Roger Olson, “Review of *Recanting Calvinism for A Dynamic Gospel* by Steven L. Hitchcock”

, posted by SEA

Over the years, since I “came out” publicly among evangelicals as an Arminian (beginning with my 1999 Christianity Today article “Don’t hate me because I’m an Arminian”) Ihave received many books and manuscripts about Calvinism and Arminianism from authors. Often they CLAIM to have discovered a via media between Calvinism and Arminianism or a biblical alternative to both. In most cases (perhaps every case!) I have found them to be promoting either Calvinism or Arminianism without knowing it. In other words, the authors are not really well versed in Calvinism or Arminianism.

Some years ago C. Gordon Olson sent me his book Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism (Global Gospel Publishers, 2002). When an author sends me his or her book or manuscript I assume he or she wants my honest feedback. I wrote to Olson (not a relative) and told him that his theology “beyond” was really just classical Arminianism. I had not yet written Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, so I couldn’t send that to him. But I tried to point out where his discovery actually agreed entirely with Arminius and Wesley and other classical Arminians. I didn’t hear back from him.

Once an author writes and publishes an article or book he or she can’t take it back. So I understand when he or she discovers his or her fundamental mistake it’s tempting not to respond and just hope others don’t notice. But the frequency of this problem (not just with regard to Calvinism and Arminianism) should be a lesson to all who are tempted to write a book to make sure they are really knowledgeable about their subject. Otherwise, they should expect to receive negative reviews.

This year I received another book like Olson’s: Recanting Calvinism: For a Dynamic Gospel by Australian evangelical Steven L. Hitchcock (Xulon Press, 2011). Hitchcock must have either sent me his book or had the publisher send me this complimentary copy. (Xulon Press is a Christian self-publishing firm.) I did not order it or even know of it until I received it. Being extremely busy when it came, I simply put it on my shelf and waited until I had time to take it down and give it a perusal.

Hitchcock says he was a Calvinist for many years and was a member of “three Reformed Baptist Churches in the States and Australia” (back cover). Through a fresh and thorough study of scripture he came to recant his Calvinism while rejecting Arminianism. The back cover says “Let there be no mistake, Recanting Calvinism is no defense of Arminianism.” (Does that sound familiar? Several Southern Baptist scholars who have publicly criticized Calvinism in print have said the same.)

The problem is–the book IS a defense of Arminianism! Well, almost. I’ll explain.

First, I’d like to say some positive things about the book. It’s huge (671 pages) and mostly well-researched. That is, the author clearly has read a great deal of Calvinist literature. His bibliography and index of references are full of Calvinist books and authors from John Calvin to D. A. Carson. For the most part it is well-written AND its critique of Calvinism is, I judge, generally fair and correct.

Second, however, I am dismayed at the author’s misrepresentations of Arminianism and his apparent lack of awareness that the view he is promoting is very close to classical Arminianism. The difference is negligible. Interestingly, his bibliography does not contain one book by a leading Arminian from Arminius to Oden (to say nothing of Olson!). I cannot find any evidence that he has read or studied any classical Arminian literature; his knowledge of “Arminianism” seems to come solely from Calvinists (e.g., Erwin Lutzer)!

Here is the problem. Several times throughout the book the author explains why he is not an Arminian: “Arminians say that while men are sinful they still possess an ability within themselves [italics his] to believe as it is maintained that they have freewill.” (240-241) Then he continues “Dynamism [his term for his own alternative to both Arminianism and Calvinism] is a corrective to both Calvinism and Arminianism. It simply asserts that the power is in God’s Word for a sinner to believe in Jesus, though he is dead in his transgressions and sins. Dynamism is about an empowered gospel making a breach upon those dead in their sins so that simple faith can occur. It is this simple faith by means of an empowered gospel that results in salvation.” (241)

What Hitchock calls “empowered gospel” is nearly identical to classical Arminianism’s prevenient grace. I say “nearly identical” because sometimes throughout the book he describes the pre-regenerative work of God enabling a sinner to accept the grace of salvation through faith as “illumination,” “enlightenment,” etc.–a mostly intellectual change. At other times (as in the quote above) he describes it as a power of enablement as if the sinner is strictly unable to respond to the gospel without some inward change that goes beyond the cognitive or intellectual. That would be more in keeping with Arminianism, at least some of the time, that seems to be his view.

Obviously, to anyone to has read and studied Arminianism, Hitchock is completely wrong about Arminianism. He seems to think of it as Calvinists tend to–as semi-Pelagianism if not outright Pelagianism. I have proven that false in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. (I would like to know why he didn’t read that book before writing his? It would have prevented him from falling into this common error.)

