Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence
Another example of Carson’s interpretive incoherence is found in his commentary on John’s gospel. Writing about the relationship of election, faith and the purpose of the signs Jesus performed Carson says,
“The complexities that bind together election, faith and the function of signs deserve some reflection. John holds men and women responsible for believing; unbelief is morally culpable. If faith bursts forth in consequence of what is revealed in the ‘signs’, well and good; they legitimately serve as a basis for faith (e.g. 10:38). On the other hand, people are excoriated for their dependence on signs (4:48). It is a better faith that hears and believes rather than sees and believes (20:29). But in the last analysis, faith turns on sovereign election by the Son (15:16), on being part of the gift from the Father to the Son (6:37-44). And this, it must be insisted, drums at the heart of a book that is persistently evangelistic. God’s will is not finally breached, even in the hardness of human hearts (12:37ff.), yet never is there the faintest hint of determination or fatalism, and always is there every inducement to trust ‘the savior of the world’ (4:42).
No New Testament book more acutely focuses attention on these essential biblical polarities than the Gospel of John.”
Carson is telling us that the text of John’s gospel in 6:37-44 and 15:16 teaches his Reformed dogma that “faith turns on sovereign election.” This is the belief that faith is given by God only to those individuals he has elected to salvation. Faith is not something a person exercises in response to the signs that Jesus performed. In that election to salvation is unconditional, faith must be a gift of God only to the elect. Yet note that Carson’s Reformed interpretation of these texts need not be coherent or consistent with what Carson says John’s gospel also teaches – that “It is a better faith that hears and believes rather than sees and believes” and “John holds men and women responsible for believing; unbelief is morally culpable.” Carson goes even further to claim that “never is there the faintest hint of determination or fatalism, and always is there every inducement to trust ‘the savior of the world.’”
One wonders if Carson is simply a priori adhering to his Calvinist dogma or a creedal statement like the Westminster Confession here, rather than allowing the text to speak its message which we should expect to be coherent and not contradictory. Carson’s “faith turns on sovereign election” is in direct contradiction with “John holds men and women responsible for believing; unbelief is morally culpable.” How are the non-elect men and women responsible for believing when believing is not up to them but up to God? They cannot believe unless God causes them to believe. And God will not cause them to believe because he has not chosen them to salvation. They remain without God and without hope in this world and for eternity.
The Calvinist’s response would be that although there are logical and moral problems in their interpretations, nevertheless they reflect the biblical data. But the question persists as to whether or not the Calvinist interpretations of these texts, especially the claim that “faith turns on sovereign election,” which in the end is logically and morally incoherent with “John holds men and women responsible for believing; unbelief is morally culpable” can ever be a correct understanding of that biblical data.
Note first that we need some criteria to determine whether Carson’s interpretations here on election and faith are what John meant to communicate to us. Did John really expound these “biblical polarities” for us in his Gospel or is Carson presenting a real contradiction because he has misinterpreted the texts at some point. How will we know? Well, one should consider whether what Carson concludes about the responsibility for believing and the moral culpability of unbelief is coherent or incoherent with his predestinarian proposition that “in the last analysis, faith turns on sovereign election by the Son.” By “in the last analysis” Carson means “determinatively.” That is, that God has unalterably predetermined those particular persons whom he would save and therefore cause to believe. If you think Carson’s statements are coherent and non-contradictory, then I would challenge you to think through what logical and moral incoherence might look like and explain why it is not evident here. If you do think Carson is logically and morally incoherent here, note that he is perfectly comfortable with this. And this, I submit, is hermeneutically important. Indeed, I contend it is hermeneutically problematic and indicative of a misinterpretation at one of the “polarities.” Carson claims they are both “essential biblical polarities.” Are they really? Are they really “biblical?” Are they really “essential?” Carson is comfortable with this on the basis that he believes his interpretation of faith as turning on “sovereign election by the Son” and his interpretation that men and women are “responsible for believing” and that “unbelief is morally culpable” is the true interpretation of John’s text regardless of the incoherence generated. The point is that the validity of his interpretation is never questioned on the basis of its incoherent and contradictory result. Carson says, “John holds men and women responsible for believing; unbelief is morally culpable.” Yet he then states, “But in the last analysis, faith turns on sovereign election by the Son (15:16), on being part of the gift from the Father to the Son (6:37-44)… And he comfortably concludes, “yet never is there the faintest hint of determination or fatalism, and always is there every inducement to trust ‘the savior of the world’ (4:42).” And his statement that “never is there the faintest hint of determination or fatalism” in John is coming from one who believes the Bible teaches theistic determinism!
