My Response to Wade Burleson Regarding Graciously Kissing Calvinism Goodbye

My Response to Wade Burleson Regarding Graciously Kissing Calvinism Goodbye June 13, 2013

See Wade Burleson’s blog post here:

I appreciate Wade’s irenic tone in this blog post. However, the claim that a non-Calvinist must be a universalist  (which is clearly implied if not outrightly stated) is false.

Throughout Christian history MOST non-Calvinists (the majority of Christians) have NOT been universalists. C. S. Lewis was certainly not one.

Now, if all Wade means is that someone who does not believe in divine reprobation by decree ought logically to embrace something like Lewis’ view (viz., that hell is a damned person’s choice) , then I agree.

But he seems to be saying more. He seems to be suggesting that universal salvation is the only alternative to Calvinism. If that’s what he means, then I can only say that is patently false.

I would like to ask Wade this. Why does he use the phrase “distinguishing love” for what I would call “limited love?” Let’s imagine that I am a doctor who owns and has sole right to dispense a cure for a particular cancer. Two close friends of Wade’s have that cancer. He comes to me and begs me to save their lives with my cure. I agree to give the cure to one of his friends but not the other. Would he believe someone who told him I actually love both of his friends–just differently? I doubt it.

“Distinguishing love” is not the right phrase to describe double predestination–including a divine decree of reprobation (i.e., God decreeing the eternal damnation of some people he is capable of saving because salvation is, as Wade says, unconditional on God’s part)

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  • James T. O’Brien

    Dr. Olsen, I read your rejoinder first and, being intrigued, I read Wade Burleson’s article. I was surprised at how thoughtful his argument was in contrast to the superficiality of the rejoinder. You make the point that most Arminians believe in eternal Hell, but this hardly answers Wade’s point. You believe that God wants everyone to be saved. Surely, then, God must be deeply grieved that people reject his love and offer of salvation in Christ. After all, He loves them and unless He is changeable (Burleson’s fickle – I thought that term a bit churlish) then He loves them eternally. Since He loves them eternally, does it not follow as Lewis teaches that there always remains the option for them to choose (for surely they retain their free will, do they not?) to receive Christ and so be delivered from Hell? Does not God’s eternal love for them move him to continue offering them salvation? You may think this is not the case, but how can it not be if God eternally loves them? If you grant that God’s love leaves the door open for them to call upon the Lord and He will save them, then you are potentially a universalist. It is possible that God’s love wins out in the end, as Rob Bell has argued.

    Of course, someone, horrified by the horror of Hell, might argue for annihilationism, but let us ask ourselves, would eternal love ever give up loving those in Hell. Would love be capable of saying, “I will stop striving with them and, my eternal love for them notwithstanding, I will give them up? (Read Hosea 11:7-9) Will love give up hope for the beloved? Furthermore, is eternity not long enough for God’s love to win over everyone? Well, free will being free, love might not win, as McDonald conceded, but it might and, I suspect, most reasonable people would think it would. Is this not something very close to universalism as Burleson argued?

    In addition, there is the problem of angels. The eternal Son of God did not take the form of an angel (Hebrews 4) and so provided no atonement for any of the devils. It seems to me that you have to concede that infinite love did not extend to Satan and his brothers. Can you give any account for such a phenomenon?

    Lastly, I would point out the superficiality (there is no other word for it) of your analogy of a doctor with a cure for cancer and God’s election. Note two things: that doctor is not the Creator of Heaven and Earth who may do as He pleases with his own (potter and clay in Romans 9). As Creator, God may do things creatures may not. Secondly, you have left the evil and criminality of all men out of the equation. God is entirely justified if He condemned all men, as He did all sinning angels. That God should be willing to save any human being is astonishingly wonderful. The marvel is not that God does not save all, but that God saves any. What would your analogy look like if both “friends” were men who had committed astonishingly evil things? Well, I’ll leave that for you to consider. For my own part, I expected a much more penetrating critique than what you have provided.

    • Roger Olson

      No, I completely reject your charges here. My analogy stands and is a valid one. Wade used an analogy (of a person who says he loves his own wife better than someone else’s) which I consider a poor analogy to belief that “God is love.”

