For and Against Calvinism 2

There is a new set of books coming out from Zondervan called “For Calvinism” and “Against Calvinism.” The former written by Michael Horton and the latter by Roger Olson. As I announced the other day, when I get Horton’s book I’ll begin blogging through it alongside Olson’s Against Calvinism. (Horton’s is called For Calvinism.) I don’t relish this kind of debate, but I value the light that will come when two well-known and articulate theologians discuss their differences more than the discomfort of getting into the thickets of this debate.

Roger Olson has a valuable chp called “Mere Calvinism” in which he discusses TULIP — and how that acronym gets to the heart of the soteriology of Calvinists. But Olson wisely and constantly, so as not to be misunderstood, reminds us that TULIP Calvinism is not the same as “Reformed” nor does it represent what all Reformed (or even all Calvinists) believe. He is describing what he calls “garden variety Calvinists.”

OK, Calvinists, speak up today: Is this a fair characterization of the TULIP system? of “garden variety Calvinism”?

The essence of Calvinism begins with the theme of God’s sovereignty, and Calvinism is more or less a specification of how God’s sovereignty interacts with providence and predestination (and redemption is part of this). Olson uses Loraine Boettner as his principal spokesperson, but then supplements with others.  This sovereignty is about God ordaining and planning all and controlling all. Nothing is an accident; everything is planned by God. Thus, the first real point of mere Calvinism is “total, absolute, meticulous sovereignty of God” (40).

“T” is for total depravity; this means comprehensive corruption and not that humans are pure evil.

“U” is for unconditional election; nothing in humans makes God choose them; it is all by God’s grace that he elects some. But this raises the spectre of double predestination, affirmed by Boettner, Calvin (later esp), Sproul, Piper, and many others. I agree with Olson and many Calvinists: any kind of soteriological predestination is logically and ineluctably double predestination. E.g., Olson quotes Sproul on this one.

“L” is for limited atonement; this means that Christ died only for the elect. Not all Calvinists affirm this. There are number of nuances here, but I can’t sketch them all … nor does it matter. (You can read the book to get more on this one.) Boettner, Piper, Sproul. Boettner and Piper believe the cross however benefits all people in some ways, but savingly only the elect.

“I” is for irresistible grace; this means that God’s saving grace is aimed at the elect and it works in such a way that the elect can’t resist and respond willingly to God’s loving elective grace of redemption. Such theologians emphasize that this is not coercion. Boettner, Calvin, Sproul, et al.

“P” is for perseverance; some see here “preservation” but the big idea is that the elect will be enabled by God’s grace to remain faithful.

Notice again the pervasiveness of God’s sovereignty in these themes, which are often called the “doctrines of grace.”

Not all Calvinists affirm each of the five, or each of any of them in identical forms. The most commonly denied is “L” (limited atonement). Olson points to AH Strong, M. Erickson and James Daane.

Olson plumbs an issue that emerges from the total sovereignty of God, namely whether or not God is implicated in evil. And Olson (and I) agree that Calvinism that believes in meticulous sovereignty implicates God in evil, and some Calvinists say that very thing (he points to their emphasis of “permission” of evil/sin, eg., Paul Helm, Boettner) and John Frame says “permission” is not strong enough because God “actually brings evil about” (59). Olson points to Piper’s comments about tragedies as events “designed” by God.

I know of no way to escape this charge for anyone who believes all things are preordained and controlled by God.

Olson then specifies which kind of Calvinism he is “against”: high TULIP kind of Calvinism. The free will issue is not his central concern except so far as it entails impugning God’s goodness, holiness and love. Olson is unconvinced that TULIP high Calvinism can be squared with God being good and love.

Olson: “I am opposed to any and every belief system that includes the ‘U,’ the ‘L,’ and/or the ‘I’ in TULIP” (62). He thinks these impugn God’s character as good. If it is all the will of God, a good God would redeem all.

Olson thinks this high Calvinism is characteristic of the young, restless Reformed. Olson finds the doctrine of reprobation repugnant and an idea that impugns the good love of God. He is not against the revisionist Reformed theology of folks like James Daane etc.

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  • SeanR.

    Sounds great; I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, it looks like Michael Horton is anticipating the favor by reviewing your latest book:

  • Stephen W

    “I know of no way to escape this charge for anyone who believes all things are preordained and controlled by God.”

    By holding contradictory beliefs then appealing to “God’s ways are not our ways”, presumably.

  • I am about 2/3 through Against Calvinism. And as someone that leans Arminian, I am pretty favorable toward Olsen’s basic stance. But I am uncomfortable some of his reliance on human logic. It is not that I don’t think that he is right. I am just uncomfortable with it because it seems to be that we are left with ‘he said, she said’ argument. People appeal to their own logic, their own arguments make the most sense to themselves and we haven’t made any progress.

  • Robin

    I think this is a fair sketch of garden variety calvinism. Without wanting to wade to deeply into Olson’s points of contention, I think it is interesting to note that God is undeniably linked to one of the most evil acts in history, the crucifixion of the sinless Lord. It is also interesting to me that the church fathers, those who were actual disciples of Paul and John saw their martyrdoms (evil acts) as blessings coming directly from the hand of God. (especially Ignatius in his 7 epistles)

  • As someone who embraced Calvinism with a death-grip in 2004, and has since come to a place of believing it’s more Biblically faithful to articulate which systems the Scriptures leave room for rather than trying to make them more specific than they actually are… I’m thrilled that you’re blogging through this topic. I’ve never felt more neutral and open to being persuaded on this topic. If our Lord is the truth, as he said he is, there shouldn’t be any question we need to fear. The truth should be our playground.

