“I believe someone needs finally to stand up and in love firmly say “No!” to egregious statements about God’s sovereignty often made by Calvinists. Taken to their logical conclusion, that even hell and all who will suffer there eternally are foreordained by God, God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst. I have gone so far as to say that this kind of Calvinism, which attributes everything to God’s will and control, makes it difficult (at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil” (p 23).
I’m not one to go out of my way to either belittle or cause a fight between Christians, but the fact that I bought and read this book is a testament to the harsh treatment I’ve received from (at least some) Calvinists. From my understanding of God and scripture, the “new Calvinist” belittling of other Christians and fighting with them publicly is not of Christ. The author of Against Calvinism is like minded, but has had even worse unChrist-like jewels thrown at him than I have, presumably because he is a professor. He had students, anonymously and not, tell him he wasn’t a Christian and that he was going to hell – simply for not believing their interpretation of scripture. Whenever I come across this behavior – insulting people personally instead of addressing the parts of scripture they point to for consideration – it raises a big . . . red . . . flag. (And, of course, it’s a very bad witness for Christ.)
I’ve encountered this with the proponents of post-tribulation rapture as well, and after looking into the scriptural arguments for pre- mid- and post-tribulation raptures, the post-tribs seem to have the least going for them in my view. And so they make personal attacks, saying that those who don’t go along with them are just wimps who can’t stomach the idea of going through the tribulation. Me: “rolls eyes and is reminded of cults.” But “new Calvinists” do the same thing. Instead of making an effort to understand where non-Calvinists are coming from, they make incredibly insulting claims towards them that are very far from the truth. They even have the audacity to call everyone who doesn’t agree with them Arminians (and the name calling has had the impact of turning that theology into a bad label), even though it’s obvious that they don’t understand that theology, and the additional audacity to make it seem that if you are Reformed, you are Calvinist. This whole scenario should make anyone wonder how (or how well) they assimilate their own theology.
I have no interest in man-centered theology; I am intensely interested in worshiping a God who is truly good and above reproach for the Holocaust and all other evils too numerous to mention. Too many Calvinist authors misrepresent non-Calvinist theologies as if they are all man-centered, humanistic, less-than-God-honoring, and even unbiblical without ever acknowledging the problems of their own theology. Too many young, impressionable followers have not yet figured out what those problems are. I write this to help them (p 24).
I will argue throughout this book that high Calvinism is not the only or the best way of interpreting Scripture. It is one possible interpretation of isolated texts, but in light of the whole witness of Scripture it is not viable. Furthermore, I will argue that high Calvinism stands in tension with the ancient faith of the Christian church and much of the heritage of evangelical faith. Some of its crucial tenets cannot be found before the church father Augustine in the fifth century, and others cannot be found before a heretic named Gottschalk (d. circa 867) or from him until Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza (p 24).
As a note, it’s good to keep in mind that both Calvinism and Arminianism are theologies that do not fully reflect their namesakes – they both were altered some after Calvin and Arminius died. Olson doesn’t cover all the aspects of this in his book, as they are not all necessary, but he does show clear evidence that Calvin did not write about, believe in, or adhere to “limited atonement.” This is the “L” in “TULIP,” the acrostic for the five points of modern high Calvinism: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance. “Four point” Calvinists do not adhere to limited atonement, but as limited atonement logically follows from the other four points and would be needed for the whole theological scheme to work, four point Calvinists are criticized both by high Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike for being inconsistent.
As I’ve seen in other written works, Olson points out that many persons who call themselves Calvinists are not actually Calvinists; in particular, many Baptists churches maintain traditional orthodox doctrine that is not Calvinist, yet they still seem to want to call themselves that. There aren’t even any Baptist churches represented in the international organization, World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). It’s good, then, to see that another book I have here, which I’ll write about later (God willing), is written by a Baptist (C. Gordon Olson): Getting the Gospel Right: A Balanced View of Salvation Truth (the cover shows a balanced scale with Arminianism on one side and Calvinism on the other). A small book published by the Calvary Church group also presents a middle-ground approach, which that semi-denomination adheres to: The Five Points of Calvinism: “Weighed and Found Wanting” (George L. Bryson). Many of the books that Roger Olson uses and recommends are listed at the end of this post. Three links for further reading now are also provided.