To the degree Carson is cognizant of the rational implications of what he calls these “essential biblical polarities,” he completely dismisses the problem as unimportant with respect to determining the validity of his interpretation. He does this because he concludes his interpretation to be what John actually meant to write and communicate. But is this the case? Is he approaching the text with his own theological presuppositions and therefore sees them in the text and proceeds on that basis? How will we know?
I submit that if this is a real logical and moral incoherence, a real contradiction, then this cannot be John’s meaning or message. Hence, if Carson’s theology takes precedence over a hermeneutic of coherence and non-contradiction Carson would have to dismiss or simply ignore this problem. But taking coherence and non-contradiction on board, it cannot be John’s meaning. And we would have to take these on board otherwise we wouldn’t know what message John wanted to communicate to us. Does John want to tell us that we can be saved by putting our faith in Christ, or does he want to tell us that only those who are elect will be caused by God to believe and certainly be saved? Does he want to tell us we are responsible and morally culpable beings and therefore can and should believe in Christ, or does he want to tell us that “in the last analysis, faith turns on sovereign election by the Son?” Does he want to tell all of us as sinners that we can and should trust Christ for our salvation and that all of us as sinners can be saved, or does he want to tell us that salvation has been unconditionally predetermined for a select number and that faith is caused by God only in those through an “effectual call” that is above and beyond the general “gospel” call? Does he want to communicate to sinners the urgency of putting their trust in Christ, or communicate that with respect to our salvation we are “altogether passive therein” and must simply wait for the Spirit to grant us the gift of faith? Carson says it is both of these alternatives. But is John’s theology really one of mutually exclusive propositions? I contend that to say that both of these mutually exclusive theological propositions are true is both flawed reasoning and a flawed hermeneutic. To maintain that this is John’s theological perspective is to say that John and the Bible are contradictory, confused, and irrational.
We therefore have reached the end of rational thought, not in the sense of dealing with things that might be categorized as “beyond reason” as in genuine Christian “mystery,” but revealed propositions that are theologically positioned so as to be discernibly “against reason” and therefore irrational. We are left with a discernible theological and spiritual void in which God’s nature as moral and just, his salvific disposition towards us, or the nature of our life in relationship to him are all thrown into doubt and darkness. This is certainly not the intention of divine revelation as “revelation.” It is certainly not the purpose for which John recorded the signs Jesus performed as stated in 20:31 where he says, “…these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
I submit that we must take this incoherence as a sign that Carson ought to revisit his interpretation of John’s gospel, especially 6:37-44 and 15:16, for any erroneous presuppositions brought to the text. I don’t see how it is good interpretation to conclude that John meant to send the conflicted messages that are the result of Carson’s interpretations. The nature of the “evangel” as “good news” and John’s testimony to faith as a human response and therefore a response-ability laid upon any and all hearers of this “good news,” does not comport with Carson’s interpretative conclusions.
The case for any interpretation is a cumulative one. It not only must include accurate exegesis according to the historical-grammatical method, but the clear thinking and reasoning that is a constituent of general revelation. Reason and moral intuition are gifts of a rational and moral God to his rational and moral human creatures. Reason or logic is a gift, the use of which in necessary to attain an accurate exegesis of the texts at issue in this controversy.