  • Joe Canner

    I agree with Olson that the “U” and the “L” are problematic (the “I” doesn’t bother me so much). But they follow logically from the “T”. As I understand it, total depravity includes the fact that we are incapable of choosing God on our own (John 6:44, Rom. 3:11). In fact, some would say that any attempts we make on our own to choose God are themselves sinful because such choices are made with impure motives (pride, selfishness). Thus, the only way to truly follow Jesus is to be chosen by God. And, since clearly not everyone follows Jesus, there must be some who aren’t chosen.

    Personally, I think the interpretation of the verses that support this version of total depravity is overstated. As Richard Beck points out, however, another way to handle this conundrum is universal salvation.

  • Joe,

    Olsen says multiple times that Arminians believe in T, and believe that it is only through God’s grace that we can approach him, but that for Armrinians while we are given the grace to get us to the point of being able to accept God’s grace, we in the end are the ones that choose. I think you are correct in your statement in regard to Calvinism. But Olsen is trying to say that there are alternatives.

    In some ways I wish the books were For Arminianism and For Calvinism instead of For and Against Calvinism.

  • This doesn’t sound like a caricature to me (and, having been employed by Ligonier Ministries over the past 8 years until this year, I hope I understand the basics by now).

    I’m totally convinced, however, that this would not have been a fair characterization during the fomenting years of the Reformation. The shades and varieties of Reformed thought at that time couldn’t sustain a stereotype.

    If Olson’s focus is strictly on modern, post-fundamentalist-modernist controversy Calvinism, then this is a fair characterization. As long as we don’t suggest that all Calvinists think God is omnicausal (omnnipotent, but not omnicausal).

    As an aside, I think modern Calvinists have brought much of the bad press upon themselves, by excluding everyone who doesn’t line up with Boettner’s five points.

  • Scot McKnight

    Chris, much of what you say is what Olson is saying.

  • Looks fair to me. As a compatibilist, I do confess to finding Olson’s point regarding God being implicated in evil a strong one. Nevertheless, I’m not altogether sure that the Arminian understanding of foreknowledge resolves the issue either. Thanks for the review BTW.

  • As I found myself reading the article the thought that occurred to me is that the older I get the farther removed from Calvinism I become- not that I was ever there. Then I arrived at the last paragraph that begins, “Olson thinks this high Calvinism is characteristic of the young, restless Reformed.” No doubt about it. Will be interesting to see how many of the “young and restless” still have both feet firmly planted in the “HT”Reformed camp ten years down the road, and then again,ten more after that.

  • Ricky

    I can see why he has a problem with irresistible grace and limited atonement. However, I am having a very difficult time understanding why anyone would have issues with unconditional election. If we are totally depraved and deserve God’s wrath then unconditional election seems to be a gracious act on God’s part.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    Seems to me that we can all agree on this TULIP:

    TOTAL incapacity of mankind to merit salvation
    (because of mankind’s universal alienation from God)

    For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no-one can boast. (Eph. 2:8-9, NIV).

    Who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time. (2 Tim. 1:9, NIV).

    He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Tit. 3:5, NIV).

    But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Eph. 2:4-5, NIV).

    For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom 3:23, NIV).

    And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (Rom. 11:6, NIV).

    UNIVERSAL offer of salvation
    (because of God’s unconditional love and unmerited grace)

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18, NIV).

    The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9, NIV).

    I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles. (1 Tim. 2:1-7, NIV).

    For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. (Tit. 2:11, NIV).

    Say to them, `As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ezek. 33:11, NIV).

    From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. `For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, `We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:26-31, NIV).

    For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (Ro 1:16 NKJV)

    And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. (Rev. 22:17, KJV).

    “And when He [the Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment. (John 16:8, NKJV).

    LIMITED response to Christ’s atoning sacrifice
    (because of mankind’s unbelief and selfish, sinful will)

    “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 7:21, NIV).

    Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mr 16:16, NIV).

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn. 3:16-18, NIV).

    When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me (John 16:8-9, NIV).

    And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6, NIV).

    INDWELLING of believers by the Holy Spirit
    (empowering them to live Christ-like lives)

    We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment. (1 Cor. 2:12-15, NIV).

    But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26, NIV).

    But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you. (John 16:13-15, NIV).

    Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isa. 30:20-21, NIV).

    PERSEVERANCE of God’s grace and mercy
    (promising and providing eternal life to believers and reconciliation of the cosmos to God)

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, NIV).

    Who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet. 1:5, NIV).

    And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:20, NIV).

    The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Rom. 8:21, NIV).

    Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:19-21, NIV).

    And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:13-14, NIV).

    My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30, NIV).

  • Robin

    Regarding God’s being implicated in evil.

    I understand that if you believe God is completely sovereign (there’s not a maverick molecule in the universe) and you apply modern logic to that sovereignty, then GOd is indeed implicated, through modern logic in evil. Just like God, logically, was implicated in the evil done to Job because he explicitly granted satan permission.

    What I don’t understand is how Olsen thinks he is free of that charge himself. I remember in the first post he said something about not believing in a God he couldn’t preach in front of Auschwitz. So here is my interpretation of the worst possible caricaturization of three possible messages you could preach there, and I would like someone to point out to me what Olsen’s would be and why he escapes God being implicated in evil.

