Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 207 pages. ISBN: 978-0-310-32467-6
Rev. Mark Horton
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2012. Volume 30.
Date Posted July 02, 2012
I have reached the place in my life in which I would like to be done with controversy. I would like to get about the business of doing the master's work without having to wrangle with others who claim to be doing the same. But I think I am resigned to believe this will likely not occur here on this earth in my lifetime. The Calvinism/Arminian debate is one occurrence of such controversy.
It's not that I do not think the argument matters. It is just that I do not remember solving the debate to any degree of satisfaction with any whom I have debated. As a pastor I have consistently reached out, welcomed and attempted fellowship with Calvinists in two congregations spanning 23 years. Each time we end up in an awkward situation. I admire those who have the ability to minister across this divide. I don't think I have met any and it could be a mythical strawman but I hope not. When I meet one, I hope to learn a few things that will help me. I know this: you don't build friendships majoring on your differences.
Olson begins his book admitting he has to walk a theological tightrope in life. He has friends and family that are Calvinists and yet feels that he must be an Arminian to be intellectually honest. I feel a kinship here. He chooses his motto, "Before saying I disagree, be sure you can say I understand."
He makes note of the Time magazine article from May 12, 2009 entitled the "New Calvinism" and begins his analysis of the great ambiguity of the term, "reformed" even among popular Calvinist writers. Olson does a good job proving from the Calvinist literature of today that there is a great divide among them over what reformed theology really is. Depending on who you are talking to from the Calvinist school the job in general becomes like hitting a moving target, perhaps softer language is better, let's say making a revolving door. Much of the new Calvinism isn't traceable to Calvin.
When Olson gets into the reasons he is Against Calvinism, I found myself agreeing with him over and over. The substance of it is that he cannot submit to the implications that Calvinist theology leads to concerning the character of God. In order to interpret Scripture and be consistent with their theological grid they force God to be at odds with himself and have to explain the two or three wills of God. In exalting his glory and sovereignty they neglect to exalt his love. At one point Olson expresses that he could not agree to any theological understanding of God that does not square with the person of Jesus Christ.
While I have never put it into those words I felt that observation sums up my major difference with the Calvinists. Their interpretation of God often puts them at odds with the person, actions and words of Christ in whom "dwells all the fullness of the Deity in bodily form" (Col 2:9). Any understanding of God that does not square with the incarnated and glorified Christ must be suspect.
I have privately wondered at times why the school that does so much to promote the authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures, (of which I am in agreement and grateful to them for their work), argues for a theology that compiles verses to back their argument when the argument itself seems to do violence to the spirit of the whole text.
I believe these two reasons sum up my understanding of Olson's problem with Calvinism. He goes into depth looking at each tenet of the TULIP acrostic and explaining why he cannot agree with it as it is popularly expressed by the Calvinism of today and others in the past. Olson does present much of what concerns me about Calvinism. I hope that I am not beyond asking God to help me think through my own theological grid and be willing to part with any of it that does not submit to the Scriptures and the character of the God who gave them. I am sure my Calvinist friends would say the same. O God bring us to unity in days to come.