A Mysterious Topic (Part 2)

A Mysterious Topic: “Mystery,” “Paradox,” and “Contradiction” in Theology (Part 2)

If you have not read Part 1 (posted May 31, 2012) please read that first. This may not make any sense otherwise.

One way in which some well-meaning but misguided persons have attempted to resolve the seemingly intractable differences between divine determinism, including evil as part of God’s plan rendered certain by God, and creaturely free will as power of contrary choice, including evil as not part of God’s plan and not rendered certain by God but the result of creaturely decision and action, is appeal to mystery.

An old sermon illustration has it that absolute divine sovereignty, meticulous providence, and free will, power of contrary choice, are like two train tracks that seem incommensurable but somehow join in the distance beyond the horizon of human sight. Of course, any thinking person who hears that illustration immediately things to herself “But they don’t join in the distance!”

A perhaps more reasonable illustration, applied to salvation, that allegedly resolves the dilemma between monergism and human responsibility and decision, is the following: As one approaches the gate of heaven one sees a sign that says “Whosoever will may enter here freely,” but when the person enters and looks back at the other (inner) side of the gate one sees that it says “For you were chosen from before the foundation of the world.” Of course, any thinking person who hears that illustration in a sermon will immediately realize that it is meant only to illustrate (and therefore defend) monergism.

More sophisticated appeals to mystery to resolve the dilemma avoid illustrations such as those and simply say “It’s a mystery.” As I stated in Part 1, I have no quarrel with appeal to mystery in theology so long as it is not a resort to embrace of contradiction.

It seems to me, however, that appeal to mystery to handle the dilemma stated above necessarily involves one in contradiction.  The dilemma is not between “God’s sovereignty” and “free will” as some state it. We who believe in libertarian free will (as power of contrary choice) also believe in God’s sovereignty. God is sovereign over his sovereignty and limits his determining power to make room for other determining powers. The dilemma is between divine determinism (belief that God determines everything that is to happen even if only indirectly causes much of it) and limited providence—God’s governance of all that happens without determining it in every detail.

Those two cannot both be believed without falling into sheer contradiction. And sheer (logical) contradiction is always and in every context a sign of error. To embrace it in theology is a form of special pleading that removes theology from intelligible discourse and requires a sacrifice of the intellect. A person who embraces contradiction (which I’m not sure is even possible!) has no ground for objecting to others who embrace contradiction.

Several questions arise. First, does revelation communicate sheer, logical contradiction? I hope not. Some argue it does. For example, they point to passages that allegedly say that God is the author of sin and evil (or its designer and governor) and (others) that say sin and evil are creatures’ doing, not God’s. Both Calvinism and Arminianism attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction by privileging one set of passages over the other or finding a hermeneutical “tool” such as divine self-limitation, prevenient grace, secondary causation, compatibilism, etc. that will relieve the paradox.

Some theologians (and non-theologians) prefer to simply let the contradiction be. To them, to use a popular saying “It is what it is.” So leave it alone. Embrace it.

Now let’s play with that idea a little to see what happens.

The preacher gets up in the pulpit and says “God determines everything including evil. God planned and rendered certain the holocaust and the torturous death of a little child from leukemia. And these horrible evils and instances of innocent suffering are the result of human rebellion and its resultant curse on creation. God does not want them to be, but allows them.” Who could blame his listeners who shake their heads in bewilderment and think either the preacher is nuts or they dozed off for a moment and missed something?

Even more to the point, imagine the theologian who teaches theology in a university and is invited to be on a panel with a variety of scholars from across the curriculum to discuss the nature of evil and its source. They all posit their theories and then it’s his turn and he says “God plans it and does it and God doesn’t want it and doesn’t do it.”

Surely his colleagues will press for further explanation and insist on it. Insofar as he refuses and simply rests with the contradiction his colleagues will simply write him (and possibly theology) off as anti-intellectual if not unintelligible.

Now, the moment you go further and attempt to “explain” using concepts such as John Piper’s “two wills of God” you have abandoned contradiction (or at least attempted to) and attempted to resolve the paradox. That’s not what I’m objecting to. I’m objecting to those who say we should simply rest with contradiction and not attempt to reconcile the apparent opposites found in Scripture.

Let’s look at a specific example: Philippians 2:12-13 “Work out your own salvation…for God is at work in you….” Some (e.g., D. M. Baillie) have labeled this the “paradox of grace.” I have used that term myself. I’m okay with that. As I explained in Part 1, I find certain paradoxes inevitable signs of mystery. But is it a sheer contradiction? I hope not. One of theology’s tasks is to show that, even though we cannot plumb the depths of God’s agency and ours in salvation, thus reducing mystery to something completely comprehensible to the finite intellect, there is no need to embrace sheer contradiction.

