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The truth is...

How to Come to Grips with the Truth

In a lecture on the uniqueness of Christ in world religions, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias begins with a defense of the laws of logic and their indispensability for coming to the truth on a matter.  I will show how his remarks have direct application to the debate between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  Ravi states,

               “I have a difficult task.  This is not an easy subject that has been assigned to me.  Although my field of study is philosophy of religion, and I do an awful lot of lecturing on the theme around the world, I also want to be very, very sensitive because it is easy to bring offence when you’re dealing with something like this.  It is easy to trample underfoot truths and ideas that others greatly treasure.  And none of us wants that done to that which we believe, and why end up doing it to what someone else believes.  That is the positive and the noble aesthetic side of it.  But the counterpoint is how does one really ever come to grips with truth if it is not put in contrast with conflicting truth claims.  What do you do when there are conflicting truth claims?

               And therefore what I would like to do ladies and gentlemen as I introduce my message, is first of all set the foundation for the laws of logic – that two contradictory statements both cannot be true.  Only one of them may be true.  Both of them may be false, but both of them cannot be true unless the laws of logic do not apply to reality.  And if one denies that the laws of logic apply to reality, how do we ever even converse?  The moment you open your mouth you assume a meaningful statement is about to be made, and if somebody challenges that statement, how do you anchor anything in reality…So what I would like to do is first establish the laws of logic…[1]” (Italics mine)

            Ravi goes on to point out the self-defeating nature of a both/and form of “logic” in contrast to the either/or form of logic that Ravi defends as that which fits reality.  He points out that they are not equally valid ways of reasoning, as if you can pick which form of logic you prefer to use.  No. The both/and idea, as far as logic goes, simply does not work.  It leads to nonsensical conclusions and thereby cannot lead one to the truth.  It does not fit reality.  But the either/or idea fits reality and therefore allows us to raise the question of whether something is true or false while also providing us the path for getting to the truth of the matter in question.  On the either/or form of logic two contradictory propositions, even theological propositions, cannot both be true.  Ravi explains it this way.

               “…when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No man comes unto the Father but by me,” it is a most reasonable statement.  The question is, “Is it true?”  It is a most reasonable statement because truth by definition is exclusive.  The moment you affirm something you exclude anything that challenges that.[2] (Italics mine)

            This exclusivity of conflicting truth claims applies to world religions.  Ravi concludes,

               “Now, it is therefore more logically possible that all the religions in the world are wrong, but it is not logically sensible to say that all the religions in the world are right.  It just can’t be.  The pantheist affirms something very different to the theist.  The theist affirms something very different to the atheist.  And you go on and on and right down the line and you find out that two contradictory systems cannot really be true.[3] (Italics mine)

            Add to the above that the Calvinist affirms something very different than the non-Calvinist.  More on this below, but suffice it to say here that given the nature of this controversy the laws of logic apply.  Ravi then makes this crucial point.

               “Now this is really the fundamental problem that I find as a Christian lecturer and a philosopher dealing with the Islamic worldview.  I find at least four basic challenges that they give to us that are impossible to meet – that are absolutely impossible to meet, because in the process of them stating those arguments against Christianity, those arguments end up in a sense self-destructing.  And by the way, I have debated some of the best of them in the other part of the world – they have never really responded to this challenge.  I’m not talking about their fundamental doctrines.  I’m talking about their philosophical assumptions.[4] (Italics mine)

            So Ravi has made at least three important points here that I would like to apply to the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.  The first is that two contradictory belief systems cannot both be true.  The second is that the fundamental issue in such controversies is not primarily doctrinal but one’s philosophical assumptions.  And the third is that those who jettison the laws of logic cannot be reasoned with regarding the truth or falsity of their position or beliefs.

Two Contradictory Systems of Belief Cannot Both Be True

            Regarding the first point, there exists within evangelical Christianity two incompatible soteriological systems of belief.  They are the Calvinist and Arminian or other non-Calvinist systems of belief.  The differences are familiar to most Christians and have mainly to do with the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and salvation.  Now if the laws of logic apply to all of reality, then they apply to this controversy.

            As many of you know, to debate the differences at the theological or doctrinal level is not very productive.  The reason has to do with Ravi’s second point which I will discuss below.  What I want to stress here is that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist theological and soteriological beliefs are mutually exclusive.  They are, to use Ravi’s description, “conflicting truth claims.”  They both claim to be the truth about what the Bible teaches on matters like God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, salvation and the content of the gospel message.  Now, if Ravi is correct and the either/or laws of logic, including the law of non-contradiction, apply to reality, then we can be sure that they also apply to this controversy.

