Myk Habets, my co-conspirator in Evangelical Calvinism, just alerted me to a piece that famed classical Arminian theologian, Roger Olson just published through Christianity Today’s Global Gospel Project (which I just submitted an article to, mine is on God’s Transcendence/Immanence). We were both pleased, but chagrined to notice that Olson took considerable space (given the relative shortness of the article) to explain his perception of our Evangelical Calvinism, and in particular (per the topic of the article), how we as Evangelical Calvinists uniquely contribute to the ongoing discussion, amongst Evangelicals, on the doctrine of election. I am going to quote, in full, Olson’s explication of how he conceives of EC’s place in this dialogue (placed as he places us in the midst of his classical Arminian V. the classical Calvinist discussion/debate); and then I will provide some of my initial impressions following (I hope to use what Olson has written as an occasion and opportunity to clarify, once again, what we actually believe about election, and how Olson, and others, continue to mis-read what we are getting at, on multiple fronts—that said, I do appreciate that Olson has included us in this discussion, but he just needs some help in getting us right ). Here is what Olson wrote of us in the newest installment of Christianity Today’s ongoing Global Gospel Project series:
A third view appears among contemporary evangelical Christians. Whether it leans closer to the classical Calvinist or Arminian doctrine of election is much debated. So-called “evangelical Calvinism” is championed by followers of Scottish theologians Thomas and James Torrance. They, in turn, were influenced by Swiss theologian Karl Barth and, before Barth, by Scottish theologians John McLeod Campbell and P. T. Forsyth. This view has recently been spelled out and defended by 12 leading evangelical theologians in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church.
According to evangelical Calvinism (something of a misnomer, as all Calvinists consider themselves evangelical in some sense), Christ must be central to election as both its object and its subject. God elects Jesus Christ to be the Savior, and then elects people only “in him.” In Jesus and his cross, God has said, “Yes!” to all people; there is no corresponding divine “No!” If anyone has been elected to salvation, it is because God first elected Jesus Christ and then, by grace, included sinners in that election. If anyone rejects their inclusion in Christ’s election, it is solely because of their inexplicable rejection of the grace God extended to them in Jesus Christ.
The editors of Evangelical Calvinism affirm that “[A]ll are included in Christ’s salvific work, and … salvation is by grace alone and Christ alone.” Election to salvation is good news, because it is not dependent on the frail and faltering free will of sinners, and no one is excluded except those who willfully exclude themselves.
Classical Calvinists and Arminians agree with much in evangelical Calvinism, but both find it inconsistent at certain crucial points. Their main common complaint is that it falls into contradiction. How, they ask, can one affirm the universality of electing grace and deny free will with regard to being elected, while also affirming free will to reject the truth of one’s election? Evangelical Calvinists, on the other hand, find both alternative views of election problematic in that each, in its own way, seems to impugn the goodness of God’s character. [see full article here]
I like the fact that Roger Olson has identified our contribution as a unique voice amongst the other more classical ones; so thank you professor Olson for recognizing our place at the table, I sincerely appreciate that! But let’s be clear about a few things:
We think (Myk Habets and I in particular) that in order for a perceived inconsistency to be avoided that interpreters like Roger Olson must genuinely appreciate our dialectical (Versus analytical) approach that shapes our theological method. Olson continues to try and read us through a classical lens. It is true that much of what we articulate uses classical language (i.e. election/reprobation, predestination, etc.), and so in this sense it is understandable how folk could be confused about how to handle some of our claims. But Roger Olson has actually read our book (and a whole essay/chapter that Myk Habets wrote on an EC understanding of election-reprobation, as well as some Theses that Myk and I wrote in the last chapter that touch on this, as well as other chapters that develop this theme through focusing on the vicarious humanity of Christ, like Jason Goroncy’s chapter), and so it is somewhat perplexing that he isn’t, still, totally appreciating the way we are trying to frame this through the tradition that we are (as he synopizes it in his opening paragraph; i.e. Scottish theologians, Barth, Torrances etc.). Here is just a snippet from Myk’s and my Thesis 9 from the last chapter of our book (co-written by Myk and myself):
Thesis Nine. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.
The systematic theology of Evangelical Calvinism is dialectical in character rather than strictly philosophical or analytical. It is not content to formulate a system of theology whereby Christianity is reduced to timeless, logical truths about God. The God of biblical revelation presents us with logical problems, seeming paradoxes, surprising features which cannot simply be resolved by discursive reason. “Thus, dialectical theology is a protest against rationalistic religion in whatever form it occurs, whether the natural theology of Thomism, a theological liberalism shaped by idealist philosophy or a conservative orthodoxy that reduces theology to logically systematized propositions.”39 Padgett and Wilkins also point out that dialectical theology has two additional tendencies, “a rejection of any philosophical system as normative for theology and a substructure, either implied or explicit, informed by existentialism.”40 [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, 439.]
We write more, but this should illustrate my point about the importance of method. Olson continues to not appreciate this salient point, and thus tries to read what we are communicating, in particular on election in his article, through analytical logical causal deterministic ways. Which means that he is trying to read our theology through applying math like rules to it instead of appreciating the fact that we see the ground of theological method and epistemology (how we know) intimately shaped by a personal, dynamic, relational triune God; and we think this has drastic consequences for how we do theology. If God is dynamic then his ways (like in election) cannot, or should not be read through lenses that are tinted with static bland colors.
Anyway, I will be responding further to this article by Olson. Another point that must be appreciated is how we think of human freedom, and where it comes from, and what it means. It has much to do with how we conceive of what grounds humanity in and through the vicarious humanity of Christ; a point which would go along way in dispelling the purported inconsistencies that Olson sees in our approach. Further, Myk and I also qualify how we are using the language of “Evangelical” relative to Calvinist in the introduction of our book (most of that section is done by Myk); Evangelical, for us, is not simply a symbol that signifies alignment with a sociological movement in America (or some such); we see it tied into both formal and material theological substance that again flows from our belief that God is love, triune, and genuinely for all of us, in Christ. These are points that need further clarification, and so I aim to do that in the days to come; stay tuned.