In the title of this post I wrote that Against Calvinism is a counterpoint book. I used that term because Zondervan published For Calvinism first, and this book is the good or evil twin of that one – but Zondervan doesn’t appear to have a name for these related books (like a counterpoint series or something along those lines). Olson calls his book little, but it’s not, really. It has fairly small print and lots of details, though it is smaller compared with the other Olson book mentioned above (Getting the Gospel Right appears to cover more verses, passages, and various interpretations more specifically).
The point is, it has a lot in it, and it’s been hard to decide what to include in this post. First, I’ll do the obvious thing and briefly outline the main points of high Calvinism, together with counterpoints. Second, I’ll provide statements and/or questions that typical “new Calvinists” make, with Olson’s responses (some truncated). And lastly, I’ll include Olson’s mini instructive scenarios that illustrate the different views of salvation grace as they are found in Semi-Pelagianism (it’s a person’s choice), Monergism (Calvinism – it’s all God’s choice), and Evangelical Synergism (Protestant Arminianism – it’s both a person’s choice and God’s choice). Of course, for the detailed information with all the technical terms, read Olson’s book.
Main Points of High Calvinism with Counterpoints, Briefly Stated
T = Total Depravity. This refers to humans’ total spiritual depravity, or their spiritual deadness. Since we are spiritually dead, God needs to intervene in order for us to be regenerated. Non-Calvinists don’t have much argument with this in general – it is the method and timing of regeneration that is at issue (see the other letters in the TULIP).
U = Unconditional Election. This refers to being elected by God to salvation, and the believer being predestined. All Christians believe in election, but not all believe that God chooses people and passes over other people only because God decided specifically. Calvinists believe people have nothing at all to do with it – they don’t respond to the Gospel themselves – and that it is only God’s choice. This logically leads to the doctrine of double predestination: there are people chosen by God to go to heaven and the others are chosen to go to hell. This abrogates human responsibility and so is deemed immoral by non-Calvinists.
L = Limited Atonement (or particular redemption). Non-Calvinists and some Calvinists (four-pointers) reject the idea of limited atonement outright as being unbiblical. It denies the plain and supported meanings of verses like 1 John 2:2, 1 Timothy 4:10, and others, that convey that Christ’s blood was and is enough for all (if the whole world accepted Christ’s work and God’s gift, Christ’s sacrifice would be enough to cover everyone). Calvinists of course use other verses to support their theology, and try to explain away verses that say that Christ died for all. They claim that God intended Christ’s blood for the elect only; as such, they cannot preach to an open crowd that “Christ died for your sins.” Olson goes into detail about this (in chapter six). As Olson wrote, “To paraphrase John Wesley, this seems to be such a love and compassion as makes the blood run cold” (p 49).
I = Irresistible Grace (or effectual or efficacious grace, or Monergism). This seems to be the most flagrantly or glaringly contradictory claim of the lot. While Calvinists say that God draws the elect – only – and they cannot resist it (it’s irresistible), they also claim (somehow) that it’s not forced on those chosen. Huh? Well yes, in Calvinism it is forced on them. God changes their hearts without their permission; it’s only after God does this that they respond to him, in fact. Since people are dead spiritually and can’t respond in any case, in Calvinism, it is all God’s doing. In non-Calvinistic theologies, God has provided a type of grace that draws all people first – some accept this draw and some reject it. “The ordinary message of the gospel for most evangelical Christians is ‘believe and be saved,’ based on Scripture passages such as John 3:1-21, in which Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again and that belief in him will accomplish that (v. 14). There is really no way to reconcile this passage with belief that regeneration precedes faith” (p 52).
P = Perseverance. This doctrine is the least controversial and is not really discussed much by Olson. He points out that Lutherans and Free Will Baptists reject it, but that Arminius hadn’t made up his mind about it.