            Therefore, both of these incompatible soteriologies cannot be the biblical truth about sovereignty and salvation.  These two contradictory positions cannot both be true.  They both may be wrong, but as mutually exclusive positions they both cannot be right.  So which position is wrong and which is right?  As Ravi asks, “What do you do when there are conflicting truth claims?” 

The Importance of Interpretive Philosophical Assumptions or Hermeneutics

            This question brings us to our second point.  The answer is that you do what Ravi did when evaluating world religions.  You evaluate the conflicting truth claims on the basis of the laws of logic and the law of non-contradiction.  Recall that the fundamental problem Ravi found with the both/and way of reasoning is that it leads to nonsense.  It has no logic to it at all.  According to this way of thinking, two contradictory things can both be true.  This amounts to religious relativism or pluralism.[5]

            Now, we can evaluate the Calvinist and non-Calvinist positions on this same criteria of their philosophical assumptions.  The primary issue is not that the fundamental doctrines of Calvinism and non-Calvinism differ.  Rather, the real problem lies in their differing philosophical assumptions. These philosophical assumptions are what foster certain beliefs and allow those beliefs to be retained and propagated.  If the laws of logic apply to reality, then those laws, and especially the law of non-contradiction, cannot be ignored, even in biblical interpretation and theological construction.

            So the principle of non-contradiction is inviolable with respect to biblical interpretation and evaluating one’s interpretive conclusions or doctrines.  Therefore, we have to ask whether both positions include the laws of logic in their philosophical assumptions, or whether one or the other (or both) dismiss those laws in the interpretive process and in constructing and retaining their doctrinal conclusions.  We need to ask whether or not each position affirms the laws of logic.

             Given Ravi’s criteria of the laws of logic, the theological position that is wrong would be the one that not only contains and generates logical contradictions, but has accepted logical contradiction as a legitimate philosophical assumption.  That is, it is part and parcel of their philosophical assumptions that their interpretive conclusions need not be coherent, consistent or non-contradictory.  They need not make logical sense according to the either/or form of logic.

             When it comes to interpreting Scripture, this concern about “philosophical assumptions” is more properly called the discipline of hermeneutics.  Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpretation.  It seeks to discern those principles, by which if we interpret accordingly, should result in interpretations that more accurately express the author’s intended meaning and therefore can be deemed valid interpretations.  Hermeneutics deals with the principles by which we can know we are correctly interpreting the biblical text.

            So Ravi’s establishment of the laws of logic in this lecture has raised the issue of whether these same laws apply to biblical interpretation.  We have seen that they must, for they apply to all of reality.  Therefore, interpreting the Bible requires that we incorporate the laws of logic, which includes the law of non-contradiction.  We must work on the philosophical assumption that the laws of logic are indispensable if we are to make sense of the text.  We assume, and rightly so, that the authors of Scripture wanted to be clearly understood and therefore wrote in a coherent manner without inconsistency or contradiction.  It is as Ravi said, “…if one denies that the laws of logic apply to reality, how do we ever even converse?  The moment you open your mouth you assume a meaningful statement is about to be made…” We say the same for the biblical authors. The moment they put pen to paper we assume a meaningful statement was about to be written and that those statements, in relation to their immediate and broader contexts, are free of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.

The Difference between a Calvinist and Non-Calvinist Hermeneutic

            So what can we say about these principles in relation to the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy?  What are the hermeneutical assumptions each side brings to their exegesis and interpretation of the text?

