* Full disclosure: I received this book from Zondervan as a review copy.
Against Calvinism, Roger Olson, Zondervan, 2011, 207 pages.
Reviewed by Paul Manata
Roger Olson's Against Calvinism is the companion volume to Michael Horton's For Calvinism (both published by Zondervan). The two are the latest entries in the long-standing Calvinist/Arminian debate, and the debate shows no signs of resolution or letting up—despite the efforts of these recent salvos. I believe Olson's case is particularly weak and I will give my reasons for the assessment below. But first, I will offer readers a short and standard review of Olson's book. That is, I will present Olson's aims, summarize the content of the book and briefly summarize the chapters. I will make some brief and general criticisms, but I will save the strongest and most in-depth for part two.
Roger Olson wants his readers to know that he's not against Calvinists as persons, but he feels he needs to give their doctrines a strong "No!" His main target is identified as neither Reformed theology en toto, nor Calvinism en toto, but a subset of doctrines ostensibly recognized as Calvinism: TULIP (the acronym stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints). To be more precise, Olson does not even have the conjunction of TULIP in his sights. Thus by "against Calvinism," what Olson means is that he "is opposed to any and every belief system that includes the 'U,' the 'L,' and/or the 'I' in TULIP" (62). But even here it's not exactly clear what he's against. He writes strongly against each of these three, and seems to suggest that he is against them individually and jointly. He claims that the 'U' and the 'I' "always appear together, but is most strongly against the 'L.' But then he claims that "the 'L' . . . is necessarily implied by the 'U' and the 'I'" (62). This doesn't seem right. Olson seems to suggest that if a Calvinist were a universalist like Barth, then the moral charges filed against God would vanish. And there are universalists who hold to the 'U' and the 'I.' Olson would need to show how those necessarily imply the 'L.' I for one welcome that argument as it would force all universalists to become libertarians—which in turn would make it very hard for God to ensure universalism! In any event, I can't see how the 'U' and the 'I' necessarily imply the 'L,' though it makes it more hard to deny the 'L' if you affirm a populated eternal hell. So it might look as if he really only has issue with the 'L,' or the 'L' conjoined with the 'U' and the 'I.' However, Olson does say that any form of determinism or compelling does not allow for real relationships of any kind (cf. pp. 166-168). This obtains with the 'I.' And with the 'U,' Olson claims that "sheer logic" shows that 'U' implies God makes an arbitrary choice" (115). Presumably God can't make arbitrary choices, and so 'U' can't obtain. So it appears to me that Olson is against "ULI" individually and jointly.
Olson argues against "ULI" through mainly interacting with four Calvinists—Calvin, Loraine Boettner, Paul Helm, and R. C. Sproul—and then asking a series of what appear to be rhetorical questions of their views or what he thinks they imply. Olson's main argument is to show that "ULI" turns God into a moral monster, the author of sin, and into a cold, unloving deity. He will present the view, and often claim it is "incoherent," without offering an argument (or derivation) for the incoherency. Olson seems to be betting on the reader sharing his incredulity and intuitions. So, often claims are made without any argument at all. Olson repeatedly says the view is "contradictory" or "makes God into a monster," but he does not spend time drawing this out and showing it. Often, Olson will claim that "common sense" is enough to just see that the view is false (e.g., 97, 168, etc.). Olson will often present a Calvinist answer to his question and simply respond with incredulity, for example, when he cites Sproul saying that the reason for God's choice in election resides in his good pleasure, Olson responds: "I can only respond with a stunned or bemused, 'Huh?'" (119). And that's it. The constant rhetorical questions, appeals to incredulity, appeals to what is common sense, and allegations of obvious violations of "sheer logic" without any demonstration of the violations, was probably the most frustrating part of the book for me. Olson does seem to think that the flaws with "ULI" are just so obvious and the only reason most people,—especially the "young, restless, and Reformed," his bête noire—hold to them is because no one has simply laid the views, with all their absurdity, out in front of them. Once you show that, say, Calvin claimed that God decreed that a man would be robbed and murdered, then it's just obvious that God can only be a moral monster. To be fair, Olson does at times attempt to put some meat on the bones of his claims. This is typically done by analogy, asking whether if a human did the things Olson sees the Calvinist God doing we wouldn't find that human despicable. But that is about as deep as the argument goes, and it is subject to severe counterexamples, as I will show below. Perhaps this approach is what Olson thought would be most rhetorically and polemically useful. There is a certain kind of persuasion (brute force, fear) in saying, "That view is just obviously flawed, no serious person could hold to that, and besides, is morally repugnant," and it does have an effect. For me, it was unhelpful to show me why Calvinism was flawed. But it came through loud and clear that Olson is personally disgusted.
