Roger Olson – Against Calvinism

Roger Olson kindly sent me a copy of his book, Against Calvinism, and that seems a good place for me to start my reflections on this blog. Today, I’ll simply look at the “Foreword” and the “Preface.” This may seem  a rather slow start to our encounter with Roger’s book, but it is enough for a blog post.

This is a good time to mention that Roger’s book is paired with Michael Horton’s For Calvinism and to let you know that I have purposely not yet read Mike’s book. I thought it would be most interesting to think through Roger’s proposal without influence from Mike’s thoughts. Later, if Zondervan will favor me with a review copy, I hope to interact with Mike’s thoughts too, as a fellow Calvinist, and see where we converge and diverge.

The Foreword

Mike sets a positive tone for the dialogue that this pair of books offers to us, in his characteristically gracious way. He proposes that Roger’s book “not only merits but requires careful and sympathetic reading by non-Arminians as well” (9) and he concurs with Roger that “Reformed” is increasingly difficult to define these days. In Mike’s view, this confusion is unnecessary, since the Reformed tradition has carefully defined its belief in a set of creeds and confessions, and these should be the criterion for determining whether or not a person’s theological position is Reformed.

Mike agrees with Roger: (1) that “there is no such thing as ‘Calminianism’” (10); (2) that “nothing is gained . . . by misrepresenting each other’s views” (10); (3) that it is important to distinguish between what another person actually believes and what we consider to be the logical entailments of those beliefs (10-11); (4) that contemporary evangelicalism is in a sorry state, within both Arminian and Calvinistic representations; (5) the “bar of Scripture” must be our reference point in all theological debates (11).

The Preface

At the outset, Roger makes some of the points with which Mike has agreed, so I need not rehearse them. (The others will surface later in the book.) He is particularly desirous of representing Calvinism fairly, just as he wants to be fairly represented by Calvinists. He makes clear that, despite the title of his book, he is not against all that Calvinism teaches. He is aware that Calvinism is much more than the “five points” often identified as TULIP, but he finds the middle three (unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace) particularly offensive, and these will be the focus of much of his criticism (13).

Roger explains to us why he is qualified to undertake this critique of Calvinism. He has taught the history of Christian theology for almost 30 years and has studied the works of leading Calvinist theologians, both classic and contemporary. He is more than passingly acquainted with Calvinism and Reformed theology, he is passionate about it, not only to refute it where he finds it seriously wrong, but also because his “study of Reformed sources has greatly enriched” his own theological and spiritual life.

Personal reflections

Like the two authors of these comments, I have been struck by the diversity among preachers, theologians and philosophers who identify themselves as Reformed and who teach and preach in Reformed churches and institutions. I agree with Mike that the confessions of the Reformed tradition serve as an excellent measure in this regard. I have been concerned about Reformed denominations who do not discipline accredited persons whose teaching contradicts the church’s confessional position in fundamental ways. I appreciate and share the Reformed tradition’s commitment to being “reformed and always being reformed,” but I think that this should be worked out in formal revision of their confessional statements. Otherwise, no means exists to effectively pass on to the next generation the beliefs of the church, or to discipline people whose teaching independently revises what the church confesses.

Mike’s description of the confessional nature of the Reformed tradition reminds me of discussions I have had periodically with Reformed church members about the legitimacy of people like me dubbing ourselves “Reformed Baptists.” I have written myself a note to write a post on the question: “Is ‘Reformed Baptist’ an oxymoron?” Stay tuned.

I share with Mike and Roger all five of the agreements that Mike has identified. I am particularly pleased to be listening in on a conversation in which both of the parties concur that “Calminianism” is not a possibility. I have frequently drawn to the attention of my students the great watershed that exists between monergism and synergism, between an understanding of the world as meticulously controlled by God and the world as given significant self-determination because of divine self-limitation. I wrote Providence and Prayer in the hope that I could help people to bring their practice into greater coherence with their theological theory.

For years, I had been frustrated by hearing people pray in ways that I did not believe their theological convictions allowed. Likewise, I have been troubled by regular discrepancies between what people said about God’s providential governance of the world and of their lives, and what they said about the respective roles of God and humans in salvation. I have met a remarkable number of evangelicals who confess God’s meticulous providence in little details of their lives, but who are horrified at the suggestion that God determined whom he would save from their self-destructive sin. They are confident that God has given moral creatures libertarian freedom to determine how they will respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation. But they seem blissfully unaware that God’s self-chosen inability to save everyone whom he is trying to save makes it impossible for him to protect their apartment from thieves every time he would like to do so.

