Roger Olson – Against Calvinism 2

Responding to the “flaws” of the new Calvinism

In the first chapter of Roger Olson’s book, Against Calvinism, he explains why he wrote the book now. After many years of struggling with enthusiasts of Calvinism, the rise of the “young, restless, reformed phenomenon,” described by Colin Hansen in 2006 in an article in Christianity Today, and later at greater length in his book, has galvanized Roger’s writing this book now.

Roger sees the roots of the new Calvinism in the work of Loraine Boettner, James Montgomery Boice, R. C. Sporul, John MacArthur and Michael Horton. Their influence was furthered by the renewed interest in the philosophy and theology of Jonathan Edwards, during the last decades of the twentieth century. This looks to Roger like a good time “for someone to point out the flaws and weaknesses in this particular type of Calvinism—the type widely embraced and promoted by leaders and followers of the young, restless, Reformed movement” (22)

What looms largest in Roger’s concerns about popular Calvinism is that he believes it takes too far its celebration of God’s sovereignty, “making God the author of sin and evil” (22). Roger knows that “few Calvinists admit” to this, but he considers it to be an entailment of what they do believe. He finds shocking the teaching that “God causes all calamities and horrors ‘for his glory’” (22). He believes that “someone needs finally to stand up and in love firmly say ‘No!’ to egregious statement about God’s sovereignty often made by Calvinists” because, if taken to their logical conclusion, they render God “morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst” (23). Roger finds it hard, when he encounters this form of Calvinism “to see the difference between God and the devil” (23).

Roger is aware that some Calvinists accuse non-Calvinists of rejecting their theology because of “a latent humanistic love for free will” (23). But it is not humanism that leads Roger and other non-Calvinist evangelical theologians to embrace free will, he does so because: (1) “it is necessary to preserve human responsibility for sin and evil” and, (2) “it is necessary to preserve God from being responsible for sin and evil.”

Roger operates with the four criteria of theological truth defined in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) and, of these, Scripture is “the primary source and norm” (24). So Roger will argue in this book that high Calvinism: (1) “is not the only or the best way of interpreting Scripture,” (2) “stands in tension with the ancient faith of the Christian church and much of the heritage of evangelical faith,” and (3) “falls into contradictions” (24-25).

If a theology is worth believing, we should be able to preach it “standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz” (25), but Roger “could not stand at those gates and preach a version of God’s sovereignty that makes the extermination of six million Jews, including many children, a part of the will and plan of God such that God foreordained and rendered it certain” (25).

My Reflections

A different perspective on the current revival of Calvinism

I was never restless, but I was young when I became a Calvinist. In those days, however, I was not blessed with being part of a large movement. I mentioned in my first post on Roger’s book that a book by John Murray was the Lord’s instrument in my theological conversion. In the years that followed, I have worshipped and ministered in contexts where 5 point Calvinists like me were scarce or completely absent. Providentially, however, God brought a few people into my life who aided me in my early growth in understanding this glorious new theology.

From Wheaton (where I had become Calvinist), I went on to my first teaching position. There I was blessed to be assigned an office next to that of Don Leggett, who was an alumnus of Westminster and the Free University of Amsterdam, and he was a great help in pointing me to literature that was beneficial. I read the Sword and Trowel, a little paper named after one produced by Charles Spurgeon, that continued Spurgeon’s tradition of Calvinistic Baptist theology. Preachers like John Reisinger and Albert Martin assisted me, as did the work of the Banner of Truth Trust which produced a helpful magazine and made grand Puritan writings available at reasonable prices. While ministering at a Baptist church in Michigan as a missionary intern, I was blessed to meet John Blanchard who came over from England to conduct evangelistic meetings in our church. Little by little, without the multitude of resources available to today’s young Calvinists, I matured in my theology.

I mention all this to indicate why I regard the rise of enthusiasm for the doctrines of sovereign grace so differently than Roger does. I am happy for them, and I benefit from the effects of their movement. Like them, I am blessed by the preaching of John Piper and Tim Keller, and by the books whose publication is made possible by the existence of this new market. That being said, it is naturally very painful for me to hear Roger say that he finds the God I believe in to be a “moral monster.” This is not news to me, but it is still not fun. Years ago, Roger asked me if I thought Calvinists and Arminians worshipped the same God, and this book elucidates why he asked (and still asks) that question.