    Calvinist (depending on their view of sovereignty): “God is sovereign over the universe and has fore-ordained whatever comes to pass, so right now you are in a concentration camp and being executed either because (1) it was part of his plan from the beginning or (2) it is the result of sinful actions, but even though he has the power to stop it, he has not chosen to do so…but since it is part of God’s plan something good will come of it.”

    Deist: “You are here because X,000 years ago God set the machinery of the world in motion and this is where the divine machinery has brought us. He doesn’t step into the machine to change things so don’t bother praying.”

    Impotent God: “God is not really sovereign over the universe because he gave people free will and he doesn’t really control much. He is powerless to stop Hitler, so quit praying to him and pray to the Americans instead”

    I’m confident Olsen would subscribe to the second or third options, but in my mind they’re really the only ones who get a pass on being implicated with evil. If God is sovereign, he had the power to stop the holocaust. The fact that he didn’t stop it sooner means he was either powerless to do so, or that he had the power to, but didn’t. I honestly don’t understand how Olsen thinks he can believe the latter, yet somehow God isn’t implicated in this scheme just like he would be under Calvinism.

  • William Tarbush

    As a confirmed 3.5 point Calvinist, and willingness to say I don’t know rather than no on the other 1.5, I believe TULIP cannot make God evil, for His ways are different than ours. The Law was made for man. Not for Yahweh.

  • Robin

    Sorry, last paragraph should say I’m confident Olsen WOULDN’T subscribe to the 2nd or 3rd options.

  • Robin,

    I believe that Olson would reject all of your options as his own belief. My best guess from what I have read so far is that he is saying that God is not impotent, but completely sovereign. However God with respect to his sovereignty has voluntarily limited himself (just as Christ voluntarily limited himself by becoming human). He has given us the grace to have a relationship with God and the grace to act in the world, but has not forced us (by pre-ordaining all actions) to act in the way he would prefer.

    I agree that not a perfect option either.

  • I think this is a needed and helpful discussion. Thanks. I am also grateful for your words at Truett this week. I got to three of them and will listen to the other one. Have a great weekend.

  • Terrance Tiessen

    My apologies for having posted the following comments at the end of the wrong post, a moment ago.

    The problem of evil in this world created by a good and sovereign God is certainly a puzzle for all Christians. I doubt, however, that synergists (such as Arminians) gain much over monergists with their appeal to the free will defence. Among evangelical synergists, Open Theists have gone as far as possible to limit any taint upon God’s reputation from the existence of evil within the world he created. They do this by proposing that God could not foresee what would happen if he gave moral creatures libertarian freedom. But even Open Theists insist that in voluntarily limiting his control in the world, God has reserved to himself the option to intervene when he chooses.

    So, when we contemplate egregious evils like Auschwitz, Open Theists make little “progress” over traditional Calvinism. They too affirm that God could have intervened to prevent the destruction of 6 million Jews and so God is no less implicated in the occurrence of that evil from an Open Theist perspective than from a Calvinist. The God who destroyed in one night 185,000 of Sennacherib’s soldiers, camped around Jerusalem, had a great many options that he chose not to use. For starters, giving Hitler a fatal heart attack would have been extraordinarily simple.

    If one’s primary concern is absolving God from implication in the evils that occur in the world, it is unlikely that anything less limiting of God’s control that the proposal of Deism will satisfy.

  • @ Adam Shields

    “However God with respect to his sovereignty has voluntarily limited himself (just as Christ voluntarily limited himself by becoming human). He has given us the grace to have a relationship with God and the grace to act in the world, but has not forced us (by pre-ordaining all actions) to act in the way he would prefer.”

    This is why Open Theists have trouble understanding why Arminians don’t follow their own logical path towards God’s knowledge. If God has intentionally limited himself then He does not know that which is beyond those limitations. The Open Theist, then, suggests that it is not self-limitation that provides for freedom, but that what God does not know cannot, in fact, be known. Calvinists get uncomfortable with this idea and hold fast to TULIP as a result. Arminians (of which I am one) then flounder in the middle unwilling to commit to either.

  • I know it takes all the fun out of the debate, but … isn’t what’s really important, rather, the question of living out God’s love to Him and others even if we don’t fully understand whether He chooses that for us or we choose it for us or (ohmygoodnesswhatifits) both?

  • Scot McKnight

    I don’t know, Terrance, but it sure seems to me there’s a substantive difference between God causing an event, or predetermining an event, like the Holocaust, and God granting humans the kind of freedom that enables them to cause the Holocaust.

    God’s not intervening is, in my mind at least, different than God’s causing/doing that event.

  • Robin

    Scot (22),

    If we use the Auschwitz standard and imagine the victims crying out to God and asking why he won’t end their torment here are some possible responses.

    (1) Because he doesn’t have the power to
    (2) Because he just made the universe and now stands back and lets it operate
    (3) He could, but the holocaust is part of his eternal plan and he will cause it to work out for good
    (4) He could, but he really prefers not to get involved in human affairs anymore

    If I heard #4 my immediate response would be “since when, he rescued our ancestors and they were just in slavery. When did he decide to stop getting his hands messy.”

  • Robin

    Here are my general thoughts on the differences between an omnipotent God who fore-ordains and an omni-potent God who doesn’t.

    To my mind it is a difference that exists only if you choose to believe it exists. Whether God fore-ordained every single action, including the coffee I ordered this morning, or whether he is completely sovereign but chooses to limit his interventions, the fact remains that we both believe (1) he has the power to intervene (2) he has the right to intervene and (3) he has intervened at multiple points in the past (see entire OT and NT).

