There are the unconditionally elect and all others who are non-elect.  Reformed thought is exclusionary and dichotomizing and therefore God himself becomes a dual personality.  His unified nature and attributes – his “call,” his “love,” etc. – all take on dual senses, purposes and applications.  They address the elect with one result and the non-elect with a different result.  The Reformed God is a split personality so he can deal with these two classes of human beings while it can be maintained that he is “love,” “mercy,” “just,” etc.  But I would suggest that the ultimate indicator that this cannot be biblical truth is the logical, moral and theological incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions such a theology presents to us.

Rather than seek rationalizations that only make his Calvinist position less credible, Carson needs to revisit his theological foundations.  Again, the ultimate indicator that the theology is wrong-headed is the incoherence in Carson’s proposition that it can be said that God loves and desires the salvation of those he himself has predestined to hell.  To claim that the same God who has predetermined the eternal damnation of the non-elect, loves them, invites them and indeed commands them to be saved, is logically and morally incoherent and contradictory.  Surely this cannot simply be ignored.  There must be some definitive indicators that are accessible to and identifiable by human thought by which we can reliably detect what is true from what is false in this matter.  They are the indicators of logical consistency, clarity and coherency of thought and forthrightness in the written word and speech.  To simply be indifferent to or totally ignore these indicators is to ignore the final, reliable signs and confirmations that one’s position is either valid or erroneous.  Again, it seems that that EPS (Evangelical Philosophical Society) needs to come to the rescue of Calvinist theologians who have forfeited intellectual integrity in the interpretive task and no longer view logical and moral reasoning as essential to their hermeneutic but rather seem to cherish a blind loyalty to the deterministic doctrines of their theological tradition. 

I contend that to accept Carson’s rationalization is to learn a faulty way of thinking regarding interpretation and hermeneutics.  What Carson has left out are the very foundational rules of thought.  In fact, it appears to me that the process by which one embraces Calvinism is one of indoctrination rather than honest, rational assessment.  Carson has not provided the answer young Reformed preachers are looking for if they value honesty and rational coherence.  What he has taught them is to not value honesty and rational coherence.  Carson ought to be teaching them to value intellectual honesty and biblical/rational coherence rather than seeking ways to maintain their theological determinism (which is the root of the problem) no matter what the intellectual cost.  If the young Reformed preachers do not value intellectual coherence and consistency and learn to independently assess what they are being told, Carson’s or anyone else’s rationalization will do.  If these rational indicators are ignored, and one insists on proceeding to attempt to rationalize a problematic theology that has triggered such indicators, this can only lead to greater absurdity, for one cannot make coherent something that is inherently incoherent. 

Again, this does not make human reason the arbiter of the possibilities of what God can do, but as to what is divinely revealed in his written word, human reason is the arbiter as to which interpretation is more plausible than another.  As Campbell indicated, it is to recognize reason’s role as the necessary arbiter between interpretive propositions about the meaning of that divinely inspired Scripture.  The divine nature of the Scripture cannot be used as an excuse for ignoring the incoherence of one’s interpretations of that Scripture.  For who can maintain that human reason should be dismissed when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture when it must be admitted that any proposed interpretation of that Scripture will always involve human reasoning.  To “reason” that because our reason has been affected by the fall and therefore cannot fathom certain portions of Scripture, is self-defeating.  Whether or not we are going to reason in the interpretive process is not the issue.  The issue is whether or not we are going to reason correctly.

I am seeking to discern what is at the heart of the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.  It appears to lie in the thought processes of the interpreter with regard to their exegesis, not in the exegesis itself.  Once each side has done their exegesis, what is at the heart of this controversy is whether one acknowledges that their exegetical results should constitute a coherent, consistent, and non-contradictory interpretive whole.  That is, whether or not their theological conclusions need to make sense or not.  We should implement the safeguard that maintains that when interpretations yield incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction then that is a reliable indicator that the interpreter has misinterpreted the text.