On the exegetical front, Olson did much the same as the above. He never once produces an exegetical argument for his view. The most in-depth one of his "exegetical" arguments gets can be captured by his comments on I Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, to wit: "The Greek of 1 Timothy 2:4 cannot be interpreted any other way than as referring to every person without limit. Some Calvinists interpret 2 Peter 2:4 (sic 3:9) as referring only to the elect, but in light of 1 Timothy 2:4, that hardly works" (68). Olson frequently claims that "there are other, and better, exegeses" passages than the Calvinist one's he argues against. For example, he says "The best critical exegetes of John 3:16 affirm it does mean 'the whole human race'" (134). But when one looks at the footnote one sees Olson merely refer to a quote of A. T. Robinison that was used by Jerry Vines in his article, "Sermons on John 3:16." Now, this isn't to say that John 3:16 doesn't mean what Olson says it means, it is to give an example of the way Olson makes virtually all of his exegetical points. It's a series of refutations that go like this: "That view is wrong and there's better views out there. See my footnote!" The footnote is usually underwhelming. Moreover, Calvinist exegesis is not interacted with, some Calvinist conclusions are. But readers are not told how the Calvinists get to their conclusions. In fact, non-Calvinist exegetes who disagree with Olson are not interacted with either. Olson again seems to bank on the reader "just seeing" things his way. So he will say, "What about 1 Timothy 2:4 that says God wants 'all people' to be saved? Boettner explains: 'Verses such as 1 Timothy 2:4, it seems, are best understood not to refer to men individually but as teaching the general truth that God is benevolent and that He does not delight in the sufferings and death of His creatures.' One can only ask how that is a possible interpretation of that verse?" (116). The problem is that if the reasons for the interpretation were given, the reader would then be able to see how the interpretation is a possible one. As with the above, Olson's chosen style was unfortunate for me in assessing his case against Calvinism. Though again, I understand that there may have been rhetorical and polemical decisions that went into the approach to argument here. All I can say is that for me they didn't seem to be helpful in getting me to see the flaws with Calvinism, or, "ULI."
That said, here is a brief run-down of the chapters. After Olson introduces why he chose to write this book, he turns in chapter two to a brief but helpful historical survey of the wideness and divergence of the Reformed and Calvinist traditions. He notes here that there are revisionists and radicals, the latter hold to the "ULI." The former are "Reformed and always Reforming." In chapter three Olson discusses "Mere Calvinism." He offers a very brief presentation of each of the petals of TULIP. He takes some shots in these chapters but claims he will fill them out as the book progresses. Chapter four says, "Yes to God's sovereignty; No to divine determinism." In this chapter Olson argues that the "ULI," as well as Reformed statements on God's decree, imply "determinism." In this chapter God is defined as the "author of evil," which is defined as "making a thing certain." Chapter five says "Yes to Election; No to Double Predestination." Olson argues against individual, unconditional election and reprobation in this chapter. He claims this makes God into a monster. He claims that the "corporate view" is the better reading of paradigm texts like Romans 9. Chapter six is more affirmation and denial in the form of, "Yes to Atonement, No to Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption." Olson argues that limited atonement makes God into a being indiscernible from the devil. He also briefly touches on whether Calvin held to limited atonement, but only cites one source and doesn't engage at all with those like Roger Nicole and Paul Helm on the matter. Olson claims that the Bible says God died for all men, and that to deny this undercuts evangelism and the sincere offer of the gospel (Olson also claims that election of some undercuts the sincere offer too). Chapter seven says, "Yes to Grace; No to Irresistible Grace." Olson wants to affirm prevenient grace in this chapter and thus distance Arminianism from charges of Pelagianism (semi- or otherwise). Olson thinks that irresistible grace is contradictory and makes men into robots. He claims relationships require "libertarian freedom" and that "it doesn't take a philosopher to establish these facts; they are common sense" (168). Olson's conclusion is over "Calvinism's Conundrums." Here Olson claims that Calvinists have no answers to questions of how divine sovereignty and human freedom can coexist. Another conundrum is that if Calvinism is true, "nothing can lessen God's glory" (177). Thus, Calvinists shouldn't complain about "heresy" because it has been ordained for God's glory. The last conundrum is that God is supposed to be good but "sees to it" (178) that people sin. This is the greatest conundrum of all. Olson never really spells out what the conundrums are supposed to be, but, it appears, hopes his readers will "just see" what is so blindingly obvious to him. Olson ends with two small appendices, (i) Calvinist Attempts to Rescue God's Reputation, and (ii) Response to Calvinist Claims. Both of these are very short and neither the Calvinist positions nor the response to them are spelled out with much clarity, force, and rigor.
At the end of the day, while Olson is clearly passionate about this issue, and clearly convinced that he is right and Calvinism is wrong, the arguments Olson gives for his passions and convictions leave much to be desired. If Olson wanted an echo chamber, I suppose he has it. If he wanted to convince thinking Calvinists of the errors of their ways, then asking a bunch of loaded and rhetorical questions, expressing incredulity, appealing to alleged common sense, and merely announcing that there are better exegetical argument than their positions, won't make muster. So, on one level the book succeeds: you can clearly tell that Olson is "against Calvinism." On another level, it doesn't: You can't tell what the principled reasons are for Olson being "against Calvinism." We know that he finds it repugnant, but we don't really get the arguments for this. Perhaps Olson believes the debate is intractable, and that at this point it's the one who can best shame their opponents into dropping their views that wins.
I will now critically engage Olson's criticisms of Calvinism.
I debated how to critically engage Olson's claims in his book. One approach would be to interact with all of his points, philosophical, theological, and historical. I have previously interacted with Olson's claims in an in-depth way in my review of his book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. By my lights, Olson hasn't advanced the discussion and so there's really nothing new to say. Historically, Olson makes many errors, for example, his claims that scholasticism is at odds, or was considered at odds, with either Reformed theology or Calvinism. For a counter-balance, one can read the Van Asselt edited Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Regarding the exegetical claims made, I don't feel that Olson presented anything like a case, and rested his counters to Reformed views on the fact that "there are other interpretations." As he didn't engage the exegetical arguments of (my preferred) Calvinistic readings of passages like John 3:16, 6:44; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9, etc., there's not much for me to say on that front. So what I have decided to do is to interact with Olson's philosophical arguments against Calvinism. I think, and will explain why, that this is all Olson cares about and is what seals the deal for him. Also, these are the kinds arguments Calvinists will receive most regularly. It is my considered position that virtually all anti-Calvinist philosophical arguments from evil can be answered, if they are not straight up invalid arguments, with a tu quoque counter-argument (if you are tempted to think that tu quoque arguments are necessarily fallacious or bad arguments, see for example Douglas Walton's paper, "The Ad Hominem Argument as Informal Fallacy (Argumentation1 (1987) 317-331)) . I do not believe the Arminian (or Molinist, or open Theist) conception of God has the alleged moral high ground their proponents claim for it. In fact, there's no morally relevance difference between the two. I could argue, and I believe, that their conceptions of God are morally worse, but it will suffice for me to show the weaker claim of no relevant moral difference. That is, if their arguments about Calvinism's conception of God implying a morally-ambiguous-if-not-monstrous deity are correct, then their arguments say the same things, mutatis mutandis, about their conceptions of God. Therefore, this issue will form the bulk of my critical engagement with Olson.