    In both of our frameworks the only reason he didn’t intervene (prior to the American victory) was because he chose not to, either because of a fore-ordained plan or because of a general non-interventionist policy since the ascension. Either way, he could have stopped it but chose not to, and his level of “culpability” depends only on the logical excuses that we can create.

    A perfect example is the death of James (the brother of John) and escape of Peter in Acts 12. Herod wants to do some persecutin’ so he takes James and put him to death. He gets so please with himself he takes Peter too, but God miraculously breaks Peter out of jail.

    He clearly had the power and right to free James as well, but he didn’t, even though just a few verses later he freed Peter. Whether he didn’t free James because it was part of his fore-ordained plan, or because he just didn’t feel like it at the time, he clearly could have, and his “responsibility” is the same regardless of the reason.

  • @ Robin #23,

    Both numbers 2 and 4 aren’t nuanced enough to hold any credibility. A better response would be, God interacts in suffering by offering unlimited grace to those who know Him, empowering them to enter into the suffering of others, even to suffer in their place when they can.

    That God does not intervene directly is not for apathy’s sake but for the unfolding work of the Kingdom. When humans suffer at the hands of humans, it is humans to blame.

  • Phil Umstead

    @Robin #4: At first read I thought your points were good push-back against those who hate to hear preachers state that this or that natural disaster is directly caused by God as a punishment or wake-up call. Maybe this isn’t what you had in mind, but it’s what I thought of.

    But when I thought about it more, it seems that in the examples you bring up, in all cases, the person having the evil done to them (Christ, Ignatius, Church Fathers) willingly accepted this evil being done to them because of their relationship with God. In Christ’s case, it’s God Himself choosing to endure evil to redeem us. In other words, if God is the author of this evil, it is evil done to one of His own, with their knowledge, so that this one can share in God’s glory.

    That is a lot different, in my mind, than God being the cause of natural disasters that cause much distruction and suffering on the unsuspeting, or God being the cause of evil perpetrated against an innocent victim who in no way chooses it.

  • Robin there can also be other options

    at the very least
    5) He could but has chosen not to, not because he doesn’t interact in human affairs, but because he allows human consequences to play out
    6) He is allowing his church to act on his behalf for his glory.

    I am sure there are some other options as well.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    I think C. S. Lewis’ non-tulippy thoughts on this from “Mere Christianity” bear repeating here:

    “God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata–of creatures that worked like machines–would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

    Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on. If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will–that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings–then we may take it it is worth paying.

    When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: “Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?” The better stuff a creature is made of–the cleverer and stronger and freer it is–then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best–or worst–of all.”

  • DRT

    IMO, god has given free will to people and as a result of that we have the free will to do things. If god intervened every time we did something bad then we would not have free will. Seems simple enough to me. Having free will is inherently at odds with him intervening every time we use it for bad.

  • bill crawford

    I don’t think the Arminian escapes the problem of attributing evil to God by saying that God allows evil because of the importance of humans exercising their free will.

    I doubt a sermon at Auschwitz saying that God respects Hitler’s free will so much that he won’t stop the holocaust would be of much comfort.

    At least on the Reformed view, there’s room for mystery (the belief that some good might come out of the horror) and this may provide some comfort. At least it has been comforting to suffering folks in the past.

  • DRT

    ..and now that I read Dutch Rikkers I think C.S. Lewis would agree with me 🙂

  • Robin

    I’m not disputing C.S. Lewis’ point or DRT’s. I just don’t think an Arminian concept of God escapes the problem of evil as easily as Arminians seem to believe.

    I propose a test. Tell both stories to someone who genuinely has no dog in the fight like a small child, non-Christian, or devout atheist. The two principle stories being that (1) God chose not to intervene at Auschwitz, even though he could have (and has done so in the past), because it was part of his fore-ordained plan and (2) God chose not to intervene at Auschwitz, even though he could have (and has done so in the past), because he respects free will.

    Tell those two stories to someone without a dog in the fight and see what they think about God’s culpability in each scenario.

  • DRT

    Robin, I think #2 would be better written as

    God chose to give us free and that choice is all or nothing. His hope is that we all find him instead of the evil.

  • Robin


    I think you and I are talking about two separate issues.

  • Bill, a belief that some good might come out of the horror can’t come out of the Arminian point of view as well?

  • Robin

    Keith Brenton,

    I think the belief that some good might come out of the horror depends on what exact Arminian view of free will and foreknowledge we are talking about. If there is no divine master plan being worked out through human free will, then who knows what the end result will be. Free will compounding on free will could just lead to evil upon evil for an indeterminate amount of time.

    If however God had a master plan where everything works out for good in Romans 8, or at least a divine foreknowledge that even though he couldn’t plan it, free will would eventually lead to something good, then yes, something good could be expected to come of it.

    In the latter case though you’re approaching something that looks like “soft fore-ordaining”.

  • @Robin,

    I think that is exactly where the problem comes. You suggest there is no difference between a God that allow evil and a God the requires evil.

    I think there are very different.

    The problem I think is expanded in large part because we are using our own logic to determine what we think is right. I am not saying we can’t or shouldn’t use our own logic. But I do think that we have to agree that if reasonable people come to different logical conclusions with the same set of facts before them, then it is likely that neither side really has it completely right, so we need to be very careful about too strong of an understanding about our own rightness. This is one of the problems that Olsen is arguing with the book, that in general, Calvinists are much more dogmatic about themselves being right (not in every case or every Calvinist).