Excerpts from “Responses to Calvinist Claims” (pp 188 – 192)
“1. Any other view of God’s sovereignty than Calvinism diminishes the glory of God; only ‘the doctrines of grace’ fully honor and uphold God’s glory. It all depends on what “God’s glory” means. If it means power, then perhaps this is correct. But power isn’t glorious except when guided by goodness and love. Hitler was powerful but obviously not glorious. Jesus Christ revealed God as ‘our Father’ and therefore as good and loving. In fact, high Calvinism (TULIP), wrongly labeled ‘the doctrines of grace’ by Calvinists, diminishes God’s glory by depicting him as malicious and arbitrary. Furthermore, if Calvinism is correct, nothing can ‘diminish the glory of God’ [including real or perceived views of him] because God foreordained everything for his glory.”
“2. Non-Calvinist theologies of salvation, such as Arminianism, make salvation dependent on good works because the sinner’s decision to accept Christ is made the decisive factor in his or her salvation. It seems more the case that Calvinism makes salvation dependent on good works or something good about person elected to salvation, or else how does God choose them out of the mass of people destined for hell? It’s either something God sees in them, or else God’s choice of them is arbitrary and capricious. Furthermore, Arminian theology does not make salvation dependent on good works; all the ‘work’ of salvation is God’s. The sinner is enabled to repent and believe by God’s prevenient grace and the bare decision to accept God’s salvation is not a good work; it is simply accepting the gift of grace. . . . ”
“5. Only Calvinism can account for God’s sovereignty over nature and history; unless God foreordains and controls every event, down to the smallest puff of existence and down to every thought and intention of the mind and heart, God cannot be sovereign. This is not what ‘sovereignty’ means in any human context. A human sovereign is in charge but not in control of what goes on in his or her realm. God can steer the course of nature and history toward his intended goal and assure that they reach it without controlling everything. God is like the master chess player who knows how to respond to every move his opponent makes. There is no danger of God’s ultimate will not being done. In fact, Calvinism cannot explain the Lord’s Prayer that teaches us to pray, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ which implies that God’s will is not already being done on earth. According to Calvinism, it is!”
“7. Reformed theology, Calvinism, is the only solid foundation for conservative, biblical Christian theology. All other approaches, such as Arminianism, a man-centered theology, inevitably lead to liberal theology. Arminianism is not a ‘man-centered theology’ but a God-centered theology. It is driven entirely and exclusively by a vision of God’s unconditional goodness and love. The one main reason Arminians and other non-Calvinists believe in free will is to preserve and protect Cod’s goodness so as not to make him the author of sin and evil. Calvinism makes it difficult to recognize the difference between God and the devil except that the devil wants everyone go to hell and God wants many to go to hell. Arminian theology does not lead into liberal theology. If anything, Calvinism does that. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology, was a Calvinist! He never even considered Arminianism; he moved right from conservative, high Calvinism to universalism while holding onto God’s meticulous providence even over evil. Most of the nineteenth-century liberal theologians were former Calvinists who came to abhor its vision of God and developed liberal theology without any help from classical Arminianism. . . . ”
8. God has a right to do whatever he wants to with his creatures and especially with sinners who all deserve damnation. His goodness is shown in his merciful rescue of some sinners; he owes nothing to anyone. Those he passes over deserve hell. While it may be true that everyone deserves hell, although even many Calvinists hesitate to say that about children, God is a God of love who genuinely desires all people to be saved, as the New Testament clearly testifies in 1 Timothy 2:4 ‘who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’ There is no way to get around the fact that ‘all people’ means every single person without exception. The issue is not fairness but love. A God who could save everyone because he always saves unconditionally but chooses only some would not be a good or loving God. He would certainly not be the God of 1 Timothy 2:4 and similar passages.’
