Where I have a problem with Calvinism

Where I have a problem with Calvinism February 1, 2012

One commenter has raised a question about my statement that I have no problem with Calvinism in confessionally Reformed circles (churches, denominations, etc.). I made that statement in my previous post about my public conversation with Mike Horton.

So, let me clarify that.

First, by “no problem with” I don’t mean “agree with!” What I mean is, I don’t object to Reformed folks holding to their Calvinism within their own ecclesiastical settings that are confessionally bound. The same is true of many other doctrines with which I disagree in other confessional traditions (or non-confessional but with unwritten or supposedly non-binding statements of faith).

For example, to step out of the Calvinist issue for a moment, just to shed light on what I mean: I have no problem with Pentecostals believing and teaching that speaking in tongues is “the initial, physical evidence” of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit among themselves. My “problem” begins when one tells me or one of my students (etc.) that I am not Spirit baptized because I have never spoken in tongues. (Actually, I have, but don’t and that’s a whole other issue.)

Second, what I mean is that I would never dream of invading someone else’s ecclesiastical space to argue against their doctrines so long as they are being preached and taught only there and not out in the wider community.

Third, when a doctrine is brought out of its confessional context and imposed on others who do not belong to that confessional context, then I might have a problem. Or if members of a confessional context misrepresent others’ doctrines, then I have a problem with it.

I never “had a problem with Calvinism” until one told me my Arminianism would inevitably lead to liberal theology. When I was growing up some of my uncles and aunts and cousins were Christian Reformed. I never felt any urge to argue with them about it. They never tried to impose their Calvinism on me. They never treated me or my family like second class Christians. They kept their Calvinism in their family and church. Then, another Calvinist (not a relative) told me my Arminianism was evidence of latent humanism in me. That made me angry. I never belonged to a confessionally Calvinist/Reformed church or attended a confessionally Calvinist/Reformed college or university.

Then, one day, one of my students came to my office and told me I’m not a Christian because I’m not a Calvinist. Okay, then I had a problem. Neither my church nor his was confessionally Calvinist. Our college was not confessionally Reformed in any sense. He was one of the first “young, restless, Reformed” people. (This was about 25 years ago!) Then I began to hear that more and more often. It wasn’t always stated so bluntly, but the message was clear: unless you are a Calvinist you are at best a defective Christian. This was being said outside of confessionally Reformed churches.

So long as Calvinists keep their Calvinism among themselves, in their confessionally Reformed contexts, I am not going to go on any crusade to argue against it. My crusade against Calvinism (if that’s what it is) is ONLY because Calvinism is being widely promoted in non-Reformed contexts as the one and only truly evangelical theology.

Now, there is one exception to what I said. IF I hear that Arminianism is being misrepresented in a Reformed context, I might make an effort to correct that (as I am able to).

But I would never have written Against Calvinism if Calvinism were just being believed, preached and taught among confessionally Reformed Christians. It’s only because of people who publicly state that only Calvinism is truly evangelical in non-confessional evangelical settings that I felt called to write the book.

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  • Joe Canner

    That’s a very helpful distinction, thanks for that. How do you feel about denominational missionaries or church planters that promote Calvinism (or other potentially divisive doctrines) at the expense of their mission?

    Some time ago my wife and I supported a PCA missionary who told us in a prayer letter that he had found a local believer to pastor the church he had planted, but he was concerned that the local believer was soft on infant baptism. I eventually stopped supporting him because it concerned me that he was putting this doctrine ahead of the needs of the local church. However, given what you are saying here, since it was within the denominational context, perhaps I should have let it go (or else never supported him in the first place).

    • rogereolson

      I think it’s perfectly legitimate for a member of a church or denomination to critique its own doctrines insofar as that’s allowed by the confessions and ethos of the organization. To say that your own church, for example, is placing too much emphasis on a particular aspect of its confessional structure to the neglect of something else it values is fine. In fact, I would say that a PCA member has the right to disagree with anything it does. My point is that for me to criticize the PCA would be wrong so long as it does not impinge on me or my church or the wider evangelical community. I may have my thoughts about PCA doctrines and I might express them, but it would be wrong for me to launch a crusade to get the PCA to change. Except and unless its behavior as a denomination affects me. For example, the PCA sponsors a college student group called the Reformed University Fellowship. As a theology professor of a university with a very active RUF I have had some conflicts with the local chapter’s leadership over how they have represented Arminianism to students. But I have no warrant to try to get the PCA or RUF to change its confessional standards. Those are their business and none of mine.

