Wednesday, May 10, 2017
“Against Calvinism” – by Roger Olson
After I had commented in an earlier post on Roger Olson’s interactions with Mormons, I became more interested in his views, so I read his book, Against Calvinism. It is excellent! I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good critique of Calvinism; or who is interested in the theological issues surrounding it.
The only fault I find with his book is that at times he is a bit too soft on Calvinism. For example, he does not tackle all the five points of Calvinism equally. He says nothing at all about the last point, the “perseverance of the saints”. I am guessing it is because this particular point is shared by many non-Calvinists as well, like the Traditionalists among the Southern Baptists (which they have renamed the “eternal security of the believer”). The Traditionalist wing of the SBC, who are generally opposed to Calvinism, are still “one point Calvinists” in that they still adhere to this fifth point of Calvinism. The truth is that all of the 5 points of Calvinism, the TULIP, are equally wrong and heretical, and need to be exposed. Calvinism is wrong about everything. It is wrong even when it appears to be right. They believe there is a God? Great! “The devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). The “God” of Calvinism is hardly recognizable from the Bible. He is a malevolent monster barely distinguishable from the devil—as Roger Olson has rightly observed in his excellent exposition.
High Calvinists, or hyper-Calvinists as he sometimes calls them (the full TULIP variety), tend to be aggressive in the promotion of their false theology. If you pull any punches with them, they will take advantage of that and put you on the defensive. And ultimately, there isn’t a lot of difference between “high Calvinism” and “low Calvinism”. All of them are in error one way or another, and their error needs to be exposed and corrected. Calvinism is heretical no matter what version or variation (or number of “points”) of it you look at. It is not enough to “politely disagree” with Calvinism. It is an abominable heresy that needs to be exposed in all its aspects, fought against, and defeated.
Roger Olson also makes some theological mistakes of his own in his book. He quotes approvingly from The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David B. Hart, in which Hart argues that a loving God could not have caused the Tsunami because of the unnecessary suffering it entailed for innocent women and children. But Olson doesn’t attempt to reconcile that with the biblical accounts of the Flood, or of God raining fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, or other occasions where God has commanded the destruction of whole communities including women and children. I am not buying into the Calvinistic explanation for it, attributing it all to a twisted view of God’s “sovereignty”. But an explanation is required, which Roger Olson does not attempt to provide.
The issue with the Calvinistic doctrine of “divine sovereignty” is that it shifts the burden of responsibility for sin and evil from man to God. Man is altogether predestined in everything that he does. He has absolutely no freewill in all his actions. Everything that he thinks and does, and all the actions he takes, good or bad, right or wrong, have been predestined and predetermined by God. This absolves man of all moral responsibility for his actions, and makes God the author of sin and evil (as well as of good) in the world. It makes God morally ambiguous. It makes it hard to tell the difference between God and the devil. According to this theology, even Satan was predestined to do and be what he does and is. An unstated conclusion to that is that God also becomes predestined! Calvinism is fatalistic to the point that, carried to its logical conclusion, even God’s decisions become predestined. He could not have done other than what he did.
Another thing that Calvinism teaches that undermines the moral integrity of God is that God saves some people and damns others by an arbitrary decision without regard to any merit, worthiness, or righteousness on their part. Only the “elect” are saved; and the “elect” are those who were predestined to be saved. All the rest are predestined to be damned! And when the question is asked, Why doesn’t a loving God predestine everyone to be saved? The answer given is that he does what he does “for his own glory!” Apparently God’s “glory” is enhanced when he arbitrarily damns some people and saves others to display his wrath as well as his love at the same time! My answer to that is that a God who behaves like that, himself deserves to be damned! And I think there are a lot of people in the world who would agree with me on that.
The Bible, however, tells a different story about God, his interactions with man, and the purpose of this mortal existence. It teaches that this brief period of mortality is a testing ground. It is a period of time when mankind are tested and tried to see if they would be faithful and obedient to the will of God. After that, there comes a resurrection and a judgement, when we will be judged according to how we have conducted ourselves in this life, and be rewarded accordingly (John 5:28–29; Acts 17:31; Rev. 20:12–13). After that we enter into an eternal state in which there will be no more physical death; and whatever condition we are then in, will last forever. If we are then in a happy state, that happiness will last forever; and if we are in an unhappy state, that unhappiness will also last forever.