  • What is up with the comments. I am having all kinds of delays and looking at different computers or different browsers is giving me different comments.

  • Ross

    One of the things to keep in mind about many “young, restless, and reformed” Calvinists is the emphasis we place on the story of Scripture. The Bible does not start out with Total Depravity, but with Creation, in which everything is divided into one of 2 categories: Creator(God), and everything else. The absolute sovereignty of God is not a detached philosophical category that we try to cram everything into, but is rooted in creation, where the ultimate Person rules over what He made, i.e. the universe and everything in it, including human beings and everything about them, such as the will, since that too falls into the “not God” category.

    However many questions this does not answer, it at least removes God’s Sovereignty and man’s responsibility from abstract philosophical categories like “determinism” and “free will” and places them firmly within the Creator/creature distinction. It seems that the Bible does this in Genesis 1:1 alone.

    Perhaps this provides a context that many Arminians are unaware of when interacting with Calvinism. Many Calvinists are earnestly seeking to think and worship in continuity with what we see as the foundational first principles of Scripture. TULIP should be seen, not as a static paradigm, but realities that exist within the story. This is important. The story is about God’s loving pursuit of His people, fixing on Christ and culminating in the New Creation. It is bigger than TULIP, even while TULIP might be true.

    Too many 21 year old Calvinists miss this, and in their addiction to certitude end up loving a well oiled and coherent theological system more than the Lord Jesus. They love Calvinism because it supposedly touts a God who is strong enough to justify a deterministic worldview (which appeals to the flesh – blaming everything on the sovereignty of God), and in so doing turn God into a tyrant who is always saying “deal with it,” instead of a Savior who dies for His people. In this they are missing the heart of God. The biblical story is messy. Black and white paradigms don’t fit nicely. Remove the story, you remove the Storyteller who is at work in the world, and reduce Him to 5 points.

    In my experience, it is this 5 point God that many Arminians take issue with.

  • BradK

    If we must choose between an omnipotent God or an evil God (which *for me* is logically required by the Calvinism Olson describes) I think I’d prefer a God who is less than omnipotent. A God who is a little less sovereign but who is still good is much to be preferred. A completely sovereign God who is evil is of little comfort to me. The question would be whether the Bible characterizes God as omnipotent. Harold Kushner seems to think it does not.

    On the other hand, we may not have to choose between an omnipotent and a benevolent God. It just seemed to me that some folks might be assuming that a God who is not omnipotent is an option to be immediately dismissed.

  • Robin


    Generally when I am talking with arminians I allow them to make lots of generalizations and take intellectual shortcuts because the specific details don’t matter, that is not what they are objecting to. The issue usually isn’t (1) did God plan for me to buy french roast coffee instead of colombian (2) did he cause Hurricane Katrina specifically or (3) did he elect some people to hell and others to paradise.

    These nitty gritty matters are just things to argue over, generally the issues are more broad (1) Is God really sovereign (2) Can people choose God without him causing them to (3) Does he really pick some people to get into heaven…so I just let all of the little things go.

    From my perspective, as someone who falls into the YRR crowd, here are the important points about calvinism. The only things I really want to stand up for. Most of the other stuff I let go (or at least I should)

    (1) God is absolutely sovereign and there is not a maverick molecule in the universe. You can believe if you want that God fore-ordained how much rain we would get or when the wind would blow, the only important thing though is that when such details are essential to God working out his plan, he absolutely controls them. When Jesus was a little kid climbing on boulders with his friends, he wasn’t going to let a gust of wind knock him off a boulder and hurl him to a premature death. He also had the power to influence the will of certain actors (Pharaoh, Judas, even the fish that swam into Peter’s nets) when it was essential to his plan’s fulfillment.

    (2) Men are sinners who love their sin and who will not choose God without his gracious intervention.

    (3) I didn’t do anything to deserve God’s grace in my life.

    And to a lesser extent:
    (4) Everyone whom Christ’s blood paid the penalty of sin for will be saved in the end. No one will be able to say on judgement day “Christ died for my sins, why am I still having to pay for them myself?”

  • DRT

    Robin, I think we are talking about the same thing. You are trying to come up with two things that you can present to those going to the gas chamber the reflects the two perspectives.

    But your number 2 does not state the proper perspective, or the perspective properly. God chooses free will. Once that choice is made then it is made. So the statement to the person is, God has chosen to give us all free will and a condition of that is that everyone has it. He cannot stop Hitler, because that would get rid of free will.

    Free will is not something that an individual possesses. It is a shared characteristic of our existence and that is part of what we need to realize in this life.

    God does not need to intervene in history in the way that he did in the old testament because he has sent Jesus. Per the poor man and Lazarus parable, that is the most sufficient thing he can do. God did/does intervene through the work that Jesus did. We have free will to believe or not.

    So it is not a choice to stop Hitler. It is the choice to give us free will and give us his son.

  • @Robin, you are an example of what Olson approves of as Reformed. What he objects to are others that actually say God causes evil (and he cites a number of well know authors, pastors and teachers that have.)

  • Robin


    It sounds like your God is not omnipotent in the way that we normally think of God. I mean, he has the power, but he has voluntarily given it up. It sounds like maybe you are drifting into open theism or something akin to it, and I would agree that if that is your view of omnipotence and free will then yes, that type of God is less culpable than the calvinism/arminian disucssion we are presently having.

