Our God is the Ecumenical God: A Response to Roger Olson’s Call For Separation Among Calvinists and Arminians

Dr. Roger Olson, Arminian theologian and professor par excellence, just recently wrote a post at his blog about the infiltration of Calvinists into traditions of the church that are historically Arminian, or at least, non-Calvinist in arminiancalvinianorientation (i.e. Pentecostal, Holiness, Renewal, Wesleyan, Methodist, Anabaptist, etc.). He believes that pastors in these kinds of denominations, or people who enter into these denominations with the hopes of subverting the shape of the particular tradition (Arminian) itself ought to abandon either their pastoral position in such denominations, or in the case of a lay person trying to subvert, that they move on to a denomination that is historically Calvinist.

Read Olson’s post here.

This brings up an interesting situation, that Roger Olson did not address in his post; that is, what about Evangelical Calvinism? Olson is well aware of us, Myk and I asked him to review our book, and he did at his blog; so we are on his radar. I realize his focus in the post was on classical Calvinist, neo-Puritans, or the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd, but Evangelical Calvinists ought to be considered in this discussion as well. Personally this is an interesting question for me, because we attend (we are not at the Presbyterian church we visited for awhile any longer) a Calvary Chapel (which doctrinally would be connected to a more Foursquare orientation, which has roots in and from Pentecostalism). I wonder what Roger Olson would say to me, as an Evangelical Calvinist theologian? Calvary Chapels are normally more Arminian in orientation, and actually, they are really less defined either way; but functionally, most of them (although I would say the one we attend is much more like the Baptistic way that I am oriented from), are more Arminian. Would Olson tell me that I ought to leave Calvary Chapel and go back to the Presbyterian church, or maybe find a Baptist church that is more historically normed by a Calvinist orientation?

This for me illustrates the kind of expansive nature of Evangelical Calvinism. We affirm, with Barth and Torrance, and most importantly, Scripture, that Jesus died for all (universal atonement), and that union with Christ is really the form that election takes in and through his vicarious humanity. We emphasize that God is Triune love, and that this love is cruciform in shape. What this also illustrates for me, is that Evangelical Calvinism (as Myk and I have contoured it in the 15 Theses of our book) has reach and latitude to be much more ecumenical among Protestant evangelicals (even among other traditions as well—the Eastern Orthodox) because it actually side-steps and avoids the usual thing that divides classical Calvinists from Arminians; which is illustrated by Olson’s call for Calvinists and Arminians to remain separate. Evangelical Calvinists don’t have to make this call, and Evangelical Calvinists can feel at home in various traditions of the church of Jesus Christ. That is because we see election and reprobation absolutized and realized in Jesus Christ himself. That is because we emphasize that God is Triune love for all, and thus the kind of doctrinal division that Olson is encouraging does not have to happen for us; that is because our doctrine of God starts its order of thinking from, indeed, our doctrine of God instead of thinking from our doctrine of salvation back to our doctrine of God—which has the ominous effect of shaping God, or predicating God by our philosophical questions about causation and who gets to decide what in the salvation appropriation event or process (whatever the case might be).

So you see, theology does matter; it does have real life orthopraxic consequences; and what and how people think about God will impact how they fellowship one with the other. Because we as Evangelical Calvinists start with a different set of questions than does the classical Calvinists and Arminians do; we don’t end up with the same kinds of problems that Olson illustrates. We don’t have to call for separation among brethren and sistren in regard to something that is actually downstream (by way of dogmatic order) from the all determining doctrine of God or theology proper. We are rather ecumencial, because we believe God is rather ecumenical and inclusive.

PS. The above noted, Evangelical Calvinism historically developed in Scottish Theology, and has been developed further by folks like Thomas Torrance (and I would like to add Karl Barth into our tribe). So indeed, we have Reformed rootage, but that said, so do the Arminians (i.e. they aren’t Lutherans for example).

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8 comments

  1. As long as I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve always felt – emphasis on felt – that yours and Myk’s articulation of Evangelical Calvinism amounts to something much closer to a Roger Olson type Arminianism than to proponents of TULIP Calvinism – say Piper & the YRR crowd. I say ‘amounts to’ because I know that the roads into your respective positions are quite different – and you are working within different ‘family groupings’. I think I remember Olson’s review of your book, and in it didn’t he make a similar kind of observation about similarities between your views?