“11. Non-Calvinist theologies such as Arminianism believe in something that is impossible: libertarian free will–belief that free decisions and actions simply come from nowhere. Calvinism and some other theologies, as well as many philosophers, know that ‘free will’ simply means doing what you want to do and people are always controlled by their strongest motives, so being able to do otherwise–libertarian free will-is an illusion.” [Apparently, these people never make tough decisions based on multiple choices, like over which house or car or whatever to buy, where to go to college, which job to take, etc. etc.] “If ‘free will’ only means doing what you want to do even though you couldn’t do otherwise, how is anyone responsible for what they do? If a murderer, for example, could not have done otherwise than murder, then a judge or jury should find him not guilty–perhaps by reason of insanity. Moral responsibility, accountability, and guilt depend on ability to do otherwise–libertarian freedom. The Calvinist view of ‘free will’ isn’t really free will at all. . . .”
Mini Scenarios that Illustrate Different Views of Saving Grace (pp 172 -173)
First, imagine a deep pit with steep, slippery sides. Several people are lying broken and wounded, utterly helpless [reflecting our fallen and depraved nature], at the bottom of the pit.
- Semi-Pelagianism says that God comes along and throws a rope down to the bottom of the pit and waits for a person to start pulling on it. Once he does, God responds by yelling, “Grab it tight and wrap it around yourself. Together we’ll get you out.” The problem is, the person is too hurt to do that, the rope is too weak, and God is too good to wait for the person to initiate the process.
- Monergism says God comes along, throws a rope down into the pit, and climbs down it, wrapping it around some of the people and then goes back out of the pit and pulls them to safety without any cooperation. The problem is that the God of Jesus Christ is too good and loving to rescue only some of the helpless people.
- Evangelical synergism says that God comes along and throws a rope down and yells, “Grab onto it and pull and together we’ll get you out!” Nobody moves. They are too wounded. In fact, for all practical purposes they are “dead” because they are utterly helpless. So God pours water into the pit and yells, “Relax and let the water lift you out!” In other words, “Float!” All a person in the pit has to do to be rescued is let the water lift him or her out of the pit. It takes a decision, but not an effort. The water, of course, is prevenient grace.
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Thanks for reading, and let me leave you with some verses worth considering.
“My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13).
““My [Jesus’] prayer is not for them alone [those living at that time]. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23, emphasis added).
With how divisive and divided Christ’s church is today, how can those looking in from the outside see that God sent Christ? Can our lack of unity, and sometimes vicious acts toward one another, actually imply that God cannot accomplish what Jesus prayed for (so they are basically false)? I don’t know the answer for sure, since it’s all too obvious that Christians have chosen men to be leaders in the faith over Christ as the head; I don’t know how that can change in actual application. And, considering what Paul had said (in the quote above), it seems it may be true that the great apostasy already had started in the early church. Pray for more unity as well as guidance from the Holy Spirit for all.
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For further reading on this subject right now, go to Molinism vs Calvinism, at Reasonable Faith (if you read this to the end then know, too, that some Calvinists have altered Molinism to fit into Calvinism more, and Olson has a small section on this in his book), Confessions of an Arminian Evangelical, and Calvin’s Comeback? The Irresistible Reformer (in The Christian Century – you need to register to read it).
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Recommended readings from “Against Calvinism” (in alphabetical order by title, excluding The and A):
Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Roger Olson, InterVarsity Press 2006).
The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (David Bentley Hart, Eerdmans 2005).
The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit (James Daane, Eerdmans 1973).
God’s Universal Salvific Grace (Vernon C Grounds, Bethany 1975).
The Great Debate: Calvinism, Arminianism, and Salvation (Alan PF Sell, Baker 1982).
Is God to Blame? (Gregory A Boyd, InterVarsity Press 2003).
A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God (E Frank Tupper, Mercer Univ. Press 1995).
The Transforming Power of Grace (Thomas Oden, Abingdon Press 1993).
What the Bible says about God the Ruler (Jack Cottrell, Eerdmans 1991).
Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism (DL Allen and SW Lemke, editors, Broadman & Holman 2010).
Why I Am Not a Calvinist (J Walls and J Dongell, InterVarsity Press 2004).