Some shared concerns

While I have good reason for gratitude at what God is doing in these days, I am frequently troubled by attitudes that Roger has met in his encounters with today’s young Calvinists. I’ve seen some of them at work on the web, and I have flinched that lovers of a theology which magnifies God’s grace should be so terribly ungracious in their own dealings with fellow-believers who understand God’s work in the world differently. Thankfully, there are many older Calvinist leaders who are trying to teach younger Calvinists how to communicate truth in love. But some of the leaders make me too feel uncomfortable, particularly when I differ on issues like the continuance of supernatural spiritual gifts, or the means by which God reveals himself savingly, or the proper attitude to Open Theism. Strange as it may seem, I have often been happy that I worked in contexts which took no position on the issues that divide Arminians and Calvinists, rather than in organizations committed to Calvinism. I feel safer. I also like the latitude it has given me, within a clearly evangelical framework, to pursue truth freely.

The core of Roger’s  concern

It is obvious at this early point in Roger’s book that theodicy drives his project. He believes the God of Calvinists to be a moral monster. He knows that Calvinists do not find God so but he believes that we should. If we took our theology to its logical end, we would see that it makes God the author of sin and responsible for evil. Why don’t we? That is what I plan to keep in mind as I continue through this book. Why do I not feel the force of Roger’s criticism, assuming of course that I do not have another paradigm shift before I’m done reviewing this book. After all, it did happen once before in the process of a review, but not on the grand scale that this would entail.

Roger claims that it is not humanism that drives him to embrace free will. I believe him. He is convinced that only if creatures are libertarianly free can they be held morally accountable for their actions and that, if creatures are not libertarianly free, God is responsible for all the sin and evil that is done by those creatures. There is the nub of the matter. Roger is not persuaded that the soft compatibilist account of human freedom, which Calvinists generally affirm, effectively grounds human moral responsibility or absolves God of being responsible for creaturely sin.

It needs to be noted that the nature of human freedom is really not the issue here, divine determinism is. This would become clear if we threw the theology of Thomas Aquinas into the mix, for Aquinas agrees with Arminians that angels and humans are libertarianly free. (This is why I call his position “hard” comnpatibilism.) But Aquinas also agrees with Calvinists that God is meticulously sovereign, and that the will of his eternal purpose is always done, even when creatures sin and evil results.

I confess that I would like to be Thomist. In my experience, libertarian freedom is what westerners think of when they speak of freedom or moral agency. The average North American can’t imagine any other kind of “freedom,” which would qualify for the term. So when synergists insist that only libertarian freedom is authentically free, they have no difficulty getting agreement from non-Christians, or from a great many Christians. It is for this reason that most of the Calvinists I have known, in my non-Calvinist world, have become Calvinists kicking and struggling, as I did. I think it was Timothy George who said that he was “born Arminian, like everyone else.” I suspect he is right. Intuitively, we post-enlightenment westerners believe in libertarian freedom, and it is not easy to teach us otherwise.

For this reason, I would be happy if I found the Thomist construction persuasive but I don’t. I would be almost as happy to be a Molinist, though that would take a somewhat larger leap. They too believe that moral creatures are libertarianly free. Unlike Thomas, however, and like Arminians, they view God’s sovereignty only in general terms. God chose to actualize this particular world from among all the possible worlds but, in this world, creatures libertarianly freely choose their actions. Many Arminians have also adopted Molinism and I assume that Roger finds Molinism much less objectionable than he does Calvinism. But Thomism is surely as objectionable to him as Calvinism is. The critical issue, therefore, is not the nature of human freedom it is the meticulousness of divine control.

If this is a bit too abstruse for you, hang in, the situation should become much more clear to you as we proceed through the book.

Suffice it to say that it will not satisfy Roger if I become a Thomist and agree with him that humans are libertarianly free. In this chapter, he has identifed the nature of human freedom as the critical point, but that is misleading. What really troubles Roger is Calvinism’s belief that every little thing that happens is all according to God’s eternal plan.

I agree with Roger that a theology worth believing should be proclaimable at the gates of Auschwitz. I disagree with him profoundly, however, because I believe that the meticulous sovereignty of God is truth that would have been immensely comforting to those on their way to the gas chamber. They could have comforted one another with the knowledge that sustained Joseph in Egypt. What Hitler and their Nazi jailors intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen 50:20). It was God who had sent Joseph to Egypt (Gen 45:5, 7-8). Now we know why, but we do not yet know why God intentionally permitted the Nazis to commit their horrors. What we do know is that it happened within God’s permission, that he could have prevented it had he chosen to, and that God is good.

