Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities: Reviewed

Introduction: Overview and general comments

One can only be grateful for Roger Olson’s book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP, 2006). Calvinists (or Reformed) should buy this book and add it to their library. This is especially true for Calvinists who engage in theological dialog with Arminians on the internet or at the workplace or at school. For you, Olson’s book will be referred to often. It will prove useful in at least four ways: (1) probably most important, it will help you avoid attacking straw men; (2) it will allow you to correct some professing Arminians’ understanding of Arminianism – perhaps causing them to want to disassociate with the label ‘Arminian;’(3) it will help you see, in stark contrast, the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism; and (4) it will make you aware of the main reasons why Arminians say they reject Calvinism, making you aware of some of the major objections to Calvinism that some people have.

Olson’s project is, mainly, a descriptive one. That is, he is simply explaining what Arminian theology is. Thus the book isn’t intended, primarily, to function as an argument for Arminian theology as the correct biblical model on matters such as salvation, grace, the atonement, free will, predestination, election, etc. Olson’s project, then, “is simple and straightforward: to correctly delineate true Arminian theology and to begin to undo the damage that has been done to this theological heritage by both its critics and its friends” (43). Olson contends that the purpose of his book is “not persuasion … but information” (ibid). It also is not meant to function as a “polemic against Calvinism” (ibid).

Olson’s strategy in delineating true Arminian theology vis-à-vis “the imposter” is to speak to ten “myths” that abound about Arminianism. These myths are: (i) Arminian theology is the opposite of Calvinist/Reformed theology; (ii) a hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism is possible; (iii) Arminianism is not an orthodox evangelical option; (iv) the heart of Arminianism is belief in free will; (v) Arminian theology denies the sovereignty of God; (vi) Arminianism is a human-centered theology; (vii) Arminianism is not a theology of grace; (viii) Arminians do not believe in predestination; (ix) Arminian theology denies justification by grace alone; and (x) all Arminians believe the Governmental theory of the atonement. These ten chapters framed in by an introduction that offers a “primer” on Arminian theology, and a conclusion that offers rules for engagement for Calvinists and Arminians.

Put briefly, Olson concludes on the above: (i) Arminian theology is the opposite of Calvinist theology in a few areas, but there is common ground in other areas. Arminius was a Reformer and his views were allowed by some, just not “high Calvinists.” It is arbitrary to exclude him from Reformation theology since it is broad enough to encompass him and he is only excluded by an arbitrary definition of “Reformed” to mean “monergism” to mean “meticulous divine control.” (ii) Though there is agreement and common ground on many issues, there are fundamental differences regarding free will, sovereignty and providence, &c. that imply a contradiction of simultaneously held, so no hybrid is possible on pain of logical contradiction. (iii) Arminianism is an orthodox evangelical option. Real Arminianism – the theology of Arminius, Wesley, &c – holds to sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura, soli Deo Gloria, solo Christo, the inspiration and infallibility of Scriptura, etc. (iv) The heart of Arminian theology is the loving character of God and the idea of real personal relationships, not libertarian free will. Another key doctrine is prevenient grace. (v) Arminian theology does not deny the sovereignty of God, unless that is taken to mean “meticulous control over all of creation, including the foreordination of evil.” But that is just a stipulation. Arminians have had a high view of sovereignty and providence. (vi) Arminian theology is not human centered. It does not believe in some innate goodness of man. Man is totally depraved and can do no good without God’s prevenient grace. (vii) Arminian theology is a theology of grace. Many non-Arminians have noted this. Again, man could do no good without God’s grace. Man cannot be saved without grace. (viii) Arminians believe in predestination, it is just cashed out differently than in Calvinism. It is a conditional predestination. God predestines to save all those who freely believe on Jesus Christ. (ix) Arminius did not deny justification by faith alone, neither the imputed righteousness of Christ’s active and passive obedience. Many other Arminians have followed suit. Some Arminians have held problematic views, but then so have some Calvinists. (x) Not all Arminians hold to the Governmental theory of the atonement, though some have and that is a viable option. Arminius and others held to a penal substitution view.

Overall, Olson’s tone is irenic and he keeps with his didactic aim fairly consistently. I did feel he was a bit condescending at times towards Calvinists, but perhaps this is justified by what he takes to be hundreds of years of misrepresentations and hurtful comments directed towards his theological niche. An ironic and unfortunate aspect to the book was that Olson displayed his own unfamiliarity with Calvinism and seemed unable to use less emotionally charged words when describing it. He appealed to metaphors that were not self-explanatory – such as the claim that Calvinism makes God the “author of sin” – and failed to explain what he meant by the terms. Given his desire to be more descriptive in his approach, and his admitted wide target audience rather than specialists (10), he failed to make some important distinctions and qualifications. One of his main desires was to show that Arminianism is a legitimate evangelical option (at one level, this is true). Thus when questions arise about Arminianism’s position on myriad Protestant “givens,” for example, he explained the Arminian position and then concluded things like this: “Even though Arminians give these great doctrines their own distinctive spin, based on their reading of Scripture, they stand on the same ground of Protestant orthodoxy with Calvinists, pointing away from themselves and to the glory and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ” (246). No doubt this is what they believe, but the same sentiments are uttered by Mormons when accused of denying certain Christian doctrines.

I do not wish to be taken as claiming that Arminians are like Mormons, outside of salvation and the church militant, only to point out that using the same language doesn’t necessarily mean much. Frequently Olson responds to charges by claiming that Arminians have said the opposite. For example, Arminians say believe that grace is necessary for salvation and that salvation is all of grace, and, in one sense, they do believe this. But, Mormons say that they believe in one God, the trinity, &c, and in one sense, they do. Other times I think Olsen confused misrepresentations with logical entailments. So, some of the things said against Arminians were meant as logical conclusions from their position. Thus, we wouldn’t have outright misrepresentation. Olson’s response to this was that we must (always?) explicitly tell our audience that we are drawing a logical conclusion and that the opposite party says that they do not believe what we attribute to them. Though this is good advice in some situations, I found it a bit pedantic and desperate to claim this always has to be done just to lump more Calvinists in the “misrepresentation” bin. For example, I don’t think most thinking people think Arminians have highlighted Ephesians 2:8 with a thick, black permanent maker – thus rendering it absent from their Bibles. It seems to me that the charitable interpretation of some Calvinists who claim that Arminians deny sola gratia is that they are claiming that the Arminian position logically denies the biblical teaching on sola gratia, whether they come right out and say this or not. Or, that since the Arminian position holds an unbiblical view of grace, then that they hold to salvation by grace alone is true in an attenuated way, and ultimately uninteresting as a biblical statement on the matter. But, if some people have given the impression that Arminians deny salvation by grace alone in any sense, they should be corrected. And, if Calvinists have contributed to this misunderstanding, they should take more caution to properly represent their opponents.

I appreciate Olson’s desire to make sure people understand what he takes to be the correct biblical teaching on these matters. I empathize with his frustration at misrepresentations of his position, and some of the hurtful things that can be said in zealous attempts to show a position in error. I am positive he has a genuine desire to be faithful to the Bible. I am thankful for the time he took to lay out his position on many issues in a clear and concise way. I would not claim that his Arminianism will keep him from salvation, or that we are not both united to Christ, part of the same body. I do not agree with Arminian theology, and his book cemented that even more for me, but that doesn’t mean we are not brothers in the Lord – no matter our inter family squabbles. Having shown my desire to not commit fratricide, I must now desist with the three-hanky and commence with some critical analysis.

Critical Reflection

I would now like to offer some reasons why Calvinists struggle with some of what Arminianism teaches as well as interact with some of the criticisms made of Calvinism in Olson’s book. I know Olson said that his book was not a polemic against Calvinism, and it is true that the book qua unit wasn’t a polemic, yet there were parts that were clearly polemical (for instance, I know of no other way to take some of chapters 4 and 5). First, though, I will just make a couple brief critical observations of which nothing much of importance hangs.

i) Four minor quibbles

In discussing whether Arminianism was “Reformed” Olson said that it indeed could be since that category was broad enough to include Arminius. Olson claims that if “one decides arbitrarily” to define ‘Reformed’ according to x, y, and z, then Arminianism is not ‘Reformed’ (54). But there are other definitions. Thus, Olson throws the likes of Barth, König, and Remonstrance denominations in as ‘Reformed’ (46). He also claims that “many moderate Calvinists or Reformed thinkers and leaders have opened up to Arminianism and embraced it as a valid expression of Reformed theology” (47). He doesn’t mention these people by name and seems to ignore possible improperly placed contemporary emphasis on “tolerance,” and “pluralism,” and the “emergent movement,” as well as “postmodernism,” as possible reasons why such “unity” is being sought.

