For and Against Calvinism – Two Reviews for the Price of One!

Calvinism never really went away, but it has certainly grown in America with the “young, restless and reformed” movement.  As a burgeoning seminary student, (not really that) many years ago, I was interested in Calvinism.  It was a theology that I had never known growing up.  I did some study on it, wrote a research paper or two on aspects of it.  Over time I came to my conclusions and moved on.  Or, I wanted to move on but I never really did, probably because Calvinists took American evangelicalism by storm.

When I saw the two books – For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olsen – I had no interest in reading them.  It was an issue I had settled to my heart’s content.  Then I saw the books were on sale for under $4 on Amazon and for that price, well I’ll read almost anything.

First, Michael Horton defends Calvinism.  It should be noted that there is more variety to Calvinism than may be apparent if all one is familiar with are the young and the restless Reformed.  What Horton is defending is what is familiar to most as Calvinism, also known as the doctrines of grace or simply “reformed theology.”  These are the five points, often known as TULIP – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement (particular redemption), irresistible grace (effectual grace), perseverance of the saints.  Horton does an admirable job defending Calvinism.  He writes not just with clarity, but with humility.  Too often in such debates one side or the other gives the impression that the other side is not just wrong, but perhaps not really Christian.  Horton and Olsen may disagree, but both recognize the Christian commitment of the other.

There were a few times as I read this when I thought to myself, “hmmm, maybe I am a Calvinist.”  At one point this happened when Horton spoke of mystery.  He writes: “Reformed theologians has affirmed God’s sovereign decree concerning “whatsoever comes to pass,” yet without coercion or directly causing every event (Westminster Confession 3.1). How both can be true remains a mystery to us, but that both are true is clearly revealed in Scripture.”  When talking about God there comes a point when any person, regardless of persuasion, realizes there is no more than can be said.  We can make sense of some things, but in the face of an infinite God we have to leave room for mystery.  I think Calvinists like Horton (and like Calvin, for I thought the same when I read the Institutes a few years back) simply go one or two steps farther than I would go before invoking mystery.

This brings me to Olsen.  Many of the notes I made in Horton’s book, objecting to Calvinism, are addressed by Olsen.  Olsen shows that Calvinism leads to divine determinism.  If God “decrees” everything then a Calvinist can talk all they want about what humans choose to do but in the end, God is the acting force in evils such as the holocaust and human trafficking.  Olsen’s argument focuses on the words of key Reformed writers such as RC Sproul and John Piper to show that many Calvinists admit their view leads to divine determinism.    As Sproul says, noted by Olsen, if even one molecule in the universe running around loose then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.  Horton appeals to mystery, which I admire, but when he says, “God has decreed whatever comes to pass, yet this in on way infringes on creaturely freedom,” I see more contradiction then mystery.

Olsen shows that even though Calvinists may dispute it, their view leads to God determining everything.  Such a view makes it difficult to differentiate God and Satan.  God made it certain that sin would enter the world, God determines all events, God is kind of schizophrenic with two different wills (so God really wants all to be saved, but not really).  Olsen does not present an alternative view in detail, for that is not the purpose of the book.  Instead he works to show that whatever is true of God, the five-point Calvinist view is not.  One of the best parts of the book is an illustration from two other authors that show the problem with Calvinism:

Walls and Dongell offer an analogy to test whether any human being would be considered loving or good if he or she acted as Calvinism says God acts in giving irresistible grace only to some of his fallen human creatures. (Remember, he created all in his own image and likeness.) In their illustration, a doctor discovers a cure for a deadly disease killing a group of camp children and gives it to the camp’s director. The director administers it to some sick children so that they are cured and withholds it from others so that they die terribly. He has no shortage of the cure; nothing at all hinders him from curing all the children. even though some of the children resisted the cure, the director had the ability to persuade all of them to take it; he only persuaded some. When the parents confront the director, he passionately contends that he loved all the children— Even the ones who died. He cared for them while they were sick and made them as comfortable as possible:

Walls and Dongell rightly conclude: The director’s claim to love all the children rings hollow at best, deceptive at worst. If love will not employ all available means to rescue someone from ultimate loss, it is hard to hear it as love at all. In our judgment, it becomes meaningless to claim that God wishes to save all while also insisting that God refrains from making the salvation of all possible. What are we to make of a God whose walk does not match his talk? (Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, 54– 55.)

Olson, Roger E. (2011-10-25). Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology (Kindle Locations 3145-3149). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

That sums it up for me – it is difficult, impossible, to claim love for all children when the one claiming love will not employ all means to help those in need.  In the debate then, my verdict is that while Horton does a good job arguing for the Calvinist view, Olsen succeeds in refuting it.  I am not young, restless or Reformed.

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