No-one is predestined. All men are free to choose good and evil for themselves. God never forces anyone to do good (or evil); and Satan has no power to force anyone to do evil (or good). God by his Spirit, and by his scriptures, his written word, and by his commandments, entices and persuades men only to do good. Satan by his spirit only entices and persuades men to do evil. Caught in the middle, man chooses for himself what his actions will be. He is not predestined or forced either way. And his fate is determined by the choices he makes. Hence in this life (unlike the next) good and evil are mixed up together. We see good acts, heroic acts committed by men; as well as horrific evil acts.
Some people say, If God is good, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? Why doesn’t he intervene to stop it? The answer is, firstly, sometimes he does intervene to stop it, like he did in Sodom and Gomorrah, or in the Flood. Secondly, if he intervened to stop it every time somebody was going to do something wrong, that would deprive mankind of their freewill, and would also frustrate God’s design and purpose concerning this mortal existence. Man has to be free to make wrong choices as well as right ones, and thus to determine for himself what his ultimate fate will be—even if that means that innocent people are going to get hurt by it. That is the condition of this life. The good news is that the present state of affairs will not last very long. It will soon come to an end, and we will all enter the next stage of our existence which is eternal, and where good and evil will no longer be mixed up together like it is here. Those who have chosen good in this life will then enter a state where there is only good and no evil; and those who have chosen evil in this life (and not repented) will enter a state where there is only evil and no good. In the meantime, repentance and redemption is made possible through the Atonement of Jesus Christ for those who have sinned in this life, to repent of them and be saved, before we move on to the next stage of our existence.
Now we are ready to discuss the Tsunami! The Tsunami was an act of God, not man. If God did not cause it, he certainly permitted it, and could have prevented it if he had wanted to. I am going to go one step further and say that he actually caused it. Why? I have no idea. The only assumption possible is that God knows things that we do not know, and that if we knew everything that God knows, we would conclude that his actions were just. The Calvinistic doctrine of the “sovereignty” of God, however, is not the answer. “Sovereignty” does not mean that God is or can ever be unjust. God’s actions are never unfair or unjust—even thought to our limited understanding they may sometimes appear to be. I believe the words of the Lord in Luke 13 are also applicable here:
1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things?
3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?
5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
6 He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.
7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
8 And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:
9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
I don’t think that those who suffered in the Tsunami were “sinners” more than anybody else is. I think that unless we repent, we will “all likewise perish”. The implication of the parable of the fig-tree is that God is patiently waiting for all of us to repent, like it says in 2 Peter 3:9. When God’s patience runs out, “… the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt. 3:10).
There is one positive side to Calvinism, however. It has a strange ability to arouse interest in Christian theology, which is a good thing! The negative side of it of course is that it then proceeds to teach a complex theology which is false, evil, pernicious, heretical, and abominable on a grand scale. I attribute that partly to the enthusiasm and appearance of intellectual and scriptural rigour with which Calvinists like to present their theology (and the aggressive manner in which they often try to promote it); and partly to the failure of non-Calvinist theologians to (a) properly defeat Calvinism on its own turf, and (b) failure to put forward an alternative systematic theology which can be presented with equal or greater intellectual and scriptural rigour. Many non-Calvinists (including LDS) suffer from anti-intellectualism. The gospel they think should be simple. If you try to make it too complicated, then you are doing something wrong!
Calvinists have over the years managed to position themselves as the champions of rigorous biblical Christian theology, without being properly challenged by the opposing side. They have accomplished this party through a genuine attempt at being intellectually and scripturally rigorous; but also partly through dishonesty and subterfuge; as well as through the aggressive championing of their false ideology as the only true one. They like to present their theology as being strictly biblical; and the best way to defeat it is by demonstrating decisively that it is not. That requires an in depth knowledge of the Bible, which their opponents often do not have. Mormons, with the additional knowledge gained through the modern scripture, are in the best position to challenge that theology—provided they can overcome their anti-intellectual culture in the field of gospel study. Stupidity is not such a great virtue they think it is.
Roger Olson has also an interesting appendix at the end of his book in which he gives a good treatment of the problem of reconciling divine sovereignty with human freewill, and the various attempts made by theologians at various times to resolve it—none of which have been entirely satisfactory. He has missed out my explanation! When he decides to publish a new edition of his book, he can include that in it as a good alternative explanation.
His book also has an interesting foreword written for it by Michael Horton, who is a Calvinist scholar and a friend of Roger Olson. Interestingly, Michael Horton has also written a rebuttal to Roger’s book, appropriately titled, For Calvinism, with a foreword written for it by Roger Olson. I installed a trial version of it on my Kindle, and read the introduction and other extracts from it, and I was impressed. It looks like a good book. When I get a chance I will read it, and give my opinion of it here.