Furthermore, Olson doesn’t look at the arguments of “confessionalists” who argue for a non-arbitrary definition of ‘Reformed.’ Darryl Hart, Richard Muller, Michael Horton, and David Wells are representative of those writing at the same time as Olson who argued for non-arbitrary definitions of ‘Reformed.’ The latest example of this is found in R.S. Clark’s recent book, Recovering the Reformed Confessions (P&R, 2008). This book is somewhat representative of the “confessionalist” stance found in the previous writers. I have registered my own disagreements with some of what Clark had to say in his book; nevertheless, it is irresponsible to claim that any definition which would exclude Arminianism is “arbitrary.”

A further problem arises when Olson wants to distance from the term ‘Arminian’ those liberal theologians or students of Arminius who put forth views Olson doesn’t like. He sets up two categories: an Arminianism of the heart, and an Arminianism of the head. The latter doesn’t represent “true” Arminianism. But how is this not an “arbitrary” definition? Olson depends on this distinction to lay the charge of “misrepresentation” at the feet of many Calvinists. Yet he includes those I would consider, to stick with Olson’s terminology, a “Reformation of the head,” to allow him to escape some Calvinist criticisms and thus call them “myths.” This seems irresponsible. He allows many into the Reformed wing by a “broad definition” that “includes everyone who claims to be Reformed and can demonstrate some historical connection with the Swiss and French wing of the Protestant Reformation…” (44, emphasis mine). This would include all the Arminians of the head into the Arminian camp, though. So, either he has an “arbitrary definition” and many of the positions attacked by Calvinists are not “myths,” or he must allow that we do not have one and so exclude Arminianism from Reformed theology. Of course, the entire set up of the chapter makes the accusation of myths perpetrated by Calvinists seem rather dubious. Olson seems to read “opposite” in such a pedantic fashion that to claim Arminianism is “opposite” Reformed theology is ridiculous on the face. But of course the claims of Muller, who he interacts with, need not be given such a hard-nosed interpretation. Moreover, continuity with the Reformation is gained in many places by simply showing that the two theologies used the same terms and thus weren’t totally “opposite.” But on this score Mormonism isn’t “opposite” Christianity since Mormons say they believe in “Jesus Christ.” Also, simply placing an emphasis on God’s glory and covenant theology isn’t sufficient to make you “Reformed,” especially in how these terms get cashed out.

Secondly, Olson does nothing to move towards rapprochement when he calls the God the Calvinist believes in and loves, “the devil” (111). Olson is hiding behind Wesley here so it he can say what he wants but avoid any responsibility by claiming that he’s just citing Wesley. But for those familiar with Olson, it is clear that he is asserting his own belief here by proxy. In is response to John Piper, Olson claimed, “The God of Calvinism scares me; I'm not sure how to distinguish him from the devil.” This nullifies almost all his complaints about misrepresentations or failing to be charitable to Arminians. No doubt he believes there are severe implications if God ordains evil, yet this can be stated without aligning the God many Christians love with the most (righteously) hated being in all of Christian theology. If you say this is the only way to state matters, then you can pretty much forget any charitable stating of matters on my end…at least that’s the logical implication! Besides, this seems rather ridiculous. Surely Olson admits that the Calvinist God saves some from hell. Would the devil save anyone from hell? Surely he can distinguish the two. The Calvinist God is the God who comes down and gives his life for his friends. He expresses the greatest love. Would Satan do that? Does Satan even have friends. So, this is simply used as an emotional tool, bent on persuading others away from Calvinism – something Olson said he wasn’t trying to do. Using this language leaves you with nothing to say when the Calvinist says that the Arminian Jesus is a big ole failure. He came to earth to save everyone, wanting no one to perish, yet some do. The Father should have sent Flash Gordon instead. Olson needs to avoid undercutting his purpose for the book. He doesn’t always do so.

Thirdly, as I mentioned above a few times, Olson frequently claims that Arminianism has been misrepresented because some key Arminians have said that they don’t believe such and such. Though Olson touches on it, he doesn’t lay enough blame at the feet of Arminians. And, when “Arminians” like Limborch, Vorstius, Finney, later Remonstrance, Miley, Cottrell, &c. say things that show Calvinist complaints to be money; these men do not represent what Olson calls “real” Arminianism. It starts to look all too convenient. Olson also stresses that Arminianism believes that “faith is a gift” (more on this below); however, just today I saw a website dedicated to defending Arminianism claim, “I find no biblical evidence to support the teaching that faith is a gift from God … ” Olson also says that the question of perseverance was “open” for Arminius (32). Though I don’t think it is logically open to hold to perseverance, Olson never indicates the subtleties and confusions offered on behalf of Arminius. Arminius claimed in his Declaration of Sentiments that he never taught “that a true believer can either totally or finally fall away from the faith, and perish” (Works, 1977, 1:254). Arminius also makes some subtle remarks about distinguishing between elect and believers. But even the staunchest Calvinist admits that professing Christians can fall away. So, Arminius may have been guilty for perpetrating “myths.” The book sometimes comes off as wherever it is good, it is real Arminianism; bad – phony Arminianism.

Lastly, Olson seems to play the martyr hand a bit heavy at times. There is a heavy woe-is-me tone to much of the book, especially at the beginning. He obviously hasn’t walked a mile in the Calvinists shoes. Calvinism is barely represented in Christian philosophical work. Atheists attack Arminian views on theology, considering Calvinist not even worthy of discussion because “we just know” that God is a meany. Turn to Christian music stations and see how Calvinistic the lyrics are. How many Calvinists have spots on TV? How many are invited to pray at the Whitehouse? Olson may claim these people speak ill of Arminianism. Well, if they speak ill of Arminianism, what word could be used for how they speak of Calvinists? Olson’s labeling us devil worshipers might be considered too generous! The point here is that Olson didn’t win any sympathy from me. It was rather like how a Chinese Christian feels when American Christians talk about how “persecuted” they are by the secularists.

ii) Critical interaction with Arminian theology as presented by Olson

In this section I will interact with a few of the Arminian distinctives Olson sets forth the “real” Arminianism, offering some reasons why Reformed theologians find it confusing and troubling at places.

a) Olson claims that the question whether a “truly saved person” could fall from grace is left open (32). Not only is this ambiguous – what does “truly saved” mean? – it seems to logically be closed. We are told that “prevenient grace” is the “convicting, calling, enlightening, and enabling grace of God…” (35). Arminius ascribed to prevenient grace “the commencement, the continuance, and consummation of all good” (162). It appears that this grace is necessary to continue in a saved mode. But, this grace is “resistible” (35, 162, etc). If a person must have this grace to persevere, and a person can resist this grace such that they won’t have enough in the tank to persevere, than it seems that defection from the faith is certainly a possibility for all. How could it not be? This is the logic of the position. The logic contradicts Scripture:

John 10:27-29 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

Jesus gives his sheep eternal life, and they will never perish. I’ve shown the logic implies that it is possible that they could perish. But since "they shall never perish" is a Greek Construction (ou me plus aorist subjunctive) is may be translated more explicitly "and they shall certainly not perish forever" (Grudem, ST, 789).

b) Olson claims that prevenient grace is given to all men. It is irresistible in the sense that God gives it to everyone, they have no choice in the matter (66). Before this, men are totally depraved, unable to do good, haters of God, and set themselves against God with a will in bondage to sin (142). Though the term is not in the Bible, the concept is. People usually present the strongest evidence for their positions, and so the verse Olson uses that most obviously teaches prevenient grace for him is John 6:44 (159).

John 6:44 teaches us that “No one can come to me [Jesus] unless the Father unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I [Jesus] will raise him up on the last day.” The Calvinist rightly finds this a curious proof text for prevenient grace. First, chapter 6 isn’t a lesson on a universal grace given to all men. Second, question begging assumption that all mere men whoever must be able to come to Jesus is eisogeted into the text. Third, some fancy exegetical footwork is needed to avoid universalism. Notice that the him drawn is raised on the last day. But not all men are raised up to everlasting life on the last day. Therefore, not all hims are drawn. The logic is airtight. The verse simply states that no one can come to Christ if drawn. The statement is in the form of a conjunction. Logically, it can be translated thus:

(~p --> ~q) & r

You cannot accept the first part of the conjunction and not the second (r = raise him up on the last day). The Arminian usually responds that the second him is one who did come. But again, this is eisogeted into the text. The text says nothing about who actually comes, it only speaks to who is able to come. Again, the point is in the conjunction. John 6:44 is saying (~p --> ~q) & r. This is logically equivalent to (q-->p) & r. Thus,

[1] If he is able to come, then the father drew him, and Jesus will raise him up on the last day.

[2] He is able to come (notice, I never said he did. We’re just sticking with what the verse says).

