Roger E. Olson on Calvinism and Arminianism

 Anyone interested, it is here:

 RE Olson’s blog:

 Here is some of my comments/questions (in brackets the approximate time in the interview the topic were discussed):

1. Olson pleads for both sides to ‘understand’ the other side first, before you say ‘I disagree’ (55/56min). I believe we can all ‘agree’ on that (Jam.1:19) !  Olson also mentions that one must read the best of the other side (on the Arminian side today: Olsen and Thomas Oden?, although the latter would not classify himself as an arminian, but is one, according to Oden), and not the ‘folklore’ (caricature?) views that are popular today in mass media.  

He says that he has studied Calvinistic author’s themselves thoroughly for decades, but the same could not be said of calvinists (Question: is this true or not – who is currently the foremost calvinistic scholar(s) today who have studied Arminius and the arminian theologians themselves through history, and then critiqued them, or do we only read secondary sources)?

2. Olsen in essence does a good job distinguishing between Calvinism and Arminianism, referring to the tulip acronym, and explains that the main differences are among:

– ‘unconditional vs conditional election’,

– ‘irresistable vs resistable grace’ and

– ‘limited vs unlimited atonement’.

3. There are also differences within the calvinistic camp (for instance, supra vs infra, four points vs five points, etc), and so there are among the arminians: many accept or reject the label, whether they are really arminians or not.  He distinguish between ‘classical arminians’ (Arminius, Wesley, himself, etc.) and ‘extreme arminians’ (pelagians/semi pelagians = Finney). 

4. He does not see Open Theism as a heresy, but do mention that it does not have historical roots, and that ‘he is not there’. He calls ‘open theism’ = arminianism on steriods ! … I had a good laugh here. 

5. The essential difference between the two systems (25/27th min etc): it is all about the character of God – Calvinism focuses on sovereignty, Arminianism on the love of God (here I thought Oden was on his weakest, see below). He and the presenter argues that (as a critique against Calvinism): “how can a sovereign God who ‘can’ save all, actually do not in His power save all?” That, according to them is the foundational weakpoint of Calvinism, but they do acknowledge that Arminianism also have their problems/mysteries (41/42min).

Oden thinks Arminianism’s main question/problem which they will not be able to answer in this life, is: “How God knows beforehand what people are going to do freely?” (The reason for this moral problem, I think, is: If God knows beforehand what all people would choose, did He then not also foreordained it by His sovereign will? And if He did, why did He not, in His love foreordained that all persons will freely chose Him?)  By the way, he says Open Theism main problem/question they have to explain, is: what to do with the problem of evil ?

6. He believes modern day calvinists (like Piper, Sproul, ‘restless and reformed’ group, etc) represent (what I would call) ‘moderate calvinism’ whom he respects greatly although he of course disagree with them on the topic itself. I were glad to hear he acknowledges that the doctrine of predestination is not a reason for not doing evangelism and missions (because, like he explained, Calvinists believe: 1. God decrees the end (salvation) and the means (gospel preaching, missions, evangelism), and, 2. God commands the Gospel must be preach to all, and so we obey Him.  To add to this, we Calvinists would say no evangelism or missions will be successful, if it were not for the doctrine of predestination (Acts 13:47,48).   Oden do strongly reject ‘extreme Calvinism’, which in his eyes is ‘double predestination = supralapsarianism‘ (he does not mention any names here).  Here, it seems, is the main enemy of Arminianism for Olson, as he confirms it here :

“Above all I want to make clear that I admire and respect my Calvinist friends and colleagues. We disagree strongly about some points of theology, but I hold them in high esteem for their commitment to the authority of God’s Word and their obvious love for Jesus Christ and his church as well as for evangelism.

However, I do not admire or respect John Calvin. I have been told that he should not be held responsible for the burning of the heretic Servetus because, after all, he warned the Spanish doctor and theologian not to come to Geneva and he urged the city council to behead him rather than burn him. And, after all, Calvin was a child of his times and everyone was doing the same. Nevertheless, I still struggle with placing a man complicit in murder on a pedestal.

Furthermore, I find Calvin’s doctrine of God repulsive. It elevates God’s sovereignty over his love, leaving God’s reputation in question. What I mean is that Calvin’s all-determining, predestining deity is at best morally ambiguous and at worst morally repugnant.”

