Beating a Dead Horse…One More Post about the SBC Statement about Calvinism (for Now)

Beating a Dead Horse…One More Post about the SBC Statement about Calvinism (for Now) June 29, 2013

Okay, I know some of you will think “Olson, it’s time to move on!” Perhaps. But this is my blog and a place for my musings; skip this post if you’re just tired of this subject. I promise to turn to something else soon.

I propose that evangelical and Baptist theologians and church leaders sign a consensus statement to attempt to bring peace and light into an otherwise too polemical atmosphere. The framers and signers will include: Five Point Calvinists, Classical Arminians, and Open Theists.

The statement will say:

“We affirm that God loves everyone and desires everyone to be saved and that God elects some to salvation and that people do not have free will to decide whether or not to be saved and that God knows the future exhaustively and infallibly.”

No qualifications will be added to those statements.

The purpose of the statement is to demonstrate our unity as evangelicals and convince doubtful people in evangelical pulpits, pews and classrooms that we, evangelical Calvinists, Classical Arminians, and Open Theists actually do agree on these elements of evangelical faith about God and salvation.

Signing the statement will not signal any change in what the signers believe as Calvinists, Arminians and Open Theists.

Some Calvinists, Classical Arminian, and Open Theists say they believe these things.

Remember, this is a “consensus statement,” not meant to be a “confessional statement” of all that the signers believe. But the framers do hope to have it published in major evangelical publications to demonstrate evangelical unity in spite of disagreements about “details.”

Which of you Calvinists, Arminians, Open Theists out there will sign it without qualifications?

To any of the above who would sign it–without qualifications–I can only say “shame on you.” Why? Because, given the audience and purpose of the statement, signing it would be misleading at best and dishonest at worst. (However, I am willing to consider taking back my “shame on you” in light of your defenses if you can convince me it would be appropriate for you to sign it.)

First, you would surely know that many theologically unsophisticated readers would be given the wrong impressions by it. Second, you would surely know that you actually DO NOT believe that the other two parties (than yourself) believe what they are there saying they believe. By signing it you would be implying that you agree that the other two parties do believe what they say they believe. In other places you argue that they do not.

Let me offer another illustration. I was having dialogue with a group of Mormon theologians. I asked them if they believe that Jesus is God. Two of them said “yes”–without further qualification. They knew perfectly well what I meant as an orthodox Christian by “Jesus is God.” So I then asked “Do you believe he always was God?” Only then did they somewhat reluctantly say “no.”

I think it was disingenuous of them to answer MY first question “yes”–knowing full well what I mean by “Jesus is God.” On the other hand I realize that, among themselves, within their own frame of theological reference (worldview, language game, whatever) they DO believe “Jesus is God.” But when speaking to ME it was less than fully honest for them to answer my first question “yes” without qualification.

(Please do not address Mormon theology in your responses; that’s not the purpose here. Address only the issue I’m actually raising which is how to be fully ingenuous, forthcoming, informative, perfectly honest, in speaking publicly to a diverse audience about your beliefs.)

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  • ukr

    Professor Olson,

    Arminians affirm that all people receive a real chance to be saved. But only a small part of humanity has heard the Gospel. Then do you believe that an Arminian can say the following with no qualifications?

    We deny that salvation can come to any sinner by any other gospel, any other system of faith and practice, or by any name other than Jesus Christ

    Personally, I think almost all theological statements need some qualifications.

    • Roger Olson

      Perhaps. But some more than others.

  • Dr. Olson,

    I am glad you are discussing the SBC statement.

    I doubt ANYONE would sign your proposed statement (of course, you already knew that). I, as a Calvinist, would object to the denial of freedom, but not to the affirmation of God’s general love and desire for the salvation of the lost.

    With regard the actual SBC statement, I agree that more could (and probably should) be said about God’s love for everyone and His desire for everyone to be saved.

