The Hermeneutical Implications of Leighton Flowers’ Podcast ““Against Calvinism” with Dr. Roger Olson”

Written by Stephen C. Marcy © June 2019 / Revisions April 2020, May 2022

I recommend listening to the following program to provide context to this paper. Leighton Flowers, “Against Calvinism with Dr. Roger Olson,” published on YouTube, April 24, 2019.  Last accessed 4/8/2020.

Introductory Remarks

            In a previous post I attempted to raise awareness and promote discussion as to the role logical reflection and moral intuition play in determining the validity of proposed interpretations of Scripture.  I claimed that logical and moral reasoning are indispensable to a sound hermeneutic and therefore the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction that mark the Calvinist interpretations and doctrines – that scholars like Leighton Flowers and Roger Olson so convincingly point out – are a reliable indication that something is amiss in the Calvinist’s textual exegesis.  I submit that incoherence is determinative of invalid exegesis and interpretation.

            It is my observation that non-Calvinists are of the conviction that logical and moral reasoning are indispensable to a sound hermeneutic.  The deliberations and deliverances of philosophical reflection and our moral intuitions are essential elements in non-Calvinist interpretation.  They require that their exegeses and interpretations, along with the subsequent doctrines and theology built upon them, exhibit coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  These serve to confirm the validity or invalidity of one’s interpretations. Granted, they are not sufficient for determining validity, but they are necessary for doing so. In other words, exegetical, interpretive and doctrinal incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are reliable evidences that the text has been misinterpreted in some way.

            In contrast, it is my observation that Calvinists do not require their exegeses to be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.  That is, when the Calvinist’s exegeses and interpretations of certain biblical texts result in logical and moral difficulties, this does not have significance as to determining the validity of those interpretations. Rather, the Calvinist seeks to justify their problematic interpretations by asserting that they are a “mystery” or by appealing to the “incomprehensibility” of God and his ways.   Labeling these difficulties a “tension,” “paradox” or “antinomy” is not only ad hoc and question-begging, but the Calvinist is also messaging that our God-given faculties of logical reasoning and moral intuition do not play a substantive and decisive role in the interpretive task.  They do not consider it necessary that their exegeses, interpretations and theological constructs be subject to the deliberations and deliverances of philosophical reflection and our moral intuitions.  Simply put, the deliverances of logical reflection and moral intuition are not essential elements in the Calvinist’s hermeneutic.  For Calvinists, these deliverances are not hermeneutically significant.

            I call these different approaches as to the role and necessity of rational and moral coherence in the interpretive task the hermeneutical divide.  I contend that movement towards the resolution of this controversy will involve disclosing, grappling with and addressing this hermeneutical divide.  I submit that it is at the root of the controversy and the reason it continues.

            I will examine a section of this program to show how the discussion between Leighton and Roger confirms that they too think the difference between the non-Calvinist and Calvinist positions has its roots in this hermeneutical divide.  The problem is not most fundamentally at the exegetical level, it is at the hermeneutical level.

Reason and Alternative Exegeses

            Roger concurs that reason plays an essential role in doing theology when he states,

               “…if we are using our God-given reason at its best, healed by his grace and mercy, then it is a tool in theology.” (30:35 – 30:44)

            Leighton and Roger proceed to discuss the need to read the original sources in this controversy and let person’s speak for themselves about what they believe so as to accurately represent the views of each side.  Roger asks people to read Arminius himself to get an accurate understanding of what Arminius believed.  He points out that Calvinists will get their information about Arminianism from secondary Calvinist sources like Charles Hodge or R. C. Sproul and others.  Leighton then comments,

               “I’ve experienced the same thing.  And that’s one of the reasons on the program I will often play videos or audio of an actual John Piper quote or James White or one of the other Calvinistic scholars that are out there producing materials.  I’ll play them for themselves because you can accuse people of misrepresenting somebody to an extent, but when you’re citing their original sources and you’re letting them speak for themselves, as long as you’re obviously not taking them out of context, you know you’re doing the best you can to try and address…what they believe and here’s why they say they believe it, but is there a good backing for that biblically, exegetically – not just rejecting it because emotionally it doesn’t sit well with me.  And that’s one of the other things I’ve appreciated about your work is that you just don’t say we can’t believe in Calvinism because it upsets me, but instead you actually go to the text and say well look at this exegetically, it doesn’t need to be interpreted that way in order to be a scholar or to take a scholarly approach.  You don’t have to take it the way the Calvinists have taken it.  And sometimes that’s the reason that people reject another view is because they think that the person’s just rejecting it because of an emotional reason versus a truly exegetical response.” (23:40 – 25:05)

            Note that Leighton and Roger are pointing out that there are alternative exegeses of the relevant texts in this controversy.  Their claim is that exegesis in and of itself does not require us to understand the relevant texts as the Calvinists have interpreted them.  Although, if the non-Calvinist’s and Calvinist’s exegesis are mutually exclusive, this entails that one exegesis is better than the other, or both are wrong. This is important to stress because many, if not most Christians, default to the Calvinist interpretations when reading texts like Romans 9, Ephesians 1 or John 6.  Therefore, it is important that non-Calvinists continue to make their exegetical alternatives to the Calvinist’s interpretations known, just as Leighton and Roger are doing.  The point is that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist exegetical results are mutually exclusive.  Much more can and needs to be said about the correct application of the grammatical-historical method and sound principles of hermeneutics to the exegetical and interpretative task, but suffice it to say here that it is clear that these exegeses are mutually exclusive or incompatible with each other as is evident from the theologies and soteriologies derived from them. Yet, even though sound alternative exegeses and interpretations exist, Calvinists continue to adhere to their exegeses and interpretations despite their problematic logical and moral entailments. This Calvinist approach needs to be examined more carefully. 

