What I admire about Calvinists

What I admire about Calvinists June 25, 2012

Obviously, I do not agree with the distinctive doctrines of Calvinism–especially divine determinism and monergism. However, I admire how MOST evangelical Calvinist churches teach theology/doctrine and how to integrate that into everyday spirituality and ordinary life. That kind of integration of theology/doctrine with practice is too rare in non-Calvinist churches. I do not say it is absent; I only say it is too rare.

I have never been a member of or regularly attended a Calvinist church. I’ve only visited them. But I have had many Calvinist speakers, both pastors and lay people, visit my classes and speak to them. They always seem to have a ready answer to questions about practical matters such as preaching, praying, worshiping, witnessing, etc., and how those are affected by their Calvinism. The same has not as often been true of non-Calvinist visiting speakers.

I think part of the problem is that most non-Calvinists don’t know what they are–theologically. So, it’s easy for them to fall into practicing the Christian faith AS IF Calvinism were true when, IN FACT, they do not actually agree with the distinctive doctrines of Calvinism.

A case in point is prayer for friends and loved ones who are not saved. I know many non-Calvinists who pray, and see nothing wrong with praying, that God will simply “save” them. Of course, only a Calvinist (whether by that label or under another one) can reasonably ask God simply to “save” someone.

My experience of non-Calvinist Christians (from membership and leadership in about 12 churches during my lifetime) is that they are not, by and large, theologically trained at all. They have picked up pieces of this and that (theologies) and pasted them together in ways that seem good to them without any real reflection on the outcome (the eclectic worldview, theology that results from that informal process). I’m not saying that doesn’t also happen among Calvinists; I’m just saying it’s not as common IN CALVINIST CHURCHES.

What I long for is a church that knows it is not Calvinist and teaches non-Calvinist theology/doctrine (about God’s sovereignty) and actively helps members and attenders develop spiritual lives that are consistent with non-Calvinist (e.g., Arminian) beliefs.

Recently I visited a church I know is not Calvinist (although there may be a few Calvinists sprinkled among the members) in overall ethos. A mature Christian person gave a “testimony” from the pulpit during the Sunday morning worship service. He concluded with (paraphrasing) “I don’t know why God chose for my mother to have cancer” (but I’m learning to live with that, etc.).

I heard that and subtly looked around to see if anyone whose face I could see registered any kind of surprise or dismay. None. I mentioned it to a few people who are members of the church and who I know are not Calvinists; they didn’t think anything of it. Their response was of the nature of “Well, that’s his belief about God and so who are we to question it?” What I think they really meant was “If that’s what makes him feel comfortable….”

However, I am convinced that if I took that man aside and queried him about God and, say, the holocaust, he would deny divine determinism.

I could give numerous similar examples of what I’m talking about. I’ll mention just one more.

I knew a husband and wife who were most definitely not Calvinists and do not believe in divine determinism as a true account of God’s sovereignty. However, after their son’s death in a car accident, they talked about it as if they were Calvinists! For example, they loved to tell friends how God planned and executed the accident so that their son did not suffer any pain; he was killed instantly.

Here is how I teach my students. DO NOT wait until your parishioners experience a tragedy to talk with them about God’s sovereignty. If you are a Calvinist (many of them are), teach that to your congregation and clearly communicate its implications for practical life including how to understand evil and innocent suffering. If you are not a Calvinist, figure out your theology of divine sovereignty especially as it relates to salvation, evil and innocent suffering (I’ll be happy to help! :), and teach your congregants about that. Do not wait until they face horrible tragedy and then try to answer their cries of “Where is God!?”

Overall and in general, I judge, Calvinists churches and pastors do a better job of this than non-Calvinists. An exception is Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, who clearly articulates a non-Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and teaches it to his congregation. Nobody in his church could ever miss it. But most non-Calvinist churches avoid the subject until tragedy strikes.

Doctrines of God’s sovereignty are too important to ignore. Everyone in a church ought to be able to say quickly and clearly what its overall view of God’s sovereignty is–at least in general outline form.

This is why I say that Calvinists need to go to Calvinist churches and non-Calvinists need to go to non-Calvinist churches. In mixed congregations two things happen. Either the subject is ignored or there’s tremendous cognitive dissonance among the congregants leading eventually to division.

Calvinist and non-Calvinist EVANGELICAL churches should be able to cooperate and have fellowship with each other. These are not doctrines that need to cause separation between congregations. I once was associate pastor of a decidedly non-Calvinist church (although God’s sovereignty was rarely if ever the subject of a sermon or Bible study) that actively cooperated with the town’s evangelical ministerial alliance on evangelistic efforts (e.g., Billy Graham associate evangelist crusades, supporting the local union gospel mission, planning and carrying out the high school baccalaureate program, etc.). Many of the pastors of the evangelical ministerial alliance were Calvinists. (Both the pastors of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church were active members of the alliance.) In the alliance, Wesleyans and high Calvinists got along famously. Within their churches, however, they taught doctrines directly contrary to each other. That did not hinder their friendship and cooperation.

Given the significant difference among biblically-committed, evangelical Christians on secondary matters of faith and practice, I do not think it realistic to expect one congregation to contain all of those peacefully. The only way to do that is to avoid doctrine altogether (except maybe the most general orthodox beliefs). I see no value in that especially when people need answers to questions like “Where was God when my child was killed in a car accident?” and “Why is my loved one not getting saved when I pray for him daily?” Answers to such pressing questions are going to be either Calvinist or non-Calvinist (or rooted in divine determinism or indeterminism).

I would like to see more non-Calvinist churches and pastors get busy teaching their congregations about God’s sovereignty from a non-Calvinist perspective and even correcting congregants who express beliefs that are Calvinistic–just like Calvinist churches teach their congregants about God’s sovereignty from a Calvinist perspective and even correct congregants who express beliefs that are contrary to Calvinism.