    If I had my way, Calvinists would have to explain further by stating: “We affirm that God loves all people in the sense that He freely gives them life and breath, reveals Himself to them, provides every good thing they experience, withholds patiently for a time their just and well-deserved punishment for sin, extends His open hand of salvation to them, and calls them to Gospel repentance; and that He desires the salvation of all people in the sense that He would delight in saving all, and will never turn away anyone who turns to Him; and that this sincere love and desire on God’s part do not result in the salvation of all people because many freely choose to reject Him in spite of such kindness.”

    And Arminians would have to state, “We affirm that God loves all people in the sense that He freely gives them life and breath, reveals Himself to them, provides every good thing they experience, withholds patiently for a time their just and well-deserved punishment for sin, extends His open hand of salvation to them, and calls them to Gospel repentance; and that He desires the salvation of all people in the sense that He would delight in saving all, and will never turn away anyone who turns to Him; and that this sincere love and desire on God’s part do not result in the salvation of all people because many freely choose to reject Him in spite of such kindness.”

    This could be followed up with, “Both Calvinists and Arminians agree on these points.”


    • Roger Olson

      As Wesley said (about the Calvinist claim that God loves even the reprobate): “That is such a love as makes the blood run cold.” And about the claim that God loves them by giving them temporal blessings in this life I have said (and still say) that is like giving them a little bit of heaven to go to hell in. Nowhere in the statement you quoted or crafted is there any hint that the Calvinist believes God could save everyone because election to salvation is unconditional and the grace of salvation is irresistible. Who reading it would guess that’s what Calvinists believe and that, therefore, the “love” God has for the reprobate is an extremely peculiar kind of love–really not like anything we would call love in any other context?

      • Dr. Olson,

        I am curious about this concept of divine love. To me, showing patience and kindness to one’s mortal enemies seems truly and amazingly loving.

        I offer the following as an illustration of God’s love for the reprobate from a Calvinist’s perspective: an unrepentant psychopath viciously beats a man and then tortures and kills the man’s wife and children right in front of his eyes. A horrific crime! The murderer ends up on death row. However, the brokenhearted man is unusually kind and merciful; he visits the murderer daily, graciously prays for him, repeatedly offers him forgiveness, relentlessly brings him gifts and even takes his starving children under wing. The murderer later dies by lethal injection, still hating the man and desiring to kill him, and even wanting to kill himself. The man attends his funeral and weeps over the tragedy of this wasted life. Can there be any doubt that the man showed this deranged murderer genuine love? Perhaps we could even propose that the man was the governor of the state, holding the power to pardon criminals by executive order. Would he have to pardon the murderer in order for his other actions to be genuinely loving and merciful? Aren’t there ways to show love to a condemned murderer that do not entail saving him from the just sentence of death?

        I agree that God’s love for the reprobate is “an extremely peculiar kind of love,” for who else treats their unrepentant enemies with such kindness? Even His non-saving love is extremely patient and gracious, full of compassion and overflowing with mercy. It is so unquenchable that it is nearly unfathomable. The earth is full of His mercy (Ps 119:64).


        • Roger Olson

          I hope you can see the flaw in your analogy. According to Calvinism, the judge who shows such “love” to the condemned man was the one who predestined him to commit his crimes and unilaterally pardoned other condemned prisoners who were no better than he. Who knowing that about the judge would say the judge is “loving” the condemned man?

          • Gene

            But how in the world does he miss this in his analogy Roger? One would think that since it’s the major point of determinism, one would account for that in the analogy. But for some STRANGE reason, Calvinists ALWAYS seem to omit that point when arguing that God is merely passing over others while making his election.

            Imagine saying that Hitler was merciful to the Jews because he actually fed them before he gassed them????

          • Roger Olson

            I always scratch my head over that one, too. It seems to me that Calvinists who claim God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved simply compartmentalize some other things they believe as they say those and ignore them. When they give their analogies (e.g., of the judge who reluctantly condemns a man to death but then shows him love as he’s waiting to die) I want to shout “Wait! Finish the analogy–using all of your theology! In your theology the judge (God) rendered it certain that the man would commit the crime and unconditionally (arbitrarily) pardoned others whose crimes were as bad as his. What kind of love is that?”

