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.