Against Calvinism 3 – Reformed Diversity

Reformed Revisionists

In the second chapter of Roger Olson’s book, Against Calvinism, he asks: “Whose Calvinism? Which Reformed Theology?” This continues his clarification of what Calvinism he is criticizing and what particular Reformed theology he is against. His major emphasis here is on the diversity within Reformed theology: “When people say to me that someone is theologically Reformed, I have little idea what they mean” (27). What “the new, youthful Calvinists” usually mean by “Calvinist” is the “strong sense of belief in the whole TULIP system of soteriology” (27). On the other hand, in some Baptist circles it means no more than that the person believes in eternal security.

An even greater contrast appears when one considers the work of theologians prominent within the Reformed movement globally. Roger writes, for instance, of Alan Sell, who was theological secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches but who “expressed a revisionist perspective of Reformed theology that Calvin would probably not recognize as continuous with his own thought, especially in the areas of God’s sovereignty in history (providence) and salvation (predestination).” Sell “repeatedly rejects any form of divine determinism . . . and affirms the limited free will of human persons.” But Sell “also attributes all the ‘work’ of salvation to God and none to human beings.” Roger opines that Sell “would no doubt point to that as evidence of his Reformed leanings.” But Roger discerns a problem here because “Arminius affirmed the same thing, as have all classical Arminians since” (31).

Roger proceeds to describe similar revisionist work by G. C. Berkouwer, Hendrikus Berkhof, James Daane, Adrio König and Donald McKim. In conclusion, Roger makes three theses about the meaning of “Reformed”:  (1) it is an “ideal type of Protestant theology tied to a historical branch of the Protestant Reformation” stemming primarily from the efforts of Zwingli and Calvin, (2) it has a common emphasis on God’s supremacy and sovereignty but “this is interpreted in different ways,” so that “Reformed” is not synonymous with TULIP, and (3) the Reformed faith is confessional in that it “tends to look back in some way to certain Reformed confessions of faith such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession of Faith” (37).

The purpose of this review of diversity within the Reformed community globally is to make clear that Roger is “not against Reformed faith in general,” but to what he calls “a radical Reformed theology” (37). He will begin to expound that perspective in chapter 3, and I will move on to that in my next post, after brief personal reflection on this chapter.

 Personal Reflections

 Reformed diversity

Given the great diversity within the Reformed Church world, I appreciate Roger’s care in identifying the particular form of Reformed theology which is the object of his passionate protest. I confess to being highly puzzled by what I see in the Reformed sphere, but I have never been a member of a church identifying itself within that sphere, so I will venture no comments on its validity. When I have referred to my theology as “Reformed,” in my books, I have had in mind the orthodox expression of classical Reformed theology whose continuity with the theology of Zwingli and Calvin is obvious, particularly in regard to an understanding of God’s meticulous, determining sovereignty in all of history, especially in the saving of sinners. Whereas Michael Horton represents this theology as a Reformed church member, I do so as a Baptist who differs from the Reformed tradition at the point of its ecclesiology. For that reason I might be better to dub myself a Calvinist than “Reformed” in my theological perspective. In any event, I affirm in common with Horton the particular aspects of theology to which Roger objects.

 Logical entailment

I will make just one other observation, growing out of Roger’s assertion that all classical Arminians attribute “all the ‘work’ of salvation to God and none to human beings” (31). For this I am profoundly grateful, and it explains why I don’t view evangelical Arminianism to be a dangerous threat. I feel none of the passionate objection to Roger’s Arminianism that he feels to my Calvinism, and I have laboured alongside Arminians joyfully, in both church work and theological education. I want to comment, however, on the issue of entailment from theological affirmations.

In the chapters I treated in my first two posts in this series (links below), Roger stated baldly his belief that the God of traditional Calvinist theology is a moral monster whom he could never worship. He knows that Calvinists explicitly deny that their theology portrays God as the responsible author of sin and evil, but he believes that we should. That is a logical entailment, he proposes, of what we do affirm concerning God’s meticulous sovereignty. I have exactly the same problem when I read statements such as the one I quote above.

