According to Roger Olsen, the “Calvinist account of God’s sovereignty inevitably makes God the author of sin, evil and innocent suffering… [He] is at best morally ambiguous and at worst a moral monster hardly distinguishable from the devil” (Olsen, 84). But is this assessment fair to the Calvinist position or consistent with Scripture? Olsen, a professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University would say yes. But I’m not so sure.
At the outset of this review I wish to make mention of three things that will help you to understand how I am reviewing this book. First, I will not be engaging everything Olsen has written in this book. If I did this the review would have been much longer. Second, the focus of this review is on chapter four and more specifically to Olsen’s teaching on the God of Calvinism being a “moral monster.” Finally, the goal of this review is to respond to this serious charge leveled by Dr. Olsen by examining whether he is faithful or unfaithful to the teaching of the Word of God. Before we get into the review its important for you the reader to get an idea of the argument Dr. Olsen makes in Against Calvinism.
In Against Calvinism Olsen writes not to attack Calvinism but to critique several aspects of Reformed theology (Olsen, 13). In this book Olsen is standing up and saying “No!” to what he calls “Egregious statements about God’s sovereignty often made by Calvinists” (Olsen, 23). He explains that taken “to their logical conclusion, that even hell and all who will suffer there eternally are foreordained by God, God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst” (Olsen, 23).
One of Olsen’s main’s points that he makes in this book is that the “Calvinist account of God’s sovereignty inevitably makes God the author of sin, evil and innocent suffering (such as the children of the Holocaust) and thereby impugns the integrity of God’s character as good and loving. The God of Calvinism is at best morally ambiguous and at worst a moral monster hardly distinguishable from the devil. Whatever objections Sproul and others may raise, the Calvinist account of God’s sovereignty is divine determinism” (Olsen, 84).
At the heart of all of Dr. Olsen’s objections about Calvinism in Against Calvinism and the focus of this review is the following statement that, “The high Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty including evil as part of God’s plan, purpose and determining power blatantly contradicts Scripture passages that reveal “God is love” (1 John 4:8), takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32), wants everyone to be saved (Ezek. 18:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) and “never tempts anyone” (James 1:13, Olsen, 99).
In his opinion, “what is missing in bookstores today is a book demonstrating why high Calvinism is not biblically, theologically, or logically tenable” (Olsen, 101). Olsen intends to show that “extreme Calvinism” which he labels “radical” is flawed biblically and logically” (Olsen, 24).
While he clearly demonstrates an understanding of Calvin, Edwards, Piper, and Sproul the heart of his complaint in Against Calvinism is that “high Calvinism is not biblically, theologically, or logically tenable” (Olsen, 101). Throughout this book Olsen claims that the “God of Calvinism is a moral monster.” Does Calvinism actually teach that “God is a moral monster?” More importantly than this question since Calvinists affirm Sola Scriptura and seek to be faithful men and women of the Word of God, “Does Scripture teach the position Calvinists espouse?”
At the outset of this review, I wish to lay out all my cards on the table by stating that I disagree with Dr. Olsen that Calvinism teaches that “God is a moral monster.” In this review, I intend to demonstrate that at the root his argument is faulty, because he never engages the context of Scripture or offers any meaningful exegesis of the Word of God, but rather repeatedly appeals to man’s words about God than God’s Word itself. After going over Olsen’s argument I will then move to explain what the Scriptures teach regarding sin, evil and suffering so that readers can have a good fuller grasp of what the Word of God and Calvinists teach regarding these issues.
Olsen states that the explanations offered by Calvinists contradict 1 John 4:8, 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 (Olsen, 99). The question is, “Does Olsen’s explanation of 1 John 4:8, 1 Timothy 2:4 an 2 Peter 3:9 do justice to those texts or damage to those texts?” In other words, “Does Olsen’s explanation of those passages supported by the passage themselves, or is he imposing his theological categories upon 1 John 4:8, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9?”
Before we go any further let us remember what Olsen is claiming. Olsen is claiming that, “The high Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty including evil as part of God’s plan, purpose and determining power blatantly contradicts Scripture passages that reveal “God is love” (1 John 4:8), takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32), wants everyone to be saved (Ezek. 18:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) and never tempts anyone” (James 1:13, Olsen, 99). Let us now turn to Ezek 18:32, 1 John 4:7-8, 1 Tim. 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9 to see if Scripture itself supports Dr. Olsen’s assertions regarding Calvinism.