I have observed that, in the wake of the holocaust, what evangelicals have come to know as “Open Theism” has been appealing to some Jewish theologians too. We see it in the popular book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Evangelical Open Theists are usually classic Arminians who found even classical Arminianism unpreachable at Auschwitz. They have concluded that it isn’t enough for humans to have libertarian freedom, God also has to be ignorant of what those libertarianly free creatures will do, for him to be absolved of responsibility when they sin. Given Roger’s concern for theodicy, is classical Arminianism going to satisfy him indefinitely. But does even Open Theism get God off the hook? They grant that God can and does take away creatures’ libertarian freedom on occasion, if it is necessary for him to get something accomplished, but this rarely happens. Given that God has retained that prerogative, however, even the Open Theist has to tell the residents of Auschwitz that God could deliver them from Hitler if he chose. Would anything short of Deism fully satisfy Roger’s concern, in the terms that he has put it?

What makes the complaint about Calvinism, in the face of Auschwitz, particularly strange is that libertarian freedom was not what made it impossible for God to prevent the extermination of 6 million Jews. There are countless ways in which God could have ended Hitler’s life which would not have required that libertarianly free creatures bring it about. Could Jews who believed that God had slain 185,000 of Sennacherib’s soldiers in one night, by the angel of the Lord’s action (Isa 37:36), really be convinced by an Arminian that God wanted to save them and that he was doing his best to bring that about, but that he couldn’t because he had given creatures libertarian freedom? I don’t think that would fly any better than the Calvinist’s belief that what happened at Auschwitz was all part of the eternal plan of the good and all powerful God, who could have prevented it if he chose but had reasons for not doing so, of which we are still ignorant. So as one of their fellow  Jews had said, we must “walk by faith not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

These are immensely important issues and I am glad that Roger has put them on the table for us once again. I approach them with some trepidation, but I don’t think we can ignore them.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

5 replies on “Roger Olson – Against Calvinism 2”

Hi Terrance,

I am in the midst of reading Roger’s book and your observation that it is driven by Theodicy is an interesting one. I personally suspect that most people in the current Calvinism vs Arminianism discussions are not looking at the underlying philosophical issues and this is a real issue – it is neither Biblical interpretation or theology that is at issue but the philosophical presumptions about God, suffering and morality.

I find it interesting on the issue of deliverance of the Jews in the Holocaust you raise shared stories of both Jews and Christians from the Old Testament. This makes me now wonder if the coming of Christ has a major impact on how God works today. That is the New Testament stories of deliverance seem to be situated more in people’s choices (libertarian freedom to use your phrase) than the sovereign actions of God in the Old Testament. And then to be Trinitarian how does this relate to the work of the Spirit today (spot my Pentecostalism 🙂 )

Just some thoughts having read your post.

You make an interesting observation David. Here are a few thoughts that have come to mind as I ponder it.

I see no difference between the Old and New Testaments in regard to their teaching and demonstration of God’s meticulous control. Particularly in regard to salvation, the New Testament is even more explicit because it unpacks the atoning work of Christ.

On the other hand, the establishment of the new covenant does make a significant difference in the shape of the narrative concerning God’s covenant people. The breaking down of the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, and the establishment of the church, make a great difference in that God no longer has a nation as his covenant people. So, his acts of deliverance take on a less political character.

Even in the OT, though, God made it clear that he was as much at work in the histories of other nations as he was in Israel’s. He not only brought Israel out of Egypt, he also brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7), and he judges Israel’s neighbors (Amos 1:3—2:5) as well as Israel (Amos 2:6-16).

Yet the life of Jesus becomes paradigmatic for us in the new covenant, and Jesus taught us to anticipate suffering. For us, as for him, the way to glorification is through suffering. Luther identified suffering as a mark of the true church and my Anabaptist ancestors incorporated this in their understanding of Christian discipleship too. Israel’s life as God’s people serves as a material type of spiritual blessings in the new covenant, and this affects the way God’s saving work is most seen. This underlies the great commission and the different way in which the new covenant people serve as God’s witnesses in the world.

Hi Terrance,

No argument about suffering for the new covenant people as God’s witnesses in the world.

However does our suffering mean that other people must suffer? It is one thing to preach our suffering in front of where our Anabaptist cousins have died but another to preach our suffering at the gates of Auschwitz. Do we ignore what the Jewish people have gone through? While quoting Joseph seems appropriate we need to remember that Joseph only said that God meant this for good after the reunion with his brothers. I can not imagine Joseph in jail or Joseph in the pit saying “God means this for good”. Redemption is seen after the fact. While God unfolds the work in Christ, even meticulously, in the New Testament we do not know the story is redemptive until the resurrection. Paul comes closest when he says “all things work together for good” but even he limits that to those who love God.