Philippians 2:12-13 is not a contradiction once we see and acknowledge that our “work” is not the same as God’s “work” in salvation (including sanctification). Two different Greek words are translated “work” in these two verses. There’s our first clue that no contradiction is involved. However, knowing their meanings doesn’t automatically resolve the apparent tension. Theology steps in, however, to say that God’s work surrounds and underlies, enables, our “work” which is simply to allow God to do his work in us.

I use a homely illustration. Every summer here in central Texas I struggle to keep bushes alive. I turn on the outdoor faucet to which a hose is attached and drag the hundred foot hose around the house to a thirsty bush. I aim the spray nozzle at the bush and press the trigger. Nothing comes out. I go back to make sure the faucet is actually turned on. It is. Pressurized water is there in the hose. Then I realize there’s got to be a kink somewhere in that long hose that’s keeping the water from flowing. I track the length of the hose, find the kink(s) and straighten them out.

The water represents God’s grace; the kink(s) represents a wrong attitude or habit or desire that blocks up the flow of God’s grace in my life. My task is to remove those with the Spirit’s help.

The analogy breaks down, of course, in that, in my spiritual life, removing the “kinks” is just as much God’s work as mine, but I have to want it and permit it. The “energy” (one of the Greek words translated “work”) is all God’s. All I contribute is heartfelt desire, prayer and submission. That’s also “work” insofar as it’s not easy; it’s not what comes naturally.

Philippians 2:12-13 may express a paradox, but it doesn’t express a sheer contradiction. It would only be a contradiction if it said that salvation is exclusively God’s work and exclusively mine. It doesn’t say that. It implies a cooperation—a synergy. At least that’s the best way to interpret it.

If we are going to embrace contradictions, then theology really has nothing to do. Every apparent contradiction in Scripture should just be embraced without any effort to show how they are not really contradictions. The results of the deliberations of the councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon were explanations of how what Scripture says about God and Jesus Christ are not contradictions. They are mysteries, but not contradictions.

On this I am in total agreement with R. C. Sproul who emphatically rejects efforts by fellow Calvinists (and others, of course) to affirm contradiction. I have detailed that in Against Calvinism and cited Sproul’s works.

Mystery—yes. Paradox—uncomfortably yes. Contradiction—no. Admittedly it is not always easy to tell what’s a paradox and what’s a real contradiction. But some things are obviously contradictions. To affirm divine determinism and creaturely non-compatibilist free will is a contradiction. There’s no way around it. And it’s absurd. It makes Christianity unintelligible nonsense. That doesn’t serve anyone well.

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  • Cal

    Have you ever read Jacques Ellul’s work on this subject of freedom of Creator and creature? Roughly, as I recall, he states that yes man is totally free in his decisions limited only by his will. However, to assume God as a mere player in all this is folly (as some inadvertently do). When God acts, by His very word, the cosmos is totally rearranged. Our choices are limited by our reality, creaturely, whereas God as Creator is not, which is perhaps unfathomable (some of the pre-socratics spent a lot of time talking about this).

    I tend to think of it as an action book. God is the author who presents us the choices and we take them, yet either way, the story is guided and we’re unfolding what is already written. The end of the book says Jesus Wins.

    None of this discussing our deadness in sin and the need of Grace of God to come first and foremost.


  • Hi Roger, thanks for your post. How would you view Stott’s position where he accepts presdestination on the one hand but human responsibility on the other. As I’m sure you know he argues that in this case it is not a paradox but an antimomy where two seemingly conflicting truths can be held together.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know how a paradox differs from an antinomy. To me, they’re the same thing–apparent (possibly not real) contradictions and task for further thought. Much depends on how one defines “predestination.” I’m not familiar with Stott’s meaning of it. I think Piper’s combination of divine determinism (including unconditional election and irresistible grace) and human responsibility (especially the responsibility of the reprobate whom God has foreordained to be reprobate) is at least a paradox and possibly an outright contradiction. At least Calvinist pastor and author Edwin Palmer (The Five Points of Calvinism) had the courage to admit it.

  • Scott Gay

    Paradox doesn’t become so uncomfortable. Both God and man. Trancendence and immanence. Law and Gospel. Believers assurance. The calling, even charity, courage, modesty(and all of what the RC labeled virtues)…have paradox within….I could write about why they have paradox involved (and have)…….I have appreciated Chesterton. Bevan, C.S Lweis, Moltmann pointing out paradox within Christianity. It is not a contradiction to hold to loving one’s life and being willing to lose it. It is not a contradiction to not think too highly of oneself and not think too lowly of your soul. It was the Methodist Fowler who put paradox near the top of the stages of growth within the Christian life. There is a resistance within Christianity to growth analogies, but be that as it may, paradox can be pointed to as one of the strengths of Christianity as compared to atheism, paganism, agnosticism.

