Monday, April 30, 2012

C. Gordon Olson’s Inductive Method against Calvinism


In all fairness to Dr. Olson, he would say that his method is not against Calvinism as much as it is a mediate position somewhere between Calvinism and Arminian theology. As a good Calvinist I would say either you are for me or against me, but you cannot be sort of for me and sort of against me. Soteriology is either monergistic, synergistic, or owned outright by man. It is either all God, all man, or part God and part man. To say that it can be between being all God and all man is ipso facto admitting that it is part God and part man. By definition, this view falls in the middle of Arminian theology. Dr. Olson claims that his mediating position is the result of objective, inductive exegesis which would mean that alternative views must be the result of bias. The only question that I am attempting to address in this blog concerns Dr. Olson’s inductive method. I would like to keep it short and to the point realizing that such an endeavor might be too optimistic.

Dr. Olson writes,

“Calvinists also use Philippians 1:29 (‘For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…’) to prove their point, but it is clear that we are given faith only in the same sense in which we are given suffering, that is, mediately through circumstances. No one would argue that suffering is an immediate and irresistible work of grace. As in the two Acts passages above [Acts 5:31 and 11:18], Paul is referring to the privilege and opportunity given to the Philppian Christians to believe, while alerting them to the fact that suffering for Christ comes with that privilege.”

He continues,

“Calvinists also use Philippians 1:29 (‘For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…’) to prove their point, but it is clear that we are given faith only in the same sense in which we are given suffering, that is, mediately through circumstances.”

What does Phil. 1:29 actually say and what is the context in which it is said? Paul, writing to the Philippian believers from jail, the result of persecution and suffering for the gospel writes, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Olson’s point is that suffering comes through agency, in fact, human agency. It is not immediate. Therefore, he concludes that faith must also come through agency. Before I address the inductive method in this instance, I should point out that Calvinist does not deny agency, human agency in salvation. It is the nature of that agency that is the sticking point. Arminians claim that salvation is synergistic while Calvinists hold it to be monergistic. Both recognize that God saves through the preaching of the word and that such preaching requires human agency. Faith comes by hearing which is quite impossible apart from a preacher or author. What is Phil. 1:29 doing? From an illocutionary standpoint, the text is offering encouragement to persecuted Christians. It seems rather clear that Paul is striving to offer a theology of suffering and the context of this verse offers exceptionally strong support to that end.

First, Paul tells us up in verse 17 that he is in prison. In verse 19 he begins to share a biblical theology of suffering. His attitude is one of joy. He says I will rejoice, knowing that this will turn out for my deliverance. He recognizes that suffering if actually a gift from Christ because it results in Christ being glorified in his body. This, of course would not be possible without also faith in Christ. Man, being completely cut off from God must consider it an act of grace for God to permit even suffering for His name. Paul’s theology of suffering is in fact the right theology of suffering, having been revealed by God’s Spirit. This suffering is such a blessing that Paul places it on par with leaving to be with Christ immediately and admits he cannot decide which is best. Should I stay and preach and suffer or should I go to be with Christ?

Secondly, Paul begins to acknowledge that the Philippian believers are also facing persecution of their own. In the face of this persecution Paul says, “only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” He tells them to stand firm and not to be alarmed by their opponents. Paul says that such suffering is a sign of destruction for their opponents and of salvation for the Philippians.  He emphatically says that this salvation is from God in verse 28.

Then we arrive at verse 29 which begins with the Greek casual marker “hoti”, which requires that we look back to see why the word “for” is there in the first place. We can tie this back to Paul’s words in verse 27, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for His sake…” The idea is that since it has been granted to you to believe and to suffer for Christ, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel in the midst of this suffering.

Olson thinks the Philippian believers were given the privilege and opportunity to believe, not that they were given immediate faith. They were only given the opportunity and of course, what this means is that what they choose to do with that opportunity is, in the end, up to them. This theology sounds very familiar. I fail to see how this view is any different from the traditional Arminian position. From my vantage point, there seems to me to be nothing mediate about this thinking. It sounds quite consistent with traditional Arminian theology.

In response, the inductive method offers little support to Dr. Olson’s suggestion that we insert the idea of privilege or opportunity in Phil. 1:29. That concept seems to be the result of reading something into the text more than being exegeted out of it. Just as God grants faith through preaching, He grants that we may glorify Him through suffering at the hands of human agency. If suffering for the name of God is one means by which we glorify Him, then we must grant that this appointment comes only by His hand. Depraved sinners are cut off from glorifying God.

