Why Theology Needs Philosophy: A Case Study

Unknown-3In his book Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, D. A. Carson argues that Scripture unmistakably demonstrates both divine sovereignty and human responsibility.[1] For any theology that is to be faithful to Scripture, divine sovereignty and human responsibility must be upheld. Moreover, it must be upheld without denying other key tenants of biblical orthodoxy such as divine goodness, omnipotence, and omniscience.

Carson’s book provides important controls for the philosophical theologian: when doing philosophical theology, whatever is demanded by Scripture ought to be part of one’s mature theory. (Whatever is consistent with Scripture may be a part of one’s mature theory, and whatever is inconsistent with Scripture ought not be a part of one’s mature theory). All of this is well and good. But, as Thomas H. McCall has demonstrated in his book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology, Carson in particular, and the biblical theologian in general, would do well to learn from the discipline of philosophy too.[2] In Carson’s case, a fundamental confusion could be avoided if his biblical theology was brought into conversation with philosophy.

Carson thinks divine sovereignty and human responsibility can be consistently affirmed by endorsing “compatibilism.” But, for Carson, compatibilism is not merely a possible, or even plausible, way of reconciling divine sovereignty and human responsibility, it is a sine qua non of orthodoxy: “Compatibilism is a necessary component to any mature and orthodox view of God and the world.”[3] A rejection of compatibilism would “destroy biblical Christianity.”[4] These are strong words, and as a philosopher who seeks to be faithful to Scripture, I find them puzzling. Perhaps Scripture is consistent with compatibilism (although I have my doubts, nicely captured in this essay by Jerry Walls), but to say that Scripture demands compatibilism seems clearly false. Let’s begin by probing, as philosophers are wont to do, the issue a bit deeper.

First, What is compatibilism? This is a question for philosophy. We are asking about the metaphysical nature of human free will and its relation to the world. The standard definition of compatibilism, again, coming from philosophy is as follows. Compatibilism is the doctrine that human freedom (and responsibility) is compatible with being determined. While there are multiple versions of compatibilism, this basic definition is true of all.

Second, How does Carson understand compatibilism? As Carson sees it, compatibilism teaches the following:[5]

(DS) God is utterly sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions to mitigate human responsibility.

(MR) Human beings are morally responsible creatures, but their moral responsibility never functions to make God absolutely contingent.

Notice, what Carson means by “compatibilism” is just that freedom is compatible with divine sovereignty (not determinism). In other words, he is restating the fact that Scripture upholds both divine sovereignty and human responsibility (and freedom). But, importantly his “compatibilism” isn’t compatibilism. Why does this matter? Because many theologians, apologists, and lay readers think Carson’s “compatibilism” is compatibilism and wrongly assume the biblical teaching supports, even demands, the idea that being determined by God is compatible with human freedom. But this is simply not the case.

From this brief case study, I offer the following three lessons.

Lesson #1: Philosophy can bring clarity and coherence to biblical theology. Carson’s use of a term that has a standard usage in philosophy contributes to confusion in theology. There needs to be a two-way conversation between theology and philosophy. As the early Church Fathers put it, theology is the queen of the science and philosophy is the handmaiden (the servant). Carson would benefit from allowing the handmaiden to help!

Lesson #2: Often, the biblical texts are underdetermined with respect to a position, and it is left to philosophy to fill out the details. Even as divine sovereignty and human responsibility are demanded by Scripture, the exact nature of each of these doctrines is underdetermined by Scripture and it is left to the philosophical theologian to press on for more clarity and precision. This is why we have Calvinists, Molinists, Thomists, Arminians, Open Theists, and more. As McCall nicely summarizes, the biblical theologian helps us with “narrative coherence” and the philosophical theologian can assist with “logical coherence.”[6]

Lesson #3: Some theological claims are demanded by Scripture (e.g., divine sovereignty and human responsibility), others are consistent with Scripture (compatibilist and incompatibilist views of freedom, divine atemporality and divine temporality) and some are inconsistent with Scripture (e.g., Arianism, Gnosticism, Pelagianism, etc).[7] Consistency with Scripture is the minimum “revelational control”[8] that should guide the philosophical theologian. We first ask, what is Scripture’s clear teaching on the matter, and then push forward using the tools of analytic philosophy. The goal of this “faith seeking understanding” approach to theology is clarity, precision, and ultimately truth. With respect to the doctrine of God, it will also lead to an expanded view of God’s greatness, a renewed sense of awe, and worship.



[1] D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981).

[2] Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), chap. 2.

[3] D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 54. Quoted in McCall, An Invitation, 59.

[4] Ibid., 53. Quoted in McCall, An Invitation, 59.

[5] As cited in McCall, An Invitation, 60.

[6] McCall, An Invitation, 80.

[7] McCall, An Invitation, 56.

[8] Thomas Morris, Anselmian Explorations (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 25, cited in McCall, An Invitation, 52.

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