Dr. Olsen interprets Ezekiel 18:32 to mean that God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and wants everyone to be saved” (Olsen, 99). Ezek 18:32, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” The death of his saints is precious to God (Psalm 116:15). By contrast, he has no such pleasure when a person dies without repentance. While God is sovereign in salvation, man is responsible for his own sin. Turn and live is a call to repent and avoid physical and eternal death. Ezekiel was a preacher of repentance and of God’s offer of mercy to the penitent. Furthermore the context of this verse is about judgment. Repentance in the context of this passage is not being urged on Jerusalem for the preceding chapters affirm that its destruction is already assured. Rather, the exiles are pressed to repent and take responsible for their sin. Thus the appeal it to make yourselves a new heart and spirit, in contrast to 11:19 and 36:26, are a gift of God. The restatement of God’s displeasure in anyone’s death (18:32) is the basis of the final entreaty to turn and live. This passage does not support the teaching of Dr. Olsen that God desires everyone to be saved and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked because the context is about God judging Jerusalem and its destruction is sure. Therefore this passage has nothing to teach about whether God desires everyone to be saved or whether God takes pleasure or displeasure in the death of the wicked.
1 John 4:7-8 and 1 Timothy 2:4
Dr. Olsen states that the “high Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty including evil as part of God’s plan, purpose and determining power blatantly contradicts Scripture passages that reveal “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 1 Tim. 2:4, Olsen, 99).
1 John 4:7-8, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” These two verses and the following two are among the most treasured in the entire epistle of 1st John. These passages speak of love that originates in God and describes the believer as a person who loves and knows God. By contrast, the unbeliever does not love God because he does not know God.
Olsen teaches that the Calvinist view contradicts 1 John 4:8 that God is love but even the context of 1 John 4:8 does not support this interpretation. John the author of this epistle makes it clear that everyone who loves God has been born of God and knows God. This is the distinctive mark of the believer. The person who is born of God is a window through which the love of God shines into the world. The believer expresses his love to his fellow man by doing for his neighbor what he himself wishes that others do for him. In short he shows his love by obeying the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31). His love for others is genuinely unselfish (Five times in 1st John the apostle states to love God is to keep His commandments).
John with the phrase whoever does not love does not know God compares the believer with the unbeliever and observes that when love is absent knowledge of God is nonexistent. Olsen teaches that Calvinists contradict the Scripture passages that reveal God is love but even John distinguishes between the love God has for His children, and His children are to have towards others, and the unbeliever who has no love for God (God hates the unbeliever; Psalm 5:5 and 11:5). The person who fails to commune with God in prayer and neglects to read the Bible cannot be the instrument through which God demonstrates His divine power. The unbeliever has not even begun to know God. Without knowledge of God, there is no love. Love and knowledge of God are the two sides of the same coin.
At the heart of all God is John teaches is the fact that God is love. Olsen is partly right when he quotes God is love but by not engaging the Scriptures and then proof-texting Scripture to support his position Olsen does damage to his entire argument since his argument revolves around whether the “Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty including evil as part of God’s plan, purpose, and determining power blatantly contradicts 1 John 4:8, Ezek 18:32, 1 Tim. 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9″ (Olsen, 99). The main problem with Olsen’s comments on 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 are that the word all does not always mean all individuals in either Greek or English usage, so there is no compelling reason to conclude that the all in verses 4 and 6 in 1 Timothy refers to every single person.[i]
2 Peter 3:9
Peter addressed his epistle “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). This is important to note because it helps signify who the “all” is in 2 Peter 3:9. The all Peter in 2 Peter 3:9 does not refer to “all” in the sense of everyone coming to repentance. This is not what the context or the passage teaches. The reason for Christ’s delay in Christ’s coming and the attendant judgments is not because He is slow to keep His promise, or because He wants to judge more of the wicked, or because He is impotent in the face of wickedness. God delays in His coming because He is patient and desires the time for His people to repent. In the Gospel God stretches out His hand to all without difference, but lays hold of only of those, to lead them to Himself, whom He has chosen before the foundation of the world.[ii]
Dr. James Montgomery Boice believed that 2 Peter 3:9 is not talking about the salvation of all men, but only of the elect. He continues explaining that the delay of Christ’s intention is not out of indifference to man but rather as a result of God wanting to bring to repentance those whom he has determined would be saved.[iii]
When examining this verse, Puritan theologian John Owen asks, “Who are these of whom the apostle speaks?” Owen then goes to explain that such as had received “great and precious promises,” chap. 1:4, whom he calls “beloved” (chap. 3:1); whom he opposeth to the “scoffers” of the “last days,” verse 3; to whom the Lord hath respect in the disposal of these days; who are said to be “elect” (Matthew 24:22). Owen bringing his argument into focus states that those who argue that because God would have none to perish but that all of them to come to repentance, therefore he hath the same will and mind towards all and everyone in the world (Even those to whom he never makes known his will, nor ever calls to repentance, if they never once hear of his way of salvation), comes not only short of extreme madness and folly.[iv]
Further Examination of Olsen
One of the questions we began with as we explored Olsen’s biblical exegesis is, “Does Olsen’s explanation of 1 John 4:8, 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 do justice or damage to those texts, or is he imposing his theological categories upon those texts?” As I have shown above, I believe that Dr. Olsen does not understand the texts he uses in order to refute Calvinism. Furthermore, I believe that Olsen engages in proof-texting which doesn’t substantiate his arguments. By not engaging the text of Scripture Dr. Olsen does not help to prove his argument. It’s now important to turn to discuss what the Bible actually teaches about sin, evil and suffering.
