The Oxford Dictionary defines “contingent” as:
“conditional; dependent. That may or may not occur. Accidental.”
For something to be “contingent” means, as the Oxford Dictionary tells us, that it is a “dependent” factor. Because the event or thing depends on other events or things, it “may or may not occur.” It will not necessarily happen; but there is the possibility. Dr. Ken Keathley defines contingency in this manner:
“Contingency, simply put, is the notion that something could have been otherwise. A contingent truth is something that happens to be true but obviously could have been false” (Kenneth Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, page 28).
For instance, when I was a child, my mother used to tell me and my twin sister the importance of not fighting at school. She used to always say, “You don’t have to hit someone because they hit you back.” In mom’s eyes, we had options: we could either hit the person and get in a fight, or we could refrain and report it to the teacher. Either way, it wasn’t necessary to do either action. Both actions were “contingent” in that they depended upon personal choice.
Dr. Ken Keathley, in his book “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, argues the biblical basis for Molinism in his section titled “Creation and Creaturely Freedom,” where he discusses the idea of contingency. Contingency is both a philosophical and theological idea:
“Philosophers and theologians often speak of contingency in terms of modal logic. Terms like ‘contingency’ and ‘modal’ seem imposing, but they really refer to ways of thinking we use in everyday life. Modal logic is the systematic study of common terms such as ‘might,’ ‘must,’ ‘possibly,’ ‘necessarily,’ ‘ought to,’ ‘have to,’ and ‘could not have done otherwise.’ We have a pretty good intuitive sense of what these expressions mean, but working out the relationship between these concepts can be difficult” (28).
Keathley’s point here is a fine one. Here, he goes into an area I call “the philosophy of language,” where he talks about language and what language means as worked out in Scripture. If we as genuine Christians believe in “Verbal-plenary” inspiration, then we must believe that every word (verbal) is fully inspired, not just concepts or sentences or paragraphs (verbal-plenary inspiration is supported by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy). This is where Calvinists face real problems, for “might” does not mean the same as “must,” and “should” does not mean the same as “could.” If one desires to test this theory out, confuse the terms in everyday life and examine the problems it causes. If a person reads a medicine bottle with the directions, “you must take three pills a day,” and decides he will take one pill a day (“must” confused with “might”), or no pills at all, wait and see if he will get better physically...or worse...
But the idea of contingency is not just a philosophical concept, it is also theological and confirms the biblical idea of human responsibility:
“When Samuel informed Saul that God had rejected him as king, he told him that it could have been otherwise, Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have been foolish. You have not kept the command which the LORD your God gave you. IT WAS AT THIS TIME THAT THE LORD WOULD [emphasis added] have permanently established your reign over Israel, but now your reign will not endure’ (1 Sam. 13:13-14). Samuel pointed out Saul’s failure did not have to happen” (29).
This is quite a fascinating passage of Scripture to me. Here we see that God desired something that did not come to pass: “it was at this time that the Lord would have PERMANENTLY ESTABLISHED YOUR REIGN OVER ISRAEL...”
Saul’s choice, however, went against the plan of God; as a result, “now your reign will not endure.” Saul had no one to blame for his reign ending but himself. Scripture here very plainly speaks of Saul’s responsibility and his failure to obey the Lord. Contingency, placed within the language of the Bible, does so with theological reason: to show man that he cannot escape responsibility from his choices before his Maker.
Jesus Himself in the New Testament speaks of contingency as well, while weeping over Jerusalem:
“ ‘Jerusalem! Jerusalem! The city who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, YET YOU WERE NOT WILLING!’ (Matt. 23:37)” (30).
Notice that Jesus says “I wanted to...BUT you were not willing.” What Jesus’ words tell us is that Jerusalem (its inhabitants) did not desire what the Lord desired for them. This is why the words “I wanted to...but...” are so important. If we hold to a philosophy of language where language makes sense, we must affirm that the word “but” is a word of contrast---it means that something goes against what we expect to happen. For instance, if I say that “I wanted to go to the game, but I went home and watched a movie instead,” everyone understands that I did something completely opposite to what I had intended to do. No one looks at my example and says, “Oh, but you didn’t really wanna go to the game.” The contrast word (“but”) and our knowledge of English grammar allow us to see word functions. Words really do have meaning, and they do not all function in the same ways. If this is true, then when Jesus says “I wanted this for you, but you did not want it,” He is saying that Jerusalem (symbolic for “the Jews”) was able to resist His desire for them. God did not force Jerusalem to come to Himself, nor did He force them to resist Him and then mourn their resistance.
These two biblical examples show us that contingency is not just a philosophical concept, but a theological concept---one rooted in the VERY WORDS of Scripture. In our approach to the Bible, we cannot claim that “every word of God is pure” (Prov. 30:5) and then turn around and deny the meaning of each word. We cannot have it both ways.