I submit to you that the Calvinist has a very different hermeneutic under which they perform their interpretive task and support their interpretive conclusions.  The Calvinist allows for a both/and form of “logic” in which two contradictory things can both be true.  For instance, the Calvinist affirms a universal divine causal determinism by which God has predetermined all that occurs, which includes every person’s every thought and action – both good and evil.  And yet, the Calvinist also affirms human freedom, responsibility and culpability for our actions along with the contingent nature of reality.  But to hold to both determinism and contingency is to hold to a contradiction. The Calvinist also asserts that the Bible teaches God unconditionally elects or chooses who will be saved before they are even born (i.e., predestination), while also affirming that one’s salvation is conditional, that is, God offers salvation to all individuals and that the sinner is responsible for accepting or rejecting Christ and will be judged by God if they do reject him.  The incoherencies and contradictions in this both/and “logic” are obvious. The Calvinist makes salvation both unconditional and conditional. Interestingly, most Calvinists will ultimately admit to the logical and moral difficulties in their theology.  But, insisting that their doctrines are what the Bible teaches despite the logical and moral problems those doctrines produce, Calvinists “explain” these problems away as an incomprehensible mystery.  For the Calvinist, interpretive conclusions that are in logical and moral conflict can both be true.  We can therefore call this is a hermeneutic of incoherence.

            In contrast, the non-Calvinist interprets on the basis of an either/or form of logic.  Either God predetermines all things or there is genuine human freedom and responsibility.  It cannot be both.  Note that the non-Calvinist certainly affirms God is sovereign over his creation while humans are genuinely free, responsible beings, but their philosophical assumptions or hermeneutic does not allow them to define God’s sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism.  For that would make the propositions incoherent and contradictory.  Moreover, the non-Calvinist would maintain that either God unconditionally elects who will be saved or he ultimately leaves that decision to the individual who may be saved on the condition of faith or believing.  So for the non-Calvinist, interpretive conclusions that are in logical and moral contradiction cannot both be true.  We can call this non-Calvinist interpretive approach a hermeneutic of coherence.      

            So to merely have theological discussions at the level of doctrinal differences does not get to the crux of the matter in the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.  And as important as one’s exegesis is, it is not even a matter of what the Calvinist or non-Calvinist has concluded exegetically that is at issue here, not only because there is good and bad exegesis, but because we have to have some means by which to determine the truth among competing and conflicting exegeses.  Therefore, it is a matter of which hermeneutic is in play.  And since the laws of logic apply to reality, they also apply here.

            Therefore, if one holds to a hermeneutic of incoherence that allows them to claim that contradictory interpretations can both be true, as the Calvinist does, then not only do we know that the Calvinist has misinterpreted the text as some point, we can also see that the Calvinist has insulated his interpretations from being validated or invalidated because he has jettisoned the laws of logic from the interpretive task.  When the Calvinist’s interpretations are found to be incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory, these logical difficulties hold no interpretive significance for the Calvinist as to determining the validity or invalidity of their exegeses and interpretations.  For the one who adopts a hermeneutic of incoherence, that incoherence is not indicative of interpretive error.  This is why the primary issue is not “my exegesis indicates…”  Both sides have their exegesis of the pertinent texts.  What is crucial is to have the means by which we can determine the truth or falsity of incompatible exegeses.  And that is not merely a matter of doing exegesis – even good exegesis – although if rightly done by two or more exegetes, the results should significantly align.  The point is that good exegesis does not ignore coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  Hence, we can distinguish between an exegesis that is true to the text from one that is not by the presence or absence of logical coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  So, more fundamentally, our hermeneutic has to include coherence.  It has to abide by the laws of logic which apply to all of reality.

            But this ability has been taken from us by the one who adopts a hermeneutic of incoherence, and we are left with the problem that Ravi so aptly described when he said, “And if one denies that the laws of logic apply to reality, how do we ever even converse?  The moment you open your mouth you assume a meaningful statement is about to be made, and if somebody challenges that statement, how do you anchor anything in reality…?”  Given their hermeneutic of incoherence, the Calvinist is in effect denying that the laws of logic apply to biblical interpretations and theological construction and thereby insulating themselves from the force of a logical challenge to their interpretations and theology.  And if that is the case, we cannot meaningfully converse about exegetical interpretations and their results.  We cannot anchor our task or the debate in reality.  We are forced into an interpretive and theological relativism as far as the Calvinist doctrines are concerned.  The only option for the Calvinist is to assert question-begging incomprehensible mystery.  This goes a long way in explaining the Calvinist’s conspicuous silence when challenged on this matter of their interpretive incoherence.

            In contrast, if our hermeneutic incorporates the philosophical assumption that the laws of logic apply to biblical exegesis, interpretation and theological construction, that is, if we hold to a hermeneutic of coherence, then it will be those interpretations that are marked by coherence, consistency and non-contradiction that will be deemed the more valid interpretations.  They will emerge as the more faithful expressions of authorial intent.  Furthermore, when one accepts a hermeneutic of coherence and is confronted with interpretations that do not conform to those universally valid laws of logic by which we determine what is true from what is false, then those interpretations and doctrines must and will be deemed false.  Intellectual integrity demands it.  And the search for the truth demands it.

