Against Calvinism by Roger Olson

Against CalvinismTakeaway: This might better be called ‘Against a strong version of TULIP’

Against Calvinism is part of a two book series that try to present the arguments For Calvinism (my review) and Against Calvinism with as much grace and humility possible.  Roger Olson (Against) and Michael Horton (For) introduce one another’s books and it seems have reviewed and commented on each other’s books before publication.  I appreciate Horton’s introduction to this book that affirms Olson’s Christianity and good faith and the attempt to bring more light than heat to the discussion. (I also have For Calvinism and will post the review once I finish it.)

Olson takes a specific tack in this book, not to argue against Calvinism as a whole (he affirms many parts of Calvinism) but to argue against particular interpretation of Calvinism that he call ‘High Calvinism’.  This is very strong view of the set of ideas that are detailed in the acronym TULIP.  After an introduction about the purpose of the book and a fairly long chapter on the diversity within the Reformed church, Olson works through each of the parts of TULIP and shows why he believes that the system is not the best method of understanding God and God’s work in the lives of Christian.  This leads to a lot of repetition; this book could easily have been 50 to 80 pages shorter and probably would have been a better book.

In Olson’s defense, he is trying to show that his objections are not only possibilities, but that a number of prominent Reformed theologians/pastors of today and the past have believe things that he objects to.  So there are strings of essentially the same thing being said over and over again because Olson wants to cite a variety of sources.

Olson also tries when possible to cite Reformed pastors/theologians that do not hold to doctrines that Olson finds inappropriate so that as much as possible it is Reformed theologians that object to particular understandings of other Reformed theologians.  I believe that this method, while tedious at times, does make the discussion more civil (in spite of making a drier book.)

Reading this book makes me recall an analogy that Christians Smith uses in the book Bible Made Impossible.  Smith says that often Christians treat the bible as puzzle pieces.  (I am shortening and paraphrasing.) There is not a picture of what the puzzle is supposed to be, so some try to make it into a beautiful girl, others a landscape, others something else.  The problem is that in all cases, some pieces of the puzzle get left out and others are forced into place and end up damaging the piece.  Each ends up with a picture, but the picture is only partial.

I believe that this is a problem with all systems of Christian thought.  It is easy to see the problems with this book (and I presume will be in the next) because what ends up happening is charges that because one person believes in A, it is assumed that they must then believe in B because B is a logical conclusion from A.  The problem is that one person’s logical conclusion is another person’s dramatic leap.

However, I do not want to minimize Olson’s problems with Calvinism.  In general, Olson objects to assertions that God is the author of Evil (and he cites many Calvinist theologians that have explicitly said this.)  In their attempt to maintain God’s sovereignty, some have created a system of determinism that places responsibility for all action (not just the good) on God.

Second, Olson is concerned that Calvinism places Sovereignty as God’s highest virtue, above love, above grace, above goodness.  I think this is a fair statement, but others do the same with other attributes of God and place love above justice or righteousness above grace.  The reality is that scripture says that God has all of these aspects and trying to place them in some type of rank order to help us make sense of the theological system that we are creating does not do justice to the wholeness of scripture and God’s revelation.

Third, Olson is concerned that the aspect of limited atonement undercuts our own human attempts at sharing the gospel in good faith.  Can Calvinists honestly share the gospel (and here he might benefit from Scot McKnight‘s book King Jesus Gospel) and say that God has died for your sins, if we only believe that God has died for a few people’s sins?

Fourth, Olson is concerned that TULIP is not internally consistent or the only way to interpret many difficult scriptures.  Because we are often brought up in a theologically isolated systems, many have no conception that you can be a Christian and not believe in a particular way.  We saw this earlier this year when Albert Mohler asserted that it was not possible to be a Christian and not believe in creationism in general and a physical Adam and Eve in particular.  Olson does not use that example, but many others that are common in current Calvinism, but were not present in the actual John Calvin, or in standard Christian theology before Calvin.  I am a bit reluctant to adopt this argument too strongly.  There are many doctrines that have developed over time and while I agree we should be historically knowledgeable, I do not want to submit theology to some sort of theological/historical litmus test.

I am also a bit concerned about much of Olson’s (and other’s) appeals to logic.  Christianity is a theology that is inherently paradoxical.  ‘My strength is shown in your weakness’ is not a logical statement.  Olson does comment on this, in part because both proponents and opponents of Calvinism cite human logic in their arguments, just not in the same areas.  So Olson want to try to preserve what he call ‘conundrums’ (like the fact that light appears to be both a particle and a wave) without accepting logical inconsistencies (2+2=3, square pegs in round holes, etc.)