With Carson’s “reasoning” we have reached the end of understanding and therefore the end of rational interpretation and dialogue.  In contrast, the non-Calvinist can know and understand that what has been proposed by Carson and Calvinists is contradictory and incoherent.  And this is one sure way we know it to be mistaken.  It is by a careful assessment of Carson’s unwarranted explanatory defense of the doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement in light of his proclamation of the love of God for all persons and desire that they be saved that we can be sure that those doctrines are not valid interpretations of Scripture.

The Calvinist’s doctrines of limited atonement and unconditional election generate incoherence and contradiction with the clear message in Scripture that God loves every individual and desires that they be saved.  The irreducible logical, moral, epistemological, and theological contradictions and incoherencies just won’t go away.  They have profoundly negative implications for practical ministry and the proclamation of what ought to be “good news.”  The young Reformed preachers could see the problematic implications of what they were being taught.  This is a sure indication that the Calvinist doctrines are incorrect, especially when there are sound biblical alternatives that do not leave us with baffling questions, incoherence and contradiction.  It is only by accepting Carson’s type of “reasoning” that the Calvinist soteriology is sustained and continues to be propagated.  The young Reformed preachers need to realize this and decide whether they are going to adopt a hermeneutic of incoherence or a hermeneutic of coherence and thereby, with intellectual and moral integrity, reject these Calvinist doctrines, and with equal intellectual and moral integrity, confidently stand on the authority of a consistent and cogent divine revelation.

Calvinism and Hermeneutical Relativism

More clarity and definition is needed at the hermeneutical level if we are to make some headway at determining the true nature of this controversy.  Non-Calvinists would like some help from Calvinists here.  Most non-Calvinists would attentively listen to the Calvinists perspective if they were to clarify what they believe to be the role of rational coherence in determining valid interpretation and any justification for the allowance of rational incoherence and contradiction in a sound, biblical hermeneutic.  So these hermeneutical matters need to be discussed in particular, not just gleaned from the practical disagreement among our interpretations.

Here is a basic hermeneutical question. “How can one know the Calvinist’s position is incorrect?”  The answer.  One can know this because it “makes no sense.”  It leads to nonsense.  But someone will say that “it makes no sense to you, but it does make sense to the Calvinist.”  And here we touch upon what is precisely at the heart of the Calvinist / non-Calvinist divide and what amounts to a “Christian” intellectual and interpretive relativism.  What is true for you may not be true for me and we should “live and let live.”  The irony is that as much as the Calvinist seems to point out the internal logic of his TULIP soteriology and firmly holds to that doctrinal position, he is also quite comfortable embracing this kind of hermeneutical relativism.  What the Calvinist says “makes sense” to them, the non-Calvinist says “makes no sense” whatsoever.  But interestingly enough, to get their doctrines to “make sense” the Calvinist has to do a lot of finagling with additional explanations as to why and how what to most people doesn’t “make sense” really does “make sense.”  So Calvinists pronounce their contradictions “apparent” and not real, they explain that God has “two wills” and that through “second causes” and “means” he brings about what he has predetermined to occur with regard to all things and how “compatibilism” can reconcile determinism with human freedom and responsibility by defining freedom as doing what you desire and yet having God determine your desires.

 So where do we end up in all this?  I maintain that Carson’s position “makes no sense.”  But, obviously, to him it “makes sense.”  Who is correct?  If Carson could delve deeper into the “sense” of his position to offer an explanation for it, that would be helpful.  If that was the purpose of Carson’s distinction between the “sufficiency” and “efficacy” of Christ’s death I submit that this was not helpful.  It too “makes no sense” because I believe we have a reliable revelatory knowledge that confirms our innate knowledge of what divine and human love is and what it is not.  Divine love may be more than human love, but it is not less, let alone its opposite.  On this basis it is obvious to me that this “love” of which Carson feels so free to proclaim to all persons – elect and non-elect alike – cannot be “love” in any sense of the word for the non-elect.  The essential issue is that it is impossible to conceive God as loving the non-elect in that he has created them for the very purpose of eternal damnation and punishment.  It is impossible to define love or a loving action on the part of God as the premundane predestination of many to eternal punishment.  To assert that God loves the non-elect is therefore nonsense and to preach such is disingenuous.

