Reposting this 2011 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99
Summary: A moderate Calvinism explained.
One of the comments on the review of Against Calvinism, objected to the title. I noted in the review that Olson was not objecting to Calvinism as a whole, but particular extremes within Calvinism. Well Michael Horton, in the introduction, objects to the title as well. He does not really like the term Calvinism (because it is named after Calvin and because of that is sectarian in feel). He would prefer ‘the gospel’ or ‘the gospel of grace’.
He quotes Charles Spurgeon as saying that, “I have no own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism…it is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else.” This really gets to the heart of what I object to about Calvinism. The fact that many Calvinists seem unable to distinguish that their understanding of the gospel (a gospel focused on Salvation, Justification and Grace), is only one aspect of the gospel. Scot McKnight has a very good book (King Jesus Gospel) about the problem with focusing on salvation instead of Jesus Christ as the gospel. I want to affirm with Michael Horton, that in the vast majority of theological issues and beliefs, Christians agree. The discussion about Calvinism is not about whether each side is Christian, but rather the discussion about relatively minor issues within Christianity (important, but minor).
So much of this discussion is about definition. For instance, Horton discusses the difference between foreknowledge and foreordination of events. He argues that in reality these are basically the same thing, but saying they are the same does not make them the same. To some, the difference is great, to others like Horton, the difference between the two is so meaningless as to be indistinguishable. On both sides (Calvinism and Arminianism), there are many of the same concepts that are being discussed, but the definitions and understanding are vastly different, which makes it hard not to talk past one another. Both Horton and Olson really do try hard not to talk past one another, but I just do not think it is possible.
I really struggled through this book. I worked on it for nearly three weeks before I finished it. And I did a decent bit of skimming in the second third of the book. I was frankly fairly tired of the conversation. But I also spent more time praying about the content of this book than any I have read in recent memory. I am increasingly aware of my frustration with this discussion. At some point it seems that both sides need to admit that neither side adequately can account for the whole of scripture. I am incapable of conceiving of a God that would intentionally construct TULIP. I do not say this lightly. I very well may be wrong about this. But my understanding of scripture says that while neither Calvinism nor Arminianism can account for all of scripture, Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace (Horton prefers Effective Grace for good reason), seem to violate my understanding of the nature of God. God is whom God is, my understanding does not change him. And God is a big God, that I am sure will convict me of my poor understanding and move me toward a better understanding in this life, and will reveal much more in the next. But I still cannot conceive that God only came to earth to die for some.
In the end, I think these books are helpful in understanding the positions. But I think that the whole framing of the question is distorting the answer. Our focus should be on Christ and his Kingdom and the role that we are permitted to play in God’s grand narrative. Instead this discussion gets us bogged down in details that are just not adequately revealed in Scripture and focuses us on our own salvation instead of the person of Christ.
I do not want to be too negative about For Calvinism. There are three things that I think are very good and helpful to the conversation. One, Horton is very clear that proper Calvinist theology must start at Creation, not the Fall. Too often I have heard the fall presented as the basis of theology. Horton is clear that humans were created good and without sin.
Second, Horton defends Calvinism as valuing missions and evangelism. I do not question Calvinism’s commitment to evangelism or missions, but I do know some that do, so this was useful. I wish it was earlier in the book because I think it might have changed some of the tone of the book, focusing more on the mission of the church and implication of the mission for Calvinism. However, Horton does not mention what I do think is a more subtle but harder to defend charge, that Calvinist cares more about getting the message out than how it is received. Some of the most confrontational and aggressive evangelists and missionaries I have been exposed to are Calvinist. Because their theology says God alone saves, I think there is a lack of awareness that offending the hearer can alienate them from God. In fact, I have talked to some that view offendedness as a badge of honor.
Third, Horton spends the last chapter really looking at strengths and weaknesses within Calvinism. This self-critical reflection I believe is a strength of Calvinism. Horton spends some time talking about the problems of the “Young, Restless and Reformed” and here hints at the problems of presentation that I wish he would have dealt with fully in the missions and evangelism chapter.
Honestly, after reading both books, I am more changed by the For Calvinism side of the argument. Horton seems like a likable guy and clearly is the type of Calvinist that is willing to both engage in a helpful discussion and call for moderation within his own movement. Olson was a bit more bombastic (although still made a real effort at being charitable). But my opinion was actually strengthened against a hard Calvinism.
By the way, until I looked at the cover of For Calvinism, I did not realize that both books had an image of Tulips. For Calvinism, has three healthy full tulips (and a bright green background), Against Calvinism has three tulips with dried up petals that are about to fall (and a bright red background). Clever and subtle, a nice design element.
Later Note: After reading James KA Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist, I wish that the title of this book (and its partner) were changed to For TULIP and Against TULIP or For Predestination and Against Predestination. The real issue that is being discussed is not Calvinism broadly, but a fairly small issues within Calvinism. If this were predominately about broader Reformed Theology then there should have been a much greater discussion of covenant.