Roger Olson, “Theological Flaws and Fatal Flaws”

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by Roger E. Olson

Recently I argued that every theological system has flaws that should be acknowledged so that the entire system is held somewhat lightly and open to revision. One problem is when a system, such as Charles Hodge’s “stout and persistent theology” (David Wells’s description) is treated as if it were simply stating divine revelation in other words and therefore not really (as opposed to theoretically) open to correction and revision.

But I see another problem in theological systems. Some have not only flaws but also what I will call fatal flaws. A fatal flaw is a sheer contradiction – something it is simply impossible to believe because attempting to believe it results in thinking and speaking utter nonsense.

Earlier, one of my former students reported having a picture of me standing in front of an erase-a-board with the words “creech, creech” written on in it, as if they were coming out of my mouth (cartoon style). I know what that was. I was explaining to my students way back then that attempting to affirm a sheer contradiction is no different than saying nonsensical syllables such as “creech, creech.” (My apologies to people whose last name is “Creech!”)

A mystery is one thing; a paradox is a closely related thing; a logical contradiction is something else entirely. Here I agree entirely with Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul (Chosen by God, pp. 46-47). God is transcendent and therefore will always be mysterious to us. Mystery results in paradox because God is transcendent and we are finite and fallen. But contradiction is something even God cannot embrace because to embrace it is to fall into complete incoherence and unintelligibility.

It is not as easy as some believe to identify a logical contradiction. For example, when people say that the doctrines of the Trinity and deity/humanity of Christ are contradictions, I have to laugh. The whole point of the doctrines (as worked out by the early church) is to show they are not contradictions. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is not that God is one and three – left at that. It is that God is one substance and three persons who share that substance equally. We have no exact experience of that in human life or in nature (although there are analogies), so it is a mystery. But it is not a contradiction. Nor is the doctrine of the hypostatic union a contradiction.

A contradiction is always in the form “A is not A” when “A” is meant both times as exactly the same. For example, it would be a contradiction to say “Jesus Christ is exclusively human and exclusively divine.” But nobody says that – unless they are completely ignorant of both the Bible and doctrine and care nothing about logic.

Now, to the point. Do some theological systems include contradictions? I believe so. They are almost always unrecognized and/or not admitted. Sometimes they have to be ferreted out by careful examination and argumentation. When it can be shown conclusively that two elements of a system actually do contradict each other the system must change to accommodate that. And I cannot embrace a system that contains unresolved and unresolvable logical contradictions. (I may agree with parts of such a system, but I cannot swallow it whole.) If even one logical contradiction can be identified at the heart of a theological system, that is a fatal flaw for the system itself. At that point the system must be radically revised or given up and replaced with a different system.

I have identified what I believe to be a fatal flaw in some Calvinist systems of belief. That is, insofar as a person believes that God foreordains and renders certain everything without exception for his glory, and also believes that heresy (for example) diminishes or reduces God’s glory by robbing God of some of his glory, he falls into contradiction. Both beliefs cannot be held at the same time. It is not a case of ordinary paradox – apparent contradiction. It is a case of sheer, unresolved and probably unresolvable logical contradiction. That is why, I believe, no Calvinist has ever risen to my challenge to explain it.

Every Calvinist that I know (and I don’t know them all) says that some beliefs (e.g., panentheism) detract from God’s glory and that is why we must oppose them with all our (persuasive) might. They diminish and detract from God’s glory. They dishonor God. They rob him of glory. Every Calvinist I know also says (usually elsewhere in his or her book or article or sermon or whatever) that God foreordains everything without exception for his glory.

Now some Calvinists might take the approach that panentheism (for example) does not really, ontically [relating to existence] rob God of glory, as that is impossible for any creature to do, but it diminishes recognition and acknowledgment of God’s glory in the minds of its believers. But, so what? God foreordained that also – for his glory. That a panentheist is a panentheist was foreordained and rendered certain by God for his glory (according to the Calvinists I know).

It also won’t work to say that God foreordained panentheism so that he could overcome it, and by revealing it as false, glorify himself. Even then, the existence of panentheism, if determined by God to redound to his glory when he overcomes it, in the meantime glorifies God insofar as it is decided by God as the means to that end.

For the life of me I cannot figure out why Calvinists of my acquaintance do not see this as a sheer logical contradiction and move to resolve it. I have asked many about this issue and they have always just looked at me as if they never thought of it, or they rely on some version of an answer I just mentioned above, which are no answers at all.

All that is to say, one reason I am not a Calvinist is that to be one I would have to sacrifice my intellect in the strong sense of embracing sheer logical incoherence and unintelligibility; not in the sense of embracing mystery, with which I have no absolute problem. I believe this is a fatal flaw in so-called “consistent Calvinism” (which, in light of this flaw, is really “inconsistent, consistent Calvinism!).

Many contemporary Reformed theologians have moved away from decretal theology, divine determinism, and I think that has something to do with this issue. Certainly it has also to do with another possibly fatal flaw in traditional Calvinism.