I very much appreciate Olson’s book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone who asks me for a brief defense of Classical Arminian theology.1 Neither this book nor his latest is in any way meant to be an exhaustive, exegetically detailed theology textbook in defense of Classical Arminianism. These are popular books meant for the populace, like many of John Piper’s books. In Dr. Olson’s latest book, Against Calvinism, the Zondervan-produced counterpart to Michael Horton’s For Calvinism, he makes the following comment:
One day, at the end of a class session on Calvinism’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty, a student asked me a question I had put off considering. He asked: “If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true God actually is as Calvinism says and rules as Calvinism affirms, would you still worship him?” I knew the only possible answer without a moment’s thought, even though I knew it would shock many people. I said no, that I would not because I could not. Such a God would be a moral monster.2
I have to confess that I have yet to read either Olson’s or Horton’s book in its entirety. Some reports I have heard from friends regarding Dr. Horton’s treatment of Arminianism have been impressive and a breath of fresh air.
Roger Olson considers Calvinists to be his brothers and sisters in Christ; and while that is a very good and commendable admission, I was taken aback the first time I read his comment about “the God of Calvinism” not being worthy of worship — or worse: “the God of Calvinism” is not only unworthy of worship, but is a “moral monster.” As a brief, former Calvinist myself, does Olson’s comment not mean that I used to worship a God unworthy of worship, as well as a moral monster? Perhaps so, at least, unawares.
Olson’s words pale by comparison to what John Owen and other Calvinists have admitted concerning “the God of Arminianism” (sometimes rendered as “the god of Arminianism”), but I digress. In Olson’s dilemma, one is left with only one of two options: Calvinism or atheism. Given those two options, he would choose atheism.
Olson denies that the God of the Bible is a moral monster and admits that the comments which some Calvinists make about God portray Him as an inconsistent, underhanded, deceptive and sneaky Being unworthy of worship, honor and love. Note, however, how the question above betrays its own Calvinistic theology, for only those whom God has unconditionally elected to receive such a God will do so. Therefore, the question should not be framed as a question but as a statement begging for a response, posed thus: “If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true God actually is as Calvinism says and rules as Calvinism affirms (i.e., by being regenerated as one of God’s unconditionally elect), you would worship him.”
Elsewhere, Olson has publicly stated that at times, from certain comments which Calvinists make about God, he finds distinguishing between God and Satan rather difficult. In Olson’s defense, when some Calvinists attribute authorship of sin to God, as does R.C. Sproul, Jr., then I side with Olson. Typically, however, Calvinists — at least in speech and in writing — are very careful to leave God out of the equation with regard to sin’s origin. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that, though God, from all eternity, did, “by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” Each fallen individual, therefore, is responsible for the sin which he or she commits.
However, the tragedy of this Calvinistic confession is in what follows: “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.” Arminians have too high a view of God’s character and nature, to say nothing of His sovereignty, holiness and justice, to submit to this confession. Here is where Olson’s point is valid, in my opinion.
No matter how much some Calvinists want to use the language of “permission” with regard to sin (e.g., God did not force an individual to sin but permitted him to sin), their confession remains: God decreed every minutiae of our existence, including what heinous sins we would commit, in what fashion we would commit them, and when they should be committed. And then, after the heinous sins have been committed, God wants us to repent of them! Calvinists would have us believe that God wants us to repent of the heinous sins which He has decreed that we commit — decreed not by foreknowledge but strictly by decree.
John Calvin confesses, “No, when we cannot comprehend how God can will that to be done which he forbids us to do, let us call to mind our imbecility, and remember that the light in which he dwells is not without cause termed inaccessible (1 Tim. 6:16).”3 But I think Calvin misses the point entirely. The fact that God dwells in such absolute perfect light, which no mortal may enter, informs us that God would never “will that to be done which he forbids us to do.” For such an intelligent man to make such an egregious theological error is baffling.
Calvin further confesses: “That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture.”4 Are there literally “numberless clear passages of Scripture” which support his theory? For average Calvinists, who heartily subscribe to Calvin’s exhaustive or meticulous theory of determinism, when they happen upon a verse in Scripture which describes God’s immediate, intervening interaction in some events, they assume (wrongly) that God always, exhaustively, meticulously, deterministically acts in such a manner.
But what do Calvinists do when they happen upon passages of Scripture which prove otherwise? For example, when God informs Isaiah that He planted Israel where He wanted her, in a place where she could have flourished, but instead she turned her back to Him, God asks, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” (Isa. 5:4) Well, if Calvinism were true, then we could respond, You could have caused them (by decree) to act just as you really desired them to act, God. For Calvin teaches us that even the word on our tongue has been decreed by You from eternity to be uttered.
And here we find the rub. Scripture teaches, “Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely!” (Ps. 139:4 NIV) God knows (yada`) the word on my tongue. Scripture, Calvin, does not teach that God decreed that word on my tongue. The Hebrew word yada` cannot mean “decree” or “foreordain.”5 Nonetheless, Calvinists, such as Wayne Grudem, insist that God “influences the desires and decisions of people. . . . Our words, our steps, our movements, our hearts, and our abilities are all from the Lord.”6 And then some Calvinists audaciously balk at and are actually offended when Arminians or non-Calvinists make statements like those of Roger Olson? I am quite surprised that there are so few statements to that effect!
1 I also highly recommend John D. Wagner’s Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God, published by Wipf & Stock, 2011. This book is a primary work from the pen of Arminius himself, void of commentary. Also on my list is F. Leroy Forlines’ Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, edited by Dr. J. Matthew Pinson, published by Randall House, 2011; and also Robert E. Picirilli’s Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism, also published by Randall House, 2002. And I could not ignore Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, edited by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, published by B&H Academic, 2010.
2 Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 85.
3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1:18.3.
4 Ibid., 1:18.1.
5 “A verb meaning to know, to learn, to perceive, to discern, to experience, to confess, to consider, to know people relationally, to know how, to be skillfull, to be made known, to make oneself known, to make know. The simple meaning, to know, is its most common translation out of the eight hundred or more uses.” See Strong’s Complete Word Study Concordance, Expanded Edition, ed. Warren Baker (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2004), 1870.
6 Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 146.