For and Against Calvinism – Two Reviews for the Price of One!

Calvinism never really went away, but it has certainly grown in America with the “young, restless and reformed” movement.  As a burgeoning seminary student, (not really that) many years ago, I was interested in Calvinism.  It was a theology that I had never known growing up.  I did some study on it, wrote a research paper or two on aspects of it.  Over time I came to my conclusions and moved on.  Or, I wanted to move on but I never really did, probably because Calvinists took American evangelicalism by storm.

When I saw the two books – For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olsen – I had no interest in reading them.  It was an issue I had settled to my heart’s content.  Then I saw the books were on sale for under $4 on Amazon and for that price, well I’ll read almost anything.

First, Michael Horton defends Calvinism.  It should be noted that there is more variety to Calvinism than may be apparent if all one is familiar with are the young and the restless Reformed.  What Horton is defending is what is familiar to most as Calvinism, also known as the doctrines of grace or simply “reformed theology.”  These are the five points, often known as TULIP – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement (particular redemption), irresistible grace (effectual grace), perseverance of the saints.  Horton does an admirable job defending Calvinism.  He writes not just with clarity, but with humility.  Too often in such debates one side or the other gives the impression that the other side is not just wrong, but perhaps not really Christian.  Horton and Olsen may disagree, but both recognize the Christian commitment of the other.

There were a few times as I read this when I thought to myself, “hmmm, maybe I am a Calvinist.”  At one point this happened when Horton spoke of mystery.  He writes: “Reformed theologians has affirmed God’s sovereign decree concerning “whatsoever comes to pass,” yet without coercion or directly causing every event (Westminster Confession 3.1). How both can be true remains a mystery to us, but that both are true is clearly revealed in Scripture.”  When talking about God there comes a point when any person, regardless of persuasion, realizes there is no more than can be said.  We can make sense of some things, but in the face of an infinite God we have to leave room for mystery.  I think Calvinists like Horton (and like Calvin, for I thought the same when I read the Institutes a few years back) simply go one or two steps farther than I would go before invoking mystery.

This brings me to Olsen.  Many of the notes I made in Horton’s book, objecting to Calvinism, are addressed by Olsen.  Olsen shows that Calvinism leads to divine determinism.  If God “decrees” everything then a Calvinist can talk all they want about what humans choose to do but in the end, God is the acting force in evils such as the holocaust and human trafficking.  Olsen’s argument focuses on the words of key Reformed writers such as RC Sproul and John Piper to show that many Calvinists admit their view leads to divine determinism.    As Sproul says, noted by Olsen, if even one molecule in the universe running around loose then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.  Horton appeals to mystery, which I admire, but when he says, “God has decreed whatever comes to pass, yet this in on way infringes on creaturely freedom,” I see more contradiction then mystery.

Olsen shows that even though Calvinists may dispute it, their view leads to God determining everything.  Such a view makes it difficult to differentiate God and Satan.  God made it certain that sin would enter the world, God determines all events, God is kind of schizophrenic with two different wills (so God really wants all to be saved, but not really).  Olsen does not present an alternative view in detail, for that is not the purpose of the book.  Instead he works to show that whatever is true of God, the five-point Calvinist view is not.  One of the best parts of the book is an illustration from two other authors that show the problem with Calvinism:

Walls and Dongell offer an analogy to test whether any human being would be considered loving or good if he or she acted as Calvinism says God acts in giving irresistible grace only to some of his fallen human creatures. (Remember, he created all in his own image and likeness.) In their illustration, a doctor discovers a cure for a deadly disease killing a group of camp children and gives it to the camp’s director. The director administers it to some sick children so that they are cured and withholds it from others so that they die terribly. He has no shortage of the cure; nothing at all hinders him from curing all the children. even though some of the children resisted the cure, the director had the ability to persuade all of them to take it; he only persuaded some. When the parents confront the director, he passionately contends that he loved all the children— Even the ones who died. He cared for them while they were sick and made them as comfortable as possible:

Walls and Dongell rightly conclude: The director’s claim to love all the children rings hollow at best, deceptive at worst. If love will not employ all available means to rescue someone from ultimate loss, it is hard to hear it as love at all. In our judgment, it becomes meaningless to claim that God wishes to save all while also insisting that God refrains from making the salvation of all possible. What are we to make of a God whose walk does not match his talk? (Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, 54– 55.)

