Interview with Roger Olson: Against Calvinism
Two books that you will want to pick up if you haven’t already are For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (Zondervan). Today both Olson and Horton join us to talk about their new books. Josh Hayes, writer for “Towers,” begins with Roger Olson, Baylor University Professor of Theology.
How did your research for and writing of Against Calvinism confirm or change your impressions or understanding of Calvinist doctrine?
It confirmed my already well informed impressions and understanding of Calvinism. It also revealed more diversity among Calvinists than I had previously perceived. Loraine Boettner, for example, was a supralapsarian while R.C. Sproul is not. Boettner considered supralapsarianism true Calvinism while Sproul considers it false Calvinism. These are interesting distinctions, but most of the Calvinists I read earlier and for this book agree on the essential contours of Calvinist theology.
What did you find most challenging about writing the book?
How to get across what I am doing in it. The book is simply my attempt to explain to Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike why I am not a Calvinist. (There’s already a book by that title, however, so that was not an option.) I am not trying to disprove Calvinism but show that if Calvinists followed their distinctive doctrines to their logical conclusions (which I would have to do) they would be completely untenable biblically and spiritually. That’s difficult to explain when most readers will inevitably think the book is an attempt to disprove Calvinism.
You mention in Against Calvinism that what is missing from book shelves is a book that demonstrates why Calvinist theology is untenable. What are the best books in your mind that provide a comprehensive positive case for Arminian theology?
Thomas Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace is the best contemporary exposition of basic Arminian soteriology. Others include books by Arminian Baptists Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli. I highly recommend Stanley J. Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God which is thoroughly Arminian even if it doesn’t claim that label. Two Nazarene theologians named H. Ray Dunning and Kenneth Grider have written one volume systematic theologies from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective.
What has your involvement in the Calvinist-Arminian debate taught you about distinguishing between people and their beliefs?
That it’s not easy — especially for those on the receiving end of criticism of their theology. I work hard not to be offended by fair criticisms of Arminianism. I have no desire to insult or offend Calvinists even though I strongly disagree with key beliefs they hold dear. I think the main issue is fairness. We both need to state each others’ beliefs fairly and then not take offense just because others disagree with our beliefs.
You state that some Calvinists are among best evangelical Christians you know. What has this debate taught you about the importance of maintaining an ecumenical spirit among evangelical Christians while holding to distinctive convictions?
That it’s absolutely crucial but never easy. We (both Calvinists and Arminians) need to bend over backward to be generous and fair and loving in our disagreements. Words like “shallow” and “insipid” and “negotiated (Christianity)” and the like do nothing but break the ecumenical spirit. We need to assume the best about each other even as we strongly disagree about points of doctrine.
Since God is “in charge, but not in control” of everything, how would you offer people hope when events are not rendered certain?
The biblical hope (as I see it) is that God can work all things together for the good for those who love him and are called by him (Romans 8:28). God can and does take terribly tragic events of evil and innocent suffering, which are byproducts of the fallenness of the world, and weave them into his plan and purpose to bring us to his ultimate good for us which is to glorify and enjoy him forever in spite of what Satan and sin and the world do to us.
In a nutshell, what are some of the ways that you think Calvinism does not cohere with Jesus’ person and character?
Jesus wept over Jerusalem and lamented that he wanted to gather them to him, but they would not (Matthew 23:36-39). Jesus genuine compassion for those suffering from the evil of others or their own hardness of heart reveals God’s heart of love and desire for all to experience the shalom of his love and peace. Jesus’ willing substitutionary death for all people (1 John 2:2) reveals his loving character.
What do you think is the strongest argument for Calvinism or any of its distinctives?
God’s absolute, infallible, comprehensive foreknowledge might seem to imply foreordination of everything. In the end, however, I don’t think it does.
Have you ever considered Calvinism plausible or compelling?
No. I will say that some Scripture passages seem, on the surface, to wear that aspect, but it’s not possible, else God would be monstrous. (And fortunately there are better interpretations.)
Since tulips are clearly out of the question, what kind of flowers do you purchase for your wife?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted by “Towers” writer Josh Hayes and was first published in “Towers.”