Review of Against Calvinism by Roger E. Olson

I understand that polemics bring with them many difficulties, and as such Olson’s book starts with a point by point rebuttal of a view. Still, it was not a well done rebuttal (See Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” for an amazing, though harsh, polemic).

Reading this book, after reading “For Calvinism”, I was hoping for a scripturally based explanation of why Calvinism is wrong; instead it was mostly philosophical polemic against Calvinism based on the assumption of Libertarian free will. All of Olson’s arguments concluding that Calvinism diminishes God’s love and goodness presuppose a view of Libertarian free will that has been shown both to be untenable scripturally and philosophically (“The Bondage of the Will” by Martin Luther and “Freedom of the Will” by Jonathan Edwards); Olson interacts with both of these books but does not give enough consideration to their arguments, writing them off as counter to common-sense and assuming the libertarian view to be right (even if “mysterious” [133]).

On the positive side he mostly gives an accurate description of the five points of the TULIP, but sets up and dismantles probably the weakest argument for these points I have ever read. He deals mostly with their philosophical defences and rarely interacts with the strong Biblical foundations upon which they are built. An example of this is when Olson deals with Irresistible (Effectual) Grace. He cites Sproul’s argument from “draw” in John 6:44 and focuses on tearing it down but ignores the powerful evidence from John 3 (which he mistakenly assumed, earlier in the book, to support his view of regeneration by a slippery definition of ‘salvation’ that is found throughout the book), John 10, Romans 8:28-39, and elsewhere. He also uses questionable exegesis (giving him the benefit of the doubt; oversights) to support his argument. For example, he cites at least twice Romans 5:8 as teaching that Christ died for all sinners (144,117). This passage reads; “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (NASB). Who is this “us” and “we” referred to? In verse one of this chapter Paul writes; “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (NASB). It is these, those who have been justified (those he wrote Romans to), that he is addressing in v. 8. While those who are now justified were still sinners Jesus Christ came and died for them! (also see his citation of A.T. Robinson as one of the “best critical exegetes” (132)). As a Calvinist reading this will challenge you, but the lack of evidence from Scripture will leave you more resolved about where you stand. If you are going to read this book read it alongside of “For Calvinism” written by Michael Horton.

This book gets a rating of 2/5

  • He loses one star because he fails to fulfil his thesis: In the introduction to this book Olson mentions that he intends to use Wesley’s quadrilateral to judge the Calvinist view, he goes on throughout the book to judge the view of Calvinism, but neglects the most important point of this quadrilateral. He over and over again enthusiastically employ’s the test of reason and experience (though neglecting how the arguments backfire on his own view if pushed to their logical conclusion [Reductio Ad Absurdum]) but frequently neglects to interact with the Calvinist’s exegesis (except for a few exceptions like Sproul’s argument from “draw”) and bring up Scripture to counter the views of Calvinism.
  • He loses another star because of the before mentioned tendency to use arguments that are equally damaging to an Arminian view. Reading the book I had the thought that I was reading a polemic against Christianity as a whole, not just Calvinism.
  • Lastly, he loses a star because he flat out makes a statement that shows were his authority is, and it doesn’t seem to be Scripture. On page 85 Olson writes:

“He asked: “If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true God actually is as Calvinism says and rules as Calvinism affirms, would you still worship him?” I knew the only possible answer without a moment’s thought, even though I knew it would shock many people. I said no, that I would not because I could not. Such a God would be a moral monster. Of course, I realize Calvinists do not think their view of God’s sovereignty makes him a moral monster, but I can only conclude they have not thought it through to its logical conclusion or even taken sufficiently seriously the things they say about God and evil and innocent suffering in the world.”

    • Here Olson says that he could not worship the Calvinist God, for He would be a moral monster. My problem with this statement is that it throws out any ground for Olson to claim that Scripture is his absolute authority. Let me explain. I believe that Olson genuinely loves the Lord, and is truly a believer; so he will not reject God. Olson is convinced of the truth of Christianity, so he will continue to worship God. What happens if, lets suppose Calvinism is even slightly true, Olson runs into a Scripture that affirms a Calvinistic idea of God’s determination of the universe? I do not believe that Olson is going to through away his faith, for he is a committed Christian; this only leaves him one choice. If Olson cannot worship a Calvinist God, and we suppose that he will not disown Christianity, his only option open encountering a verse that incontrovertibly teaches an even slightly Calvinistic doctrine (along the lines of the U, L, or I that he hates) he can only throw out what Scripture is saying and eisegetically (reading in his own meaning) interpret it in a way that reconciles it with his pre held view of who God is. Because of his philosophical presupposition (any form of determinism=God being a moral monster and libertarian free will) he has, in light of this quote, given away any claim he would make to Scripture being his absolute authority.
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