The incoherency of the Christian faith or “Why Calvinism is Confusing, Yet True”

(HT Parchment and Pen)

I had a gentleman come by the Credo House the other day. I think he just came to argue. He was one of “them.” You know what I am talking about. You would think that we would get more of these types, but this was actually the first one in the eight-month existence of the Credo House. Here was his basic argument: “If it does not make rational sense, we should not believe it.” In his view, we are obligated to understand something before we commit our belief to it. Therefore, this guy rejected some important doctrines of classical Christianity.

Christianity is often confusing. Reality is often confusing. There are certain things that we believe that simply must be, but they don’t “add up.” A good theologian needs to have worked through this. While we should be extremely diligent and committed to a task of understanding truth, a lack of understanding does not necessarily mean that it cannot be true. In other words, coherence is not the final and infallible test of truth.

It is interesting to me to see the charges of “incoherency” that we can often bring against those who oppose our perspective. Calvinist do so with Arminians and Arminians do so with Calvinists. Egalitarians to so with Complementarians and Complementarians do so with Egalitarians. “You view simply does not account for __________ and my view does. Therefore, my view is right.” Or, “If what you say is true, here is the crazy situation you find yourself in . . .” Formally, these type of arguments are called reductio ad absurdum and they are more often than not very effective in giving logical and emotional credit to your case.

Don’t get me wrong, much of the time this can be a legitimate charge that should give pause to the proponent. So I am not saying that incoherency is a position of value by any means.

However, I think that Christians must realize that there are some things in our world view that are going to be beyond our coherence tolerance.

Let me talk about this word “incoherency” for a moment. Here are some synonyms for what I am talking about: unintelligibility; inconsistency; incomprehensibility; discontinuity.

What I am talking about are those things that we believe which lack some degree of viability due to their confused nature. This confusion may be emotional or intellectual. It may be based on how we feel things should be or how we think things should be. In some sense, these things lack a degree of credibility due to our inability to coherently understand them and relate them to other things we know.

Here are some examples:

1. Calvinistic understanding of predestination: A belief that while God loves everyone, he only chose a few.

2. Arminian belief in libertarian freedom: A belief that an act of our will can be birthed from neutrality.

3. Christian belief in creation ex-nihilo: A belief that God created all that there is from that which does not exist.

4. Christian doctrine of the Trinity: God is one in substance, three in person.

5. Christian belief in the hypostatic union: Christ is fully God and fully man; one person, two complete natures which are neither confused or divided.

6. Christian belief in human freedom and divine foreknowledge: God exhaustively knows the future, yet the future is a result of free choices, including God’s.

7. Christian belief that God is transcendent and imminent: God, in his essence, transcends time and does not experience a succession of moments yet he truly interacts in time.

8. Jesus Christ’s incarnation and fellowship in the Trinity: The Second member of the Trinity, while in eternal transcendent immutable unity in the Godhead, becomes forever incarnate in a time-bound universe in Christ.

9. The atheistic view that there is no ultimate beginning (some atheists): An infinite number of moments cannot be traversed, yet we have somehow traversed an infinite number of moments to get here.

10. Christian belief in God’s universal foreknowledge and love and in the doctrine of hell: Although God is good and loving, he chose to create people who he knew were going to reject him and go to an eternal hell.

Now this is a large and varied list. Many of these I agree with and some I don’t. Some of these represent outright contradictions and analytical absurdities, and some are legitimate mysteries that have no formal absurdity, but are incoherent from the standpoint of a limited observer. Some are a standard part of Christian orthodoxy and some are positions about which there is legitimate disagreement and alternatives. Obviously, not all are in agreement about which fits into what category. Christians would all agree that #9 presents a logical absurdity. I will leave it to you to decide on the rest for now!

Some people distinguish between a contradiction and a paradox. A paradox is something that may be true but beyond our understanding while a contradiction cannot be true by definition.

Let me focus on #10 for a moment. All branches of historic orthodox Christianity believe that 10 is correct. Whether you Roman Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian, Baptist or Presbyterian, all believe that God created people knowing that they would end up in hell. All orthodox Christians believe that it is biblical to teach these four things:

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Of course, there are solutions, but all of them require changing what seems to be a clear teaching of Scripture as well as sacrificing one’s standing in orthodox Christianity for the sake of coherence, emotional or logical.

Here is what the options look like:

Open Theism

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Universalism

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Pantheism (though I don’t know of any “Christian” pantheism)

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Hyper-Calvinism

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

In the end, I think it is best that we leave all four in place and recognize the paradoxical difficulty with this issue.

If absolute coherence, emotional or logical, is your goal, then you will never find a system that is completely satisfying. Never. Even in science, room must be left for anomalies (things that don’t make sense under the current paradigm of data). More importantly, I think it is vital to recognize that while coherence is indeed something we should diligently strive for, it is not the highest priority in the Christian faith. The highest priority for the Christian is to let rightly interpreted Scripture be our ultimate source for truth. Emotion and reason are not unimportant, it is just that they must be submitted to Scripture. Anyone can twist and manipulate Scripture to make it fit their idea of coherency. I see this done every day. Anyone can come up with a more palatable solution and force the puzzle to create a new picture, but palatability is not the final test of truth. Scripture is.

However, I don’t want it to sound as if incoherency is the highest ideal. I have also seen this “I-believe-because-it-is-absurd” mentality. We should never adopt such an irresponsible stance. While a modernistic ideal of perfect harmony in understanding is not our guide, harmony is more often than not a characteristic of truth. Disharmony and true incoherency are, more often than not, a hallmark of error.

As well, it is important to realize that just because something does not seem to have coherence, this does not make it truly incoherent. Often we are too limited to find coherence, even though it is actually present. In other words, just because something may seem incoherent to us, this does not mean that it is incoherent to God. While the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery to us, it is not a mystery to God. Some things in Christianity do not seem to have coherence, but this does not mean that they are truly incoherent. (And yes, this does make the title of this article misleading.)

In this, we must realize that there are some things that God has withheld information about for his own reasons. Could God have made everything perfectly understandable and emotionally satisfying? Most certainly. The fact that he has not does not make his truth any less true, it just mean that he, for some reason, from time to time, wants us to believe something even though he does not want us to understand it.

A very particular Scripture comes to mind here:

Deut. 29:29
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

The “secret things” are those things that God has, for whatever reason, intentionally withheld. But, thankfully, the emphasis in this passage is on “the things revealed,” and they belong to us forever.

God may never clear everything up. And he might make it all clear someday. I don’t know. As a Calvinist, one of the seemingly incoherent things that I believe is that God could have elected everyone, but he did not. Why? I will ask him one day. Will he tell me? I don’t know. Either way, I know that he is righteous and he is good. These missing pieces of the puzzle gives me no right to doubt him when he has already proven himself in so many ways. I know that if I dare to judge him by manipulating the truth to make it more palatable, he will prevail (Rom. 3:7).

While there are so many things we can understand, we must recognize that there is true mystery to which we must submit. When we get the temptation to judge God by manipulating the truth, let’s pause and learn to find stability even when things are not as palatable or coherent as we would like them to be.