  • Stefan

    The idea that non-Calvinists are somehow “defective” Christians is lamentably pervasive. It’s sometimes in your face, but just as often subtle and unarticulated, but it’s there. Speaking as one who self-identifies as a Calvinist, it’s an idea that I have had to go through a lot to unlearn, as encounters with non-Calvinist brothers and sisters in Christ have compelled me to learn to appreciate the validity of their faith and experiences, and to reexamine my own systematic presuppositions in the clear light of Scripture.

  • Dr. Olson,

    Thanks for the clarification. Know this is precisely the issue many of us face in the SBC presently. The aggressiveness of the Reformed Resurgence (especially, the the so-called “YRR” teamed up now with the more traditionally-oriented yet no less or aggressively Calvinistic “Founders” Movement) threatens to remake the entire SBC into its image. Many in the movement hold absolutely no hesitation in coming into a church which has no real Calvinisticly-oriented theological underpinnings, or if it does, it is mildly Calvinistic or at least a seriously modified Calvinism at play and has been so for sometimes over a century or more. Even so, many of the pastoral candidates hide their strong Calvinistic convictions, avoiding at all costs terms normally indicative of Calvinism. One of the favorite self-described monikers is “I am an historic Southern Baptist.”

    Why they do this is obvious. In your words, as “long as Calvinists keep their Calvinism among themselves, in their confessionally Reformed contexts” who cares? On the other hand, when “Calvinism is being widely promoted in non-Reformed contexts as the one and only truly evangelical theology” it is dead wrong.

    With that, I am…

    P.S. By the way, I have both “For Calvinism” and “Against Calvinism” and, like Adler helpfully suggested so long ago in his classic How to Read I am doing a comparative reading…

  • Dr. Olson,
    How is your position different than those who say that religion should be a “private” matter? Do you think there would be fruitful conversation and dialogue – like your conversation with Mike Horton – if what is taught within Reformed confessional circles simply remains there?

    • rogereolson

      Dialogue between people of different confessional persuasions is always a good thing. My disclaimer was that I would not invade Calvinist “spaces” uninvited to try to get them to change their beliefs (except about my Arminianism which is how this whole 20 year long conversation with Mike Horton began).

      • Shane Pennington


        Was it not Arminianism that originally invaded Calvinist “spaces” in the SBC? The SBC began confessionally reformed.

        • rogereolson

          Prove it. First, prove that the SBC began confessionally reformed. If that’s the case why did they not adopt an official Calvinist statement of faith? Second, even if the majority or all of the founders were Calvinists, the fact that many of their descendents changed theology does not prove that Arminians “invaded” their space. I’d like to know which ones did that. Who did that? I think most SBCers came to realize Calvinism was inconsistent with their emphasis on missions and evangelize and moved away from Calvinism. But to this day they insist they never adopted Arminianism. I happen to think many have adopted Arminianism, but I don’t know of any outside influence that could be called “invading” their space. Now, the story in Texas is quite different. The first Baptist missionaries were Two-Seed-In-The-Spirit-Predestinarian Calvinists who were considered extreme even by other Calvinists. Their mission didn’t succeed. Then came Free Will Baptist Missionaries. Historically, Texas Baptists have never been predominantly Calvinistic. If you want to say that Arminians “invaded” Calvinist space in the SBC, let’s go all the way back to the beginnings (early 1600s) when all Baptists were Arminians until some became Calvinistic (Particular Baptists)–about thirty-five to forty years after John Smyth and Thomas Helwys.

          • Shane Pennington

            Prove it? Is there a confession that has been used by Southern Baptists that is not reformed (save the 1925 BF&M)? The heart of Reformed theology is monergism (regeneration preceeds faith/repentance). The 1644/1689 London Confessions, Philadelphia/Charelston Confessions, Sandy Creek and New Hampshire Confessions, and the later versions of the BF&M are all monergistic. I suppose someone could argue that just because the churches that comprised the SBC were confessionally reformed does not mean the SBC began confessionally reformed, as if the SBC were an entity that existed apart from its churches that needed its own confession. But it was just this sort of thinking that led Southern Baptists to break with their Northern brothers and form their own convention in the first place.

          • rogereolson

            Uh, I thought it was over slave ownership. Do you happen to have the book Baptist Confessions of Faith? It’s sitting about two feet from me right now and I’ve read it cover to cover. The earliest Baptist statements of faith were anything but Calvinist (John Smyth’s and the Orthodox Creed, for example). The New Hampshire Confession can be interpreted as either Calvinist or Arminian as can the BF&M. You admit that the first BF&M (1925) was not reformed. But then you say “the later versions” were. Really? 1963?