Sensitivity and Truth

            Ravi’s words about being sensitive to the positions and ideas of others are well taken.  We do not want to “trample underfoot” what other people think and believe.  We should speak the truth in love.  And yet, we cannot embrace an interpretive and theological relativism or religious pluralism.  Truth and love are not mutually exclusive.  The truth of a matter needs to be both pursued and communicated as lovingly as possible.  In fact, it is loving to get at and speak the truth. But getting at the truth and accepting that truth is the “counterpoint” to the sensitivity that Ravi speaks of.  We have to come to grips with the truth of a matter otherwise we are not being responsible Christian theologians, philosophers or apologists.

            Ravi asked, “…how does one really ever come to grips with truth if it is not put in contrast with conflicting truth claims.”  This has application to the evangelical church. Most evangelical Christians have adopted a theological and soteriological relativism with respect to the Calvinist and non-Calvinist differences.  Most Christian leaders, pastors and laypersons have relegated these important theological and soteriological differences to the side-lines, labeling them “non-essential” or “secondary” doctrinal matters.  And therefore important biblical texts and the truths they contain, including the very gospel itself, have also been side-lined with them.  Most believers fail to understand that not only our capability to rightly divide the Word of truth is at stake here, but the character of God and the gospel message are also at stake.  The evangelical church needs to demonstrate that it cherishes truth and the gospel enough to foster serious and civil discussion on these hermeneutical matters.  Concerns about the preservation of a superficial Christian “unity” and not causing divisions should not be allowed to derail our passion for pursuing and coming to know what is true with respect to these differences.  Truth cannot be sacrificed to the prevailing mindset of “why can’t we all just get along?” Moreover, boasts of present unity and non-division ring hollow when both of these two mutually exclusive positions are given biblical and practical legitimacy in most evangelical churches.

            Ravi asked, “What do you do when there are conflicting truth claims?”  His answer was to affirm the laws of logic and the law of non-contradiction.  Yet, two mutually exclusive theologies and soteriologies are being embraced in the evangelical church today.  The Calvinist and non-Calvinist interpretations are conflicting truth claims and therefore cannot both be true.  These incompatible soteriologies also have radically different implications for the gospel message as “good news.”  Therefore, they are also conflicting truth claims with respect to the gospel.  Hence, the central message of Scripture is at stake in this controversy.  The Calvinist and non-Calvinist gospels cannot both be true.  I contend that the Calvinist soteriological doctrines do not offer trulygood news” to sinners.  And although the Calvinist’s “doctrines of grace” are the full and final explanation as to how and why one person is saved and another is not, these doctrines cannot, and usually are not, employed by Calvinists in evangelism.  This is because there is no “good news” in the Calvinist’s “doctrines of grace.”  There is only “news.”[6]  I therefore agree with Calvinist John MacArthur when he states,

               “Indifference, timidity, compromise, and nonresistance are all ruled out as options for Christians when the gospel is under attack.”[7]

            So the answer to Ravi’s question “What do you do when there are conflicting truth claims?” requires us to adopt the non-Calvinist’s hermeneutic of coherence.  If we are going to affirm the laws of logic and the law of non-contradiction, then it is incumbent upon us intellectually and interpretively to reject the Calvinist’s hermeneutic of incoherence.  The former gives us the means by which to affirm the validity of an interpretive claim.  The latter does not.

Establishing or Avoiding Interpretive Validity

            And this leads us to Ravi’s third point about the impossibility of meeting the challenge that the both/and form of “logic” presents and the arguments it offers.  Those who jettison the laws of logic cannot be reasoned with regarding the truth or falsity of their position or beliefs.  It is important to understand that what the Calvinist’s hermeneutic of incoherence does is insulate the Calvinists interpretations from reasoned critique, at least as far as they are concerned.  For the Calvinist, logical and moral coherence have no significance in determining the truth or validity of their interpretations.  Their hermeneutic of incoherence leaves the Calvinist free to take refuge in their own exegesis of the relevant texts and to excuse their logical and moral problems by resorting to “mystery” or “incomprehensibility” thereby transferring the problem to Scripture itself and away from the question of the accuracy of their textual exegeses and interpretations of that Scripture.  Their exegeses and doctrinal conclusions become the a priori truth about the text.  Their logical and moral difficulties ultimately do not matter in an assessment of the validity of their interpretations.

