Introduction to Chapter 11

Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

Go to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

I have been arguing that the fundamental problem inherent in Calvinist theology and soteriology is its rational incoherence.  As such, it abandons the principles which permit for comparative judgments to be made between disparate exegetical and theological interpretations.  To apply an interpretive observation of E. D. Hirsch here, the Calvinist does not allow us to make an “objectively grounded choice between two disparate probability judgments on the basis of the common evidence which supports them.” [1]  I contend that the rational incoherence inherent in Calvinist thought is a reliable indicator that Calvinism misapprehends the biblical testimony to sovereignty and salvation.  Intelligent, rational discussion and discovery of truth rest upon logical coherence.  When a person speaks, writes or interprets a text, they have to “make sense.”  I submit therefore that by virtue of its contradictory and incoherent propositions we can know with confidence that Calvinist soteriology is seriously flawed.

The purpose of this chapter is to provide clear evidence of Calvinist incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in thought, exegesis and interpretation.  It will also show how that at times the Calvinist employs verbal legerdemain to cloak the negative implications of their theology.  At other times they speak or write flat-out nonsense.  Sometimes these problems are very obvious.  Other times they take careful examination to identify.  This is why most of the examples that comprise this chapter are rather lengthy.  Many times it is necessary to tease out these incoherencies and contradictions so that they become clear.

This chapter and its examples need not be read through sequentially.  The examples may be read separately, although the several examples pertaining to the same person may have connections that need to taken into account.  Also some examples may mention those that have preceded it, but generally they stand alone.  These examples provide evidence of the various logical and moral problems within Calvinism itself and between the Calvinist’s theology and their preaching and teaching.

Also, the fact that Calvinists must ultimately deem their interpretations of certain texts as “a high mystery” or incomprehensible to fallen, sinful human reasoning despite the fact that there are other interpretations of those texts that are exegetically sound and evidence coherence, consistency and non-contradiction only further confirms the erroneous nature of the Calvinist’s interpretations and theology.  The logical and moral incoherence among its doctrinal and practical claims are a reliable indicator that it has gone biblically astray.

I also contend that if we cannot conclude that logical and moral coherence are reliable indicators of true biblical propositions, then the biblical truth in this matter cannot be attained. It would be to admit that non-Calvinists and Calvinists cannot come to any agreement on the matters at hand – matters that are of utmost importance because the “good news,” which is at the very heart of biblical revelation, is at stake.  And since the gospel is the central message of Scripture, it is not likely that we cannot know the truth on this matter. Rather, it is more likely that someone is misinterpreting the biblical text. My contention is that it is the Calvinists that are doing so.

Calvinists and non-Calvinists will each adhere to their different versions of soteriology and fundamentally different views of God and man. In doing so we are projecting to the world that the Bible’s central message is logically incoherent and morally conflicted, obscure, and confused and hence the truth of the gospel is ultimately inaccessible and unknowable.  In that these doctrinal differences are mutually exclusive, they both cannot be true. Because this controversy has to do with matters so fundamental as the nature of God, the nature of salvation and the message of the “good news,” rather than supporting Scripture’s divine inspiration and authority these are discredited as the impression is given that there can be no biblical certainty on these doctrinal issues.  It is as if we are maintaining that the truth of the gospel just cannot be known.  The inability of the evangelical church to come to a consensus as to what the Bible means to say about God and salvation fosters the impression to believers and unbelievers alike that the truth in this regard is elusive and that we all need to adopt an interpretive and theological relativism that requires us to affirm that mutually exclusive interpretations of the text are both legitimate theological and soteriological options.  The claim that these are “non-essential” or “secondary” doctrinal issues, and that for the sake of unity the matter can simply be ignored, requires the forfeiture of our intellectual and hermeneutical integrity.  This “live and let live” posture implies that the truth of the gospel cannot be discerned by evangelicals from their inspired and authoritative Scriptures.  As such this is very much a hermeneutical issue.  Does coherence, consistency and non-contradiction matter in interpretation? And what does incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction tell us about the validity of an interpretation? This issue is the most important one for those who call themselves “evangelicals” because in that Calvinists and non-Calvinists hold to mutually exclusive soteriologies they both cannot be the truth of the gospel.  The message of the “good news” is at stake.

This controversy involves the assurance that the Bible is the trustworthy Word of God and from it we can know God’s true character, his salvific disposition towards us, the precise content of the gospel message and our eternal destinies.  Ultimately what is at stake is a true knowledge of what God is like along with the critical assurance of his kind, saving disposition towards us.  Each of us needs to know that there is the real possibility of being in a saving relationship with him; the nature of which cannot be an arbitrary dealing with us as individuals.  It is disturbing to think that there exists a capricious divine sovereign that may very well have decided to reject and separate me or you or others known or unknown to us from himself for all eternity simply because it was “the good pleasure of his will” to do so.  This Calvinist presentation of the nature and activity of God in salvation presents a distinctly different concept of God and salvation than what the non-Calvinist understands from Scripture.  I submit that this Calvinist understanding is incoherent with the biblical witness and the gospel message as “good news.”