    My problem is with the typical arminian view of God, the one that is (1) completely omnipotent (2) gives humans free will but (3) still intervenes in human history when it suits him. If you think that God has continued to move supernaturally in history by doing things like breaking Peter out of Jail and knocking Saul off a horse, and directly answering prayers (healings, miracles, etc.) then you have to wonder why he would go silent in the presence of suffering and evil.

  • DRT

    Robin, I think the nature is much closer to the nature describe in Luke 15 with the good father. The son who was not satisfied is us, we think that we want to do what we want to do and we want to be free. The Father gives us free will, he gives us the inheritance to do as we see fit. We can chose to spend it, or not. The son in this case did spend it, and realize that he was no longer free, he was a slave because of what he did. He also came to appreciate that he was actually free when he was under the father. The father accepts him back.

    We are truly free to choose. God gave us that freedom and giving that freedom is inherently a willingness to not interfere. If there is interference, it is just another kind of slavery.

    So, is God omnipotent? He has the power to give us free will and he exercises that power. He is omnipotent. It is just that most of us don’t see restraint and gifting as an exercise of power, but it is.

    Likewise we need to finally realize that the only way for us to be free is to show ourselves to be subordinate to God. We are empty, without basis without him. That is the secret of the good father parable.

  • Tom F.

    I think avoiding the implication of God being involved in evil is absolutely crucial. How else are we to tell the difference between the demonic and the divine? If God is directly implicated in evil, than what’s the difference between God and the Devil? And if God directly plans and uses evil for good purposes (not just responding to evil by bringing good out of it), why can’t human beings? Is God just a cosmic utilitarian?

    Finally, I think that any marginal progress in the problem of evil is worth its weight in gold. Saying that that a free will defense isn’t much better than a complete sovereignty seems to ignore the centrality of the problem of evil in modern objections to Christianity. For anyone who has read a bit on philosophy, I would be interested to hear if they can think of another objection that has been a bigger thorn in the side of Christian apologetics.

    On a personal level, I think if I became convinced that Calvinism was the only option for faith, I think I would go religion shopping. Its really hard for me to stay cool on this issue, as in my very limited perspective, Calvinism seems so wrong on an emotional and logical level. I say this in good faith, knowing that others have very different journeys than mine, but there it is.

  • DRT

    …and let me try one more way to say it and you tell me if this makes sense.

    God does not want us to worship him or any other action. What he wants is for us to have a relationship with him. The only way we can have a true relationship with God is for us to be able to chose not to.

    If god is controlling every molecule, then it is like playing catch with himself. I throw the ball up and catch it or not. Not very gratifying after eons and eons, eh?

    The only way to have a true relationship of love and trust is to have the ability to not have it. So god must use his great power to *share* with us and *make us in his image*, with the free will to choose to enter into the relationship or not.

    We take it for granted since it is all we know, but it was quite an amazing and powerful thing for god to get the whole universe going so beings like us would evolve with the capacity to appreciate and love him.

  • I think it is easier to talk about God’s sovereignty when we talk about Jesus. Is Jesus sovereign? He says that all power in Heaven and Earth has been given to him. But Phil 2 talks about him voluntarily giving up what is due to him (his sovereignty and power) and adopting a human form. If we believe that Christ is both entirely human and entirely divine (as the confessions assert) then Jesus was still sovereign as human, but he gave up access (I don’t know a better word, but I know it isn’t quite right) to that sovereignty when he was on earth. If Jesus has done that then why cannot the Father have done something similar in regard to voluntarily given up control (but not sovereignty) to allow for free will.

  • Robin

    Maybe the conversation has just gone on so long that my head is starting to swim, but we have officially gotten out of my depths. I remain committed, wholeheartedly, to the 4 points I listed above and ambivalent on most other issues.

  • bill crawford

    Keith and Adam,

    A long time ago, as a new Christian, I read Boettner’s book on Calvinism, and it made a lot of sense to me. Over time, I have read a lot more in Reformed theology and it continues to make sense to me. I confess I have not read much in the original sources for alternatives, which is one reason I come to Jesus Creed and Prof Olson’d blog, and have ordered his book.

    I sometimes sense that critics of Calvinism do not see how Calvinism seeks to provide an understanding of Scripture. Calvinism is presented as unscriptural and driben by a supposed logical outworking of some notion of God’s sovereignty.

    If we are to seek out the best proponents of the views we disagree with (McKnight, Olson), then I suggest a reading of the likes of Calvin, Hodge, Bavinck, Frame and Horton. I really think that someone would come away with a greater respect for Calvinism and Reformed theology, even if still not agreeing.

    That’s what I have experienced in coming here and to Prof Olson’s blog.

  • @bill crawford

    i have read about 8 or 9 books on calvinism or various aspects of reformed theology over the last year. I am sure I will read more and I am sure I will have several things clarified. But I just don’t think this is a subject that will be solved by understanding each other better. Reasonable, well educated people (like Olson and Horton) disagree.

  • bill crawford

    Hi Adam,

    I agree; understanding each other won’t resolve the substantive differences. However, it ought to lead to more accurate and charitable characterizations and discussions.

  • @Bill

    I agree. And I think that is what is helpful with these two books. They are trying to bring about better understanding. The opposite author introduces each book. It is clear that Olson read Horton’s book first and vice versa. That does not mean that they both agree with one another. But they are fairly civil and I hope it does lead to a lowering of the temperature of discussion

  • Have I been uncharitable? If so, I apologize. However, as intriguing and helpful as it can be to investigate others’ views of scriptures, I have to ask again whether it is as important to fully understand soteriology as it is to live a life that glorifies God through Jesus Christ? — which is ultimately as simple as loving God and others more than self.

