Title: Against Calvinism
Author: Roger E. Olson
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Zondervan – 2011
First off, I am not at all unbiased in the infamous Calvinism v. Arminianism debates. In fact, I’ve been more than a little complicit in making them contentious at times. In the past, I have spent many a night, up late, “debating” with both Calvinists and Arminians about the particulars of divine providence, human responsibility, divine foreknowledge, and the ontological status of the future—both in person and online. Therefore, I won’t pretend that I come to Olson’s book as a neutral third-party. However, the reality is, none of us do! We all come to Olson’s book, all books, perhaps especially the Scriptures, with our preconceived notions firmly in hand, as much as we’d like to deny it.
Secondly, I am neither a Classical Arminian nor a Calvinist—nor any sort of “moderate” or “nuanced” Calvinist (whether such a thing actually exists is debatable). I’m more than happy to locate myself within the broad and historic Free Will tradition of Jesus Christ’s Church that includes Christians from nearly every stripe (many Roman Catholics, many Greek Orthodox, Wesleyans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Anabaptists, many Baptists, and all who call themselves “Arminians”). And, by the way, this tradition predates both Calvin and Arminius. But, specifically, I will even further identify myself with the label “Open theist.” Some will not gladly accept such a label, and as a result, I know many who I’d call “closet Open theists.” As Olson himself has argued, a particularly militant and vocal coalition [wink] of Calvinists have succeeded in convincing a dishearteningly large group of gullible evangelicals in the US that Open theism is “controversial.” They haven’t proven that Open theism is heretical—far from it! Instead, their arguments have been blatant caricatures. They haven’t been required to show Open theism’s actual error. They have only needed to claim the view contains error loud enough to convince enough people not to investigating the view for themselves.
[Sidenote: In a course I took this semester on conflict in Christian organizations, one of the authors we read had a term for leaders who lead by creating a false enemy and produce group cohesiveness by vilifying the Other. He called them Demagogues. …So…there’s that.]
Third, what drew me to Olson’s book most wasn’t his deliberate attempt to refute Calvinism. I’ve read lots of books and articles that refute Calvinism. Heck, I’ve written some! No, what drew me to Olson’s book was his deliberate attempt to finally lay to rest a retort I hear constantly from Calvinists. I call it the “You-Just-Don’t-Understand-Calvinism” retort. Calvinists are notorious for claiming to be victims of caricature. Even while they are also notorious for caricaturing other views. I can’t tell you how many times, after backing a Calvinist into a philosophical corner, their response is: “You just don’t understand Calvinism.” Apparently, Calvinists are convinced their views are incredibly complex and esoteric. (In case you were wondering—they aren’t.) But Olson leaves no room for this defense. He demonstrates on nearly every page that he has gone directly to the sources, read them, studied them, understood their arguments (often better than most Calvinists do), and nevertheless comes to many of the same conclusions we Free Will theists have held for centuries:
1) Calvinism is theological determinism
2) Calvinism relies solely upon carefully-crafted proof-texting
3) Calvinism renders God morally ambiguous
4) Calvinism does not reflect the character of Christ
“New Calvinism”: The Occasion of Olson’s Writing
Students of Paul’s letters will know that to understand them, they must be placed in their historical and cultural context. His canonical epistles are “occasional” writings, we say. Which simply means, they were occasioned by their context. Well, the current occasion is also important for understanding the perspective from which Olson is writing. Olson is an Arminian theologian and church history scholar who is keenly aware of the climate of evangelicalism in the US. And he has become increasing aware of, and the victim of, militant bands of integrity-challenged Calvinists who would seek to oust him from his position as professor and public theologian based solely on the fact that he is not a Calvinist. He correctly identifies this “resurgence” of zealous Calvinists as those who have been called the, “young, restless, and Reformed.” And he correctly identifies their de factoleaders. At this point in US evangelicalism, attempts are being made to hijack the very Gospel of Jesus Christ and claim it to be synonymous with Calvinism. Olson is compelled to write this book not only for those being labeled heretics for Free Will theology, but also for the young people being unknowingly swept up in this movement.