  • Fan

    I completely agree with you. There is a huge problem with the idea when our Christianity begins to be divided by the Arminian and Calvinist debate. In fact, I have a real problem with the idea that this difference in beliefs is being used to such an extent that we see the church being torn apart as a result. There is a room to coexist but it will not happen as long as believers are questioning the salvation of other believers in this way. It’s disheartening and it does make one question why anyone outside of the church would want to be involved in something like that.

  • James Petticrew

    Roger I want to agree with you especially in a denomination where people have joined and brought in issues like inerrancy, literal 7 day creation, premillenialism into a Wesleyan context and are trying to make them touch stones of orthodoxy when they have never been so.

    I do have a question though, what about the Reformation? Was Knox for instance wrong in bringing back the Calvinism of Geneva to the Church in Scotland and so establishing the Reformation here?

    • rogereolson

      I assume that Knox was a member of the Church of Scotland which was Roman Catholic before him. So he was not invading a church from the outside but reforming it from within. I have no problem with members of churches and denominations speaking up about their beliefs and practices and trying to change them. My point is that it would be wrong for me to launch a reforming effort aimed at a Christian denomination I don’t belong to.

      • James Petticrew

        From memory Knox was a priest within the RC church before he embraced the reformation ideas from the continent, intintially more Lutheran till his time in Geneva.

  • Bev Mitchell

    You say, “when a doctrine is brought out of its confessional context and imposed on others who do not belong to that confessional context, then I might have a problem.” This works only if you are speaking of Christian’s from one confession trying to change the confessional positions of other Christians – a limited situation in the scheme of things, and primarily focused on the conservative side of ‘evangelicism’.

    I can’t shake the feeling that you are in a hole on this one and perhaps you should stop digging. You rightly have opposed the unacceptable god that logically derives from federal Calvinism. Now you say it’s fine with you if people confess this system of beliefs in house, just not in public. Then, should federal Calvinists evangelize, as in help spread the gospel? What version of the gospel would you have them promulgate? Should they teach? Are you not concerned that young people will get badly led astray? As you often say, it’s difficult to see how a person can logically be a two, three or four point Calvinist. It’s all or nothing. Seems to me that if a group confesses something of eternal importance to them we must fully expect them to shout it from the rooftops. So, if it has significant errors, as you rightly argue, how is it OK with you if they confess it in house, given the logical consequences of that vital confession? I am not talking about confessing Christ here, all Christians should do that. It’s the confession of our particular theological baggage that is the issue. But then, clearly, all our theologies are inadequate, so there’s another conundrum.

    • rogereolson

      Hmmm. I don’t see why this is a problem for anyone. “You go to your church and I’ll go to mine”as the old saying goes. What do you think I should do about a Reformed church or denomination? Why is what they believe any of my business so long as they aren’t trying to promote their doctrines outside their own circles as the only valid Christian belief?

      • Bev Mitchell

        But we often do promote our own doctrines outside our own confessional circles. It would be great if we focused only on the Good News. However the way we present the Good News is strongly influenced by our doctrines. 

        I’m completely on the “what you do in your house is your business” theme. But how can ‘it’ stay there? 

        • rogereolson

          Outside our own theological homes (ecclesiastical, confessional organizations) we can stick to the basic gospel. Some of my aunts and uncles were missionaries in Africa. They told how, in their “stations,” missionaries of very different confessional persuasions got along well and worked side-by-side and didn’t argue about their secondary doctrinal differences. This was Billy Graham’s approach, too. And that of his associate evangelists. I served on committees of pastors supporting two Graham-associated evangelists many years ago: John Wesley White and Leighton Ford. Our committees included pastors of the evangelical churches in the city. I found it impossible to tell what confessional traditions White and Ford came from; their sole focus was the gospel. On our committees included pastors of Reformed churches and Pentecostal churches and many others. We never talked about our theological differences in a way that would imply that some are “more evangelical” than others.

          • Bev Mitchell

            OK. Now I see where you are coming from and I agree. I too served on a Graham crusade team. It was one of the highlights of my Christian walk to see people from so many churches working together and to have the privilege of working with them! It should happen much more often.

  • Bev Mitchell

    But we often do promote our own doctrines outside our own confessional circles. It would be great if we focused only on the Good News. However the way we present the Good News is strongly influenced by our doctrines. 

    I’m completely with you on the “what you do in your house is your business” theme. But how can ‘it’ stay there? 

    • rogereolson

      See my response to your earlier comment.

      • Mr. Olson,

        Your earlier comment seems to suggest that our theology is able stay within our circles. I think Bev is suggesting that our theology effects our methodology in outreach, to which I agree. The way in which the gospel is presented outside our circles and the way in which we invite the world to Christ is theologically driven. For example, do you have a problem with a Calvinist who proclaims to an unbeliever that Jesus died only for whoever will believe?

