For And Against Calvinism: Ten Key Questions image

For And Against Calvinism: Ten Key Questions

During my Lenten break, I had a great opportunity to read all sorts of books that I’d been meaning to read for a while, and never got around to. I read Westerholm on justification, Holmes on the trinity, Taylor and Köstenberger on the final days of Jesus, John Walton on Genesis and on Job, and Greg Boyd on suffering, as well as a bunch of stuff for my PhD. Westerholm and Walton, in particular, straightened out a number of things for me, and richly repaid the time I invested. But the two books that got inside my head the most, in both an illuminating and a distracting way, were Against Calvinism by Roger Olson and For Calvinism by Michael Horton.

That may well say more about me than about the books themselves; reviews and endorsements of books often do. I have increasingly become persuaded of two things that have challenged the variety of Calvinism I have believed and taught for many years, and these have no doubt increased my interest in the subject:  firstly, that some of Arminianism’s biggest perceived weaknesses (semi-Pelagianism, a lack of divine sovereignty, man-centredness, etc) are in fact Calvinist misrepresentations of it, and secondly, that some of Calvinism’s greatest perceived strengths (free grace, the sovereignty and glory of God, Christ-centredness, a passion for scripture, a passion for mission, etc) are simply strengths of evangelical Christianity in general. Consequently, I went to the two books hoping for some clarifying dialogue on several questions – questions which, whether or not they have been central to the historical debate, remain the questions that I find myself coming back to, time and time again, in pastoral ministry and theological study.

The books were not written with my questions in mind. There is no particular reason why they should have been, either. Roger Olson is very interested in some of them, but not so much in others, and Michael Horton is the same; they are not even interested in precisely the same questions. (Much of Olson’s book is about meticulous providence and the problems it poses for the character of God, which he sees as the Achilles’ heel of Calvinism, whereas Horton sees this as a relatively small part of Calvinism, and consequently treats it in much less detail). My exchange of articles with David Gibson a few months ago, on limited atonement, was a good reminder that I should not expect other people’s books to be asking my questions – and therefore I should not scold them for failing to answer them.

Nevertheless, reading the books back-to-back crystallised my turbulent, swirling thoughts into ten key questions, to which I assume all theologically-minded pastors will have to have a functional answer at some point, since people ask about them all the time. For those who are bored by historical study, and baffled by abstruse angels-on-a-pinhead discussions, there remain a number of issues in the Calvinist-Arminian debate that really do become pressing, or sticky, in the ordinary Christian life – and a good many books, talks and seminars on the topic fail to engage with them properly. (I’m thinking here about issues over which Calvinists and Arminians would divide, rather than questions on which they would give the same answers: is God sovereign? is God loving? is salvation by works? is there any point in praying, or preaching the gospel? and so on). So here’s my list, along with the answers I think Olson and Horton would give to them.

1. Does God “give and take away”? (Olson No, Horton Yes)

2. Does God ordain and render certain all sins, including rape, torture, murder, genocide, etc? (Olson No, Horton Yes)

3. Does prayer change God’s mind? (Olson Yes, Horton No)

4. Did God have the first desire that something evil take place in the world? (Olson No, Horton Yes)

5. Are all unbelievers able to respond to the gospel when they hear it? (Olson Yes, Horton No)

6. Has God predestined people I love to hell? (Olson No, Horton Yes)

7. Is God’s election based on knowing what will happen in advance? (Olson Yes, Horton No)

8. Did Jesus die for everybody? (Olson Yes, Horton No)

9. Should I pray for God to bring unbelievers to faith? (Olson No, Horton Yes)

10. If I am truly saved, can I be sure that I will persevere to the end? (Olson No, Horton Yes)

Two caveats here: one, I’m sure both men would have something to say about the way some of these questions are framed, and might strongly object to the language in the first place; and two, even if they didn’t, these are just guesses, and I obviously can’t be certain that either man would answer the questions like this. Having said that, they are educated guesses. The last six correspond pretty closely to the issues raised by the Remonstrants and then later addressed at Dort, although they are phrased in the language of 21st century pastoralia, and the first three are fairly easy to answer on behalf of consistent Calvinists (like Horton) or consistent Arminians (like Olson). I suspect #4 is the most speculative, because most Calvinists tend to answer it with an appeal to mystery, but my hunch is that Olson is right to say that a consistent Calvinist would answer yes.

Over to you. How would you answer the ten questions? I’ll give my current responses in the comments thread once a few of you have chipped in. We may need to come back to some of them later ...

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