A Brief Rejoinder (not really) To Roger Olson’s Reading of Karl Barth as a [hopeful] Universalist

I wish I had more time, this will have to suffice until then.

barthartRoger Olson, evangelical Arminian par excellence, has offered an argument in an essay he has written for his blog (the essay was just released today, Sunday March 10th, 2013) that argues that Karl Barth was—by the implicit logic of Barth’s theological program—an Christian universalist. Here is how Olson concludes his over 10,000 word essay:

The main contribution, if it can be called that, of this research project is that Barth was and was not a universalist. The solution is not sheer paradox, however. He was a universalist in the sense of everyone, all human persons, being reconciled to God, not just as something potential but as something actual from God’s side. He was not a universalist in the sense of believing that everyone, all human persons, will necessarily know and experience that reconciliation automatically, apart from any faith, having fellowship with God now or hereafter. Without doubt, however, he was a hopeful universalist in that second sense of the word. [read full essay here]

And here is how I initially responded via comment at his blog:

[First, thank you for engaging Barth this way—and again, thank you for noticing us “Evangelical Calvinists” :-) !]

My initial response is that your final conclusion is unremarkable (as I’m sure you already know) in regard to the kind of “double election” Barth was committed to; and that this all takes shape through Barth’s critically dialectical hermeneutic. So I say your conclusion is unremarkable because it is only consistent with what one should expect if they start and end where Barth does; i.e. dialectically.

I think I will save most of my response (since I don’t have it yet) for a blog post (at my blog https://growrag.wordpress.com). I have been reading Arminius lately, and I am not sure you have an alternative theological construct that provides the kind of hermeneutical and exegetical haven of rest that you seem to think is available. To be sure, either way, this wouldn’t undercut Barth’s alternative way (vis-a-vis your Arminian one), but I would venture to say that given the finite explanation of things–relatively speaking of course–Barth’s conclusion versus Arminius’ or Calvin’s might not look as foreboding (or heterodox, or worse, heretical) as you seem to be suggesting ‘implicitly’ (i.e. following your logic through) throughout your essay in regard to Barth’s offering.

Anyway, I look forward to responding to this essay in days to come. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Roger!

He does mention us Evangelical Calvinists, as you will see if you read the essay.

I really do not know what else to say, other than what my brief comment mentions. Olson’s conclusion is not surprising in the slightest; in fact there are numerous publications by Barth scholars, and others, that have concluded much the same many many years ago. In fact there is nothing controversial or that insightful about Professor Olson’s final conclusions; I guess I am underwhelmed. I appreciate the time he put into engaging in this personal voyage of self discovery, relative to understanding Barth for himself. But I am unsure how Olson’s conclusions give us anything more conclusive than what has been available and accepted knowledge about Barth for many years.

Olson believes that Barth’s view of salvation, objectified as it is in the elected humanity of Christ, necessarily requires that all of humanity is ontologically redeemed in the humanity of Christ; and I would say Olson is correct. But the interesting critique that Olson offers of Barth is this:

[…] So, what is the distinction between Christians and other “men?” The context (long paragraph) makes absolutely clear that the difference is not “being saved” versus “not being saved” but knowing and testifying of the “new being of man” in Jesus Christ versus not knowing it. It is epistemological, not ontological. [read the full essay here]