        • rogereolson

          I have never met or heard of a Calvinist who proclaims that to unbelievers. But, if I heard an evangelist preaching that in a non-confessionally Calvinist setting in which I was a supporter (of the event) I would have a problem with it. Did you see my response to Bev? I believe some of Billy Graham’s associate evangelists were Calvinist-leaning. If I’m not mistaken Leighton Ford was a Presbyterian. But none of them ever let their specific theological orientation leak into their appeals to the lost to receive Christ. I’m not sure evangelism needs to be that confessionally specific. In fact, I’d say it does not have to be. Discipleship within the local church will usually include indoctrination.

          • Thanks. I’m still wrestling with the issue of whether or not Arminians and Calvinists can evangelize the lost together. My hope would be that we can. Being a Calvinist, I struggle with certain types of altar calls and sinner’s prayers that are prevalent with many Arminian evangelists. I know of many Arminians who have a problem with Calvinists who, many times, don’t go for an on-the-spot decision.

          • rogereolson

            Years ago I attended my Christian Reformed aunt’s funeral in a CRC church in Iowa. The CRC pastor gave a passionate invitation to those in attendance to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior right there and then. He didn’t invite any to “come forward,” but he certainly solicited decisions of faith. Why would that be inconsistent with Calvinist belief? As an evangelical Arminian I felt right at home.

  • Theodor

    Dear Dr. Roger. Greetings from Ukraine Donetsk. I’m a student of DCU (Donetsk Christian University). You are very well known among all the students and Teachers that i know. Your books we count as one of the best books on theology.
    And I’m writing a diploma on issue of modern Calvinism, so i enjoyed my time hearing Your conversation with Dr. Michel Horton. There is one thing i want to ask You and one question that i have for You. First – i want to have Your book “Against Calvinism” but its too expensive for me to buy it, so if You have it on Your computer and if its possible please send me that book on my e-mail. The same i want to ask from Your friend Michel Horton and His book “For Calvinism”
    And the question is, can You say that Calvinist is 100% Christian? As far as i understand You called once dr. Michel Horton Your brother in Christ. By the way I’m praying to be a student of WSC.
    With all respect to You. Sorry for the mistakes (if there is a mistakes) , English is not my native language.
    Blessing in Christ.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you. My understanding has been that most evangelicals in the Ukraine, as in Russia, are Arminian. Is that correct? Send me your surface address and I’ll see what I can do about getting a copy of Against Calvinism to you. I can’t send it electronically. Yes, I do consider my evangelical Calvinist friends (and not friends) one hundred percent Christian. I just think they’re confused.

  • Dr. Olson,

    So in other words, you want Calvinists to remain in their own churches as respectively as pentacostals and other groups you don’t agree with in their own because having them in your own churches influencing everyone else to think outside the box is problematic, am I right?

    I think the big problem here is this: what exactly is the big deal with working together or tolerating people who are not completely in full agreement with your doctrines (especially Arminianism)? In response to your last question, the major problem I have are the following:

    1. Denominations (e.g. Independent Fundamentalist Baptists) mock/judge other denominations as unfaithful and completely non-biblicists (again, these are minor issues, Presbyterians and Reformed folks are still good Christians).

    2. Denominations wind up gossiping and alienating church members for holding different convictions (e.g. BJU).

    3. Denominations violate larger principles of scripture, especially for the sake of ‘preserving’ doctrine.

    Again, I think this is the major issues that make the New Calvinists more willing to abide and become the true ‘salt and light’ of the earth because they are willing to work with people who do not agree with them.


    Email me when you make a new post, I would like to hear what you think.

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure you can understand that I can’t e-mail everyone when I post a response. I hope you return to see this. I have never said that Calvinists or Arminians or other evangelicals must keep their theological distinctives “to themselves.” I said that I think it is wrong to invade other evangelicals’ ecclesiastical spaces to try to argue against their confessional beliefs. And I think it is wrong for confessional evangelicals to use trans-denominational evangelical organizations to try to promote their distinctives as “the” right evangelical theology.

      • I figured I had to return anyways ( 😛 ).

        Concerning your previous convictions, where does Scripture make room for those kinds of ideals as being a ‘wrong’? I understand the freedom to disagree; however, I do not think there is room for people to worship separately because of these different views. Can you back that up with some scripture?


        • rogereolson

          No, our separatedness is a scandal, but it is also a done deal. IF we are going to have these strong disagreements over important issues of doctrine, it’s probably best that we worship separately and then cooperate with each other as much as possible.