            This is akin to the type of challenge that Ravi said is “impossible to meet” that he found in the reasoning of Islamic scholars.  “The challenge” the Calvinist has placed before us is to accept their interpretations as valid despite their incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions.  But this is to knock the rational grounds right out from under us – the rational grounds we need to discern whether or not an interpretation is valid.  They want us to remove rational and moral considerations from the interpretive task.  Who then can argue with “a mystery” or with what is “incomprehensible.”  Moreover, “tension” and “antinomy” are misnomers for incoherence.  The Calvinist has jettisoned logical and moral reasoning from their hermeneutic.  And although Calvinism can still be critiqued on those grounds, the Calvinist is impervious to such critiques, thereby isolating himself from the probative force of the deliverances of philosophical reflection along with the deliberations of our moral intuitions, let alone the sound alternative exegetical treatments of the controversial texts that non-Calvinists put forward.

            One can argue at the level of exegesis, interpretation and doctrinal differences, but it is one’s philosophical assumptions or hermeneutic that ultimately determines for them whether their exegeses and interpretations are valid or not.  This is why the controversy continues.  Not because of exegetical differences per se, but because for the Calvinist logical and moral reasoning are put out of court for determining validity in interpretation.[8]  Their exegesis stands by virtue of being their exegesis.  Period. 

Summary and Conclusions

            So we have seen that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies are mutually exclusive.  Therefore, the options are that one is true and the other false or both are false. They both cannot be true.  This should have profound implications for the thoughtful Christian.  We must acknowledge that one or the other of these soteriologies is not what the Bible teaches and therefore needs correcting.

            We have also seen that most fundamentally there are two types of hermeneutics at work in this controversy – the Calvinist hermeneutic of incoherence and the non-Calvinist hermeneutic of coherence.  On the basis of the philosophical assumptions or hermeneutical principles discussed above, we can know that the Calvinist’s hermeneutic is wrong precisely because it is a hermeneutic of incoherence.  It violates the laws of logic.  A hermeneutic of incoherence leads to false conclusions about the text precisely because its interpretative results are marked by incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  So not only is one or the other of these positions taken as a whole either true or false because they are mutually exclusive, what we now know is that at least on sovereignty and salvation Calvinism must be false precisely because its own interpretations produce contradictory results.  The Calvinist exegeses and interpretations of the texts in question (e.g., Eph. 1, Rom. 9, Jn. 6, et al.) result in incoherence, inconsistent and contradictory doctrinal results with other texts, themes and the worldview of Scripture itself.  The biblical worldview affirms a reality that includes genuine contingency which stands in contradiction with the theistic determinism of Calvinism.  Therefore, the Calvinist’s hermeneutic of incoherence is an unacceptable hermeneutic and signals that the Calvinist has misinterpreted the texts in question.

            Therefore, those who employ a hermeneutic of coherence, in conjunction with other essential interpretive practices, have supported the validity of their interpretations, while those who employ a hermeneutic of incoherence must conclude that the pertinent texts are being misinterpreted in some respect.  Jettisoning the laws of logic is not a responsible intellectual or interpretive option. Therefore, on the basis of the laws of logic, we can know that the hermeneutic that allows for incoherent interpretations cannot and does not provide us with an accurate understanding of the texts.  We can know that its interpretations cannot be true.  In contrast, all else being equal, the hermeneutic of coherence would better reflect the meaning of the author in any particular text and in relation to other texts.  Coherence is a necessary element in a sound hermeneutic and therefore is the hermeneutic that can best provide us with the meaning the author intended.  Granted, coherence is not a sufficient condition for determining interpretive validity, but it is a necessary condition.  And this is why the Calvinist position fails.  It fails because coherence is a necessary condition for declaring an interpretation valid, and the Calvinist interpretations result in incoherence.[9]  Without coherence an interpretation must be declared false.

            If we are to hold to the laws of logic as applicable to reality, we must conclude that the Calvinist interpretations that result in incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions must be false and those non-Calvinist interpretations that demonstrate coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are more likely to be true.

Ravi’s question remains extremely relevant.  “So what do you do when there are conflicting truth claims?”

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