Roger E. Olson on John Calvin and Calvinism

My Biggest Problem with Calvin/Calvinism Roger E. Olson
Professor of Theology
George W. Truett Theological Seminary
Baylor University

Above all I want to make clear that I admire and respect my Calvinist friends and colleagues. We disagree strongly about some points of theology, but I hold them in high esteem for their commitment to the authority of God’s Word and their obvious love for Jesus Christ and his church as well as for evangelism.

However, I do not admire or respect John Calvin. I have been told that he should not be held responsible for the burning of the heretic Servetus because, after all, he warned the Spanish doctor and theologian not to come to Geneva and he urged the city council to behead him rather than burn him. And, after all, Calvin was a child of his times and everyone was doing the same. Nevertheless, I still struggle with placing a man complicit in murder on a pedestal.

Furthermore, I find Calvin’s doctrine of God repulsive. It elevates God’s sovereignty over his love, leaving God’s reputation in question. What I mean is that Calvin’s all-determining, predestining deity is at best morally ambiguous and at worst morally repugnant.

Much to the chagrin of some contemporary Calvinists, Calvin clearly taught that God foreordained the fall and rendered it certain. (Institutes of the Christian Religion III:XXIII.8) He also affirmed double predestination (III:XXI.5) and displayed callous disregard for the reprobate who he admitted God compelled to obedience (disobedience). (I:XVIII.2) Calvin distinguished between two modes of God’s will-what later Calvinists have called God’s decretive and preceptive wills. (III:XXIV.17) God decrees that the sinner shall sin while at the same time commanding him not to sin and condemning him for doing what he was determined by God to do. To Calvin this all lies in the secret purposes of God into which we should not peer too deeply, but it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who regards God as above all love.

John Wesley commented on the Calvinists’ claim that God loves even the reprobate in some way. As one contemporary Calvinist put it, “God loves all people in some ways but only some people in all ways.” Wesley said that this is a love such as makes the blood run cold.

Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, commented that those who find themselves suffering in the flames of hell for eternity can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God. To paraphrase Wesley, that is a glory such as sends chills down the spine. God foreordains some of his own creatures, created in his own image, to eternal hell for his own glory? Calvin may not have put it quite that bluntly, but many Calvinists have and it is a necessary extrapolation of the inner logic of consistent Calvinism. (Institutes III:XXII.11)

I have been heavily criticized by some of my Calvinist friends for saying that my biggest problem with Calvinism (by which I mean consistent divine determinism) is that it makes it difficult for me to tell the difference between God and the devil. (I am not saying Calvinists worship the devil!)

For me nothing about the Christian worldview is more important than regarding God and the devil as absolute competitors in this universe and its tragic history. God is good and desires the good of every creature. As church father Irenaeus said “The glory of God is man fully alive.” The devil is bad and desires harm for every creature. To view the devil as God’s instrument makes a mockery of the entire biblical narrative.

Originally posted at SEA.

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13 Responses

  1. I posted a response over at Brennon’s thoughts, “Blog” after reading Mr. Olson’s essay.

    First, I commend him for being able to write an essay in 600 words. That takes some practice and discipline!

    Here is the last portion of what I wrote there, quoting a portion of Matthew’s Gospel and asking Arminians two questions.

    Here goes:::>

    Mat 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
    Mat 25:32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
    Mat 25:33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

    To those Arminians reading this then, I have a couple of questions for you:

    “If this is the “determinate” Counsel of the Council of His Will, that citation above from Matthew’s Gospel, where are you left at the end of the day when you will not have a choice in the seating arrangement already pre-arranged for you”?

    “Is it at those moments just before that time that you will surrender your sovereign will to the “predetermined” Council of God and do it of your own free will so as to take a seat with the sheep and not the goats on that day when Jesus comes to judge the earth”?

  2. I am not an Arminian but I will answer anyway.
    Firstly I will answer with the word CONTEXT and by that I mean BIBLICAL context and not the context of man’s theology.

    Secondly I will say that “predetermined” Council of God ” is clearly revealed in His word that tells us that whoever believes in His Son will have everlasting life. And that the gosepl is the power of God to save those that believe.

    Those who conform to God’s sovereignly predetermined means of receiving salvation will be the ones to be saved. That sovereignly predetermined means is clearly revealed to those who would search the scriptures instead of searching the theology of man.

    Why do some people insist on denying God His sovereign right to obtain a WILLING people to be part of His new creation.

    God is not a Calvinist nor a Universalist. He does not force anyone into a salvation that they have not desired.

  3. It seems to me that onesimus’ answer is sufficient, though I have a hard time seeing how this Scripture is relevant to anything that Olson wrote, or to anything that might be considered a point of contention between Arminians or Calvinists.

  4. Kang

    fair enough. I see the verses quite relevant with Mr. Olson.

    In Mr. Olson’s 600 word essay he uses the word sovereignty and that John Calvin’s “God” is morally ambigous.

    Tell, in those verses, which are attributed to Jesus Himself, Jesus shows both God’s sovereignty and that He is not morally ambiguous. He decides who go to the right and who go to the left.