    • rogereolson

      Oh, but I think atheism, paganism and agnosticism run into stronger paradoxes and even contradictions. I didn’t deny paradox; I see it as inevitable in any attempt to express mysteries of transcendence. However, the closer one comes to sheer contradiction the more we need to think about it and not just embrace it comfortably. There comes a point where we are, in practice, echoing Tertullian’s “I believe because it is absurd.” To me, that’s absurd.

  • J.E. Edwards

    This is a conversation that has lasted for hundreds of years with great men on either side. We are first and foremost brothers in Christ. We have trusted Christ to redeem us and will be together for eternity, not to see who saw this issue correctly or not, but to worship our God. That said, I want to lay down my arguments with that spirit and speak kindly yet absolutely passionately. (As I’m glad you do) I would not call this a contradiction, either. I believe you sort of brought about C.H. Spurgeon’s argument which I now put here.
    “The system of truth revealed in the Scriptures is not simply one straight line, but two; and no man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once. For instance, I read in one Book of the Bible, “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.” Yet I am taught, in another part of the same inspired Word, that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” I see, in one place, God in providence presiding over all, and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions, in a great measure, to his own free-will. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act that there was no control of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to atheism; and if, on the other hand, I should declare that God so over-rules all things that man is not free enough to be responsible, I should be driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one part of the Bible that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find, in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is only my folly that leads me to imagine that these two truths can ever contradict each other. I do not believe they can ever be welded into one upon any earthly anvil, but they certainly shall be one in eternity. They are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the human mind which pursues them farthest will never discover that they converge, but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.”
    (C.H. Spurgeon: Autobiography Vol. I pgs. 173-174)
    You see, it is not a giving up of our logic, if you will, but rather our yielding to the Word of God. Believers in Sovereign grace, because they are not afraid to speak of high doctrine, are somehow believed to have a better understanding than anyone else. That is the undertone. That is nonsense. Simply speaking high doctrine doesn’t mean they understand it better than anyone else. Nor does it mean they are not searching it out and meditating on it. It does mean that when they come to particular hard cases in Scripture and after much hard work in study and meditation, that they wish to yield to it, and not force IT to yield to us arbitrary humans.

    • rogereolson

      The problem with Spurgeon is that he claimed to embrace paradox but really did not–except that somehow the reprobate are still responsible even though God has foreordained their reprobation. He, like most high Calvinists, relieved paradox by affirming divine determinism and denying human free will (in the noncompatibilist sense of power of contrary choice). I think it has been very easy for many pastors to stand in their pulpits and preach and teach logical contradictions on the ground that it is “clearly taught” in Scripture. When pressed by reflective and critical thinking parishioners, however, they usually explain what they said in the pulpit in a way that relieves much, if not all, of the paradox.

      • J.E. Edwards

        Spurgeon didn’t deny human free will. What about our yielding to the Scripture? Reflective and critical thinking parishioners cannot bring divine sovereignty and human free will together. That’s the problem…they are trying to reconcile two things that never asked to be reconciled and do not negate each other.

        • rogereolson

          Have you read my posts carefully? I’ve worded them very cautiously to state the contradiction clearly. Of course it’s not between “divine sovereignty” and “human free will.” All Christians (except some Lutherans and some Calvinists) affirm both. The contradiction is between divine determinism and creaturely free will as power of contrary choice. Calvinists do not believe in the latter. Arminians do not believe in the former. They cannot be believed together–at the same time. Please read my posts carefully so I don’t have to go back over what I have clearly said.

          • J.E. Edwards

            I apologize, thanks for the clarification. Let me try to address what you DID say. Your statement,”The contradiction is between divine determinism and creaturely free will as power of contrary choice.” Isn’t this the same reasoning Satan used with the woman in the garden? Basically, that you don’t know true freedom until you have the opportunity for contrary choice. Isn’t this the same thing Satan himself tried? Didn’t he want to rip God from His throne and put himself there? I believe this is what we do when we say we MUST have the power of contrary choice. We even use the same language Satan used if we don’t. He would have Eve believe that God isn’t good or loving if she didn’t know good and evil, which is the power of contrary choice. This is really the root of it all, we suppress the truth and make ourselves god. Then we say God isn’t good or loving if we don’t have this power. This is Paul’s classic argument in Romans 1.

          • rogereolson

            Not at all and I have addressed this voluminously here earlier. Classical Arminians affirm that “true freedom” is found only in being saved (fully, eschatologically) but that “free will” is a God-given tool for getting there (in terms of allowing God to do his work in one’s life).

