22 January 2013

Against Calvinism

A review of Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (Zondervan, 2011):


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 somethingvery 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 of 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 reached 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 (see my review of her God and Creation in Christian Theology) and ColinGunton 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.)

God and Creation in Christian Theology

A review of God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? by Kathryn Tanner (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). (Originally written for Science and Christian Belief.)


How is it possible to affirm both absolute divine sovereignty and the existence of genuine freedom within the created order? For many people today this is simply not an option. Theologians and believing scientists alike carefully qualify the concept of divine sovereignty by, for example, referring to God’s respect for the created order. Alternatively, those who are concerned to maintain divine sovereignty at all costs are prepared to allow determinism to creep into their accounts of the created order. Both sides tacitly admit that traditional theological attempts to maintain both were mistaken.

Tanner denies that widespread modern conclusion. She argues instead that traditional theological discourse is coherent so long as it conforms to certain linguistic rules about the transcendence and creative agency of God. The bulk of this book is devoted to uncovering those rules at work in certain traditional theologies. In a concluding chapter she examines the reasons behind the belief that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are incompatible.

The approach adopted in the book is unashamedly linguistic. Tanner readily admits that ‘In studying theology I am concentrating, not on what theologians are talking about, but on the way they say it’ (p. 11). One effect of this approach is a pragmatic view of theology: it exists to help us live life in a ‘Christian’ way rather than to promote understanding of the object of our faith. The association of this semantic ascent with non-referential approaches to religious (and scientific) discourse may well render it uncongenial to conservative Christians (or, practising scientists). However, the linguistic approach does enable her to lay bare a variety of rules of discourse which, taken together, enable the theologian to affirm coherently both divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom.

Turning first to divine transcendence, she examines the difficulties created by this concept in the Hellenistic context of early Christian theology. Transcendence and divine agency appeared to be mutually exclusive. Neo-Platonic efforts to maintain both were only partially successful, resulting in an emanationist understanding of creation. Christian theology had to hold together belief in a radically transcendent God and in his intimate involvement with every aspect of the created order. Tanner perceives two rules of discourse at work in the theologies which developed in the face of this requirement: as regards transcendence, the theologian must ‘avoid both a simple univocal attribution of predicates to God and world and a simple contrast of divine and non divine predicates’; as regards God’s creative agency, we must ‘avoid . . . all suggestions of limitation in scope or manner’ (p. 47). Her argument is amply illustrated with analysis of particular theological cases, notably Aquinas and Barth.

She then repeats this procedure for Christian theological talk about the power and efficacy of creatures. At first sight the rule about divine agency appears to preclude talk about genuine creaturely freedom. However, Tanner maintains that in traditional theological discourse divine and creaturely power were not inversely but directly proportional: ‘If power and efficacy are perfections, the principle of direct proportion requires that creatures be said to gain those qualities, not in the degree God’s agency is restricted, but in the degree God’s creative agency is extended to them’ (p. 85). This fundamental rule is then developed in a variety of subsidiary rules defending the Christian doctrine of creation against tendencies to deism or occasionalism among other errors.

One implication of her theological functionalism and her linguistic bent becomes clear at this point. She argues that the rules she has uncovered are dipolar and, thus, a force for theological diversity. Specifically, Reformed and Roman Catholic theology are two sides of the same coin. They are functional complements arising from differences of emphasis within the rules of discourse for responsible Christian theology as a result of different cultural contexts. This will surely come as a surprise to many theologians on both sides of the divide. I venture to suggest that the reason for their surprise will be that, unlike Professor Tanner, they have not bracketed out the object of theology.

Tanner concludes her study with an analysis of what has gone wrong in the contemporary climate. Why does the suggestion that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are compatible meet with such resistance today? She argues that a complex of ideas and intellectual methods widely regarded as the legacy of the Enlightenment is responsible. The result is an intellectual milieu in which talk of creaturely freedom is most naturally interpreted in a Pelagian fashion while talk of divine sovereignty is understood as advocating divine tyranny. In such a situation, attempts to reaffirm the traditional Christian doctrine of providence are fraught with difficulties.

Once again, Tanner illustrates her analysis with historical examples. Her choice (the theology of Gabriel Biel and the de Auxiliis controversies) is interesting. Implicit in this choice is a denial that the Enlightenment is the chief source of our difficulties. The tendencies which came to fruition then were already at work before the birth of the Reformation.

Finally, Tanner does not leave us without hope. The problems analysed in her final chapter are not intractable. We do not have to give up traditional claims for a transcendent creator God in order to speak to late twentieth century western culture. On the contrary, there are forces within contemporary culture which will enable us to do what Christian theology has always done, namely, ‘fracture anew the language of the ordinary, so that traditional affirmations about God and the world come to hang together intelligibly once again’ (p. 169).

Stylistically, this book is far from easy. She writes in the opaque style beloved of American theologians and she assumes that her readers will have a good working knowledge of Christian theologies of creation. Nevertheless, what she has to say well repays the effort of reading her.

Setting aside my doubts about her theological functionalism and her tendency to focus upon the language of theology rather than its referents, I found this book fascinating. She does not offer us a Christian theology of creation and providence for the end of the twentieth century. However, her analysis of the rules of discourse lying behind traditional claims in these areas ought to be taken seriously by anyone who is working in this field.

21 January 2013

Taking technology too far?

While on my way to the post office this morning, I spotted someone checking their gas meter. Nothing unusual about that except that this person, instead of scribbling the meter reading on a scrap of paper, was struggling to photograph the meter with their smartphone!

If your only tool is a smartphone, . . .

02 January 2013

Quote of the day

I just came across the following passage on Language Log (here), which neatly sums up my philosophy of copy-editing (and which, I think, should be every copy-editor’s new year’s resolution every year):
Copy editors are meant to be gnomes working invisibly below decks to ensure that the engine of prose runs smoothly. They shouldn’t obtrude themselves conspicuously into the middle of a clause, so that the reader has to break off his attention to the writer’s argument and do a little mental stutter-step before he can remark to himself, “Oh, I see—it’s that data-must-be-plural business.” Copy-editors desirous of such notice should try another trade, one where they’re not required to hide their LittB under a bushel.
I wonder if anyone out there has any other new year’s resolutions for copy-editors?