Book Write-Up: Against Calvinism, by Roger Olson

Roger E. Olson.  Against Calvinism.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.  See here to buy the book.

Roger Olson is an Arminian theologian.  I decided to read his Against Calvinism after I had read another book that was supportive of Calvinism.  I was curious about how an Arminian like Olson would explain the biblical passages that Calvinists cite in favor of Calvinism.  I also wondered what exactly Arminians’ Scriptural basis was for some of their concepts, such as prevenient grace.

Before I will list my thoughts, allow me to offer a definition of Calvinism.  I define Calvinism as the belief that that God chose who would be saved before the foundation of the world, that Christ died to pay the penalty of sin for the chosen ones, and that God unilaterally changes the hearts of the chosen so that they believe in Christ and live a holy life.  Arminianism is a bit more difficult and complex for me to define in a sentence, but hopefully those reading this post who are unfamiliar with it will get an idea of what it is about in the following discussion.

That said, here are my thoughts about Against Calvinism:

  1.  In looking for a book to read about Arminianism, I was trying to decide between Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism, and Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology.  You know which one I picked, since I am writing this blog post about it!  But I think that I picked the wrong one.  Although the book that I selected is entitled Against Calvinism, my impression as I looked at the Table of Contents was that it would also offer a constructive explanation and Scriptural defense of what Arminianism was about.  To give you a taste of what I am talking about, one of the chapters is entitled “Yes to God’s Sovereignty; No to Divine Determinism.”  There are other chapters in the book that are like that: they affirm a concept, but they reject the Calvinist understanding of it.  That sounds partly constructive to me.  The thing is, Olson did not go into much depth on what Arminianism was, and, for that sort of discussion, he referred readers to his book, Arminian Theology.   So I will be reading Arminian Theology sometime in the future.  It may take a while for me to get to it, though, since I have a bunch of review books on my plate to read!  You may be wondering why I turned Arminian Theology down when I was deciding between it and Against Calvinism.  It just seemed to me that Arminian Theology would be responding to Calvinist misunderstandings of Arminianism: Olson would argue, for example, that Arminians do not believe that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and save themselves, but that God’s grace is necessary to make it possible for people to believe in Jesus.  But I already knew that about Arminians!  I was looking for a Scriptural defense of Arminianism, and an Arminian interpretation of passages that Calvinists like to cite.  But maybe there is more to Arminian Theology than I have assumed.
  2. Against Calvinism did have gems in it, and I will get into that as this blog post progresses.  There were times, though, when I was bored with the book, and the reason was that Olson was essentially making the same objections against Calvinism that I could come up with: that the logical consequences of Calvinism make God responsible for evil, or humans less responsible for their sins (since God contributes to human sin by withholding God’s grace).  Olson’s book can still be a valuable resource to those who are interested in Calvinism, however, because he interacts with what Calvinists have actually said.  Calvinists often complain that they are misunderstood and that their positions are caricatured.  Olson is clear that most Calvinists do not believe that God is the author of sin or that people are not responsible for their sins, but he does maintain that such conclusions are the logical outcome of Calvinist positions.
  3. The book talked about the diversity of Reformed Theology.  Prior to reading this book, I simply equated Reformed Theology with Calvinism.  Olson, however, shows that things are not that simple.  I was confused after reading Olson’s discussion about this topic, for I wondered what exactly made a person a Reformed Christian.  Olson was talking about Reformed Christians who did not believe that God predestined who would be saved and lost.  Well, if they do not believe that, in what sense are they Reformed Christians, and what is the definition of a Reformed Christian, anyway?  The impression that I got in reading Olson is that people are Reformed Christians if they are part of a church that is from that tradition, if they believe in God’s sovereignty (even if they do not go as far as certain Calvinists do in asserting that God plans everything out), and if they interact with Calvinist beliefs (i.e., TULIP).
  4. What particularly intrigued me in reading this book was Olson’s description of how Calvinists wrestle with their own positions.  In the Bible, I see different concepts: that God desires people’s repentance and is disappointed and saddened when they do not repent, and yet that God can play some role in softening and hardening people’s hearts.  How can God be saddened when people do not repent, when God arguably plays a role in people’s failure to repent (not that Olson or Arminians would agree with the latter, but I am setting up a Calvinist dilemma)?  Many Calvinists say that God has different kinds of wills.  That has long struck me as rather silly, for we are dealing with a single being, God, and how can a single being have contradictory wills (without having a split personality, that is)?  Some Calvinists, however, maintain that God has complex motives: God may be saddened when people do not repent, and yet God arranges for them not to repent for his own glory.  God wants to demonstrate God’s justice against sin (a la Romans 9:22-23, depending on how one interprets that passage).  God wants something, but God subordinates that desire to a more important desire.  Olson is not convinced, and I, too, question whether this solves the problem of God having different wills, but I did find such Calvinist attempts to be intriguing, for they attempt to explain how God having contradictory wills could fit into a single, coherent divine personality.