These are ideas that are bound to come up again in future discussion on this blog. But I mention the issue now simply to underline the importance of my agreement with Roger and Mike that theological coherence is essential, and that there is no way to stand on the peak of the mountain that creates the watershed between monergism and synergism, as Calminians attempt to do.

My pilgrimage as a Calvinist

Postmodernity has made us all healthily aware that we each “know” the world from the particular perspective which we bring to it. So, since this post comes very early in the life of my blog, before we get into the meat of Roger’s critique of Calvinism’s serious errors, I’d like to let you know how I came to stand where I do on the matter.

In my first year as a Bible College student, I took a course on “Personal Evangelism,” taught by Donald Oakley, a Calvinist. I had very high regard for him and he made a significant impact on my impressionable 17 year old life. But I still remember the shock I felt when he talked of God having chosen whom he would save. Our role in evangelism was to share the good news concerning Jesus, and God would determine whether or not our witness was effective in leading people to saving faith. I then responded to the doctrine of unconditional election to salvation, and to effectual calling by God through his Spirit, with somewhat the same horror I meet in Roger’s protest now. So, I have some sympathy with Roger, having felt as he does.

A few years later, I was at Wheaton Grad School and preparing for my comprehensive exam in theology, as a New Testament major. Charles Horne was setting the exam and I asked him for recommended reading in preparation. Among the books he suggested was John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. It is a splendid little book and I’m delighted that it is still in print. It was instrumental in a paradigm shift in my theology that was much more widely influential than the one (to accessibilism) which I mentioned in my first post. I found Murray’s exegesis of Romans 8 persuasive, and it pushed me to reread the whole of Scripture to see if that new perspective fit the big picture. That was 44 years ago and there is rarely a day in which I do not see or hear something in Scripture that confirms my belief that God is meticulously in control in the world.

I am, then, precisely the kind of Calvinist that troubles Roger. I remember him asking me years ago, during conversation on a theological listserve, whether I thought Calvinists and Arminians worship the same God. I do, but I grant that we understand him quite differently. In coming weeks, as I work my way through Roger’s book in reflections for your consumption, I look forward to the dialogue between our two different understandings of the God whom we both worship, the one who revealed himself supremely in Jesus.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

7 replies on “Roger Olson – Against Calvinism”

I am very anxious to hear your thoughts on Olson’s book. I am a Calvinist but will admit that Olson’s book rattled my cage like no other.

[…] discussion on monergism and synergism.  If you really want more details of the debate look at the new blog by Terrence Thiessen.  For an Arminian view of some of the basic issues see Ben Witherington’s reflection on the […]

I look forward to your thoughts on Olsen’s book. I have thought of picking up his and Horton’s but I fear that I would be so engrossed that I would not get the rest of my work done. I also concur that it is difficult to meld synergism and monergism into some kind of hybrid. “Chosen but Free” by Norman Geisler seems to be such an attempt although Geisler would call himself a moderate Calvinist (James White gives a very good response in his book “The Potter’s Freedom.”) I also came across “Gripped by the Greatness of God” by James MacDonald that seems to try the same thing in his chapter on the sovereignty of God.

Tony, I haven’t read Chosen but Free, but other things in this line that I have read from Geisler have left me puzzled. I hear a more Thomist than Calvinist approach sometimes, so “moderate Calvinism” is a strange label. It was Thomas who put together divine determination and libertarian free will. I would describe Thomas’s position as “hard compatibilism” as contrasted with the “soft compatibilism” that is more common among Calvinists, in the wake of Edwards’ work on the will. {Check my glossary if you wish.]

Hey Terrence,

When you say: “I found Murray’s exegesis of Romans 8 persuasive, and it pushed me to reread the whole of Scripture to see if that new perspective fit the big picture,” do you mean Murray’s argument for limited atonement based on Roms 8:32?

Thanks, David


My comment regarding Murray’s book had to do with my conversion to a coherent monergistic understanding of salvation, not to limited atonement specifically.

Ah thanks Terrence,

Murray attempts to posit two deductive arguments for limited satisfaction based on Romans 5-9-10 and Roms 8:32. On the surface they are persuasive but they are actually invalid, specifically the one he makes from 8:32. Unpacking the steps of his logic and where he missteps can be complex so most folk miss it.


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