“So, the time has come for an irenic and loving but firm “No!” to the extreme version of Calvinism being by leaders of the young, restless, Reformed generation and too often uncritically being embraced by their followers.” (p. 24)
I will leave you to judge whether Olson’s critique of Calvinism is “irenic,” but I’m confident most Calvinists will consider it anything but. Either way, whether Calvinists like this book or not, I, for one, am grateful that Olson’s answer to Calvinism is “firm.” And I give my hearty “Amen!” to Olson’s characterization of the need that lies before Free Will theists today in the US:
“I believe someone needs to finally stand up and in love firmly say “No!” to egregious statements about God’s sovereignty often made by Calvinists. Taken to their logical conclusion, that even hell and all who will suffer there eternally are foreordained by God, God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst. I have gone so far as to say that this kind of Calvinism, which attributes to God’s will and control, makes it difficult (at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil.” (p. 23)
“High (Federal) Calvinism” Versus Reformed Theology
One of the most important contributions this book makes to the current, highly-charged atmosphere created by New Calvinism is a much needed reality check. For some time now, the New Calvinists have been selling the US evangelical church the line that TULIP is the core and foundation of Reformed theology. In fact, the New Calvinists have preferred to call themselves “Reformed” over “Calvinists,” also using the terms interchangeably. But what Olson exposes is that this is decidedly not the case. TULIP is rejected by a good number of Reformed churches and even entire Reformed denominations. Olson helps US evangelicals, who have fallen victim to the New Calvinist PR hype machine, realize that “Reformed” theology is much larger, and far more inclusive, than New Calvinists would have us believe. As witnesses, Olson calls the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and several well-known and influential “Reformed” theologians who reject TULIP. Perhaps one of the more ironic points Olson brings up as evidence is the presence of explicitly Arminian churches in the WCRC like the Remonstrant Brotherhood of the Netherlands. (For those of you who may not be aware: “The Remonstrants” is the initially pejorative, later accepted label given to followers of Jacob Arminius, who objected to the “U,” “L,” and “I” in TULIP years before the Synod of Dort, by the Calvinists who condemned them). Olson’s case, that “Reformed” is absolutely not synonymous with affirming TULIP, is iron-clad. Be forewarned: Calvinists who will dare to argue with Olson on this point will find themselves committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
Roger Olson Loves (to Destroy) Calvinist Proof Texts
One of the many things I liked about this book was Olson’s ability to quickly and decisively demolish the established, overused, rarely (if ever) questioned readings of passages Calvinists draw from their holsters like gun-slingers in the ‘Old West.’ Here’s just one example to whet your appetite:
“As with so many other proof texts used by Calvinists for their distinctive doctrines, this one is open to other and even better interpretations. For example, if the Greek word for ‘draw’ in John 6:44 can only mean ‘drag’ or ‘compel’ rather than ‘woo’ or ‘call,’ then John 12:32 must be interpreted as teaching universal salvation. There Jesus says ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ The Greek word translated ‘draw’ there is the same one used in John 6:44. Thus, if the word has to be interpreted ‘compel’ or ‘drag,’ then Jesus would be saying in John 12:32 that he will compel or drag all men to himself. That’s not how the verse is understood even by Calvinists!” (p. 51)
The Limited, Dependent God of Calvinism
When Olson turns his theological gaze to Jonathan Edwards, he unearths an error I’d wager even few Arminians have ever noticed. Edwards’ strong view of God’s sovereignty limits God to a heretical extent. (…Ironic, considering “limiting God” is usually the charge Calvinists level at Open theists.) Olson writes,
“Not only did Edwards affirm God’s absolute, determining sovereignty over all events in the world; he also affirmed the necessity of God’s own decisions. This nails down his belief in what I am calling divine determinism. For him, everything that happens, even in God’s own mind and volition, is necessity. […]
One has to question the orthodoxy of Edward’s view. The whole point of Christian orthodoxy traditionally affirming the freedom of creation is to assure that is within the realm of grace and not necessity. Whatever is necessary cannot be gracious. Also, if God’s creation of the world was necessary, then the world is in some sense part of God—an aspect of God’s own existence. This is known as panentheism: the belief that God and the world are interdependent realities. Most orthodox Christians have always considered that heresy.” (p. 75-76)
