Olson’s “no” to double predestination


In the fifth chapter of Against Calvinism, Roger Olson states his objections to the Calvinist understanding of election, and he outlines the classic Arminian alternative. In this post I will deal with his objections, and then I will look at his alternative in a later post.

Olson’s representation of the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election of individuals

In his reading of Calvinist theologians (Calvin, Boettner, Palmer, Sproul, Piper, Edwards), Roger hears this:

  • God sovereignly chooses to save some sinners, and he chooses to “leave some of Adam’s posterity in their sins” (105, citing Boettner), for which they deserve to be punished, thus “passing them by” (106, citing Palmer) in regard to his mercy, which no one deserves. Thus, God does not force people to sin, but his permitting them to sin is efficacious and no less certain than the salvation of the elect. In the just condemnation of unrepentant sinners, God is glorified.
  • There is an asymmetry between God’s relationship to saving belief, which God effectuates, and unbelief, which God wills to permit, without delighting in it (106).
  • Some Calvinists (e.g. Palmer) concede that this position is “illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical and foolish,” but it is part of the secret counsel of God, which remains a mystery to us (106-07). Others deny that their theology is illogical, but they affirm that it is a mystery, and that we dare not question God’s goodness on account of our ignorance.
  • Many Calvinists find the key biblical statement of unconditional individual election and reprobation in Romans 9.
  • Texts such as John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which speak of God’s love for “the world” and his desire that “all” should be saved, are interpreted as not referring to each and every individual, or as indicating that God does love all his creatures, but that he does not love them all in the same way. God’s motives and feelings are complex (119, citing Piper), and he wills good and evil in different ways.

Olson’s objections to double predestination

Olson denies the coherence of single predestinationism, since God’s intentional passing over of certain individuals can not be deemed “merely negative and passive” (109). We are now familiar with the root of Roger’s objection to Calvinism: he see it as a denial of God’s goodness, love, and justice, because incompatibilism is incoherent. If God has eternally determined every detail of the course of human history, including both salvation and sin, then responsibility for sin and evil ultimately rests with God, who is thereby made evil. “There is no human analogy for this ‘goodness.’ Any human being who had the ability to rescue a large number of people from a terrible calamity but rescues only some would never be considered good or loving or just” (110). Roger’s rejection of incompatibilism leaves him convinced that there is no way in which sinners can justly be held accountable for their sin and unbelief, within a Calvinist determinism. This makes a divine decree of reprobation an evil act.

Roger objects to the misreading of Romans 9, a text which (he says) focuses on God’s choice of the people of Israel, and of the individuals through whom that people would come. This is, therefore, not a passage teaching election and reprobation of individuals.

My reflections

Because Scripture speaks much of God’s gracious election, but speaks of the condemnation  of sinners in terms of their own acts, rather than of God’s choice, I am a single predestinarian. I believe that we do best to speak in biblical terms of reference, but I grant that the difference in outcome is minimal when viewed from the perspective of Arminianism.

Roger’s incompatibilism leads him to criticize Calvinist teaching by describing God’s relationship to creaturely wrong-doing in a way that distorts the Calvinist framework. A case in point is seen in the discussion of Sproul’s example of George Washington’s sentencing of Major Andre for his treasonous acts, despite the compassion Washington felt for him and his prerogative to pardon him. Roger writes: “Who would consider Major Andre deserving of death if he were controlled by someone else?” (120). This portrayal of the manner in which God’s meticulous sovereignty operates in the free acts of sinful creatures shows a regrettable inability to work from inside the framework which Roger is criticizing; it assumes precisely the coercion of sinners that Calvinists deny. (I outlined my own compatibilist framework in a previous post.)

Roger asserts that non-Calvinists worry that the logic of Calvinism exalts “God’s glory over and even against his love” (114). He prefers to “put it the other way around and say that in light of Christ’s self-emptying (Phil 2), God can limit his glory (power, majesty, sovereignty) but not his love (because God is love; see 1 John 4!)” (114). I question this reading of the incarnation. In it, the Word limited the manifestation of his glory, and he voluntarily chose to be dependent upon the Spirit for acts of power, in his Messianic mission as the servant of God who came to do the Father’s will. More importantly, however, there is never any conflict between God’s being love and his acts of self-glorification. God graciously gives to all of his creatures much better than they deserve, but his not distributing his grace to all in exactly the same degree or manner is unobjectionable, by the very definition of “grace.” When sinners justly experience God’s wrath, they experience his love in the way appropriate to sinners (a concept I owe to Luther), but there too God is glorified, without his love or goodness being in any way impugned.