Discerning Accurate Interpretations

            We need to ask which of the two exegeses provides the more accurate interpretation of the texts and why that would be so.  Can we know a flawed exegesis and interpretation when we see it?  Leighton and Roger will clue us in on the answers as this discussion unfolds.

            So what is it that Leighton, Roger and other non-Calvinists observe about Calvinism that becomes the ground upon which they ultimately reject it as a viable interpretation of Scripture?  Let’s pick up on the discussion again as they consider which view objectively brings glory to God.  Calvinists make the claim that their doctrines of God’s sovereignty and salvation (i.e., “doctrines of grace”) exalt God’s glory while the non-Calvinist doctrines diminish God’s glory.  Roger points out that he is criticized by Calvinists for,

               “…rejecting Calvinism from humanistic empathies or sensitivities; man-centered theology.  Or I’m just kind of a gut reaction against the supremacy and glory of God because I want to exalt man or something like that.  None of that’s true.” (25:10 – 25:34)

            Leighton then states that he has asked Calvinists which perspective brings more glory to God – not on the basis of a subjective reaction to Calvinism, but on the basis of an objective assessment of the Calvinist’s thought and doctrines.  Leighton states,

               “Well and I’ve often argued which of the perspectives brings more glory to God and which of the perspectives really makes man more blameworthy, because it seems to me Calvinists are notorious for wanting to exalt the glory of God, they talk about that quite regularly, and rightly so, we all should be exalting the glory of God, and they’re also wanting to make sure mankind is fully blameworthy, in other words they’re trying to show the depravity and blameworthiness of man.  But I’ve just challenged my friends – and I wanted to get your perspective on this – my Calvinistic friends to say, “Ok which – objectively speaking, even not just subjectively speaking, but objectively speaking – which of the views really does bring more glory to God?”  The one where God is ultimately the one responsible, even though they may not use the word responsible, but he’s ultimately the – alright let’s use Piper’s words – “the decisive cause” of men’s evil choices and desires even – that God is ultimately through sovereign decree the one who brings about evil, even moral evil?  Is that more glorious of God?  Or is it more glorious to believe that God’s not just redeeming his own determinations, i.e., redeeming his own decrees, the things that he’s decreed for men to do, he’s redeeming the thing he’s decreed – is that more glorious than him redeeming or cleaning up our messes, our determinations?  It just seems even objectively they would have to agree that it’s a more glorious view of God for God to redeem that which mankind has independently determined to do in their evil ways versus him somehow redeeming what he himself has brought to pass or decreed for man to do.” (25:35 – 27:26)

            To Leighton’s “objective” way of thinking, it is absurd to believe that God is redeeming the sin and evil he has predetermined to occur.  What Leighton means by the word “objectively” is “reasonably.”  That is, Leighton is expecting that the Calvinist acknowledge an external, logical standard they can both agree upon and by which they both should think about and evaluate the Calvinist’s propositions.  Leighton is desirous of some objective way of thinking that would provide both the non-Calvinist and the Calvinist true insight into what is being proposed here by the Calvinist and possibly provide the resolution of their differences in understanding.  What Leighton is getting at by his use of the word “objectively” is the issue of the “reasonableness” of not thinking that God redeems the sin and evil choices he has predetermined that men should do.  Leighton thinks this theological position is logically and morally unacceptable.  It has no honest, common sense “objectivity” to it.  He is baffled by these difficulties that result from Calvinism’s interpretation of divine sovereignty as theistic determinism.  And this being so, Leighton therefore has the expectation that the Calvinist, if he were to be “objective” or “reasonable” here, would agree that it makes no sense to think that God is redeeming his own determinations.

            But will the Calvinist acknowledge the “objectivity” or “logical reasoning” Leighton is calling for?  Will the Calvinist feel compelled to evaluate his position “objectively,” that is, evaluate it with the logical reasoning Leighton is employing to evaluate it and therefore considers this a logical argument that indicates a flaw in their exegesis, interpretations and theology?  No, they will not.  Why?  Because the Calvinist feels it is their prerogative to jettison logical and moral reasoning when these expose the difficulties of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in their exegesis, interpretations and theology.  The Calvinist will claim his doctrines are the teaching of Scripture despite their logical and moral difficulties. And this is not a problem because such logical and moral deliberations are not essential to the Calvinist’s hermeneutic. We can see, therefore, how this is not first and foremost an exegetical issue but rather a matter of the hermeneutical principles upon which we do exegesis and interpretation. One’s exegesis is considered valid or invalid depending upon the inclusion or exclusion of the principle of coherence in one’s hermeneutic.