The point I am stressing here is that if it is not nonsense then Carson should be able to explain that further.  If he cannot offer a fuller explanation, then Carson is simply saying, as C. S. Lewis observed regarding this issue, “God is we know not what.”  There seems to be no coherent justification for believing what Carson is telling us.  It is a real contradiction.  It provides no “union of the differents” of the claim that God loves the non-elect with the eternal damnation of the non-elect.  It provides no union of these differents that moral thought can ground itself in.  The young Reformed preachers have come upon the truth about divine love and see the need for consistency in thought, belief, and word with their doctrines of election and limited atonement.  They see that their theology is incoherent with what they know of the love of God and the proclamation of the gospel as “good news.”  I submit that Carson has provided no biblical, moral, or logical relief to this incoherence.

Calvinism and the Problem of Truth Correspondence

Philosopher David K. Clark writes,

“The word truth denotes something that conforms to actuality, is faithful to a standard, or involves sincerity or integrity. The ground for truth is reality itself.  Truth can describe two distinct but related things.  First, Aristotle taught that truth describes statements or propositions.  (Statement and proposition here denote declarative or factual sentences like “John eats a lot of ice cream.”)  If a statement says something is true, and it actually is, then the statement is true.  In this sense, “John Kennedy dies in 1963” is true because that is actually when he died.  In what philosophers call the correspondence theory of truth, true propositions are those that actually coincide with reality.  Second, truth describes the quality of persons who are genuine, loyal, or filled with integrity.  This is the meaning of the sentence, “Sandy is my true friend.”

The two senses of truth are both important.  The Bible often uses truth in the personal sense.  God is the true God (Jer. 10:10; John 17:3).  When Christ claims, “I am the…truth” (John 14:6), he describes himself as the reliable path to God.  Jesus is genuine and no counterfeit; knowing him leads one to God.  So truth in Scripture does represent faithfulness, reliability, integrity, and consistency – all attributes of persons.  But the concept of truthful propositions is also important.  Scripture condemns false prophets and teachers because what they say does not confirm to reality.  A traditional concept of biblical authority includes the idea that what Scripture teaches corresponds to the real state of affairs.  It is important to believe the truth (2 Thess. 2:9) and speak the truth (Eph. 4:15).”[4]

To claim that God desires, invites, and even commands the non-elect to come and be saved while holding to the conviction that that same God has predestined them not to receive salvation is duplicitous.  And to speak it, ignorance of who the non-elect actually are notwithstanding, would be to tell a lie to the non-elect.  How do I know this?  For the same reasons why we have a sure knowledge of anything being logically or morally true – the statement corresponds to reality.  Given Calvinist soteriology, there is no truth correspondence in the Reformed proclamation to the non-elect that God loves, desires, invites, and even commands them to come and be saved.  God does not love, desire, genuinely invite or command the non-elect to be saved.  They cannot be saved and therefore are not loved by God because it is God himself who has not elected them to salvation and therefore does not want them to be saved.  Hence, there is no correspondence between what is being said and the reality of the situation for the non-elect.  It is this correspondence, or lack of it (as in Calvinism), with actual reality that determines the truth or falsity of a matter.  Surely we must maintain that in many, if not most things, we can know what is true from what is false.  We know what is true and what is false by whether or not reality bears out what we are saying.  With respect to the non-elect, Calvinist preachers make claims about God’s love for all persons and the universal scope and applicability of the death of Christ that ontologically do not correspond to their state of affairs.  Such preaching does not represent the reality of these person’s relation to God and their eternal destiny.  As such, Calvinist preachers are not speaking truth.  Moreover, without the assurance that this divine love and atoning death of Christ applies to me with positive intention, the only other alternative is to abandon our minds and hearts to the despair of the theological relativism discussed above.

The Calvinist will state that their ignorance of a person’s elect or non-elect status justifies their preaching to everyone God’s love and desire to save to all.  But the fact that no one knows – the Calvinist preacher as well as the one hearing – whether God has chosen them to salvation or not raises interesting problems for the Calvinist.

First, on what logical or moral basis does the Calvinist’s ignorance of a person’s elect or non-elect status give them license to speak as if they knew the truth of a person’s elect or non-elect status?  To give the impression that you know what is true when you do not know what is true is to tell a lie.

