The Problem with Calvinism is . . .

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by Roger E. Olson

People often ask me what is my single most serious problem with Calvinism. Why am I not a Calvinist? First, I like to point out that nobody is obligated to be one. Some evangelicals are under the mistaken impression that Calvinism is the norm for all evangelicalism and that if you’re not a Calvinist you’re somehow defectively evangelical. It is wrongly believed to be the default theology of authentic evangelicalism.

I grew up in the thick of evangelicalism — spiritually nurtured by mentors and peers in Youth for Christ where I rubbed shoulders with evangelicals of many different denominations. We used to debate Calvinism versus Arminianism all the time and we generally agreed to disagree and nevertheless worship and witness together. I don’t remember anyone then telling me I had to be a Calvinist to be a faithful Christian or an evangelical.

I grew up in a Pentecostal denomination that was thoroughly Arminian (although no doubt some folks were really semi-Pelagian because they didn’t know any better and took songs like “The Savior is Waiting [to Enter Your Heart]” too literally). My uncle was president of our little denomination for 25 years — including the years I was growing up and becoming a theologian-wannabe. He and I talked endlessly about these issues and he told me that in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), of which he was a national officer, Calvinists and Arminians got along wonderfully and nobody made anyone else feel second class for holding either view. Point of trivia: One of the first presidents of the NAE who held office for many years was Billy Melvin, a minister of the Free Will Baptist denomination.

Then, something new began to come onto my radar screen. I’ll never forget the day, in about 1985, when a student came to my office and said, “Professor Olson, I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re not a Christian.” When I asked him why, he said, “Because you’re not a Calvinist.” He claimed that his pastor, a well-known Calvinist speaker and author, taught him that only Calvinists can be authentically Christian.

Later I had opportunity to talk with that pastor and he denied ever teaching that, but he did say to me that “Arminianism is on the precipice of heresy.” Over the intervening years, something called the “young, restless, Reformed” movement has grown and many people associated with it do talk and act as if Calvinism and evangelical Christianity, if not simply Christianity itself, are necessarily linked, such that non-Calvinists cannot really be authentically evangelical.

I invite representatives of the Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) to speak to my classes every year. One leader of the local chapter told my class “Oh, Arminianism – that’s just Pelagianism.” Of course, I corrected him, but I suspect he and many others like him still think that.

Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals share much common ground, as I wrote in my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. But, there are also deep differences. And that brings me back to the question why I am not a Calvinist.

As I implied above, first, I never was one and have never seen compelling reasons to become one. It’s the same reason I am not an amillennialist (in spite of the fact that many of my evangelical peers in the theological guild are) — I grew up premillennial and I’ve never seen sufficient biblical evidence or heard or read sufficient arguments to make me change my mind. My premillennialism has evolved; it’s no longer of the dispensational variety. But I cherish the belief in a future, earthly messianic reign of peace, justice and prosperity. The German theologian Juergen Moltmann has become my main guide in this area of eschatology. He is a premillennialist with a difference (from, say, dispensational premillennialism of the Tim LaHaye variety).

Second, I am not a Calvinist because (hold on!) IF I WERE A CALVINIST I would have trouble distinguishing between God and the devil. Some Calvinists have misinterpreted this saying. They think I’m accusing them of worshiping the devil. Nothing could be farther from the truth. All I am saying is, if I were a Calvinist, being of the bent of mind that I am (striving for logical consistency as much as possible), I would have trouble clearly distinguishing between God and the devil in my own mind.

To my Calvinist acquaintances who take umbrage at this, all I can say is — please just consider it my own intellectual failure if you wish. I am not aiming this saying at you. I am admitting my own failure (from your point of view, I’m sure). But it does hold me back from joining the ranks of the “young, restless, Reformed” (not all of who are young, by the way).

The point is — God’s character. IF God elects people to salvation unconditionally, and IF God IS love (1 John), why doesn’t he save everybody? IF I could be a universalist, I could be a Calvinist. I don’t care about free will for its own sake or for any humanist reasons. Hell is the sticky issue. The Calvinist God could save everyone because his election to salvation is unconditional and his grace is irresistible. Apparently, he purposefully chooses to “pass over” some (which is in effect the same as foreordaining them to hell). Why? For his glory? Some Calvinists say hell is necessary for the full manifestation of God’s attribute of justice. I ask what that says about the cross — was it not a sufficient manifestation of God’s justice?

The devil wants everyone to go to hell. The God of Calvinism wants many to go to hell. Is that enough of a difference of character? Not to me. The God of Jesus Christ is absolutely, unconditionally good. The God of Calvinism, from my perspective, is not absolutely, uncondtionally good and, in fact, has a dark side that includes willing that people perish eternally (contrary to 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4).

Next year Zondervan will publish my book-length explanation of what I see wrong with Calvinism. This is just a hint at that. But let me say here and now that, in spite of my serious qualms about Calvinism, I do consider Calvinists my fellow evangelicals. I would never say or suggest that someone is defectively evangelical because he or she is a Calvinist. What I think is that Calvinists are confused, insofar as they believe God is love (as Scripture clearly says), and yet hold onto their belief in unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.

What really bothers me at a personal, as well as professional level, is the present, on-going attitude of superiority and even exclusiveness being fostered among many of the young, restless, Reformed Christians. It reminds me of the attitude displayed by many of the followers of Bill Gothard in the 1970s — they believed they had found the magical key that unlocked the secrets of true spirituality to the exclusion of those poor, ignorant folks who had not yet attended a Basic Youth Conflicts seminar.

I do NOT claim that Arminianism is the be-all and end-all of biblical, evangelical faith. It is one way of interpreting Scripture and, for now at least, I believe it is the most accurate way among all the known options. (One reason I believe that is that it is the closest Protestant theology to the soteriology — doctrine of salvation — among the Christians of the first four to five centuries. I don’t find anything like Calvinism appearing until Augustine in the early 5th century.) But I suspect “When we all get to heaven” (the title of a good old gospel song), we will all find out that our “little systems” fell short of the fullness of truth. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote: “Our little systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, o God, art more than they.” We would all do well to take that to heart.