[3] Therefore the father drew him and Jesus will raise him up on the last day.

c) The Calvinist finds it odd that Arminians speak of violating free will by “forcing” people to turn their hearts toward God. Though the Calvinist denies any “forcing” is going on given compatibilist analysis, the Arminian holds to this view. As admitted by Olson, before man has prevenient graced forced upon him, he is set against God and his law, wanting nothing to do with God and choosing to spend his life apart from God. He would not, in this natural state, desire to show God good will or to even have the ability to show God good will. Now, are humans in their natural state morally responsible for their actions (it is important to note that this state is a counter factual state of affairs, since all men have prevenient grace forced on them without a choice, they are not totally depraved anymore)? One can only answer yes. So, this removes any objection to compatibilist accounts of moral responsibility. Now, Arminians, like Olson, argue that if anything is forced on man, especially in the area of relationship between God and man, then we don’t really have a personal relationship (38, 65-66, 123). But this is what prevenient grace does. If asked, if given a choice, the totally depraved sinner, absent grace, would decline God and decline prevenient grace! So, God makes them beings who are able to choose God, and who have new natures no longer dead in trespasses and sin (36), whether they like it or not (66)! But this must, of necessity, undercut the Arminian argument that Calvinism undermines personal relationship. In reality, the sinner never chose the grace that enabled him to come to God with his own free will (75-76).

d) Olson claims that he holds to “evangelical synergism” (18) which means that the acceptance of the free gift of salvation is ultimately a decision made by the agent aided by prevenient grace. All that is required for “full salvation” is that the sinner “relax his resistant will” and allows “Christ’s death to be the only foundation for his spiritual life” (165). There is nothing to boast in receiving a free gift. But why does one sinner believe and not another? Is one smarter? More holy? In possession of more “grace?” The answer is no to all of these. So why? Ultimately, it is a mystery. One agent just does and another just doesn’t. No reason. Olson admits it is a mystery why one man doesn’t believe and another believes (71, 72). But doesn’t the Bible present a different picture? In John 10:26 our Lord teaches is that “but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” The reason some believe and others don’t is that some are sheep and others are not. Again, we find belief as an evidence indicator of who one belongs to rather than a condition for belonging. In John 8 we read that “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God." Now, does “all” mean all here?

e) Olson fights hard to show that Arminianism as a high view of grace. He fights hard to show that Arminians do not believe they introduce a work into salvation. He claims that faith is a gift (142), that accepting a free gift is akin to a beggar merely sticking out his hand and taking the free gift (165), this doesn’t negate it’s nature as free gift (ibid), and there is nothing to boast over just as a poor man takes a rich man’s check and deposits it into the bank has nothing to boast over (167), and God is the author and cause of all good done in or by man (109). These present Arminianism, as portrayed by Olson, with some problems.

Olson depends heavily on analogies to make his case. So, to exclude the sinner from contributing works, he gives us analogies of starving beggars taking food and money from rich men. He says there is nothing to boast about in doing this. Now, one major disanalogy is that every single starving beggar would immediately take the free gift of money. They would do it in a second. No questions asked. But it’s rather a different story with sinners and God’s gift of salvation. Sinners don’t think they are beggars. They think they are fine. Indeed, they fight and claw and scratch at the rich man’s messengers. If the vast majority of beggars did this, were infected by some problem that caused them to fight of rich men and their gifts, and many of them died by starvation because they were so convinced that they didn’t need the gift, those few beggars that did the incredible and abnormal might indeed have a reason to boast. But leaving contrary intuitions aside, another major disanalogy is that human beggars see the rich man and the money. It is right there in their face. They know they are starving, and they know money will help them and their family. But with the gospel, sinners don’t see anything (Rev. 3:17). They think the message of money is foolishness (1 Cor. 1). So, on what grounds do these beggars accept the money? The only logical answer is that it is accepted on faith. But Olson said faith is given. Thus we’re about to run into an infinite regress real quick.

f) Olson says he believes in “evangelical synergism” (see above). He logically cannot. He affirms that, “Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it” (109). But when attacking the Calvinist, he claims that we make God the “author of sin” and so this makes God the “only sinner” (99). This is monergism according to him. There’s only one actor. But when it comes to salvation, he says man must “relax his will” and quite fighting and resisting God (again, something that starving beggars don’t do!). He needs to just accept the gifts of faith and other soteric gifts. Now, we must ask the question, “Is it a good thing to relax your will and stop fighting God?” The only logical answer can be yes. But since God is the “author” and “sole cause” of all good done by and in man, Olson must logically believe in monergism! Bur he reject monergism (19). Olson says man must freely choose God on his own or the loving relationship isn’t real. Thus Olson’s Arminianism leads to the conclusion that the relationship between man and God are a facade. Of course he can reject his assertion that being the “author of evil” (though this is a vague term and it is not self-explanatory) God is the sinner or doer of evil. If he doesn’t, then God is the “relaxer,” therefore implying another unwanted conclusion – God is a sinner in need of salvation!

g) Another bad analogy Olson gives is when he defends the idea that the atonement provides only possible salvation for all people (222). He is responding to Calvinist arguments that claim if Jesus died for all, then his blood is wasted on those who never accept it. He claims that the atonement is analogous to the amnesty offered by America to the Vietnam War protestors that went to Canada to escape the draft. He asks, “Was some of the amnesty for objectors to the Vietnam war wasted because not all accepted it?” (223). To say that Christ’s blood is wasted is a “gross distortion” (ibid). On the contrary, Olson grossly distorts things. What if America had a penalty of death for protesting the Vietnam War? Suppose they allowed the objectors to come back because they killed a male volunteer who didn’t object and so was innocent of the crimes the objectors were charged with. If all didn’t come back, would that be wasted blood? Furthermore, if they come back and accept the amnesty, and then speak out about the War again and return to Canada, will they receive punishment again? No.

h) Repeatedly Calvinism is objected to on emotional, philosophical, and a priori grounds, not exegetical. We are told that doctrines are rejected because they impugn an a priori understanding of what the character of God must be like (15). Doctrines are rejected not “because” of exegetical reasons but “because [Arminianism] affirms the character of god as compassionate, having universal love for the whole world and everyone in it, and extending grace-restored free will to accept or resist the grace of God…” (16). We are told that “the main reason Arminians reject the Calvinistic notion of monergistic salvation … is that it violated the character of God and the nature of personal relationship” (38). Arminians reject Calvinist doctrines “because they value the genuinely personal nature of God-human relationships. Love that is freely chosen does not seem to be genuine love” (66). The Arminian position cannot be proven by Scripture alone, it is a perspective made up of Scripture and many extra-biblical philosophical assumptions (69-70). Of course there are many passages the Arminian finds supportive of his position (69), but none of them seem to be used to argue against Calvinism. On that score, it’s either philosophical notions of what “true love” and “personal relationships” must mean, or just the bold claim that “Whatever Scripture proves, it can never prove this” (73). Apparently, Arminianism requires epistemic certainty! It is so sure that even if we don’t know what Scripture means, we know it can’t mean what the Calvinist says.

i) In chapter 5 Olson claims that libertarian freedom is not the foundation of Arminian theology. But he is partly responsible for perpetrating this myth. You would never guess that libertarian freedom wasn’t the major foundational plank in Arminian theology by reading Olson’s chapter in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God (B&H, 2008). In a chapter on the doctrine of God, Olson spent the majority of his time defending and arguing for libertarian free will (148-172). In his chapter he claims that “Arminianism builds on and assumes” libertarian free will (168). And rather than his claim that the character of God and personal relationships is foundational to Arminian theology, he claims that “prevenient grace is the key” Arminian doctrine (Perspectives, 167). Even Paul Helm, one of the other contributors, claims that Olson concentrates “his attention so much on the importance of indeterministic human freedom that there is a danger of altogether forgetting the doctrine of God” (ibid, 173)! Furthermore, to avoid all Calvinist arguments, libertarian free will is used. Exegesis is always conspicuous by its absence. So, I’m not convinced that Arminians don’t have a philosophical commitment to libertarian free will as a main foundational element in their system. Indeed, a vital element. If they believed it false, they would have to believe Arminianism false.

j) Olson seems inconsistent in many places. One example is when he says that he denies that “God is in any way the cause of that first sin…” (145, emphasis mine). Yet he also claims that “God is the first cause of whatever happens; even a sinful act cannot occur without God as its first cause…” (122, emphasis mine)! Another place is when he says that “God could not … directly or indirectly cause sin and evil even if he had wanted to (which he would not), because that would make God the author of sin” (103, emphasis mine). But he also says that double predestination is evil and “God could practice double predestination” if he wanted to (110)!

k) He claims election is based on foreknowledge of human choices (180). But Romans 8 says that those God foreknew were predestined to salvation. God foreknows everyone though. But everyone is not saved. Or, does all not mean all here? Or, do we insert “who would have faith” into the Pauline passage?

l) Olson admits he can’t answer the problem of foreknowledge and ability to do otherwise. He knows the timelessness solution fails. He says the Molinist solution fails. And he finds the Open Theist solution attractive yet doesn’t have the nerve to go there yet. He says Open Theism is a legitimate evangelical option (194-199).

m) Olson uses passages like II Peter 3:9 as teaching God desires all mere humans whoever to be saved:

Let's quote the text:

"The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."

