Roger Olson, Arminianism and the Death of Exegesis
That is, I figured that Calvin, Edwards, Hodge and Piper believed what they believed because they had carefully studied the scriptures and concluded that it’s what they taught, and that Arminius, Wesley, Booth and McKnight believed what they believed because they had studied the scriptures and concluded that it’s what they taught. I thought people changed their minds sometimes, and that this was because they studied Romans 9, or 1 Timothy 2, or whatever, and concluded that their exegesis had been wrong and they needed to change it. In other words, once all allowances had been made for the influence of the theological system you were brought up in and so on, I still thought exegesis - the careful analysis of what the biblical writers said, and what they meant in their original setting - was the driving force behind the theological positions that people came to.
Which is why it’s intriguing to hear these very honest thoughts from the veteran Arminian theologian Roger Olson, whose book Against Calvinism has just been released as a pair with Mike Horton’s For Calvinism. For Olson, the difference does not really come down to exegesis, but to presuppositions that run much deeper:
I’m beginning to think even more than before that most 5 points Calvinists I know approach the Bible very differently from most non-Calvinists I know ... For example (I’m musing here because I’m not sure about this): It seems to me that most 5 point Calvinists I know seem bound and determined to believe anything they think the Bible says regardless of how horrific that may be. In other words, IF they became convinced that somehow they had been overlooking something in Scripture (as they think I do) and, in fact, God and the devil are actually the same being such that God is evil, they would believe it because the Bible says it. I, on the other hand, presuppose that God cannot be evil; that goodness and being belong inextricably together or else there is no ground for basic trust. This is why Wesley said of Romans 9 (paraphrasing here)–whatever it means it cannot mean that! He means, no matter how much Romans 9 (and other Scripture passages) SEEM to say that God selects some people to save UNCONDITIONALLY, leaving others WHO HE COULD SAVE (because election to salvation is unconditional and saving grace is irresistible) to eternal torment in hell, it cannot mean that. Why? Because God is good. Even Calvinist Paul Helm, a leading evangelical Calvinist thinker, agrees (as I show in my book) that “goodness” attributed to God cannot be totally different from every understanding of goodness (and love) we know of. When Wesley rightly said of Romans 9 that it cannot mean “that” (what Calvinists believe it means) he wasn’t dismissing Romans 9 as uninspired, not part of God’s Word. He was saying IF it means that (and fortunately there are other valid interpretations than the Calvinist one) God is not good but a monster worse than the devil because at least the devil is sincere. (Wesley is talking about God’s universal will for salvation–1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, etc.). To those of us who are not Calvinists this seems right. That’s why we cannot be Calvinists–because IF WE believed what Calvinists believe God would not be good and therefore could not be trusted. We realize that Calvinists (at least most) do not believe God is a monster, but we are saying if WE believed what they believe we would find it necessary to think of God that way–as indistinguishable from the devil. I find most (all?) Calvinists simply sweep that aside as unworthy of consideration and fall back on quoting isolated Bible passages that they think prove their view of God and salvation, etc.
The capital letters notwithstanding, this is an extremely interesting argument from one of the most prominent advocates for Arminianism in North America. Before responding, a few quick comments. Firstly, I don’t know Roger Olson personally, but from what I’ve read of him, he strikes me as a sincere, honest, thoughtful and humble theologian and brother in Christ. Secondly, I don’t have a particular axe to grind on the wider theological debate he’s talking about here; with regard to soteriology, I used to be an Arminian, then I became a Calvinist, and now I wouldn’t particularly use either label, since I agree with 3.5 of the Calvinist five points, and 3.5 of the Arminian ones. (That sentence will cause consternation for some who have studied theology, or even maths; as Chandler from Friends put it, “can open, worms everywhere”). Thirdly, I’m not assuming all, or even most, Arminians argue in the way Roger Olson does. And fourthly, the quote you’ve just read is an excerpt from a longer blog post which makes some very insightful comments on the Calvinist-Arminian debate, and is well worth reading, along with the comments, to get a sense of how what I’ve quoted fits into his argument.
With all that said, there are several things about this article which cause me some concern. The first, despite its apparent appeal, is Olson’s statement that the way Calvinists and Arminians read the Bible is fundamentally different. According to Olson, the difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian is fundamentally that the former believes whatever the Bible says no matter how appalling it might seem, and the latter constrains their reading of the text by assumptions about the goodness of God, which might force interpretations of certain texts that would not otherwise be the most obvious.
The problem here, I think, is that the differences between the two camps have been exaggerated (at least, insofar as many proponents of each position are concerned). I am sure that five point Calvinists reach their conclusions on the basis of what they believe the Bible says, whether or not it involves a radical rethinking of what constitutes “goodness”, or “justice”. But I think many Arminians do, too. Unless motives are being deliberately concealed by an awful lot of people at both academic and popular levels, then it would seem that plenty of (most?) Arminians are perfectly prepared to concede that the Bible might teach something which reconfigures their idea of goodness or justice - we are fallen creatures, after all, and one of the Fall’s most insidious consequences has been the calling of good evil and evil good - but reach Arminian conclusions simply because they believe the Bible teaches them. I don’t think anyone could accuse David Pawson, to take one of British Christianity’s most ardent Arminians of recent years, of basing his argument on the foundation of what he thinks God should or should not do. Olson is implying that Pawson, along with many other Arminian theologians and teachers, is reasoning like this:
The Bible appears to teach unconditional election; but
Unconditional election would make God a monster; therefore
The Bible does not teach unconditional election.
From my reading of them, however, Pawson and others are arguing very differently:
The Bible could conceivably teach both unconditional election, and the goodness of God; in which case
Unconditional election and the goodness of God would not be incompatible; however,
The Bible does not teach unconditional election.