    And further, he attacks Calvin’s character associating him with being a murderer.

    Are you a libertarian free will Arminian or a determinist?

    It seems to me, and correct my opinion if I am wrong here that Mr. Olson believes in LFW?

  5. “He decides who go to the right and who go to the left.”

    Onesimus has already answered this. God has determined that “believers” (sheep) will go on the right. It does NOT say that God chose who would and would not be believers.

    Do you understand this?

  6. Dawn,

    with all due respect I do believe I understand that you do not understand the plain meaning of Scripture. And thankfully, that’s my job in the Ministry I am called to be a servant of and a witness to bring you to that understanding. Any understanding of God is something He gives. He gives His Faith to understand His Word by the proclamation of the Gospel that Jesus died on a cross for our sins, He was buried and He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.

    God “chooses” who hears that proclamation, when and how. The Scripture clearly without equivocation teaches God “chooses” by predetermination beforehand, who, when and how one believes. Some “hear” the Voice of the Spirit of Grace, even in their mother’s womb, as John the Baptist did. Some hear on their death bed. The important thing to note is, they heard and believed and were saved!

    God “first” loves.

    There are no seekers of God. Period.

    All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. All are dead in trespasses and sins already. Dead people do nothing about their burial. Their wishes may be clear in a will where or how they would want their heirs to bury them. But once you are dead, there is no guarantee your wishes will be followed, for a number of logical or legal reasons.

    God decides and makes it clear who and why one, goes to the right, and another, goes to the left. God knows the end from the beginning all things.

    The choices are not left up to error prone man.

    So I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

    Scripture clearly does say “who” are believers. Those “blessed” of God are the ones God places on the right. These are the True believers, those called and elected by predestination, “blessed” by God.

    Not to belabor the point, simply though, in closing, I put over those famous words of Jesus as to “who” are those “blessed of God”, without any consideration for their condition, whether being right or wrong before Him as He has already declared all wrong:

    Mat 16:13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
    Mat 16:14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.
    Mat 16:15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
    Mat 16:16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
    Mat 16:17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

    Well, hopefully, but doubtfully, Dawn, you might realize what this means?

    Mat 25:34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

    I note: “prepared for you from the foundation of the world”.

    Or:

    1Th 5:23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    1Th 5:24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

    I note: “he will surely do it”.

    Or:

    1Pe 1:5 Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

    I note: “are kept by the power of God”.

    In my view, these verses clearly undercut LFW and establish determinism.

  7. Onesimus

    you wrote: “….Those who conform to God’s sovereignly predetermined means of receiving salvation will be the ones to be saved. That sovereignly predetermined means is clearly revealed to those who would search the scriptures instead of searching the theology of man…..”

    I find that quite ironic. First, those are your theological words, not God’s Scripture.

    Second, don’t you see you have put the “burden” on your own shoulders to “conform” to God’s sovereignty? You, in essence have reduced salvation to man conforming to God’s Will!

    That is impossible.

    Rom 8:7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
    Rom 8:8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

  8. Michael or Natammlc continues in his usual manner of posting wildly incoherent posts that attempt to proof text for Calvinism but fall short of establishing his assertions. His latest intended “victim” apparently is Dawn.

    He writes to Dawn:

    “with all due respect I do believe I understand that you do not understand the plain meaning of Scripture.”

    Well there is an interesting claim. And how does Natammlc know that Dawn does not understand the plain meaning of Scripture? Seems to me from reading Dawn’s comments, she understands the plain meaning just fine, it is Natammlc who does not understand the plain meaning of scripture because his understanding is skewed by calvinism.

    “And thankfully, that’s my job in the Ministry I am called to be a servant of and a witness to bring you to that understanding.”

    So it’s Natamllc’s **job** to bring the proper understanding of scripture to Dawn? And of course that proper understanding according to natammlc is the Calvinistic understanding of the bible.

    “Any understanding of God is something He gives.”

    Through you right? Or at least you just got done saying that was your **job**.

    “He gives His Faith to understand His Word by the proclamation of the Gospel”

    I think we all agree that faith comes through hearing the Word. That is what the bible says and our experience in preaching and teaching the bible confirms.

    “that Jesus died on a cross for our sins, He was buried and He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.”

    That is the gospel message, again I think we all agree on this. But look what comes next:

    “God “chooses” who hears that proclamation, when and how. The Scripture clearly without equivocation teaches God “chooses” by predetermination beforehand, who, when and how one believes.”

    Not quite, there are no bible verses that say that God pre-selects who will be saved and who will be lost apart from their decision/choice to trust the Lord for salvation. There are no verses saying this in the Old Testament and in the New Testament a person like Natammlc will try to proof text from certain passages primarily Romans 9 to “prove” that the bible talks about God’s decisions about people’s eternal destinies and these decisions are made in eternity (there are no verses saying this or talking about this).

    “Some “hear” the Voice of the Spirit of Grace, even in their mother’s womb, as John the Baptist did. Some hear on their death bed. The important thing to note is, they heard and believed and were saved!”