            Hence, if the Calvinist will not accept the hermeneutical presuppositions that Leighton and Roger are working under, that is, that for one’s interpretations to be credible they need to be demonstrably coherent, consistent and non-contradictory, then the Calvinist will not be persuaded that his interpretations, or his thinking that God is redeeming the evils he has decreed for his own glory, is flawed.  Leighton’s hope is dashed to pieces.  It can never be realized as long as the Calvinist refuses to incorporate logical reflection and moral intuition into their hermeneutic.  “Even objectively” the Calvinist would not “have to agree it’s [a] more glorious view of God for God to redeem that which mankind has independently determined to do in their evil ways versus him somehow redeeming what he himself has brought to pass or decreed for man to do” because the “objectivity” Leighton is looking for is not in play in the Calvinist’s hermeneutical thinking.  One would think that the fundamentals of logical thought and moral sense would be indispensable to a sound hermeneutic, but not so for the Calvinist.  The Calvinist would not “have to agree” because they do not take logical reflection and moral intuition to be interpretively significant.  The difference is that Leighton and Roger do take these to be essential for determining valid interpretations of the text.  For Leighton and Roger, logical reflection and moral intuitions are essential to good exegesis and reliable indicators of flawed exegesis and interpretations.  This is not the case for the Calvinist.  This hermeneutical divide is made even clearer as the discussion unfolds.

“Not Willing to Listen to Reason”

            Leighton then asks Roger,

               “What are your thoughts on that?  Is that a strong argument?  Which really exalts the glory of God more?” (27:27 – 27:33)

            Roger’s response further confirms the hermeneutical divide between non-Calvinists and Calvinists.  He states,

               “Well, it is a strong argument from my perspective.  I don’t find it very effective when I try to use it on…the hard core Calvinists whose heels are dug in and they’re not willing to listen to reason or even biblical exegesis and so forth.” (27:35 – 27:58)

            Now, we need to carefully attend to Roger’s experiential observation here.  He mentions “the hard core Calvinists” who are “not willing to listen to reason.”  With respect to which position exalts God’s glory more – that God is all about redeeming his own determinations or that God is more glorified when he is redeeming the sin that mankind is responsible for committing – Roger observes that when this issue is brought to the Calvinist’s attention, the Calvinist simply does not take reason into account and therefore reason is not allowed to provide its force or shed its light onto this difficulty, especially regarding the validity of the Calvinist’s interpretations.  He says, “They’re not willing to listen to reason.”  If logical and moral reasoning are essential to the exegetical task, as non-Calvinists believe they are, when these are dismissed by the Calvinist they thereby insulate their exegesis and interpretations from substantive critique.  Logical thought and moral intuitions no longer provide any threat to the validity of their exegesis, and in their mind at least, do not serve as the basis of an argument against Calvinism.  We can see why such an argument or discussion can make no progress.  The rules of logic and moral reasoning upon which thought and dialogue need to function as meaningful thought and dialogue have been put out of court.

            Both Roger and Leighton understand God redeeming his own determinations to be a logical and moral problem within Calvinism because they both take logical refection and moral intuition to be essential for determining the biblical accuracy of theological propositions.  That is what Roger means when he says “from my perspective.”  Leighton and Roger take logical and moral reasoning on board in their hermeneutic.  Therefore they believe this logical difficulty is a “strong argument” against Calvinism.  But for the Calvinist, such logical and moral reasoning ultimately holds no hermeneutical weight.  Their exegesis and interpretations are not subject to the probative force of logical and moral reasoning.  For the Calvinist, this would be to subject Scripture to human reason.  Roger will address this Calvinist response as the discussion progresses.

“Not Willing to Listen to Biblical Exegesis”

            Roger adds to his experiential observations that the Calvinist is also “not willing to listen to…biblical exegesis.”  This is important because the Calvinist dismisses the logical and moral objections brought against Calvinism, like the one above, on the grounds that their exegesis shows that Calvinism is what “the Bible teaches.”  But how do we know the difference between good exegesis and bad exegesis? For Roger the canons of reason and our moral intuitions must play an integral role in guiding and evaluating the validity of our exegesis. Therefore, when the Calvinist dismisses the logical and moral objections raised against their exegeses, interpretations and theology, they are in effect “not willing to listen to…biblical exegesis.”  Therefore the Calvinist answer that their exegesis is what “the Bible teaches” is question-begging. How we come to know what “the Bible teaches” is precisely what this inquiry is about. It is important to note that Roger is testifying to the fact that Calvinists also ignore alternative exegeses of the relevant texts.  It is crucial to appreciate that these are exegeses that do not land us in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  Granted, Calvinists may not be convinced by them, but they would have to provide their reasons as to why they are not responsible and credible exegeses of the texts.  It is incumbent upon them to demonstrate why these alternative exegeses cannot reflect the true meaning of the text, especially when they do a better job of providing coherence and consistency among all the other exegetical information and doctrinal conclusions that need to be taken into account.  I think they can only offer such a demonstration on pain of endorsing a hermeneutic of incoherence that insists that exegeses and interpretations that are incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory are hermeneutically legitimate.  Since the Calvinist does not value rational or moral coherence, then to them these more coherent and consistent interpretations would not necessarily reflect the better exegeses of the texts and the Calvinist’s exegeses can stand despite their incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction. We are back to the hermeneutical divide.