More should be quoted for context, but we don't have time for a fuller exegesis.

Olson takes the "any should perish" and the "all should reach repentance" as universal in its referent. On what exegetical basis does he do so? Let's make some notes about this text (and the larger context in which it is found):

1. The broader context of the text is not salvation, which is said in passing (v.9). The context is about the last days, how we should live in the last days, and most importantly, the coming of Christ. The primary context is eschatological and not soteriological, then.

2. Peter is talking about why the coming of the Lord has been delayed.

3. The audience peter is speaking to is "you" the "beloved." There are others, "they," that are "mockers" and "false teachers.” The "you" includes Peter. The "you" includes those who profess faith. The "you" is the Christians who should watch how they live in the last days. The "you" are "those looking forward to a better country."

4. So the "you" in "the Lord is patient toward you" are his elect people. That's why the letter was written "To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours."

5. This gives the "any" and the "all" in statements about perishing and repentance a context, a referent. Olson would have the "any" and the "all" without a referent in the context.

6. The "you" is the referent of the "any" and the "all." I was talking to my son the other day and he was talking to me about his favorite toys. He said, "I like my toys, I don't want to lose any." Should I interpret the "any" as "all the toys in the world whatever?"

7. Peter writes the letter to "To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours." There is no indication of change of audience. So Peter tells the saved people that the Lord is patient toward them, and desires none of his elect people to perish.

8. Peter is saying that the Lord is slow in coming back, delaying his return, so that all his elect can be gathered into the church. There's no basis contextually to say that God is speaking of all men whoever. He's speaking of his elect. Of his desire to save them. And he does. None of them perish. God sets goals he can meet. He doesn't set a goal for "all men whoever" to be saved, especially since he knows that not all men will be saved.

9. As James White asks: "Further, it should be noted that if one suggests that there is no referential connection between "you" and "any/all," the text is left making no sense. Consider it. The phrase "but is patient toward you" is left hanging in mid-air, disconnected and undefined. Obviously, what follows is modifying and explaining how this patience is expressed. And if this is the case, then how can God's patience toward "you" (in the context, the elect) be exemplified by simply stating some kind of universal salvific will? How is God's patience to the elect demonstrated by stating God wishes every person, elect or non-elect, to come to repentance?"

iii) Critical interaction with Olson’s critique of Calvinism

a) Olson claims that in judging God’s actions we must avoid the idea of God as one "whose goodness bears no real analogy to the best of human goodness" (111) and his justice "cannot be so foreign to the very best [human] understandings of justice ... that it is emptied of meaning" (120). According to Olsen, God doesn't ordain sins, but "every human act, including sin, is impossible without God's cooperation" (121). God is not a "spectator" (121). "God ... cooperates with the creature in sinning" (122). Of course God can cooperate in a sin "without being tainted" (122). Apparently he can do this but can't ordain sin "without being tainted." God cooperates but he does so "reluctantly" (123). He even does so "unwillingly" (123). He has the power to stop sin, but permits it anyway. He gives all sinners the power to commit sins that they would be unable to without his giving them the power. He does so because free will is so important to him that it's worth cooperating with the sinner so he can commit the sin (see 121-124). But if we apply the same rules to Olson’s views, we find he excepts himself from criticisms.

First, we should ask, “Can Scripture ‘reverse’ some particular human conception of goodness? I don't see why not. Some may think that it is never good in any circumstance to make an innocent man pay for the sins of the guilty. In coming to the Bible, and being asked to accept what Jesus did on behalf of sinners, this man could reply: "That requires me to reverse my conception of goodness." Or, say one is a humanist. Man is the highest good. Since Olson admits that God is the highest good, then he presents the humanists with a concept of goodness that is the reverse (outright denial, even) of the humanists’. So, I don't see the problem Olson has here."

Would a "highly moral" human "permit," say, the holocaust, or an axe murder, or a rape - you get the point, if he had the power to stop it? What would a "highly moral" human say about someone who did permit one of those things to happen when he could have stopped it? Would a "highly moral" human cooperate with a criminal to commit a criminal act? Apparently it is justified because libertarian free will is such a high good that the ends justify the means. For me, I don't share this intuition, indeed, it seems downright false. But let's not focus on that. Let's extend our thought experiment.

Say a "highly moral" human, Sally, invents a pill that can make the lame walk. Now, imagine a quadriplegic man. Call him Harry. When Harry meets Sally he lets her know that he would very much like the power to walk. Harry isn't the sharpest tool in the shed and so he lets Sally know that his desire is to kill his neighbor's 10 year old - that snot nosed, annoying punk who always called Harry the most awful names. He wants to torture him for a while, cut off his legs, taunt him to "come and try and get him," and then pour gasoline on him and burn him alive. Would Sally, our "highly moral" human, give Harry the power to kill the 10 year old so that Harry could exercise his free will to the fullest? How about if there was a good that would come out of it? Say that Harry would come up with the cure for cancer while sitting in jail (purely by accident, of course, since he's not so sharp)?

If the answer is no, then Olson denies the very rules he makes us play by. If the answer is yes, then the "goodness" of a "highly moral" human is stretched such that Olson's argument ceases to be a relevant rebuttal to the Calvinist theodicies. Therefore, either Olson plays with a stacked deck, or his argument has no force against the Calvinist.

Olson says Arminius affirmed the penal substitution view and seems to affirm it himself. But of course Arminians like Greg Boyd hold God to the same standard Olson holds the Calvinist to and asks “what sort of justice is it that punishes an innocent person for what another person did?” (Boyd, The Nature of the Atonement, Four Views, IVP, 2006, 104). He applies the standard Olson applies to us and wonders how we are “to reconcile the idea that the Father needs to exact payment from or on behalf of his enemies with Jesus' teaching that we are to love unconditionally and forgive without demanding payment” (ibid). Olson claims over and over again that he looks at Jesus in the Bible to get his idea of God. And Jesus said he came to die for all and that he loved all. Boyd just acts more consistent that Olson here. Likewise, consider the Universalists. They claim that a high view of God’s love demands we reject the doctrine of hell. If Olson wants to appeal to all the verses that speak about people in hell, perhaps the Universalist will just bring Wesley in and tell Olson, “Whatever Scripture proves, it can never prove this” (73)! All the tricks Olson pulls on the Calvinist get played on him too. To the Calvinist, it simply looks like Olson wants to have his cake and eat it too.

b) Olson uses terms like “control,” “force,” “author of sin,” “meticulous sovereignty,” “only actor,” “coerce,” etc. to speak of Calvinism. This paints the mental picture of God as an anal retentive puppet master running around putting all his puppets in the precise positions he wants them to be in. Even if he dislikes compatibilism, these caricatures are ridiculous for anyone who has bothered to try to understand the other side to make. He says that before we say “I disagree” we must be able to say “I understand” (243). I have no confidence that Olson can say “I understand” compatibilism. I’ll make a few remarks here:

1. Since Olson never explains himself past floating some vague comments about how Calvinism somehow implies that God is the author or doer of sin, a lot of interpretation needs to get done. So, what is his problem, exactly? I don’t know, he never spells it out. Apparently it is that if “God ordains all things” then Calvinism “cannot avoid making God the author of sin and evil” (99). “Love and justice are necessary to goodness, both exclude willing determination of evil or eternal suffering” (100). These things are wrong because “God could not … directly or indirectly cause sin and evil even if he had wanted to (which he would not), because that would make God the author of sin” (103). This is about the extent the Calvinist has to work with.

It is very hard to interpret Olson because he seems to contradict the above in a few places. For example, he says that double predestination is evil and “God could practice double predestination” (110). But above he said God could not cause evil. He says God is not the cause of sin, yet he also claims that “God is the first cause of whatever happens; even a sinful act cannot occur without God as its first cause…” (122, emphasis mine). This looks outright contradictory. So, I am at a loss as to how to take him.

Before I move on, we point out that this very question has received treatment over and over again in the literature. I could cite literally hundreds of books and articles spanning back over the centuries, but for our purposes I'll list 7 contemporary sources where Olson’s very question is dealt with. John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R, 2002, pp. 152-159, 174-182, 274-288; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan, 1994, pp. 315-354; Paul Helm in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (eds. James K. Beilby & Paul R. Eddy), IVP, 2001, pp. 176-182; Paul Helm, John Calvin's Ideas, Oxford, 2006, pp. 93-128; Paul Helm, The Providence of God, IVP, 1993, pp. 161-191; K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons For Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology, P&R, 2006, pp. 326-342; Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Nelson, 1998, pp. 343-381.

It seems like Olson has some kind of principle like this in mind, call it the Wrongful Cause Principle. It states:

WCP = df It is wrong to cause someone to do something that it is wrong to do.