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  • One of my best friends is Calvinist, while I am not. When I started university, I knew I wasn’t but I didn’t much know why. Four years later, navigating good churches taught clear doctrinal positions — whether I always agreed or not, beside the point, clarity was key — I have come away more sure of where I stand, why I stand there, and in what ways I am more Calvinist than not, in ways that surprised me, as well as the ways I’m suredly not Calvinist. That said, the joy has been in walking beside this man who disagrees with me, but who loves me, the way we’re able to tease each other as well as learn. We both talk of sovreignty and, most times, you wouldn’t tell a difference except when we both smile at each other, with a wink, and say something just above snarky.

    But here, I return, to your point, a point that should be made beyond the question of Calvinism, that churches are in desperate need of equipping their people with an understanding of doctrine. Too many of us have no idea why we believe what we believe.

  • TonyPounders

    Dr. Olson,
    Have you written here or elsewhere on Molinism (middle knowledge). William Lane Craig holds this view. Does Greg Boyd teach Molinism? Is it even a viable avenue for Arminians to take?

    • rogereolson

      Greg Boyd teaches what he calls a modified Molinist view of God’s knowledge and sovereignty. My opinion is that it is so modified it doesn’t deserve to be called Molinism. It’s spelled out in detail in Satan and the Problem of Evil. I personally do not think Molinism is compatible with classical Arminianism although I acknowledge there is much debate about that. Some Arminius scholars claim he was a Molinist and I admit there are hints of that here and there in his writings. However, one can believe in middle knowledge and not apply it to divine determinism. Classical Molinism, however, is a version of divine determinism that, IMHO, makes God just as responsible for evil as classical Calvinism.

      • Joshua Wooden

        I remember thinking the same thing about Molinism when I read Four Views on Providence, including essays from both Bill Craig and Greg Boyd. In a debate against the late Christopher Hitchens, Craig identified himself in line with the “Wesleyan persuasion” or something to that effect. I was somewhat puzzled, then by his article in Four Views, because I did not see how Molinism was much different than omni-causal determinism. If anything, it just confused me as to why he identifies himself along more Wesleyan lines.

        • rogereolson

          Me, too. I’ve always thought Bill must be a little confused about this or else he’s intentionally promoting divine determinism under the guise of Wesleyan-Arminianism. He wouldn’t be alone. I’ve had conversations with several Arminians who used middle knowledge to “reconcile” God’s absolute sovereignty with human free will. I address middle knowledge at the end of Against Calvinism, by the way. I have no problem with those who believe God has middle knowledge so long as they don’t claim God uses it to determine all that happens according to some plan that makes evil part of God’s antecedent will.

          • Andreas

            I may have misunderstood William Lane Craig but I don’t see that he is saying that God is using his middle knowledge to determine all things that happen. For example, his view on human free will is that strong that we humans are the ones deciding what God can possible know, or even what worlds God is able to create.

            For example, Peter denying Jesus makes it impossible for God to create a world in which Peter in those very same circumstances would not deny Jesus. Or rather it would be logical possible for God to create such a world but not feasible for him to do so as Peter in fact did deny Jesus. It seems that if Molinism was divine determinism God would simply “make” Peter not denying Jesus if he wanted to. But on Molinism, God can’t “make” Peter not denying Jesus without oversteping the free will of Peter.

            Why Bill Craig calls himself an arminian is perhaps because he do not believe in “once saved always saved” or preseverence of the saints in the calvinistic sense, neither does he believe in limited atonement or unconditional elecetion. He would make out to be a loussy Calvinist at least.

            Concerning evil I have understood Bill Craig not as evil is something “part of” God’s plan but rather that God allows evil and due to his middle knowledge he also may have morally sufficient reasons for doing so.

          • rogereolson

            I haven’t read that much of Craig, so I don’t say THAT he says something–only IF he does, then…. My question to anyone who believes in middle knowledge/Molinism is about divine determinism. Did God consider all possible worlds and create this one? If so, why? Is this the best of all possible worlds? If Molinism is not attached to divine determinism, what is its use? That is, how is it used–to solve what and how?

  • Would you link to posts of yours where you do, indeed, discuss your “theology of divine sovereignty especially as it relates to salvation, evil and innocent suffering”? I’d love to read them!

    • rogereolson

      I can tell you that I agree almost entirely with the view written by Gregory A. Boyd in Is God to Blame? His open theism is not evident there; it is simply a good non-deterministic view of God’s sovereignty. I highly recommend it.

  • James Petticrew

    Not living in the States I can’t be sure but I would suspect trying to teaching classic Arminianism is an uphill struggle because the overwhelming number of popular level Christian books and “course” propagate a Calvinistic understanding of the sovereignty of God. I wonder how many Arminian and Wesleyan churches effetcively indoctrinated their congregations in Calvinism by promoting Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life book and course ?

    • Vincent Pinson

      “…indoctrinated their congregations in Calvinism by promoting Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life book and course”

      This is one of the most bizarro-world comments I have read in quite some time. PDL a “Calvinist” book? Wowee.

      • rogereolson

        Sorry. I haven’t read the book. I have heard, however, that Rick Warren affirmed his Calvinism to John Piper in a direct conversation between them that is viewable on youtube.

  • The Gleddiesmith

    I hope that you intend to write a series of blog posts that will help a pastor think through what should be taught. I would find that very helpful.

  • Dan

    The following four points are very good:
    1. “I admire how MOST evangelical Calvinist churches teach theology/doctrine and how to integrate that into everyday spirituality and ordinary life. That kind of integration of theology/doctrine with practice is too rare in non-Calvinist churches.”
    2. “Doctrines of God’s sovereignty are too important to ignore. Everyone in a church ought to be able to say quickly and clearly what its overall view of God’s sovereignty is–at least in general outline form.”
    3. “This is why I say that Calvinists need to go to Calvinist churches and non-Calvinists need to go to non-Calvinist churches. In mixed congregations two things happen. Either the subject is ignored or there’s tremendous cognitive dissonance among the congregants leading eventually to division.”
    4. “Given the significant difference among biblically-committed, evangelical Christians on secondary matters of faith and practice, I do not think it realistic to expect one congregation to contain all of those peacefully. The only way to do that is to avoid doctrine altogether (except maybe the most general orthodox beliefs).”

