Sunday, October 30, 2011

Roger Olson, Calvinism, Arminianism, and Paradox as Hermeneutical Category

Jacobus Arminius

Roger Olson’s new book, Against Calvinism is out and causing quite a stir. One thing seems to be apparent when it comes to this debate: it will not end until the end. Roger Olson makes no apologies for being an evangelical Arminian. Moreover, it rightly assesses the mediating position between Calvinism and Arminianism as incongruent. As a committed Calvinist, I for one, applaud him. On a recent blog-post Olson said, “There is no middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism with regard to the three crucial doctrines about which they differ: election (conditional or unconditional), atonement (limited or universal) and grace (resistible or irresistible).” Olson should be commended for his honesty. The five points of Calvinism are captured in the TULIP acronym.

John Calvin

T-total depravity, U=unconditional election, L=limited atonement, I=irresistible grace, and P=perseverance of the saints. Now, if one subscribes to the view that God is a rational being, then it necessarily follows that irrationalism does not follow from rational constructs. Scripture is an excellent example of rational construct. The paradigm for Calvinism is built on a rational exegesis of Scripture with the fundamental presupposition that there is no irrationality in God and therefore it is impossible for contradictions to exist in the divine revelation of Scripture. The response, at this point, from many quarters is qualified agreement. What is that qualification? Simply put, the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility require, at a minimum, demonstrate the legitimacy of paradox in biblical hermeneutics. Paradox, it is said, is the appearance of contradiction, not the actual contradiction. We let ourselves off the hook by crying paradox and saying we don’t understand it now, but we will in the by and by, at least presumably. As one who has a deep, and perhaps dark proclivity toward rational thought, my stomach turns when I think about living with the reality of seemingly contradictory truths. Having studied hermeneutics in detail in my doctoral work, I immediately arrive at the question, “Is paradox a legitimate category in biblical hermeneutics?” I think that is a good question and, one that Calvinists and Arminians must ponder. Scripture, by its very nature, is necessarily rational, self-consistent, and true. The most glaring problem for hermeneutics is that if we accept an apparent contradiction, defined as a paradox, what is our basis for rejecting other contradictions? After all, real contradictions and paradoxes have the exact same appearance in observation.

Calvinism has to rescue its system from the tension of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, supposedly. However, Arminianism is not without its own tensions. For example, Arminians who accept the argument that the atonement accomplished something in actuality have to grapple with how that is true in a framework that makes atonement contingent on human action. If the atonement is more accurately a contingent atonement, then one has to ask if that is really atonement at all. The concept of contingent atonement is entirely missing in the Levitical system in the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, it is completely missing from the NT documents. Was Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world or was He the Lamb of God Who might take away the sins of the world, but ultimately it will depends on the world? Arminianism argues for the concept of prevenient grace, which supposedly, restored depraved man’s ability to respond to God without special help. However, the apostle Paul seems to be unaware of the concept of prevenient. He never mentions it in any of his correspondence. Moreover, he repeatedly describes depraved men as dead and unable to respond to God. This, Jesus also did in John 6. The Arminian has to grapple with the apparent contradiction in their view of fallen man. The Arminian invention of prevenient grace is not the product of a rational, exegetical examination of the text. Rather, it is the invention of man designed to mediate the glaring contradiction in a system of theology that demands a particular view of God as well as man. As a method, it has failed to satisfy the tension within the overall Arminian system of theology. Moreover, insistence on an Arminian view of God, coupled with an insistence to be rationally consistent has led to heterogeneous unorthodox doctrines in numerous fields.

Arminianism, when taken to its logical conclusions, tends to lead one away from orthodox Christianity. For example, unlimited atonement is wrought with such tension that it leads to universalism in many cases. How does this happen? The insistence to hold to a particular view of God coupled with rational thought leads to universalism. Rather than change how the system views God, the system ends in heresy, denying the existence of eternal punishment and future judgment. The right solution is to give up the idolatrous views of God and consider the possibility that the system begins with an understanding of God that is deficient. In another instance, Arminianism, when taken to its logical conclusions can lead to open theism and process theology. Rather than revamp other parts of their theology, these Arminians do return to their understanding of God and make adjustments. The problem is that their adjustments leave us with a God who does not know what the future holds and/or a God that is mercurial. Another controversy within the Arminian scheme is the state of lost men who have never heard the gospel. The Arminian has to answer the question regarding the eternal state of those who have never heard the gospel. The rational Arminian has postulated the idea of the non-necessity of conscious faith in Christ for final salvation. Again, this is another unorthodox view that directly results from acute conflicts within the Arminian system of theology that remain rationally irreconcilable. Such views of God, man, and salvation are out of accord with orthodoxy. The Arminian says that Calvinism is contradictory or that it leads to a relationship with God that is “non-relationship.” Are these descriptions accurate? Then again, are they simply misunderstandings of Calvinism, based on improper thinking on the part of detractors?

Paul argued in Romans 9 that God had placed Pharaoh in his position for the very purpose of displaying His power through judgment. Paul anticipated the response: how then can God judge Pharaoh if indeed it was God’s plan that put Pharaoh where he was? In other words, if God brought the circumstances about, how is Pharaoh to blame? How can God hold Him responsible? Paul’s answer is shocking. He simply says, how dare you speak about God like this? Does the clay say to the potter, why have you made me this way? Two things were true about Pharaoh’s circumstances that made responsibility possible: first, there was a Lawgiver over Pharaoh that would hold him accountable for his every action. Second, Pharaoh did exactly what he wanted to do. His actions were actions of his own free choice. God did not force Pharaoh against his will to do anything he did not want to do. Paul preached that God is absolute sovereign, and that man was absolutely subject to that sovereignty. Moreover, he instructs us that such a charge against God that many Arminians make today border on blasphemy. The Greek work for “answer back” in Rom. 9:20 is antapokrinomenos, and, it is a word we should become very familiar with for purposes of this discussion. Paul infers that to ask such a question regarding responsibility is to “answer back” to God. Hence, understanding this word is a serious matter. The idea is that man is in no position to play the challenge-riposte game with God! Answering back is viewed as riposte, something one would do to either defend or gain honor at the expense of another’s honor. A challenger would issue a challenge and the object of the challenge would “answer back.” It falls within the semantic domain of question-answer and it means to answer with the emphasis on implied opposition or contradiction. Here, it means to express disapproval in return, to criticize in return. A better translation for Paul’s statement would be, “who are you to criticize God.” As a child, my parents use to say to me, “how dare you to talk back to me.” When you think about this phrase, picture a child or young teen talking back to their parent. This is how Paul categorizes the Arminian challenge to sovereignty! How dare you talk back to God!

There are a number of things God has chosen, in His wisdom and for purposes known own to Himself, not to make known to humanity. It is the desire for autonomy that causes man to demand to know things that God has not chosen to make known. Humility is a better response to such issues. Paul makes that point clearly in Romans 9. The one thing the Calvinist and the Arminian must never say is that they would never serve such as God as that. Roger Olson does exactly this in his comments about the Calvinist God. We can have respectful dialogue on the subject and at times, we may even get a little heated about it. However, we must refrain from judging the salvation of the opposing camp and we should never take such a prideful position on the matter that we say we would never serve that God.

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