Thursday, May 02, 2013

Helping Roger Olson Become (Even More) Irenic

Roger Olson is big on being irenic. Part of what's involved in being irenic is understanding your opponents position, and stating it charitably. When he talks about unconditional election, his inability or unwillingness to understand the position or state it charitably seriously impair his ability to be irenic. Since Olson claims his goal is to be irenic and properly represent his theological opponents, Triablogue would like to offer him help in that area. (So Roger, pay attention, this is for your good.) Olson writes,
Contrary to what one respondant claims, classical Calvinism does believe that God’s election of persons to salvation is absolutely unconditional.  To say it is not absolutely unconditional because it is based on God’s “good pleasure” does nothing to ease the problem. What causes God’s “good pleasure” to be found in electing one person and not another to salvation; I have read literally scores of classical Calvinist authors on this very subject (from Calvin to Piper) and found no hint of any answer to why God chooses one person and rejects another. The answer is always an appeal to mystery or something like “God has his good reasons” (without any suggestion what they might be) or “according to his good pleasure” which doesn’t even begin to answer the question. Jonathan Edwards was consistent in admitting it is an arbitrary choice on God’s part. I just wish more contemporary Calvinists would admit that.
1. Olson wants unconditional election to be absolutely unconditional. That is, conditioned on nothing. He seems to think that it can't be demonstrated that it's conditioned on something. It's trivial to demonstrate election is conditional on something. God elects according to his plan and for a purpose, and according to his will. Absent the plan and the purpose, there would be no election.

 2. Olson's response to (1) is that this "does nothing to ease the problem" because Olson has "found no hint of any answer to why God chooses one person and rejects another." But this (illicitly) shifts the issue from metaphysics to epistemology. Indeed, to the limits of human knowledge. The first question is: "Is there something election is conditioned on." We answer, "Yes; God's plan, purpose, and pleasure." Olson's response: "That doesn't answer the question. Why does God's plan, purpose, and pleasure select for one person over another." But that's a different question. Or does Olson hold to this principle:

 PRINCIPLE 1 = X is conditioned on (or grounded in) Y if and only if we know why or how X is conditioned (or grounded in) Y.

 Other than endorsing some strong form of anti-realism, or seriously overestimating the scope of our knowledge (cognitive arrogance), why believe PRINCIPLE 1?

 3. Olson seems to suggest that Reformed theology (I use 'Reformed' purposefully; I know Olson's qualms with it) has confessed only that God elects according to "his good pleasure," otherwise, "it's a mystery." First, a historical point. Unconditional Election, as presented in response to the Five Articles of Remonstrance, is at pains to say God does not elect based on any condition for salvation, such as foreseen faith or good works. Arminianism had endorsed the former, and is arguably logically committed to the latter. The main concern is God electing according to foreseen faith in the believer, or meeting some other condition of salvation.

 Second, let's look at two Reformed confessional statements. First from the Westminster Confession, second from the Canons of Dort:

  WCF notes the choice is made: “according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will.”

  Canons of Dort teach: “For Scripture declares that there is a single good pleasure, purpose, and plan of God’s will, by which he chose us from eternity both to grace and to glory, both to salvation and to the way of salvation, which he prepared in advance for us to walk in.”

 So why does Olson, Mr. Irenicism himself, always and only focus on "good pleasure"? These confessional statements also say God elected according to a "purpose" and "counsel" and "plan" according to which God choose us. To respond that the things God plans according to purposes and counsels give God pleasure does not entail that plans, purposes, and counsels collapse into, or are identical to, "good pleasure," where the latter is usually construed voluntaristically and lacking in any reason.

 Here's a question: How is election arbitrary? Can a choice that is planned, has a purpose, and was made through a counsel be arbitrary? Perhaps, it would be if one endorsed this principle:

 PRINCIPLE 2 = A choice made according to a plan, for a purpose, and through counsel is not an arbitrary choice in and only if we know the details of the plan, the exact purpose, and what the counsel consisted in.

 But why accept PRINCIPLE 2?

 So, since Olson now knows that Reformed theology states that God's choice to elect some sinner is based on a plan, has a purpose, and was made according to a counsel, he cannot continue to say Reformed theology always and only punts to good pleasure; otherwise, mystery. To be sure, there is some mystery, in that we don't know the reasons or details of the plan, or what the exact purpose is. But there is no mystery that God elects according to reasons, and for purposes. So, there is no mystery that there is a reason. There's a mystery as to the exact details. But a lot of things are mysterious in this way. We take a lot of things on the testimony of scientists, and it would be foolish for most of us to claim we know "the details" and "inner workings" of the theory or phenomena we believe is the case.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent, well-reasoned post, and one that is truly irenic without reducing to mere squishiness. I wish this "mystery" author (wink) would post more often at this site. :)