An Exegetical Complaint
However, having said that, I would like to register some complaint about some of the exegetical and theological claims of Olson's. I'll begin with an exegetical complaint. I found his treatment of John 6:44 and 12:32 to be extremely disappointing. Of course, I think John 6:35-51 teach the doctrines of grace, or, TULIP. So this was a crucial text for Olson to deal with. Olson only and always quotes part of John 6:44, "No one can come to me unless the father who sent me draws him." Olson never fails to leave unmentioned the rest of the verse, "And I will raise him up on the last day." The prima facie problem is obvious. It looks as if God raises unto everlasting life all those drawn. Now, if all men are drawn, then all men are raised to everlasting life, and thus universalism is true. But, Olson tells us that he "cannot affirm universal salvation" (62). Thus, the conclusion is obvious: Olson cannot affirm that God draws all men, and thus Olson's God is a moral monster according to him. Olson doesn't even address this elephant in the room. He simply quotes part of John 6:44 and then John 12:32, where Jesus says, "I will draw all men to myself," and declares that "God must draw all, and since some will be in hell, grace must be resistible." But Olson's understanding of John 12:32, which comes after John 6:44, is what leads to universalism, and Olson denies universalism. So Olson cannot internally accept his understanding of John 12:32 without dealing with the prima facie argument from John 6. To address a popular response, John 6:44 doesn't say that Jesus will raise the man who came. That's an eisegetical reading of the text. The text says nothing about the one who comes to Jesus, even though it is true that Jesus will raise those who come to him. I found this lapse to be disappointing. On top of that, Olson doesn't even exegete John 12:32, or deal with exegesis that conflicts with his. He doesn't address why the context seems to people about kinds of people, or why in the very chapter John claims that the Jews say that "the whole world" has gone after Jesus—when "whole world" doesn't mean "all people universally." Olson doesn't bother to address the simple fact that all men haven't been "drawn" to Jesus. To say so would require extrabiblical assumptions about responding to "light" and how to deal with those before Christ. Moreover, many commentators (not all Calvinists) do not see things Olson's way but see John referring to all kinds of men, e.g., see Carson, Köstenberger, Morris, Keener, &c. I have much more to say, and many other criticisms to make, but I will stop here and just make sure that one of my exegetical complaints has been registered.
Now, the main reason I will not engage in further exegetical discussion with Olson is that, at the end of the day, Olson doesn't care about that. Not only does Olson's philosophical assumptions about free will, relationships, ethics, etc., cause him to admit that "whatever the text means, it can't mean what the Calvinist claims it means," Olson pays lip service to the Bible's authority in this debate. For example, he begins by telling his readers that he, as a good Wesleyan, will be following the four criteria of theological truth, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. On this view, "Scripture is the primary source and norm of theology. Tradition is theology's 'normed norm'—a respectable guidance mechanism. Reason is a critical tool for interpreting Scripture and weeding out absolutely incredible theological claims that are untenable in the light of what else is believed. Experience is the inevitable crucible in which theology is done, but though it is a criteria of evaluation it is not an authority, so I will hardly appeal to it at all" (24). Now, Olson repeatedly appeals to experience, e.g., "But there is no example of that kind of love in human experience," or, "Is there an analogy to that kind of love in human experience?," or, "What possible analogy could there be to this in human experience?," or, "In what situation in human experience is merely accepting a gift the decisive factor in having it?," or, "it goes against the grain of all human thought and experience," or, "Is there any analogy to this Calvinist explanation of God's innocent role in sin and evil in human experience?," or, "In what human experience would such a manipulative, controlling person not be at least equally guilty with the person who sinned?" (pages: 166, 164, 170, 176, 183, and 186). And he does so with a "Thus sayeth" authority. "No analogy in human experience, or counter-analogy in human experience, well then Calvinism's doctrine is therefore wrong, no ifs, ands, or buts!" But I thought "experience wasn't an authority?"
Aside from that, however, is that Olson lays his cards squarely on the table and lets us all know that Scripture means absolutely nothing in this debate and has zero authority for him. Olson relays this story about a question he once received:
'If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn't question or deny that the true God actually is as Calvinism says and rules as Calvinism affirms, would you still worship him?' I knew the only possible answer without a moment's thought, even though I knew it would shock many people. I said no, that I would not because I could not. Such a God would be a moral monster. (85, emphasis original)
Thus, you can see my reluctance to ask Olson to "reason from the Scriptures whether these things are so." Olson admits here that there's no point in debating the text with him. Since I don't believe Olson will ever let himself say that he refuses to worship God, he will never let anyone demonstrate Calvinism from the text to him. Olson clearly thinks much of himself cognitively too. He is, as Paul Moser would say, a cognitive idolater. Cognitive idolatry, as Moser relates, is
Thin theism, focusing on theoretical knowledge that God exists, can obscure the importance of knowing God as the personal Lord who calls us to a change of lordship, mindset, and moral direction. Oversimplifications of God (for example, as merely sentimental, friendly, harsh, or distant) can be similarly obscuring, in a way that enables us to make a self-controllable idol of “God” (where “God” is not the true God). So even devout theism can be idolatrous. For our own good, we cannot master God as just another undemanding object of human knowledge, as a manipulable possession, or as a meritorious reward. As we should expect, God is not ours to control; similarly for proper knowledge and evidence of God.
