Skip to content

Are you for Calvinism or against Calvinism?

[Editor’s note: This review is from the May issue of Credo Magazine, “Chosen by Grace.”]

Horton, Michael. For Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Olson, Roger. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Reviewed by David Schrock–

At the end of 2011, Zondervan published two companion works on the subject of Calvinism.  Church historian and outspoken Arminian, Roger Olson, writes Against Calvinisim, while Reformed theologian, Michael Horton, author of a recent systematic theology (The Christian Faith), writes For Calvinism.  Like InterVarsity’s 2004 release of Why I am Not a Calvinist (Walls and Dongell) and Why I am not an Arminian (Peterson and Williams), For Calvinism (FC) and Against Calvinism (AC) address the doctrines of grace and their attendant controversies. 

Yet, what makes these more recent publications unique is the way they engage the development of Neo-Calvinism.  Since 2000, the fires of Calvinism have spread abroad.  This has warmed the hearts of some and stirred up the embers of others. In these two popular-level works, Horton and Olson have provided definitive arguments for the two sides of the longstanding debate.  In this review, we will consider these books together, looking at how they set the debate in historical context, how they make their respective cases for and against Calvinism, and how they might serve those who read them.

Historical Considerations

Olson writes with the express desire of presenting an alternative to the young, restless, and Reformed crowd (AC, 16-22).  As a historian, he goes back to the Reformers to argue that Reformed theology is far less monolithic than supposed.  This background is helpful, but the truth question remains: What does the Bible actually teach? 

To make his case, Olson cites a plethora of historical and contemporary advocates of Calvinism.  Then, he rejects their views based on appeals to reason and general theological ideals.  Accordingly, the strength of Olson’s work is that it clearly illustrates how Arminians respond to Calvinist doctrines.  (In history, the Synod of Dort actually responded to the Arminian Remonstrants, but in Against Calvinism, Olson primarily responds to the tenets of Calvinism).  He raises a number of worthwhile questions, but often he does not listen to how Calvinists have answered these objections.

Like Olson, Horton situates the doctrines of grace in history.  Unpacking the “Essence of Calvinism,” Horton cites the origin of the pejorative term (FC, 23); he deciphers the way the catholic church (lower case ‘c’), evangelicalism, and Reformed theology relate (27); and he demonstrates how “Calvinism” fits into the larger movement of Protestantism.  In this, Horton observes that “Calvin was not the first Calvinist. . . Calvin was not the only shaper of the Reformed tradition . . . [and] Calvin never identified predestination or election as a central doctrine” (28-29). 

Horton observes the differences between Calvinism and the various forms of Arminianism.  This is a helpful taxonomy—one that Olson must appreciate because it follows his own distinctions.  There are among non-Calvinists, “evangelical Arminians” and “liberal Arminians” (34).  This is a distinction that is often lacking among Calvinists, and it is an important category to consider in debating the doctrines of grace.  Between them, these two volumes help supply the reader with historical understanding for the current debate.

Theological Method

Olson and Horton argue their position in very different ways.  In the introduction to his book, Olson “puts all his cards on the table.”  He self-consciously employs the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” where Scripture functions as the “primary source and norm of theology,” but one that is accompanied and supported by “tradition,” “reason,” and “experience” (AC, 24).  Yet, in observing his arguments, one might suspect that these other epistemic criteria overshadow Scripture.  Most of his arguments are rooted in history or philosophy, and when he does appeal to Scripture, he lets others do the exegetical heavy lifting (128-35).

For instance, in his chapter on God’s sovereignty, appeals to Scripture are sparse.  Olson begins with multiple illustrations that suggest that the God of Calvinism is the perpetrator of evil, suffering, and death.  Next, he examines the statements of Zwingli, Calvin, Edwards, Sproul, Boettner, Helm, and Piper.  Based on these men’s articulations of God’s divine determinism—a pejorative term that fails to express all that Calvinism believes about God’s activity in the world—Olson concludes that the God of Reformed theology is a “moral monster” (85).  Unfortunately, Olson never explains the Scripture that speak of God giving and taking life (Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6: Job 1:21); nor does he wrestle with the Reformed doctrine of compatibilism. 