    • David Graham

      I just read Wade’s post and I can’t say I agree with you on its apparent depth. I seems his whole argument, if one can call it that, presupposes a concept of “sovereignty” peculiar to Calvinists (and perhaps some neo-Thomists as well), one which falls short of an adequate Trinitarian ontology. If sovereignty means not being determined, and if the only alternative to not being determined is to determine, then of course his argument holds true. But if the love which is the Triune God transcends even the dichotomy which Wade (and Calvinists in general) presumes, then his God is the one who appears neither sovereign nor love. Wade says, “To rightly believe in God’s sovereignty and God’s unconditional love you must either be a Calvinist or a universalist.” To that I would say, “To rightly believe in infinite Triune love, you must not presume that God must determine to be who he is”. Precisely because of the infinity of God’s love, he can extend the gift of participation in himself even to those who reject it forever without injury to himself. On this point, I suggest reading David B. Hart’s essay, “Impassibility as Transcendence”.

      As to your criticism of Roger’s analogy, I would say that at least his illustration can actually function analogically (i.e. there are clear similarities amidst the dissimilarity). As for Wade’s illustration, is there ever a circumstance in which unconditional, unceasing wrath is something we might deem worthy of the name “love”?

    • John Osborn

      I agree that eternal hell-fire presents a problem to God’s eternal love, or any kind of love for that matter, which is one reason I strongly reject the doctrine and consider it perhaps the worst doctrine to have been introduced to Christianity. I don’t understand your point against annihilationism being consistent with God’s eternal love though. It’s not a matter of God giving up on loving us, but a matter of respecting the sinner’s final choice to not receive of His life and love. To strive with sinners for all eternity or until the sinner gave up, would seem to be the same in consequence as immediately overpowering their will and would be the same violation of free-will.

      As for Dr. Olson’s analogy, if anything, I feel he was too charitable to the Calvinist position, as the Doctor withheld a cure, while Calvinists claim God actively tortures those He does not love, but that distinction is perhaps splitting theological hairs. Claiming God is just to do whatever he wishes because of He’s creator and God, make the statement “God is just” into meaningless truism. If we take God’s justice, love, and goodness, are all true of God by definition, then they cannot actually tell us anything meaningful about God. All that’s meaningful about God would be included in the phrase “God is sovereign,” yet the Bible seemed to think there was so much more to say. As for the evil and criminality of all man, we would not be here to be evil and criminal if God had not created us in the first place. This still makes God responsible for creating creatures capable (or in the case of meticulous sovereignty incapable of doing otherwise) of committing such evil that only eternal hell-fire can provide justice. The only way to make this sound just and good is to fall back on God is good because he is God, in which case you’ve made the terms truisms.

  • LauraC

    Perhaps I have no right to comment since when I tried to read Wade’s post I just couldn’t follow it. I saw the “distinguishing love” phrase and thought, “No, not another new theological phrase! Can’t go there!” I spent the first 15 years of my Christianity unaware of Arminianism or Calvinism (not sure that that wasn’t a nice phase!), then ~10 years of Arminianism because that’s all I knew, and now 10 years of Calvinism. I call myself a Calvinist but worship and fellowship with almost all Arminians. I can see why both can claim their views as biblical-I just lean toward Calvinism. Both are legitimate, orthodox Christian views in my humble opinion. Universalism is not. Actually, I am a Calvinist who hopes to find out that Arminianism is true, I’m just not banking on it. Maybe God will inform us when we get to heaven, maybe we will not care? I know that my fellow Christians of both “persuassions” will be there. That’s what matters.

    • Roger Olson

      If you haven’t read Against Calvinism by yours truly I strongly suggest it.

      • LauraC

        I actually own both your book. I will read it soon.

  • John Lussier

    Roger, I always appreciate your posts.

    A suggestion: get connected with someone who has experience with blogging and the internet in general, and have them put up the final versions of these posts. A simple hyperlink of that article would be very helpful here. Other posts would be helped by this as well.

    • Roger Olson

      I tried to provide a hyperllink. If it wasn’t a live link, that wasn’t my doing. I am still struggling with patheos’ new “disqus” discussion program. It looked like a hyperlink when I posted it.