If you’ve spent any time whatsoever asking Calvinists how they account for the existence of evil in the world, how God can be said to “ordain” evil, or how God can be “sovereign” over evil yet not culpable, you will be familiar with the common Calvinist mantra that all these things (including evil) are “for God’s glory.” When such a response is proposed, it should logically lead one to ask, “Does God need us to be glorified?” Jesus certainly didn’t think so (John 17.5). Here’s what Olson has to say,
“Many Calvinists argue that only Calvinism protects God from being made dependent on creatures. [Lorraine] Boettner, for example, argues that Calvinism is all about God’s absolute freedom from being conditioned by anyone or anything outside of himself. […]
The question is, however, whether at least some versions of Calvinism inadvertently make God dependent on the world for something that he needs—his own self-glorification through the manifestation of all his attributes equally. This is a theme running throughout most high Calvinism —that everything God does in creation and redemption is for his glory. […]
In an ironic twist, this explanation of God’s purpose in creation and redemption, including sin and evil, comes back to haunt Edwards and most Calvinists after him (Hints of it can also be found in Calvin). Apparently, God needs the world to be as it is, including sin, evil, innocent suffering, redemption, and reprobation (hell), in order to manifest his attributes and thereby glorify himself. […]
Without the world, then, God would not be God in the same way; his glory would be less than it is with it. Evil, then, is necessary to God. God is dependent on the world, including evil.” (p. 92-94)
Where Olson and I Part Ways
As I said in the introduction, I count myself within the same Free Will tradition as Olson, yet I would classify myself as an Open theist in particular, rather than merely an Arminian. Olson shows where his classical Arminianism departs from Open theology when he speaks of God’s foreknowledge:
“God knows the hearts of people and can foresee that, given certain foreseen circumstances, they will do sinful things. God does not have to manipulate them; he can simply predict them infallibly.” (p. 84, emphasis added)
It is this classical Arminian insistence on exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) that separates them from Open theists. Open theists contend that the Libertarian view of free will, that all Free Will theists share in common, logically requires that free moral agents have the future possibility of doing other than what they eventually do. Therefore, definite foreknowledge of a free agent’s choice before it is actualized doesn’t exist. Open theists insist, with Arminians, that God’s foreknowledge is exhaustive, but do not include in the realm of possibly objects of knowledge non-entities such as “definite” knowledge about choices that haven’t been made yet.
We must ask ourselves, if God knew “definitely” that Abraham would go through with the sacrifice of his only son, why does God’s Word make a point to record this surprising acknowledgement:
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” – Gen. 22.12, emphasis added
Either a Calvinist or an Arminian can claim this verse is “anthropomorphic.” But if verses like this one, about God’s knowledge, are merely anthropomorphic, how can we be sure of any view of God’s knowledge? In other words, pleading “anthropomorphism” cannot simply be an excuse to say, “My view of God’s foreknowledge is right, and yours is wrong.” If anthropomorphism in the Bible distorts the truth about God’s foreknowledge (as these two camps claim), then no view can be certainly correct, and Open theism is rendered even more plausible.
Against Calvinism is the latest in a long tradition of refutations of Calvinism. Yet, I would argue, the timing and precision of Olson’s work make it both the most accessible and most important for our generation. As the New Calvinism continues to gain popularity and churches fill with uncritical thinkers, this book will loom in the background begging to be challenged. No more will the leaders of this undercurrent be able to claim Arminians “just don’t understand”; no more will its leaders be able to claim “Reformed” is synonymous with “Calvinist”; and no more will its leaders be able to claim their system is the only evangelical option. Olson’s book throws down the gauntlet for the “young, restless, and Reformed.” But I suspect the challenge will not be met.
I highly recommend Against Calvinism to Calvinists, Arminians, and Open theists. Calvinists will certainly be challenged, Arminians may learn a few things, and Open theists will find in Olson a welcomed ally against accusation and defamation.