    Statements 3 and 4 describe my church, in my opinion, as we have a fairly basic statement of faith and no visible integrated, systematic plan of teaching church members and their families. Consequently, our church has experienced years of instability, yet generally I’ve not seen any collective effort to address this issue, save for a pastor who in four years among us before leaving (due in good part due to conflicts and opposition arising out of this lack of clarity) made a number of efforts to pull us back to Scripture and our Protestant heritage.

    In light of your statements, can you suggest a way forward for churches that have experienced instability due to unclear, inconsistent, and/or overly basic doctrine, and do not seem to realize what is going on? Namely, what do you see churches needing to give priority to, that you are not seeing in practice? What are they doing instead of teaching biblical content? What, where, and how does this teaching occur? And what if anything can laypersons do to encourage our leaders the importance of clearly stated doctrine? Thank you.

    • rogereolson

      Answering those questions would take a book! I admit I’ve always been better at spotting a problem than knowing how to solve it. I suspect solving the problem must be contextual–i.e., relevant to the specific church situation. All a lay person can do is gently and lovingly insist that his or her church find a way to teach sound doctrine (generous orthodoxy at least) besides the usual (at least in my context) Sunday School lessons that take a biblical book and ramble about it in a very shallow manner–mostly just raising questions for discussion. I was recently contacted by a church in a large city not too far away that invites scholars (biblical and theological) to come and teach on Wednesday evenings. Apparently they have created a culture where approximately 100 people show up regularly for these two hour long sessions. And this is no fundamentalist church. One suggestion is to get permission from the pastor and governing board of the church to initiate a series on theology/doctrine and find people who can teach it or take up sound, possibly popularly written, theological books for reading and discussion.

      • jesse

        Can you recommend some “sound, possibly popularly written, theological books”?

        • rogereolson

          One of the reasons I started this blog was to promote my own writings, so I hope it won’t come across as too self-serving if I mention The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (IVP) and The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (also IVP). I might also mention Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith (Zondervan).

          • jesse

            Thank you for the recommendations. I have Questions to all you Answers on audio book and have really enjoyed it. I am seriously considering initiating a series or class or discussion group at my church based around that book. I appreciate that you posts and comments spring me into action. I will have to check out the other two books some time soon.

      • Dan

        Dr. Olson.. I should have known better than to get so detailed! Actually I am among a small group of people from my church (one formerly, now part of another church), that was called together by my former pastor to study sytematic theology under his leadership. Three years and some other studies later, including reading through the entire Bible together, our group still meets and is now studying historical theology, though probably unbeknownst to anyone else at my church. We just do it out of the good habits and love of the Word our former pastor tried to cultivate in us, and with the knowledge of how beneficial the first study was. One group member said he was close to dropping out of church altogether before my former pastor formed that group. He simply had found that unbelievers in his college taught him a lot more about Scripture than he learned growing up in the same church that we are members of (though he is the one that left for another church! long story). Thank you again.
        ps.. “gently and lovingly” has truly been difficult through this past year!

  • James Petticrew

    Thought this might interest you if you haven’t seen it

    • J.E. Edwards

      Read that link…lol. Pretty good and pretty true.

  • EDH

    A mature Christian person gave a “testimony” from the pulpit during the Sunday morning worship service. He concluded with (paraphrasing) “I don’t know why God chose for my mother to have cancer” (but I’m learning to live with that, etc.).

    Why is that statement necessarily inconsistent with Arminianism? Should Arminians completely deny God would give someone cancer? Or do you think that an Arminian should remain agnostic on the causes/reasons of all tragedies?

    • rogereolson

      My objection was to his assumption that God gave his mother cancer.

  • Thanks for this. It really touches on something I’ve struggled with for the past 5 years or so. As someone who rejected divine determinism, having learned it through osmosis in west Michigan (Dutch Reformed as it is), I have found that many of my practices are coming from the wrong stance when compared to my newly held beliefs.

    As an example, I’ve often wondered what the point of prayer is if God is fully in control. I’ve struggled to find a motivation to pray; other than verbally encouraging the hearers around me. Now, I have recently renewed my understand of this to be that I am partnering my will with Gods in calling into being on earth as it is in heaven.

    I often hear the same stories you’ve described (why did God cause this bad thing…) from persons around me who have a very general sort of church upbringing. It’s rarely the right time to discuss that perspective, and oftentimes I don’t have the social capitol with that person to approach it. Would love to hear more from you on this whole topic.

  • Do you think that elements Calvinism might be the default position so that non-Calvinist churches that neglect the topic of God’s sovereignty just slide into, “that cancer was just God’s will.”

    • I was recently reflecting on the fact that I had no idea that theories of Atonement aside from Penal Substitution even existed until my Methodist minister let slip some comment that did not match my prior ignorance. I think Americans ( in the south?) assume that Penal Substitution is the only option and that a Calvinist attitude toward tragedy is the “correct” Christian response.

    • rogereolson

      Yes–for the most part.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson,

    You should be encouraged then when I prayed in church this past week, I received a prayer card in the offering plate in which the person wanted slavation to come to their relatives.

    Actually I get this request almost every week, usually by the same people. But I prayed something like this, “God we know that we cannot pray for some one to get saved. You have already thrown out the lifesaver for anyone to grab onto. We do pray however that you would give us the strength today and words to say to our families and friends when we see them again in talking about our faith.”

    • John Ayala

      You could pray that through “His (God’s) grace the person be drawn to and open to God.” I believe that lines up with an Arminian belief. Dr. Olson, please correct me if I am wrong.

      Great discussion by the way. Praise God!

      • rogereolson

        Yes, that would be a good Arminian prayer.

  • DRT

    Thanks for this.

