Roger Olson’s newest book, Against Calvinism, is a fair-minded description of “mere Calvinism,” a sketch of how this mere Calvinism is not the same or identical with Reformed theology, and is also a critique of mere Calvinism. This book is matched by Michael Horton’s book that defends Calvinism, a book I have not seen. (Horton’s is called For Calvinism.) Olson’s approach is to examine what leading proponents of mere Calvinism actually say.
Roger Olson argues that it is not just Calvinism (or Reformed theology) that believes in God’s sovereignty, and he is arguing that some in today’s versions of Calvinism think they (and they alone) actually believe in divine sovereignty. Not so, so do Arminians. (But Olson’s not offering an Arminian theology.)
How can one believe in “meticulous providence” and not make God culpable of sin and evil? Does God control all in the sense of determining all? Concretely: Does God determine that children suffer with cancer or that a sexual maniac rape a young child? How is God extricated from causation in such matters for those who affirm meticulous providence/determinism?
The issue here is “meticulous providence,” that God ordains, determines and brings about everything. He begins with Zwingli, a notable influence on Calvin in this subject, then to Calvin, then Edwards, then Sproul, then Boettner, then Paul Helm and finally Piper. There are nuanced differences here, and you can go to the book for the details. Olson sums it up with this:
In high Calvinism, God’s sovereignty in his providence means that everything down to the minutest details of history and individual lives, including persons’ thoughts and actions, are foreordained and rendered certain by God. Even evil thoughts and actions are planned and brought about such that God ‘sees to it’ that they happen to carry out his will. Nothing at all, whatever, falls outside God’s predestining plan and activity.
Yet, God is not stained by the evil that creatures do even though he renders it certain…
God renders sin and evil certain not by coercing or forcing people to do them by withdrawing or withholding that divine influence that they would need not to sin and do evil.
Olson then responds to the problem of God’s reputation and to the problem of human freedom and divine responsibility.
Big point: “Calvinists affirm God’s perfect goodness and love, but their belief in meticulous providence and absolute, all-determining sovereignty (determinism) undermines what they say.” In other words, this “makes God the author of sin, evil and innocent suffering…”. Of course, mere Calvinists deny this by nuancing what “author” means, but in the end Olson is convinced (so am I) that the emphasis on sovereignty implicates God in evil. That is, what “goodness” means when applied to God loses its shape to what we know to be true about goodness, and we knows this from the Incarnation itself.
One of the major issues is the meaning of permission. God permits but does not cause, etc.. Olson: “Who would believe that a teacher who withholds the information students need to pass a course merely permitted them to fail?… And what if the teacher argued that he or she actually planned and rendered the students’ failure certain for a good reason — to uphold academic standards and show a great teacher he or she is by demonstrating how necessary his or her information is for students to pass? Would not these admissions only deepen everyone’s conviction that the teacher is morally and professionally wrong?” (85).
And he presses with others that the Calvinist notion of permission weakens its already-stated conviction about God’s sovereignty. Where, for instance, did the desire for sin come from if not God — if God is deterninative?
Olson also questions the freedom of God. He wonders aloud if the statement that all is for God’s glory ultimately makes God somewhat dependent on God’s creation and creatures. Olson contends that it is only by a sheer act of will that leads mere Calvinists to believe in the incoherence of these matters. That is, you can believe God is good and not involved in sin but the view of sovereignty is incoherent with goodness.
Olson’s book is not a defense of Arminianism but he contends this can all be resolved by a sovereign God who sovereignly self-limits himself. God permits because God chooses to grant humans the kind of freedom that God does not deny. God has a perfect will — what God wants for all — and a consequent will — what God wants in light of human rebellion. God is now allowing his sovereignty to be challenged.