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Book Review

Calvinism: for and against—a double review

Most Christians sooner or later have to confront the ‘Calvinism versus Arminianism’ debate and decide which way they lean. Here are twin volumes putting the two views—though Olson’s book, as its title indicates, is not so much promoting Arminianism as pointing out the weaknesses of Calvinism. The books are For Calvinism by Michael S. Horton (Zondervan, 2011.  ISBN 978-0-310-29655-3) and Against Calvinism by Robert E. Olson (Zondervan, 2011. ISBN 978-0-310-57595-5).

Both writers, I found, are passionate in their convictions yet fair and gracious in their treatment of each other. Each had read the other’s manuscript before publication and added a foreword to it, so they wrote with the other’s material in mind. They quote widely, not just from the traditional writers on the subject but also from modern Calvinist writers like R.C. Sproul and John Piper.

The godly Bishop Ryle once observed: ‘I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by the idolatrous veneration of a system.’ Five-point Calvinism (sometimes called Reformed theology) is exactly such a system, in my view, and it is now many years since I turned my back on it. I did so chiefly because I couldn’t accept its doctrine of limited atonement (that Jesus died not for everyone but just for ‘the elect’), and because, in spite of its proponents’ attempts to wriggle out of it, its line on God’s sovereignty unavoidably makes him the author of evil, including his decree to send millions to hell for ever.

I tried to give both books a fair reading, but in the end they left me with my rejection of Calvinism solidly confirmed. So forgive me for quoting below more from the Against volume. You must reach your own conclusions, and you won’t find two better books to give you all the information required to get you there.

[I read these books in their Kindle editions, so the numbers represent Locations, not page numbers]

[To read a bit more on my own rejection of Calvinism (and various other -isms) see my article Wart Treatment]


From For Calvinism:

Calvinism is not a sect. It is not a group within the church, seeking its own independent status. Rather, it is an affirmation of sola gratia in the history of the church of Jesus Christ.  (182)

Reformed churches do not add any new doctrines to the Christian faith, but claim that they are merely recovering the clear teachings of Scripture that had become obscured in the medieval church.  (257)

Pelagianism—the religion of self-salvation—is not a modern innovation, but the default setting of the fallen heart ever since the fall. No one has to be taught Pelagianism; rather, we have to be taught out of it — constantly, since we gravitate toward it. We find it even in the nineteenth-century American evangelist Charles Finney, and it remains a potent theology in practice even in many places where it is denied in theory.  (777)

…whether the elect are chosen unto faith or in view of their faith. In other words, is election unconditional or conditional? Does God choose who will be saved, apart from their decision and effort, or does he choose those whom he knows will trust and obey?  (836)

God is not arbitrarily choosing some and rejecting others. Rather, he is choosing some of his enemies for salvation and leaving the rest to the destiny that all of us would have chosen for ourselves.  (911)

The Calvinist says that everything that happens is not only foreknown but determined by God, yet in some cases through his own action (such as working all things together for our good) and in other cases through his permission (such as allowing creatures to commit a particular sin).  (956)

Is election fair? Hardly. But who wants fairness in this matter? After all, if God were to give everybody what is deserved, nobody would be saved.  (1022)

All orthodox Christians maintain that the atonement is limited either in its extent or in its nature. Calvinists believe that it is limited (or definite) in its extent, but unlimited in its nature or efficacy: Christ’s death actually saved the elect. Arminians believe that it is unlimited in its extent, but limited in its nature or efficacy: Christ’s death makes possible the salvation of everyone, but does not actually save any.  (1386)

If Christ’s death itself actually accomplished salvation for everyone for whom it was intended, then the only options are Calvinism and universalism.  (1627)

These warning passages themselves target those who are visible members of the covenant community (professing believers and their children), in some sense benefiting from the Spirit’s ministry, who have nevertheless failed to embrace the gift of salvation.  (2239)

Wesley seemed to be more worried that Calvinists were preaching antinomian heresy than that Arminians were preaching works-righteousness.  (2718)

Note that no one in Scripture is told, “Christ died for you,” much less, “Christ died to make your salvation possible.” Christ’s sheep hear his voice and they come to him, and not one of them will perish (John 10:11, 15).  (3216)

Jaroslav Pelikan famously said: Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.  (3641)

From Against Calvinism:

This kind of Calvinism, which attributes everything to God’s will and control, makes it difficult (at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil.  (298)

It is even debatable whether what they are calling Calvinism was believed in its entirety by Calvin.  (355)

Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Orr (1844–1913) criticized Calvin’s idea of God’s sovereignty because in it “love is subordinated to sovereignty, instead of sovereignty to love.”  (446)