    Right they “hear” only after the Holy Spirit works in them so that they can understand.

    “God “first” loves.”

    Yes, again the bible says we love Him because He first loved us.

    “There are no seekers of God. Period.”

    Not true at all, some can testify that they were **searching** for a time before they became Christians. I can also relate stories of some who were seekers and then ended up rejecting the message of the gospel. And others who were seekers and then ended up rejecting the message of the gospel but then months or years later heard it again and chose to believe. There are all sorts of testimonies that contradict this claim, Period.

    “All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. All are dead in trespasses and sins already.”

    Right the bible says that, but what does it mean about people being “spiritually dead”? Careful examination of scripture show that it means to be separated from God due to sin, the metaphor of being spiritually dead speaks primarily of separation not inability. The nonbeliever who is “spiritually dead” is separated from God due to his/her sins, but this says nothing about what abilities or inabilities that they have.

    “Dead people do nothing about their burial. Their wishes may be clear in a will where or how they would want their heirs to bury them. But once you are dead, there is no guarantee your wishes will be followed, for a number of logical or legal reasons.”

    And why are we talking burial arrangements and the decedents will here?

    “God decides and makes it clear who and why one, goes to the right, and another, goes to the left. God knows the end from the beginning all things.”

    Matthew 25 pictures the final judgment and uses the analogy of how a Shepherd separates his own (his sheep) from the goats (those not his own). It is clear in that passage that the sheep have also been doing good works that glorify their Father and show them to be His people. But nowhere in that passage does it talk about God preselecting who would be a sheep or a goat, **that** is completely absent from the passage (and **that** is also completely absent from the bible as well which is why the vast majority of bible believing Christians have rejected Calvinism).

    “The choices are not left up to error prone man.”

    Actually the choice of whether or not to believe is a choice left up to man. If we do not choose to trust in Christ alone for salvation we will not be saved. The Holy Spirit’s work enables that choice, but does not necessitate that choice, some then make the choice while others do not. But make no mistake a choice is made and it is made by men (God does not make the choice for them or in their place; He invites them to come to Him in faith based upon the finished work of Christ).

    “So I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”

    Yep, we will stay with what the bible plainly teaches and allow you to choose to keep holding onto your false Calvinistic theology.

    “Scripture clearly does say “who” are believers. Those “blessed” of God are the ones God places on the right. These are the True believers, those called and elected by predestination, “blessed” by God.”

    Again, Matthew 25 SAYS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION. Unless a person such as you attempts to read it into the text in order to support his erroneous calvinistic view.

    Natamllc then quoted some verses from Matt. 16:

    “Mat 16:13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
    Mat 16:14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.
    Mat 16:15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
    Mat 16:16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
    Mat 16:17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”

    Yep unless the Holy Spirit works in you and reveals who Christ is and what He has done for you, you cannot be saved (cf. Jn. 6:44). The Matthew 16:17 passage is one of my favorite passages showing the necessity of the work of the Spirit in someone enabling them to properly recognize who Jesus is.

    “Well, hopefully, but doubtfully, Dawn, you might realize what this means?”

    I think she already knows what it means.

    “Mat 25:34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

    I note: “prepared for you from the foundation of the world”.”

    Note Natamllc that the text says nothing about God selecting or deciding in eternity who would be saved or not saved, it SAYS INSTEAD THAT THE KINGDOM is what has been prepared by the Lord for His people.

    “In my view, these verses clearly undercut LFW and establish determinism.”

    Your verses do not undercut LFW whatsoever. And your verses say NOTHING ABOUT DETERMINISM.

    Robert

  9. Michael,

    Comments like that will not be tolerated here. Any further comments that suggest such things about another poster will result in you no longer being able to post here at all.

    Dawn,

    If you had not read Michael’s comments before I deleted them, he made a correction to his comments to you, saying that he meant to write “not” in the following sentence,

    “And thankfully, that’s my job in the Ministry I am called to be a servant of and a witness to bring you to that understanding.”

    …so that it should have read,

    And thankfully, that’s not my job in the Ministry I am called to be a servant of and a witness to bring you to that understanding.”

    He also apologized for making the mistake.

  10. Dear Michael ~ It’s seems a shame that many of your comments on this blog appear to loose their effect with others due to a confusing or rushed writing style. I would encourage you to spend more time editing your posts and perhaps run them by a friend first. I’d love you to be able to better express yourself and share with others in this blog’s discussion. God bless you with it.

    Thanks for posting the article Kang. I thought it was fairly concise. I might have described God’s relationship with Satan as opponents rather than as competitors but I guess that’s mincing words. Also I too would not call Satan an ‘instrument’ of God, but I do think God’s using of the wicked for His purposes is an interesting topic when discussing the scope of determinism.

  11. Robert, thanks for taking the time to refute Michael’s eisegetical claims. I agree.

    Ben, I had not read Michael’s deleted post. Thanks for letting me know about the correction he made with regard to leaving out the word “not.”

  12. Kang

    I just noticed that reply. Can you enlighten me on what comments you are referring to?

    thanks

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