          • J.E. Edwards

            I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to read any of that. Would you consider referring me to any particular post? One of the reasons I bring that up is the fact that Satan even used it as a point of deception. At that time mankind had not yet fallen and sin had not entered the world. I don’t believe this means they didn’t have the power of contrary choice. What I would say, is that to say that God isn’t good or loving if we do not have that ability (that we MUST have it) is the very spirit of what Satan was using to deceive Eve. That God knows that when you eat of the fruit, you will be like Him. Why use that? Of course, I don’t have the answer (I’m not implying you do), but what would be your thoughts there?

          • rogereolson

            I interpret the serpent’s deceptive promise to Adam and Eve as that, by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they will know good and evil for themselves apart from dependence on God. It is the seductive promise of equality with God. I don’t see that it had anything to do with free will or not. Neither I nor anyone else I know have ever said that God cannot be good or loving unless humans have the power of contrary choice. What I say, and the vast majority of Christians throughout history have said, is that belief that God planned and rendered certain the fall and all its evil consequences sullies the reputation of God.

          • J.E. Edwards

            I don’t believe I was referring to free will in what I said. At least that wasn’t my target. Maybe it’s not said straight up, but it is implied. Just get into a discussion with someone and mention the possibility of not having power of contrary choice. That is met with anger and accusation and ultimately cast upon God as not being good or loving, if we don’t. Greg Boyd has definitely stated that in so many words. Here’s what I guess I mean. We don’t know the freedom of will that Adam and Eve had BEFORE they sinned. They definitely had a freedom of will then that we don’t have because we have known nothing but a sinful nature. That is a really big mystery…how free were they? I won’t speculate. Adam and Eve were warned what would happen. That said, BECAUSE of the fall and sin, this is what God has to work with now. People who want nothing to do with Him. People who are running away from Him as hard as they can. It’s amazing that God wasn’t sullied when He came to earth to redeem us. For Jehovah to do what He wills with those who hate Him and killed Him, even if that means turning the hearts of some to trust Him, never can sully Him. It can only reveal how far His grace has gone and goes. Willing in the day of His power to turn us to Him through the gospel. I agree with you when you said we see depravity the same. We do, however, see how far God’s grace goes differently. I say this kindly because I know you’ll disagree. Sovereign grace goes further and does more than only prevenient grace.

          • rogereolson

            But only for a few when it (sovereign grace as you understand it) could save everyone (because it is unconditional and irresistible).

    • Felix Alexander

      I would say to you, J. E. Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon, that when you think you find a contradiction in the bible like that, you chalk it up as a a task for further research, rather than just believing five impossible things before breakfast. It is impossible to believe contradictions. You cannot believe that God decides without reference to me whether I am saved or not, and that I am responsible for that—unless you say that I am God. Seeing as that’s obviously not true, then either Paul’s point to the Romans was something different than what Spurgeon makes it out to be, or the Lord’s point in granting John that vision was different from that. (As for me, when I read the relevant parts of Romans I don’t think he’s teaching predetermination—but I won’t say what I do think because there’s too many people smarter than me around here and I’m intimidated;)

      Still, the Scriptures must first of all make sense if we’re going to rely on them.

    • John Inglis

      RE “everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find, in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions”

      The reason that Calvinists can look at this statement and see only paradox, while Arminians see contradiction, is that they both define the relevant terms differently. For a Calvinist, a man can be responsible even if his actions have been determined by another (i.e., by God). On the other hand, for an Arminian, responsibility for actions–especially moral responsibility for evil actions–cannot exist unless persons are able to choose between actions without that choice being determined (directly or indirectly) by another.

      For a Calvinist, fore-ordination means the determination of everything, even the movement of drops of water (as Spurgeon preached) and atoms. An Arminiant holds that God can foreordain without determining every action and choice of persons (he can do so, if he wishes, but then the person would not be morally responsible for that action).

      Consequently, the Calvinist accepts a logical contradiction while the Arminian does not. The Calvinist insists that we must accept such contradictions; the Arminian insists that we must not or we cannot have a rational theology, a rational apologetic, a rational witness, or a rational discussion with anyone. When a Bhuddist, Hindu, Pagan, Mormon, JW, etc. says that he/she believes his/her religion even in the face of contradictions, what apologetic response does the Calvinist have? None. The Calvinist cannot argue to the Mormon or JW that they should reconsider and abandon their beliefs because of the inconsistencies or contradictions or illogic, because the Mormon, etc., will just answer, “so what, your belief is just as full of contradictions and illogic.”

      Indeed, many former Christians who have abandoned their faith give such a reason for their leaving.

      • rogereolson

        Well said.