…Adrio König, retired professor of theology at UNISA (University of South Africa), whose Here Am I! A Believer’s Reflection on God attacked any deterministic version of God’s sovereignty and affirmed instead a self-limiting God, who suffers human rejection and evil and invites people into covenant partnership with himself without foreordaining or determining their choices.  (475)

According to Piper, God has sincere compassion even for the non-elect so that he desires their salvation, even though he declines to provide for it on the cross. To paraphrase John Wesley, this seems to be such a love and compassion as makes the blood run cold.  (827)

I agree with the Calvinists who say the typical Calvinist view of sovereignty requires confession of God as author of sin and evil.  (1060)

Only a moral monster would refuse to save persons when salvation is absolutely unconditional and solely an act of God that does not depend on free will.  (1113)

I am opposed to any idea that, as the old Calvinist saying goes, “those who find themselves suffering in hell can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God.”  (1131)

…prevenient grace—the illuminating, convicting, calling, and enabling power of the Holy Spirit working on the sinner’s soul and making them free to choose saving grace (or reject it). This is the Arminian interpretation of the “drawings” of God mentioned by Jesus in the gospel of John. God does not draw irresistibly but persuasively, leaving human persons able to say no.  (1206)

…the vicious calumnies raised against [Arminianism] by Calvinists over the years; most of what Calvinists say about it is simply untrue or at least only partially true. One of the worst offenders is Sproul, who equates Arminianism with the heresy of semi-Pelagianism.  (1230)

All Calvinists say that God is not responsible for sin and evil even though he foreordains and renders them certain, and that creatures are responsible even though they could not do otherwise than they do.  (1782)

Does Scripture require acceptance of the high Calvinist doctrine of divine determinism? It does not.  (1872)

God allows his perfect will to be thwarted by his human creatures whom he loves and respects enough not to control them.  (1901)

It is not God whom critics of Calvinism are calling into question. It is Calvinists’ beliefs about God that we are questioning! There is a difference.  (2128)

This is exactly what non-Calvinists worry about with regard to Calvinism: that its deep, inner logic leads inexorably to exalting God’s glory over and even against his love. Apparently, God can (or must) limit his love, but he can’t limit his self-glorification.  (2213)

Referring to the universal call to repentance and salvation and God’s expressed desire that all respond to it so as to be saved, Wesley poses an image to illustrate the problem: a jailor calling on prisoners to leave their cells without opening the doors. “Alas! My brethren, what kind of sincerity is this, which you ascribe to God our Saviour?”  (2487)

Contrary to what many think, Wesley, as a classical Arminian, affirmed that salvation is all of grace and has nothing to do with man’s merit.  (2530)

Isn’t God sovereign over his sovereignty? Can’t God limit himself to give free will to human persons?  (2590)

J. I. Packer, who wrote: “The difference between them [Calvinist and Arminian views of the atonement] is not primarily one of emphasis, but of content. One proclaims a God who saves; the other speaks of a God who enables man to save himself.” This is perhaps the most vicious calumny against non-Calvinists. No Arminian or other informed evangelical Christian believes in self-salvation.  (2797)

Monergism is the belief that salvation is all God’s doing from beginning to end without any cooperation from the person being saved other than what God instils in that person. The alternative is “synergism”—the belief that salvation is all of grace but requires free cooperation for it to be activated in a person’s life.  (3067)

Calvinism necessarily implies, whether any Calvinist would say so or not, that God requires a better quality of love from us than he himself exercises! In Luke 6:35 and parallel passages Jesus commands us to love our enemies; there is no hint of any exception. But according to Calvinism, God doesn’t do that.  (3286)

God’s grace is the effectual cause of salvation, but the human person’s faith as response to prevenient grace is the instrumental cause of salvation. What is that faith? simply trusting God; it is not a “good work” or anything meritorious of which the saved sinner could boast.  (3370)

I would like to persuade fellow Christians to avoid Calvinism, not because I think it will kill their faith or Spirituality but because I want people to think better about God than Calvinism allows.  (3543)

Calvinism makes it difficult to recognize the difference between God and the devil except that the devil wants everyone to go to hell and God wants many to go to hell.  (3733)

Most critics of Calvinism, believe the character of God is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ and that we must interpret other descriptions of God in that light. Jesus was genuinely grieved over sin and evil and clearly sought to alleviate suffering. Calvinists often accuse non-Calvinists of not taking Scripture seriously enough. What they mean is that they take old Testament “texts of terror” more seriously than they take Jesus! At least that is how most non-Calvinists see it.  (4085)

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