What I mean when I say I am “Against Calvinism”

What I mean when I say I am “Against Calvinism” September 8, 2011

I know I’ve talked about this before here, but many of my subscribers and readers are new since then.  So, before my book Against Calvinism comes out about one month from now I want to make clear (as I do in the book) what the title means and doesn’t mean.

First, I am not “against Calvinists” except insofar as SOME of them misrepresent other theologies and/or claim that Calvinism is the only authentically evangelical (or Christian) theology.

Second, I am not against Reformed theology.  I demonstrate in my book that “Reformed” and “Calvinist” are not strictly synonymous.  I cite many Reformed theologians who are not Calvinists in any traditional sense of that word.  The World Communion of Reformed Churches includes many denominations that are not Calvinist.  (For example, the Waldensian Churches and the Remonstrant Brotherhood.)

Third, I am not against modified, moderate, inconsistent Calvinism EXCEPT insofar as it is inconsistent.

Fourth, when I say I am “against Calvinism” I make no value judgment regarding the quality of Calvinists’ faith or spirituality.

Fifth, I am “against Calvinism” that is “high, federal Calvinism” of the TULIP variety (including double predestination or what James Daane called “decretal theology”) because it EITHER falls into inconsistency OR implies that God is a monster (or both).

Sixth, even with regard to that theology, I am not against it in its proper settings (e.g., confessionally Calvinist churches) except that I disagree with it which is one of the reason I don’t belong to them.  But in THIS sense of “against” I am no more against it than I am against, say, episcopal church government.

Seventh, the Calvinism I am against is that high, federal Calvinism with its decretal theology that bleeds out of confessionally Calvinist churches into churches and Christian organizations that are NOT confessionally Calvinist and attempts to impose itself on them as necessary to fulfilled Christian faith. (A very frequent occurrence these days).

Eighth, when I say I am “against Calvinism” I do NOT mean I would use whatever influence I have to exclude Calvinists (even high, federal, decretal Calvinists of the TULIP variety) from multi-denominational evangelical organizations.  I would only attempt to persuade them to re-consider their theology as I assume they will do with me.

Ninth, I am NOT against any Calvinist students or colleagues; I just reserve the right to NOT BE Calvinist and to attempt to persuade them to reconsider their Calvinism without in any way demeaning them or using any form of coercion in the process.

Tenth, and finally, I am “against Calvinism” that is unreflective which is the case with many of the “young, restless, Reformed” young people.  They are being swept up in a movement without seeing its weaknesses or flaws and without knowing there are good reasons equally committed Christians don’t adopt Calvinism and without knowing there are other theological options that are biblically sound, traditional (in terms of the ancient churches before Augustine), reasonable and that are consistent with evangelical spirituality (e.g., petitionary prayer).

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  • bill crawford

    Hi Roger,

    Is your book a response or otherwise related to Michael Horton’s upcoming book on Calvinism? The covers are so similar, I wondered if this was an interaction between the two of you in book form.

    • rogereolson

      They are a set.

  • Interestingly, a Calvinist theologian had some negative things to say about you on this topic just today. I made a comment there that I thought your views were vastly misrepresented, but you may wish to do so yourself.


    (Note: Rachel is not the Calvinist; she is an Arminian who invited her readers to ask a Calvinist questions. This post provides his answers to those questions. Interestingly, nothing in the questions mentioned you; he just slammed “a particular theologian” seemingly out of nowhere.)

  • Timothy

    One area of most welcome inconsistency among Calvinists is the capacity of some to be very fine biblical exegetes. This goes back to Calvin himself. Thus one can read the commentaries of Calvin and other Calvinist scholars with great enjoyment and profit even if one is, as I am, somewhat allergic to aspects of their theology.

  • In my Sept 6 comment on your post about the evangelical label, I related an incident that led me to “dampened my enthusiasm to do anything but hold my Reformed cards close to my chest.” One more incident that dampened my enthusiasm. About five or six years ago sitting in an office I saw a Christianity Today which had a front cover article on the new Calvinist or new Reformed movement. In the article, there were photos of attendees at a conference (in Minneapolis, I believe) that had as keynote speakers some of the leaders in the new C or R movement. In the photos, the audience was almost entirely 18-32 year old males; I don’t recall seeing any women in the photos. That struck me immediately as strange. Not in the same way as my 34 year old veteran friend’s experience on his decision to go to West Point to become an officer. It was after he joined the Army and was in basic training in North Carolina, toward the end of which they had to spend thirty days camped out. All he saw were other young males. And at that point he decided he’d apply to the United States Military Academy where there would be some women around. He was intelligent, got in, rose to the rank of Captain, and met his wife, a West Point graduate.

  • You are right in saying “many of the ‘young, restless, Reformed’ young people” are unreflective. I think they are a bit too trusting. Their well-known leaders give them a choice between TULIP-style hyper-Calvinism on one hand and a Arminianism explained as both heresy and Pelagianism on the other hand. By not checking out what they are told, they become the unreflective minions of the system. As Paul said of the Jews, they have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge.