    I spent about 8 years helping to grow a new church as a trustee, speaker, teller, finance etc etc. We were supposed to accept various theological views, and the pastor would discuss some theology from the pulpit, but mostly it was a somewhat reformed bible study where I would disagree with the teach quite a bit.

    They kept telling me, wait until we get our building, then we will have more classes and discuss things. Needless to say, after we got our building it became obvious that he 5 classrooms and worship area and kitchen area and outside area were not good enough for what I wanted, and we would have to wait until we got our second building.

    Eventually they threw me out by putting a no trespassing decree against me because they just want everyone to be calm, passive and follow the pseudo psychology of the pastor. I lost nearly a decade of effort and a lot of my family’s money in that ego trip scheme of theirs.

    I am now about 3 years out of that, and I see that it is quite common in evangelical churches to do things like that. I wish I had known then so I knew what questions to ask.

    MY POINT – I honestly wonder if they actually knew a coherent theology that was not reformed, and I wonder if that is perhaps a big problem. Theology does not need to be reformed to be analytical!

  • Daily Reader

    What great—and greatly needed—advice, especially in the “Here is how I teach my students…” paragraph.

    I similarly give the Calvinists credit: most of the time they know what they are and proclaim it (mostly) unashamedly and confidently. As a recent blog post here hypothesized, I think this confidence—with theological substance and definiteness—is very attractive because it gives congregants some actual ground on which to gain traction. I’d very much like to see my (non-Calvinist) church “firm up” things like this.

  • Amen. Preach it, Brother. This is why I wrote _Providence and Prayer_, to help people to a practice of prayer that is coherent with their doctrine of providence. The book grew out of years of frustration at hearing people whose theology was Arminian, praying as though God were meticulously in control. Coherence between our theology and practice is essential but, as you say, it will not happen with careful theological teaching, and this is hard to do in churches with a minimal theological confessional basis. Widespread eclecticism is the result.

  • Whoops, my comment should read “will not happen without careful theological teaching.” I reread it too late!

  • Joshua Wooden

    You have brought up the issue of cancer before, clearly rejecting that this was determined or for-ordained (or whatever word you want to use for it) to happen. This has come up several times in different posts since I started following your blog, and I don’t think I’ver ever heard an alternative answer. As someone who rejects mongrelism and omni-causal determinism, I find myself at a loss when it comes to issues like cancer, or disasters that can be classified as “natural” (ie. not determined by human agency). What is the alternative to omni-causal determinism in instances where human free will is not involved in any discernible way?

    Sorry, but you said you’d be happy to help, and I have been curious for a while.

    • rogereolson

      Like all evils cancer is a result of the fallenness of creation, the curse that Paul says will be removed eschatologically (Romans 8). I do not believe it is God’s antecedent will for anyone to suffer cancer; cancer and everything else resulting from the curse is part of God’s consequent (permissive) will. God’s revealed will is that we pray for healing, not that we attribute disease to him.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Also, do you have any books that you would recommend on the topic?

    • rogereolson

      It’s not an easy book to read, but I recommend A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God by E. Frank Tupper, a theologian whose wife died of cancer which stimulated him to write a book about God’s sovereignty.

  • Tim Starnes

    Determinism is not the same idea as Calvinism. But very good article, I appreciate you writing it. I would love to know how you would pray for an unbeliever except “God save them.”. I know we would pray more than that- God open their eyes, send your Spirit, God move in their heart. How would you pray? Seriously? Prayer is asking God to act for our good and His glory.

    • rogereolson

      I thought I gave my suggestion for prayer for unbelieving friends and loved ones in the post, didn’t I? I pray for God to bring circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of him. I explain in detail why Calvinism is divine determinism in Against Calvinism. I hope you’ll look into it there.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Yes, and we probably shouldn’t forget that the person faces opposition in the form of confusion, subtle and outright untruth as well as temptation to look away. So, I would add, “in Jesus name, I stand against any works of the enemy to confuse this person and keep him/her from turning to you.”

  • John C. Gardner

    The potential answers to th questions such as natural or moral evil must be addressed prior to the occurrence. Think of black Americans who suffered during segregation or slavery or those who die of disease. It is easy for me to see individuals searching for God’s hand in the death of a child or the murder of a beloved parent or friend. We all search for existential meaning in those situations and may blame God or wonder why it happened or was not prevented. I can understand moral evil better than natural evil such as a hurricane or disease. Ultimately, we must search the vast wealth of Christian moral reflection while comforting those who have experienced death and losses. This is problem and moral answers(or answers to other theological questions must be sought within our traditions).

  • jesse

    Excellent post. Very challenging. I am a youth minister at a young (age of the church, not the people) fellowship. It is non-denominational/inter-denominational and a little bit charismatic. I’m actually not sure whether the church is Calvinist or non-Calvinist. I know what some of the individuals at the church are. Some are Calvinist. Some are not. The preaching pastor to me seems inconsistent. Sometimes he sounds Calvinist. Sometimes not. One thing I do know about him is that he doesn’t think theology is all that important. The important thing for him is having “personal revelation” from God that transcends all theological boxes we might try to put God in. I myself am not a Calvinist and I teach the youth group from that perspective. How does a church as a whole get to the point where it know that it is Calvinist or non-Calvinist? Another question is: If you are not a calvinist then what do you pray about lost people if not that God will save them? This post gave me a lot to think about. Thanks again.

    • rogereolson

      See my answer to another comment that contained the same question.

    • Dan

      Jesse, you asked: “How does a church as a whole get to the point where it knows that it is Calvinist or non-Calvinist?”
      Sad fact is, unless Scripture is strongly emphasized, it never will get to that point, because church members/attenders will remain shallow in their thinking. If Scripture does ever become strongly emphasized, the progression from ignorance to knowledge will bring out the differing opinions, and the decision point there will be whether to work through them toward a resolution, or to suppress them due to the divisive aspects of doctrine (though doctrine also unites in other aspects). Even how to handle the doctrinal conflicts themselves can cause other conflicts in churches.

