Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: An Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation. By C. Gordon Olson. Cedar Knolls, NJ: Global Gospel Publishers, 2002. 538 pp. Cloth. $16.00.
One of the strengths of the Calvinistic system is the monopoly on books about Calvinism that it has long held. Until recently, most books written in opposition to Calvinism were either small pamphlets inherently limited in their effectiveness or works from the equally objectionable Arminian point of view. The tide has gradually shifted over the past twenty years, and especially during the last five or six. There is Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free (1999, 2001 revised edition), Dave Hunt’s What Love is This? (2002), Robert Picirilli’s Grace, Faith, Free Will (2002), and my own contribution, The Other Side of Calvinism (1999 revised edition). The new book by C. Gordon Olson, Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: An Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation, is a welcome addition to the growing number of books that offer an alternative to Calvinism.
The subtitle of the book, “An Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation,” is not just a philosophical catch phrase. Olson believes that “far too much of our theology has been developed deductively, rather than inductively” (p. 2). The deductive approach is flawed because of “the tendency to make sweeping generalizations without adequate attention to the details of the data” (p. 7). It is valid “only in confirming and testing the results of our induction or in filling in the gaps where the inductive data is missing or incomplete” (p. 18). The author places a great deal of emphasis on methodology, and acknowledges his debt to “Robert Traina and his disciples” (p. 17).
Olson’s thesis in Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism is that “there is a viable middle or mediate position which has been grossly neglected, even repressed” (p. 29). He proposes a “distinct mediate theology of salvation, whose historical roots are found in the semi-Augustinianism of the Synod of Orange (529) and a long line of postreformation leaders and theologians who reacted to the determinism of the Reformers” (p. 46). He refers to the theology of salvation he develops in the book as a “Mediate Theology of Salvation” because it is “intermediate to Calvinism and Arminianism” and “it also emphasizes God’s mediate mode of carrying out much of His plan in the present world—through His agents” (p. 29).
Olson’s book is not a reply to any specific Calvinist, and neither is it patterned after any other work. There are also many respects in which it is very unique. Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism does not follow the usual pattern of books about Calvinism; that is, it does not have a chapter (or chapters) on each of the Five Points of Calvinism. There are instead nineteen chapters on issues related to Calvinism. Thus, as expected, there are chapters on the atonement, foreknowledge, election, faith, and eternal security. But there are also chapters on the image of God in man, justification by faith, conviction of the Spirit, discipleship, and evangelism. The book also contains twelve appendixes in varying styles and on a wide variety of subjects.
Rather than include them at the close of the book in the last chapter, a conclusion, or an epilogue, Olson begins the book by listing in his Introduction thirty-one “exegetical and theological discoveries” he made in the course of his research that he considers to be significant (p. 4). This is followed by eight more “discoveries” from his research into missiology. The only problem with this is that the reader who is not somewhat familiar with the language and issues of the Calvinist/Arminian debate may not quite understand the significance of Olson’s discoveries.
A nice feature of Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism is the conclusion found at the end of most chapters. However, I see no reason why these are variously titled “conclusion” (chaps. 1, 6, and 12), “conclusions and implications” (chap. 16), and “conclusions” (all the rest except chaps. 8 and 14, which do not contain a conclusion of any kind).
The final unusual feature of the book that is worth mentioning is the use of two kinds of notes: regular numbered endnotes that appear at the end of each chapter and special lettered footnotes that occasionally appear at the bottom of some pages. The former mainly give bibliographical information on the works Olson cites, with the latter being reserved for explanatory purposes.
True to its title, Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism focuses on the theology of salvation, but within the general framework of the Calvinist/Arminian debate. This allows Olson to broaden his approach while focusing on what he considers to be the problems with Calvinism, of which he finds a great deal.
I was particularly impressed with Olson’s wholesale dismissal of the Calvinistic concept of “God’s Decree” or “God’s Decrees.” He considers “all discussion about the logical or chronological order of God’s decrees in eternity past” to be “pure speculation,” “absolute nonsense,” and “worse than the medieval theologians’ discussions about the number of angels which can dance on the head of a pin” (p. 63). There is an “almost total lack of basis for the Calvinistic concept of either a single comprehensive decree of God in eternity past, or even of a multiplicity of such decrees” (pp. 80-81). He also mentions “four centuries of useless debate about the order of fictional decrees” (p. 4).
Additionally, Olson skewers the Calvinistic arguments for God not knowing something unless he decreed it, regeneration coming before faith and repentance, and faith being an irresistible gift of God. He also shows the parallels between Calvinism and Arminianism on perseverance, eternal security, lordship salvation, and rewards.
There are two specific teachings of modern Calvinists that Olson believes differ from what Calvin himself taught: Limited Atonement and the priority of regeneration. He believes it is “increasingly clear that Calvin himself did not hold to limited atonement” (p. 126). One of the appendixes consists of quotations from John Calvin on general redemption. He also maintains that Calvin did not believe that regeneration precedes faith (p. 197). Olson is not the first to make these claims, and the quotations he gives by Calvin look convincing—until one reads other statements by Calvin that contradict them. The problem is that Calvin, like many Calvinists, contradicts himself at every turn. Indeed, the whole Calvinistic system is one giant contradiction: God ordains everything—but man is responsible for his sin; the “elect” will be saved because of God’s eternal decree—but man is responsible to preach the gospel to everyone.
Olson claims that the differences between Arminius and later Arminians parallel those of Calvin and later Calvinists because “Theodore Beza hijacked the Calvinistic movement” (p. 435). That “hijacking” may be true in the case of the followers of Arminius, but I don’t believe it is in the case of Beza. How does one hijack the teachings of the man who gave to the world the term Calvinism? Especially when Calvin said things like this in his Institutes: “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestinated to life or death” (III.xxi.5).
Although the substance of the book may not have gone to press hastily, the same cannot be said about the preparation of the book. The formatting of the book and the format of the endnotes leave much to be desired. The style of many of the quotation marks varies—sometimes on a single word. Complete information about the books Olson is quoting from does not always appear in the endnotes. While these and other things I have not mentioned don’t detract from the overall content of the book, they are minor distractions.
Another criticism I have of the book is Olson’s use of a multitude of Bible versions. He states in the front of the book that unless noted otherwise, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (p. ii). But sometimes he denigrates the NASB and quotes from the NIV (p. 100). Yet, other times he criticizes the NIV (pp. 117, 162). He also quotes from the KJV, the RSV, the ASV, The Amplified Version, The New Berkeley Version, the Williams translation of the NT, and the margin of the NASB.
Olson begins and ends Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism lamenting about the “polarization of theology” that exists today (pp. 2, 434). He maintains that even though “there is a vast mainstream of Evangelicals in the middle who are not committed fully to either system,” there are “few voices which have articulated a clear middle position” (p. 2). Accordingly, the author writes to show that the truth of Scripture lies between the polarized positions of “Augustine and Pelagius,” “Luther and Erasmus,” and “Calvin and Arminius” (p. 84). This without doubt Olson proves, and in a unique way that departs from the increasingly stale presentation based on the Five Points of Calvinism. The book is a valuable addition to the growing body of literature on the subject of Calvinism.
Laurence M. Vance