Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why high Calvinism is impossible

Roger Olson imagines that he has posed an unanswerable dilemma for Calvinism:

Not all Calvinists say that God’s goodness is completely different from ours. Paul Helm, for example, in The Providence of God, argues that “goodness” attributed to God cannot be totally other than goodness attributed to human beings (even as an impossible ideal). Unfortunately for him, I believe, he does not follow that insight through consistently but undermines it by attempting to combine assertion of God’s essential goodness with belief in double predestination. 
I argue that belief in double predestination is simply logically incompatible with the claim that God is good—unless “good” is emptied of all meaning so that it is a useless cipher for something we don’t know. 
My point is, of course, that there exists a contradiction between two Calvinist beliefs: 1) that the Bible is inherently and unconditionally trustworthy, and 2) that God, its author, is not good in any sense meaningful to us. Belief “1″ assumes that God is good in a sense meaningful to us—comparable with our highest and best intuitions of goodness. Belief “2″ (necessarily implied by double predestination) empties belief “1″ of foundation. 
Therefore, any exegesis of the Bible that ends up portraying God as not good, which high Calvinism (belief in double predestination) inexorably does, cannot be believed because it self-referentially turns back against the very reason for believing the Bible. In order to be consistent one must choose between belief in the Bible as God’s Word and belief in double predestination. 
This is why I say with John Wesley about the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 “Whatever it means it cannot mean that.” 
I'm interested to see if any Calvinist (or anyone) can defeat it. IF not, then perhaps someday I'll add it to Against Calvinism as another appendix. 

The obvious problem with his dilemma is that he assumes what he needs to prove. To assert that "double predestination is simply logically incompatible with the claim that God is good" takes for granted the very issue in dispute. So his dilemma is circular. How an Arminian defines "goodness." Judging Calvinism from an Arminian standpoint.

But, then, why not judge Arminianism from a Calvinist perspective? If it's sufficient to stipulate your own viewpoint as the standard of comparison, then that cuts both ways. 


  1. No one should have time for Olson. The only thing he is known for is b****ing and moaning about Calvinism. He gives no alternatives. Arminianism is a type apophathic theology, defined by what it is not; it is not Calvinism and even the believes of so called Calimanians are Arminian whether or not they know it.
    Sorry for the fowl language but Olson in particular bugs me, always criticizing everything: conservativism, evangelicalism, Calvinism, etc. etc.

  2. Austin Fischer says very similar things in his dialogue/debate with James White. Like Olson he even cites Paul Helm who argued that God's goodness shouldn't be totally dissimilar to our own understanding of goodness. Fischer's main challenge was, "How is the God of Calvinism recognizably loving & good?" I asked similar questions in the comments HERE.

    Even if I don't have a completely satisfactory answer as a Calvinist, I have to wonder the following:

    But why assume it must be recognizable in order for it to be sufficiently similar? Maybe it'll never be recognizably similar. Or maybe it will be recognizable in the afterlife as Luther argued in the end of his treatise The Bondage of the Will (see HERE to read the passage).

  3. Olson argues that there's a contradiction between Calvinism's belief in 1. the trustworthiness of Scripture and 2. that God's goodness cannot be defined in any sense meaningful to us. But by his own citing of Helm, he shows that at least some Calvinists believe that God's goodness can be understood by us in some sense. There is no "one and only" way Calvinists define God's goodness. Some Calvinists will affirm (to some varying degrees) while others might deny (or at least doubt) that God's goodness can be understood by us in some sense. Also, Olson assumes his understanding of human goodness is the default and normative understanding that all humans have. Not realizing that maybe his Arminian presuppositions and intuitions are tainting his perception of what the majority of humans believe.

    Yet, interestingly, it is many Arminians who reject or compromise or modify or water down the doctrine of inerrancy. Steve listed the following names in another blog as examples: Randal Rauser, Roger Olson, William Abraham, Frank Spina, Robert Wall, Bill Arnold.

    With Calvinism's doctrine of exhaustive providence it only makes sense for Calvinists to affirm inerrancy. That's true whether one's a Calvinist who holds to an organic understanding of inspiration or a more meticulous view (e.g. an occasionalist view of inspiration which translates to a dictation view for all intents and purposes). However, while Classic Arminianism also affirms exhaustive providence, it's not surprising that many modern Arminians (like some Open Theists) compromise inerrancy. That's because affirming libertarian free will would seem to make it possible that the inspired authors of Scripture might accidentally record errors in the Bible. Or write statements in the Bible that reflect their own finite opinion rather than the words and thoughts God wanted to be included. Also, omit words God intended to be included by weren't written. Moreover, a libertarian view of free will could potentially affect in a major way the recognition of the Canon by the Church (though, I don't think Sola Scriptura depends on the correct Canon, nor do I think that examples of the true Church and/or true Christians down through history always had the correct canon (e.g. Augustine accepted parts of the Apocrypha)).