Of course the Calvinist will be the first to deny what I am saying by claiming their theology is quite logically coherent.  The Calvinist will turn the tables in accusing the non-Calvinist of being logically inconsistent.  For instance, Calvinists point out that the non-Calvinist who claims the atonement is unlimited must logically conclude that all people in the end will be saved.  But this conclusion is based upon presupposing that the Calvinist’s idea of the nature of the atonement is true.  It is to view the atonement through their own soteriological framework, that is, in a more effectual, quantitative sense rather than a universal, qualitative sense.  The error in the Calvinist idea is its failure to acknowledge that the Bible everywhere speaks of salvation as being appropriated by the sinner upon one condition – that of faith.  Thus Jesus died for all sinners, yet not all will be saved precisely because God sovereignly designed salvation to include the sinner’s response of faith and faith alone.  Not all will be saved, not because the death of Christ was not intended for them or did not include them or is not sufficient for them, but because of their own refusal to believe what they are told about their need for salvation and the way to receive it.  Sola fide is a worthy tenet of the Reformation that is rendered both void and redundant by the doctrines of an effectual call and unconditional election.

Granted Calvinism has an internal logical consistency all its own.  As a theological scheme, TULIP[2] is quite logically consistent within its own presuppositions.  But with regard to an expanded horizon of biblical texts and teachings, philosophical and apologetic considerations, and practical realities external to the Calvinist system, it shows itself up as quite contradictory and incoherent.  Calvinism has only an internal coherence that cannot successfully incorporate the fuller testimony of Scripture, the canons of reason and moral intuition.  Rather than being able to integrate the biblical content, doctrines, and themes into a unified message of “good news” it sets the biblical data against itself in dichotomous, mysterious, and inconsistent relationships.

Moreover Calvinism attempts to insulate its incoherence and inconsistency from substantial critiques by certain “rationalizations.”  Calvinists justify any contradictions present in their theology and practical ministry by claiming that their beliefs are a divine or “high mystery,” and “antinomy,” only an “apparent contradiction,” or that “the Bible teaches both a sovereignty of comprehensive determinism and genuine human freedom.”  All this is “incomprehensible to fallen human reason” and the rejection of Calvinism is an indication of sinful pride or seeking to preserve salvific human autonomy.

So, is my protest against the incoherence of Calvinism legitimate?  Is the demand for rational and moral coherence a legitimate requirement for proper interpretations and coming to know the truth of Scripture in these matters?  Are we exalting human reason above the Scriptures?[3] You decide.

In this chapter I let Calvinist’s speak for themselves and allow you to judge whether or not the following examples substantiate my claims.  The point to note in these examples is that to embrace Reformed Calvinism one must ultimately cross important fundamental intellectual and moral thresholds.  The most important threshold, which reveals one’s hermeneutic, is to come to the conclusion that coherence, consistency, and non-contradiction are ultimately not significant for determining which interpretations are valid and which are not.  For the Calvinist, coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are not hermeneutically significant.  They can be ignored with respect to one’s exegetical and theological conclusions.  They are dispensable as indicators of the truth of an exegetical interpretation and doctrinal proposition.  Therefore, to embrace Calvinism one must adopt a hermeneutic marked by indifference to interpretive non-contradiction, consistency, harmony, and coherence.  To embrace Calvinism one must adopt a hermeneutic of incoherence. For the Calvinist, the presence of logical and moral incoherence does not hold weight for discerning true interpretations from false ones. The Calvinist must adopt a particular stance towards the function and utility of logical reasoning and moral intuition in the interpretive task.  It is a stance characterized by the suppression of their logical and moral reasoning when these indict the Calvinist’s interpretations in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  It is a stance that is untenable if one is to engage in rational thought, discourse and intellectually responsible biblical interpretation.

Those who conclude that we shouldn’t forfeit our logical reasoning and moral intuition in the interpretive task, must distance themselves from the interpretive propositions of Calvinism.  I concur with C. A. Campbell when he contends that,

“…the propositions in question must, at the very least, not violate the principle of self-consistency…We require that the propositions inherent in the revelation be consistent with one another.  And we require also – although this is a condition which must be elaborated and in some degree qualified – that they be consistent with well-accredited propositions about reality got through other channels.”[4]

In the examples that follow, lengthy quotes are required for context.  In these examples I attempt to show that the non-Calvinist is ultimately objecting to the rational inconsistency of Calvinism and that Calvinist theological thought, discourse and practice only serve to confirm this observation and objection.  What the reader needs to decide is whether or not such inconsistency plays a critical role in discerning a sound biblical hermeneutic and valid interpretations.  Indeed, this is the ultimate hermeneutical issue that Calvinists must acknowledge and give an answer to.

I have listed the examples in the Table of Contents and in the Chapter 11 page.  Clicking on an example in the Chapter 11 page will take you to it.

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

[1] E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity In Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 180.