Olson, Roger E. (2011-10-25). Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology (Kindle Locations 3145-3149). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

That sums it up for me – it is difficult, impossible, to claim love for all children when the one claiming love will not employ all means to help those in need.  In the debate then, my verdict is that while Horton does a good job arguing for the Calvinist view, Olsen succeeds in refuting it.  I am not young, restless or Reformed.

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The Halcyon Dislocation-Review

An island university disappears after a science experiment goes wrong.  It reappears in an alternate universe and the residents of the island must learn to live in their new world as hopes of return diminish.

This is the premise in Peter Kazmier’s story, The Halcyon Dislocation.  If you enjoy Tolkien, Lewis and other good fantasy, this is a book you ought to check out.  For that matter, if your interests are more along the lines of science fiction, this book may be for you too.  I think it lays more on the fantasy side, but there is sci-fi in there.  Either way, it is a great story with fast-paced action, interesting characters and thoughtful dialogue.

The dialogue is one thing that most struck me.  Throughout the book the characters engage in discussions about science and religion, the existence of God, the validity or reasonableness of religion and so on.  Where Tolkien gives us religious themes and Lewis gives us allegory, Kazmier gives us Christian and atheist characters debating religion in the midst of adventuring around their new surroundings.  Yet this is not cheesy Christian fiction book.  The characters come off as real, the sort of people you might actually meet on a college campus.  While some of the characters change over the story, as they should in any good story, there is no climax with mass conversions or anything.  In the real world we all move through life, working and studying and living together.  During this time we may discuss, and argue, what we believe.  Kazmier’s world reflects that.

In other words, this is not a religious tract disguised as a novel.  Kazmier gives us a good story that contains believable characters talking about the deeper things of life.  Not only is it a good story, it leaves you wanting more.  When is the sequel coming out!

One thing that did strike me as odd is how quickly it seemed nearly everyone adjusted to being in a new world.  It seemed that most people just kind of rolled with it.  There are hints early on of some people not adjusting well and of strong leadership helping the community through.  It just seemed that the gravity of the situation was lightened.  Most characters seemed to adjust incredibly quickly – “we’re in a new world…we may never see our families again…what’s for dinner?”

That aside, it is still a great book.  Thanks Peter.

Full disclosure – I received a free copy from the author for purposes of review.

The Beauty of the Infinite – Review

Like anyone, I enjoy listening to music.  I never learned to play an instrument and I don’t really have a critical ear for the skills of musicians.  But I have friends who are skilled musicians.  We can listen to the same song and because of their understanding of music, they appreciate the song on a different level.  I may recognize that it is a good song, but there is a lot more going on than I fully understand.

This is how I feel about David Bentley Hart’s amazing book The Beauty of the Infinite.  It is like a classic symphony played by a full orchestra.  I hear the music and get that something beautiful is happening, but I also know there is a lot more going on that I don’t fully understand.  Hart’s book engages with everything from 20th century philosophy to the early church fathers; he has a command of an incredibly wide breadth of writings.  The first 150 pages when he discusses the philosophies of people like Deleuze, Foucault, Levinas and others…well it made me wish I had taken more philosophy courses in college.  There were moments I wanted to give up.  There were numerous words I underlined simply because I had never seen them before (and I wonder if Hart just invented some of them, honestly).

Once he began talking about Nietszche and then after that theology, I understood more what he was talking about.  Even here though, the writing stretched me.  This is advanced philosophical theology at its best. Just as there is nothing wrong with a fun three-minute country diddy, so there is nothing wrong with an easy-t0-read and understand theology book.  At the same time, there is great worth in stretching yourself, whether it be the classical symphony or the lengthy philosophical theology.