While this returns to the issue of theodicy it also turns to the issue of who is God present for? As Christians we have no trouble believing God works through other nations and his presence is in/with us through the Holy Spirit but where in Scripture do we see His Holy Spirit comforting people who are estranged from God? If you are not happy with the word estranged please replace it with whatever other term you want to use to describe how God and the Jewish people relate today.

What we have really going on now is arguments over the relationship of the church and Israel and that the God who is meticulously sovereign comforts those who are in an estranged relationship with him by knowing the as-yet-unknown outcome has God’s work in it. This to me does not seem biblical but theodicy based as well. But I may be wrong.

Maybe we should not be so quickly trying to preach in front of Auschwitz but making sure our own house is in order which is true of both you and Roger.

Thank you. David. More nuance is definitely in order.

First as to Joseph, we aren’t told when he came to believe that God had a good purpose in the evil that had been done him by his brothers. He was not blessed with knowing of Rom 8:28-29. I can conceive of him not understanding what good God had intended when he first ended up in the well and then was carried to Egypt and sold. At the point that he was put in prison under false accusation, any good coming out of his situation was still very hard to see. By the time Joseph’s brothers arrived, he had come to see the good that God was bringing out of the injustice he had suffered.

I see no reason to assert as you do, however, that Joseph did not (or could not) have the same theological perspective that Paul had later enunciated so clearly. What makes you sure that Joseph was not a monergist? I assume that he believed that God’s promise to Abraham, confirmed to Isaac and Jacob, and communicated to Jacob’s sons, would surely come to fulfilment. Further, I see no reason to assert that Joseph could not have had a general belief in God’s meticulous providence such that everything that happened in the world was part of God’s eternal plan.

You wrote: “we do not know the story is redemptive until the resurrection.” Really? That God was engaged in a redemptive program was made known all the way back to his words to Eve, while she was still in the garden (recorded in Gen 3:15). I grant that Jesus’ role in that story was not conclusively revealed by God until the resurrection (Rom 1:4), but some had discerned it with eyes of faith before that.

I still agree with Roger that we must have a theology that could be preached at the gates of Auschwitz. Were we to do so, however, the message would need much more nuance than my post indicated. You are right about that. Here, we find a positive example in the preaching of Puritans, or even Spurgeon, with conclusions that applied the truth of a particular Scripture explicitly to different groups of people.

I agree, David, that God only promises that he is bringing good out of suffering to those who are reconciled with him. The point of my earlier post was that God’s people are not the boundary of God’s meticulous providence. In common grace, God sends rain upon the fields of unrighteous farmers, and he may deliver some of them from gross evil doers. He might, indeed, do so as part of his work of drawing some who are alienated from him toward himself. God’s grace often does so. We can, therefore, proclaim to Jews in Auschwitz that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob reigns in all the earth and that he regularly shows grace even to his enemies.

In terms of the whole picture, however, a full proclamation of truth would entail communicating that there is a much greater judgment to be feared, and that it is essential that those who may soon be put to death prepare themselves to meet God. I would not assume, though, that everyone of the 6 million Jews who were exterminated were alienated from God. I don’t know that any of them were believers in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, who died for their sins. But I do believe that the faith of Abraham can still save those to whom God has not revealed the identity of Jesus. So even some who were non-Christian may have been saved and have been among those who come under God’s comprehensive intentions for their good.

Thanks for pointing out the need for more to be said, David.

Hi Terrance,

I appreciate the tone of the conversation. Very nice. You and Dr. Olson is modeling something important.

My take on this is that too often “free will” seems to be talked about as an end in itself. However, maybe the question is not do we have “free will” but rather “can one have love without free will?”. I am sure you’re familiar with the argument so I won’t expand on it here.

Thus, if the earth is God’s “love” project then “free will” is not the end, merely the means. I do think – as will most people, I dare say – that the idea of human reciprocity, personal communication, and sharing between two beings is more or less meaningless without freedom. It is not just a question of “guilt”, is it?

If anyone knew the difference between love and hate, it was probably the people of Auschwitz. At least they understood that there is a clear difference between the two. With Calvinism those distinctions are gone. Love or hate? It’s a bit of a grey area as far as God is involved. All we’re left with is God’s sovereign power and a huge mystery. Is love really hate or is the other way around?

My $0.02 – Let the conversation continue 🙂

– Leo

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