I’ll admit it. I love to argue. Especially about theology. There really is nothing more exhilarating (I know, I’m exposing my inner nerd). Of course the question is, why? Is it pride? Wanting to be right? Being a truth-seeker? The enjoyment of hearing new ideas? My answer is somewhere between, I don’t know, and, all of the above. But I have noticed something that is almost always involved when arguing theology. Something astounding. Someone will make their point and wrap it up in a Bible verse. The respondent will rebuttal with a different verse, confirming his or her counter point. And so it goes on. Sometimes for minutes, and sometimes hours. Meanwhile, there are several confusing questions any bystanders may begin to develop. If both ideas are being combated and backed by Scripture: 1. Who is right? 2. How can we ever make a firm stance on the subject if the Bible supports both ideas? 3. How can we trust the Bible if it contradicts itself?
Is there a solution?
Assuming that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, (which historical orthodox Christianity has always affirmed); and assuming that Scripture does not contradict itself, (which is self-evident in the answer to the first question); and assuming that God has communicated clearly to us in his Word, (which, if false, renders the Bible useless, and God unhelpful at the very least, and possibly cruel), there must be a reasonable answer to the argument. Puritan John Owen declared, “If Scripture has more than one interpretation, it has no interpretation at all.” So let’s look at an example.
Predestination vs. Freewill.
Two of the most common rival systematic structures of belief within Christianity are Calvinism and Arminianism. These two doctrines are by no means simplistic, but I am going to take one of the forefront doctrines from both of them and compare them to give a helpful example. I will list two Bible verses in favor of each position, and then show how the Scripture should properly be reconciled, rather than used to shoot itself.
Topic: Does God predestine the salvation and damnation of every human being, OR does mankind choose to become a Christian through his God given free will?
Calvinism: God predestines the salvation of all who will become Christians, (also known as the Elect), and predestines the damnation of the lost.
- Ephesians 1:4-5 – “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.”
- John 15:16 – “You did not choose me, but I chose you…”
Arminianism: Jesus, through the cross, has made salvation possible for all people, and has given us the free will to accept or reject it.
- Revelation 3:20 – “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
- Deuteronomy 30:19 – “I have set before you life and death, blessing and Therefore choose life…”
It is pretty obvious where the disagreement/confusion lies. These verses seem to be speaking in complete opposition to one another. If we accept both at face value, it’s a contradiction. If we pick one over the other, we are Biblically inconsistent. A more popular method of avoidance for those of us who are Christians and affirm the infallibility of the Bible, is to say, “That doesn’t mean…” The Calvinist responds, “Those verses aren’t saying people have free will.” But let’s be consistent. The key word in Deuteronomy is “choose,” and Revelation 3 is an invitation awaiting a response. On the other side the response is usually something like, “God predestines those who choose to call on him,” or, “God knows who will call on his name before we were born, but that doesn’t mean he predestines them,” or, “For God to predestine people to hell makes him cruel.” Instead, let us come to the scripture with humility. Not bringing to the table our preferred systematic and compartmentalized theology, but asking, “God, what are you saying here?”
How often do you look at a clock? An old school clock with two hands? This would have been a ridiculous question only a few decades ago, but our cellphones have made clocks and watches items of décor or accessory, rather than necessity. Regardless, when you look at a clock, unless you have the mind of an engineer, you never pay any thought to the gears. If you want to know what time it is you look at the face of the clock. You determine what the minute hand is communicating in relation to the hour hand, and how both of them interact with the numbers on the clock’s face. But those things do not make the clock work, the gears do. The face simply communicates what the gears and battery allow them to communicate. This is the answer to our theological dilemma. Predestination or free will? We cannot simply decide by logical deduction, or by playing “eeny meeny miney mo.” From our perspective, we only see the “face” of the issue. As far as you or I am concerned, each of us is commanded by God to “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). We are commanded in Deuteronomy to “choose life.” Yet we cannot simply reject one Scripture to accept another. We must take all of Scripture as the true, inerrant Word of God, or none at all. So can these two doctrines be reconciled? Of course. They are both in the Bible. As far as we see, we call upon the name of the Lord, we repent, we are baptized, and we strive to live Godly lives in Christ. Yet at the same time Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). There are two sides of the clock. The gears do not discount the face, nor do they make the face a farce. On the other hand the face, being all that we see, is not all that we know about the way the clock works. God’s sovereignty becomes an abused doctrine when we cause it to do away with man’s choice, or when we make God out to have been deceiving us, or joking, or playing a cruel trick, by leading us to believe we have free will, while in fact we have not. On the other hand, the proverbial “face of the clock” is not the only truth God has revealed to us in Scripture. God has spoken plainly that he is the author of all of history, on both the macro and the micro level. And that truth, above all else, goes for the salvation of the Elect.
So to answer this question plainly, yes. God is entirely sovereign, and at the same time we are entirely responsible for the choices we make (and yes, we really do make these choices. They are not made for us). How we live in response to this reality is that we strive to work hard, live well, and love generously, knowing that God will hold us accountable for how we choose to live our lives. And at the same time, we should worship God passionately, trust him completely, and rest in him peacefully, knowing that our God is totally in control.
Admittedly, answering this singular theological question will not resolve all of our doctrinal difficulty when we approach the Scriptures, but my hope is that perhaps it will do four things:
- I hope it will give some sort of framework with which to approach seemingly contradictory verses in the future.
- I hope it gives you hope that difficult ideas found in Scripture can be reconciled.
- I want it to help us see that not everything has to be an argument. Sometimes there are two sides on the same coin.
- I want it to cause us to be humble and reverent enough to keep from putting God against himself by fighting Scripture with Scripture.
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