      • J.E. Edwards

        “An Arminian holds that God can foreordain without determining every action and choice of persons (he can do so, if he wishes, but then the person would not be morally responsible for that action).”
        You are raising the exact things that people were bombarding Paul with, which he answered thunderously in Rom. 9. After laying out some things regarding election, it seems Paul was getting the response you gave…I can’t be responsible if I don’t have choice. To which Paul says in Rom. 9:19, “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
        Then comes the thunder in v. 20, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
        Instead of roaring back at God, we should be humbled.

        • rogereolson

          Do you interpret Romans 9 as teaching that God is the author of sin and evil? It certainly sounds like it!

          • J.E. Edwards

            I think you know better than that. You can throw that on me, I suppose. I’m not God and I don’t know His purposes. But I will not roar against God because I don’t understand. I will, however, bow to His word and be humbled.

          • J.E. Edwards

            That’s true. That was an aggressive comment, but I mean for it to be tied to the idea/spirit of an argument that says we must have the power of contrary choice. Even if it is only an allusion to that.

        • John Inglis

          No, I don’t agree that I’m raising the exact things that people were bombarding Paul with. I’m not aware of any leading commentary that would say that (i.e., that was the issue(s) Paul was writing his letter in response to). That would be the modern day issues that current readers bring to Paul’s text.

          BTW, in my post above, as I reread it, I see that I’m not clear on the point of Calvinists believing in a contradiction. Because they define the key terms differently, they do not believe they are stuck with the contradiction that Arminians allege. Consequently, the issue of contradiction becomes not a logical one, but one of terms and concepts. Arminians argue that their understanding of free will is derived from the Bible, and is one that is consistent with human experience and understanding. They further argue that where Calvinists differ from this understanding, they are incorrect.

          Hence, if Arminians are correct in their understanding of the Bible, then Calvinists do have a true logical contradiction that they must deal with.

          Of course, it must also be remembered that different Calvinists have different philosophical explanations respecting how a person’s will can be considered “free” and “morally responsible” even though God has predestined everything. Some Calvinists even appear willing to accept that our will is predestined. However they explain the concepts they derive, they all agree that the Arminian explanation is incorrect.

          For my part, and I speak for no other Arminian, it seems to me, firstly, that the Arminian position on the nature of the choices God gives throughout the Bible (e.g., when God explicitly requires a choice of the nation of Israel to follow him or not, which I believe is in Deut.) is one based on the overall text, on a theme and type of presentation by the inspired text that allows for only one understanding: the Arminian one.

          Secondly, it seems to me that the relatively few texts that the Calvinists rely on to develop a certain type or theory of predestination and foundation of omniscience (God knows all because he ordains/ foreordains all) are texts that can admit of more than one reasonable interpretation. That is, one can reasonably interpret the texts such that they allow for the Calvinist way, but also so that they allow for the Arminian way.

          So we have the general tenor of the entire inspired Word, plus specific stories of choices, against a few verses for one way of understanding one doctrine.

          Thirdly, it seems to me that the texts on which the Calvinists rely are not determinative. That is, they do not require that the text in question be interpreted only in the Calvinist way. They can be, but they need not be. They are such, that they can allow for other interpretations. Hence, these texts can allow for either the Arminian or Calvinist view. So, when a Calvinist states that “such and such text proves my case”, all he/she can say is that the text quoted can be interpreted in a manner consistent with Calvinist theology. The Arminian can come right back at the Calvinist with the same, legitimate claim–that the text at issue supports the Arminian view!

          Given our separation from the text (time, culture, language, etc.), there is no agreed hermeneutic that will lead only to one or the other interpretation exclusively and inevitably. Of course, I believe the Arminian interpretation to be the stronger one and more well supported, but I can argue only on weight. There is no logical argument in the hermeneutics; hermeneutics is not the creation of syllogisms.

          As to philosophical and logical arguments, again, even philosphers disagree on what view reflects reality as we experience it. In this area, as in other areas of philosophy, where one ends up depends on the assumptions one starts with (and assumptions are inevitable, on pain of eternal regression).

          Both the Calvinist and Arminian way can be presented as a reasonable and consistent philosophical position. Moreover, God–being omnipotent–could have created reality either way. That is, he could have created the universe and us with the type of predestination and free will as defined by Calvinists, or with that as defined by Arminians.

          So what position, then, corresponds with reality? Aye, there’s the rub.

          Universal, global, over all recorded history, human experience and reasoning about these issues overwhelmingly supports the Arminian position. But, “so what?!”, the Calvinist can argue that our universal experience is universally wrong because of our total depravity and that God has revealed over and against that understanding that we really don’t have the kind of free will we think we have.

          So, if we don’t trust our universal experience, and rational reasoning based on the experience, let’s go to the Bible. But hermeneutics alone cannot resolve this issue because the same methods of Biblical interpretation can lead to either position.

          And ’round and ’round the circle we go. And again I come back to the issue of weight.