  • Dean

    What a strange post by Burleson, I had to read it twice to get at what he was saying, maybe I am just not familiar with where he is coming from. I actually read the “infamous” Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald last year, the author’s name is a pseudonym, combining George MacDonald with Gregory of Nyssa, two prominent universalists, and I have to say that he makes a good case for Universalism. It’s a pretty dense book and deserves a closer read, he does everything that Rob Bell didn’t do in his book, although they were writing for very different audiences of course. Although it didn’t completely convince me, his primary thesis wasn’t even that, he is merely suggesting that universalism should be accepted as a permissible, orthodox alternative to Calvinism and Arminianism, and that if you just get rid of the “L” in TULIP, you’re basically there. His point is, you have a bunch of verses that point toward a Calvinist soteriology, a bunch that point to Arminianism, and a bunch that suggest universal reconciliation. Which ever camp you find yourself in, you have to try to explain away the “pesky” versus in the other two other camps. Each camp is going to say that their view provides the most “glorifying” vision of God’s character, and in that contest, the universalist’s vision of the future probably wins out. The book has probably pushed me into the hopeful universalist camp though.

    Has anyone gotten a good response from Calvinists on what it means to be made in the image of God? It seems very odd to me that God create someone in his own image, suggest that they therefore have infinite worth, and then decide from the beginning of time to cast them into eternal damnation for his own glory?

    • Roger Olson

      One Calvinist once told me he believed the non-elect (reprobate) are not really humans but automota. That’s what I would have to believe were I ever to become convinced of a divine decree of reprobation.

      • Dean

        A logical, though disturbing conclusion!

  • John Osborn

    I read that article too. Calvinist reasoning never ceases to amaze me. He not only says that you must accept Universalism or Calvinism, but ends by saying anything else isn’t even the good news. As if the idea that God predestined people to eternal hell before time began is just awesome news. His down-playing of double predestination as “distinguishing love” like someone has for their wife is also something else. It’s one thing to love someone more than someone else, but being cruel to the other person isn’t somehow a display of affection toward the object of your true affections. I’m sure Burleson doesn’t think it’d be okay for a father to torture another families’ kids to display his distinguishing love to his family. I wonder how Calvinism would fare if they stopped hiding behind these euphemisms, and talked in plain language about what their theology means for those who don’t have God’s “distinguishing love.” Of course, they’d likely to respond to such reason, by saying that God’s ways are not man’s way, and that the fact it seems so unreasonable is just proof that God came up with it instead of humans.

    • Roger Olson

      Very well said. Thank you.

  • Hyatt Grissom

    Excellent post Dr. Olson, I always enjoy your posts. Did you see his follow up post here? . It is one of the most unusual arguments that I have seen about irresistable grace that I have ever heard. Apparently, we have the ability to refuse, but we can’t. Maybe you can sort this out for me because I’m lost.
    He said, “I think you are misunderstanding what I believe, Kristen. I have never believed, have never taught, and have never written that any human being does not have the power to refuse.

    I have always believed, taught, and written that God makes His love is so captivating, so alluring, so charming, so dazzling, so enthralling, so mesmerizing, so spellbinding (gospel comes from “good spell”), so magnetizing, so enrapturing, so gripping, so compelling, so hypnotizing, and so absolutely “sweep me off my feet” enamoring that I cannot, will not, and must not refuse, though I have the power to do so.”

    Thanks for all you do,
    Hyatt Grissom

    • Roger Olson

      Sounds like an appeal to paradox to me. The problem with that, of course, that then anything goes. It make disagreement impossible. If I say I disagree with one side of the paradox I’m still agreeing with what the person said.

  • Earl

    Pardon me..but do they not teach LOGIC in schools anymore? That is what thinkers have been developing for centuries to make people keep their lines of thinking straight. If one lays out a proposition then one has to accept the conclusion to which it leads and Calvinism just does not follow the rules!!!

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Burleson wrote: “I have always believed, taught, and written that God makes His love is so captivating, so alluring, so charming, so dazzling, so enthralling, so mesmerizing, so spellbinding (gospel comes from “good spell”), so magnetizing, so enrapturing, so gripping, so compelling, so hypnotizing, and so absolutely “sweep me off my feet” enamoring that I cannot, will not, and must not refuse, though I have the power to do so.”

    The apostle Paul wrote: “God is Love” and “Love never fails.”

    I believe that both Burleson and Paul got it right.

    • Roger Olson

      The difference between you and Wade Burleson, however, is that he believes God only does this for some people and not for others and yet God is somehow loving (in a distinguishing way) toward all people.