So what is Hart’s primary point?  What’s the book about?  Postmodern philosophies, really the ideas that have permeated our culture, see all difference as violence.  There is an inherent violence that happens when one encounters the other.  Christian theology, Hart argues, presents a different story.  This story, rooted in the Trinity, is one that allows difference for in the Trinity we see difference and diversity without any sort of violence or confusion.  As he continues to show how this plays out through Creation, Salvation and Eschatology…I’ll just say it is one of those books that makes me want to be a Christian.

Another point I appreciated is Hart’s urging for Christians to focus on announcing the Christian story.  Nietzsche was correct, to some degree, as he criticized Christianity and put forth an alternative approach to the world (the will to power).  The choice is clear: power over the other, a power rooted in violence where the strong survive, or peace with the other through Christ.  The best thing Christians can do is live out, literally illustrate, this alternative to the will to power idea.

I am sure there is much more there.  This book will need a re-read sooner rather than later.  For those who want a theological feast, this is the book for you.

God or Godless: Review

There is a memorable scene early in the classic book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, during which Arthur Dent is told that his house is to be demolished to make way for a freeway.  Arthur is upset, though he is told the plans have been on file for quite a while had he wanted to travel to the correct office to see.  Shortly after this aliens, the Vogons,  appear over the planet and announce to all humanity that the entire planet is to be destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway.  When the humans protest, the aliens respond that the order has been on file a mere few light-years away so they should have been ready!

Ah, the hilarious irony.

This scene popped into my head as I read God or Godless: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions.  In this book Christian Randal Rauser and Atheist John Loftus debate a variety of questions.  Each one chose ten topics and the book proceeds in an easy-to-read debate format.  This format is one of the best parts of the book, as a lot of ground is covered and both sides offer their thoughts on all twenty questions.  Though there are a variety of questions, as you read a few common themes emerge.  One of the early chapters is titled, “If There is No God, Everything is Permitted.”  Here Randal, obviously, argues the positive.  John responds saying a God is not needed:

Therefore, the ones doing the permitting are those of us on earth in our respective cultures.  We do not permit just anything either. In every society we come up with moral rules just as we do when it comes to speed limits on our highways, regulations for food preparation, protocols for approaching different people, or criminal acts we consider harmful to the common good” (32).

John argues that morality is arbitrary, created by cultures.  I find this argument extremely unsatisfying.  This is why I thought of the scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What happens when another culture, more powerful then humanity, shows up?  If truth is merely what has helped us adapt and survive, what happens if this more powerful culture needs to eliminate us to survive (perhaps for their galactic freeway)?  The morality John offers gives us no ground to say why this would be wrong.  We are left merely with a might-makes-right morality.

Of course, using an invading alien civilization as an example may seem a bit far-fetched.  But other illustrations of the shortcoming of this view could be found.  Later in the book John talks of how cats will toy with their prey because that’s just what cats do.  Yet if all there is is nature, what separates us from cats?  We don’t think cats are “immoral”, so what makes humans immoral who commit vile crimes?  If one society or civilization needs to exterminate another to ensure their survival, on what ground is this wrong?

Immediately after the cat comment, John writes that, “morality evolves, and it finally caught up to judge what we see in God’s Bible as barbaric” (106).  This sheds light on what, I think, is the assumption in John’s arguments, though he never clearly (at least not as I recall) illustrates it – the myth of progress.  John believes that humans are getting better and better over the ages.  This begs the question: if humanity is progressing from lesser moralities to higher ones, then the current morality we have now will be seen as lesser (barbaric? evil?) by future civilizations.  With that in mind, how could we confidently call anything immoral today?

Whatever the future morality of humanity holds, John is very confident that the morality of the Bible is basically evil, a relic of an ancient, vile past culture.  The vast majority of topics chosen by John are meant to show the faultiness of the Bible.  I think John does a good job here.  Am I allowed, as a Christian, to say that?  After completing this book I perused a few reviews on Goodreads and, predictably, atheist readers thought John emerged victorious while Christian readers saw Randal as the champion.  Perhaps this says more about us as readers (we’re not so open-minded as we think) then it does about the book.  Of course, we’re all biased to some degree.  A large reason I found myself more in tune with Randal’s arguments is because I am a Christian.  The arguments he makes are part of the reason I remain a Christian.