Hitchock distinguishes between what he calls “the lesser inward call” and “the greater inward call” (pp. 111-130). The lesser inward call seems identical with general revelation and, according to him, cannot help a sinner toward salvation WITHOUT the “greater inward call” which, apparently unknown to Hitchock, is prevenient grace. “It is in the gospel message [the greater inward call] that the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to respond….” (125) “We are absolutely needy that God will reveal the gospel to us; otherwise we cannot be saved. It is in the disposition of our hearts, the readiness of the soil that determines our response when God opens our hearts by means of His Word.” (125-126) The reference to a change of “disposition of heart” that proves he is thinking of prevenient grace and not only of an intellectual or cognitive illumination (although he uses cognitive language for it most often).

Hitchcock is also wrong about Arminianism and predestination as foreknowledge. He argues that predestination IS God’s foreknowledge of the elect sinner’s love for and faith in God. “Predestination is determined by this [God’s] Foreknowledge….” (102) He THINKS he is offering something other than Arminianism because, he says, Arminianism’s foreknowledge is temporal and there is no temporality in God. “The Calvinist is rightly critical of the Arminian’s position on Foreknowledge, that is, that God looked ahead in time to see who would choose him.” (95) Apparently, he does not know that Arminius himself and the vast majority of Arminians at least up until the 19th century believed God’s “foreknowledge” is timeless. Many Arminians still believe that. It’s a basic difference among Arminians as to whether God is temporal or lives, decides and acts timelessly (whatever that might even mean). Interestingly, in Hitchcock’s section “An Attempt to Make Sense of God’s Relationship to Time” (94-103) he lays out a view of God’s eternity as “eternal now” that he seems to think is novel but actually goes back at least to Augustine. It has been the majority view of BOTH Calvinists and Arminians! (Some 19th century Methodist Arminian theologians such as Richard Watson began to rethink that in light of the biblical narrative and philosophical problems with agency in nontemporality.)

Evidence that Hitchcock did not do his theological homework thoroughly before writing is found in his discussion of the Trinity. He is rightly rejecting Luther’s “hidden will of God” and turns to Karl Rahner (a Catholic theologian) to refute Luther: “This notion by Luther is absolutely slain by an underlying principle laid out in Rahner’s Rule, which has famously guarded against those who would speculate over the immanent Trinity. Rahner’s Rule: ‘The “economic’”Trinity is the “immanent’”Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic’ Trinity.”‘ The ‘economic Trinity’ refers to that which is revealed to us in the Scriptures as we are presented with the Persons of the Trinity relating and conversing with each other. The ‘immanent Trinity’ refers to that which is hidden and unknown about the Trinity.” (264) That is, of course, wrong and not at all what Rahner meant. Exactly what Rahner meant is debated (Moltmann has one interpretation and Walter Kasper has a different one, but neither one thinks the “immanent Trinity” refers to that which is “hidden and unknown about the Trinity.” (Interestingly, Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, who has written much about the Trinity, has attributed the term “Rahner’s Rule” to me. I attribute it to him. Maybe we came up with it at the same time. After all, it’s not all that difficult to think up! :)

Then, Hitchcock says this in a footnote: “Any use of ‘economic’ and ‘immanent’ by theologians in regard to the doctrine of the Trinity can be traced back to Rahner.” (264, fn. 532) Huh? Rahner did not invent those categories or terms! He was simply trying to correct a tendency among scholastic theologians to allow the immanent Trinity to swallow up or set aside as unimportant the economic Trinity.

Well, that’s enough. Clearly, Recanting Calvinism is a deeply flawed book. One could excuse its flaws (especially in technical theological discussion about the Trinity!) by saying it is written by someone without a Ph.D. in theology. (According to the back cover Hitchcock’s highest degree is the BTh–Bachelor of Theology–which is equivalent to the M.Div. in the U.S.A.) However, what is unexcusable is the misrepresentation of Arminianism in the face of an abundance of information about Arminianism including my book! (I don’t know why the author sent or had sent to me his book if he hadn’t even bothered to read what I have written on the subject! At least there’s no evidence in his book that he read mine which was published well before.) Hitchcock claims to know about Arminianism, but he never cites one notable Arminian theologian (that I could find). The only footnote I could find about Arminianism refers to Erwin Lutzer, a well-known Calvinist pastor (of Moody Memorial Church).

Clearly, in spite of what Hitchcock says, his soteriology is NOT substantially different from, let alone an alternative to, Arminianism. That is so often the case with books and articles and chapters that claim to be offering an alternative but really just repeat what classical Arminianism has been saying for hundreds of years. (Another example is “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from an ‘Eternal Now’ Perspective” by Southern Baptist non-Calvinist Richard Land in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism that I blogged about earlier.)

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