For or Against Calvinism? (A Critical review)

Following is an essay I wrote for class after evaluating For Calvinism (by Michael Horton) and Against Calvinism (by Roger Olsen).  Following my summary of their arguments, I take on some common objections to the Reformed position.  That latter portion is what I posted.  This may be some “heavy”  reading but I wanted to share this with those who were curious to see what I wrote.

For and Against Calvinism: A Critique

Ohio State and Michigan, Yankees and Red Sox, Lakers and Celtics: these rivalries define their respective sports.  In orthodox evangelical theology, Calvinism and Arminianism can often parallel these rivalries.  However, whereas entertainment and competition are the focus of sports teams, these theological camps have deep disagreements over how to understand Scripture, salvation, and the sovereignty of God.  Which system is the better explanation of Biblical texts?  Which system creates fewer problems?

What to Make of Calvinism?

Before I evaluate this particular issue, I realize that presently Calvinism is proving to be a hotbed issue in the Southern Baptist Convention.  First, there was a firestorm surrounding the Traditional Southern Baptist View of Salvation document, which was written as a reaction against Calvinism.[40]  Later, during the 2012 convention, there was a special committee established to study Calvinism in the SBC.[41]  Therefore, at the very least, Calvinism is an important issue to clarify and study due to the recent controversy in the denomination I call home.

There are two primary objections against Calvinism by Roger Olsen that I wish to address.  The first critique is that Reformed theology followed logically makes God the author of sin and evil or even evil himself.  Second, the decree of election by God to save some and not others is not loving, just, fair, etc.  Obviously, there are more objections to Reformed doctrine than these two, but to me these seem to be the most frequently offered.  However, my belief is that by clarifying the Reformed response in lieu of these criticisms, one can craft a compelling case for Calvinism.  As one who leans towards the Reformed position, the last few pages will be devoted to the defense against these charges against Calvinism.

Does Calvinism make God the author of sin and evil?  Wayne Grudem (a Calvinist) writes that “God never does evil and is never to be blamed for evil”[42] so it is important to assert that an orthodox Calvinist does not teach that God is directly engaged with evil.  In order to answer this charge, it is important to talk about about the Reformed doctrine of providence.  Grudem defines providence in three parts that “God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.”[43]  For the problem of God’s relationship with evil, the latter two definitions are particularly important.

James White ties the last two concepts together when speaking of God’s decrees he writes, “God has wisely and perfectly decreed whatsoever comes to pass in the universe.” [44] So even in evil choices, God has (using Grudem’s definition) concurred with the decisions of his creatures to commit evil.  How then is evil not committed by God? Calvinists appeal quickly to the notion of primary and secondary causes.  A secondary cause is God permitting activities through his creatures rather than his active role in “causing” something.[45]  So how does this salvage God ordaining the Fall?

R.C. Sproul explains that since God as sovereign over all things and declared all things that happen, “then it follows that in some sense God foreordained the entrance of sin into the world.  That is not to say that God forced it to happen or that he imposed evil upon his creation.”[46]  At a cursory glance then it appears that God “caused” sin.  Yet, as Sproul pointed out above, God himself is not responsible for his creature’s sin since it is humanity who committed sin not God himself.  However, this response little satisfies objectors who argue that this distinction hardly solves the problem of evil for Calvinists since indirectly God is still ordained evil.[47]

In a debate between Roger Olsen and Michael Horton, Michael Horton was quick to argue that the problem of evil is not just a Calvinistic problem but an Arminian problem.[48]  As Horton presses in the debate, if God exhaustively foreknows what free creatures will do and creates a world that will fall, the Arminian has just as much as a problem with evil as the Calvinist.  Without embracing Open Theism, one must conclude with Millard Erickson, “This problem (of evil) has occupied the attention of some of the greatest minds of the Christian church… We therefore should not be unduly depressed if we cannot settle the issue in some final fashion.” [49]  Like most of the theologians quoted, at some point both Calvinists (and non-Calvinists) must conclude that the issue of the relationship between God’s sovereignty, providence, and evil is a mystery.  At some point we must stop trying to resolve all mysteries for the “secret things belong to the LORD.”[50]

Does unconditional election make God unloving, unjust, or unfair? First, by way of reminder, “Divine (unconditional) election may be defined as that loving and merciful decision by God to bestow eternal life on some, but not all, hell-deserving sinners,” [51] writes Sam Storms.  This election is “unconditional” as Grudem writes “because it is not conditioned upon anything that God sees in us that makes us worthy of his choosing us.”(emphasis original)[52]  In Deuteronomy 7:6-8 (English Standard Version), Moses tells Israel,

6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

However, not all Christians are convinced that unconditional election is taught.  In spite of this kind of passage (and others), Olsen argues that for God to pass over some and not others when God could have chosen all leads to the conclusion that God’s character is maligned.[53] If everyone does not have a chance for salvation then, it is unloving, unfair, and unjust.  This discrimination in God appears to be unloving to the Arminian.