Roger posits that God’s choosing to save some, but not all, sinners “has to be arbitrary if it is absolutely unconditional” (115, [emphasis mine]). This is a fascinating appeal to a classic Calvinist objection against human libertarian freedom! In my post on the nature of God’s freedom, I explained why I have stopped using that Calvinist move, and I suggest that Roger abandon it here for the same reason. As an Arminian, he would deny the arbitrariness of libertarianly free human decisions, and he should apply that same reasoning to God’s libertarianly free choice of some to salvation. I grant that we do not know God’s reason for not having chosen to save all sinners but we know him to be wise as well as good. We also know that, precisely because grace is, by definition, undeserved, God was under no obligation to be gracious in the same way or degree to everyone. There we have to rest, in hope that when we know God more fully in our glorified state, we will understand his wise rationale better and glorify him more intelligently. In the meantime, I am grateful that we have grounds for hopefulness that God has chosen to save most of the human race.

Roger is correct  in regard to Romans 9. That text is speaking of historical, not eternal, election. Numerous other texts could be cited which speak of God’s election of Israel and then of the church as corporate entities, for service in God’s redemptive program. God’s intent was not to make those covenant communities the boundaries of his saving work, and we are never told in Scripture that God had not chosen Esau (or Ishmael, for that matter) to eternal salvation. (For more on this you can see my earlier post on gospel exclusivism and accessibilism relative to God’s covenantal program.)

While I grant that there is an elective work of God that is corporate, I don’t think that this tells the whole story of God’s gracious choosing. (I will take up the rest of the story later, in my response to Roger’s Arminian doctrine of election.) It is worth noting, however, that even corporate election poses a problem to classic Arminianism’s thesis that grace is competely evenly distributed. The prophets regularly reminded Israel that God’s choosing them as the people who would be “his people” and to whom he would be “their God,” whom he would love in a unique and special way, was unconditional. It was not a choice of every individual Israelite (or every member of the church which is the visible body of Christ) to salvation. Nevertheless, for Israel, it was a great privilege to be God’s special people in the world, through whom their Messiah and the world’s Savior would come. That it is not a privilege God gave to any other nation, and his choosing them for that honor had nothing to do with them. It was sheer grace. In short, God’s love and his grace have never been evenly distributed in the manner Arminianism insists it must be, for God to be truly good, loving and just to all his creatures.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3,  Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8


By Terrance Tiessen

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

3 replies on “Olson’s “no” to double predestination”

If there is unconditional election why would there not be some proportionality worldwide as to who is a believer and who is not? Would god elect only people in Korea and none in Saudia? thanks

Olsen and many other Arminian theologians do not understand equal ultimacy. Robert L. Reymond, insists on equal ultimacy of election and reprobation in the divine decree, though he suggests that “we must not speak of an exact identity of divine causality behind both.” [A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (2nd ed., Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 360]. This is the issue. If the condition of the fallen is that he has a desperately wicked heart, is by nature a child of wrath, does not seek for God, does no good, is shut up under sin, and is enslaved to various lusts, then it is not necessary for God to intervene in order to bring about their damnation, like it is necessary to intervene in the salvation of the sinner. There is not an equal divine causality behind both. He is not active in causing their damnation. Instead, all God would have to do is leave them alone and let them go their natural way. The reprobates foreordination to wrath is passive in nature (unlike God’s active predestination of his elect where he needs to overcome their sinful nature).Therefore, in the Reformed perspective, equal ultimacy is not true. It is not biblical. God does not cause anyone to sin (which you acknowledged), nor does He cause them not to receive Christ, nor does He cause them not to believe. Instead, He lets them go their natural way which is in rebellion and denial of God. He simply does not intervene to save them. In the context of Reformed theology, God intervenes to save the elect, but He does not intervene to damn the reprobate. If He intervened to damn the reprobate in the same manner he intervenes to save the elect, then equal ultimacy would be true. God does predestine people to salvation and thereby actively save them (Acts 13:48; John 1:13), but He does not predestine people to damnation and actively prevent them from believing and also causing them to sin by rejecting Him.

Nicely put, Rick. I have Reymond’s work on my shelf, but I have not had time yet to read through it. That treat remains.

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