  • Jeremy

    Finding a church that is Arminian and theologically sound can be tricky. I find it most difficult being a person who advocates believer’s baptism (makes being a Methodist tricky) and has doubts about eternal security/OSAS (makes being a Baptist tricky) I am currently a member at a Baptist church, but if I were to leave it I am not sure where I would go. There aren’t a whole lot of contemporary Anabaptist churches floating around so I’m a bit stymied!

    • rogereolson

      Not all Baptist churches believe in OSAS. Look around for one that at least allows diversity on that particular point. If you tell me what part of the country you live in I’ll try to help. Even in the deep south one can find Free Will Baptists or General Baptists.

      • Jeremy

        I am in the KC MO area, so I would imagine there is quite a bit around. The church I am at is SBC and has a pretty strong Calvinist bent (Calvinist pastor, elders, sends people to T4G, and so forth) and I’ve found being an Arminian there to not always be pleasant! Any help would be much appreciated.

        • rogereolson

          Look on line for the Kansas City Association of Free Will Baptist Churches. Many of them are a little too conservative for me, so I would look for a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) church or even an American Baptist Church (most of which are not Calvinistic). Look also at Covenant churches (Evangelical Covenant Church of America) and Evangelical Free Churches (some of which are Calvinistic and some are not). If not of that works, check out evangelical Methodist churches, Nazarene churches, even Assemblies of God churches (some I can recommend, others not).

          • Jeremy

            Thanks for the tips! I’ll have to check those out. I don’t mind conservative on theology, as long as they don’t have the fundamentalist ethos thing going on.

            I was almost a member at an AoG church a few years ago but was eventually told I had to affirm their 16 core doctrines and there were a few I was iffy on so we had to part ways.

            I really appreciate the suggestions!

          • rogereolson

            Believe me, having known a lot of AG ministers over the years, many are “iffy” about some of the 16 core doctrines! Many have told me they cross their fingers as they sign the annual card affirming their continuing belief in some of those doctrines. I chose not to do that and, in the long run, it has been the right choice. Now I am published in the AG’s minister’s magazine Enrichment Journal (current issue).

  • Jeff Spry

    Dr. Olson, you write about non-Calvinists praying like Calvinists. How do you pray for the salvation of individuals? Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      This must be a point I thought about mentioning in my post and then forgot to write down! I thought I said that I pray that God will bring circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of him.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Now this is an interesting post. While I do agree with the ethos of this post and do believe it’s heart is in the right place, I’m not sure I agree with some of its points. The illustration you gave from the testimony of the church you visited has been one of my points in many of my responses. What you called a “Calvinist” understanding of tragedy by someone who is probably neither Calvinistic or Arminian is why I believe it’s too easy to get caught up in naming things so strictly and forcing things into one of two categories. Wouldn’t Classic Arminianism line up more with that man’s understanding of God’s sovereignty? It seems many people that would claim neither side have a similar view of God’s sovereignty. Even before I moved toward a more Calvinistic understanding I would have understood it like that. That is the way I perceived God in Scripture, not because anyone even told me that. It didn’t have anything to do with Arminianism or Calvinism….so why force it into those categories? Your statement:
    “This is why I say that Calvinists need to go to Calvinist churches and non-Calvinists need to go to non-Calvinist churches.”
    I would really disagree with that because I thought one of the points of the Christian church was unity. Dividing churches to that degree on this subject wouldn’t be helpful and definitely wouldn’t help this conversation. I’m sure you don’t mind sharing your blog with those who oppose you, right? I know you’re not for division for the sake of division, either. I just don’t see how that can be helpful. My Baptist church has both kinds and it has been really good. I know you’ll disagree with this and I type it as kindly as I possibly can, but could there be a fear of Calvinistic teaching driving your argument? Or as you implied, because more Calvinistic believers tend to be rooted Scripturally in what they believe? Just my two cents…maybe less:)

    • rogereolson

      You say you attend a Baptist church. Well, that’s division. Baptists aren’t Methodists, aren’t Presbyterians, etc. And yet, it’s not necessarily division. Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians (etc.) can lovingly have fellowship and cooperate. I don’t regard different kinds of churches as division in a bad sense. It’s a concession to our weakness–like divorce. Not the ideal, but better than people attending churches where doctrine is not taught with some degree of authority.

      • J.E. Edwards

        For sure, but I still don’t think it would be helpful to divide those groups even further. Especially not in regards to non-Calvinistic/Arminian and Calvinistic/Reformed. I believe that would only drive the wedge between these two even deeper and cause more resentment.

        • rogereolson

          I don’t suggest dividing them by force. What I am suggesting is that churches decide which they are and teach that. Most likely, people who believe the other way will separate out by themselves and seek out a church where what they believe is taught. Instead, what most churches do is avoid the subject or try to teach both or something. I don’t think that works. It trivializes what is a very important part of Christianity–God’s role and ours in evil, suffering and salvation.

        • Jackie Kaulitz

          Hi J.E. Edwards, the thing is that they ARE ALREADY divided for the most part, so no further division needs to be done. When these denominations were originally set up, they were set up with a foundation in either Calvinism or Arminianism.

          Example: All Reformed and Presbyterian churches have Calvinism written into their confessions (3 Forms of Unity or Westminster Confession) that they claim to hold to and believe. So, an Arminian pastor should never join either of these denominations because how can he honestly sign and pledge that he agrees to teach Calvinism when he disagrees with it? These are Calvinist denominations. There are also a few Calvinist Baptists (holding to London Baptist confessions which is Calvinist and not Arminian), so no Arminians would join these. There are also very very rarely a few Methodist Calvinists (following in the teachings of George Whitefield) and a few Anglican/Episcopal Calvinists from the Puritan line.

          Otherwise, ALL other denominations are Arminian in theology or mixed because the church was confused about their theology. Baptists are mostly Arminian. Methodists are all Arminian (except that small group that followed Whitefield). And Holiness churches broke off the Methodists and so they are Arminian too. And the Pentecostals broke off the Holiness churches, so they are also Arminian.