But I will admit that John does do a great job.  A lot of his points ultimately go back to the problem of evil.  For example, John argues that God is an incompetent Creator, listing many flaws in the human body as well as a (nearly page long) list of diseases and ailments we are susceptible to.  If there was a good God, shouldn’t we expect the world to be a bit less painful?  Randal responds by suggesting that God could possibly have a reason to allow such suffering.  Yet any reader’s visceral reaction to this is to wonder what sort of purpose that could be, in light of the horrific suffering.

In the same way, when John talks of how the Biblical God commanded genocide and does not care much about women or slaves, he makes good points.  The honest Christian ought to admit this is a huge difficulty.  If there really were a good God, wouldn’t God command people not to have slaves?  Wouldn’t God command people in patriarchal societies to treat women much better?  What good is a God who can’t command the heights of morality?  Randal does admit that this is a difficulty and presents as decent an answer as can be expected.

Such challenges as John brings up ought to cause any Christian to pause.  Whatever answers we give are tentative and a bit less than satisfying: I may believe progressive revelation, but it’d be nice if the Bible just outright condemned slavery from the beginning.  At any rate, what this shows me is that no matter which path you choose – God or Godless – there are difficulties.  Neither option presents kn0ck-down, full-proof answers.

In the last word John ends with a complaint that this was “Christian vs. Atheist”.  Who gives Christians the right to represent all religions versus atheism?  Whatever merit there is in such a question, I found it curious in light of the chosen topics.  The majority of Randal’s topics were generally theistic.  The only specifically Christian one was the final one, on Jesus’ resurrection.  Randal seemed to approach many of the topics with a more philosophical bent (“Is there meaning and morality without a God?”).  On the other hand, John’s topics, for the most part, were attacks on the Bible.  He approached it from a more historical or religious  bent (“The Bible is flawed and thus shows it is not from God”).

To some extent, this makes me think that even were John to convince me with his arguments, I would not join him in atheism.  Perhaps I would move to a more liberal Christian perspective, or at most become some sort of Deist.  In the same way, if I were already an atheist, Randal might not convince me to become a Christian, but his arguments go far in showing the shortcomings of a godless world and might lead me to think there is something out there.  In other words, my (certainly not unbiased) verdict would be that this book is convincing in pointing to a God while offering enough flaws in the Bible to stop short of it being the Biblical God.

Overall, I found this to be an excellent book.  Its brevity could earn it readers who would not want to slog through larger tomes.  Likewise, the debate format is inviting and makes for informal reading.  Both authors know their stuff and manage to pack a lot in to the space allotted.  I could see this book being used for discussions, whether in churches or coffeehouses.  I work in campus ministry and I plan to highly encourage my students, Christian students that is, to read this book along with their peers.

Walking with the Saints – John Wesley’s Journal

In January I set out to read John Wesley’s journal.  Over the years I have found great spiritual nourishment in reading the works from Christian saints through the ages: Theresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Julian of Norwich, John Calvin, John of the Cross and more.  Since I consider myself “Wesleyan” in my theology, I figured I would read Wesley’s journal.

Four months later, I give up.

I still like Wesley.  Wesley was an awesome person with a life to be admired by any Christian.  Yet I found his journal, his account of parts of that life, boring.  It started out well.  Reading about his early life and his conversion experience at Aldersgate was both enlightening and encouraging.  But once he was fully converted and got into the groove of his ministry throughout England…well, that is when the book got dull.  It was a lot of “we preached here, then traveled there, then faced opposition, then we went over here” and so on.

One reviewer said that the last 1/4 or so breaks this monotony and is worth slogging through the rest to get to.  I just couldn’t do it.

Sorry Mr. Wesley.

Here are two posts inspired by the early parts of the journal:

Asking Uncomfortable Questions

Doubt and Faith