My question/comment here, about the use of terms in the debate (which I acknowledge, are sometime confusing), is: ironically, if I read the sources correctly, Calvin himself (see Institutes, 3:24 and ‘Calvin’s Calvinism’) and the likes of Beza, Perkins, Gomarus, Maccovius, Voetius, Comrie, Kuyper, Kersten, Steenblok, Hoeksema, etc. (Concise Reformed Dogmatics, Van Genderen & Velema, 2008: 228) were all supra’s (could Owen, Zanchius and Rutherford also be added?), and are therefore in Olsen’s eyes the ‘extreme calvinists’. 

Now, since Calvin’s name is used for ‘calvinism’, and he were a supra, I think it would be better for Olsen in distinguishing between different groups within calvinism, to name the original calvinists (supra’s?) plainly ‘Calvinists’ (the original historical confessional calvinists and Dordt and Westminster who followed), and call the later Calvinists, esp. of the 20 century (who maybe have watered down the original calvinism?) ‘extreme calvinism’ (in the sense of disagreeing or moving away from original calvinism?), or ‘moderate’ calvinism.  (ps. Yes, I acknowledge that although many were supra’s at Dordt, the Canons themselves were drawed up in a infra order and way (a argument which I think are not too convincing, in the light of chapter 1.7 and 15, but that is another article).

7. I must acknowledge, that although one could differ (even strongly) with Olsen (and the presenter), they were gracious in representing the calvinistic side, acknowledging their own ‘arminian goggles’ through which they view and discuss the topic. In answering one question on some ‘nasty calvinists’ (my own words), Olsen immediately said that one meets some arrogant folks in both camps, and therefore this in itself should not be a strong argument for or against a certain view. See this picture to explain it all : -)

8. Olsen’s mentions many things both groups agrees on, like the Trinity, Scriptures are infallible, Jesus’ Deity, etc., and acknowledge that both views have their problems and mysteries, but in his view Arminianism is the best or most biblical and logical of the two views, and also in line with the early church’s views on salvation, as Oden confirms with his studies on the early church fathers, especially the Greeks (and which the calvinist would say about their own view too, see Van Til’s and Spurgeon’s comments in the line of ‘Calvinism/Reformed Christianity being the truest and best expression of the Biblical faith’).   

9. I really think Olson want to follow the way of Rom.12:18 and 2 Tim.2:24 in debate and discussion between calvinists and arminians (so should we), and he hopes that both groups as ‘evangelicals’ could work together on what they agree.  But, irrespective of his (and our) good intentions, these two theological systems are incompatible and in contrast with each other, even in the moderate forms of both. 

This is seen in the last minutes, when Oden actually gives himself away in the 55/56 min etc (the whole interview is an hour long), with the following comments (together with the presenter): in the calvinistiew view, the difference between God and the devil seems to blur, because the devil wants no one to be saved, and God (according to the calvinistic view) only wants some to be saved.  In contrast, Olson believes the arminian God (at least) wants ‘all’ to be saved, and that is true ‘love’. 

So far Olsen’s interview.

Why can the arminian God of ‘love’ then not save all ?

Because in Olsen’s own words, somewhere in the interview, “God left it to us” and “it is (all) up to us”, the latter which he said after he explained that God saves the church as a unit/house, but the members or who will live in it, is ‘up to us’, i.e. those who answers/uses His ‘prevenient grace’ positively. 

But then, like many reformed believers would explain from Scripture, whether Olsen and other armininian theologians acknowledge it or not: salvation then finally, is definitely not of the Lord (contra Jona 2:9), but “of the will of man” (contra Joh.1:12,13), and not “of God who shows mercy” (contra Rom.9:16), and then God’s ‘everlasting love does not in fact ‘draw us’ effectively (contra Jer.31:3) . 

10. To add to nr.9: at the end Olson also mentions the title of his forth-coming book: Against Calvinism – Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology. It does not seem like a very peaceful title to me, because what he sees as ‘radical’, are probably true confessional original orthodox Calvinism, as taught and held by Calvin, Dordt, Westminister and all who followed, according to the Scriptures.  

In conclusion, my own straight questions to fellow calvinists:   

1. who is, and who determines what and who are the so-called ‘radical/extreme’ group within Calvinism, and what and who are the so-called moderate/OK/loving group ? 

