Written by Stephen C. Marcy © April 2019. Edited for blog by Eric Kemp
I recommend listening to this program to give context to what I write here. The program can be found at: https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Does-God-predetermine-everything-Chris-Date-and-Leighton-Flowers-debate-scripture
The core controversy between Calvinists and non-Calvinist, whatever their particular stripes, has gone on for centuries because of a disregard for a key hermeneutical issue that should no longer be taken for granted. That issue is the hermeneutical significance of logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction and the role these play in determining the validity of one’s interpretive conclusions.
One might take it for granted that interpretations that generate incoherence, inconsistency, and contradictions cannot be legitimate interpretations. But that is not so for Calvinists. It is beyond question that Calvinism is marked by acute logical and moral difficulties, and yet this fact is not deemed by Calvinists to be hermeneutically significant, that is, as indicative of the invalidity of their exegetical and interpretive conclusions. For the most part, non-Calvinists, as much as they have been diligent and successful in pointing out these difficulties, have not held Calvinists to account as to the hermeneutical significance of these difficulties. Non-Calvinist scholars are proficient at revealing Calvinism’s logical and moral incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions, but generally speaking, the hermeneutical implications of such problems for determining interpretive validity are overlooked. Certainly, non-Calvinists, like Leighton Flowers, reject Calvinism because there are exegetically sound alternative interpretations available. Thus, non-Calvinists believe what they believe for the same reason Calvinists claim they believe what they believe, that is, because Scripture teaches it. But this brings us to the crux of the matter. Both read the same Scripture but come to mutually exclusive interpretations. So how do we know which interpretation is correct?
Coherence Is Necessary
In this discussion both Chris and Leighton are committed to the authority of Scripture and both sought to base their positions on Scripture – and rightly so. But when we commit ourselves to the authority of Scripture we also commit ourselves to discern how to properly interpret Scripture, that is, we commit ourselves to discern what constitutes a sound hermeneutic. One cannot claim that their interpretations are what the text means apart from grappling with how we can know whether or not a text means what someone says it means. Thus, we need to interpret Scripture according to the accepted principles of hermeneutics. Therefore, a discussion of hermeneutical principles and coming to a consensus on those principles is essential to move this controversy towards its resolution. But what is missing in these discussions is the determination as to whether logical reasoning and moral intuition are indispensable to a sound hermeneutic and that the presence of incoherence, inconsistency, and contradiction is determinative of invalid exegesis and interpretation.
I suggest that exegeses and interpretations that generate incoherence, inconsistency, and contradiction have hermeneutical significance, that is, they indicate that such are not valid exegeses and interpretations of the relevant biblical texts. Coherence, consistency, and non-contradiction serve to determine exegetical and interpretive validity. Therefore, non-Calvinists also reject Calvinism for the logical and moral incoherence it generates. As Justin put it, Calvinism doesn’t “square off” with other biblical teachings, our moral intuitions, how we reason and how we live. But the subsequent issue of exegetical and interpretive validity is left to lay implicit in non-Calvinist critiques of Calvinism. It needs to be made explicit.
The Hermeneutical Divide
As I see it, the debate usually stays at the level of each side quoting their Scriptures and non-Calvinists pointing out the logical and moral problems of Calvinism, as Leighton ably did in this discussion. Exegetical points are also brought forth to support each position. But the whole question as to whether logical and moral reasoning is indispensable to a sound hermeneutic and that incoherence is determinative of invalid exegesis and interpretation needs to be brought to the fore. It seems to me that non-Calvinists believe logical and moral reasoning are indispensable to a sound hermeneutic whereas Calvinists do not. This is what I call the hermeneutical divide. Dialogues that will move us to a resolution of this controversy need to expose the problem at the hermeneutical level and address this divide.
So, even in the face of their logical and moral incoherencies and contradictions, the Calvinist remains theologically unmoved. Why? Because the Calvinist thinks that their logical and moral incoherencies and contradictions are ultimately not significant for determining the validity of their exegesis and interpretations. The Calvinist claims that their exegesis transcends any philosophical and moral objections non-Calvinists level against the interpretive conclusions of that exegesis. I contend that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists should take these problems to be hermeneutically significant, that is, as reliable indications that Calvinism is not an accurate reading of the text. But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. This applies to any such interpretive conclusions – Calvinist and non-Calvinist alike.
Therefore, Calvinists and non-Calvinists both need to be confronted with the following questions:
- Do you believe that rational and moral coherence (i.e. the use and deliberations of the laws of logic and our moral intuitions) are indispensable and reliable elements for discerning the validity of one’s exegesis of the text? If not, why not?
- If your doctrinal conclusions are found to be incoherent and contradictory, do you think this is a sure indication that your exegesis is flawed in some respect? If not, why not?