  • Wade Burleson

    Dr. Olson,

    I would like to thank you for thoughtfully and respectfully responding to my post. I have long had an appreciation for your keen intellect and ability to argue for important kingdom principles with grace and aplomb. The comments on Patheos for my post are also very enlightening and informative. I agree with one commenter who said my choice of the word “fickle” for a God who loves conditionally was churlish. I could have done better. Though you disagree with my premise, I am honored that you responded. I freely admit that I could be wrong in my interpretation of God’s incredible, unconditional, deep and particular (it is this word particular that I could be in error over) love for us. If I am one day convinced that, indeed, I am in error, I will probably land with George McDonald and C.S. Lewis on “hopeful inclusivism.” Until then, I will continue to learn from my evangelical Arminian friends who have so much to teach me.

  • ginger

    Hello Dr. Olson,
    I have only had the opportunity of listening to a debate between you and Dr. Michael Horton, and the impression that I got was that you both handled yourselves with the utmost of brotherly love/charity. I would hope that all interfaith conversations across the denominational divide could be that helpful.
    Anyhow, you have written much using the labels “reformed and Calvinist” and I thought after reading this post that I would recommend a book that really helped my understanding of the words themselves, and since you also mention history, also has great instruction on the history of the words and labels themselves.
    “Calvin and the Reformed Tradition-On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation by RIchard A. Muller.”
    I have read much and have found this book one of the most helpful books, historically speaking, on the subject of what it is to be reformed, and gives a very detailed historical record of Calvin and his impact on the reformation of the Church.
    Personally, I call myself a Christian with Reformed views. The word reformed carry’s with it the idea that we are against something and being reformed by something, and one must know their history before they can truly use the word “reformed” in any way that is meaningful.
    Like Stanly Fish says, words and sentences are the vehicles we use in order to paint a picture of the reality they are trying to capture, and can never be the actual picture themselves. However the more one can be precise, and by precise, I mean the ability to have another understand, regardless of the choice of words, what you are actually trying to describe then one is considered a masterful communicator.
    I have read many of your posts, and I can say that you have not accurately understood a Christian with reformed views, if you understanding is that we
    place more of an emphasis on the law then the gospel. The reformation itself was in direct opposition to that very statement and as such one with truly reformed views has as his understanding that the gospel is our meat of diet as Christians.
    I am not surprised thought that if you are reading and spending time with those that are Baptist and erroneously think that they can also be reformed in their views that this is what you come away thinking.
    One can not be both Baptist and Reformed in their views. Being one of reformed views, the view itself is what makes one’s views reformed. One with reformed views has a different hermeneutic and it is out of that reading of God’s word that the evidence of whether one is reformed in their views or not is seen.
    I will say that there are those that are having their views reformed, however that is different than saying one has reformed views.
    The question then is, what is reforming the view of the Christian, and it is none other than the Word of God that reforms all true Christians, and it is the will of God that he has allowed some to be stalled or stuck in bad theology, and by that I mean that they do not come to the Word of God to be reformed in their view, they like the Word says we are all by nature deceived.
    Until one reads God’s Word as a historical and redemptive narrative of God’s covenant with his creatures, then one is not reformed in their views. If one only reads the Old Testament through 20th century eyes then one is not reformed in their views. The redemptive historical view can not but see that we are dead in our trespass and have no ability to choose God, and that if had not chosen us we would be left to suffer the his wrath for all eternity. Predestination is a byproduct of the reformed view of reading scripture, and not a presupposition that we place ahead of God’s word. However Predestination isn’t the hallmark of the reformation, the Roman Catholic Church fully believes in predestination and as such that isn’t what “Luther” was railing against.
    Anyway, I only write because I think that you would do better to explain what it is that you believe and your own views, with scripture of course, and not to try to put into words what it is that Christians with reformed views think until you do some more reading on the matter, historically speaking. For that I highlight your sentence, from a post that states “most Christians historically were not reformed in their views.” You should back that up with some numerical facts, considering that you were the one that used a numerical quantifier for your argument.
    I hope and pray mostly that you would spend time investigating the reformed views more, in the light of Scripture and you never know, you may find yourself also with views that are also being reformed.
    I pray that you ask God to search you and know you and to let you know if there is any grievous way in you.

    All the best,

    • Roger Olson

      I am confident that I have read enough books of Reformed theology and history (by Reformed authors) to know what I’m talking about. I have shelves full of them.

      • DDinMS

        I absolutely CAN NOT believe she just went there. Oh. My. Stars. I read your reply before reading her post. Wow. I stand amazed.

  • Chad Arneson

    Catholicism is the only life-giving alternative to both Calvinism AND Arminianism

    • Roger Olson

      I prefer that my commenters explain here rather than simply include a hyperlink to somewhere else. So please explain why you say this.