          I am an Arminian not because it has an undoubtable and defeatable philosphy and Biblical interpretation, but because it has the far stronger arguments (as I see them) compared to the Calvinist ones.

          Sorry for the long reply, which went far beyond the comment, but as I got thinking about it I saw its linkage to additional matters.



          • rogereolson

            Perhaps you meant (in the penultimate paragraph) “undefeatable?”

          • J.E. Edwards

            A few? How about a number which no man can number? If not for sovereign grace, no one would be saved. But what is really behind it all? Your statement sums up what I was trying to say.
            “Do you interpret Romans 9 as teaching that God is the author of sin and evil? It certainly sounds like it!” Why jump to that conclusion? We can smile with our fist in the face of God, but it is still a fist in the face of God. (The idea that we must have the power of contrary choice) No matter if it is said directly or not, that is ultimately the spirit of the argument. Rom. 9 says what it says and simply and it is abrasive to human nature.

          • rogereolson

            Nonsense. A different interpretation than yours doesn’t necessarily equate with a “fist in God’s face.” I could just as well say that your interpretation is a slap in God’s face.

          • J.E. Edwards

            @ John
            “That is, they do not require that the text in question be interpreted only in the Calvinist way. They can be, but they need not be. They are such, that they can allow for other interpretations. Hence, these texts can allow for either the Arminian or Calvinist view. So, when a Calvinist states that “such and such text proves my case”, all he/she can say is that the text quoted can be interpreted in a manner consistent with Calvinist theology. The Arminian can come right back at the Calvinist with the same, legitimate claim–that the text at issue supports the Arminian view!”
            That is true and vice versa. As far as leading commentators, those are arbitrary, too. Sooo, does this come down to a staring contest:) Sorry, I couldn’t resist. As far as what I said of Paul answering an objection in Rom. 9 being a modern day issue brought to the text, that is also based upon your presupposition and those you have read (as is mine). I would disagree with you there.
            I would like to say that I notice some reference to the whole of Scripture many times when I point to a text of Scripture. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe the whole of Scripture lays out God’s plan of redemption, even to the point of choosing a people for Himself. Based on nothing in them–good or bad, large or small. He loved them because He loved them.
            The Scriptures finally had significant meaning (to me) when I came to understand God’s grace as sovereign grace. Not that they didn’t have meaning before, there just seemed to be a ceiling to it, if that makes sense. Thanks for your response.

          • John Inglis

            Yes, I did mean “undefeatable”.

            Further to God being the “author of sin” and “roaring against God”. That is a cop-out answer, and a logical fallacy to boot, as well as an inappropriate attempt to cut off discussion. To admit the logical implications of one’s views is not “roaring against God”, nor is it “roaring” to see and even to admit that the implications are contrary to various passages of scripture. Furthermore, it is not “roaring” to discuss these matters, and to try to resolve them. The authors of the Bible, by example, show us that it is proper to wrestle with these issues and to use the minds that God gave us to try and understand him as far as we can in these earthly vessels, in the time before the coming of the kingdom.

        • J.E. Edwards

          Also, what I do think, is that Paul knew that people understood him crystal clear if that was the argument they gave. We know because he stated the objection he was getting to his teaching.

  • Percival

    This reminds me of Col. 4:3-4 where Paul asks for prayers that he would proclaim the mystery of Christ and that he would be able to proclaim it clearly. Being clear about a mystery is in itself a mystery, but at a minimum it reminds us that we should embrace the Gospel of Christ as a mystery to clearly proclaim rather than a riddle to exhaustively explain.

    You can tell from my rhyme that I once preached a sermon on this. : )

    • John Inglis

      Do you post your sermons?

      • Percival

        I preach on the few occasions I return to the US. But for security reasons, my sending church puts them on the web site without my name (and my name is not really Percival). Sorry. Proclaim the mystery, brother!

  • Kyle

    I sometimes hear people who affirm Calvinistic determinism in soteriology trying to be friendly(a desire which I respect and for which I’m glad) say something like, “We shouldn’t waste time talking about free-will vs predestination.” I would like to be more charitable and read a better meaning into their words, but actually they think that arguing against Calvinism is arguing against predestination rather than determinism. I think we need to use “predestination,” “destiny,” and “chosen” more often in appropriate ways that demonstrate Arminian (better in my opinion) meanings so that less people will continue to make the mistake of equating predestination with determinism of everything meticulously. That said, thanks for speaking clearly about the issue of mystery and theology.

    • John Inglis

      Yes, and I also believe that the issue has implications for both apologetics and missiology; the defense of our faith, and our proclamation of it. Many atheists, agnostics and other religious adherents drop kick Christianity (either leaving, or never considering) because they think Christianity is Calvinism (which is what Calvinists often claim), and they reject Calvinism. They see (as do Arminians) that it leaves people without moral responsibility, makes God a moral monster, and makes God the author of evil in such a way that he could not also be a good god.


