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).

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Calvinism, Drivel, and the Best Possible World

Herman Bavinck’s section on the divine counsel in Reformed Dogmatics is, in my rather biased mind at least, teeming with shrewd theological judgments.  However, it also bears the mark of a deep, pastoral awareness of the tragic and the disturbing realities of the world.  In the midst of underscoring the active posture of the will  of God and the dependence of all creaturely happenings thereon, he acknowledges,

Present in this world there is so much that is irrational, so much undeserved suffering, so many inexplicable disasters, such unequal and incomprehensible apportionment of good and bad fortune, such a heartbreaking contrast between joy and sorrow, that any thinking person has to choose between interpreting it – as pessimism does – in terms of the blind will of some misbegotten deity, or on the basis of Scripture believingly trusting in the absolute, sovereign, and yet – however incomprehensible – wise and holy will of him who will some day cause the full light of heaven to shine on those riddles of our existence….Pelagianism scatters flowers over graves, turns death into an angel, regards sin as mere weakness, lectures on the uses of adversity, and considers this the best possible world.  Calvinism has no use for such drivel.  It refuses to be hoodwinked.  It tolerates no delusion, takes full account of the seriousness of life, champions the rights of the Lord of lords, and humbly bows in adoration before the inexplicable sovereign will of God Almighty.  As a result, it proves to be fundamentally more merciful than Pelagianism (RD, 1:394).

For Bavinck, the tradition has always taught ‘not that God could have done “more” and “better” than he did, for he always acts in a divine and perfect manner, but that he could have made things “greater in number, greater, and better” than he did’ (RD: 1:234).  Along with this recognition of the fact that God’s abilities are not exhausted on created things, Bavinck is of course steeped in the biblical hope of new creation.  It’s from this vantage point that he can bluntly characterize as ‘drivel’ talk of this world as ‘the best possible world’.

How does this stack up against contemporary Calvinistic expositions and impressions of the divine decree or divine providence?  What do you  make of it?