This seems to get at Olson’s worry. What does the WCP even mean?

i) To say that it is evil to cause someone to commit an evil is just to say that it is evil to cause evil. But this is just a restatement of the problem of evil.

ii) What is meant by "cause?"

a) Is it the same as the Reformed understanding of "decree?" How so? Strictly speaking, the decree doesn't "cause" anything. The decree is the plan. So what does Olson have in mind here and where is it found in the reformed literature?

b) Does it mean a necessary condition? A necessary condition for any human to commit an evil act is that they be here to do it. So, are all the parents to blame for the evil their children may commit simply because they brought them into existence? In this sense of "cause," we should lock up Jeffery Dahmer's parents for giving birth to Dahmer. If you traced the causes back far enough, you'd come to their causing him to exist. Might as well figure out a way to punish the grandparents too, if we could. Maybe God will . . .

c) Does it mean necessary and sufficient conditions? But what Calvinist (or Reformed theologian) takes this view? There are distinctions that have been made in the literature between primary and secondary causality, proximate and remote causes, etc.

d) There is a long theological tradition which speaks of concurrence. We find in theologians across the board that God is upholding all things by his very power, he sustains all things, and in him we live and move and have our being. If he were to withdraw his hand, nothing would continue.

Winfred Corduan makes a similar point in his chapter on a Thomistic Cosmological Argument. On his view of causality presented in his chapter in Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith, an effect is never free from its cause. If a contingent thing does not always retain its cause, then it will no longer exist (pp. 211-213).

No wrong act could take place if God were not there upholding all things. Take his hand away, the muscles that are required to pull a trigger won't work.

So in this sense, God causes all things, even wrong actions. Ephesians 1:11 refers to how God works his plan as "the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will." Proverbs 16:4-5 tells us about some of this "working out": "The LORD works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster. The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished." God "works" the evil unto their disaster, but then clearly indicates that they are the ones punished for what he has "worked out." Is this a violation of the WCP? Or does “all” not mean all here?

e) Does Olson view this like a billiard table? If the hit cue ball hits the racked balls and then they all bounce off each other, eventually going into the holes, one could say that hitting the cue ball was the cause of all the individual balls going into their holes. Likewise, God got our whole thing going by his own cue stick, "the word of his power." So in this sense, God caused people to do evil acts. Is that what he means?

f) Is when God causes something the same as when we do? Olson is no doubt thinking of cases where humans have caused some person to do an evil act and then extrapolating that causation over to God as if they two were coterminous. How does he know this? God-causation is different that creature-causation. So is God's presence. God is fully present everywhere. But how can he and I be both "present" at every point in the same space? Olson is treating God just like one more fact in the universe. If we don't have a full, or even partial, understanding of God-causation, how does Olson intend it to work in the WCP? When a human "causes" someone S to do some evil act E, is that the same as when God "causes" S to E? If not, then he has an equivocation in his argument.

iii) How am I to think about the WCP? What are instances of the WCP? Let's view some:

a) Say I put a gun to S's head and "cause" S to rob a bank. Is this how Olson is viewing the Calvinist picture?

b) Say I hire a hit man to off the guy who is starting over me at quarterback. The hit man kills "Chip." I "caused" the hit man to do an evil act, but he also did it willingly. Is this how Olson views the Calvinist picture? God hiring us to knock people off or engage in illicit behavior?

c) Say Paul Sheldon writes a novel where he has some character kill off the heroine, Misery Chastaine. In one sense Sheldon "caused" Misery's death.

Now, Calvinism doesn't fit with III (a) or (b). In fact, given God's sui generous nature, there are no strict parallels we could draw (so I would argue). But I would say that (c) has a lot of parallels with God's relation to his creation, far more so than the other models (for a fuller explication of this Author-character model see John Frame, DG, pp. 156-159).

So, if we have a decent analogy here, what's the problem? Remember that it was the crazy former nurse Annie Wilkes who blamed Sheldon for the death of Misery! Is the Arminian the theological version of Annie Wilkes? (It is also interesting to pause and reflect on the fact that Misery was actually a story written by Stephen King. So neither Paul nor Annie was “real”. But that didn't affect your grasping the point. I think this point may lend credence to the conceivability of the Author-character model.)

iv) How would Olson apply the WCP to the Bible? For example:

Isaiah 10:5-15

5 "Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger,
in whose hand is the club of my wrath!
6 I send him against a godless nation,
I dispatch him against a people who anger me,
to seize loot and snatch plunder,
and to trample them down like mud in the streets.

7 But this is not what he intends,
this is not what he has in mind;
his purpose is to destroy,
to put an end to many nations.

8 'Are not my commanders all kings?' he says.

9 'Has not Calno fared like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad,
and Samaria like Damascus?

10 As my hand seized the kingdoms of the idols,
kingdoms whose images excelled those of Jerusalem and Samaria-

11 shall I not deal with Jerusalem and her images
as I dealt with Samaria and her idols?' "

12 When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, "I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes. 13 For he says:
" 'By the strength of my hand I have done this,
and by my wisdom, because I have understanding.
I removed the boundaries of nations,
I plundered their treasures;
like a mighty one I subdued their kings.

14 As one reaches into a nest,
so my hand reached for the wealth of the nations;
as men gather abandoned eggs,
so I gathered all the countries;
not one flapped a wing,
or opened its mouth to chirp.' "

15 Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it,
or the saw boast against him who uses it?
As if a rod were to wield him who lifts it up,
or a club brandish him who is not wood!

Isaiah 14:24-27

24 The LORD Almighty has sworn,
"Surely, as I have planned, so it will be,
and as I have purposed, so it will stand.
25 I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.
His yoke will be taken from my people,
and his burden removed from their shoulders."

26 This is the plan determined for the whole world;
this is the hand stretched out over all nations.

27 For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?
His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?

And still speaking of Assyria:

Isaiah 37:26

26 "Have you not heard?
Long ago I ordained it.
In days of old I planned it;
now I have brought it to pass,
that you have turned fortified cities
into piles of stone.

Here we have Jehovah clearly causing the Assyrian king to "to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets." So is this an instance of WCP? Have we shown God to be immoral?

Another example can be found in Job. When Job heard that the Chaldeans had stolen his camels and killed his servants, Job said: The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." Is this a violation of WCP? Or is this an instance of the different levels of God's involvement. The Chaldeans took and the Lord took. The Bible obviously ascribes different causal models to each.

One last example will do for the time being. Take Jesus' death. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus death was planned from before the creation. It was also known that he would be sinless. Thus to kill an innocent man is murder. Now, suppose God had not caused what would take place. He left it up to chance. How would Jesus pay for the sins of his people if no one instantiated the necessary requirement of murdering him? Would we read in the Bible about him going up to people and pleading for them to murder him? Perhaps he would commit a capital crime so that he could complete his task of getting murdered. But then he wouldn’t be sinless. Perhaps he would kill himself? Of course all of this is absurd. So, God made sure, determined, planned, brought it about, caused, whatever floats your boat, that Jesus would be murdered. Thus, God caused other people to do a wrong act, thus a violation of the WCP! Let's look at the biblical witness:

Acts 2:22-23

22"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

Acts 4:27-29

27Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.

And so here we see an unambiguous case where God "caused" people to do wrong things. Ben Witherington, an Arminian and certainly no friend of Calvinism, comments on Acts 4: “Vv. 27-28 indicate that while Herod, Pilate, the Jews, and the Gentiles all intended ill, God had other intentions. These human actors were only doing what God’s hand and plan had destined in advance to transpire” (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, 1998, 202, emphasis mine). Likewise New Testament scholar, and Arminian, Darrell Bock says, “This opposition is not seen as a surprise but something God had planned and predestined” (Bock, Acts, BECNT, Baker, 2007, 208). We can state our finding formally:

[1] God decreed Jesus' death.

[2] That death was by murder.

[3]Therefore, God decreed murder.

[4] Murder is evil.

[5] Therefore, God decreed evil.

So the WCP doesn’t work for Olson. One reason is that God had a good reason, a morally sufficient reason, for the death of Jesus.

Thus Olson’s WCP principle isn't a necessary one. If it were, it would contradict clear teaching in the Bible (even an essential of the faith). This option is not open to the Christian.

v) God also may cause someone to do a "wrong" act but the act serves as either punishment of discipline. If someone is worthy of punishment and discipline, then why is God using a gang member as his tool necessarily immoral?
vi) Does Olson’s argument open up the door to the Wrongful Permission principle?

WPP: It is wrong to permit or allow someone to do a wrong act if you could stop them through no loss of your own.

Olson admits God “cooperates” with sinners in doing sinful actions. He says God “permits” the evils to happen. If Olson did this, he would be immoral. So there’s disparity. Indeed, Olson seems to sense this problem and so claims that God can do these things “without being stained by the guilt of sin” (122). He seems to understand that God operates at another level. Why can’t God “ordain” or “cause” sin “without beings stained by the guilt of sin?” To the Calvinist, it simply looks like Olson is cheating again.