            Roger continues,

               “And so with people on the fence, and there are many, many, many people who are kind of on the fence, once they learn what Arminianism is anyway, they kinda’ go “Oh, Ok.  Well now I really have a choice between two things that are both biblically respectable.  Now how do I choose?” (27:58 – 27:13)

            This is a critical question.  How does one choose between Calvinism and Arminianism or some other non-Calvinist version of soteriology and theology?  The evangelical answer must be that “I believe it because the Scriptures teach it.”  But this necessarily involves us in issues concerning how we discern a valid interpretation of the text.  And in light of the thesis set forth here, I contend that Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell stated a hermeneutical truth when they wrote,

               “While logical consistency may not be a sufficient condition to show that a theology is true, it is a necessary condition.”[1]

            Roger continues,

               “And my argument always comes back to the character of God.  To me that is the main issue.  What kind of God is it that we find in the Bible; that we read about.  And if God isn’t ultimately revealed in his character in Jesus Christ, then I don’t know what Jesus Christ was for, other than just to die for our sins.  But it seems like the gospels and Paul make Jesus Christ also important for other reasons, to show us the character of God, to identify who God is for us.  And Jesus, I point out to them, wept over Jerusalem’s rejection of him.  Why in the world would he, as God, weep over their rejection of him if their rejection of him was predestined, foreordained by God for his glory?!” (28:13 – 29:03)

            For people “on the fence,” Roger is arguing against Calvinism on the basis that it’s theistic determinism is inconsistent with how the Scriptures depict Jesus, who, as God incarnate. Jesus displays for us the very character of God, and what we see him doing is weeping over Jerusalem. This is not coherent with His predetermining Jerusalem’s rejection of their God, including Israel’s every sin and rebellion against God. Even if Jesus was lamenting the present hardening God was sovereignly working in the minds and hearts of his people (Rom. 9-11), Jesus’ reaction certainly indicates that he understood the situation with his people as contingent in nature.  His tears show that he wanted something different for his people and that his will for them could have been a reality.  But in that their response to God was one of rejecting his Son Jesus, they were not glorifying God.  Jesus presumes that they should have known “the time of your visitation.” [2]  Roger is pointing out that Jesus’ response is inconsistent with a God who has predestined all things to occur as they do and that through this theistic determinism God somehow glorifies himself.  For Roger and Leighton it is incoherent that Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, would respond as he did with loving compassion and feel the rejection of his people to the point of extreme sorrow when God the Father foreordained and caused the Jews to reject him.  This is the point of Roger’s exclamatory question, “Why in the world would he, as God, weep over their rejection of him if their rejection of him was predestined, foreordained by God for his glory?!”  For Roger, the Calvinist doctrine of the divine decree does not cohere with how Jesus understood, felt and responded to his people’s rejection of him.  What Jesus knows God ordained to occur, and that for his own glory, Jesus responds to as if it should have been otherwise.  Jesus displays love, compassion and sorrow over his people even though God preordained their rejection of God and Jesus.  That just doesn’t make good sense of the passage. The Calvinist doctrines establish a universal divine causal determinism, but Jesus spoke about and wept over this situation as presupposing a conditional or contingent reality.  The two are logically contradictory.  Roger’s point is that one’s soteriological and theological interpretations should be marked by logical and moral consistency with what the Scriptures reveal in its other accounts and teachings.  Since this account, which is quite clear in its import, is inconsistent with Calvinist theistic determinism, therefore Calvinist theistic determinism is not the teaching of Scripture.

              Therefore, the ultimate underlying issue is one of coherence.  The Calvinist will hold to their deterministic interpretations of divine decree, divine sovereignty and predestination despite their incoherence with what is revealed here and in a multitude of passages like it.  Therefore, the ultimate underlying issue with all such arguments against Calvinism reduces not to a battle at the exegetical level, for one can always maintain their exegesis if incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction can be dismissed at will when necessary, but a battle for logical consistency and moral intuition to be declared necessary to a sound hermeneutic.  Coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are inviolable as hermeneutical principles.  Therefore, the hermeneutical divide consists in whether or not one takes logical and moral coherence as determinative of the validity of one’s interpretations.  The Calvinist is able to dismiss such logical and moral observations as irrelevant with respect to the validity of their exegesis and interpretations.  The non-Calvinist cannot.

            Let’s go back to Roger’s question, “Now how do I choose?”  For those whose hermeneutic must include the deliberations of logical reasoning and moral intuitions, we can know that interpretations that are marked by incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction are not viable options.  This makes the choice much easier.  Hence, Calvinism, with respect to its deterministic doctrines, is not an option.  For those whose hermeneutic need not include the deliberations of logical and moral reasoning, that is, for those who do not trust or employ their logical thought processes and their moral intuitions in the interpretive task, they have an option in Calvinism.  But I for one cannot honestly affirm Calvinism as “biblically respectable.”

            So what are Leighton and Roger doing here?  They are valuing, trusting and incorporating their logical and moral senses when it comes to interpreting Scripture.  In other words, they are convinced that the deliverances of these senses have hermeneutical significance.  This is not so for the Calvinist.  Leighton’s and Roger’s books and programs point out many other such incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions that Calvinism generates with many established biblical teachings and reality as we experience it, but Calvinists, even if they acknowledge these difficulties, do not take them to be interpretively significant.