    But in my own opinion, one of the greatest problems Arminianism has is that if we assumed the Arminian understanding of God's goodness, then we have reason to reject the Bible's trustworthiness, clarity, and sufficiency. Since, an all "good" God (as Arminians define goodness) would seem to have to have inspired the Bible in a much clearer way. But the fact remains that many people reject the Bible and its message because of the many seeming contradictions, discrepancies, mysteries, unanswered questions/problems, etc. Ironically, many people have rejected the Bible precisely because they were convinced that it does teach unconditional election as Calvinism teaches. Therefore, I think it's only fair to ask Arminians the following question, "Why didn't God, in His goodness as you Arminians define "goodness", CLEARLY inspire Scripture to teach conditional election as you teach it? Wasn't God wise/provident enough to realize that if Scripture was inspired in the way it ACTUALLY is that it would lead people away from belief in Him?" Whereas, a Scripture that's sufficiently clear to lead to the salvation of the elect, yet is also simultaneously sufficiently vague so as to prevent (or at least hinder) the salvation of the non-elect is completely consistent with Calvinism.

    1. Why didn't the Arminian God love humans enough to ensure that the Bible couldn't be misinterpreted? For example, to be misinterpreted to teach unconditional election? Was the Arminian God not powerful enough to do so? Could this explain why to be consistent many former Arminians switched to the finite God of Open theism?

      It's very common for atheists to argue against Christianity because the Bible can be interpreted in so many ways. They point to the differences even among Evangelicals as evidence that the Bible isn't sufficient clear to settle every doctrinal issue. Calvinists can make sense of the balance of Scripture's clarity vs. its obscurity. Arminianism has a difficult time doing so.

  4. Is Olson a premier spokesperson for the semi-Pelagians? I see he's published, and I hear his name frequently in anti-Reformed contexts, so I'm wondering if he's generally representative of "the best they have to offer".

    1. Olson isn't a Semi-Pelagian. In fact, he more properly defines Semi-Pelagianism better than many Calvinists. Semi-Pelagianism affirms the necessity of grace, but denies the necessity of initiating prevenient grace to work in the heart of the unregenerate to draw them to faith in Christ. Historic Arminianism affirms the necessity of prevenient grace and denies that humans could ever initiate a response to God's grace on their own.

      Here's a LINK to my understanding of the differences between 1. Pelagianism, 2. Semi-Pelagianism, 3. Initiating/Prevenient Grace View and 4. Sufficient/Efficacious Grace View.

      We Calvinists need to stop calling Arminianism a form of Semi-Pelagianism. It's historically inaccurate. Though, not all Calvinists make the mistake of conflating the two.

    2. Before he started blogging, Arminians touted him as the go-to guy on true Arminianism, based on his book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. This supposedly documented how Calvinists were maliciously caricaturing Arminianism.

      However, after he started blogging, he began to reveal a liberal streak. As a result, there's been a lot of acrimony between Olson and Arminian "fundamentalists," as he's pleased to brand them.

  5. Thanks AP, as I mentioned I don't know much about Olson. The clarification about his variety of theological defect is helpful and duly noted.

    1. No problem :) The error of Semi-Pelagianism is the notion that sometimes man can initiate a response to God's salvation apart from grace. Though, sometimes it is (improperly) defined as the notion that it's always the case that man must initiate a response to divine grace.

      The operating grace of Catholics and the Prevenient/initiating Grace of (non-Calvinistic) Evangelicals doesn't make the mistake Semi-Pelagianism makes.

      Here's a link to the Triablogue Label "Roger Olson". Clicking this link will call up other Triablogue blogs that mention or address Roger Olson.

      Here's a link to Paul Manata's review of Roger Olson's book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

      Here's a link to two of Olson's blogs:

      Prevenient Grace: Why It Matters


      R. C. Sproul, Arminianism, and Semi-Pelagianism


    Faith only advocates are very inconsistent when is comes to explaining the meaning of for the remission of sins that is found in the Scriptures.

    Acts 2:38 The Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (NKJV)

    Mark 1:4 John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (NKJV)

    Matthew 26:28 "For this is My blood of the new covenant, which shed for many for the remission of sins. (NKJV)

    Faith only advocates proclaim that for in Acts 2:38 actually means because of. In other words the 3000 on the Day of Pentecost repented and were baptized in water because their sin had already been forgiven. Were they save by "faith only?"

    Did John the Baptist baptized because those he baptized had already been forgiven? Did for mean because of? Were they saved the very minute they repented. Were they saved by "repentance only?"

    Did Jesus shed His blood because the sins of men had already been forgiven? Did for mean because of? Are all men saved by the "the crucifixion of Jesus only?"

    The same word, for, was used in Acts 2:38, Mark 1:4, and Matthew 26:28. The Greek word eis has not been translated as because of in Acts 2:38, Mark 1:4, or Matthew 26:28. There is not one single translation that translates eis as because of. Are all translations in error? Is God not powerful enough to have His word translated correctly?

    Forgiveness of sins followed the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

    Forgiveness of sins followed those who were baptized by John the Baptist.

    Forgiveness of sins, under the New Covenant, follows being baptized in water.


    Men are saved because of God's grace. Ephesians 2:8.
    Men are saved because of the shed blood of Jesus. Matt. 26:28.
    Men are saved because of faith. John 3:16.
    Men are saved because of their repentance. Acts 3:19.
    Men are saved because of their confession. Romans 10:9.
    Men are saved because of their immersion in water. Acts 2:38.