    Scripture doesn’t ask me to decide between Reformed thought or Arminianism; or even to fully understand theology or soteriology or eschatology in order to bring glory to God. I’m not advocating spiritual ignorance, but simplicity.

    Doctrines of men — yours, mine, Calvin’s, Arminius’s — cannot compete with the simple heart-simplicity of scripture.

    My best attempt at doctrine is that there is a lot about God and man and our relationship that I don’t understand; part of the good news is that I don’t have to. I just need to love as Christ loved; live as He lived; reflect God’s glory. If I believe it’s all up to me, I’m sunk. Fortunately, God offers me His own Holy Spirit. If I believe it’s impossible for me to choose good, I’m still sunk. Fortunately, God offers me choice and respects it.

    So either logical extreme of the Reformed or freewill doctrines lead to extreme pointlessness. Is the truth in between? Could it be that the sovereign God of heaven and earth actually desires to partner with us to do his will in this world, and respects our choice to accept or reject His offer? Could this be His ultimate will? To be glorified in the choice of fallen humans who recognize the goodness of His love in Jesus Christ and become part of the group of the elect He first chose and predestined to follow Him?

    My view is that God is not required to conform to our limited logic. He asks us to conform, rather, to His unlimited love and mercy – and leave His perfect justice to Him.

  • David John

    After reading Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, I was convinced that Roger Olson was in fact a Godsend to a Protestant Evangelical world that is crawling with militant Calvinists who have convinced others that doctrines like “grace” and “sovereignty” somehow belong to them. This first-rate theologian takes aim at such notions showing that historic Arminianism is equally as grace-focused. I have come to appreciate, that in this theological battle, Roger Olson fights fair which can’t be said of many of his Calvinist opponents. He seeks to represent their position accurately in a way that they would acknowledge is a fair representation. However, he tries to help them see some of the logical conclusions their belief system leads to, which tragically many of them do not seem to grasp. This quote from Olson’s blog sums up the most important reason for this book being written: “[Calvinists] talk endlessly about God’s glory and about God-centeredness while sucking the goodness out of God and thus divesting him of real glory. Their theology may be God-centered but the God at its center is unworthy of being at the center. Better a man-centered theology than one that revolves around a being hardly distinguishable from the devil…this would make Him unworthy of worship.” The time has come for the novel doctrines of St. Augustine, which were only to be found amongst the Gnostics before him, to be exposed. Calvin took these doctrines and has effectively misrepresented God to countless millions of Christians since the time of the Protestant Reformation. Calvinism was NOT the Apostolic and therefore NOT the Biblical understanding of “election”, “predestination”, and “free-will” and Olson’s contribution here helps set that record strait. Against Calvinism articulates better than any other why I am personally “Against Calvinism” and my prayer is that many who’ve been infected with Augustinianism/Calvinism will somehow be “healed” by reading it.

  • Terry Tiessen

    Scot, re: # 22

    You wrote: “ . . . it sure seems to me there’s a substantive difference between God causing an event, or predetermining an event, like the Holocaust, and God granting humans the kind of freedom that enables them to cause the Holocaust.
    God’s not intervening is, in my mind at least, different than God’s causing/doing that event.”

    I’ve been pondering this and I can’t see that there really is a substantive difference.

    Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that God grants humans the kind of freedom that enables them to cause the Holocaust.

    Both perspectives also perceive God’s action or inaction, in an event like the holocaust, as arising from the same sort of divine intention. Both C and A (and even Open Theists) believe that God could have prevented the holocaust, but chose not to do so. Even Open Theists grant that God, in some instances, “steps in” to prevent libertarianly free human beings from doing the evil they intend.

    Granted, where human freedom is perceived differently, as soft-determined (in the soft-compatibilism of Calvinism as contrasted with the hard compatibilism of Thomism which holds together divine omni-determinism and libertarian freedom) or undetermined (in the Arminian incompatibilist understanding of libertarian freedom) the “mechanism” by which God keeps evils from happening differs. But, given God’s ability to have prevented the holocaust, within the theological framework of all three perspectives (Calvinist, Arminian and Open Theist), I fail to see how God is any less responsible in the synergist than the monergist options. (We could throw the synergist option of Molinism into the mix and I still don’t think much changes, in regard to truly egregious evils such as the holocaust).

    Nor do I see how foreknowledge would make a significant difference between Arminian and Open Theist versions of synergism. With classic Arminian simple divine foreknowledge God ,knew before he created the world how its history was all going to turn out. In Open Theist presentism, God decides at each moment in history how he will act at that time. But the critical thing is that in all of these evangelical perspectives God could have prevented the holocaust and chose (“at some time”) not to do so.

  • Luke

    Not that I have the credentials to be any type of authoritative opinion on this Terry, but I’m with Scot on this one. There seems to be a pretty big difference between the two options, for me at least. God allowing yet not intervening (despite having the ability to do so) to me seems a lot less demonic and monster-ish as God fore-ordaining & causing such heinous acts. In the meta-narrative it’s clear to me that there is a clear difference between good and evil. For Calvinism, that line just gets blurred to much, in my thinking at least. Faithfulness to the meta-narrative & overarching character of God as reflected in the Story is my main concern. Perhaps it makes you feel more comfortable to think God is in control to such a degree that everything that has happened in the past & is happening in the present are things he has planned & is causing to happen, but to me that’s just a denial of the current chapter we’re in for the meta-narrative, where evil is still very much alive and there’s a battle going on between good & evil. Good may win the war, but sometimes evil wins the battles. Does this mean God is powerless & being defeated? No, I never said such nonsense. Knowledge of the preceding meta-narrative sheds light on why evil sometimes wins the battles. It has nothing to do with God being powerless, non-sovereign, or any other caricature I’ve heard over the years

  • Terry Tiessen

    Luke, at # 57

    I understand where you are coming from and would not try to persuade you otherwise. I am not an apologist for Calvinism but I happily converse with fellow believers about God’s ways in the world, as God had revealed them to us.

