Restoring God’s Reputation?

olsonI’ve been reading through Zondervan’s two recent books by Michael Horton (For Calvinism) and Roger Olson (Against Calvinism), apt spokesmen for their respective views on the doctrines of grace.  Both authors eschew attempts to find that (illusory) middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism and provide very helpful introductions to the issues at hand.

Olson ardently presses the question of how the God of Calvinism can be the one whom John characterizes as ‘love’ in his first epistle (1 Jn 4:8, 16).  Under the doctrine of predestination, the real question for Olson is not so much whether God could be just in unconditionally electing some and reprobating others but whether God could be said to act in love in so doing: if God could just as easily have unconditionally elected more, or indeed all, fallen persons and effectually called them to salvation, how is he love in choosing not to do so?  An Arminian account, Olson writes, with its doctrine of conditional election, is better-positioned to uphold God’s ‘reputation’ at this point.

This is certainly a pointed question for Reformed soteriology – and theology proper – but one that might be put to the Arminian view as well.  In explicating the Arminian approach to divine sovereignty, Olson writes,

[L]et it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world, do not say that God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will. What God never does is cause evil. God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled.  Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion. Even then, however, it was not that God tempted or manipulated individuals to sin. Rather, he knew what events, such as the triumphal entry, would result in the crucifixion (Against Calvinism, p. 99).

Interestingly, then, Olson’s exposition of Arminianism includes the possibility that God should render something certain to happen without violating the agency of the persons concerned in the matter.  If that is so for Arminian theology – that it does not bar God from infallibly securing an event or outcome of particular importance in redemptive history even where human agents are involved – then it too must face the question of why God would not do this more frequently in order to ensure the salvation of more human beings.  To do so, after all, would not be a matter of God causing evil or placing anyone in harm’s way.

Perhaps an Arminian could respond that God orchestrating external circumstances to procure a certain result is rather different from the internal efficacy of divine grace in Calvinism, but the point remains that, for Olson at least, God can ensure that something will happen even when human agents are involved.  Hence the question: why would God not do more of this, especially when those whose salvation is in the balance would in the end be grateful to God for not heeding their stubbornness and instead working effectually to ensure their salvation.  In the Arminian view also, it seems, God does not save as many as he absolutely could have.  The only way, then, to eradicate this question altogether is to conclude that God simply cannot ensure that human persons will act in a certain way at a certain time.  To the extent that classical Arminianism as well as Calvinism would not draw this conclusion, neither can claim that God saves as many as he absolutely could have and, accordingly, must look to other ways of giving an account of the love of God in relation to the doctrine of predestination.

Any thoughts on this issue?

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3 thoughts on “Restoring God’s Reputation?

  1. If that is so for Arminian theology – that it does not bar God from infallibly securing an event or outcome of particular importance in redemptive history even where human agents are involved – then it too must face the question of why God would not do this more frequently in order to ensure the salvation of more human beings.

    I don’t think that Olson is saying that any individual’s salvation is necessarily (irresistibly) saved, apart from their free assent. A basic point of Arminianism is that saving grace requires the free response (assent) of the creature — a libertarian freedom (of being able to not assent). For those who do not assent (reject grace), the culpability for their damnation is upon the individual entirely, not upon God who desires that none should perish. Thus, God’s love for all is secured, so long as no person is damned because they weren’t given sufficient grace. All persons are given sufficient grace to be restored — otherwise, it could not be said that God wishes none should perish. In other words, if God desires that everyone repent (and not perish) then He will give everyone the means of grace sufficient for such repentance and redemption.

    Interestingly, even Reformed orthodoxy can push in this direction — insofar as the asymmetry of election and reprobation is stressed. For many of those who stress this asymmetry, the reprobate are reprobate because they reject the grace of God, not because of any insufficiency on God’s part to provide the means for their salvation. This is hotly debated, of course, and many Calvinists would indeed say that the reprobate are reprobate because God gives them no sufficient means for their salvation (because He has decided their reprobation from eternity). Someone like John Owen is clearly saying the latter.

    As for myself, I’m still working on this issue (for 10 years now!), and I’m coming to the point of just going with Karl Barth’s dialectical take. Barth doesn’t “solve” this dilemma, but at least Barth lets us say that God really loves everyone! I’m afraid that the strict ordo salutis of, say, John Owen is incompatible with any serious statement that God loves everyone. As Barth would say, God does not love everyone because he “has to” (necessity) but because he freely chooses to be such a God from eternity.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for stopping in and commenting. I would of course agree that it is important for Olson (and other Arminians) that God allows individuals to choose whether they will embrace salvation and supplies to all a prevenient grace to help in that.

    The main point, though, is that Olson criticizes the Calvinistic view of God because it acknowledges that God does not do all that he possibly could do to save all human persons while Olson himself (at least implicitly) says the same about God when he affirms that God can ensure that human beings will make certain choices without compromising the integrity of their volition. In other words, whatever else may be said about classical Arminianism, it does not actually get God off the hook, as it were, at just this point – and for Olson it’s a very important point.

    Without taking the Barthian road myself, I would also heartily agree that election and reprobation are ‘asymmetrical’ (to borrow your terminology above).

  3. I don’t know much about Olson’s views, but from that quote it seems as if he’s pushing a partial Molinist account of divine and human agency. What’s strange about his position is that if God is able to “manipulate historical circumstances” all the while preserving something like libertarian freedom in human beings *some* of the time, then it’s not clear why he wouldn’t do this *all* of the time. God’s “middle knowledge,” if Molinism is true, is the apparatus that would enable this stronger scenario. I’m not sure if Olson is even aware of that option. It would be pathetic if he weren’t, as that view is hundreds of years old by now.

    If he’s not a Molinist, and if he’s simply a “foreknowledge Arminian,” then his view faces arguments to the effect that God’s foreknowledge, together with his omniscience, collapses into an epistemic determinism which leaves no room for agency of the libertarian variety.

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