Idolatry, at bottom, is our not letting the true God be Lord in our lives. It is commitment to something other than the true God as our ultimate authority and source of flourishing. It is inherently a rejection of God's authority and a quest for self-definition, self-importance, and self-fulfillment on our own terms. Idolatry flouts the serious challenge we have from the true God to be free of self-defensive fear, self-exaltation, and self-centeredness in general. It exchanges the supremacy of God over one’s life for the supremacy of something inferior to God.
Idolaters deny, in deed if not in word, their status as dependent knowers and creatures of the true God. They seek independence of God. In doing so, they opt for infidelity toward God and deny God’s supremacy over us. Idolaters are not satisfied with being secondary, dependent creators who honor God as the only independent creator. They thus aim to reassign God’s authority to something else. Typically idolaters reassign God’s authority to themselves; they thus seek to be ultimately self-governing and self-defining. This involves a kind of self-assertion that disregards the supremacy of God. Such self-assertion is as tenuous and ephemeral as the human self behind the assertion. It will soon perish along with that self while the true God endures. The ways of human self-assertion are short-lived indeed. They also obscure our available evidence of God’s reality and supremacy.
We typically favor idols over the true God given our penchant for maintaining authority, or lordship, over our lives. Our typical attitude is thus: I will live my life my way, to get what I want, when I want it. We thereby exalt ourselves over the true God, and then lose our self-control to control by idols, from which we seek success, happiness, honor, and self-approval. We exchange God’s supreme reality for a false substitute. Accordingly, we naturally give primary, if not exclusive, value to controllable knowledge rather than to filial knowledge dependent on the gracious offer of an uncontrollable God. Indeed, the human obsession with self-control over one's circumstances runs afoul of God's calling us to moral transformation through gratefully trusting God as Lord of our lives. We tend to trivialize what we can control or what is conveniently available to us. Our controlling available evidence for God would be, in effect, to control God. For our own good, however, God will not be controlled or trivialized; nor are we in control of evidence for God. (Moser, Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding, online here)
I believe that with Olson's quote we have evidence that Olson is not epistemically humble. Notice he didn't even need to give the question "a moment's thought." Olson is so sure that he doesn't even need to think about the matter. Indeed, even if an all-knowing God came to him and revealed to him in a way Olson could not deny that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and is also (roughly) the way Calvinists have said he is and he is also good and loving too, Olson would look this all-knowing being square in the face and say, "Bull crap! I know better than you. You are wrong. You cannot be good and loving. You are not deserving of worship." What hubris, what arrogance! So, I will not engage Olson with the text nor try to reason with him about what I believe the Christ speaking in the Scriptures would have us believe. Olson knows better than God, and I can't compete with that. What I will do, though, is overturn Olson's cognitive idols by showing that his arguments can be defeated by pointing out: "I'm rubber, you're glue, whatever you say to me bounces off and sticks to you!" More seriously, I will show that if Olson's philosophical arguments (read: moral complaints) work against Calvinism, they work against his Arminianism.
Two Theological Complaints
A. Since God could save all men, he must save all men
Now for two theological complaints, the first is really more of a philosophical-theological worry. Olson makes a lot out of the claim that since God could save all, then, if he is all good and loving, he should save all. Olson never shows how this could-to-should inference follows, again betting that his readers will "just see" the point, but I'd like to raise my hand and point out that he never addresses arguments that, once God decrees a fallen world, he can't save all. A representative piece of gerrymandering is this: "To paraphrase John Wesley, this seems to be such a love and compassion as makes the blood run cold. What love refuses to save those who could be saved because election to salvation is unconditional? What compassion refuses to provide for their salvation when it could be provided for?" (49). But in the spirit of Alvin Plantinga's legendary argument against the logical problem of evil, it is possible that God, once he decrees to create a fallen world, can't save all.
First, in line with many libertarian philosophers, it may be that God doesn't have moral obligations in the abstract. Terms like 'forbidden,' 'ought,' and 'duty' do not apply to God. This is because these terms “apply to a being only if that being has a choice between doing or failing to do what it ought to do” (Alston, Divine Nature and Human Language, 257). But if God cannot fail to do good, then His own nature “prevents him from acting freely in a way that is required for moral obligation… it is metaphysically impossible that God should do anything that is less than supremely good” (257). In keeping with Reformed theologians, though, we may say that God can place himself under moral obligation (for example, when he makes a covenant promise). The conjunction of these two claims is that God has no moral obligations unless he puts himself under such obligations. Then, as Oliver Crisp points out, "If this were the case, then ‘prior’ to this decision to create the world (i.e. the actual world) God is under no obligation to create a world, or the particular world he does create. Nor is he under any obligation to provide a means of salvation for human sinners once he has ordained to create a world where human beings freely rebel and sin" (Crisp, Is Universalism a Problem for the Particularist?", Scottish Journal of Theology, 63(1): 1–23 (2010)). Now, let assume that salvation is of divine grace, and thus God has no prior or subsequent moral obligation to save anyone. Thus, God could create a world that would fall, save no one, and this is compatible with divine goodness. But, as Crisp points out, there is a problem here:
It is this: in such a world divine benevolence and divine grace are not both displayed, because divine grace is not offered to any of the human agents God has made in W1. But, as we have already seen, it is an important constituent of traditional Augustinianism that both divine justice and divine mercy are displayed in the creation in order that God’s name is vindicated (namely, the third constituent of the restricted elect view). Thus, although such a world would be consistent with exercise of divine goodness and justice taken in abstraction, as it were, from the particular concerns of Augustinianism, it would not be consistent with the way in which God exercises his goodness and justice – indeed, must exercise these attributes – according to traditional Augustinianism. (ibid)
On Calvinism (also known as Augustinianism here), God must, if he creates, display the full range of his attributes—justice, love, and mercy. Crisp notes that, "one could concede that God does have such an obligation to his own nature once he has decreed to create the world he does create, because it is a requirement of the Augustinian view that God displays both his justice and mercy in the creation" (ibid). Olson might agree with this but claim that justice could be fully displayed by Jesus' punishment on the cross. But it is possible that this is not so (justice, for the elect, would be fully satisfied but not displayed). And here is why. Crisp points out:
[T]he Augustinian might argue, it is important that the display of divine justice has some connection to desert. Were Christ to be the only human person upon whom divine justice was visited, as a vicarious substitute for sinners (as per Augustinian universalism), this would not have the right connection to desert because Christ does not deserve to be punished – he acts vicariously (and sinlessly) on behalf of sinful human beings deserving of punishment. There has to be some connection between the display of divine justice and the idea that (at least some of) those upon whom divine justice is visited are deserving of punishment. In order to reflect this, we could rephrase condition (c) as follows:
The need for the display of both God’s grace and mercy and his wrath and justice in his created order for some number of deserving humanity.
