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.)

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