The most fundamental problem I see with the Arminian account of salvation is that the death of Jesus saves no one. The death of Jesus is necessary for anyone’s salvation, but it is not sufficient. Whether or not a person is saved is not determined by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He died for everyone in exactly the same way, with precisely the same intention. But his death is only made effective by the libertarianly free response of a human being. Thankfully, Arminians believe that response to be possible only because of prevenient grace. But that grace itself is not sufficient. Like the death of Christ it is given to everyone, yet there are many who are not saved by it. In Arminian soteriology, we have a perspective in which God is doing his utmost to get everyone saved, but whether or not he succeeds is determined by human individuals.

Like other Calvinists, I have been unable to square this theology with Ephesians 2:8-9. It looks to me as though, when I meet someone who has been saved by the death of Jesus, I should glorify God for making that possible, but I should also congratulate that individual for having done what was lacking in all that God had done, without which none of God’s work would have brought about salvation. Roger has assured me, in prior correspondence, that my perception is invalid because the human contribution is infinitesimal compared to what God has done by his Spirit (prevening grace) and in Christ (atoning death). I am delighted to hear him say so, but the fact that it was the human act of faith that decided that this person would be saved by God, whereas another would not, appears to me to be worthy of recognition. They were wise where unbelievers were foolish. Why would I not congratulate them for that wisdom?

Precisely because (and so long as) evangelical Arminians do not take credit for having contributed to their salvation, I do not find their soteriology dangerous. But I do find it incoherent. This is where my response to Arminianism differs from Roger’s response to Calvinism. He knows that we do not believe that God is the responsible author of sin, but he finds our theology morally reprehensible, on account of its incoherence.

How does this situation look to you?

Earlier posts in this series:

Part 1

Part 2



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

2 replies on “Against Calvinism 3 – Reformed Diversity”

Thank you for the interchange that makes it possible to say that Arminians are not dangerous, people whose ideas would destroy the historic Christian faith. In our conversations I have always found that same willingness to listen and respond carefully.

So far as Eph 2 goes — I hear the insistence that “by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves — it is God’s gift” means that even the choice to accept the gift is ruled out because that would be a “work”, and human works are not part of the salvific process. My sense is that this position pushes human language too far. Paul emphasizes the supremacy of God’s grace. On this we agree. He also notes the importance of human response (why else does he say “through faith”?). I think we agree here as well, although we may disagree on what “faith” means. But the step to turn this act of accepting God’s gift into a work that earned the gift makes little sense to me. That step looks to me like a case of making ordinary language function as though Paul had been constructing a logical case the way that we might today. But he was a Pharisee, trained in a quite different theological system. He wasn’t trying to fit our categories. So I just don’t see that the verse bears decisively on either side of our discussion.

I note your point that Olson tries to force the Calvinist position to what he sees as its logical conclusion. This action also doesn’t work for me. I must listen to you and other Calvinists define what you mean by the statements you make. If I don’t see how we are truly free given your descriptions, but you affirm that we are truly free, not simply automatons, then I may say that I don’t get your description. But that’s as far as I can go. I can say why I don’t get it; but if you affirm with me (as we did above) biblical positions on which we agree, I see no reason to find Calvinism (or Reformed theology) as dangerous as Olson says.

The tendency to suggest that the position we do not hold is particularly dangerous can shut down debate and discovery of new truth. I would rather see the discussion continue — and affirm your desire for a similar openess. Would that all Reformed theologians were so open to truth they disagree with! (And all Arminians too.)

Daryl, I found your comments encouraging. You are one of my Arminian friends whom I would hate to alienate by our theological differences. You also confirm my sense that the faith (theological and experiential) of both Arminians and Calvinists is thoroughly orthodox.

This reminds me of a comment I sometimes make that has intrigued some Arminians on previous occasions. As a Calvinist, I do believe that God is meticulously sovereign. Given that orthodox Arminians and Calvinists are both sincerely seeking to know God and to serve him properly, I have concluded that it is God’s will that we should both exist. I expect that this will always be so. The differences between orthodox monergists and orthodox synergists are grounded in differences in our understanding of God’s revelation, even though we are both committed to its truthfulness. (Hence Christian Smith’s conundrum in The Bible Made Impossible. But, contra his own conclusion, the Roman Catholic magisterium is not the answer!) I have known too many godly Arminians to suggest that they are suppressing God’s truth in unrighteousness so that their theological position arises out of moral perversion. It seems to me that the attitude of many of my fellow Calvinists toward Arminians communicates precisely that negative judgment, and it grieves me to hear it. In his blog posts Roger Olson has told of Calvinist students who actually informed him that he was not a Christian!

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