    I started out as a Calvinist, but a few things bothered me. The answers I was given were riddled with “mysteries.” Well, I knew they were either mysteries or contradictions. I began looking for a system of theology that was both biblical and less mysterious. As an Arminian, I am much better satisfied that I understand what Christ has done for me. I have learned that mercy has more to do with God’s character than sovereignty does.


    • I agree – except that I don’t even think Arminianism limits God’s sovereignty. It just frames it differently (in a way that I believe is more biblical anyway).

      • rogereolson

        Right. God is sovereign over his sovereignty!

  • Well, we have one thing in common…we both have books entitled “Against Calvinism”.

  • Michael

    Wow! Maybe you should have called it something else – then you wouldn’t need so many qualifiers!
    Looking forward to reading it though.

    • rogereolson

      My original suggested title (publishers choose book titles, not authors) was “Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology.”

  • Dutch Rikkers

    After my perfectly good Baptist church turned into a Reformed Baptist Church virtually overnight, I wrote the following “Gospel Tulip,” resigned from the board, and left the church: [Ironically, we were living on Tulip Lane at the time!]

    TOTAL incapacity of mankind to merit salvation
    (because of mankind’s universal alienation from God)
    UNIVERSAL offer of salvation
    (because of God’s unconditional love and unmerited grace)
    LIMITED response to Christ’s atoning sacrifice
    (because of mankind’s unbelief and selfish, sinful will)
    INDWELLING of believers by the Holy Spirit
    (empowering them to live Christ-like lives)
    PERSEVERANCE of God’s grace and mercy
    (promising and providing eternal life to believers and reconciliation of the cosmos to God)

    • Shawn

      Now, that’s my kind of tulip! Please pray for me. Found myself to be surrounded by those who worship the lord John Piper and friends. Would leave, but sense a calling to help form this young body. Pastor and elders are helping me to understand the deeper things (self-refuting theolgy).

  • Chris

    Mr. Olson,

    Would you say that the resurgence of Calvinism and the emergence of the “young, restless, and reformed” crowd is a result from the absence of the teaching of doctrine and theology in modern day American Christian churches? If not, then what do you think is the cause of the strong comeback?

    • rogereolson

      That’s part of it. It’s largely due to John Piper’s powerful influence through the Passion conferences and his books, podcasts, youtube videos, etc. Calvinism has been around a long time and was promoted among evangelicals heavily by R. C. Sproul, but it didn’t really take off among young people until Piper came along and became popular.

      • Jason

        I would agree that Piper has had a significant influence on the modern reformed movement, though it is hard to discount the effect of Calvinism on several generations (i.e., English puritans, George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd Jones). I would think it important to clarify to your readership that Calvinism, while reformed, is not young, but has been an active system at the head of many significant evangelical resurgences over the past 400+ years.

        • rogereolson

          I thought everyone knew that. I’ve certainly never said otherwise.

    • Jason

      Chris, when you question whether the growth of the YRR movement is the result of the of training in doctrine and theology in modern churches, I assume you mean the training in non-reformed theology. It seems to me that the leaders in the YRR have ignited a renewed interest in the study of theology, though it may not be of the flavor you think is correct. From my vantage point, I think a real downfall of most modern churches is a lack of theological training among the congregants, whether they be Calvinists, Arminians, or whatever. I am glad that Drs Horton and Olson are writing this series; hopefully, it will encourage people to think more about theology than they ever have. I think those in the Calvinist camp have simply been ahead of the curve in bringing it down the the level of the general church attender.

  • Les

    You have said before that there doesn’t seem to be the same organized chorus of voices on the Arminian side that there is on the Calvinist side. To prove this to myself, I went looking around the internet and found The Gospel Coalition, Reformation 21, Resurgence, and a few others. While these sites do seem to feature the same 20 (maybe 30) men in endless rotation, they are also well-designed, inviting, and unified in their message. My question to you is whether there are any similar sites that offers blogs, videos, and resources from well-respected Arminian (or at least non-Calvinist) scholars, pastors, and writers. I haven’t been able to find any. (I don’t “Q” qualifies because its purpose is to help Christians engage culture…but maybe it does?) What do you think?

  • Arguing with TULIP Calvinists is nerve-wracking, partly because they enter the debate assuming that their’s is the traditional, “orthodox” stance and that the burden of proof rests with their opponents. They’ll cite Augustine’s stance on double-predestination as precedent for their view, but neglect to mention that the Church backed away from him on that score. None of the ecumenical creeds or confessions mandates double-predestination (the resolutions of the Synod of Dort and the Westminster assembly were only accepted by Calvinists themselves).