          The mixed churches that Roger is talking about are the Arminian churches that don’t know their own Arminianism and have accidentally adopted some Calvinistic beliefs. But they are Arminian! So it is illogical that they would adopt these Calvinisitic beliefs but they have done so out of ignorance or confusion or lack of education. So I agree that these men should not create mixed churches of mixed beliefs. Because what happens in an Arminian Pentecostal church when you ask about God’s sovereignty and one pastor tells you that God let Satan give you cancer for a purpose and the other says it came by the evils of the fall and there is no purpose in it?

          I hope this helps to clariy. 🙂

          • rogereolson

            I don’t know whether to consider you an ally or not. I’m naturally suspicious, so I’m withholding judgment, but I agree with much of what you seem to be saying. I suspect one of the most controversial things I teach is that Arminians should go to Arminian churches and Calvinists should go to Calvinist churches. People consider that divisive. But it’s the only alternative to either: 1) watering down doctrine and avoiding it, or 2) constant cognitive dissonance. A pastor ought to preach passionately about God’s sovereignty, but what he or she says, if it’s intelligible at all, will be either Arminian or Calvinist.

  • The move to Arminianism has been a massive paradigm shift for me. The things I once so easily said now feel strange to me, such as the example above concerning the auto accident and God’s orchestration of it. The belief that everything reflects an overall plan which is manifesting God’s will is for many of us an intuitive and immediate reaction, even the great suffering of humanity at the hands of those who work evil. It seems to be a resting place, immediately available and accessible. But to look at something and say “this is not God’s will and not in God’s decretive and secret plan” takes a courage of a kind I did not have to have as a Calvinist. To face evil freely chosen without that covering is a shaking and disturbing kind of thing. On my way to church not too long ago I happened upon a severe accident on my way to church. There was a great deal of destruction so new that the police had not yet arrived. God’s will? Or permitted freedom? I think it takes some serious gut checks to be able to say the latter without qualification. I read Ben Witherington’s reflections upon his daughter’s death. He was clear – this was not God’s will. Her life of pain and early death were directly attributable to evil. This made me feel vulnerable and a bit queasy. And yet the bottom line is that God can use evil freely chosen, along with its consequences, to do the good he sets out to do. How do I turn this into a sermon to encourage the church, to stiffen their spine in the midst of all the pain? I don’t think Arminians know how to do this well. To do it well requires a sea change and a paradigmatic shift that is so large that getting there is beyond what most are willing to pay to do. The little I know of Boyd’s explanatory model takes it too close to the edge. It is the mainstream Arminian who needs to boot up and give the church a working model that the church can use.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed. We need a good classical Arminian book on God’s providence. However, Boyd’s Is God to Blame? is close if not there. He doesn’t appeal to his open theism even though he thinks that’s where classical Arminianism must inevitably lead. I disagree.

      • jesse

        So Arminians don’t believe in a blueprint?

        • rogereolson

          Is that a biblical metaphor?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Yes. More solid theology in church, please. It’s all about good seed falling on good, well cared for and well watered soil. Otherwise, the results are not pretty. 

    But, how to get people to be open to studying and understanding good theology is the big problem. Boyd does it, but do the people who will listen in his city represent the group inclined to do so drawn from a very large market of the largely disinclined. No matter how well presented, good theology, like good soil, requires significant spiritual and mental investment. Is there a ministry to pastors and churches that promotes, assists and provides excellent resources for a revival in good theology in the non-Calvinist world?

    • rogereolson

      I pray God will raise it up.

      • CC

        Need to be fast because Calvinists are taking Arminian churches over one by one. This year, the church we are in (we use their facilites, we are internationals) had three pastors left, the reason was they had some administrator/music minister and members came in three or four years ago who are Calvinists. They started to challenge the pastors. To keep the unity of the church, three pastors left, one of them had been in the church for more than 20 years. Arminians need to have the theology in written and teach them in seminaries. (All the seminaries I know of are teaching Calvinism as if it is the truth)

        Calvinists are more demanding!!! (because Arminians doesn’t have good systematic resources to refer to)

        Shouldn’t there be debates between Calvinists and Arminians and make it fair and square that these are two different systems of nterpretations? The debate in the 17th centry wasn’t fair debates.

  • Jeff Spry

    Dr. Olson, I appreciate your candor and linear thinking. You say, “I know many non-Calvinists who pray, and see nothing wrong with praying, that God will simply ‘save’ them.” I catch such inconsistency often in similar prayers (open their eyes, break their hearts) and in certain songs and choruses. Knowing you to be much more aware of consistent theological thinking and practice, I want to ask how you pray for the lost. How can a non-Calvinist be consistent in his theology and pray for the lost to be saved? Thank you for considering this question for me. Jeff

    • rogereolson

      Very simply, “God please bring circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of you and of your love and power to save them.” God can influence and persuade but cannot coerce repentance and faith.

  • Victor Rodriguez

    What theological books would you suggest for developing a more consistent Arminian theology?

    • rogereolson

      First and foremost Thomas Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace.

  • Brian Abasciano


    I strongly disagree that as Arminians we should not pray for God to save people. It is all a matter of what is meant by that prayer. We use such language in everyday life all the time of resistible action. If I ask my son to take a visitor in our home to the bathroom, that does not mean to overpower them and force them into the bathroom. It means something like, “show them where the bathroom is and lead them there as long as they willingly follow you*. Similarly, if I say to my son, “Please bring your mother here,” I certainly don’t mean get your mother here at all costs, overpower her and drag her here if necessary. I simply mean something like, “let your mother know I want her to come here.” Such examples could be multiplied. One more. If a morally upright store owner tells his salesman to sell an item to a customer, he does not mean to do whatever is necessary to make the sale, including drugging the person and coercing them to buy the item, or overpowering them, taking their checkbook, and writing the check out himself, or kidnapping their family and holding them hostage in exchange for buying the item, or anything of the kind. “Sell them this item” or “make the sale”, simply means, “do all you can do that is not coercive or in violation of their free will to persuade them to buy the item.” Similarly, when we ask God to save someone, we do not mean, “Take over their will and irresistibly cause them to believe and so be saved.” We mean something like, “Take action to lead them resistibly and willingly to believe in Jesus” (including but not limited at all to things such as you mention, bringing circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of God and of his love and power to save them). In my opinion, to discourage praying in such a way is needless, ignores this normal use of language, and limits our proper expression to God in prayer. It also ignores the critical issue of the meaning behind words and assumes a Calvinistic meaning for language that is completely compatible with an Arminian understanding. Indeed, it is biblical language–as Paul says in Rom 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (NASB)–and I think it would be very unwise to concede this language to Calvinists, just as it is unwise to let them own the terminology “doctrines of grace” (the *biblical* doctrines of grace = Arminianism).