Note also, Carson claims that there is not the “faintest hint of determinism or fatalism” in John’s gospel. If he implies by this that determinism is in conflict with a truly biblical worldview – then it should indicate to Carson that he ought to reevaluate his Calvinism. If there is not the “faintest hint of determinism” in John then Carson ought not to embrace a theology that is fully deterministic. But it is baffling as to how he can make this claim when he also states that “in the last analysis, faith turns on sovereign election by the Son (15:16), on being part of the gift from the Father to the Son (6:37-44)” and also that “God’s will is not finally breached, even in the hardness of human hearts (12:37ff.).” This injects quite a large dose of determinism into John’s gospel. And once determinism is introduced Carson’s “essential biblical polarities” are rendered meaningless. Given determinism there are not “polarities.” Given theistic determinism there is no human personal responsibility and moral culpability. Carson says, “…faith turns on sovereign election by the Son (15:16), on being part of the gift from the Father to the Son (6:37-44)” and then he says “John holds men and women responsible for believing; unbelief is morally culpable.” Carson says John teaches at least a salvific determinism yet he adds, “And this, it must be insisted, drums at the heart of a book that is persistently evangelistic.” Carson can insist as much as he wants that these two logically and morally incompatible concepts are what John is teaching, but the problem of contradiction does not go away. Carson is making a bold assertion, but it is not persuasive. The problem could just as well be that Carson is misinterpreting John. Rather than John being incoherent in his theology, it is more likely that Carson has misinterpreted the text.
What could Carson mean then when he asserts “in the last analysis, faith turns on sovereign election” other than one’s eternal destiny is determined by God? Carson interprets John deterministically and then turns around to claim there is not the “faintest hint of determinism” in John. If John avoids determinism, as Carson claims, then so should Carson. If there is not a “hint of determinism” in John, implying that determinism is not a biblical worldview, then there ought not to be a “hint of determinism” in Carson’s theology if he is correctly interpreting John. But of course there is more than “a hint of determinism” in Carson’s theology. He is a staunch Calvinist and believes in a universal divine causal determinism, that is, that all things are predetermined by God’s will alone to occur as they do and therefore it is God who causes them to occur. What else could Carson mean by the assertion that “in the last analysis, faith turns on sovereign election” other than one’s eternal destiny is determined by God with God causing faith in the elect and causing unbelief in the non-elect? In short, Carson’s Calvinism extends divine determinism to all things. So how is it that Carson can state that John 15:16 means that “in the last analysis, faith turns on sovereign election” and then contradict himself by stating “never is there the faintest hint of determinism or fatalism” in John? This is bizarre to say the least.
When Carson talks about “in the last analysis” he implies some sort of “initial analysis” where things are very different. For Carson there is some sort of initial analysis where men and women are responsible and morally culpable for believing or not believing, as opposed to a “last analysis” in which the Son has chosen before the foundation of the world those whom he would save and only they can and will be granted saving faith. The two “analyses” are mutually exclusive and contradictory. His “last analysis” is incompatible with his initial analysis in which men and women are responsible and morally culpable for their belief or unbelief. Thus, again, Carson is sanctioning a kind of theological relativism. He claims that two contradictory propositions are both true. Carson needs to make up his mind. Either “faith turns on sovereign election” and talk about responsibility and moral culpability with respect to believing or not believing is nonsense, or faith in John is both a possibility and the responsibility of the sinner to the sovereign salvation worked by God “in Christ.” This latter view retains the logical, moral, epistemological and theological consistency of John’s gospel.
What Carson is doing here is interpreting John in a way that seeks to affirm (and possibly ease) his own Reformed Calvinist determinism. It’s as if Carson is saying, “See, John can state that men and women are responsible to believe and are morally culpable for unbelief, yet John also affirms that faith turns on sovereign election by the Son (15:16) so we Calvinists can do the same without the faintest hint of determinism.” This is all simply circular reasoning and rhetoric that seeks to divert our attention from the real issue – that Carson has misinterpreted the text and that his interpretation of John, and not John himself, is creating this determinism and its attendant incoherence and contradiction.
In light of other sound interpretations of John’s gospel that do not produce this incoherence and contradiction, the presence of these suggests that it is Carson that has misinterpreted John as teaching “faith turns on sovereign election.” That is not what John is communicating to us. Carson’s statements that “faith turns on sovereign election” yet there isn’t the “faintest hint of determinism or fatalism” in John are incoherent. Sovereign election as Carson defines it is inevitably and absolutely a form of theistic determinism and therefore is as fatalistic as a naturalistic or materialistic determinism. What is sovereign, unconditional election except the strictest form of theistic determinism which annihilates human responsibility and moral culpability?