Calvinists need to answer the above questions, so that, depending upon their answers, a resolution to this controversy can be reached, or, at least, what is really at the core of this debate made clear.
The Evidence for Calvinism’s Incoherence
During the debate, incoherencies created by Chris’ determinism were pointed out. One was the “two wills in God” argument Chris provided to reconcile the clear statements in the Bible about God desiring good and the salvation of all, i.e., God’s revealed will, and yet decreeing evil and salvation only for some i.e., God’s secret will. Leighton’s response was that this “makes God out to be duplicitous.” (54:06 – 54:14) Now, notice the important issues Leighton raises here. He says,
“I know Chris doesn’t believe God is duplicitous, but I think it makes him out to be because you’ve got God externally saying I want this thing but secretly he’s actually determining the exact opposite of that. Now we agree there’s different senses in which God wants things, and brings things to pass, even within our worldview, but not in the way in which he contradicts himself or works against the very thing that he is outwardly saying he wants. I think that just gives a false view and makes us not being able to trust what God says externally because we have to wonder well is that what he wants internally as well? And I think that falls apart on itself.” (54:18 – 54:57)
If Leighton is right that Chris’ explanation of “two wills” in God has God contradicting himself and it also makes God out to be duplicitous, then if Chris values the deliberations of reason and moral intuitions in the interpretive task, he would have to admit to the truth of Leighton’s conclusions. Now, that this “two wills” explanation makes God out to be duplicitous and self-contradictory might be fine with Chris, and I suspect the reason he would give is that this is what the Bible teaches. But we can see how that brings us back to the question of how we can know that this is what the Bible teaches and, more to our point, whether the logical and moral contradictions and absurdity that Leighton finds in Chris’ “two wills” explanation are reliable indicators that Chris is wrong about the Bible teaching his theistic determinism which necessitates this explanation. And if Chris can ultimately dismiss Leighton’s conclusions, this would seem to confirm that Calvinists do not value logical and moral reasoning in their hermeneutic.
Leighton raises the issue of the logical entailments of the Calvinist’s views. Often times what Calvinists deny they believe is nevertheless logically entailed by their other beliefs. Here we have God being made out to be duplicitous and untrustworthy due to Chris’s “two wills” theology which springs from a certain exegesis of the text that interprets “sovereignty” as theistic determinism. Chris provides this “two wills” explanation in defense of the logical and moral incoherence Chris’ theistic determinism generates with the texts that indicate that God is good and desires the salvation of all. Note that in light of those texts Leighton’s assessment incorporates logical reflection and moral intuitions in determining the validity, not only of Chris’ “two wills” explanation, but also his deterministic interpretation of divine sovereignty. It is the logical and moral incoherence of Chris’ “two wills” defense, as a problem his theistic determinism has produced, that compels Leighton to reject Chris’ views.
Incoherence Begets Incoherence
These are questions regarding the incoherence of Calvinism and its logical and moral entailments. As Leighton has demonstrated, the Calvinist’s “two wills” theory, and others like it, as defenses against the difficulties raised by their theistic determinism, only increase those difficulties. What this demonstrates is that Calvinists cannot reason their way out of their incoherencies, inconsistencies, and contradictions. This is because you can’t reason your way out of incoherence while seeking to maintain the incoherence. Reason won’t allow us to manipulate it so as to cause reason to betray itself. Reason cannot be used against itself to reason out of incoherence, inconsistency or contradiction.
Calvinists do ultimately acknowledge the logical and moral difficulties in their doctrines but nevertheless insist the Bible teaches those doctrines. Therefore they ultimately have no defense from or recourse in philosophical reflection or moral intuition. Hence, Calvinist’s must resort to mystery or inscrutability. That is where all Calvinistic exegesis leads. That is the ultimate ground upon which all Calvinist exegesis rests. The final and full result of the way they read, exegete and interpret Scripture regarding the sovereignty of God, soteriology and the gospel is ultimately an incomprehensible mystery.
Can Incoherence Be the Correct Interpretation?
So let’s press the follow-up hermeneutical question. If Chris’ “meticulous divine providence” definition of God’s sovereignty is deterministic, and therefore truly renders his views absurd and self-defeating and makes God out to be duplicitous and contradictory, then can we conclusively know that Chris has misinterpreted the text when he tells us it teaches “meticulous divine providence”? If we take logical reflection and moral intuition on board in our hermeneutic, it certainly seems that we can, and we must. Intellectual integrity and a responsible hermeneutic require us to conclude that the Calvinist’s definition of divine sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism cannot be what the Bible teaches.
In that Chris would obviously disagree, I think, therefore, the dividing issue is made clear. It is simply the acceptance or rejection of logical reflection and moral intuitions in one’s hermeneutic. Either philosophical reflections and moral intuitions are incorporated into one’s interpretive process, or, at some point, they are permitted to be divorced from it. The hermeneutical divide is made clear.