    • rogereolson

      We disagree.

  • Suzanne Calhoun

    Dr. Olson is it rational to be a non-determinist Calvinist? I guess one would have to be determinist regarding redemption but nothing else?

    • rogereolson

      Yes, by all means. There are Calvinists who believe in monergism but deny comprehensive divine determinism. These are separable issues. However, exhaustive, comprehensive divine determinism is the norm in classical Reformed theology (Zwingli, Calvin, Beza, Edwards, Hodge, Boettner, Sproul, etc.). Many traditional Lutherans are monergists about salvation while rejecting exhaustive divine determinism.

  • http://www.amazon.com/Four-Views-Spectrum-Evangelicalism-Counterpoints/dp/0310293162

    As an Open Theist, I appreciate Brother Olson’s charitable views. His contributions in this book are laudable (I am no fan of Calvinism, but agree with Roger’s sentiments in this thoughtful blog and book).

  • Tom Kline

    “What I long for is a church that knows it is not Calvinist and teaches non-Calvinist theology/doctrine (about God’s sovereignty) and actively helps members and attenders develop spiritual lives that are consistent with non-Calvinist (e.g., Arminian) beliefs.”

    The simple problem with this wish is that when one seriously studies the Bible, the doctrines known as “Calvinism” are everywhere, and you have to choose to either believe what the Bible is saying, or to ignore large sections of the Bible. Which explains why churches that believe Reformed Theology are just about the only ones seriously teaching the Bible.

    • rogereolson

      That’s laughable, but I doubt you’re open to any contrary persuasion. So how do you explain the fact that there are numerous God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving evangelical Christians who do not see Calvinism in the Bible? If it’s so obvious, why was it not recognized AT ALL until Augustine in the early 5th century?

  • Jack Hanley

    I explain in detail why Calvinism is divine determinism in Against Calvinism. I hope you’ll look into it there.

    I would like to first explain, why I have not read your book stated above. First, it is because I am heavily involved in reading other material. Second, I spend a good bit of money on books and other material, and have found, when I attempt to read something, that I am sure I will disagree with, I end up only becoming frustrated, because I will find what I believe to be obvious errors, and I have no avenue to respond. As I said this causes frustration, and I usually will not finish the book, and I feel as if I have wasted my time and money. However I do read most of your blogs, and I do read a lot on the Arminian prespective sight, because at least there is the chance to respond. Also I have listen to your discussions with Horton.

    I say all of this because I am sure you will suggest I read it in response to my points here. You state,

    I pray for God to bring circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of him

    My point here is that, we can pray that God would do this for our unbelieving family and friends, however, we cannot pray that God will actually save them? Either God does not have the ability to save, or He has this ability and determines not to use it. My question here is, who is responsible? At any rate this puts God in the position of only making salvation possible, He never actually saves anyone, which is exactly what you yourself stated in one of your discussions with Horton. I believe you said, “If God is a loving God He would make it possible for people to be saved, and not irresistibly or effectually draw them, and leave others out. So it must be up to us ultimately, if God is love.

    Another point is that surely you believe God knows all who will eventually be saved. If this is the case, why should we pray for God to bring circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of him, if God already knows it will be to no avail? And again let me state I am not a Calvinist.

    • rogereolson

      You seem to assume that God “can do” anything we can put into words and assign him to do. I don’t agree. God can only do what is consistent with his nature. It is against God’s nature to save people without their free consent. That is to make his creatures, created in his own image, into objects. Such “salvation” would then be a condition and not a relationship. Please read Against Calvinism as I address that and most other questions I’ve ever heard there (or in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities).

  • Roger,

    I appreciate what you wrote here about praying that God will save someone. As an Arminian teaching pastor, I’ve always sought to clarify this for our church (and to counter ideas such as God causing a person’s cancer). I’ve encouraged prayers for the lost along the lines that you’ve described, such as “Lord, please surround them with reminders of your love and truth,” etc. When we pray for God to save someone, we set ourselves up for comments such as JI Packer’s that Arminians can claim to believe whatever we want but when we pray, we pray like Calvinists! It is surprising for people to hear that nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to pray that God will save someone.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed. I would just like to add that it’s surprising Packer doesn’t acknowledge that Calvinists pray like Arminians!–as if their prayers could really make a difference.

  • Good point.

  • Jack Hanley

    If you will look back I think you will find, that I have not assumed anything about what God, can, could, would, or should do. My point was our prayers. As you said, we can pray that God will bring certain things into the unbeliever’s life, that my bring them to salvation, however we cannot ask God to actually save them. My asking God to save someone, is a far cry from me saying anything about what God, can, could, would, or should, do. I am simply expressing, my hearts desire that God save a love one. My point then thus far is, not what I believe God can do, but rather how we can pray. However, having made this point, you state,

    God can only do what is consistent with his nature. It is against God’s nature to save people without their free consent.

    This puts God in the position to want, and desire the salvation of those that are lost, however, He is completely powerless to accomplish His desire. In other words we are not dependent on God for our salvation, rather God is left completely dependent on us to achieve what He desires.

    I believe we serve a Mighty God, a God Who is Mighty to save, a God that raises the dead, a God that is not dependent on anything or anyone. Therefore I pray for the salvation of the lost, believing He is able.