            What is confirmed in all this is that logical and moral coherence play no definitive role in the Calvinists hermeneutic and may be utilized or set aside as the need arises.  For someone “on the fence” this incoherence should cause them to reject Calvinism.  These are the people Roger hopes to persuade. A word should be said here about initial impressions to Calvinism.  I believe that people should not squelch their initial impressions that tell them that “Calvinism doesn’t make sense” or that “God can’t be like that.”  These need not be akin to the more subjective, emotional and superficial keen-jerk rejection of Calvinism solely on the basis that “it doesn’t sit well with me” or that “it upsets me.”  Rather, I submit that the prior, more deliberate reactions, are substantive warnings rooted in our legitimate logical and moral reasoning faculties.  I have written more elsewhere on the suppression of these reasoning faculties that can be clearly identified in Calvinist teaching, but here it will suffice to quote Roger regarding his student’s reactions when he explains Calvinist compatibilism to them.

               “I know that compatibilism is a philosophical concept, even held by non-Christians that attempts to say there can be free will together with determinism, but I am just not buying it for a minute.  Over the years when I have presented compatibilism to my students, almost without exception, they laugh or groan or something like, “That is not what we think free will means.”  And I agree with them.  I just think compatibilism really takes the “free” out of free will.” (38:28 – 39:02)

            The point is that we should not be quick to discount the common man’s common sense reactions to Calvinism.  Most likely this is the God-given logical and moral sense at work.  Logical and moral coherence is of course not sufficient for determining the truth of a proposed interpretation, but it is necessary for doing so.  Neither should we draw a hard and fast line between one’s initial impressions of Calvinism and “a truly exegetical response.”  Again, the “gut reactions” to Calvinism may be both your moral intuition and logic at work informing you that something is not quite right here.  Again, it is granted that these initial responses cannot be the only responses that determine the truth or falsity of Calvinism, but the point here is that any claims Calvinists make as to the truth of their doctrines solely on exegetical grounds also need to pass moral and logical muster.  Our logical and moral reasoning cannot be cavalierly dismissed. They are part and parcel of good exegesis.  Exegesis cannot be divorced from philosophical and moral reflection.  Therefore Calvinism has the dual problem of not only not faring well on the logical and moral front, but also on the “technical” exegetical front by virtue of the fact that there also exist sound non-Calvinist exegetical alternatives to the Calvinist’s exegesis.  Sound non-Calvinist exegetical alternatives exist that are also logically and morally consistent.  As such, this makes for a more powerful case for the validity of the non-Calvinist interpretations and the invalidity of the Calvinist interpretations.

            The point to note here is that to present the Calvinist with the incoherence of their Calvinism will not dissuade them from their position because for them this incoherence ultimately has no input into determining whether or not their textual exegesis, interpretations and doctrinal positions are valid.  One has to come to believe Calvinism despite its incoherence.  Therefore, as I see it, after all the exegesis is said and done, this matter of coherence becomes the distinguishing factor between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist.  Hence we are back to the hermeneutical divide.

            Roger therefore concludes that,

               “So to me Calvinism gets tied up in conundrums; paradoxes that it really can’t relieve.” (29:03 – 29:11)

            Roger is making a hermeneutical observation about the nature of Calvinism.  First, conundrums and paradoxes that you can’t relieve just are real incoherencies, inconsistencies or contradictions.  Second, if Calvinists cannot relieve these incoherencies, and yet they insist on maintaining that their exegeses and interpretations are correct, they therefore do not value coherence, consistency and non-contradiction in their exegesis and interpretive conclusions.  In effect, Calvinists are making a hermeneutical statement. They are rejecting a hermeneutic of coherence and are adopting a hermeneutic of incoherence. And thirdly, that hermeneutic needs to be defended. It needs to be justified. But it cannot be defended with the canons of reason, otherwise they would be admitting that reason is necessary for thought as thought and would also apply to determining the validity of interpretative propositions, thus providing a defeater to their own exegeses, interpretations and theology. So, in effect, Calvinism cannot be rationally defended.

            Roger continues with this example of the Calvinist’s “conundrum” of regret and lament.

               “And a major one is that if God is, as John Piper says, the one who designs, ordains and governs everything, including evil, including heresy, including calamities and disasters of all kinds – sin, even sin – if God is the one who designed it, foreordains it and governs it, for his glory, then why regret it?  Why cry over it?  Why think it’s bad?  If it glorifies him then it’s really good!  So if I were a Calvinist, I would have to think that things like heresy and sin and even genocide, and so forth, were somehow part of a plan of God that all for the good, and therefore that would change my whole attitude toward those things.  Now I’m not saying that’s the way all Calvinists think it out and feel it out, but that is the way I would have to being what I think is a pretty rational logical person.” (29:13 – 30:11)

            Note that the point Roger is making here hinges upon whether a person is being rational and logical or not.  Roger is pointing out that if a person who was previously under the impression that heresy, genocide and all sorts of evil are really bad, and that God did not predetermine and cause these to occur, and neither do they glorify God, were to adopt Calvinism, that is, begin to believe that God predetermined and therefore causes “whatsoever comes to pass,” including all the sin and evil in the world, and that he has done this because it glorifies him, then that person, if they are to be logically and morally consistent, would have to “change [their] whole attitude toward those [evil] things.”  On Calvinist teaching, they would have to believe these evils are really good things and that God causes them so as to glorify himself in them.  Yet, the Calvinist who teaches that God predetermined and causes all evil and that these evils actually glorify him, still regrets that such evils occur and laments over them.  To Roger this is rationally inconsistent and incoherent.