Or, compare the way the Olson and Horton handle the doctrine of election.  Horton begins by examining what Scripture says.  With the space allotted, he considers numerous passages from both testaments.  Next, he asks three questions: “Is Election Unconditional?” “Is Election Individual or Corporate?”  And “Is Election Fair?” (FC, 58-63).  To each, Horton goes back to the Bible to find an answer.  Last, he wrestles with the problems of election and human responsibility, as well as, Calvinism’s ability to give personal assurance.  In the end, he rightly appeals to mystery, to retain God’s position as the inscrutable God whose ways are greater than our own.

By contrast, Olson begins with Calvin, Boettner, Palmer, and Sproul—not the Bible.  In quoting these men, he posits a view of election and reprobation that a minority of Calvinists hold.  Instead of wrestling with the texts (Deut 7:7-9; Ps 65:4; Jn 10:26-30; Rom 9-11; Eph 1), Olson sets up Calvinists whom he in turn knocks down.  When he does appeal to the Bible, he does not deal directly with the texts on election.  Instead, he points to passages that affirm God’s universal love and intent to save.  He concludes by way of logical inference that the doctrine of election is untenable.  Such theological maneuvering suggests that “Olson’s Quadrilateral” puts too much weight on reason, tradition, and experience, and not enough on Scripture.

Olson’s methodology may be acceptable to some, but not to most of the “Piper cubs” he is trying to court.  While he intends to reach out to this group with an alternative theological system, he is going to have to do so with greater exegetical arguments. Most neo-Calvinists are persuaded that Scripture is first order and determinative for doctrine.  Thus, of these two theological presentations, Horton’s is more compelling because of his insistence on grounding the doctrines in the text and then answering questions of logic and philosophy.

Implications and Impact

Written together, with each author providing the forward to the other book, For Calvinism and Against Calvinism model the way in which serious-minded scholars debate these issues.  Both Olson and Horton explain their intent to take an irenic posture in this heated debate.  Both express appreciation for the other, and both try to understand what the other is saying.  Or at least, that is the aim.

From the vantage point of this reviewer, Horton does a better job listening to the other side and offering biblical critiques.  Following Olson’s own presentation of Arminian theology, Horton discerns that the debate with non-Calvinists is not against a twenty-first century Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, as young Calvinists often charge.  Rather, in this debate, Reformed theology contests the synergistic view of salvation held by “evangelical Arminians,” who argue that men, empowered by universal prevenient grace—are cobelligerents in the work of salvation.  Monergism and synergism are the points at issue.

Alternatively, Olson misses the nuance with which Calvinists have articulated the doctrines of grace.  For instance, Olson critiques Calvinists as if they have no place in their ‘system’ for the free actions of sinful men.  Yet, those who strongly affirm God’s monergism do retain a place for the real responsibility of humans and angels.  What is unfortunate is that for someone new to the debate, Olson does not give a true picture of what Calvinists believe.  But that is why these books must be read together. 

Horton, after providing a winsome, biblical defense of Reformed soteriology, concludes his book describing the way Calvinism leads to a transformed life and sacrificial missions.  Indeed, spiritual life and missions are the legacy of Calvinism as evidenced among the Reformers, Puritans, historic Baptists, and twenty-first century Reformed evangelicals.  Someone reading Against Calvinism would never see such fruit, but For Calvinism strongly asserts not only the biblical but also the practical benefits of Calvinism.

In the end, For Calvinism and Against Calvinism are readable and engage with the most important arguments.  In this way, they serve as a good introduction.  Yet, it must be mentioned that the researcher looking for a Scripture or subject index to find what these men say about a given text or topic will be disappointed because neither book comes furnished with any indices. Still, the works of Olson and Horton are a good pair to read to better know the lines of the historic debate.

David Schrock is Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church (Seymour, IN) and a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Back to Top