  • Hi Roger,
    I live in China, so I don’t have easy access to your books. But do you have any posts on this site or any articles on the web that explain how you reconcile free will with God’s sovereignty and omniscience?

    If God knows today exactly what you are going to do tomorrow (and I believe he does), can you really choose to do contrary to what God knows you will do? Aren’t tomorrow’s choices limited as a result of God’s perfect foreknowledge?

    As you know, Open Theism deals with this dilemma by talking about a God who sees the future as possibilities, but I think this approach creates more problems than it resolves.

    • rogereolson

      At least one of my books (The Story of Christian Theology) is published by the University of Beijing Press. The simple answer is that God knows what I will freely do tomorrow because I will freely do it tomorrow. How? I don’t know. No creature has that kind of knowledge. But there’s no “sheer contradiction” involved. See the writings of Alvin Plantinga and Stephen Davis on this in their books on the attributes of God and the problem of evil.

      • John Inglis

        I think Open Theism does solve the issues effectively and without creating more problems than it resolves, but I’m not committed to it.

        As to some spiritual being (God) knowing what someone will freely do in the future, there is no contradiction depending on how one defines and understands time, knowledge, and action. Consequently, analytic philosophy is very useful because it’s methodology is to very carefully define terms and very carefully carry out reasoning (Plantinga is an analytic philospher).

  • John C. Gardner

    I wonder whether Arminius himself or John Wesley actually wrote on the contradictions, paradox that Dr. Olson discusses in this post. It does seem hard to argue that we should be responsible for our sins if everything is predetermined. Additionally, I believe that the idea of prevenient grace provides a coherent position regarding original sin. Does anyone know of good books on the topics in this book which discuss what Arminius actualy said or Wesley?
    Thanks for the challenging reading.

    • rogereolson

      I know someone who wrote Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press) that contains many quotes from Arminius and Wesley. 🙂

      • John C. Gardner

        Thank you for the recommendation to a good author and his careful use of sources.

  • John Inglis

    Re J.E. Edwards, June 6, at 9:52 p.m.: “Sooo, does this come down to a staring contest:) ”

    I take it as a jest. Nevertheless, the jest avoids my point that neither side has irrefutable logic, interpretation, and philosophy on their side. Consequently, it comes down to assessing and weighing the evidence; no staring down at all. I do believe that the weight is very much on the side of Arminianism, and that it will ultimately prevail though some “tares” will remain (it, or something more akin to it than TULIP Calvinism is the belief of the greater majority of Christians in the world. TULIP is very much a minority, even in America).

    • J.E. Edwards

      “I do believe that the weight is very much on the side of Arminianism…” Of course, I disagree. Here’s the thing, I loath the terms Calvinist & Arminian. They imply choosing a side. I will not, even though I lean one way, choose a hard side by name. Maybe the reason this discussion even exists is because God didn’t want us to be comfortable in either position, but to wrestle with both. Plus, they can be used in a derogatory manner that isn’t helpful, even though I know we use them for short order (like conservative and liberal). I’ve rather enjoyed Roger’s latest posts and seeing the agreement we do have. I’m glad to say to those who would accuse him of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism that they probably haven’t read his stuff. More importantly, they probably haven’t examined their own experience of trusting Jesus. The only people who could possibly make those charges might be those who have ONLY known a Reformed/Calvinistic understanding in their upbringing.(?) Not many people have…including myself. My background in church (apart from Pentecostalism) is somewhat similar to Roger’s. I’m not here to win an argument. This is the only place I know of that this conversation goes this far without a lot of name calling and hatefulness. This conversation has helped me as believer, I hope it’s helping others.

      • rogereolson

        You should see some of the comments I don’t post to the blog! 🙂

        • J.E. Edwards

          Thanks for letting my questions and comments through and for trying to keep the conversation on target.

  • John Inglis

    Further to God being the author of evil:

    (1) given how God has inspired the portrayal of moral responsibility in his Word, determining that evil actions will occur fits within what He portrays as both evil and as morally reprehensible.

    (2) If we cannot give God moral responsibility for evil, then we cannot give him moral responsibility for good either, since he causes and achieves both good and evil in the same way.

    (3) Not only is it impossible to give God credit for good (if we don’t give him credit for evil), but it becomes meaningless to discuss whether God is good or evil. It is a vacuous concept in relation to God.

    • rogereolson

      You might want to clarify your relation to these three points. Are these what you believe Calvinism implies but you disagree with them?

