Roger Olson – Calvinism Caricatured

Roger Olson has written an unfortunate article in which he demonizes that school of Christian thought known as Calvinism. I find the article unfortunate in that it is not particularly thoughtful or compelling, in fact it resorts to what I believe are some cheap shots. For example Olson states:

“This theology is sweeping up thousands of impressionable young Christians. It provides a seemingly simple answer to the problem of evil. Even what we call evil is planned and rendered certain by God because it is necessary for a greater good.”

Olson’s choice of language seems to suggest that Calvinism is a sort of heresy that provides simple answers and that is leading young Christians away from a true (or truer?) profession of the faith. It makes Calvinism sound like a theological innovation that poses a profound danger to the universal church. Quite the opposite is true.

Speaking as a confessing Calvinist I find this to be a caricature. And yet I realize that there is a grain of truth in what Olson contends (as there are in all heresies). It is easy for Calvinists, especially immature ones, to use God’s sovereignty in a way that precludes thoughtful reflection on the nature of evil and the witness of Scripture. However, let’s not define a movement by its excesses. The Reformed tradition has provided centuries of philosophically complex reflection on the issues Olson addresses. As a historian, Olson would be forced to concede, as a polemicist, he cannot.

Further, Olson states: “The God of Calvinism scares me; I’m not sure how to distinguish him from the devil.” I am tempted to retort: the God of Olson scares me; I’m not sure how to distinguish him from Zeus.

While we’re caricaturing, how’s this? One might be tempted to envision Olson’s God as a hand-wringing milksop who longs for the day when he will finally wrest control of the fallen order and usher in perfection. Olsen’s God seems strangely disjointed and removed from the witness of Holy Scripture: that God is working now to redeem the fallen creation; ushering in shalom even as I write.

It is also lacks any nuance in the interplay between divine sovereignty and human agency. Olson seems incapable of conceiving something other than the either/or of modernity. Either God is in control or human beings are autonomous agents. Surely a reading of Scripture suggests a mysterious interplay between the two.

He writes, “If you’ve come under the influence of Calvinism, think about its ramifications for the character of God.” It is like he’s writing to people who have strayed from orthodoxy. Simply remove Calvinism and insert your favorite heresy – modalism for example. As a general rule, I find it untenable that someone associated with a theological innovation (not a good word in my book) like open theism should reprove believers for adhering to classical theism – namely that God both knows and ordains all things whatsoever shall come to pass (WCF III.1).

I have often wondered at the great distaste many have for Calvinism. It is often a blind loathing: one uninformed and unsympathetic. Here I have to confess that Arminians often receive the same treatment from Calvinists. I’ll be the first to admit that prominent Calvinists often come across as theological know-it-alls. Often they are dismissive of traditions outside their own.

However, the reality is that both schools of thought are attempting to read the witness of Scripture in a way that portrays the nature and attributes of God accurately. For this reason I would urge greater charity in the public dialog concerning these truths.

It is my considered opinion that Roger Olson’s article demonstrates much of the blind loathing of reformed thought that characterizes many outside of the reformed tradition.

Frankly, I would expect more from someone claiming to be a Christ-follower than yellow journalism.

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