    Curt Parton, above may be correct in stating, “that nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to pray that God will save someone.” However I pray the same pray that the Apostle Paul prayed in Romans 10:1 My hearts desire and PRAYER to God, is that they may be saved.

    This causes me to wonder was Paul praying a Calvinist, or Arminian pray here.

    • rogereolson

      God makes himself dependent on our wills. That’s different than saying he is necessarily, in himself, for himself, dependent on our wills. He didn’t have to create us or any free creatures. Once he did, however, and gave us free will and desired a free relationship of love with us, he made his decision to save dependent on our decision. Even Augustine said God will not save us without our consent. (I think he went on to contradict that, but he said it nevertheless.)

  • tmiller

    It seems as though the airwaves are full of Calvinism, so I was wondering as to where one might find solid teaching on Arminianism, or based upon these views? Recommended speakers? (Great discussion BTW, thanks!)

    • rogereolson

      I don’t listen to radio or TV preaching, so I’m not up on who’s doing what by what theology (on the air waves). However, when this question comes up I always recommend people look into the preaching of Adam Hamilton of (UMC) Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, KS. I think you can find his sermons at the church’s web site.

  • Brian

    You are correct about the need to teach and preach doctrine and the need of the layman to know it well.The real problem in non calvinist chuches is the dumbing down of the christian faith.The pastors of these churches are always seeking the path of least resistance in their ministries and lets not forget about the lazy christian sitting in the pew who refuses to pick up the Bible and study it.Sorry if this sounds a little harsh but these things I have watched with my own eyes.

  • Harrison

    Dr. Roger Olson, I am a Calvinist and I greatly appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues with us. I also greatly appreciate your enthusiasm for historic Arminianism as a theologian. May more Arminian baptists follow in your footsteps. I have a Pastor who is Arminian that I wish had your same zeal for theology.

    However, I have one question regarding the cooperation of Arminians and Calvinists in missions. My question is how does that actually work? There may be situations that arise in your evangelistic efforts in which you have to teach them about God’s sovereignty — it might even happen pretty frequently. Often times the people we talk to in personal witness harbor bitterness towards God because of his sovereignty, and obviously the message that Arminians and Calvinists offer to such a one is different. I am certainly not against the prospect of Calvinists and Arminians working together in missions, however I am not certain how to resolve certain issues that may come up.

    • rogereolson

      This comes in after evangelism as part of discipleship. Calvinists and Arminians will explain God’s sovereignty in salvation differently to those who ask or have come to Christ and begun to attend church. When I was a counselor and later a cooperating pastor in two Billy Graham associates’ city-wide evangelistic campaigns (many years ago) nobody could tell and most people didn’t care whether the evangelists (John Wesley White and Leighton Ford) were Calvinists or Arminians. (Don’t assume John Wesley White was Arminian because of his middle name. My father was an ardent Arminian pastor whose middle name was Calvin!) They preached the gospel simply without theological elaboration. They presented it as a well-meant offer to all. I don’t remember whether they publicly declared “God loves you and Christ died for you,” but many Calvinists preach that way–keeping back in their own minds the qualifications. Among the enthusiastically supporting churches then were Christian Reformed, Reformed Church in America, Evangelical Presbyterian, Free Methodist, Wesleyan, Assemblies of God, etc., etc.–a mix of many different kinds of evangelical. These pastors knew and loved each other and cooperated in many endeavors in the local Evangelical Ministerial Association. They were surrounded by non-evangelical Lutherans and Catholics (the vast majority of people in the city). Their (our) attitude was to huddle together in brotherly support and love with anyone who looked fondly at a Bible and believed in conversion. After the evangelists left, the pastors would gather in a room and divide up the inquiry cards–from people who came forward at the invitations. If someone marked on their card that they were “Presbyterian” the evangelical Presbyterian pastors decided which one of them got that particular card. Never did a Wesleyan or Pentecostal say “Give it to me! My theology is better than yours!” It was all done with great respect. If a card did not identify any denomination preference it was handed to the pastor who didn’t get one recently–all took turns. We all knew that if a prospect joined a church he or she would then be taught that church’s theology. Our main concern was to get the newly saved people into church. Back then we rarely debated Calvinism versus Arminianism except in seminary classrooms. Even there (in the evangelical Baptist seminary I attended where there were both Calvinists and Arminians) everything was debated with respect; nobody was made to feel less than Christian or even less than evangelical just for being Arminian or Calvinist. I didn’t experience any such hostility until a follower of John Piper came to my office during my first year at a Christian liberal arts college not far from his church and told me I was not saved because I’m not a Calvinist. I haven’t heard that often, but I have heard often that I’m not fully evangelical because I’m not a monergist. Among the Young, Restless, Reformed crowd there is definitely a belief that Calvinism is the only truly evangelical, if not only truly Christian, theology.

  • Nanci

    I am new to your website, but will be following now that I have found you. (by the way, I found you through negative comments about you from Justin Taylor, which made me know you were someone worth learning more about!) Please direct me to some source for understanding the problem of evil and suffering from an arminian point of view. Thanks.

    • rogereolson

      What? Justin Taylor makes negative comments about me? I’m shocked. 🙂 Thanks for coming to check me out for yourself. One of my favorite books on evil and suffering from a free will theist point of view is The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart. Hart is Eastern Orthodox, but what he says about God and evil fully compatible with classical Arminianism. If you want a more subtle, philosophical treatment of the “problem of evil” by an Arminian look at Evil and the Christian God by Michael Peterson (Asbury). It may be out of print now, I don’t know. Peterson also wrote a book on philosophy of religion together with several other Arminian philosophical theologians including William Hasker. But, finally, I always recommend Greg Boyd’s Is God to Blame? I know Taylor and other Calvinists will jump to mention that Greg is an open theist (horror of horrors!), but that doesn’t play a role in this book which is about the problem of evil from a free will theist (Arminian) viewpoint.