Let us call this the strict justice condition. There seems to be a good independent theological reason for thinking the strict justice condition is true. Unlike the Augustinian universalist argument outlined earlier, the strict justice condition requires that at least some of those upon whom divine justice is visited deserve to be recipients of that justice, which Christ is not. So the strict justice condition promises to deliver another reason for the Augustinian to resist universalism.
Applied to the foregoing, this would mean that any world that God creates that includes creatures that are sinners must have provision for the display of divine justice to some number of deserving humanity. Taken together with the modified Adamsian argument, either as a supplement to the Adamsian argument, or an additional, independent reason for particularism, this constitutes a strong case in favour of non-universalistic Augustinianism. In which case, God has good reason to create a particularist world, and no obligation to create an Augustinian universalist world instead. And this rebuts the necessity of an Augustinian version of universalism. (ibid)
Thus, while it is not inconsistent with God's goodness to create a fallen world (indeed, given that Olson requires that God always do the most loving, it would seem that on this view God must create a fallen world for that is the only world at which "greater love" obtains, for "greater love has none than this:" that a man lay down his life for the lives of his friends, and save them), it seems possible that if God creates a fallen world he cannot save the entire world while simultaneously displaying the full range of his attributes in a created theater, which he must do if he creates (note, this does not say that God must create).
B. Owen's Atonement Argument
One argument spaced out throughout chapter six is that since the atonement doesn't "save" anyone, then it is false to claim that Arminians "limit" the atonement of its power and efficacy. Olson rightly notes that for the work on the cross to be applied to the sinner, the sinner must have faith and repent (or, at least in all normal cases of properly functioning humans). No one was "saved" by Christ's death considered by itself, for that salvation must be appropriated. However, Olson misses some rather obvious Owenic responses. While Olson says he agrees that Christ's death "secures" salvation, he misses the force of the Calvinist claim. It is not just that Jesus' death "secures" salvation for sinners in the sense that the blood laid there on the ground for them if they want it, wasted if they don't want it, it's that Jesus' death guarantees or ensures the salvation of the elect. Many elect people are not presently saved by Christ's work on the cross, but that isn't the point of the Owenic argument. It's that all of those things necessary for salvation—faith, justification, repentance, adoption, sanctification, resurrection, glorification, etc.—were purchased and won by Christ's work on the cross and guaranteed to be applied to the elect. The question is an eschatological one, then. It's not, "Why are there people not presently saved?," it's, "Why do so many people in fact end up in hell if Jesus died for them?" The atonement does not, for Olson, ensure that those for whom Jesus spilled his precious blood for will end up in heaven with him. Why? It is because the power of the atonement is limited. Moreover, Olson may proudly admit that Jesus did waste some of his blood, but the problem there is why? We usually "waste" things due to our lack of omniscience or omnipotence. We don't know how much we will need, so we make too much. Or, we can't stop a batch from burning, and thus waste it. But God is all-knowing and omnipotent. He apparently infallibly knows exactly who will not make use of his blood. So why "waste it?" Why "try" to save them? If he knows that it is impossible to save them (since he knows they will not avail themselves of the blood, and it is impossible that his knowledge could be falsified), then he undertakes an activity to bring about an end that he knows is impossible to come to fruition. This makes him means-end irrational.
Olson Doesn't "Understand" Compatibilism; Therefore, He Can't Say He "Disagrees" with Compatibilism
Another point to make before I really delve into how Olson's arguments against Calvinism apply equally, mutatis mutandis, to him, is regarding Olson's (lack of) understanding of determinism and compatibilism. Olson often expresses incredulity about God determining whatsoever comes to pass while holding us morally responsible and culpable for our actions. He understands that Calvinists appeal to compatibilism, but Olson refuses to ever show that compatibilism is false. Instead, he just professes incredulity. Until he does, Olson's expressions of incredulity are merely autobiographical, telling us more about how much he doesn't understand the relevant literature necessary to make his case than about anything problematic with God's decree and human freedom and responsibility. That Olson doesn't understand the relevant moves in the debate isn't to be, and shouldn't be, taken as an argument against the view. Olson seems to think he doesn't need to wade into this discussion because it's just common sense knowledge that freedom and responsibility are incompatible with determinism (cf. p.75). Even if this is true, so what? For a time, it was just common sense knowledge that the earth was the center of the universe. Common sense confirmed this. Olson needs an argument here, rather than to take by theft what needs to be taken by honest toil. Moreover, it's not at clear that Olson is correct (he cites no empirical or sociological data, after all). For another side of the story, see the paper by Eddy Nahmias et al. “Surveying Freedom: Folk Intuitions about Free Will and Moral Responsibility” in Philosophical Psychology Vol. 18, No. 5, October 2005, pp. 561–584. In this study, the researchers surveyed ordinary “people’s prephilosophical judgments about the freedom and responsibility of agents in deterministic scenarios. In two studies, we found that a majority of participants judged that such agents act of their own free will and are morally responsible for their actions” (p.561).