Sin, Evil and Suffering
People often ask, “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” Christians must avoid presumption concerning the causes of evil and suffering because this question remains a deeply mystery. Attempting to explain why there is evil in a world made by a good God is called theodicy (justifying the ways of God).
First God has a morally adequate-but not yet fully revealed, reason-for allowing evil and suffering. The Lord assures His people that his decrees and actions are righteous and holy. The Scriptures are replete in declaring God’s moral perfection and His dealings with mankind just. The patriarch Abraham declares in Genesis 18:25, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And the Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 89:14, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.” Dr. Greg Bahnsen considered one of the greatest apologists in church history said, “While God has a morally justifiable reason for all he does, as the sovereign ruler of the universe the Lord seldom chooses to explain himself to his creatures.”[vi]
Nor is God, in his decisions, subject to the critique of finite and imperfect human beings. Even if God were to explain in detail his ultimate purposes to human beings, there is no realistic reason to think that mere creatures could fully understand his majestic ways. God’s classic discussion with Job concerning the problem of evil and suffering subsequently reveals God’s inscrutable wisdom and Job’s limited comprehension of the Creator’s purpose in creation and redemption (Job 38:1-11; Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 11:33-36).
Secondly, God’s sovereignty and glory will be displayed by his ultimate prevailing over evil. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” All of God’s great works (creation and redemption) are intended to display God’s sovereignty and glory. However, God’s final prevailing over evil and sin will all the more exhibit His splendor and dominion.
This prevailing has already begun with the life, death, and resurrection of the divine, Messiah, Jesus Christ. God’s plan to deal with evil is prepared for in creation but executed in redemption. Satan and his forces are already defeated foes with Christ’s first coming as Savior (Hebrews 2:14-15), and all evil and human sin will forever be vanquished at Christ’s second coming as Judge and King (Revelation 21). After these cataclysmic eschatological events, the Lord will bring forth the new creation, forever free from evil and its consequences.
Revelation 21:1-3 speaks of God’s creating a new Heaven and a new Earth along with the Holy City- the New Jerusalem. At that glorious time, all sin, suffering and sorrow will be forever eliminated. God will have eradicated the problem of evil. The apostle John provides a prophetic glimpse of this glorious eternal age to come in the book of Revelation, when he states, “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Thirdly, God allows evil and suffering because of the greater good that results from it. According to Scripture, the greater good for humanity came out of the greatest acts of evil. Jesus Christ, none other than God in human flesh, came to reveal God’s love to humanity. Though he as perfectly holy and blameless, he was rejected by both the religious and political authorities, falsely accused, convicted, and subsequently beaten and executed as a common criminal. Jesus suffered the agony of Roman capital punishment- crucifixion. However, God had planned this incredible miscarriage of justice from all eternity (Acts 2:22-23). Out of this horrible incident of malice and agony came divine redemption for sinners. God brought the greatest good out of the greatest evil.
Augustine’s words explain this the best, “For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among his works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.”[vii]
God’s Purposes for Evil and Suffering
While Christians should be cautious about claiming to identify God’s purposes behind specific incidents of injustice and suffering, the Bible does reveal insight into how God uses evil and suffering for God. First, God may use evil and suffering to get an unbeliever’s attention and ultimately draw the person to Himself (Zech. 13:7-9; Luke 13:1-5; John 9). Christian apologist Walter Martin used to say that “some people will not look up to the Lord until they lay flat on their back.” Evil and suffering can shock people out of their lives of diversion and indifference to spiritual things, and even sometimes out of their false sense of control. In this way problems may be used by God’s grace to bring a person to faith. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[viii]
Secondly, God may use evil and suffering to build the moral and spiritual character of His people or to express fatherly discipline (Rom. 5:3; Heb. 10:35; 12:4-11). Courage is forged only through facing one’s fears; just as steel must be refined by fire. For faith to grow, it often has to be tested by fire. God expresses more concern for his children than their comfort. Therefore God uses evil and suffering to facilitate the believers’ moral and spiritual maturity. The apostle Paul, who endured much evil and suffering, explains the casual relationship between suffering and character, “But we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3).
A loving earthly father disciplines his children, though unpleasant at the time, discipline is crucial to a child’s growth as a responsible person. God similarly allows evil and suffering to bring about discipline in the life of his children. As the writer of Hebrews declares: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Hebrews 12:7). The assuring guarantee for the Christian, however, is that God does not allow evil and suffering to come into a believer’s life without producing a greater good for that person. The Apostle Paul set forth that divine promise in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” However, facing evil and suffering is never easy, even if a person knows that God is ultimately in control. In conclusion today there are some practical things Christians can keep in mind during difficult times.