2. I asked it with hesitation because as Christians we should all strive for biblical unity, peace and love (Eph.4:15; James 3::17,18), but if all in this debate between calvinism and arminianism goes back to “the character of God” (the relation between His sovereignty and love?), then one must ask the question: do calvinist and arminians talk about/worship the same Truine God as revealed in Scripture ? 

Olsen himself implies this important question, when he writes

“I have been heavily criticized by some of my Calvinist friends for saying that my biggest problem with Calvinism (by which I mean consistent divine determinism) is that it makes it difficult for me to tell the difference between God and the devil. (I am not saying Calvinists worship the devil!) For me nothing about the Christian worldview is more important than regarding God and the devil as absolute competitors in this universe and its tragic history. God is good and desires the good of every creature. As church father Irenaeus said “The glory of God is man fully alive.” The devil is bad and desires harm for every creature. To view the devil as God’s instrument makes a mockery of the entire biblical narrative.”

Yes, God cannot be both love and not love, just and unjust, sovereign and not sovereign, changeable and unchangeable according to both theological systems.  One or both views could be wrong, but both cannot not be right in their doctrine of God, and the doctrine of salvation. 

We know the most important question mankind must answer, not only about Christ, but also the Father and the Holy Spirit, is:

“But whom say ye that I am ? ” (Matt.16:15)

On the answer of this question (or more specifically, the substance of this answer: Matt.16:16), depends our salvation, from beginning to end (Hebr.12:2):

“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou have sent.” – John 17:3

“There are not various decrees of election, but one and the same decree respecting all those who shall be saved, both under the Old and the New Testament; since the Scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose, and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which He has chosen us from eternity, both to grace and to glory, to salvation and to the way of salvation, which He has ordained that we should walk therein (Eph 1:4-5; Eph 2:10). … And as God Himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient, and omnipotent, so the election made by Him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled, or annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.” –Dordt, chapter 1.8,11

3 thoughts on “Roger E. Olson on Calvinism and Arminianism

Add yours

  1. BTW, Calvinists strongly believe and proclaim: all that believe in Christ’s Name, will be saved John 3:16, 36; Acts 16:31; 17:30,31; Rom.10:11-13; etc. Man is and stays responsible. The difference then is, that when man believes, it is not of His own will, or because of man’s determining choice to accept or reject God ‘previent grace’, but because of God irresistable sovereign good loveable grace. Man’s actions, faith as a gift from God (Eph.2;8-10; Philp.1:29) is the instrument and result, not the ultimate determiner of his salvation (BC article 22,23; HC Sunday 23 and 24):

    “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.”

    “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

    And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”

    – John 6:37,44,65

  2. Thank you Slabbert , for this interesting posting. Probably one of the longest church meetings in history (7 months and 154 sessions) was held by Calvinists to discuss the Armenian’s questions!

    On the Open Theistic questions of “is God in total control of everything that happens” and “does God know what is going to happen in future?” Talbot in debating the issue eventually says that our human knowledge is lacking: this side of heaven we will not have all the answers. (TALBOT, M. R. 2006. “All the good that is ours in Christ”: Seeing God’s grace. (In: Piper, J. &Taylor, J. (Eds). 2006. Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. Wheaton: Crossway Books)

    I think that Talbot’s attitude should be ours: That we as humans while we are here on earth, will never be able to fully fathom the things of God (Ecc 7:24).

  3. Dear Henrietta, agree with your conclusion, we humans does not and cannot now all things. That is why atheistic evolusionists are the most arrogant and foolish people on earth, because they make absolute ‘truth claims’ about origins and the existence of God, while they do not have all knowledge of everything.

    But, as believers we can truly know what has been revealed (Deut.29:29) in Scripture: we can know that not us humans, but God alone who is sovereign, is omnipresent and omniscient, He knows all and determines all according to His good will:

    “But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.” – Ps.115:3

    “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” – Eph.1:11

    I see in today’s Beeld (2010-12-14) prof. Adrio Konig says: “Maar ek lees nie in die Bybel dat God alles beskik of toelaat nie.” (Eng: ‘I do not read in the Bible that God appoints or allows everything’)

    I do not think this view of Konig is in line with Scripture or our Reformed Confessions, and does not bring any true everlasting comfort for believers, as I hope to show in a later writing on my blog.

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