In 2009, just in time for the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, Time magazine declared “the New Calvinism” as one of “10 Ideas Changing the World Right now.” Christianity Today scooped Time on this story with a 2006 article by Collin Hansen entitled, “Young, Restless, Reformed,” which Hansen later turned into a book (and Time referred to). The rise in popularity of this centuries-old theological system with young people seems surprising at first, but given the dearth of in-depth biblical and theological teaching in evangelical churches, it’s not totally unexpected. Christians long for an intellectually rigorous expression of the faith, and the New Calvinists aim to please.
In For Calvinism, Michael Horton offers a thoughtful explanation and defense of what Calvinists refer to as “the doctrines of grace.” At the popular level, these doctrines are known by the TULIP acrostic: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Horton grounds each of these doctrines in the biblical text, quotes relevant comments from John Calvin on each topic, and deals with philosophical objections along the way. What emerges from Horton’s presentation is the evangelical character of Calvinist soteriology. That is to say, Calvinism articulates the gospel of Jesus Christ and the life that flows from it. Horton’s main concern throughout his book is to defend the gracious character of God’s offer of salvation.
Proverbs 18:17 says, “In a lawsuit, the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” Horton’s case is indeed persuasive, until one reads Roger Olson’s cross-examination, Against Calvinism. Olson’s main concern throughout his book is to defend God’s reputation against what he considers the “good and necessary consequences” of four Calvinist doctrines: meticulous providence, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. Horton notes that Arminians agree with Calvinists on total depravity and disagree among themselves about perseverance of the saints. He argues that a Calvinist understanding of meticulous providence logically entails divine determinism and that unconditional election entails double predestination. He denies that the Bible teaches limited atonement, a doctrine that apparently even Calvin did not advocate. And against the monergism of irresistible grace, he argues for synergism, the cooperation of God’s grace and human faith. For each of the controverted doctrines, Olson shows the possibility of a legitimate, Arminian interpretation of the relevant biblical texts.
I found Olson’s critique of Calvinism the more persuasive of the two books. It is hard to understand how—given Calvinism’s doctrine of meticulous providence—God is not the author of sin. Moreover, it is hard to understand why God would unconditionally elect to save some but not all, when universal salvation is clearly—on Calvinist terms—within his power. If God can save all, then the fact that he does not save all seems to indicate a lack of good will toward his creatures. Calvinism, thus, harms God’s reputation.
Regardless of which author one agrees with, both Horton and Olson are to be commended for their thoughtful, irenic debate. At the end of the day, Calvinists and Arminians are colaborers in the Great Commission. If we cannot come to agreement on doctrine, we should at least learn to disagree agreeably. Horton’s and Olson’s books model the way such debate should take place. I highly recommend reading both books.
P.P.S. I’m interviewing Roger Olson about Against Calvinism on Thursday, October 20, 2011, at 1:00 p.m. (CST) on MinistryDirect.com/live. If you’d like to ask Olson a question about his book, email it to [email protected], tweet it using #MinistryDirect, or enter it in the Facebook interaction tool on the live page. (You must be signed into Facebook to use this tool.)
P.P.P.S. You can watch my interview of Roger Olson about his book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, here:Vodpod videos no longer available.