    In practise, I hear you and Myk talk about the self-defining love of the triune God – great! – and that is also the major grounding on which Olson objects to TULIP Calvinism. On the other side of the fence, behind everything for Piper & etc is language about the glory of God, which is to do with fulfillment of divine decrees, and it is through these decrees that such folks define the love of God. So if it is for God’s glory that He does “double predestination” – then it must be loving for him to do so. To me and others that makes a nonsense out of what love is, but there’s no telling them that.

    For me, as a still-confused, Arminian-leaning-but-very-curious-about-Evangelical-Calvinism kind of guy, you’d be welcome at my church. But then for better or worse, New Zealanders are pretty relaxed about these sorts of things anyway.

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  2. G’day, Mark :-).

    I think what is getting lost somewhat though is the distinctiveness of the approach to theology that EC advocates for V. something like what Olson advocates for; I hinted at it in the post. We are starting with a doctrine of God and election and allowing that to provide the categories through which we think about everything else (including salvation). Because Olson thinks classically, he is starting from creation-salvation, and working back to God’s action and Tri-unity from there. So Olson is offering a soteriological understanding of God as primary, EC is not; we are offering a view that emphasizes who God is in himself prior to and as the basis of a theological-anthropology and soteriology etc. There is a big difference, even though it might not appear to be if left in the “apparent” realm.

    All views talk about God as love. Arminius himself spoke God as love (which I just recently read his Declaration of Sentiments), but it is still framed by a scholastic conception of God, and one that abstracts humanity away from God, and does not see humanity’s reality given it by the reality of Christ’s etc. It is just really different, Mark. In other words it is equivocating to compare Olson’s view of God as love with the EC view, since Olson’s view is still quite classical theistic.

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  3. At our Presby church, we have Arminians in the congregation. Two friends of mine in the church are Asbury grads. But, we draw the line at becoming an elder — the expectation is submission to the “essentials” of the Reformed confessions. Now, these essentials are broad enough to include Barth’s doctrine of election, but a straightforward Arminian would be a bridge too far.

    My ideal would be a supra-denomination that would unite evangelicals institutionally (unlike the NAE), while doctrinal distinctives could be maintained through different non-geographic synods (Presby, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, etc.) within the denomination. I know that is just a dream, not viable in my lifetime, but it is worth considering.

    As for Barth’s theology transcending the Calvinist/Arminian divide, I actually made the same point to one of the Asbury friends over lunch this past Sunday. However, if the division is centered around freedom of the will, then Barth’s theology does indeed appear to be just a derivation of Arminian lite. Invariably, if I explain Barth’s theology to one of the several PCA guys I know, and I exclude universalism (as a necessary outcome), then they will ask, “What determines an individual’s life as elect or reprobate, saved or non-saved?” Barth would say that the “reprobate” (those rejecting their election in Christ) have chosen non-freedom, which is a contradictory choice — an absurdity. To the analytic mind, that does not make a whole lot of sense, and at the end of the day the Barthian is saying that we have the freedom (of choice, not substantive freedom) to live the life that has been rejected by God in Christ. That’s just Arminianism, to the classically trained Calvinist. Thus, as long as this question of “freedom of choice” is made the really important thing, then a traditional Calvinist or Arminian will not see Barth’s theology as transcending anything.

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  4. Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing all of the above;and I really like your idea bout a supradenomination! Dream, dream, dream ooohhh, dreaaeam :-).

    Absolutely, couldn’t agree with you more about people not getting where Barth is coming from (and the dialectic); I run into this problem frequently when trying to discuss Torrance as well. I am 2/3rds of the way done with Hunsinger’s “How to Read Karl Barth,” all of these Calvinists and Arminians need to read this; it would heal them.

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  5. Speaking of Hunsinger, here is a paper he delivered at Biola:

    He touches upon some of the issues related to freedom, including the Q&A.

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  6. Hey bobby,
    I’m intrigued by your post here. I applaud your ecumenical spirit, but I think for myself I would find it extremely hard to be in a church that swapped the ordo solutus around so that the covenant God does not set the tone from the beginning. As you point out, that is the core difference that EC lifts up and that both westminster calvinism and classic arminianism both implicitly and explicitly reject.

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