In addition, agency is nowhere a concern in the text. Paul is interested in focusing the Philippian believers on the glory of suffering and on God’s sovereignty over such suffering. The temptation to take a temporal perspective on suffering is ever before the believer. Paul reinforces the idea of the purpose and sovereignty of God in suffering just as God has a purpose and is sovereign over salvation. Finally, it simply does not follow that because Paul anchors the gift of faith and the gift of suffering firmly in the sovereign purpose of God that both must be granted by identical means. To insist that they do does more to expose bias than it does to demonstrate the use of inductive exegesis.

A final point is in order I think. 2 Timothy 2:25 contains this important phrase: μήποτε δώῃ αὐτοῖς ὁ θεὸς μετάνοιαν εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν ἀληθείας. This phrase would seem to indicate that God does more than simply grant the "opportunity for repentance" or the "privilege of repentance." These men were familiar with the gospel and in opposition to it. Paul instructs Timothy to be patient with these opponents, correcting them, with the hope that God might actually grant them repentance into true knowledge of the truth. It is clear that the use of the subjunctive indicates that this granting is only a possiblity. There is no guarantee that God will grant repentance with Timothy's gospel correction. If Olson is right, this makes no sense. If Paul is rightly understood, Olson's idea of opportunity and privilege makes no sense. The two ideas clash violently in this text. Olson implies that preaching extends, or grants to men the opportunity and privilege to repent should they decide to do so. Here, in this text, it is clear that such an offer is absent. Timothy would have understood that His gospel correction may not have produced repentance BECAUSE God had not granted it. God is the clearly the subject who does the acting. That is, God is granting! What is He granting? The possibility of repentance? Not according to a simple inductive investigation of this text! This indicates that the granting of repentance is within the sovereign control of an absolute God who is not dependent on anyone for anything, including the salvation of men.
Olson also calls on Acts 5:13 and 11:18 to support his view that God does not grant men faith, but rather He grants them the opportunity and privilege to believe. This does not answer the question how a totally depraved unregenerate person can actually have faith since they have no ability or desire to actually do anything pleasing to God. Acts 5:31 records Peter’s answer after being ordered not to preach Jesus any longer. Peter said, “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” The Greek word didwmi, which is here translated grant, means to cause to happen, to produce, to give. From an inductive standpoint there is nothing in the language to indicate potential, privilege, or opportunity. In addition, such a position introduces a serious threat to substitutionary-penal atonement. Once more, we end up, not with an efficacious death of Christ on the cross ensuring the salvation of God’s elect. Rather, we end up in a state of possibility. Jesus’ death accomplishes nothing actually in Dr. Olson’s treatment of this text. It merely renders repentance a possibility. It makes the opportunity for salvation possible. In Dr. Olson’s view, man is placed back in the driver’s seat to reign supreme over his own destiny. God is back on the sidelines, hoping of the best, cheering man on like a divine cheerleader on the sidelines of the football game of life.

Acts 11:18 is the conclusion drawn at Peter’s defense of Cornelius’ conversion to the fellow Jewish believers in Jerusalem. “When they heard this, they became quite and glorified God, saying, so also to the Gentiles God has given repentance to life.” The problem with attempting to read possibility, privilege, or opportunity into this text is that it refers to a very specific event of legitimate repentance already occurring: the conversion of Cornelius the Gentile. From this event, after hearing Peter’s irresistible argument, the Jewish Christians have no alternative but to conclude that God is also saving Gentiles along with Jews. To read more into this text or to broaden it beyond its clearly intended use is to bend it to a particular theological grid. This practice is very common for all of us, but it is not at all consistent with inductive exegesis. Dr. Olson violates his own rule of induction when he draws upon these particular texts to prop up his mediate position between Calvinism and Arminian theology.

I wonder if the seething hatred and disdain for Calvinism is the result of an almost purely American theology of autonomy. It seems to me there is a high correlation between American culture and a hatred for this system of theology. The more we think of ourselves as enabled, empowered, capable of fixing our own problems, setting our own destiny, the less appealing a system of theology like Calvinism becomes. In that system, God is entirely in control of all things. He is, “A Se.” God is from Himself, depending on no one for His being, His plan, or His own eternal glory. Man is cursed, separated from God, esteemed worthy to be damned due to his willingly wicked ignorance. This means all of us. It took, not a city, as Hilary Clinton would say, but a Prince. It took a Savior! Without man’s wretched and hopeless condition, not to mention radically helpless, a Savior is unnecessary. As John Newton once said, I am a great sinner, and He is a great Savior. Without Christ, I remain cursed from God, helpless and hopeless. The gospel is that a Prince came, a Lord, a Savior, to remove the curse and reconcile me to the God who made me! That is redemption. That is repentance that brings life! That is something to be joyous about!


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