Olson's discomfort in this field is evident. For example, he attempts to define 'determinism' "as given in various encyclopedias," as the doctrine "that every event is necessitated by prior events and conditions" (77). But when once checks his sources for these "various encyclopedias," one sees only the direction to go and check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He cites no entry, let alone "encyclopedias." But worse is that I happened to know which entry he took his quote from. It's the entry on causal determinism. He already noted that some Calvinists were not entirely comfortable with this way of describing the determinism that obtains in Calvinism (cf. Paul Helm in The Providence of God as well as his entry in Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion). But Olson didn't let that stop him. Furthermore, he didn't even give the entire definition, but rather cut it off half-way and didn't give any indication that he had done so. If one checks out the entire sentence, they will see it is followed by the clause "together with the laws of nature." Moreover, the definition he gave was simply the initial attempt at getting at a definition, but things are more complicated than Olson lets on and there are also several issues to be taken with his definition. In any event, it is clear that Olson fails to properly engage his opponents in a scholarly way on this matter. In light of not really understanding determinism or compatibilism, his comments on the matter should simply be ignored, per Olson's own instructions. For he told us, "My motto is 'Before saying "I disagree" be sure you can say "I understand."' Another principle I try to follow is 'Always represent the other viewpoint as its best adherents represent it'" (12). Since Olson fails to represent compatibilism at all, and shows absolutely zero understanding of it (other than to say that Edwards thought we could be considered free if we are doing what we want, but "how does that answer anything?"), especially in its best and strongest forms, the only thing to say is that he can't truly say "he disagrees" with compatibilism. If he can't say he "disagrees" with compatibilism, then he can't say that freedom and moral responsibility and culpability are incompatible with God's determinative decree, per his own "motto."
No Real Relations, and Salvation not of Grace?
Olson claims that Calvinism undermines relations since "both parties" must be able to libertarian freely enter into relationships (166-168). Olson also claims that on Calvinism God must save and must send to hell and must create since these things are done "for his glory." Thus Arminians can ask, "Is God free?" (94). But here's the problem: Olson claims that God must love us, it is impossible that he not love—and love fully, love salvifically, love equally as the next—all people. If Olson denies that God must love all people, and that he does nothing wrong or untoward in not loving all equally or salvifically, then, of course, much of Olson's argument crumbles. But he also tells us that, "it must be factually possible for both of them to a possible loving relationship to be able to say 'no' to the other (167, emphasis mine). So Olson winds up implicitly affirming that God is a puppet who cannot enter into relationships. Moreover, his very argument here is at odds with his complaint against Calvinism. For Olson doesn't allow God to "say no" to salvifically loving some people! Olson may bite the bullet here, but then why complain that some aspects of Calvinism make God not libertarian free (mind you, you don't agree with his argument against Calvinism based on God's glory)? Moreover, since on Olson's position, "Whatever is necessary is not gracious" (75), and since God morally must salvifically love all fallen sinners, then God's salvific love is not, per Olson, gracious.
Olson's Evil God (1)
Olson complains—but never shows—that God is monstrous if he determines the rape of a child. He tells the story sad of "a little girl being kidnapped by a vile sex maniac who places her in his car and drives from her neighborhood to an isolated forest alongside a river. In spite of her crying and protesting, he takes her down to the river bank where he rapes her, strangles her, and throws her body in a river" (90). He then complains that events like this have been "decreed" and "ordained" from the foundation of the world, being, as Calvin said of a man who was robed and killed, "directed by God's ever present hand" (ibid). Thus, Olson concludes, the Calvinist God is a moral monster.
Now, Olson's argument could easily have been read in an atheist's book arguing against Christianity per se. But aside from his taking his cues from atheological arguments against Christianity, I want to ask what the morally relevant difference is between Olson's God and Calvin's? Let's leave aside the fact that divine determinism is, I believe, a sui generis action done by a creator in a way unlike ordinary, intramundane cases of natural determinings. We'll also leave aside the claim that God has holy, just, and good reasons for all he does. Olson might say that since he doesn't "see" the reasons," then "there are none." But this relies on a "noseeum" inference, which many libertarians have challenged (cf. the works of Bergmann, Howard-Snyder, Wykstra, Alston, Plantinga, Rea, et al.). Olson doesn't argue that his finite, fallen, and feeble mind is even capable of understanding, let alone finding, all of the myriad reasons and infinitely wise being could have for his actions. Aside from all of this, let's apply the argument back at Olson, mutatis mutandis.