The problem is that it matters a lot who is doing the evaluating.  Many physicists originally thought that light could not be both a particle and a wave.  They viewed it as a logical inconsistency.  But this view has won out, not because it can be explained, but because no one can explain why light seems to act like both.  In Christianity, God is both sovereign and loving.  So I, like Olson, am concerned with a system that wants to explain away the ‘conundrum’, but I am not sure Arminian theology really does much better. Scot McKnight started a discussion on his blog about this book. And it is clear from the comments that given the same sets of facts, many people have quite different conclusions.

I want to be very careful in discussions like this, that when reasonable people of faith disagree, that we understand, primarily this is about something less than the other person’s salvation.  Olson attempted to do this and mostly succeeded.  It is hard to have strong convictions and civil conversation.  But I think if we are serious about our faith, we very much need to make every attempt.

Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition


An ebook copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Olson’s approach seems unnecessarily divisive. Why call a book Against Calvinism if it is only meant to critique an extreme view of Calvinist soteriology? Even in your review you talk about Calvinism, not whatever Olson is talking about. This does make a difference. For example:

“However, I do not want to minimize Olson’s problems with Calvinism. In general, Olson objects to assertions that God is the author of Evil (and he cites many Calvinist theologians that have explicitly said this.) In their attempt to maintain God’s sovereignty, some have created a system of determinism that places responsibility for all action (not just the good) on God.”

This is a minority position within Calvinism. The standard Reformed confessions (Canons of Dort, Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Westminster Confession) either explicitly or implicitly reject that God is the author of sin. The Canons of Dort calls the idea that God is the author of sin a “blasphemous thought!”

    Sproul, Piper and many other current active theologians in Calvinist community have said that God is the author of evil. I would not call either Sproul or Piper as minority positions.

    I am not all that much favor of the title either, but that is the title and it is a joint project with Michael Horton that is also writing the other part of the project For Calvinism.

Sproul does NOT take that position. I’m curious why you think he does. I hope Olson doesn’t claim he does, because he’s explicitly rejected that in a number of places. I haven’t read enough Piper to know if he does but I do know that Piper follows Jonathon Edwards on many things and Edwards explicitly denies that God is the author of sin, too. So I would be surprised if Piper holds that view but I can’t say for sure.

In any case, “minority position” may not be the best phrase. I don’t deny that there are popular Calvinist theologians who basically hold the position (Frame comes to mind). And I have no real data as to how many Calvinists today hold this position (from experience I think it is a minority, but I have no way of showing that). But to make this a critique of Calvinism is just wrong since the basic confessions of Calvinism deny it. According to the Canons of Dordt, which TULIP is (supposedly) based on, calling God the author of sin is blasphemy.

I just searched for Sproul’s words on this:

“This distortion of positive-positive predestination clearly makes God the author of sin who punishes a person for doing what God monergistically and irresistibly coerces man to do. Such a view is indeed a monstrous assault on the integrity of God. This is not the Reformed view of predestination, but a gross and inexcusable caricature of the doctrine. Such a view may be identified with what is often loosely described as hyper-Calvinism and involves a radical form of supralapsarianism. Such a view of predestination has been virtually universally and monolithically rejected by Reformed thinkers.”

    You are right (as your citation confirms). I mis-remembered. I went back and quickly read through the section that he talks about this. He specifically cites Sproul as not explicitly agreeing with this, but then spends some time talking about why he thinks that Sproul’s disclaimers do not mean much because the language of permissions and the dual natures of God’s will still have problems.

    This is a controversial point and Olson spends a whole chapter developing why he thinks that an understanding of sovereignty that requires that God is in control of every molecule and every spin of every molecule (as Sproul says) also has to deal with the problem of evil in a different way than those that understand sovereignty differently.

    Just to confirm, Olson, does not claim everyone that is Calvinist or Reformed believes that God is the author of evil. But he spends a whole chapter about why he thinks that many of the ways that Calvinist theology deals with the problem of evil and/or God’s authorship of all events are problematic. You do not have to agree with his results, but Olson is not attempting to be unnecessarily divisive. He is trying to say why he believes that this portion of calvinist theology is wrong.

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