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Review 1 for Against Calvinism -eBook
Helpful critique of Calvinism
Date:January 21, 2013
This is the sister volume to Michael Horton’s ‘For Calvinism’, which I reviewed some time ago. Roger Olson has clearly drawn the short straw in this project: It is always more difficult to write a constructive critique of a view which you believe to be just plain wrong than to write an apologia for you own belief system. It might have been fairer to ask Olson to write something entitled ‘For Arminianism’ but, of course, he has already written something very like that.
In the first two chapters, Olson explains the context for his opposition to (certain forms of) Calvinism and outlines the complexity of the Reformed and Calvinist family of Christian traditions. This is essentially a response to the Calvinism of the so called young, restless Reformed thinkers (e.g. John Piper) who have spearheaded the re-emergence of a radical high (or even hyper) Calvinism in the past three decades. Olson insists that they do not have a monopoly on the term ‘Reformed’ (his own theological hero, Arminius, was also a Reformed theologian) or even ‘Calvinist’ (Olson cites the Dutch theologian Gerrits Berkouwer as an example of a moderate Calvinist who would take issue with this new hyper-Calvinism) and challenges some of their more extreme statements about God's sovereignty. In his own words:
‘I believe someone needs finally to stand up and in love firmly say “No!” to egregious statements about God’s sovereignty often made by Calvinists. Taken to their logical conclusion, that even hell and all who will suffer there eternally are foreordained by God, God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst. I have gone so far as to say that this kind of Calvinism, which attributes everything to God’s will and control, makes it difficult (at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil.’ (p. 23)
In Chapter 3 he defines what is commonly understood as Calvinism today in terms of the five points of Calvinism (or the doctrines of grace). His basic argument is that Calvinism has to be inconsistent in order to avoid making God the author of evil, and he expands on this in subsequent chapters.
Chapter 4, ‘Yes to God’s Sovereignty; No to Divine Determinism’, affirms a ‘weak’ view of divine sovereignty, namely that nothing happens without God’s permission. He goes on to argue that a stronger view of sovereignty would make God the sole cause of all that happens and thus undermine the contingency of creation (p. 72). He traces this latter view from Zwingli through Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, R.C. Sproul, and Lorraine Boettner to Paul Helm and John Piper. As he sees it, this understanding of divine sovereignty is in tension with the goodness of God; taken to its logical conclusion it must lead to fatalism and an implicit belief that God is the ultimate cause of evil.
In Chapter 5, ‘Yes to Election; No to Double Predestination’, Olson affirms the unconditional election of God’s people as a whole and the conditional election of individuals. But he rejects the Calvinist notion of reprobation: in his view, that God pardons one sinner and condemns another who has committed the same sin makes God capricious rather than compassionate.
In Chapter 6, he argues that the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is a deduction from other points of Calvinism (specifically unconditional election and irresistible grace), which lacks scriptural support. He maintains that it contradicts the love of God by making God partial and, indeed, actively antipathetic towards those he has not chosen. Olsen also devotes some space to refuting the Calvinist argument that the only alternative to limited atonement is universalism.
In Chapter 7, Olson questions Calvinist claims that any human contribution to salvation (synergism) reduces it from grace to work and again he devotes some space to correcting what he sees as Calvinist misrepresentations of synergism as covert Pelagianism.
Olson concludes his critique with a chapter summarizing the conundrums of Calvinism and a couple of appendices dealing with some Calvinist responses to his central criticisms and various Calvinist claims.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a critique of any theological tradition is attacking the belief without attacking the believer. Roger Olson has done an admirable job of challenging the implications Calvinism while acknowledging that most Calvinists do not press their beliefs to their logical conclusion. He concludes that ‘evangelical Calvinists are some of the best Christians in the world. I just think they are terribly inconsistent and teach and believe doctrines contrary to scripture, most of Christian tradition, and reason’ (p. 179).
This volume makes a very readable companion to its sister volume by Horton. Nevertheless, just as I remained unconvinced by Horton’s very attractive presentation of Calvinism so I reach the end of Olson’s text feeling more than a little uncomfortable about the Arminian alternative. Is it perhaps the case that both Calvinism (at least in its modern ‘restless’ incarnation) and Arminianism are tainted by the Pelagianism that theologians like Kathryn Tanner and Colin Gunton have perceived to pervade post-Reformation (and certainly post-Enlightenment) Western theology?
(Perhaps I should add that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of their blogger review programme.)