Grudem (and other Calvinists) are quick to point out that “it would be perfectly fair for God not to save anyone.” [54]  As James White elaborates, “first and foremost God’s action of saving man is an act of grace.”[55]  Essentially the Calvinist response emphasizes that God choosing to save anyone is a loving act.  God could have conceivably saved none but that he chose to save some at all transcends the requirements of fairness and justice.[56]

Naturally, the arguments against Calvinism and its conception to election proceed to verses such as John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4, 1 John 2:2, and others which speak of God’s universal saving will for all.[57]  Why would God only elect some when the Bible says he desires all to be saved?  Therefore, how can Calvinism explain these verses exegetically in lieu of their belief in unconditional election?

To do so, Calvinists appeal to two wills in God.  They note that there is the “revealed will (telling us what we should do)” and the “hidden will of God, his eternal plans for what will happen.”[58]  Since God wills to save all people and not all of them are saved leads to one of two options as John Piper in his essay, Are there Two Wills in God, explains,

What are we to say of the fact that God wills something that in fact does not happen. There are two possibilities as far as I can see. One is that there is a power in the universe greater than God’s which is frustrating him by overruling what he wills. Neither Calvinist nor Arminian affirms this.

The other possibility is that God wills not to save all, even though he is willing to save all, because there is something else that he wills more, which would be lost if he exerted his sovereign power to save all.[59]

Grudem further elaborates that there must be something more important than God’s will that everyone be saved for both the Calvinist and Arminian.  For the Calvinist, it is the glory of God.  But for the Arminian it is man’s freedom of will.[60]  Piper repeats this writing,

The difference between Calvinists and Arminians lies not in whether there are two wills in God, but in what they say this higher commitment is. What does God will more than saving all? The answer given by Arminians is that human self-determination and the possible resulting love relationship with God are more valuable than saving all people by sovereign, efficacious grace. The answer given by Calvinists is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Romans 9:22-23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Corinthians 1:29). [61]

Therefore, the charge that Calvinism is incompatible with a loving, gracious, just, and fair God fails.  God can exercise all of these attributes through unconditional election.  The charge by the anti-Calvinist’s fails.  Whereas the Arminian will have to emphasize the God desiring human ability and will, I would rather emphasize with the Reformed theologians that God’s glory is his prime motivation.

After considering argumentation, debates with friends, and theological works concerning Calvinism and other systems, Scripture must dictate what it is that Christians are to believe.  Granted there are Bible-believing Christians on both sides of this debate, it is my belief that the Bible supports the Reformed position more than any others.  When I first encountered Reformed doctrine, I was a belligerent and arrogant, yet unconfirmed Arminian.  Yet, through the gentle persuasion of friends, professors, pastors, and Biblical testimony, I am moving towards the Reformed position of understanding Scripture.  It seems to me that the Arminian objections to Calvinism are more based upon philosophy and reason rather than upon Scripture itself.  Finally, if anything good, noble, and praiseworthy was written here it is to the glory and praise of God!  If there are any errors, they belong solely to this author.


[40]Joe Carter, “The Faqs: Southern Baptists, Calvinism, and God’s Plan of Salvation,” TGC Blog, entry posted June 6, 2012,http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/06/06/the-faqs-southern-baptists-calvinism-and-gods-plan-of-salvation/ (accessed April 13, 2013).

[41]Lilian Kwan, “Calvinism Debate: Southern Baptists Form Team to Figure Out How to Work Together,” Christian Post, August 17, 2012, under “Churches and Ministries,” http://www.christianpost.com/news/calvinism-debate-southern-baptists-form-team-to-figure-out-how-to-work-together-80202/ (accessed April 13, 2013).

[42]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), page 328.

[43]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 315.

[44]James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom: a Defense of the Reformation and the Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen but Free, Second ed. (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), page 45.

[45]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 328.

[46]R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1994), page 31.

[47]Bruce Little, “Evil and God’s Sovereignty,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2010), pages 279ff.

[48]Michael Horton and Roger E. Olsen, For or Against Calvinism? (Part two), podcast audio, White Horse Inn, MP3, WHI:1085, http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2012/01/22/whi-1085-for-or-against-calvinism-part-2/, (accessed: April 14, 2012).

[49]Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 1998), page 439.

[50] Deuteronomy 29:29

[51]Sam Storms, Chosen for Life: the Case for Divine Election (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2007), page 45.

[52]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 679.

[53] Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), pages 109-110.

[54]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 681.

[55]James Emery White, The Potter’s Freedom, page 178.

[56]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, pg. 682. And Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: a Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), pages 362-364.

[57]For example: Steve W. Lemke, “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2010), pages 122-125.

[58]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 683.

[59]John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives On Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, ed. Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000),  http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god (accessed April 14, 2013).

[60]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, pg. 684.

[61]John Piper, Are There Two Will in God”, in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives On Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, ed. Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware.

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