2. Olson engages in some misrepresentation and bad scholarship of his own. For example, he picks on Paul Helm’s claim that “Not only is every atom and molecule, every thought and desire, kept in being by God, but every twist and turn of these is under God’s direct control” (118). He then claims that helm “cannot bring himself to say that God caused the fall of humanity with its terrible consequences. He says only that God permitted it. This seems inconsistent with his earlier statement that every twist and turn of every thought and desire is controlled by God, and with his overall insistence with meticulous providence” (119 n.6).

This is unfortunate. In the space of a page he can’t even remember the Helm quote. Helm said things are “under the direct control” not “controlled.” And, Helm never uses the term “meticulous providence” intended by Olson to create a picture of an anal retentive control freak, much like Julia Roberts’ husband in Sleeping With The Enemy. First, even Olson admits that everything is under God’s direct control. Olson admits that God could do whatever he wants with his creation. He could turn them left or right if he wanted to. This means they are “under his control.” If God couldn’t turn them left if he wanted to, then he wouldn’t have control (he would have partial control at best). So, like above, we’d have to spell this out. Apparently Olson thinks that to “control” something is to make it do what you want to do while it doesn’t do what it wants to do. But this begs the question against compatibilism. Another unfortunate misrepresentation is that Helm does not even come close to an “inconsistency” with what was previously cited. Indeed, on the page Olson cites Helm states, “So the problem is not merely ‘How God can permit or allow evil?’ but ‘How can there be evil in a universe which God controls?’” (Helm, The Providence of God, IVP, 1992, 25). This directly refutes Olson!

He then cites Helm again, using the same page numbers, thus giving the impression that he stopped reading after he saw something he didn’t like, and acted like Calvinists, like Helm, don’t explain “what control is” (135). He claims that he doesn’t like when Helm says that God “permits” evil. But Helm is more precise than that, and Olson should know better. Helm uses the term “willingly permits.” This permission is no bare permission, though. It is his willing permission. Helm says for "For X willingly to permit action A is at least for this: for A to be the action of someone other than X; for X to foreknow the occurrence of A and to have been able to prevent A; and for A not to be against X's overall plan" (Helm, Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, pp.176-178). On this view then, God does not causally determine everything in the sense that he is the efficient cause of everything. But nothing that happens is something that God was unwilling to happen. So God positively governs all acts that occur and negatively governs all evil acts by knowingly willingly permitting them. But Olson gives the impression that Helm, and other Calvinists, haven’t spelled out what they mean by things. For example, how saying God “causes” or “willingly permits” or “governs” evil happenings doesn’t implicate God as the evil doer.

By way of response, first it’s not clear the logic that makes on say that since God ordained x, God did x. How does that argument go? Second, if Olson wasn’t beholden by myths about Calvinism, and reluctant to study his opponent (as he repeatedly claims us Calvinists fail to do), perhaps he could have been more honest in his book and clear about what his problem with Calvinism is, exactly.

First, God governs all events. He does so mostly positively, but negatively in some cases, namely evil. Wills all of them that are. So the governing is what can be called the “causing.” Not the decree. But there are different ways of governing. Positive and negative. Negative governing is better referred to as “willingly permitted” as opposed to “caused.” But terms like this get problematic as soon as we try to apply them to God, a sui generis being, anyway:

“But is not anyone who is willing for an evil action to occur the cause of that action, or at least an accessorily, and so himself evil? I wish to present two alternative arguments for thinking not. But first, before we look at these arguments, it is necessary to get clearer about the meaning of willing permission (Paul Helm, Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, p.233)

“God positively governs acts which are not evil, …he governs all other acts, evil acts, by permitting them, since he cannot positively govern them. However if such permission is to be consistent with the absence of risk, then it has to be a particular kind of permission of particular actions; the willing permission governs particular action tokens. So one may make sense of the idea of divine permission in a way that is compatible with risk-free-ness if one is prepared to maintain that there are types of actions which God can prevent but which nevertheless he cannot cause, even though he may be willing for them to occur. Then God can only control an evil action by willingly permitting it, by deciding not to prevent it; and the evil action occurs because it is caused by the natures and circumstances of those who perpetrate it; but not by God (ibid, 233).

“The nature of such permission is well expressed by Augustine:

‘In a way unspeakably strange and wonderful, even what is done in opposition to His will does not defeat His will. For it would not be done if he did not permit it (and of course his permission is not unwilling but willing); nor would a Good being permit evil to be done only that in his omnipotence He can turn evil into good.’

"So for X willingly to permit action A is at least for this: for A to be the action of someone other than X; for X to foreknow the occurrence of A and to have been able to prevent A; and for A not to be against X's overall plan. So on this conception God foreknows everything, and unconditionally governs everything, but does not causally determine everything in the sense that he is the efficient cause of everything. Nevertheless, nothing happens that God is unwilling should happen (ibid, 234)

“But it may still be insisted - somewhat implausibly, it seems to me - that if God willingly permits X, then God is the cause of X. So let us now consider a number of arguments against the claim that if God willingly permit’s the occurrence of an action, then he is the cause of that action (ibid, 234).

“First, the claim that an appeal to divine willing I the sense defined is a case of divine determinism. It is tempting, but I believe crude and misleading, to assimilate the working of such permission into intramundane models of causation, and particularly to general physical determinism. Such willing permission has this in common with determinism: that what is physically determined and what is willingly permitted will each, in virtue of the determinism and the occurrence of what is willingly permitted, come to pass. However, willingly to permit and action is not to cause that action; it is to provide necessary, but not sufficient , causal condition for the action. Whereas physical determinism has a string tendency to be reductionist and has difficulty in finding a place for a range of objects having their own causal powers, the divine willing permission is most certainly not reductionist in this sense (ibid, 234).

“One way of expressing this difference might be as follows. While it seems clear that intramundane causation is transitive, that if (where A, B, and C are events) A causes B, and B causes C. then A causes C, there is no necessary transivity in the case of any causal aspects or features of the divine willing permission, if there are any (there are some causal features if wicked people are upheld and conserved in being by God). It is not necessarily the case that of God governs by willingly permitting some event B, and B causes C, then God causes C; rather, God may will by permitting that B causes C and so willingly permit C. God’s willing permission is thus not a straightforward case of causation… (ibid, 235)

“So those who hold that God governs whatever comes to pass may nevertheless make a distinction, within the overall government, between what God causes and what he permits. William Hasker says that the central idea of Calvinism is quite simple: ‘everything that happens, with no exceptions, is efficaciously determined by God in accordance with his eternal decrees.’ … To say that everything is risk-freely governed by God is not to say that everything is efficaciously determined by God (ibid, 235).

“So it is possible that God risk-freely governs whatever comes to pass, and plausible (if God is omnipotent and omniscient) to suppose that he does so. If for any event E, E occurs, then God risk-freely governs E either by bringing it about or being willing for it to occur. Whatever occurs, occurs because God risk-freely governs it in this sense; whatever is true in virtue of what occurs is true because God so governs it. So to say that all events are risk-freely governed by God, while it entails that all events are intended by God, is not equivalent to asserting that, for any event E, if E occurs, then God has caused it” (ibid, 236)

“[God] may willingly permit evil - that is, actualize that possible world in which he foreknows that Jones will do a particular evil act. This is an instance of particular permission; God permits particular acts, as distinct from giving general permission, as when a teacher permit’s a class to write an essay on any topic they choose. And God may do so willingly, not because he is willing for the evil act to occur per se, but because he ordains some wider good of which that acts is a necessary part. The willing permission of evil may in many cases be like the willingness of a parent to allow one of her children to undergo some extremely painful, but necessary, course of treatment (say the removal of a vital organ) to ensure the survival of another of her children by transplanting the removed organ into that child. And God may willingly permit such a particular action, for some further good, though of course without any of the feelings of psychological pressure or tension that accompany such human permittings (ibid 236).

“Those events which God permits he does so in furtherance of some wider consideration with respect to which they are a logically necessary condition (ibid, 236).

“In talking about God, and particularly about God’s relation to the world, we are talking about a situation which is unparalleled. We have no direct experience of such a relation, but only relations between created things. Our language about God’s causal powers must be qualified, therefore. Thus it is misleading to assimilate the working of the divine decree as understood by a no-risk position to ordinary instances of causation. We need always bear in mind the words of Nicolas Malenbranche, “God is a mind, or spirit, He thinks, He wills; but let us not humanise Him - He does not think or will as we do (ibid, 240).

“To undermine the point further, both Hasker and I have taken it for granted that divine foreknowledge is incompatible with indeterministic human freedom. It follows from this that if God infallibly knows the future, then no free act is indeterministic. But it does not follow from this, without further argument, that such divine foreknowledge is the cause of the action foreknown. Failing a convincing argument of this kind, we might say that foreknowledge ensures the occurrence of the action in question without causing it (ibid, 240).