            So Roger is in effect saying that the Calvinist is not thinking or acting in a logically rational or morally sensible way when they claim that the evil and sin in the world is ordained and caused by God for his glory, yet still regret, lament and decry the occurrence of evil.  In other words, Calvinists themselves don’t rejoice in the evil they say God decreed and causes so that he might be glorified in it. They are out of rational and emotional sync with God.  But if they were to think and act logically and morally consistent, they should rejoice over evils in that God causes them to occur and that for his own glory.

            As such, this is just another example of the incoherence of Calvinism.  It demonstrates that as a non-Calvinist Roger cherishes logical coherence in and among his theological propositions whereas the Calvinist does not.  This becomes perfectly clear in what Roger states next about his interactions with Calvinists.  He states,

               “And then they say to me, “Well, you can’t be that way.  You can’t use reason on God.  You can’t take human reason and put it on God.” (30:11 – 30:16)

To this Roger responds,

               Well, you know, God has given us a reasonable revelation of himself in Scripture and he has given us the image of God as a reflection of himself.  I believe in Logos theology; that there is a logos of reason that connects us with God.  And if we are using our God-given reason at its best, healed by his grace and mercy, then it is a tool in theology.  And we need to be reasonable and not just go around totally contradicting ourselves all the time.  And to me it is a contradiction to say sin is really, truly wrong and evil and then turn right around and say but a good God ordained it for his glory.  That’s a contradiction.” (30:16 – 31:03)

            So here we have a clear expression of the hermeneutical divide.  Roger, as a non-Calvinist, cannot abide a contradiction in his theological propositions.  And for him it is a contradiction.  It is not a mystery.  But the Calvinist can abide a contradiction in his theological propositions.  And for the Calvinist, although he senses the force of the logical and moral incoherence, he will relabel it an incomprehensible mystery.  Hence, for Roger, the contradictory nature of the Calvinist’s propositions are hermeneutically significant, and he concludes on that basis – but not on that basis alone – that the Calvinist has not interpreted Scripture properly.  But the Calvinist will insist that he has interpreted Scripture properly and Scripture has lead him into contradictory propositions that he asserts are merely “apparent contradictions.”  But this assertion certainly seems ad hoc given a hermeneutic of coherence.  Therefore, the Calvinist stands by his exegesis and is bound to believe his interpretive conclusions drawn from that exegesis despite the fact that his interpretations are at logical and moral odds with each other.  One would think that if one lands in an inconsistency or contradiction in their interpretations then they ought to go back to the Scriptures to see if they have misinterpreted them on some score and compare it to other viable alternative interpretations in light of a responsible application of the grammatical-historical method and sound hermeneutical principles.  But the Calvinist will not do this.

            What I conclude from this is that Calvinists do not think logical or moral coherence are essential to hermeneutics while non-Calvinists do think logical and moral coherence are essential to hermeneutics.  Therefore, I contend that the discussion has to be deepened to this level.  The discussion has to go to this more fundamental hermeneutical level and a more fundamental hermeneutical question needs to be addressed and answered.  We must ask and answer whether a hermeneutic of incoherence or a hermeneutic of coherence is the proper hermeneutic that should be adopted by scholars, theologians, pastors, teachers and believers in general in the evangelical church. That is what is at the heart of this debate.

The “You’re Flattening It Out” Protest

            Let me finish with this final important exchange which demonstrates James White’s subtle attempt to obfuscate and avoid the probative force of Leighton’s logical and moral critiques of White’s Calvinism.  It is James White, for one, whom Leighton is referring to below.  This is another clear example of the hermeneutical divide.  Leighton states,

               “I have used that argument quite regularly…When I point this out, why would you denounce that which you believe God has determined for his own glory – and it’s in the past, so it’s already happened, so if it’s already happened you know God’s decreed it on Calvinism – and therefore why would you say the abortionist was wrong to abort?  Why would you say the pedophile was wrong to molest?  Why would you say that was wrong for that person to do that, when you believe that your God actually scripted, decreed, wrote that to be as it was for his greatest glory?  Why would you denounce those things?  And the only answer I’ve gotten…is “you’re flattening it out.  You’re just flattening it out.  It’s more complex than that.”  Which seems to be same thing you were saying.  It’s not our reason.  You can’t use human reason.  You have to just accept that this is what the Bible says.  Leighton, you’re just trying to flatten it out.  And I’m just saying I’m just taking your words for what they are and I‘m just asking you a plain simple – is God just redeeming his own determinations here on your system?  Is that a more glorious view than God redeeming our determinations?  And then his only answer is your flattening it out.  And I don’t know how to reply to that.” (31:03 – 33:14)

            How do you reply to “You’re flattening it out?”  You reply by asking White the deeper hermeneutical question, “Do you believe that logical and moral coherence are essential to a sound hermeneutic and reliable indicators of a valid interpretation?”  This is the question White has to answer.  And this is precisely what Roger identifies in his response to Leighton’s dilemma.  Roger states,