  5. According to Olson, some Calvinists have also wrestled with the Calvinist concept of unconditional election, the belief that God chose who would be saved, without considering the types of people the elect would be.  Some Calvinists do not want to believe that God randomly and arbitrarily picked people, like God’s choice was a lottery, for they believe that God picked whom he picked for a reason.  Olson says that their stance is inconsistent with unconditional election, and yet I wondered: Why not?  Granted, Calvinists do not want to say that God selected those whom he knew would be good people, or whom he knew would believe, for the view of Calvinists is that God saves people by grace, not on account of anything meritorious within them.  Still, does that necessarily mean that God did not choose whom he chose for a reason?  God may choose to save a notorious criminal, for example, because that person’s changed life could give him glory.
  6. This brings me to another question: Should Christians have to choose between Calvinism and Arminianism?  I am not advocating for “Calminianism,” for I tend to agree with critics of that who say that Calvinism and Arminianism have concepts that are mutually contradictory and cannot be logically reconciled with one another (though I have to admit that I have yet to read Calminian books!).  What I am suggesting is that God may work in different ways in different situations.  Maybe there are situations in which God might choose to harden a sinner, or to bend a person’s will towards him.  Does that mean that we have to embrace some full-fledged scenario that says that God decided who would be saved and damned before the foundation of the universe, and that God gave and withheld grace on the basis of that decree, no ifs, ands, or buts?  Not necessarily, I don’t think.
  7. Olson does occasionally present Arminian or revisionist Reformed understandings of biblical passages that Calvinists like to cite.  He refers to the view that Romans 9-11 is about the mission of Israel and the church rather than God picking who would be saved and lost.  Acts 2:23 says that the Jewish leaders killed Jesus by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (to draw from the KJV’s language), and Olson interprets that to mean, not that God caused the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus, but rather that God knew that the Jewish leaders were the sorts of people who would kill Jesus, and God arranged things with that in mind.  Olson referred to a Calvinist who was quoting (albeit without citation) Job 14:5, in which Job affirms that God has determined the days (lifespan) of man.  Olson does not offer an alternative interpretation to the Calvinist’s determinist reading of that passage, but perhaps one could say that Job’s speeches are not divinely-inspired.  On Acts 2:23, I would say that I find Olson’s interpretation to be reasonable.  On Romans 9-11, however, I am more conflicted.  I believe that the passage does relate, in some way, to salvation and not just mission, for the issue of salvation comes up, particularly in Romans 10.  Moreover, Paul could be applying how he believes that God generally operates (i.e., by grace, and by election) to the specific issue of Israel and the Gentiles.  At the same time, the end of the story in Romans 9-11 is about how many non-believing Jews, whom God has hardened, will one day be saved.  Romans 9-11 has a happy ending, which differs from the dismal picture that Calvinism presents.
  8.   I can write a lot more items, but this will be the last one, in terms of this post.  I am unclear about what prevenient grace is, exactly.  There are things that I find convincing and unconvincing about Calvinism and Arminianism.  What I find convincing about Arminianism is that there are biblical passages that suggest (as I read them) that God wants to save everyone, and that God is saddened or angry when people do not repent.  What I find convincing about Calvinism is that there are biblical passages that seem to indicate that God plays a significant role in turning people’s hearts toward him: in opening their eyes, in circumcising their hearts, in giving them hearts that are yielded to him and his law, in transforming them into the kinds of people who understand spiritual things.  I do not entirely understand how Arminians account for the latter set of passages.  Unlike Calvinists, they believe that God’s grace is resistible, but that God attempts to persuades people and makes it possible through his grace for depraved sinners to accept or reject him (whereas, without this grace, they would automatically reject him).  That is prevenient grace.  But how does that work?  Does everyone have it to the same degree?  If so, then why are people in different places spiritually, with some giving thought to spiritual matters, and others giving little if any thought to them (I think of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:3-9 and parallels)?  If not everyone has prevenient grace to the same degree, then how is Arminianism better than Calvinism, if God gives some people spiritual privileges that God does not give to others?  Does everyone automatically have prevenient grace by virtue of being in the human race, or does it occur specifically when God knocks on the door of certain people’s hearts and tries to woo them (say, at a revival meeting), even though there is the possibility that they can say no?  If the latter is the case, again, how is Arminianiam better than Calvinism, if God is choosing whom to woo?  Does prevenient grace entail being emotionally drawn to God, of having warm feelings towards God?  If so, then how could a person say “no” to God in that sort of emotional state?  I think that the Calvinist question of why we prefer what we prefer—-the observation that we have preferences that we did not ask for—-is an excellent point that deserves consideration, even if Olson is correct about the unattractive ramifications of it (i.e., that we are technically not responsible for our own choices).

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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