In other words, many are compelled towards Arminian theology by Scripture, not by an assumption that what seems unjust to them must necessarily be, in fact, unjust. (It’s just as well, given a Bible in which human reasoning about God is so frequently shown up for being limited!) That’s not to say that no Arminians reason like Olson says, of course; Olson himself obviously does, he quotes Wesley in agreement, and my guess is that Clark Pinnock and a number of others would as well. Nor is it to say that the Bible presents a view of goodness that is “totally different” to any we know of. It is merely to say that there might be times when man feels like asking, “is there injustice on God’s part?”, and the correct response is, “by no means!”
At the same time, although I am sure that Arminians are committed (with Olson) to the presupposition that God is good, and to the notion that anything which Scripture teaches must be in line with this, I am also certain that Calvinists would agree. The goodness of God is a foundational aspect of his character throughout the scriptures, and consequently it has never been plausibly suggested, to my knowledge, that first century scripture-believing Jewish Christians like (say) Paul of Tarsus did not presuppose the goodness of Israel’s God - which means that our interpretation of Pauline theology is shaped by this presupposition, along with many others. Were one of the apparently Pauline letters, then, to contain the phrase “God and the devil are the same being” (Eph 7:1), as per Olson’s slightly odd thought experiment, the church fathers and everyone since would surely have concluded that it was inauthentic, since no first century Jew would say such a thing (we conclude that, for example, the final saying of The Gospel of Thomas did not come from Jesus in precisely this way). And, of course, every Calvinist would agree with this assessment. Yet Olson presents this as a specifically Arminian conclusion: “I, on the other hand, presuppose that God cannot be evil; that goodness and being belong inextricably together or else there is no ground for basic trust.” As reassuring as this is, I cannot think of a Calvinist who wouldn’t share his presupposition here.
The explanation for Olson’s slightly surprising comments, I expect, is found in his brief discussion of Romans 9, which is the second cause for concern. For Olson, if the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 is accurate, and God unconditionally elects some people to salvation and draws them with irresistible grace, then God is “a monster worse than the devil”. This is not the place for a detailed engagement with Romans 9; the passage is not straightforward, and in some ways it does not matter which interpretation is the right one for the purpose of this discussion. What matters is that Olson has raised the stakes dramatically here, and in a somewhat problematic way. Sorry to enumerate again, but his argument consists of three premises and a conclusion:
1 If Calvinists are right, then Romans 9 teaches a God who unconditionally elects some people to salvation, when he could elect everyone to salvation.
2 A God who unconditionally elects some people to salvation, when he could elect everyone to salvation, would be evil, and worse than the devil.
3 But biblical interpretation is guided by the presupposition that God is good, and therefore is not evil, nor worse than the devil.
4 Therefore God does not unconditionally elect some people to salvation, when he could elect everyone. Romans 9 must mean something other than what Calvinists say it means.
Olson talks as if he, and Arminians, take #3 to be axiomatic, while Calvinists do not. But I would have thought it fairly obvious that Calvinists do not disagree at all on #3, differing with Olson merely over #2 (and thus also the conclusion, #4). And since what he is arguing is not self-evident to many Christians, nor substantiated in this post, and is expressed in a way that is polemic to the point of being incendiary, it would seem unwise to write like this. Especially since both the Arminian, and the five point Calvinist, have to wrestle with how a God who is both loving and sovereign can allow people whom he could save to perish, and differ only on what greater concern causes him not to (typically, human free choices for the Arminian, and God’s greater glory for the Calvinist).
My third concern is more fundamental, and has nothing to do with the Calvinist-Arminian debate. It is that, in reasoning as he does, Roger Olson is making space for what I have previously referred to as “the death of exegesis”. What I mean by that is not that Olson thinks exegesis is unimportant, but that (in his argument here) he implies that exegesis is no longer the primary way we establish what a biblical text meant in its original setting. For me, for most Calvinists, for most Arminians and for most of those who use neither label, the way we establish what a text meant in its original setting is through exegesis: grammatical, historical, lexical, literary and theological analysis of a passage in all its contexts. For Olson, it appears (and he cites Wesley in support), there is a higher court of appeal than that, which is the interpreter’s own view of what would be compatible with the goodness of God, whether or not this view is shared by the biblical writer in question.
That is the key difference between Olson’s view of Romans 9 and the Calvinist’s view of the hypothetical Ephesians 7:1. In the latter case, we (a) do careful exegesis of Paul’s theology, not least in Ephesians itself, and (b) conclude that the historical figure Paul of Tarsus would certainly not have written something which equated Israel’s God with the devil, which leads us (c) to regard it as inauthentically Pauline. In the former, however, the driving concern is not whether Paul could have regarded unconditional election as compatible with the goodness of God, but whether we do. Effectively, in Olson’s framework, we are left saying that because we cannot conceive of unconditional election as in any way good, therefore Paul cannot have either, so he must have meant something else, no matter how clear he was on the issue. (As I say, what constitutes the best exegesis of Romans 9 is not my concern here). In this view, critical scholarship is helpful to a point, but if it results in a Paul, or a Peter or John or Luke, who advocates conclusions we find unpalatable, or inconsistent with our understanding of God, we will reinterpret the text until it fits our theology. And that, without wanting to sound too apocalyptic, is effectively advocating the death of exegesis as the primary way we establish what an author meant.
Frankly, I find all three of these conclusions unpalatable, and would love to reinterpret Olson’s words until they fit my theology. But I’ve got to let Olson be Olson, and do my best to understand him in his own context. Perhaps exegesis is still alive, after all.