               “Well, so that’s a problem because I think the use of logic is an issue here.” (33:14 – 33:20)

            Roger is exactly right.  The “use of logic,” by which Roger means the Calvinist’s indifference to it, is an issue here.[3] And this issue goes to the hermeneutical level. That is, if we ask the Calvinist whether on their system they believe that God is redeeming his own determinations, if he does not take rational and moral coherence on board in his hermeneutic then that question is interpretively insignificant to him.  Moreover, the Calvinist will respond “I rest upon my exegesis,” or, he will say “it’s a mystery,” or, ironically, he will employ certain devices to reason around his logical and moral difficulties (e.g., two wills in God, second causes, God works through means and compatibilism), or he will do what White does here and complain that the non-Calvinist is “flattening it out.”  Let’s examine this complaint from James White more carefully.

            Now, when White says to Leighton “you’re flattening it out,” we need to see this for what it really means.  Leighton sees it for what it is when he assesses White as meaning “You can’t use human reason.”  Leighton is correct.  But I think there is a further dynamic at work here.  That is, White is feeling the force of Leighton’s logical and moral scrutiny that shows up White’s Calvinist doctrines as nonsense.  White’s “flattening it out” complaint is White chaffing under the inescapable probative force that Leighton’s logical and moral reflections and critiques exert upon White’s Calvinism, showing it to be incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory.  “Flattening it out” means getting to the logical and moral bedrock of White’s exegetical and interpretive claims and exposing them as nonsense.  Leighton is touching the sensitive logical and moral nerve that Calvinists like White would rather have remain untouched.  “Flattening it out” means exposing the incoherence of White’s Calvinism along with the supposedly rational explanations Calvinists offer in defensive of their fundamental doctrines. White needs his theistic determinism. It is essential to his Calvinism. And there is a complex theological superstructure that is built upon it that both expands it and also attempts to defend it.  But this foundation of theistic determinism creates a theological superstructure of obvious and real incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions. Therefore, when all this is subject to logical and moral reasoning, or “flattening it out” by the force of reasoned inquiry and argument, then the whole of Calvinist theology comes crumbling down.  White recognizes this but tries to avoid it by transferring fault to Leighton as “flattening out” White’s theology. The “flattening it out” complaint is White’s attempt to evade what occurs when logical and moral scrutiny is applied to his Calvinism. When this is done White’s whole theological structure collapses.

            Hence, what White really wants is for Leighton to give him permission to side-step Leighton’s logical and moral critiques.  White needs permission to maintain the “dimension,” that is, the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction that White’s theistic determinism creates.  The survival of White’s theistic determinism depends upon Leighton not ‘flattening it out” with the leveling effects of his logical and moral critiques that are devastating to White’s position.  Since White’s theistic determinism is an integral and non-negotiable element of his theology and soteriology, he needs Leighton to leave it alone – to not “flatten it out” – that is, to not dismantle it by logical and moral analysis.  It is the Calvinist’s deterministic definition of divine sovereignty that is the capstone of their Calvinism.  This determinism is what creates the incoherencies and contradictions within Calvinism, and White does not want philosophers and theologians like Leighton messing around with it. Therefore, “flattening it out” is merely a euphemism for “critiquing my position logically and morally.”  White knows that philosophical and moral critiques are devastating to his theology.  Therefore, White wants Leighton to back-off on his logical and moral scrutiny.  White wants Leighton to just ignore this “dimension” of incoherence integral to Calvinism and allow the “dimension” of interpretive incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction to go on undisturbed.  White wants these to be left alone so they can remain an acceptable part of his exegeses, interpretations and ultimately his hermeneutic.  As a Calvinist, White must maintain his hermeneutic of incoherence.  But to accommodate the Calvinist’s demand not to probe into the logical and moral incoherence of their Calvinism is precisely what the non-Calvinist should not do. The non-Calvinist needs to press this hermeneutical issue with the Calvinist and insist on a hermeneutic of coherence.

            Calvinists like James White, not being able to abandon reason altogether, attempt to provide “reasoned” defenses for their different doctrines.  But logical and moral assessments of those defenses also show them up as mere rationalizations that have their own logical and moral difficulties.  Their defenses do not succeed because you cannot reason your way out of an inconsistency or contradiction.  You have to correct the cause of the logical difficulty at the source, otherwise you only compound those difficulties.  But universal divine causal determinism is the central and unalterable tenet of Calvinism that is the cause of its incoherence.  Therefore, if the Calvinist will not remedy the problem of their determinism, then they must somehow be able to manage, absorb and incorporate the incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction in their theology. The way they do this is to suppress a person’s logical and moral reasoning while getting permission from non-Calvinists to retain their logical and moral incoherence as a viable interpretation of Scripture and an acceptable hermeneutic.  As James White’s protest reveals, given Calvinism’s blatant logical and moral difficulties, the suppression of reason is necessary to convert someone to Calvinism and for the Calvinist to remain a Calvinist.  The Calvinist must suppress one’s logical and moral reasoning for them to embrace Calvinism, while they would have non-Calvinists pretend that Calvinism’s doctrinal incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions are viable alternative interpretations of Scripture and also an acceptable hermeneutic.  And it’s been too long that non-Calvinist evangelicals have been willing to accommodate Calvinists in this regard.  Many evangelicals and evangelical churches have adopted the theological relativism necessary for Calvinism to survive. Calvinists prefer a situation in which we all ignore the Calvinist’s contradictions by accepting them as an incomprehensible mystery or tension and embrace the theological and interpretive relativism of “live and let live.”  But scholars like Leighton and Roger will not oblige.  And rightly so.  But neither will the Calvinist incorporate logical and moral coherence into their hermeneutic.  Hence, the controversy continues and highlights the hermeneutical divide in which the Calvinist dismisses logical and moral reasoning as essential to determining valid interpretations of Scripture while the non-Calvinist incorporates these as indispensable to determining valid interpretations of the text.