    • rogereolson

      And, in my experience, they often refer to the Second Council of Orange (really a Western synod) of 529 that condemned semi-Pelagianism while omitting the fact that the council also condemned belief that God compels anyone to evil. John Calvin himself wrote in the Institutes that God “compels” the reprobate to obey his will. The context makes clear that he means God compels them to disobey his prescriptive will (God’s law). In my opinion, Calvinism violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Synod of Orange and Arminianism does not (because it’s not semi-Pelagianism as I have proven in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities).

  • John Miller

    Dr. Olson, I came across this blog by John Samson entitled “Are Arminians Saved?” http://effectualgrace.com/2011/09/13/are-arminians-saved/ I was prepared to be annoyed, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The blog ended rather tastefully and I enjoyed the quote from John Wesley. I do find a couple of sentiments disturbing though and I was wondering what you think.

    First, he writes “I cannot have Christian fellowship with someone who denies the Trinity or justification by faith alone. These doctrines, as well as many others like them, are central to the Christian faith. There is no unity of faith in Christ outside of the gospel.” This seems to be an arbitrary test for fellowship that goes beyond the teachings of Paul or Jesus. The Gospel is Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, and Jesus conquered death once and for all. While this is central to our faith, we are (or should be) united in love. The sense that I get from most Calvinists (that I interact with) is that without first agreeing to their arbitrary test of faith, there can be no “Christian fellowship.” We can (or should be able to) agree to disagree on doctrine if we are following Christ’s commands to love God and to love our neighbors. Do you see the same thing in the Calvinists around you? Am I being unfair to Calvinists?

    Second, R. C. Sproul assumes prevenient grace is a tenant to all Arminian theology. I thought prevenient grace was coined by John Wesley and preserved theologically in the Wesleyian traditions. Is prevenient grace a core Arminian doctrine? Or am I picking up on a mischaracterization?

    Third, I was annoyed by this paragraph: “Dr. Sproul was asked “Are Arminians saved?” and he replied, “The real question is whether they are safe… Saved? Most are, barely… really the debate between Calvinists and Arminians is an intramural debate among Christians..” I agree.” This seems rather arrogant. It is in essence saying, ‘God likes my biblically derived doctrine better than yours,’ or, ‘I’m more saved than you.’ (I suppose my earlier question applies. Do you see this as a common Calvinist position?)

    As I read more on C vs. A, I just want to throw my hands in the air and yell, “can’t we all just get along?!”

    • rogereolson

      Prevenient grace is a concept found in Arminius; Wesley didn’t discover it. Three things to know about “prevenient grace.” Calvinists believe in it, too. They think it is irresistible or effectual for the elect. Arminians believe prevenient grace is resistible. Catholics believe our cooperation with prevenient grace (normally given in baptism) is meritorious (after baptism). Arminians disagree. Our cooperation with prevenient grace (in Arminian theology) is nothing more than non-resistance; there is not “work” involved.

      • Tom Montelauro

        Your Arminian theology is, in general, far preferable to Calvinism, but there is one place where it equals it in incomprehensiblity (perhaps even self-contradiction. You say that cooperation with grace is “nothing more than non-resistance; there is not ‘work’ involved.” But how can we conceive of a non-resistance that consists of zero positive effort? What kind of human action is it? If the failure to non-resist results in resistance, then isn’t some sort of positive action countering resistance necessary if there is to be non-resistance? As sinful humans are we not strongly inclined to reject grace, an inclination which reguires effort to thwart so that we can humbly accept the grace of God in Christ? A human action that is “nothing more” than non-resistance seems to be nothing more than nothing at all.

        • rogereolson

          I have answered that very objection with illustrations and analogies here many times before. And I answer it in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. But I’ll do it one more time here. If a man is drowning and a champion swimmer, much stronger than he, jumps into the water with him and says “Don’t resist me! Just relax and let me rescue you!” and the drowning man obeys he is not putting forth any effort; he is doing the opposite. Suppose the rescued man later boasts that he cooperated with the rescuer in saving his life and takes some of the credit. People will think he’s an ungrateful wretch which he would be. So it is with salvation in the Arminian account of it.

          • Tom Montelauro

            The big problem with your illustration is that the drowning man clearly realizes that his only option is to trust the rescuer. The absolute emergency and state of panic of his situation overrides any other consideration. He really has no time to weigh alternatives. This is why Calvinists use a similar illustration to demonstrate irresistible grace. But this does not match the situation of the real human sinner whose pride and worldly desires push him in the direction of rejection of grace –a bias that he has to overcome by an effort of faith and repentance before unmerited grace can be truly accepted. Your way of looking at the human response to the grace of God pictures it as entirely passive and without real substance.

          • rogereolson

            Well, we’ll just have to disagree about that. I don’t see it your way at all. For one thing, you are overlooking (why does this keep happening when I have talked about it so much?) prevenient grace. My analogy was not meant to cover everything about salvation; it was only mean to show that a person’s salvation (rescue from drowning) can be completely unmerited while requiring a free decision.