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).
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.