Debating Calvinism, Part 2
By Roger E. Olson
May 1, 2012
There’s probably no other issue in popular Christianity as argued or debated as Calvinism. Whether it’s a dorm room, a Sunday school class, a dinner table, a church meeting or a classroom, chances are there’s been an argument about election, sovereignty and free will. It’s a theological battle royale, argued by scholars and blog commenters alike.
That debate has only grown over the past decade or so, as more and more young people have begun to identify as Reformed—that is, the tradition that houses the Christian doctrine commonly referred to as Calvinism. Popular writers and speakers like John Piper and Mark Driscoll have ignited a movement of Reformed Christians that has fanned the flames of debate into a more visible sparring match. Meanwhile, Christians like Greg Boyd and Scot McKnight offer significant challenges to the current Reformed mode of thinking.
In order to help unpack what the debate is and how believers on both sides can approach the argument, we turned to the experts. Over the next couple days, we’ll look at arguments in support of and against Calvinism. Yesterday, Michael S. Horton, author of For Calvinism, told us why he considers Reformed theology the best expression of Christian doctrine based on Scripture. Today, Roger E. Olson, author of Against Calvinism and an Arminian, is convinced that Calvinism represents a serious departure from the revealed truths about God found in the Bible.
Why do these debates matter to ordinary Christians?
Olson: It may be that whether one believes in God’s sovereignty the Calvinist way or the Arminian way makes little difference with regard to evangelism, worship or discipleship. But the subject of God’s sovereignty and different interpretations of it matters because God cares what we think about Him.
God cares what we think about Him because He cares for His reputation. Why else would He have given us so much in His Word and sent Jesus Christ not only to die for the whole world’s sins but also to reveal His character? God has gone to a lot of trouble, for His sake and ours, to guide us into right thoughts about Himself. Surely He is offended when people think wrong thoughts about Him that harm His reputation. Since I cannot think of God as good and believe what Calvinists believe about Him, I think it must mean something to God, as well.
What problems are there with Calvinism?
Olson: Reformed theology shares many beliefs with non-Calvinist traditions, even the first and last elements of “TULIP”: totally depravity and perseverance of the saints. But the distinctive beliefs of Calvinism are unconditional election (or double predestination, meaning people are predestined for heaven or hell), limited atonement (which means the atoning impact of Christ’s death on the cross is only applicable to Christians) and irresistible grace (meaning that the grace of God compels people to accept Christ—they don’t have a choice).
Taken together, these beliefs, as they are espoused by historical and contemporary traditional Calvinists, call into question God’s character—by which I mean God’s goodness. I agree with R.C. Sproul and other Calvinist apologists that these elements cannot be taken singly; they are a coherent package. As I see it, the root problem is divine determinism, which means that God has ordered and directed every detail in creation and in history. Whatever Calvinists may say, traditional Calvinism makes God the planner and doer (even if only indirectly) of everything that happens ... and thus the author of sin and evil.
Calvinism ends up dissolving the very meaning of evil, which is contrary to the Bible and common sense. If God foreordains and causes everything for His glory and there is no room for free will to thwart that at any point, every evil thing is for God’s glory. That means nothing is really evil.
I acknowledge that the vast majority of evangelical Calvinists never say that God is the author of sin or evil; they prefer softer language and often use the term “permit” to express God’s relationship with evil. But however much they wish it to be otherwise, Calvinists imply that God is not good because His “goodness” (in this system) bears no resemblance to Jesus Christ, the perfect revelation of God’s character, or to our human intuitions about goodness.
What do you think about the so-called “Neo-Reformed” movement, embodied by people like Mark Driscoll and Kevin DeYoung?
Olson: My alarm over the rise of “the new Calvinism” is the lack of deep reflection I encounter in their triumphant claims to truth. Christians inclined toward Calvinism should first examine its underlying logic and what it requires in terms of good and necessary consequences. I’m convinced many young, Reformed Christians are caught up in Calvinism because of the charismatic influence of certain popular speakers and writers and have never really thought about what that system means and implies.
What might you warn someone about if they were considering Calvinism as a way to understand God and their faith?
Olson: Before adopting Calvinism, I would hope any thinking Christian would examine it biblically, in terms of Christian history and tradition, with rationality and through their experience. How does the whole system square with “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and John 3:16-17? Throughout the New Testament, God is revealed as love. We are commanded to love others unconditionally (1 Corinthians 13). Does God command a better quality of love from us than His? If Calvinism is true, God could save everyone because election to salvation (and therefore salvation) is unconditional. Why would a God of love choose to select only some persons to save? Saying “it’s a mystery” doesn’t help.
Basic Calvinist claims about God’s damning of some people “for His glory” are inconsistent with any sense of love, and especially with Jesus Christ. Leading Calvinists try to get around this problem by saying that God shows His love to the reprobate (those He predestined for hell) by showering them with temporal blessings on Earth. But that is only to say that God gives them a little bit of heaven to go to hell in.
Unfortunately, many people have been told that any theology other than Calvinism rests salvation on human effort, which undermines grace. Allegedly, Arminianism makes the free-will decision of the repentant sinner “the decisive factor in his (or her) salvation.” Not so. The decisive factors are the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit. The free-will decision is only an empty acceptance of God’s great gift of salvation. It leaves no room for boasting.
Where can Calvinists and non-Calvinists find common ground?
Olson: Many young, Reformed Christians have been led to believe that Calvinism is the only biblically serious evangelical option. That’s simply not the case. Classical Arminianism is not salvation by good works. Arminianism embraces total depravity together with Calvinism, but the key difference is a term theologians call “prevenient grace.” Arminians believe God gives sinners the gift of “prevenient grace”—in short, it is the grace of God that convicts, calls, illumines and enables people to respond to the Gospel. Salvation is all grace; it does not involve the merit of works. Classical Arminianism is not completely contrary to Calvinism; they share significant common ground—especially belief that salvation is wholly of God’s grace, apart from works.
This article is just a preview of one that appears in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of RELEVANT magazine. Not yet a subscriber? Start getting RELEVANT now.
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