Example 7 – D. A. Carson: Response Determines Destiny


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Let’s examine another passage from Carson’s commentary on John.  Carson’s last sentence the following section of his commentary is clearly incoherent with his Calvinist convictions regarding predestination.  I provide the context for the flow of thought.  Commenting on John 6:62, “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” Carson writes,

               “Jesus had earlier spoken of his coming down from heaven (v. 38).  Now he asks what their reaction will be if they see him ascend to where he was beforeThe Greek preserves the condition but no conclusion, so it is possible to understand the argument in one of two ways: (1) Jesus’ ascension will make the offence even greater; or (2) Jesus’ ascension will reduce or remove the offence.  When we remember what Jesus’ ‘ascending’ and his ‘lifting up’ (cf. notes on 3:14) mean in the Fourth Gospel, we may conclude that the alternatives are not mutually exclusive (cf. Westcott, 1. 247).  If the disciples find Jesus’ claims, authority and even his language offensive, what will they think when they see Jesus on the cross, his way of ‘ascending’ to the place where he was before?  That is the supreme scandal.  However offensive the linguistic expression ‘eating flesh and drinking blood’ may be, how much more offensive is the crucifixion of an alleged Messiah!  The very idea is outrageous, bordering on blasphemous obscenity, ‘a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor. 1:23).  Yet this stands at the very heart of the divine self-disclosure.  The moment of Jesus’ greatest degradation and shame is the moment of his glorification, the path of his return to the glory he had with the Father before the world began (17:5).  The hour when the Servant of the Lord is despised and rejected by men, when he is pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:3-5) is the very portal to the time when ‘he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted’ (Is. 52:13).

               That is why the condition of this verse is left open.  How men and women respond to this supreme scandal determines their destiny.”[1] (Emphases mine)

We can certainly agree with Carson’s exegesis of the passage.  Jesus’ words can be taken in the two ways Carson mentions and the offence of the cross is central.  Carson correctly notes that no conclusion is offered as to Jesus’ “what if you see him ascend to where he was before” statement.  What will you think?  What will you believe?  Carson correctly points out that there is no conclusion so that the conditionality of the statement will be preserved.  For Carson clearly states, “That is why the condition of this verse is left open.  How men and women respond to this supreme scandal determines their destiny.”  What Carson is saying here is that the appropriation of the salvation that comes through Christ’s death on the cross has an “open,” “conditional” nature to it.  The cross presents people with a critical personal decision of their will and that decision determines their eternal destiny.  Carson makes it clear that there is a response to “this supreme scandal” that determines the person’s destiny.

Yet, in direct contrast to this according to the Calvinist doctrines of God’s eternal decree, predestination, and unconditional election, Carson also believes that each person’s eternal destiny is fixed by God from before the foundation of the world.  Carson theological belief is that every person’s eternal destiny has been unconditionally predetermined by God.  Yet Carson can write that what determines a person’s destiny is how they “respond” to this supreme scandal.  He presents the question of one’s eternal destiny as something that is conditioned upon their response to the cross of Christ.  I think Carson’s words are clear enough here and mean just what they say – “How men and women respond to this supreme scandal determines their destiny.”  In other words a persons’ destiny is determined by their response to Christ and the “condition of the verse is left open” so that they can respond either way.  And it is that response that determines their eternal destiny.  For Carson’s statements to be coherent, person’s must the sole author of such a response and have the ability of contrary choice.

But all this is surely incoherent with Carson’s Calvinist theology.  If God has unalterably and irresistibly predestined certain people to eternal life and all others to eternal damnation, how then can it be meaningfully said that “the condition of this verse is left open.”  How can it coherently be said, “How men and women respond to this supreme scandal determines their destiny?”  Linking the response of men and women with the determination of their destiny in a context where the Greek preserves the conditionality of the response and resultant destiny is surely incoherent with Calvinist determinism. 

What does Carson mean by “respond?”  Who does the actual “responding” in a world where “whatsoever comes to pass” has been ordained beforehand solely by the will of God?  If words mean anything, Carson can only mean to be saying that men and women do genuinely respond to Jesus, that their response is not predetermined, and that their own will determines their eternal destiny.[2]

Therefore, contrary to Carson’s theology of predestination and unconditional election, it is not God who has determined each individual’s eternal destiny beforehand but we who determine our destiny in light of God’s revelation of salvation through the “good news” of the cross in the real time of historical event.  Hence, Carson’s comments are inconsistent with his underlying theology.


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[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 300, 301.

[2] The Calvinist of course, via their compatibilism, will maintain that God predetermines each person’s eternal destiny while also stating that human freedom (the way person’s respond to “this supreme scandal determines their destiny”) is also true because God gives them the desire to respond as he predetermined.  To be given the desire to do something according to God’s predetermined will, even if that desire is irresistible, is enough for the Calvinist to claim that the person acts freely of their own will.  But as I argued in my paper, Kevin Vanhoozer’s Compatibilism: The Struggle to Maintain Reformed Deterministic Sovereignty, and as biblical scholar Donald Lake observed, such compatibilism is more rationalization than it is coherent scriptural exposition.

               Vernon C. Grounds agrees.  He says that any attempt at making sense out of this nonsense can only amount to “logical and linguistic legerdemain” and “exegetical ingenuity verging on sophistry.” – Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock, (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 25-27.

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