    I agree with you that the key is the Bible’s metanarrative. Monergists and synergists both have particular passages that make good “proof texts” but we do best to look for the big picture in the Bible’s description of God’s work in the world. I became a monergist kicking and struggling, 44 years ago, but in the years since then, the more I read Scripture the clearer it is to me that God accomplishes what he aims at and that his aims are detailed. I’m well aware of course, that it looks different to others, and I respect that, so long as people are consistent in living out their theology. Meanwhile, talking with one another is a good thing, I think.

    I do want to make just one additional comment about my own perspective. Scot and you both stress God’s “causing” in the Calvinist view. I am cautious about the language of cause because so many people hear hard determinism in it. I do believe that God determined the whole of human history when he chose this particular possible world from all the worlds he could have created, given his nature. (I would be a Molinist if I believed that it was possible for God to know future counterfactuals of libertarian freedom, but I am presently convinced of the grounding objection.) But God does not bring about all the events of that history in the same way. Much of the time, when morally responsible agents (humans and angels) are involved, God is non-coercive and allows sinful creatures to do as they wish, weaving creaturely evil into the tapestry that is the good world God has chosen to realize.

    In God’s grace, however, he frequently restrains evil doers, both those who are his children and those who are living in rebellion but who are not as evil as they would be without God’s grace in their lives. I also believe that God acts in extraordinary providence to prevent evil, on many occasions, and that he does this much of the time without people even being aware of his action although on other occasions the supernatural power of God is awesome.

    I grieve that the holocaust occurred, but I trust the God who alone is good and I anticipate that in the new earth we will gain a much clearer understanding of God’s working in the world throughout human history. I am as sure as you that the God who revealed himself supremely in Jesus is no monster, even though I differ from you in believing that he never loses any battles with evil doers, human or angelic. He did not “cause” the holocaust in the sense you may have in mind when you object to Calvinism, but he chose to let it happen, he brings good out of it, and he will ultimately enact justice on all the evil-doers who reached the end of their lives without having the joy of knowing that God declares them righteous on account of Christ’s sin-bearing work. It was there that God climactically defeated evil and the great adversary.


  • Jamie

    I think God gave us free will, but yet do we really have it. Eg. Look at how certain corporations can spend much money on ads to influence the behaviours of the populations, or the way the central bank or government can via a few interventions can change the behaviours of the masses.

    Ultimate human free will is an illusion if we think we’re more self-autonomous outside of our environment and context. And who put us in that context or in this time?

    As for evil, we’re the ones responsible for it in this world, and it’s not God’s fault even though He is all powerful. It takes a miracle for anyone to declare Jesus as King and Savior. The way that God’s been good is that he would insert His common grace to even use what was meant for evil for good. e.g. Satan, Pharisees, Rome wanted Jesus killed… they succeeded, but God still used it.

    Anyway, every time I talk with an Arminion, they just want to tag certain labels onto Calvinists which seem like a very high school thing to do.

  • James

    Roger can’t have it both ways.
    He can only be a universalist or an arminion.

    The question still remains: If you believe in an eternal hell, then it’s just as “evil” for God to respect your autonomy to such a degree that God doesn’t intervene to make sure that we don’t reject God. Would God not be smart enough to structure our environments so that we all will choose God?

    If people are capable of persuading people, then why doesn’t God? The CIA I’m sure knows how to control or start a mob, could God not create something to ensure we ‘follow right.’

    So, in my opinion, the arminion model is just as evil or even worse portrayal of God.

    If hell is real, then God respecting your autonomy to the point he doesn’t intervene to get you to choose God is wrong.

    Analogy: I’m about to commit suicide (billions of years in hell), and though my friend tries his best to talk me out of it through love (God wooing me). But by the end of the scene, my friend only is there to respect my autonomy of choice to kill myself (Is God’s love just merely respect for our autonomy? Again, even if God did respect our autonomy to that degree, I’m sure God’s smart enough to influence the environment to such a degree that we do choose God… like how a husband if determined and smart can woo a lady to be his wife, but never forced.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Can we all put an end to the Auschwitz analogy. I know Olson used it, but he shouldn’t have. Let’s get real – nothing would really be a comfort in Auschwitz. I’m sure the last thing on peoples’ minds facing torture and death was the comparative difficulties of libertarian free will and total sovereignty.

  • Joshua Wooden

    James, neither Calvinists nor Arminians believe it is un-just for God to send people to hell. Both affirm that humans deserve nothing less than damnation for their sins. However, the difference is that Arminians better explain culpability for sin by affirming free will – humans can resist God’s grace, which is freely given, and can be freely received. What doesn’t make any sense (to Arminians, anyway) is how humans are responsible for their sins if God predestined them to commit them in order to damn them. It is at this point that Calvinist appeal to they mysterious ways of God – right after implicating Him in evil. God allowing people to choose Him or not choose Him, is what makes a loving relationship possible, and that is why it is not un-loving for God to allow it.