Olson's view is that God "permits" all of the evils we see. His view is "that nothing at all can happen without God's permission" (71, emphasis mine). In his other book, Arminian Theology, Olson claims that, “God is the first cause of whatever happens; even a sinful act cannot occur without God as its first cause…” (AT: 122, emphasis mine). In the same book Olson claims that God doesn't ordain sins, but "every human act, including sin, is impossible without God's cooperation" (AT: 121). God is not a mere "spectator" (AT: 121). And, "God ... cooperates with the creature in sinning" (AT: 122). In Against Calvinism, Olson frequently asks if a human did the thing Calvin's God is purported as doing, would we consider him good and just. So, let's apply Olson's statement in the same way Olson argues against Calvinism: Suppose a very big and powerful man knew in advance that his neighbor would kidnap a little girl and rape and murder her. Suppose further that he was there to watch it happen (Olson's God is omnipresent, after all). Suppose that this man could, if he wanted to, stop the rape and murder. Now, suppose that this strong and prescient man gave his permission to the kidnapper to rape and murder the girl. Would we claim this man was good? Suppose further that he "cooperated" with him and that the man could not even lift a finger without the strong man's cooperation. Would we call this man good, or a moral monster? As Olson says, "What would the universal voice of mankind pronounce of the man who should act thus?" (127). Quite so! Olson may claim that God can do a virtually identical thing that we would call sick, monstrous, and evil for a mere human to do, yet God is not culpable for his actions. To this I say, "And, you have your answer from me to your challenges."
Olson tries to get around the above type of counter by the odd claim, made throughout the book, that God imposes "self-limitations" on himself. Thus he "reluctantly allows" evil because he voluntarily gives up some of his rights to control all things. Giving people libertarian freedom means creatures can use it for good and God wont (?) or can't (?) stop it. God is sovereign de jure but not de facto. He will only be sovereign de facto in the eschaton (which causes me to wonder why he prays the Lord's prayer). All of this is spelled out in pages 98-101. But how does this answer anything? First, Olson was quoted above as admitted that God could stop any evil thing from happening. Moreover, we know from the Bible that God has stopped plenty of libertarian free creatures from carrying out their plans. These are obvious rejoinders to Olson's ad hoc move and it is frustrating that he doesn't even anticipate these obvious rejoinders. Moreover, none of this should affect natural evils. Why can't God issue early warnings to those in the paths of tsunamis or hurricanes? If Olson had the foresight to see an immanent tsunami, as well as the power to warn those in its path, wouldn't he? What would we think of a human who had these abilities and didn't use them?
In this vein, Olson tries to address a challenge I raised in my review of his Arminian Theology book. That is, if Jesus was as loving as Olson says he was, and if we measure divine goodness and love according to whether if a human did a similar thing we would call it good or evil, then why didn't Jesus heal more people? Wouldn't Olson do that if he had the power? Of course he would. What is Olson's response to this challenge? It's that Jesus "couldn't" heal everyone because he could only heal those "who had faith." So much for the sick needing the doctor! He cites Matt. 6:5 as proof of this, but Matt. 6:5 says no such thing. In fact, Matt. 8:26, among other places, refutes Olson's curious claim: 25 And they went and woke him, saying, "Save us, Lord; we are perishing." 26 And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?" Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27And the men marveled, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?" Moreover, Olson gives the story of as little girl suffering with cancer, and he complains that God decreed this. But suppose Olson had the power to work a miracle and cure her. Would he? Sure he would. But Olson said Jesus would not heal people "without some measure of cooperation." Suppose Olson's little girl at the hospital wouldn't cooperate with Olson. Would he then say, "Sorry little girl, I know you're screaming in agony, and I have the power to heal you, but you must cooperate and believe that I can heal you." What would we think of Olson if he did this? We would think him stingy and immoral. Why not Jesus? You see, if we measure Jesus by Olson's pious yardstick—the one he uses to swat Calvinists with—we would have to conclude that Jesus is not loving. Olson's criticisms of Calvinism turn around and bite him on the tookus.
Olson's Evil God (2)
Here is another Achilles' hell of high Calvinism. In spire of their best efforts to avoid it, the "good and necessary consequence" of their soteriology—TULIP—is that God is morally ambiguous of not a moral monster. There is no human analogy for this "goodness." Any human who had the ability to rescue large numbers of people from terrible calamity but only rescues some would never be considered good or loving or just.
But didn't Olson tell us "that nothing at all can happen without God's permission" (71, emphasis mine)? And isn't it simply part of orthodox theology that God could save people from natural disasters? He can "command the weather" and it will obey him? So is his God either unable to stop natural disasters and such, or is he unwilling? He already admitted that a natural disaster cannot "happen without God's permission," therefore God must be unwilling to stop them. If God did stop them, he would save people. And Olson just told is that a human who didn't save people he could have is morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worse. Didn't God also create the world knowing these things would happen? In so creating, he ensured that they would happen. How, on Olson's terms, is God any more moral? What's the relevant moral difference according to how Olson chooses to frame the issues?
Olson's Evil God (3)
Olson asks, through Wesley,
"How is god good or loving to a reprobate, or one that is not elected?" To those who argue that God does love the reprobate in some way and is good to them, Wesley asks how God could be good to him in this world (i.e., in "temporal gifts") "when it were better for him never to have been born?" (127)
But God creates a world and foreknows all of those who will reject Christ, yet Olson's God creates anyway. God knows this person will reject the offer of salvation and certainly end up in hell. By God's creating this person knowing that he will end up in hell, God made this certain. And thus God is, on Olson's terms, "the author of sin" (cf. p.77). As Olson says, "Reprobation is simply man's rejection of this grace and God's foreknowledge of that" (129). Surely God could have refrained from creating at all. Surely God knows propositions like: "If I create this world, Sam, Bob, Pete, Sally, and little Susie will end up in hell." Yet God creates anyway. Surely it would have been better for Sam, Bob, Pete, Sally, and little Susie were they never to have been born! Olson can say that they libertarian freely chose to go to hell. But why think libertarian freedom is compatible with foreknowledge? Olson says that our actions cause God's knowledge (190), thus undercutting aseity and inviting odd questions about retrocausation, etc. Moreover, even if this account is true, merely announcing that our actions cause God's knowledge does nothing to show that given that God now knows what we will do, we can do otherwise. It also makes praying to God rather odd, since it seems to suggest that the future is settled and fixed. God doesn't seem able to change or affect anything. He's just watching. Just a "spectator." As William Hasker (a libertarian) and others have argued, this seems to suggest that God is made providentially useless. And Dave Hunt (a libertarian) claims this view rules out our ability to do otherwise. Moreover, we need to ask why Sam and friends make the choices they did and those who go to heaven make the choices they did. Why think libertarianism can account for the control required for freedom?