Second, how does the Calvinist know they themselves are among the unconditionally elect?  If they say no one should concern themselves with the issue of their unconditional election then it seems that this biblical doctrine, as the Calvinist defines it, really has no meaningful application to salvation or practical living.  In fact, I argue that the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election cannot be put into the service of the gospel as “good news” and is indeed antithetical to the gospel message.  This in and of itself is a strong indicator that it is biblically incorrect.  I find it hard to detect positive meaning, purpose or rational coherence in knowing that God has done something with respect to my eternal destiny that I cannot know.  Just knowing that God has chosen some people to be eternally saved and others eternally damned is at best a nebulous, irrelevant kind of knowledge with respect to anyone’s thinking or living, and at worst, a despairing thought.

Thirdly, the Calvinist will respond, “Only our doctrine of election can provide the assurance that we will live out a life pleasing to God with confidence because it is all up to God and not us.”  To which the non-Calvinist responds, “One’s claim and confidence that they have been unconditionally elected by God amounts to a presumption one makes about themselves.  Rather, our assurances in this life and the next rest on the work of Christ on our behalf and the power of God to keep us, not on our own presumption that we are among a limited number God predestined to salvation.”  Since we are not privy to the decision of God as to who is elect, the Calvinist must presuppose his own election.  Their elect status is a presupposition they make about themselves.  Without any knowledge of who is elect, Calvinists simply deem themselves to be favored by God in this way. Assurance comes from knowing the love of God in Christ and thereby we experience his power to keep us in his love. Therefore, when God’s salvific love is cast back into eternity past upon a limited number of particular elect individuals without our knowing who they are or if we are loved in this electing way or not, such a theology is christologically deficient. Christ’s public life, death and resurrection no longer serves as the demonstration God’s love to all sinners, but Christ merely accomplishes what the divine love decreed only for those persons God chose to save.

Fourthly, if Calvinists say they know they are elect by the witness of the Spirit or “manifest evidences” that accompany salvation, then they are basing their salvation in their own subjective experience.  What is to say these experiences are genuine and therefore will be lasting indications of their election?  The Westminster Confession states, “Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved…” (“Of Effectual Calling,” x.iv)

Fifthly, the question must be raised as to what was the precise content of the “gospel” message Calvinists heard so that God could effect their predestined salvation in them?  I suspect that the Reformed soteriological doctrines they now hold were not what they heard at first.  This is confirmed by the Calvinist’s evangelistic admonition that these doctrines be kept a secret until one becomes a “believer.”  This is a tacit admission that the doctrines do not support evangelism and therefore can only be embraced by those who may be inclined to deem themselves elect after they are told “God loves you” and “Jesus died for you” and are “invited” and “commanded” to believe the true biblical “good news” so that they may be “born from above” and have eternal life.  Calvinists become saved by hearing a different message from their own soteriological doctrines.  They must have been assured that God loves them “in Christ” and that atonement was made for them personally and individually and that they can and should believe this “good news” that surely applies to them.  They must have heard a message of biblical hope, not “I hope so.”  To have heard the message of Calvinism that is consistent with Calvinist soteriology would have left them without any hope or assurance that they are among the elect unless they are encouraged to presume so.  Therefore, the Calvinist, only subsequently, for various reasons as they understand them, embraces Calvinism as their theological system.