This is rather odd, really. Since Barth (as Olson has just illustrated, prior to his conclusion, which I just quoted) just has made the argument (of Barth’s view) that salvation is deeply ontological; so deep, in fact, that it took God in Christ to penetrate the ontological depths of humanity, and recreate that in the resurrection of Jesus. So “saving” faith is not “just” epistemological for Barth (or Torrance), it is ontologically grounded in the vicarious faith of Christ for us (He is our “High Priest” and mediator after all I Tim. 2.5-6). This is one of the continued problems that Professor Olson has with reading us Evangelical Calvinists, and now Barth; there is a latent dualism informing Olson’s interpretive strategy when it comes to interpreting Barth and his respective theo-anthropology. A counter question could be; if Christ’s humanity (as the image of God Col. 1.15) is not the ground of all humanity (as its ‘first-fruits’), then what serves as that ground? Is there a separate ontology for our humanity that is indeed distinct from the kind that Jesus assumed for us in His incarnation? And if there is a separate humanity (ontologically), as Olson, enthymemically must presume, then who is it that is arguing that salvation is “just” epistemological? It is clearly not Barth (nor Torrance, nor us Evangelical Calvinists), but it would be Olson’s style of Arminianism. Since the ground of faith comes from individual people (the elect who God predestined, according to Arminius and Arminian theology, as he looked down [foreknowledge] the halls of history and saw who of their own free will place their faith in Christ) and their assent (and trust) in the fact of what Jesus did for them. It is not Barth who affirms what Olson argues he does, in this regard; instead it is Olson who affirms that salvation is merely an epistmeological exercise. I think “one” of the problems attendant with Olson’s reading of Barth here, is that there is a lacunae in Olson’s theological anthropology (among other things). I should say, that Olson has abstracted humanity out from Christ’s in a way, that the only real affect salvation has for people is if “they choose” salvation or not. This is a soley subjective understanding of salvation, that for one thing is epistemological only (i.e. there is nothing of ontological significance in what Christ has done for humanity, for Olson’s view).

Anyway, this isn’t a very careful response to Olson (I will try to do that in print form someday); but it is an initial response, and so it is what it is.

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A Response to Roger Olson’s Christianity Today Article on Election and Evangelical Calvinism

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 PICKWICK_Templateof 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.

Michael Horton, Roger Olson, and James White: They are all wrong …

I just watched two little clips of Michael Horton and Roger Olson in their recent discussion about Calvinism and Arminianism; which took place at Biola University in California (here & here). And then I followed up these two little clips by listening to James White [here] (of his Alpha and Omega Apologetic Ministries) critique Roger Olson’s recently released book Against Calvinism (which by the way was what prompted the coming together of Horton and Olson at Biola—they have also had conversation on Horton’s ‘White Horse Inn’ broadcast in the past about the same subject). What continues to intrigue me about this debate (the one between Arminians and Calvinists—both classic versions of that) is that neither side of this debate seems to want to recognize that the impasse they are facing will not be solved until at least they deal with their informing assumptions about God—but more importantly, and directly related, their understanding of God’s Self-revelation in Christ. James White, for example, mockingly cajoles Olson’s book and points against Calvinism as surfacey shallow blather that have been around for years, and refuted over and again; he thinks that engaging Olson’s book is a waste of time (which makes me wonder why he devoted at least one hour if not two hours to it on his internet radio show). White, in the video I link to above, rebuffs Olson by simply asserting that “that’s not what the Bible says.” In other words, for some reason White seems to think that there is only one way to read Scripture; apparently, and he owns that way. And yet, it seems that someone like Roger Olson sets himself up for this kind of beating around the head; since he tries to out-pace his classic Calvinist counterpart by engaging in the same kind of thought experiments about God and God’s relation to creation and humanity in particular. I guess the most troubling thing about this kind of fiasco (what I think it is), is that neither Olson, nor Horton, nor White try to think these kinds of questions through the most revealing point of contact that God has with man; through the Incarnation and/or hypostatic union of God and humanity in Christ. What they need is what Muller and David Gibson after Muller categorized as Karl Barth’s approach to interpreting Scripture and his Christology; that is, they need to adopt a ‘principled’ intensive methodology that sees Christ as the bedrock of all things scriptural—that sees Christ as the depth of Scripture’s witness and authority, and thus seek to parse out the relation and dynamic of God’s sovereignty and human freedom within this interstice, and not one, which I think is imposed back upon God through the logico-deductive schemata deployed by Horton, Olson, and White as they engage in biblical exegesis.

I will have to flesh out what I have reflected upon above at a later point. But I find this song and dance (the one that Horton, Olson, and White are fiddling) to be out of touch with what’s really going on in God’s Self-revelation of himself in Christ for us.