Three critical comforts can help Christians when confronted with evil and suffering. First, believers can know they never suffer alone. God is acquainted with suffering for God has suffered in Christ. Jesus came into the world as a man, suffering with human beings and for them. God Himself entered into the painful, ugly mix of evil. Of all the world’s religions, only Christianity reveals the God who suffers with humanity and for humanity! His suffering in earthly life and relationships- and on the cross- can transform his people’s experience of suffering.
Even now Jesus serves as the great High Priest interceding for believers during their trials and difficulties. Jesus is not aloof or indifferent to human anguish, for he suffered as a man. The author of Hebrews describes Christ’s role as a sympathetic High Priest in Hebrews 4:14-16 which says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are- yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Second, God calls His children to live a life of faith (confidence and trust) in the goodness and sovereignty of God despite the presence of evil and suffering. Scripture points to the powerful examples of Abraham, Moses, Job, and Paul. In the words of a familiar song, believers don’t know what the future holds, but they do know who holds the future. Faith is trusting in the character of God when circumstances are painful and confusing. Christians can trust God in the midst of suffering because they are aware of his character and promises.
The Apostle Paul assures the church through asking and answering a probing question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35, 37).
Third, evil and suffering go beyond a logical or philosophical problem-they are deeply personal and human problems. When people face suffering they need comfort and reassurance. Christians can and should confront evil and suffering in a powerfully practical way by comforting those afflicted by evil and by easing the suffering of the people around them.
Fourth and foremost, the sinfulness of mankind fits the sovereign plan of God for the purposes of His own self-glorification. This point was made clear in Douglas Wilson’s debate with atheists Dan Barker. When being prodded regarding the issue of a fully good and loving God, and, the existence of evil in the creation, Wilson responded that God planned the evil from all eternity as part of His perfect plan for creation. Wilson’s reasoning was sound in that in a world without evil and sin, two of God’s attributes could not have been demonstrated, His mercy and His justice. What this means it that when the problem of evil is viewed in light of God’s demonstration of His attributes and His own self-glorification, the problem is greatly diminished. However, if one hold’s to a theology where man is the pinnacle, where free will must be allowable, even as the expense of God’s freedom, the problem of evil is indeed, problematic.
The historic Christian answer to the problem of evil and suffering is found in the example, as well as the identity of Jesus Christ. God came in the flesh to heal His children’s suffering to comfort as well as to teach, and ultimately to destroy the power of evil. The suffering of God in Christ is the solution to the problem of evil for human beings.
In conclusion, the main problem with Olsen’s argument is that nowhere does he engage in meaningful exegesis of the Scripture. By not engaging the Word of God in any meaningful way Olsen doesn’t substantiate the arguments he advances against Calvinism.
Ultimately what Dr. Olsen’s arguments leave me to conclude is that he has issues with the Cross itself where God’s holiness and love met, and where Jesus died in the place of sinners for their sin (Acts 4:27-28). The Cross is the ultimate act of injustice where the sinless God-Man died for sinners to appease the wrath of God. If Calvinism teaches that “God is a moral monster” then surely this position taken to its biblical, theological and logical ending has to result in damage to God’s glory and to the Cross where Jesus bore the sins of world and secured the redemption of the elect.
This book makes broad claims but at the end of the day fails, because it doesn’t support its claims and demonstrate why Calvinists are wrong from the Word of God. This book would be taken seriously by Calvinists if he had engaged the Word of God. Olsen wants his readers to believe that Calvinism is “not biblically, theologically or logically tenable” (Olsen, 101), but by his lack of exegesis he has shown that his alternative to Calvinism is not biblically, theologically or logically tenable. At the end of the day, I cannot recommend reading Against Calvinism because through his poor use of Scripture he substantiates the teaching of Calvinism and doesn’t advance the Calvinist/Arminian debate at all.
Title: Against Calvinism
Authors: Roger Olsen
Publisher: Zondervan (2011)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Zondervan as part of their Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commision’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
[i] Joel Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Lake Mary: Reformation Trust, 2008), 93.
[ii] John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus & Philemon trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949, reprint from 1610), 420.
[iii] James Boice, Philip Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel (Illinois, Crossway, 2002), 127.
[iv] John Owen, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ: A Treatise of the Redemption and Reconciliation That is in the blood of Christ,” The Works of John Owen, vol.10, ed William H. Goold, (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 173-174.).
[v] Quoted in J.I. Packer, introduction to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), note 12.
[vi] Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Texarkana, AR; Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), 170.
[vii] Augustine, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, Ch.11, in the Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, vol. 1, d. Whitney J. Oates (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).
[viii] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 93.