[2] TULIP is the anacronym used to identify the Calvinist soteriological beliefs.  “T” is total depravity.  “U” is unconditional election.  “L” is limited atonement. “I” is irresistible grace.  “P” is the perseverance and preservation of the saints.  The logic goes like this.  Since sinners are totally depraved they can never demonstrate an interest in God or spiritual things unless God grants it to them.  In fact, they are continually running away from God and spiritual things.  Hence, no one is able (total inability) upon hearing to “gospel” to believe that “gospel.”  Therefore, those who receive salvation do so by God’s sovereign act of having unconditionally chosen them to be saved (unconditional election) and granting them faith.  God gives faith only to the elect.  God therefore sent Jesus to die only for these elect individuals (limited atonement).  Since God predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass,” and he cannot fail in anything he predetermines to bring about, he will also unfailingly apply Christ’s atonement to the elect who of course cannot resist this sovereign act of grace to them (irresistible grace or the effectual call).  Also, the elect will, of course, persevere and be preserved by God unto the end to receive the salvation he predestined for them (perseverance and preservation of the saints).

As logical as it may be in itself, my contention is that this scheme cannot coherently incorporate several other biblically essential soteriological truths.  It seriously misinterprets Scripture at several points.  And because of the substantial and insurmountable logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical incoherence and contradiction it generates, it must be deemed a misinterpretation of Scripture.  It misinterprets at least three major non-deterministic biblical themes in an attempt to incorporate them into its soteriology of theistic determinism.

The first is God’s sovereignty.  God’s sovereignty is mischaracterized as him having ordained from all eternity “whatsoever comes to pass.”  Thus, contrary to the overwhelming evidence in Scripture to the contrary (i.e., contingency, human freedom and responsibility, possibility, potentiality, etc.), Calvinism is inevitably deterministic.  One cannot read the first three chapters of Genesis without concluding that a sovereignty of God defined as a theistic determinism is a biblically incoherent doctrine and worldview.  God’s sovereignty is clearly evident, but it is also clearly defined to the exclusion of a divine determinism.  If we value and desire to read the text coherently, then we are forced to conclude God’s sovereignty is not a theistic determinism.

Secondly, election is misunderstood as God having chosen beforehand a limited number of individuals to salvation.  In contrast, the biblical concept is historically and theologically nuanced by the Old Testament work of God to establish the nation of Israel for the purposes of revealing himself as a God of mercy and compassion as well as justice and judgment, through whom he would bring the Messiah and through whom he would be made know to all nations as the Savior of the world.  God’s choice of Abraham and his response of faith is key to this understanding.  Israel’s purpose, which they failed to acknowledge and embrace, was to believe and proclaim the eternal salvation brought about in time “in Christ,” a salvation that demands the sinner’s decisive response of faith.  With all that election and predestination may entail biblically and as difficult as these concepts may be to fully grasp, they cannot be placed in logical and moral contradiction to the biblical portrayal of faith.

Third, the nature of biblical faith is presented as a condition of salvation and a possibility for all sinners who hear the “good news” of the gospel.  Both the biblical definition of the word “gospel” and the content of the gospel message as “good news” require this conclusion.  Faith is a genuine response of the will to God and the gospel message.  It is a response that is not determined by God for a limited number of elect persons.  Furthermore, in Calvinism, faith is misrepresented as a meritorious work if it is not encompassed in God’s unconditional election.  This is a serious misunderstanding of the nature of man as a sinner and faith as the condition of salvation.

Each of these biblical themes – sovereignty, election and salvation – in the form presented by Calvinists, set themselves in logical conflict with the vast majority of Scripture and therefore cannot abide a careful biblical hermeneutic that seeks to remain rationally coherent.  Calvinism only generates rational incoherence when it attempts to incorporate the overwhelming majority of non-deterministic biblical teachings into its inevitably comprehensive deterministic theological scheme.

Despite Calvinist protests that they are only declaring what the Bible teaches, that remains the question at hand.  I submit that this rational incoherence and inconsistency is certainly an indication that Calvinism has gone exegetically and theologically astray.  This is so because the forfeiture of the fundamental laws of reasoning leaves us intellectually empty-handed, or should we say empty-headed, to discern exegetical truth from error.  Logical and moral reasoning are necessary for meaningful theological discourse but also for distinguishing valid from invalid interpretations of the text.

[3] In a more apologetic vein, yet concerning our ability to discern nonsense and speaking that nonsense about God, C. S. Lewis wrote, “His omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.  This is no limit to his power.  If you choose to say “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words “God can.”…It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.” – C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1962), 28.

In this book Lewis deals with the topics of divine omnipotence and divine goodness as they relate to the pain and wickedness we observe and experience in the world.  “If God were good, he would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.  This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.”  Lewis goes on to examine under what conditions God made the world which entailed the consequent possibility of pain and wickedness.  Divine omnipotence and divine goodness are further defined; exhibited in a world of fixed laws, divine self-limitation, and the free will of creatures.  The book is pertinent to our topic.

[4] C. A. Campbell, On Seflhood and Godhood, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1957), 24.

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