Two Truths and No Lie: Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Is there a solution to the “problem” of reconciling divine sovereignty and human responsibility? I use quotes because there are many who say there’s no problem whatsoever. God is sovereign. However, while most readers of Scripture would agree with this, it is likewise too facile an explanation of all the biblical data. My thoughts were once again drawn the topic by reading D. A. Carson’s Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension. I have respected Dr. Carson for years, and have heard him preach on many occasions. I know him to be a careful student of the biblical text, and thoroughly non-partisan when it comes to weighing the evidence. This is one reason I was keen to read his book.

I read Carson as part of a fairly long-term investigation into the extent of the atonement. However, I found that this wasn’t Carson’s purpose in the book. Indeed, his parameters are specific. He begins with select passages of the Old Testament, and then moves through the apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Jewish literature after the destruction of the Temple. In the New Testament, he confines the investigation to John’s gospel. Given these boundaries, it isn’t surprising if Carson doesn’t offer assessments on the question of the extent of the atonement. Since the book began as his doctoral dissertation, it is technical in many places, copiously footnoted, and rigorously researched.

My observations are chiefly about method and tone. When it comes to method, Carson begins with this affirmation: “I frankly doubt that finite human beings can cut the Gordian knot; at least, this finite human being cannot. The sovereignty-responsibility tension is not a problem to be solved; rather, it is a framework to be explored.”[1] This is a refreshingly honest admission that, rather than come to definitive conclusions about one thing over against another being true, he acknowledges that (as the subtitle reads) these two exist in tension with one another. Too few apologists are willing to say so, perhaps feeling that it would be a weakness to admit it. On the contrary, it bows to the reality that there are insoluble mysteries in Scripture.

When it seems like Carson is going to come down squarely on one side of a question, he always pulls back from the precipice and gives the other, mitigating truth. For example, in assessing the way John presents election, it is clear Carson believes God sovereignly elects some to salvation, but says “nevertheless it would be premature to conclude that reprobation is the symmetrical antithesis of election. John nowhere states that Jesus chose men to be condemned.”[2] Such a view isn’t typically Calvinist, which Carson more or less identifies with.

Carson will also not go with some who want to insist that “world” as used by the 4th evangelist can refer to the elect. This may solve a difficulty with the most famous verse in Scripture, but it stretches the language. He considers “all without exception” as a possible meaning, and considers its pluses, but tends more toward an “all without distinction” kind of view, but adds “although there are some helpful insights in this approach, it is probably inadequate in itself.”[3] Election is there in John, but so is a love for the whole world. This means neither absolute universalism, nor “that God is frustrated if all the world is not saved.”[4] Here again, Carson is willing to accept two truths without trying to shoehorn one into an uncomfortable fit.

There are things he does say that I’m not sure I would go with him on, viz., that faith is the evidence of new birth, not the instrument of it. It would have been interesting to read his thoughts on other NT literature for this question. But throughout the work, Carson’s tone is ever charitable, fair to those he disagrees with, and willing to give a fair consideration to other viewpoints. This is the mark not only of good scholarship, but spiritual maturity. May his tribe increase!

His final theological observations are helpful for how they summarize the status quaestionis. Above all, we should avoid a reductionist mindset that so favors one side of the truth that the other is reduced to playing little to no part. Such is to bring one’s theological grid as a precursor than fit the texts into it, rather than letting the texts take us to conclusions. Ultimately, Carson says, “a fair treatment of the biblical data leaves the sovereignty-responsibility tension restless in our hands.”[5]

When investigating thorny questions of theology that admit of no easy solutions, our methods should be to avoid reductionism while at the same time being fair to the evidence (and to those who come to different conclusions.)

[1] D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Eugene, Wipf and Stock, 2002), 2.

[2] Carson, 196.

[3] Carson, 174.

[4] Carson, 175.

[5] Carson, 220.

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