          • Again, there is no disagreements on what you’re saying here, but the scandal of the separateness is this: Where is the Christ-likeness in the issues? As I’ve said before, tons of denominations have these issues of mocking each other rather than ‘just’ candidly going their separate ways. I think there is more trouble whenever denominations cannot show mutual respect for each other and their differences. This is the heart of the issue that most of the non-Calvinist, non-Pentecostal, non-Presbyterian, etc. have when it comes to the New Calvinism.

            They don’t want to hear anything about Calvinism (which is OK), but they want to make fun of or mock them in their private circles.

            Does that make sense?


          • rogereolson

            I haven’t experienced that. It seems to me that wherever I go I hear Calvinist voices raised and very little talk back.

      • In addition to the previous post, how do you reconcile the ideals that I posted in the original posts? Isn’t there something to say about people within those specific denominations who do such a thing?


  • gingoro

    Roger thanks for clarifying my confusion wrt your original post. I strongly agree with you that our doctrinal differences should not be a reason to denigrate the Christianity of others provided that such Christianity is within historic orthodoxy. I consider historic orthodoxy to be represented by the Nicene and the Apostles creeds.

    My parents were members of a large interdenominational mission and I can support your comments that people from different positions worked together very well. AFAIK everyone practiced adult baptism and I would expect that there were other places where differences caused some friction. But the only time that I was aware of strong differences was over the issue of speaking in tongues where those people that spoke in tongues were implying that those who did not were less Christian or spiritual than those who spoke. Eventually the mission placed restrictions on public use of speaking in tongues.
    My wife and I have had similar issues with one of our families where almost all the members are charismatics and we hold a moderate none charismatic reformed position. One of the parents essentially held that none charismatics are less than Christian and disowned us from the family. As you can imagine this has resulted in a great deal of hurt. I suppose I should write a book “Against Charismatics”. 😉
    As I see it our failure to love Christians of other denominations is a great evil as it results in disrepute for the gospel. Secondary matters must not divide us but as you point out they regularly do divide us.
    Dave W

    • rogereolson

      If you write “Against Charismatics,” be sure you make clear that not all Charismatics believe that non-tongue-speakers are less than fully Christian. I grew up among Pentecostals who believed that evangelicals who did not speak in tongues were most definitely Christian, but we believed they lacked the power of the Holy Spirit that they would have if they did speak in tongues. I once asked my uncle (president of our Pentecostal denomination) if Billy Graham is Spirit filled even though he wrote in his book on the Holy Spirit that he never spoke in tongues. His answer was “He’s the exception.” But we believed, as do most Pentecostals and Charismatics, that people who do not speak in tongues are nevertheless saved if they have placed their trust in Jesus Christ.

  • joshua

    I am glad i found this site let me tell you a little bit about my church. About 2 years ago the pastor of my church left and moved his family to the Dominique republic to be missionaries. Our church was pretty much a nondenominational church focused on attracting people that would not step in a traditional church but still preached the truth. Over time we have had a couple of fill in pastors until the elder of the church took over preaching duties and the church started to loose members. As time went on the focus has became on how to make the church a more biblical church. As time has passed he has started to bring in people that he has gone to church with in the past. The problem is the doctrine they are placing, come to find out they are all Calvinistic, and we have had really heated arguments and bad things have been said and more people have left. Its hard to stay when you have leaders in the church bashing mans free will and saying Jesus didn’t die for all when john tells me he did. How do I respond when they say this way of thinking is biblical and they want to grow the church biblical y and my way is non christen and if i fall out of grace with God i was never saved to begin with. I pray alot about this the easy thing to do is just leave but being part of the worship team and a board member its hard. ever time i make that last push to leave something pulls me back and gives me hope for the church. Its like god does not want me to leave yet…….is there any advice you can give me to help me threw this………sorry about the grammar lol….

  • Taylor

    Roger, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have one question, though. Have you (or anyone else) ever heard of a non-Calvinist Presbyterian (meaning a follower of Christ who agrees with a Presbyterian polity, but disagrees with Calvinism) or do all followers of Christ who agree with a Presbyterian polity also agree with Calvinism and why?

    • rogereolson

      I have run across churches with presbyterian polity that are not Calvinistic. Of course, much depends on what one means by “presbyterian polity.” Having elders? Congregations accountable to presbyteries? The Assemblies of God is close. Many Cumberland Presbyterian folks have contacted me to tell me their denomination is much closer to Arminian than to Calvinist. I don’t see any necessary connection between presbyterian polity and Calvinism.