Resolving Biblical Tension: Don’t Get All Philosophical

I recently came across an interesting interview with John MacArthur that primarily deals with predestination and evangelism.

First of all, I consider myself an Arminian, although I continue to be fascinated by many Calvinist thinkers (including MacArthur). Regarding this particular interview, however, I’d like to bypass any of my disagreements with the doctrine of predestination and instead focus on MacArthur’s thoughts about biblical tension.

You can watch the video here:

The initial question is this: “How do we tell people God loves them, and that Jesus Christ did not die for them?” (BTW, he did!)

MacArthur answers as follows:

You tell them whatever the Bible tells you to tell them…Any tension you have between [evangelism] and the nature of the atonement — any tension you have between that and the doctrine of divine election and predestination — any tension you feel in those areas, I feel. I feel the same tension. I ask the same question. I don’t know that there’s some kind of quick answer to the question.

In other words, MacArthur accepts that his view presents a conflict in human terms. If the Bible tells us to evangelize but also tells us that humans do not have a choice, why would we ever need to evangelize? For MacArthur, resolving such a conflict is simple: The Bible promotes both, and thus inconsistency is not an issue — whether he understands the resolution or not.

Indeed, although I disagree with MacArthur’s conclusions on predestination, I agree that we as Christians must often dwell in such tension. In my case, predestination is perhaps a good example, primarily because I have often had similar questions to MacArthur’s from my opposite Arminian perspective. For as many verses I can find that support my Arminian view, I can find many that pose a conflict that points toward the Calvinist “side.” I can certainly resolve that conflict to the best of my ability, but what is to be the guide of such a resolution?

As far as how we should resolve such seemingly conflicting pieces within the Bible, MacArthur provides the following instruction (or warning):

You guys want to be very careful in the tensions that are in this — and it flows through every major doctrine in scripture that connects the sinner with God. You don’t want to resolve that tension by asking philosophical questions. You always want to live in that tension by being obedient to scripture.

At this point, the average atheist would jump to his feet and proclaim another dastardly act of “irrational religiosity,” and such a view is certainly understandable. If the Bible is not the word of God (it is), and if God’s ways are not higher than our ways (they are), then obviously relying on God (or “some book!”) to fill our intellectual gaps would be silly.

tensionBut for those of us who accept God’s word to be true, MacArthur’s conclusion is certainly valid — particularly on a matter as mysterious, complex, and unknown as the concept of an omniscient and omnipotent heavenly being.

We certainly may be able to leverage science or philosophy to reach “acceptable” answers on these questions, but as MacArthur notes, digging in such areas is not a reliable starting point for large-scale theological investigation.

There are plenty of counterintuitive, complex notions to be found within the Bible, but shouldn’t we rely on the Bible to resolve its own tensions if we do indeed believe it to be the true (and consistent) word of God?

What are your thoughts?

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  • Stittler

    The reason for the supposed tension is that MacArthur is wrong. MacArthur has adopted several fallacies; found them to be incompatible with scripture and logical and hence concluded
    “but it's OK, because the Bible says so” (which it does not).
    When our immediate approach to supposed inconsistencies is to adopt an “it's in the Bible, so there” we are barred from over coming error and embracing truth since the error is not recognized. The Bible flows with philosophical consistency and truth. There may be contradictions at a glance but as we develop and dig in our understanding the contradictions unravel themselves into a flow of truth.
    The problem MacArthur faces is he believes in a blasphemous and unbiblical belief, yet tries to insert it as truth. His pentagram peg does not fit in a cross shaped hole nor does comply with human logic. Yet the fanfare that is written in scripture sounds pious but alas he is a mere “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

  • JP Nunez

    This is an interesting question, and I think that ultimately it boils down to humility. We have to recognize that we don't know everything. We don't have all the answers. But that doesn't mean that there aren't answers out there (even if nobody has discovered them yet). It's like science. Scientists don't know everything about nature, and they often encounter data that seems to contradict accepted theories or that is difficult to explain, but they don't simply throw their hands up in frustration and give up. No, they keep their faith in the intelligibility and reasonableness of the world, and they keep doing scientific research. And the same thing is true of our faith. We can't give it up just because we can't explain everything about it. Rather, we have to be humble and accept the fact that we don't know everything yet still keep our faith, confident that there is an answer even if we don't know what it is.

  • Remnant Culture

    When it comes to encountering Biblical tension, it's no time to get all philosophical:

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  • Joseph Sunde

    When it comes to resolving Biblical tension, it's no time to get all philosophical. Check out this video:

  • Reyjacobs

    “The Bible flows with philosophical consistency and truth.”

    Not it does NOT. PAul himself teaches justification by works clearly in Romans 1-2, then undoes it all in chapter 3 and beyond with a new viewpoint, justification by faith APART from works. Whereas James says plainly that justification is by a COMBINATION of faith and works. Jesus also speaks in John of those who have “done good” rising to justification and those who have done evil rising to damnation” in the later portion of John, whereas earlier it was “whosoever believes.” Not to mention that in Matthew early on Jesus speaks of good men as in “God causes the sun to shine on the GOOD and the bad” and “a good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things” but then later in the dialogue with the rich young ruler “none is good but one, ie. God.”

    As if these philosophical inconsistencies were not enough, there’s also the biblical treatment of freewill vs predestination. Some passages in Paul support predestination, some freewill. Same for Psalms. Original sin is somewhat supported by Romans 5 and by that passage in the Torah about God visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the 4th generation. Yet Ezekiel is clear that God will not condemn any man for his fathers’ sins (Ezek 18). Also there is a passage in Joshua where Akin steals “the accursed thing” and God command that he and his wife and his children be put to death (where obviously Akin alone was responsible) which is 100% a contradiction against another passage in the Torah instructing that a man’s children NOT be put to death for his sins.

    Ok then there’s the story in Deut about the man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath and how God commands that he be put to death since picking up sticks is work. But when Jesus heals a paralyzed man on the Sabbath in John 5 he commands that man to carry his bed home (also work obviously), and then acts all offended when the Pharisees point out that he just violated the Torah. Philosophical consistency my butt.

  • Reyjacobs

    The Bible is a work of philosophy written by a bunch of men who couldn’t agree. Even within one book you encounter multiply authors. Matthew was not written by Matthew but by at least two men who are now being called “Matthew,” as with Romans it is obvious that Romans 1-2, 12-16 and 3-11 were not written by the same author. The philosophical viewpoint is just too different. And as with all philosophy, therefore, you should accept the part of the Bible that makes sense and reject the rest. (Who after all doesn’t somewhat do this already? Who believes with the Paul of Romans 1-2 that justification is by works, with James that it is by a combo of faith and works, and yet also with the Paul of Romans 3-11 that it is by faith apart from works? Who believes this all at once? Not even the Biblical inerrantist can pull this off!!!!!!!!!!!)