There seems to be many things that could have "gone wrong" for me. That I turned out the way I did, on indeterminism, seems like luck. John Martin Fischer writes,
The sun is shining (through the smog), and its continuing to shine is a contributing causal factor to my continuing to exist, continuing to be an agent, and so forth. If the sun were to flicker out, I would not continue to exist, continue to be an agent, or engage in any behavior. So the sun’s continuing to shine is a contributing cause to my behavior, is completely out of my control, and is such that, if it were not to occur, I would not even exist [...]. Obviously, the sun’s continuing to shine is just one of an indefinitely large number of such factors: a huge meteorite’s not hitting the United States, my not being hit by a lightning bold, and so forth [...]. Consider now the fact that my parents did not seriously injure me when I was young and helpless [...]. That they took good care of me was a contributing cause of my developing into an agent at all. Had they significantly abused and injured me, I would or at least might not have developed into an agent at all. And of course how my parents treated me when I was an infant was entirely out of my control. (J. M. Fischer, “Compatibilism”. Four Views on Free Will. Blackwell, 2007: p.67)
And then he notes,
In a context of indeterminism, we do not have an explanation for why the agent made the particular choice he made rather than another. The [Luck Objection] points to the fact that the antecedent conditions–say my standing desires, values, intentions, and plans cannot in themselves explain why I actually choose C rather than something else (given indeterminism) [...]. Given this, it can seem that I do not actually control my behavior in the sense relevant to ascriptions of moral responsibility. (Fischer, “Recent Work on Moral Responsibility”, Ethics 110 (1999): 93-139, p.102.)
So why think God is just in holding indeterministic agents responsible for their behavior? How can he be just in doing so? My point isn't that an answer can't be given here. It's that this is a stronger argument against libertarianism than Olson gave against compatibilism, and I could simply stick my fingers in my ears and yell that God is a monster for putting agents in hell that made it there due to luck. Should I respond to any answer Olson gives by saying, "All I can say is, 'What?'" Or, say that I'm "bemused?" If these answers aren't good, then how can Olson or his supporters laud his style of debate? So I say the Arminian God is a monster for putting people in hell that made it there due to luck (and I'll hope Olson responds with a beefed up providential God!). Olson may respond that God is good and has revealed that people are responsible for what they do, obscure philosophical arguments aside. Okay, and why can't I say that?
But even aside from this digression, the point remains: Olson's God created people he knew would end up in hell, and since he didn't have to create, Olson's God did an action which he knew would result in ensuring that many people would actually end up in hell.
Olson's Evil God (4)
The Bible says God "loves all he has made." On Olson's view, since God doesn't save the reprobates when he could have (a claim we've challenged), he doesn't love them. But look at God's creation. Look at all the Bambis who slowly die, all alone, from burns due to a forest fires. Surely Bambi doesn't have libertarian freedom. Surely Olson's God could save Bambi. But God sits there and lets Bambi burn, slowly, painfully, in great agony. If Olson had a pet dog that he "loved," yet he allowed it to slowly die from burns when he could have saved it, we would call Olson a sick man and seek help for him. What kind of love is this? Does God not love all his creatures? Is he impotent to save them? Why? How can this be? Surely God's hands are not tied such that he cannot work miracles like this, are they?
If Olson's arguments against Calvinism carry any force with him, he must reject his own God as an unloving monster. Will Olson do so? Not on your life. Olson will offer all kinds of answers to these problems. For example, he will say, as he said in Arminian Theology, that when God does the very things a human would be called a monster for doing, "God's hands are not tainted." But why can't the Calvinist avail himself of these moves? Olson thinks that giving humans libertarian freedom is a "wonderful gift" (100) and justifies the evils that follow from it. So God has a greater good. Why can't a Calvinist say the same thing? I mean, t's not obvious that just because you give someone a "wonderful gift" that that justifies the giving of the gift. If you knew in advance that a man would use the wonderful gift of a hammer (so he could build a house for his family, say) to bash someone's skull in, would you be justified in giving it to him? No human would. Yet God gets away with it because he is all-wise, and he knows the morally justifiable reason. But this is something God knows. It is not obvious to me, not by a long shot, that the good of "libertarian free will" justifies giving it, especially when God knew the millions of rapes, murders, molestations, abuses, etc., that would follow from it. Is it worth is? I guess if you want to justify your theology. But I get to do the same, then.
In any event, Olson's book leaves much to be desired. It isn't anything like a "case" against Calvinism. Rather, it's more of a constantly repetitious list of unargued for complaints. There is weak theological argumentation, zero exegesis, unfamiliarity with critical issues discussed, and one self-excepting fallacy after another. It is unfortunate that Roger Olson has positioned himself as Lord Protector of Arminianism. Arminianism deserves a better spokesman. You may find this harsh, and claim that Olson just wrote a popular level work. But not so, according to Olson. Olson has said (through the mouth of friends) on his blog about Against Calvinism, "my book absolutely devastates high federal Calvinism ('decretal theology' of the TULIP variety)." That's a big and bold claim to make for your book. I could say a lot more about this book, but it is a review after all, and I hope what I have said is sufficient to show that the sheers Olson took to the TULIP in the garden were made of paper.