Roger Olson, What The Calvinism I Oppose Is and Why

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by Roger E. Olson

Just for the record, I want to explain as clearly as possible why I am opposing a certain kind of Calvinism, and what that Calvinism is that I am opposing.

For many years I had no particular bone to pick with Calvinism. I required my students to read Calvin (as I still do) and Calvinist theologians, and invited Calvinists into my classes to explain their theology (as I still do). Some of my relatives are Calvinists, as have been many of my friends. Then something new began to happen. One day in the early 1990s I read an article on line in which a leading Reformed theologian stated that a person cannot be both evangelical and Arminian. He equated Arminianism with Roman Catholic theology and called it semi-Pelagianism.

If this were an isolated incident that would be one thing. But relatively quickly this sentiment about Calvinism and Arminianism began to sweep through evangelicalism. And the Calvinism being promoted as synonymous with evangelical Christianity itself was and is a particular strain of Calvinism that highlights and underscores double predestination. Many leading Reformed theologians such as G. C. Berkouwer rejected that a long time ago.

Suddenly, I was encountering young people (mostly young college aged men) who believed, under the influence of their favorite speakers and writers, that Arminianism is heresy or at least “on the precipice of heresy” (to quote one influential Calvinist).

One evening, I invited the leader of the local Calvinist student group to come to my class and speak (as I often do). He was a seminary graduate advisor of the university’s Calvinist student group. During his dialogue with my class he declared “Arminianism is just Pelagianism!” These incidents piled up over time; I found that many of my fellow evangelicals were no longer content to hold Calvinism as their own opinion or doctrine; they wanted to exclude Arminianism from evangelicalism (to the extent that they were able to, through powerful persuasion). And the only thing they were offering as authentic evangelical faith was aggressive 5-point Calvinism, including double predestination and meticulous providence.

I realize many of you are not aware of this history. Look into the organization The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals – composed of very influential Calvinists and a few Lutherans (all monergists).

I noticed that many multi-denominational and trans-denominational evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries were unofficially banning Arminians from their faculties (i.e., refusing to hire them) even though there was nothing in their statements of faith that required Calvinism. One friend who taught at a leading evangelical nondenominational seminary informed me that no Arminian would be hired to teach theology there.

I began to realize that influential evangelical administrators were being influenced by this aggressive Calvinism without taking the time to study what classical Arminianism really is. (Not all administrators of evangelical institutions are theologically trained.)

It became apparent to me throughout the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century that nobody was standing up to and speaking out against this aggressive Calvinism sweeping through evangelicalism, convincing as many as possible that it is the only respectable, biblical theology.

I honestly do not care if 5-point Calvinism exists and even flourishes within denominations that are confessionally Reformed. But over the past 15 to 20 years numerous Baptists have adopted 5-point Calvinism and attempted to enforce it on churches and Baptist institutions. Traditionally, non-Calvinist evangelical denominations were being taken over by this new aggressive Calvinism. I felt that the NAE motto “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” was being discarded or ignored.

I wrote an article for Christianity Today that I titled “Confessions of an Evangelical Arminian.” I gave it a very irenic slant – merely attempting to defend classical Arminianism as authentically evangelical. CT titled it “Don’t Hate Me because I’m Arminian” – a title I didn’t have a chance to approve or disapprove. Frankly, I hated it. I suspect somebody at CT thought it would gain greater readership that way. However, I was told much later (by someone who no longer works for CT) that one leading theological editor tried to block its publication simply because he did not want anything positive said about Arminianism in CT. I don’t know that for sure; it was only told to me by a reliable source who later left CT. Fortunately, CT published my essay virtually unchanged.

The article didn’t seem to have any effect on aggressively Calvinist evangelical spokesmen who continued to vilify Arminianism as Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism or at least “man-centered theology.”

Finally I decided to write a book clearing the record about classical Arminian theology once and for all. I gave it freely to Calvinist friends and acquaintances and sent it to leading evangelical Calvinists. Only one responded. From the rest (names most evangelicals would know) – silence. I will give credit to Michael Horton, who hosted me on his White Horse Inn radio program, and treated me cordially. We engaged in a dialogue, part of which was published in Modern Reformation, and the rest at its web site.

For the most part, however, I could not detect any change in rhetoric of exclusion being used by evangelical Calvinists to marginalize Arminians. That led me to become more outspoken about the matter, and finally to write my forthcoming book Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology.

My intent is not to marginalize Calvinists, except insofar as they insist that their theology is the only authentically evangelical theology, and continue their efforts not only to defend Calvinism but persuade evangelical leaders to adopt it as normative for all evangelicals. This is a battle for evangelicalism’s heart and soul. I want them to be diverse (not pluralistic in the bad sense), including both Calvinists and Arminians. It is clear to me that many evangelical Calvinists do not want that. They have targeted young people – especially college students – to convince them that this aggressive, 5-point Calvinism, including double predestination (decretal theology, high federal theology, etc.) is the only authentic evangelical option. They have been marvelously successful. But that is largely because most of the “young, restless, Reformed” students are completely unaware of any other option. Or, if they are aware of it, they have been taught distorted ideas about it.

When the leader of my university’s Calvinist student club declared to my students that Arminianism is “just Pelagianism” I corrected him and asked him to allow me to speak to his club. He did. I spoke about classical Arminianism for 30 minutes and then fielded questions. Afterwards, several of the club’s student leaders came up to me and said, “We never heard of this Arminianism.”

I think the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church of America, etc., ought to be Calvinist. I don’t have any problem with their Calvinism except insofar as it is taken away from their confessional confines and touted among all evangelicals as the one and only biblical and evangelical theology. That has been happening and has come to be accepted as true by many evangelicals in circles with no particular Calvinist confessional heritage.

Someone has to step up and talk back to this new aggressive Calvinism among evangelicals. That is my calling. I hope to remain irenic as I do it, but I ask for your prayers, as I am up against some Calvinist speakers and writers who are not only not irenic but who do not play fair, in that they continue to portray all non-Calvinist theologies as at best defectively evangelical and Arminianism as semi-Pelagianism or worse.