Grant Osborne observes,
“Scripture itself contains models that we identify via biblical theology. However, our very reconstruction of these models is done from the standpoint of our own preunderstanding and therefore must be continually re-examined. How do we know when the text has truly predominated over our theological proclivities? Our preunderstanding affects not only our interpretation but also our perspective and methods. The solution here is to welcome competing models as the best means for forcing us to re-examine the basis and structure of our dogma. It is difficult to question the systemic patterns of our faith since our commitment to them blinds us to their weaknesses. Our opponents keep us honest.”
I think Osborne is correct. And I also think Osborne’s method ultimately lands us once again on the shores of rational coherence. How are we to process competing models so that we can evaluate our own except that our hermeneutic incorporates logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical coherence? I assume Carson would agree with Osborne’s statements. But note that this approach presupposes the reliability of our rational thought process in determining valid interpretations. The competing models are serving to clarify and validate our dogmatic assertions precisely because they presuppose coherence as an indispensable element in correct interpretation. My point is that the dismissal of this kind of reasoning, which is prevalent within Calvinist thought and literature, simply goes unchecked and unchallenged. As such Carson’s interpretation of John’s gospel is telling us that this incoherence is imbedded in Scripture as something to be embraced without further reflection as to whether it is truly John’s message. It was Isaac Watts who said,
“It was a saying of the ancients, that ‘truth lies in a well’; and to carry on the metaphor, we may justly say, that logic supplies us with steps whereby we may go down to reach the water.”
Sir William Hamilton states a metaphysical truth when he says,
“Logic is the science of thought as thought, that is, the necessary conditions to which thought, in itself considered is subject.”
Philosopher C. A. Campbell’s assessment is pertinent here. He writes on the contradiction that exists between sovereignty as preordination of men’s actions and the moral convictions of duty and responsibility. He states,
“Many thinkers by no means inclined to dogmatism have arrived on the grounds of reason at strong convictions about the truth of propositions concerning, e.g., the objective reality of duty, or the objective reality of moral responsibility. Where that is so, the individual thinker has no option but to require, with a degree of stringency proportionate to the degree of his certainty, that the revelation be consistent with the proposition or propositions in question. Thus if reflection upon moral experience induces in a man a strong conviction of the reality of personal freedom in moral choice, he will rightly feel doubt about the authenticity of some ‘revelation’ which proclaims or implies that human choices are all preordained from the beginning of time.
There is, indeed, one alternative (if such it can be called) in which refuge may be sought by those who are fearful of letting their philosophical beliefs bear upon religion. There is always the ‘double-truth’ hypothesis, according to which a proposition may be ‘true for reason’, and a proposition which directly contradicts it be ‘true for religion.’ I am afraid I can find nothing to commend in this endeavor to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. To say that we can accept a proposition as true qua religious being, while rejecting it as false qua rational being, is to ignore the plain fact that we are for ourselves not two beings but one. We can acquiesce in our own self-diremption only if we fail to notice it. Admittedly this schizophrenic condition is not altogether rare. But where a man does notice his own ‘double-think’, where he does realize that he is subscribing to two mutually contradictory ‘truths’, the question surely forces itself upon him ‘But which of the “truths” is really true?’ And since it is the ‘really true’ that ‘really matters’, the ‘not really true’ must simply give way before it.”