          • Gene

            Dr. Olson, I couldn’t agree more. I’m asking Theoparadox if he might cook up a response. I’m patiently waiting.

          • Gene

            Perhaps other Calvinists have some thoughts on these matters?

          • Dr. Olson,

            This objection seems reasonable on the surface. However, I would argue that the functioning of predestination is hidden in God’s eternal counsels and is thus difficult for us to understand, while God’s love for the reprobate is clearly manifested.

            After discussing objections to predestined evil and offering a few possible explanations, Calvin concludes what every Calvinist should: “Wherefore, let us in the corruption of human nature contemplate the evident cause of condemnation (a cause which comes more closely home to us), rather than inquire into a cause hidden and almost incomprehensible in the predestination of God. Nor let us decline to submit our judgment to the boundless wisdom of God, so far as to confess its insufficiency to comprehend many of his secrets. Ignorance of things which we are not able, or which it is not lawful to know, is learning, while the desire to know them is a species of madness.” (Institutes, Ch 23, sec 8)

            Thus, for Calvinists, predestination serves as a partially known factor in the theological equation, and not as a directly distributable quantity. Mysterious and pervasive, it is treated more like a common denominator, i.e. a universal condition underlying and transcending everything. In the Calvinist’s view, predestination can never serve as a warrant to reduce the creature’s moral responsibility, diminish divine love, excuse sin, encourage passivity, mitigate evangelism, etc.



          • Roger Olson

            As you know from Against Calvinism I find this approach contradictory. On the one hand, the consistent Calvinist (including Calvin) affirms divine determinism; on the other hand he affirms human responsibility. At least John Piper acknowledges it’s a paradox he can’t understand or resolve. I’d call it a contradiction. As you know because I know you read Calvin, he appeals to mystery at certain points (where it’s convenient for him) but also affirms that even the reprobate are compelled to obey God’s decrees. I have laid all this out in Against Calvinism.

  • My guess is that few Calvinists would sign this due to what it would suggest about their acceptance of the claims that the Arminians and Open Theists are in agreement with them on these matters (especially free will and foreknowledge). What this suggests, however, is that not only were Calvinists being disingenuous in signing the recent statement but so were their Arminian peers. How so? They signed a statement saying they were in agreement with their Calvinist peers over the fact that God loves everyone and desires everyone to be saved, while knowing that their Calvinist peers don’t really believe that without major qualifications.

    • Roger Olson

      My points exactly, David. Thanks for stating them so clearly and simply.

  • William

    It may be wise to affirm unity on essentials, with diversity/distinctives on models of providence/soteriology, etc. We can say we affirm the Deity and resurrection of Christ, but we must be honest and recognize that Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, Open Theism, Process Thought do have mutually exclusive, diametrically opposed ideas. We should not blur these distinctions even if there are some similarities and more differences among the views. We need to not misunderstand/misrepresent nuanced views across the spectrum.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, my point exactly. But I would have trouble believing a process theologian who claimed to believe in the deity of Jesus Christ. I know enough about process theology to know he or she would mean something radically different from what orthodox Christianity means by that. My point here (and yours) is that in all our communications about what we believe we should be wholly forthcoming and go out of our way to make sure we have not misled anyone by using language they–our audience–are likely to misunderstand.

      • William

        Dr. Thomas Jay Oord has strong Process leanings as a trinitarian Nazarene. There seems to be some leanings to Process by some otherwise orthodox philosophers. Can I assume the earlier Process thinkers like Hartshorne were not trinitarian? Some people also affirm the Deity of Christ while denying the Trinity. I personally see the Deity and resurrection of Christ as more the salvific issue.

        • Roger Olson

          The deity of Christ is separable from orthodox Trinity IF you adopt a modalistic view of the Trinity. But I don’t see how a person can believe in the full and true (ontological) deity of Jesus Christ and not believe in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (one substance, three persons). But I’ve discussed that here a lot. I don’t consider doctrines salvific, but I think belief in the deity of Jesus Christ is necessary for being a Christian.

  • Ryan

    I’m a Calvinist that agrees with this post.