  • One illustration that was actually a help to me was likening God’s sovereignty and man’s free will to two sides of a mountain with the top obscured in clouds. You can see that the two side meet but not where or how they meet. The illustration helped me to understand what I saw in the Bible concerning the our sovereign God and our human free will.

    I cannot explain exactly how the two sides meet but I can say with confidence that they do meet without contradiction. As you, Roger, stated above, at some point we have to say, “I don’t know.”

    • rogereolson

      However, when confronted with whether individual election to salvation is conditional or unconditional and whether saving grace is resistible or irresistible and whether the atonement is intended by God for everyone or only the elect…there we have three absolute either-ors. There is no mountain top above the clouds where these different answers could possibly meet.

      • Roger,
        I think I probably agree with you on the three issues you raised. The illustration, as are all illustrations, is general and not meant to address more specific theological questions.

  • Your thoughts on “Divine Determinism”?
    Hi Roger,
    I’m currently reading your book “Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology” and enjoying it very much!

    I note that you refer to the term “Divine Determinism” quite frequently in your writing. This coincides with what I believe William Lane Craig concludes concerning Calvinist theology.
    At this point, I’m contemplating a number of assertions that would easily make the average Calvinist advocate quite offended. But I would be very interested in your thoughts concerning them.

    1) The whole theological house of Calvinism is built upon the cornerstone of “Divine Determinism”.
    2) How the plumb-line functions for the carpenter and the Theodolite functions for the surveyor, is how “Divine Determinism” functions for the Calvinist theologian.
    3) If one removes the element of “Divine Determinism” from Calvinist theology, it loses its one and only unique distinctiveness which sets it apart from nominal evangelical theology.
    4) Calvinist exegesis has as its most sacred rule, that all scriptural interpretation must affirm the concept of “Divine Determinism”.
    5) The measurement of consistency, (i.e., the degree to which a Calvinist is considered “Consistent” vs. “Inconsistent”) is simply directly proportional to the degree to which “Divine Determinism” is held as *THE* most sacred of all concepts by that Calvinist.
    6) John Calvin himself held “Divine Determinism” as *THE* most sacred of all concepts. And was insulted by any contrivances within the Reformed ranks that diminished it in any way.
    7) John Calvin held the concept of “Divine Determinism” as more sacred than Christ.

    a. The word “All” does not mean “All”.
    b. Stephen did not really mean “You resist the Holy Ghost” even though he said it.
    c. God’s declarations that He will bless His people in response to their actions are all illusions.
    d. The bible deceives God’s people into believing that human contingency exists while He predetermines every soul’s thoughts desires and actions by *secret* councils of His will.

    All of these teachings just sited will remain as puzzlements to any critical thinking outsider, up to the point where they realize that “Divine Determinism” functions as the one and only prism through which the Calvinist sees scripture.

    My sincere thanks!!

    • rogereolson

      I do suspect that, on a presuppositional level, most Calvinists base their view of God’s sovereignty on an intuition that, for God to be God, he must be all-determining. Ulrich Zwingli made that very clear “up front.” For him divine determinism was a priori true (for someone who believes in God). R. C. Sproul begins there as well–with the a priori assertion that if there is one maverick molecule in the universe God is not God. I have never been able to see the sense in this a priori determination of God’s attributes. I prefer to allow the biblical narrative tell me who God is and what God does. I suspect many Calvinists begin with a philosophical idea of God and interpret the Bible through that lens.

      • Thank you very much Roger.
        I know that the religion of Islam also has this as one of its strong tenets.
        Additionally, I am researching whether the philosophies behind Manichaiesmm and NeoPlatonism embraced this belief also.
        We might see its parallel in the concept of “Karma” as taught in Buddhism.
        However Karma of-course would represent the “higher-power” without a personality. But whether it is Allah, Zeus or Karma, advocates express the characteristic predetermination of all things exactly the same as is observed within Calvinism. I find this a fascinating parallel which brings me (I hope) one step closer to connecting the dots, in the evolution of this theology. Perhaps what we are seeing here is simply syncretism?
        My sincere thanks for all you contribute to the body of Christ Roger!!
        br.d 🙂

        • rogereolson

          My own research has led me to believe the very first Christian divine determinist was Augustine. I see it in The City of God and in Faith, Hope and Charity. Everyone knows how much he was influenced by neo-Platonism. Neo-Platonism, in turn, developed in Alexandria which was a hotbed of syncretism with emissaries from India and other Eastern cultures present and attempting to blend their world views with Hellenism. I think you may be on to something.

  • DRT


    Thanks for helping me with this language. I have been saying that I think Christianity needs to be rational, but I believe intelligible is probably better. I may use both.

    What are your thoughts on using the word “rational”



    • rogereolson

      Unfortunately, many (maybe most) people think “rational” means “provable.” So, to avoid confusion, I prefer intelligible.