I understand that polemics bring with them many difficulties, and as such Olson's book starts with a point by point rebuttal of a view. Still, it was not a well done rebuttal (See Luther's "De Servo Abitrio" for an amazing, though harsh, polemic). Reading this book, after reading "For Calvinism", I was hoping for a scripturally based explanation of why Calvinism is wrong; instead it was mostly philosophical polemic against Calvinism based on the assumption of Libertarian free will. All of Olson's arguments concluding that Calvinism diminishes God's love and goodness presuppose a view of Libertarian free will that has been shown both to be untenable scripturally and philosophically ("De Servo Abitrio" and "Freedom of the Will" by Jonathan Edwards); Olson interacts with both of these books but does not give enough consideration to their arguments, writing them off as counter to common-sense and assuming the libertarian view to be right (even if "mysterious" (133)). On the positive side he mostly gives an accurate description of the five points of the TULIP, but sets up and dismantles probably the weakest argument for these points I have ever read. He deals mostly with their philosophical defences and rarely interacts with the strong Biblical foundations upon which they are built. An example of this is when Olson deals with Irresistible (Effectual) Grace. He cites Sproul's argument from "draw" in John 6:44 and focuses on tearing it down but ignores the powerful evidences from John 3 (which he mistakenly assumes earlier in the book supports his view of regeneration by a slippery definition of 'salvation' found throughout the book), John 10, Romans 8:28-39, and elsewhere. He also uses questionable exegesis (giving him the benefit of the doubt; oversights) to support his argument. For example, he cites at least twice Romans 5:8 as teaching that Christ died for all sinners (144,117). This passage reads; "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (NASB). Who is this "us" and "we" referred to? In verse one of this chapter Paul writes; "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (NASB). It is these, those who have been justified (those he wrote Romans to), that he is addressing in v. 8. While those who are now justified were still sinners Jesus Christ came and died for them! (also sees his citation of A.T. Robinson as one of the "best critical exegetes" (132)). As a Calvinist reading this will challenge you, but the lack of evidence from Scripture will leave you more resolved about where you stand. If you are going to read this book read it alongside of "For Calvinism" written by Michael Horton.
I have not read "For Calvinism" yet, but this book let me down in a few ways.
First off, Olsen uses arguments based upon other theologians and does not base his conclusions upon Biblical arguments, but rather quotes from several other authors.
The part I liked about this is that it gave me several authors I would now like to read for more information; the negative part is that I felt like he just said the same things over and over, setting up the easiest arguments against hyper-Calvinism and attempting to knock them down with emotional responses. He seems to be friendly with the Open Theism crowd, and brings up Universalism a few times, almost as if it's a viable option of belief.
All in all, it left me wanting more, although it is a simple starting point for someone who knows little about the arguments for and against Calvinism.
For someone who has read Calvinistic arguments and seen the Biblical foundation those authors have used to make their point, and then turn to this book for an equally Biblical argument, you WILL be disappointed.
There were some good ideas Olson brought up, such as the choosing of us in Ephesians 1 -- is it the election of the corporate body of Christ, or the election of the individuals who make up the body of Christ?
It was not what I expected, and in the end I don't think it was worth reading a 200-page book to get just a few interesting points, especially when you consider that all the really interesting things said were quotes from other authors anyway.
I have finished reading "For Calvinism" and "Against Calvinism" and was happy to see that Horton & Olson wrote the forward to each other's book. It's refreshing to know that authors with such divergent theological positions can nevertheless appreciate what they have in common as far as the Christian faith is concerned. I read Horton's book first and found it a very good read and representation of 5-point Calvinism that seeks to disassociate itself from the "hyper-Cavlinist" belief in double predestination. However, I would have to say that Roger Olson's arguments against 5-point Calivinism (which he refers to as "extreme Calvinism" as John Calvin himself did not subscribe to all 5 points of TULIP) is a strong, reasonable and convincing rebuttal that deserves careful consideration by anyone looking to honestly understand both sides of the debate. Olson knows his history and is well versed in the writings of Calvin and the other Reformers as well as many contemporary spokespersons for 5-point Calvinist theology. Olson exposes the biblical and logical inconsistencies of holding to the U, L and I positions of TULIP in light of Scripture, quoting extensively from authors like Piper, Boettner and Helm to add further weight to his arguments. Olson upholds the truth of total depravity, the sovereignty of God, the grace of God, the glory of God, and most importantly in this debate, the love of God. He responds to the common myths and misconceptions of the Arminian position and offers a sound and charitable response to Horton's "For Calvinism." Well worth reading.