Again, Carson’s ignorance of who the elect and non-elect are is immaterial.  It is the truth of the matter regarding what is being said to the person as compared to the actual relationship between God and the person that is at issue.  It is the actual ontological situation of that person that matters, not any ignorance of that status. Such ignorance does not give the Calvinist license to presuppose that the person they are speaking to is ontologically, that is, in reality, in a positive, salvific relationship to God. What Carson knows or doesn’t know about God’s premundane decisions has no bearing upon the truth correspondence of the words Carson speaks. He may be conveying a falsehood about that person’s relation to God.  Given his doctrines of salvific exclusion Carson has no ground in the truth to say all people “God loves you” because given his Calvinism it is not true for all.  Therefore when Carson says such things he is speaking untruth to the non-elect.  Carson has the responsibility to speak in accord with and not beyond what his theology dictates.  Carson is speaking words.  Words have meaning.  The important thing is whether the words, as the Word of God, are either true or false with respect to the reality of the hearer.  That is, to the elect, there is a truth correspondence to the words, “God loves you,” but to the non-elect the words “God loves you” do not correspond to the reality of their situation.  In short, they are being told a lie.  If the Reformed “doctrines of grace” are the truth of God’s Word they should be spoken accurately as to their content so that people can know the truth of God’s Word.  That is, people should be told that there are the elect that God loves and has predestined to save.  All others will be among the non-elect predestined to eternal damnation.  These people God does not love. Each person’s destiny is fixed.  Each person’s destiny is unknown.  God’s love or salvific will regarding each person remains unknown.  That is the Reformed “gospel of grace” and that is what the Reformed Calvinist is bound to preach to be true to his “gospel.”  But is this really the biblical “good news?”  How so? So when Carson says “Of course I tell the unconverted God loves them,” as far as the non-elect who are predestined by that same God to spend eternity in hell are concerned, that is a lie.

Now, the fact that Carson and Calvinists cannot see this is almost inconceivable to me.  I say “almost” because when we take a closer, honest look at these types of issues in Calvinism, we can see what is going on.  It involves the suppression of reason accompanied with rationalizations to give the appearance of rationality and biblical legitimacy.  For instance, Carson attempts to relieve this problem by asserting that Jesus’ death on the cross was “sufficient” for them, it just wasn’t intended by God to be “efficient” for them.  How does one know Carson has pursued a wrong course?  Well, first this is begging the question. That is, he is presupposing the truth of his theology and constructing an idea to support it. Secondly we know this is wrong-headed because the purposes and conclusions he draws from his propositions that there is a sufficient atonement and an efficient atonement, which is an attempt to justify that God loves the non-elect, is not only not found in Scripture but it is also innately contradictory and incoherent.  He is proposing a hermeneutical and intellectual relativism that ignores the question of whether or not logical and moral incoherence are integral to a credible hermeneutic.  If the atonement is rooted in the love of God as John 3:16 and Romans 5:8 tell us, then the nature of love is reliably evident to us.  Therefore, when Carson makes a distinction between an atonement that is “sufficient” for all and an atonement that is “efficient” only for the elect, he is creating a theological concoction that he hopes will sustain his deterministic doctrines while also affirming that which he cannot ignore from Scripture about God’s love for all and desire that everyone be saved.  He is seeking some kind of “rationale” for holding to his deterministic doctrines of predestination and limited atonement while also justifying himself in saying to all that “God loves you” and “Christ died for you.”   But this whole thought process betrays an invalid interpretation of Scripture at some point.  We can be sure of this because given his own theology of unconditional election his words lack correspondence with the reality of the non-elect as well as the incoherence presented in his position regarding the meaning of “love.”  So it appears that his explanation is driven by his presupposed theological system and not by the Scripture itself.  He is reading his determinism and unconditional election into the text (eisegesis) not from the text (exegesis).  He will say his theology is from Scripture and he has exegeted the text properly. But I submit that this cannot be, for then he has the Scriptures exhibiting a moral incoherence.  And when it comes to putting it in these hermeneutical terms, that the Bible cannot contain contradiction, inconsistency, and incoherence, I am sure that even Carson would affirm such a hermeneutic for discerning true interpretations from erroneous ones.  But ultimately he will not assess his own theology accordingly.

Therefore, Carson gives really bad advice to young Reformed theologians.  As such they ought to reject it and rethink their hermeneutic that guides their reading and interpreting of Scripture.

Go to Example 6 – D. A. Carson’s “In the Last Analysis” A Priori Committment to Unconditional Election

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

[1] D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 77-78.  As found in David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, eds. Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five Point Calvinism (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 89.

[2] C. A. Campbell, On Selfhood and Godhood, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1957), 389.

[3] Donald M. Lake, “He Died for All: The Universal Dimensions of the Atonement” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 31.

[4] David K. Clark, “Truth,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1219-1220.

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