“So words like ‘cause’ or ‘decree’ or ‘permit,’ when used of God the uncreated cause, ate used in rather different ways, with rather different logical implications, from those in which are ordinary notions of cause are used (ibid, 240).

“It needs to be emphasized that to suppose that divine causation must be analogically related to ordinary causation between events is a perfectly general point about divine causation, and is not a case of special pleading on behalf of a no-risk position. For all theists, including Hasker, are faced with the problem of characterizing in a philosophically adequate manner the unparalleled causal feats of God’s creation of the universe ex nihilo, and of his conserving his creation in existence by upholding what he has created. It is hard to see that these are cases of ordinary causation, even supposing that we understand what ordinary causation is (ibid, 241).

Olson constantly that the Calvinist position is that all things are efficaciously caused. But while ago Dr. Green said,

“It ought, however, to be carefully noted here, that all who soundly hold this doctrine maintain that there is a difference always to be kept up between what have been denominated the efficacious decrees and the permissive decrees of God. His efficacious decrees relate to whatever is morally good; his permissive decrees to whatever is morally evil. In other words, his immediate agency, according to his decree, is concerned in whatever is morally good, —his immediate agency is never concerned in what is morally evil. Evil he permits to take place, and efficaciously, over rules it for good,-for the promotion of his glory” ( Lectures On The Shorter Catechism, Vol. I, pp. 180-181.).

Though I might not agree with everything Helm says, or I might not put things exactly the same in every instance, the point is that Olson was a little less than careless in his portrayal of Helm and the Calvinist position. Olson’s tactics make it hard to take him serious when he complains about how misrepresented and misunderstood Arminians are.

3. Olson complains in many places that Calvinism undermines personal relationships. No argument is offered, though. But Olson also wants to hold, for now, to traditional exhaustive foreknowledge. But I’d say that this rather throws a wrench into the whole “relationship” argument! No doubt that Olson is, again, looking at what relationships between people look like and extrapolating that to our relation to God. This is why the Open Theists deny exhaustive foreknowledge. God is our friend. He and his friends face the future together, unsure of the results. Again Olson is hoisted by his own petard. In holding to exhaustive foreknowledge one of the partners know precisely what the other person is going to do, how she will react, and what she is thinking. Imagine how your relationships would change if you were omniscient about your friends every move. Since Olson holds to “meticulous foreknowledge,” then God knows not only what the partner will do, but God knows how he will respond, and how the partner will respond, and then how he will respond, etc. This is obviously a very different “relationship” than interpersonal human relationships. So Olson’s “relationship” argument seems to be another instance where he excepts himself from his own arguments. Where he wants to have his cake and eat it too.

4. Olson and other Arminians want to hold that “all means all” when speaking about who Jesus died for. Olson mentioned this point when citing John 3:16 (and he only gave one Calvinist interpretation of that passage and acted as if it were the only one). He doesn’t want God to create evil, or will evil. That’s how the Calvinist winds up logically implying that God is the author of evil (whatever that means). But then we must ask Olson if he really wants all to mean all? The Bible teaches that God made the world and everything in it (Acts 17), he created all things, and by his will they existed and were created (Rev. 4), God makes everything (Ecc 11); indeed not one thing has come into being came to be apart from the Logos (John 1). Arminians must view their selves as causing things ex-nihilo. That they create their own natures by which they choose things. But, if the Arminian takes “all” seriously (Olson said we do not take the plain meaning of Scripture seriously), then his libertarianism has some serious problems. This implicates God in evil actions. “By his will” evil intentions exist and were created. The Calvinist, compatibilist model is the only option that works.

5. Libertarian freedom cannot ground ascriptions of moral responsibility. If an agent S chooses * for reasons x, y, and z, and desires a, b, and c, then if S is libertarian free S is able to choose * or not choose *. If God were to bring S back to the second before * was chosen, S could have chosen to not *, even given all the same reasons and desires. Out of a hundred rewinds, S might have chosen to * 70% and chosen not to * 30% of the time. Out of another hundred rewinds, S might have chosen to * 55% of the time and chosen not to * 45% of the time. Out of another hundred, S might have chosen to * 60% of the time and to not * 40% of the time. All of these, remember, would be done given the same reasons, x, y, and z, and the same desires, a, b, and c. What accounts for why S went one way and not another? To just say, “the self did it,” tells us nothing. Given that every antecedent event could have been the same, it looks to us compatibilists that choosing * is a chance happening, an instance of luck. If so, the S does not have the power to do * or refrain from *ing. No one has power over luck or chance occurrences. Thus it looks like it’s not enough for Olson to just rest in the “mystery” of foreknowledge and libertarian freedom, it looks like libertarianism results in Olson losing his foundational doctrines of proper moral ascriptions and real relationships.

6. Olson dusts of the old canard that if God is sovereign in the Calvinist’s sense, then why pray (117-118)? Of course if prayer is one of the determined means God uses as an instrument to bring about his will, then Olson has his answer. Also, it should not go unnoticed that we are commanded to pray. We should also remember that Olson holds to meticulous foreknowledge. If God knows everything, why pray? Can you change what God knows?

7. Olson’s response to the Calvinist greater good theodicy is to ask “What is the greater good?” Arminians “want to know what the greater good is here” (99). Of course he seems ignorant of contemporary responses to the problem of evil here (we should not forget that the number one argument atheists use against Christianity is the problem of evil, this is also the Arminians number one argument against Calvinism), mainly from Arminians.

But first, it’s not as if we can’t offer some reasons. God uses evil to test his servants (cf. 1 Peter 1:7; James 1:3), to discipline them (Hebrews 12:7-11), to preserve their life (Genesis 50:20), to enable them to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-7), and to give them greater joy when suffering is replaced by glory (1 Peter 4:13). (The above Scriptural examples were taken from John Frame’s “Doctrine of God,” pg. 170.) All of these specific second-order goods bring God more glory, and these are achieved by His allowing suffering and evil.

But there are some problems here. The Bible presents us with a worldview that has a proper place for mystery. Given Christian theistic metaphysics, we should expect to have limited epistemic access to many of God’s way. C.S. Lewis wrote: "Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys' philosophies--these over simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either." Take the Apostle Paul: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 'Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?'" Or God through Isaiah: "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the LORD." Or Moses: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law."

It seems the objection that if I cannot give a good reason then this is a solid base upon which to conclude that there probably isn’t one, but this is ridiculous. Or, the height of autonomous man's arrogance: "If I can't see or fathom or understand how God could turn evil for some good, then there isn't a good." But that’s absurd. As Bergmann and Howard-Snyder comment:

[An] aspect of [this] inference should make us wary. ...[I]t takes 'the insights attainable by finite, fallible human beings as an adequate indication of what is available in the way of reasons to an omniscient, omnipotent being." But this is like supposing that when you're confronted with the activity or productions of a master in a field in which you have little expertise, it is reasonable for you to draw inferences about the quality of her work just because you 'don't get it.' You've taken a year of high school physics. You're faced with some theory about quantum phenomena, and you can't make heads or tails of it. Certainly it is unreasonable for you to assume that more likely than not you'd be able to make sense of it" (Bergman & Snyder, Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, p. 18-19).

But, I go further. Their analogies were between creatures and not between creatures and a sui generis Creator who has infinite wisdom and has positively revealed to us that this very issue belongs to the secret council of God!

For Olson to justify his rejection of Calvinism’s greater good theodicy he would have to justify his inference from “I can’t see the good reason,” to “therefore, there is no good reason.” He may claim that it is “just” an appeal to mystery too. Though this can’t have that much weight since Olson appeals to mystery on his end. So, what do we call Olson’s argument? Philosophers of religion have called it the “noseeum” to “thereisnun” inference.

The "noseeum" argument is that argument employed by atheists in giving the evidential argument from evil. That is, they acknowledge the logical argument is dead, and so now argue from evidences to alleged cases of gratuitous suffering. A paradigm case is Bambi suffering in a forest fire (this also assumes a certain view on natural evils which I do not hold, but I don't need to flesh that out for our purposes). The argument is that it appears that there could be no good reason, no God-justifying-good, for this case of evil. They acknowledge that what matters is not that one can't conceive of a God-justifying-good, but that there actually be no God-justifying-good. They then argue for a strong link between appearance and reality, that's the induction that makes this not the traditional "logical argument from evil." The Skeptical theists, mainly: Alston, Bergmann, Rea, and Wykstra, offer arguments to the effect that there is no warrant to move from what we see to any actuality, especially given certain assumptions of the Christian worldview, viz., Creator/creature distinction, doctrine of Incomprehensibility, our epistemic condition, the massively large and complex nature of an infinite God's plan, etc. This undercuts the "noseeum" argument. It makes more explicit the greater good defense. Gives you more to say than just that there is a greater good. This is an all-too-brief summary of the debates, but it should be enough for our purposes.

