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For and Against Calvinism 1

For and Against Calvinism 1 October 6, 2011

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. I got the latter first so I begin with it, but as soon as Horton’s book comes, I’ll begin to intersperse the books so that the series gains the flavor of the books. Olson, whose studies in the history of theology, is the ideal person to offer a critique of Calvinism in Against Calvinism and Horton is ably fitted for his book For Calvinism.

Roger Olson is a well-known Arminian, and he has been an able defender of Arminianism against those who have made false charges and unfair caricatures of what Arminianism is, and Horton will do the same for Calvinism. So, if you are hoping for a fight, go somewhere else: this series is designed for education and for understanding, not for polemics.

Roger Olson thinks it is time to say a firm and loving No! to extreme comments by new Calvinists and it is time to make it clear what Calvinism and Reformed thinking teaches. Olson traces the origins of the new Calvinists to Lorainne Boettner, John Piper, RC Sproul, John MacArthur, and Michael Horton. For some, the major influence has been Jonathan Edwards, and he tells an interesting story about how Piper discovered Edwards in a class by Lewis Smedes at Fuller seminary. But Todd Billings is not alone in saying that such forms of Calvnism are overemphasizing some of the more exotic forms of Reformed theology. [On this blog I have pointed out this at times but I confess to being one who has learned from such voices as Ken Stewart and Jamie Smith that the popular new Calvinism does not represent all of Reformed thinking.]

So again from Olson: “So, the time has come for an irenic and loving but firm ‘No!’ to the extreme version of Calvinism being promoted by leaders of the young, restless, Reformed generation and too often uncritically being embraced by their followers” (24). I was speaking at a conference not long ago, was in an engaging conversation with a young pastor about theological topics when I mentioned “the Reformed theologian Karl Barth” when the young pastor said, “Barth wasn’t Reformed.” So I asked him, “What was he?” His response was “Liberal.” “Perhaps more liberal than you, but Barth was in the Reformed Church.” He was shocked so I asked him who he thinks represents Reformed theology today the best. His response: “Piper and Driscoll.” As I read Olson, that is the problem he is addressing.

“Someone has said that no theology is worth believing that cannot be preached standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz. I, for one, could not stand at those gates and preach a version of God’s sovereignty that makes the extermination of six million Jews, including many children, a part of the will and plan of God such that God foreordained and rendered it certain” (25). Olson wants to challenge that kind of high Calvinism who events occur in the plan of God because God determined them to happen.

Part of the issue getting into this issue is what “Calvinism” means and what “Reformed” means. Does Calvinism mean a centralization and elevation of divine sovereignty? Olson says that is what some today think. But… the terms are contested, so he sketches the meaning of Calvinism and Reformed.

Olson is against high Calvinism or the TULIP schemes of Reformed theology, or radical Reformed theology, and he argues it is not the same as moderate Reformed theology. There is a World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), and it does not include any Baptist (even if they call themselves Reformed); some identify as Reformed those who confess the three symbols of unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort) but this excludes the Presbyterians (who focus on the Westminster Confession). A good example of a moderate, or revisionist, Reformed theologian is Alan P.F. Sell, who suggested that election was corporate. Sell was the president of the leading coalition of Reformed churches. He also mentions Berkouwer, Hendrikus Berkhof, James Daane, and Andrio König.

Don McKim, a notable Reformed theologian, argued that “Reformed” is contested and multivalent, and McKim himself is a moderate Reformed. RC Sproul, on the other hand, represents a stronger form of Calvinism in seeing Calvinism in terms of TULIP, what some call the doctrines of grace. There the emphasis is on the total sovereignty of God. Olson then shows how Fuller President Richard Mouw walks between these two poles.

Olson synthesizes Reformed to three points: an ideal type of Prot theology tied to the Reformation through the Swiss (Zwingli, Calvin); God’s supremacy and sovereignty (not the same as TULIP); it is confessional in that it is tied to Reformed Confessions. [In my view, it is fair to ask if anyone can call themselves “Reformed” accurately if their local church does not confess one of the Reformed confessions.]

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