Pressing Home the Point

            So White protests, “You’re flattening it out!”  How do you reply to this demand to leave incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction intact?  Not merely by pointing it out, but by confronting the Calvinist on the hermeneutical implications of this incoherence.  Gently, civilly, respectfully, yet firmly, we ought to press them as to whether or not they believe logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential elements in a sound, biblical hermeneutic and therefore reliable indicators of the validity or invalidity of one’s interpretation.  If the Calvinist replies that they are not reliable and essential indicators of interpretive validity, then he will have to explain why they are not.  Now, note this carefully. By maintaining that logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are not reliable and essential indicators of interpretive validity, the Calvinist is stating a hermeneutical position. He has adopted and is propounding certain principles by which he interprets Scripture. He has embraced what I call a hermeneutic of incoherence. Therefore, he will have to justify this hermeneutic of incoherence. But if logical and moral coherence are reliable indicators of validity, the Calvinist will have to abandon his Calvinism and go back to the text and present alternative interpretations that are coherent and non-contradictory.  He may want to consider that such work has already been done and embrace the existing, exegetically sound, non-Calvinist interpretations that are logically and morally coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.  These non-Calvinist interpretations not only preserve the sovereignty of God, but most importantly they preserve the truth of the gospel as “good news.”  And preserving and proclaiming the truly “good news” gospel message is what redounds most to the glory of God.

            Finally, I leave you with these questions.  If this controversy, at its deepest level, is about something other than whether a responsible hermeneutic requires the incorporation of logical and moral reasoning, or one’s hermeneutic may allow them to jettison logical and moral reasoning, then what is it?  If this debate can be resolved in another way that doesn’t involve coming to a decision on this issue of the hermeneutical divide, what would it be? I would like to know.

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[1] Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 156.

[2] Luke 19:41-44 – “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (ESV)

               For the aspect of contingency as incoherent with Calvinist theistic determinism see also Matthew 23:37,“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (ESV).  cf. Luke 13:34.

[3] Roger goes on to commend Calvinist Paul Helm as one who does affirm the use of human reason and logic in doing theology.  Helm does insist that his Calvinist position be logical.  Yet, Roger points out that Helm’s logic is flawed in that as a theistic determinist Helm resorts to permission when talking about God and evil.  But permission is incompatible with determinism.  This is just another example of a Calvinist attempting to maintain logic in his position but finding that in the attempt he has fallen into an incoherence with his theistic determinism.  Now, what Helm does with his problem of incoherence is the issue that needs to be raised.  Does he ignore the incoherence by designating it a “mystery,” or does it cause him to revisit his exegetical and interpretive conclusions – as to his determinism for instance.   Generally, Calvinists hold it as their prerogative to dismiss the deliberations and deliverances of their logical and moral reasoning when what they realize Scripture cannot be meaning on one score (God predetermines and causes abortions, child molestation, etc.), is incoherent with what they interpret Scripture to mean on another score (God has ordained “whatsoever comes to pass.”).  The Calvinist’s main problem, as Leighton pointed out, is his theistic determinism which he holds a priori as the truth of Scripture.

               See also on this website “Helm, Calvin and Castellio on Reason and Common Sense.”  It can be found in the “Table of Contents” menu “Chapter 9 – Reason as Problematic for Calvinist Interpretation.”

2 thoughts on “The Hermeneutical Implications of Leighton Flowers’ Podcast ““Against Calvinism” with Dr. Roger Olson”

  1. Wonderfully written!!!!

    Jesus commands: “Let your communication be yea year or nay nay for anything else comes of evil”
    The Calvinist cannot obey this command – because he needs his answers to be both “yea” and “nay”.

    Consequently the Calvinist learns to become a semantic contortionist – and for any contortionist “flattening it out” is the end of the game.

    He has has a social structure to be faithful to – which provides the benefit of the braggadocio and vicarious boasting which naturally comes with membership within a superior guild.

    He also needs Calvin’s 100% meticulously determined world to SIMULATE a Non-Determined world in order for him to retain a sense of personal HUMAN NORMALCY.

    John Calvin understood the dilemma and instructed his disciples to
    – quote “Go about your office *AS-IF* nothing is determined in any part”.

    This is why Calvinist language long ago a evolved into a language of DOUBLE-SPEAK
    Blessings and thank you!!


    1. Hi br.d, Thanks for reading on my sight, and thanks for the compliment. I’m glad you found that paper and resonated with its content. The issues you point out regarding Calvinist pretention and double-speak are very important indeed. Thanks for sharing your observations and thoughts here. Sincerely, Steve


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