As applicable to Carson’s commentary, Campbell is pointing out that Carson is able to propose both mutually exclusive propositions to be true when Carson’s ‘religious being’ is found to be inconsistent with his ‘rational being.’ And Carson does this on the basis of Scripture. That is, Carson’s “religious being” allows him to maintain human responsibility and moral culpability for belief or unbelief while claiming that God has sovereignly predetermined that belief or unbelief for everyone. But to do so Carson must ignore what is “true for reason.” “Reason” indicates that he is being logically and morally incoherent. But is Carson justified in ignoring what is “true for reason” simply by claiming his “double-truth” is the teaching of Scripture or “the revelation” as Campbell put it? Carson seems to think that the “religious being” has license to hold to mutually exclusive propositions over the “rational being” when Carson believes his interpretation of Scripture warrants such. We have seen how Carson employs this ‘double-truth’ hypothesis. For Carson and Calvinists, what is false according to our rational being, can be true according to our religious being. The fact that Carson talks about human responsibility and moral culpability and then says that John teaches that “faith turns upon sovereign election by the Son” and adds that there isn’t the “faintest hint of determination or fatalism” without consideration for the logical and moral coherence of all these statements is, to me, astonishing. Carson is ignoring the question that Campbell says “surely forces itself upon him,” that is, ‘But which of the “truths” is really true?’ The only answer I can imagine from Carson is “They are both true because the Bible says so.” But this is to beg the question. That is precisely what we are attempting to discern – what the Bible really says. And furthermore Carson ought to answer the question of whether or not what is ‘really true’ really matters and whether what is not true must simply “give way” to what is true. You see, what is ultimately at stake here is truth. Knowing biblical truth is inevitably bound up with the persistent input of valid reasoning.
Carson needs to pay attention to logical and moral coherence because the rational credibility of his position is at stake. Indeed, truth is at stake. Not paying due attention to logical and moral coherence, Carson has fragmented the nature of God’s love and obscured God’s revelation of himself to us. We are left not knowing what God’s true disposition is towards us individually. Carson may attempt to ignore or deflect us from observing this practical implication of his theology, but it persists, and we are still obligated to evaluate on a rational and moral basis any of Carson’s attempts to explain these difficulties.
Carson says that “Of course I tell the unconverted God loves them” but this statement ends up being true for some people and not true for others. Unless Carson wants to offer an explanation of how it is that God “loves” those he predestined to eternal torment and separation from himself in hell, as best I can discern, Carson’s position is irrational.
As such, the problem is not inherent in Scripture as Calvinists would have us believe by their claim that “the Bible teaches both,” but rather the problem resides in the interpretive methods and conclusions of the Calvinist interpreter. Gordon R. Lewis writes,
“Although no interpretation of the Scriptures as given can be regarded as absolute, some interpretations are better informed than others by relevant data, valid hermeneutical principles, and sound criteria for truth. The most reliable checks and balances upon varied interpretive hypotheses are criteria drawn from the invariables found in general revelation. A true interpretation consistently accounts for such relevant data as grammar, literary context, author’s purpose, historical and cultural setting, and broader theological context. Furthermore, one must be able to live by that interpretation with integrity while treating people as persons, not things, respecting their rights, treating them justly, and forgiving their injustices…Either Christianity is true for all people or it is true for none.”
Certain of those “invariables found in general revelation” are the laws of logic and our moral intuitions. They are integral and indispensable to successfully performing the other essentials of good exegesis that Lewis lists above. Of special relevance to this controversy are the hermeneutical principles of literary context and broader theological context. I have argued that Calvinists are notorious for ignoring the principle of context in that they routinely dismiss the need for their exegetical and interpretive conclusions to exhibit coherence, consistency and non-contradiction. To interpret in context just means to interpret coherently, consistently and without contradiction.
Note also the matter of being “able to live by that interpretation with integrity.” I have demonstrated, and will continue to show in the examples to follow, that Calvinism cannot be consistently and honestly lived out in practical life – not to mention the ethical problems that this chapter has highlighted between Calvinism’s deterministic exclusivity and the proclamation to all people of the “good news” of their salvation in Christ.
I submit that given all these criteria for doing good exegesis and validating interpretations as true to Scripture, the Reformed Calvinist’s theology and “doctrines of grace” come up short.
Go to Example 7 – D. A. Carson: Response Determines Destiny
Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence / Table of Contents / Home
 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 100.
 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991), 304-305.
 Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was an English divine and hymn writer.
 Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856) was a Scottish metaphysician in the tradition of Common Sense Realism.
 C. A. Campbell, On Selfhood and Godhood, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1957), 31, 32.
 Gordon R. Lewis, “Relativism.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 1005.