First, Calvinists don’t just appeal to mystery. They also gave arguments that attempted to show that the appeal to unknown God-justifying goods was implied by other Christian doctrines.

Second, "Why did God do X over Y,” isn't an argument.

Third, Olson raises this objection in the context of preterition and reprobation (he never uses the term preterition and seems to be unaware of this important distinction). The doctrine of reprobation or predamnation has God basing his decision on the actual sins committed by the agents. Preterition is the passing over or rejecting of some. This is relegated to the secret council of God. This is hardly a problem for the Calvinist. Indeed, going back to the earliest of our literature you will note that it has been us who first made these distinctions. In regards to preterition, we don't know why God passes over who he does. The skeptical theist argument can be used here, in regards to reprobation or predamnation, the basis is the sinner’s sin.


As I made clear from the start, I highly recommend Olson’s book. I appreciate him writing it. Unfortunately, if not ironically, we found our own “myths” perpetrated inside, we found inconsistent reasoning, we found muddled thinking, we found misuse of Scripture, we found a heavy dependence on emotional, a priori philosophical assumptions, we found some “key” doctrines absent from Scripture, and, worst of all, we found that the Bible outright contradicted Arminianism on many points. Though this book is important for Calvinist and Arminian alike to have, it does nothing to further the case that Arminianism is a viable option – whether scripturally or philosophically (!) – and indeed demonstrates to Calvinists that Arminianism is not a viable biblical option outside a broad understanding of what a viable biblical option is. Arminians are certainly saved (if they trust and rest in Christ alone), and they are certainly our brothers, but we must not sacrifice truth in the name of ecumenicalism.


  1. To Paul and Steve:

    This is in reference to my comment on a previous post. Thanks for the references to your positive theodicies. They gave me much food for thought. As I'm only just beginning to become acquainted with Calvinism through Jonathan Edwards and I haven't read anything on Arminianism, I'll refrain from responding to this review. But I will say that you guys are really, really sharp. Your opponents constantly underestimate you.

  2. I can honestly not fathom how someone can write a 26 page review (I saved it in a word document, single spaced). I'm on page 9 now.

    So far the most eye popping statement is:

    "We are told that doctrines are rejected because they impugn an a priori understanding of what the character of God must be like (15). "

  3. Paul,

    "Likewise New Testament scholar, and Arminian, Darrell Bock says..."

    I always thought that he was a Calvinist for some reason. Monergism's bookstore sells his commentaries on Luke and Acts. I thought that they only sold commentaries by Calvinist authors?

  4. Perhaps so. A lot of times commentators just comment without letting presuppositions come in. So that's why we see Arminians writing helpful comments some times. I haven't seen where he comes out and says anything either way. If someone can find out I'll ammend the post.

  5. Look at his commentary on Acts, p.465 (top paragraph).

  6. Sean said:
    I can honestly not fathom how someone can write a 26 page review ...

    One keystroke at a time.


  7. S&S,

    We certainly would read that Calvinistically, but I can see Olson saying, "I agree with that!." Bock also cites Witherington. Witherinton says the same thing as Bock (p. 416, bottom).

  8. P.S. Witherington also says with Bock that we have one of the strongest statements of sovereignty. And here we read of predestination. And God's primary role in salvation. But Witherington can say that and this too:

    "The Calvinist system links the ideas of predestination, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Each of those has its own exegetical weaknesses, especially perseverance of the saints."

    He said that in an interview on a recent book of his on theological systems. So, the use of those terms doesn't necessarily imply one means what we mean by it. So I'd need more from Bock.

  9. If you have his commentary on Luke, try looking up his comments on 10:22. (Sorry, I don't have it.)

  10. Paul said:

    In reality, the sinner never chose the grace that enabled him to come to God with his own free will (75-76). [emphasis mine]

    But don't (at least some) Arminians argue that that's precisely the problem? That we Calvinists don't present their position more consistently (i.e. strawman argument). According to them, fallen men DON'T have *free* wills (post lapsis) since they are in bondage to sin. They have, apart from prevenient grace, *enslaved* wills (not *free* wills). So in the Arminian perspective(s), God is merely restoring to man that which he lost at the fall. Namely, to be able to freely accept or freely reject God's offers of salvation. In which case, God is not really violating one's free will, but restoring free will by repairing the will. Therefore it's not Pelagianism. Nor is it Semi-Pelagianism since God also is the one who initates salvific grace in one's heart (rather than men initiating it), but it's ultimately up to them to positively respond to both prevenient grace and salvific grace (or just salvific grace, since prevenient grace efficacious in freeing the will).

    Although, I don't hear all Arminians phrasing things this.
    Those I have heard formulate it this way often have been influenced by Catholic writers. For example, Catholic scholar McSorely "Luther: Right or Wrong"

  11. Atleast Olsen is willing to be an adult about the subject. In a recent debate I had with a Arminian Pentcostal all he did was attack me as a pharesse and sower of devision.

  12. AP,

    I didn't claim it was pelagian or SP with that remark you quote.

    TD man would not choose prevenient grace.

    They tell us calvinists that God can't force a man to be disposed to God otherwise that ruins true love. But that's what PG does. Given the option, TD man wouldn't choose PV. And, I don't see how they can say that TD man doesn't have free will given all the things they tell me. Olson said they could choose between a mutiplicity of evils. Olson things "choice" implies "LFW," therefore Olson must think, on pain of violating his logic, that TD man has free will *or* he must deny his claim that "choice" asssumes LFW.

  13. Thanks for this Paul,

    A long but worthy read. I really liked the Corduan quote- "an effect is never free from its cause".
    I met Olson at an ETS conference in 2002. He was giving away many copies of his 538 page hardcover,Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism with evangelistic zeal!
    He claims that the "goal of my whole book" is to lead us to "a more biblically based doctrine of election"(430).
    In opposition to the above Corduan quote- Olson claims (siding with Geisler) that, "Clearly, Lucifer's sin was self-caused(98)". Kinda makes him a dualist by Corduan definition.
    On page 449 I give him credit for his critique on the open theists for their poor translation of nachum/repentance. On the same page he insists that "we must separate God's knowing from His determining". This refers to an old paper of his that he presented claiming that "foreknowledge has no pregnant meaning (155).
    Seems there's little new in his newer book. Think I'll let the old one gather some more dust.


  14. Hi Ron,


    I assume libertarians could agree with Corduan -- I believe he's a libertarian -- because they would say that the "self" was the cause of the effect. Libertarians typically deny that the act of the self's choosing is properly classified as an "effect."

    Anyway, since the debates over determinism and indeterminism rages on, I find it nothing more than special pleading to say that "clearly" Lucifer's sin was "self-caused" *if* they mean that Lucifer's causing was *ultimate*.

    Calvinists separate God's "knowing" from his "determining," depending on how that's cashed out. We would say he knows because he determined. In that sense it's not separated. But the plan isn't "knowing" itself. But the worry is still there, as Olson claims in the book I review. The point about "knowing" is more related to "live possibilities to do otherwise."

    Anyway, I'd agree with you. I didn't get the impression that Olson was serious about engaging compatibilist arguments about the metaphysics of free will.

  15. Great discussion! Someone asked me to clarify my personal view, and I will be short and (hopefully) sweet about it. On Facebook I identify myself as "libertarian," but that refers only to my political spleen, not to my theological or metaphysical views. When it comes to the latter categories, you could classify me as "consistent Calvinist" (what others call "Hypercalvinist") and "soft determinist" respectively.
    I applaud your bringing up the nature of causality. The discussion on theology proper over the last fifteen years has suffered greatly by the fact that too many people are attempting to treat a metaphysical subject (the nature of God) without consciously clarifying their metaphysics. As a result, many theologians wind up with burgerdogs rather than hamburgers or hot dogs.
    Peace. Win

  16. Ron,

    I think you have confused Roger Olson (the author of Arminian Theology) with C. Gordon Olson (the author of Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism).


    P.S. Nice review, Paul.

  17. Thanks James,

    I noticed that afterward and thought I had published a request for retraction.
    Thank you for noticing and my extreme apologies to Roger.


  18. Hi there, great blog.

    On this matter of Roger Olson: I'm a phd student in the UK, specializing in reformed dogmatics. Reading through recent journal articles I stumbled upon a piece by the mightily esteemed reformation scholar, Richard it, he briefly discusses Olson's text. I thought you might like to read what he said:

    "Olson's work, it needs be noted, is not a scholarly essay but a form of popular theology that often misreads the documents it cites, fails to grasp the significance of confessionality in the 16th and 17th centuries, and dismisses the centrality of soteriological monergism in the confessional churches of the reformation. What little there is of history in his claim that Arminius ought to be viewed as Reformed is derived from [Carl] Bangs" -
    Muller, Richard A. (2008) 'Historical and Theological Studies: Arminius and the Reformed Tradition', WT Journal vol. 70; p. 21 n. 10