by Paul CopanSeptember 16th, 2012 12 Comments
A while back, my Calvinist friend Michael Patton here at Parchment and Pen told me that he generally preferred the company of Arminians over Calvinists. A well-known evangelical Christian statesman (who will go unnamed) related his negative experiences with what he called “the Reformed Mafia.” Trevin Wax recently echoed this concern in a blog post as a plea to some of his fellow Calvinists. That, I regret to say, has been my experience in the Calvinist-Arminian debate. So I hope that, in my posting this list, grace from my Reformed brothers and sisters will abound!
Michael Patton asked if I would be willing to mention my top picks for Arminian books. Since Jacob Arminius was as good an Arminian as any, we should at least mention his works in passing: Work of Jacob Arminius. (We could also mention the writings of John Wesley here. However, my list will focus on more accessible, popular-level expositions of Arminianism. In addition, since Arminius was influenced by Molinism, I’ll include Molinist-related works as well. (Note: I’m not including open theism, which I find philosophically and biblically problematic.)
1. Arminian and (Gentle, But Frank) Anti-Calvinist Theology
Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. Olson here evenhandedly explores genuine points of overlap between Arminians and Calvinists, and there’s more than many in either camp may realize! For example, consider this Calvinist-sounding description: “…the Free Will of man towards the True Good …is imprisoned, destroyed, and lost; and its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine Grace.” These are the words of Jacob Arminius. And similar are the words of Arminian hymnwriter Charles Wesley: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay / Fastbound in sin and nature’s night. / Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray. / I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. / My chains fell off; my heart was free. / I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”
In Olson’s book he unpacks key terms in the Calvinism-Arminianism dialogue—grace, sovereignty, free(d) will, depravity—and shows how classical Arminianism is solidly evangelical and no deviation from orthodoxy. I’ve recommended this book to some of my students who have been a bit more condescending toward their non-Calvinistic peers (and professors!); thankfully, it had the desired chastening effect. This book gave them a clearer understanding of classical Arminianism (as opposed to “Pelagianism” or “semi-Pelagianism”—terms which some Calvinists pejoratively and unfairly ascribe to classical Arminianism). This book helped disabuse them of several myths about Arminianism they had come to embrace.
Roger Olson, Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. Yes it’s Olson again! Wilted tulips gracing (?) the front cover, Olson’s recent book Against Calvinism (Zondervan, 2011)—a companion to Michael Horton’s For Calvinism (Zondervan 2011)—isn’t specifically a defense of Arminianism. It is more a gracious but firm “No” to “mere Calvinism” in its espousing a view of “meticulous providence”—a view that, in Olson’s estimation, necessarily renders God the author of evil; God becomes morally indistinguishable from Satan. (Some might say that doesn’t sound too gracious, but Olson raises a legitimate question for some Calvinists who claim that God’s version of goodness and ours is radically distinct and non-overlapping.) Though there is diversity of theological perspectives within “Reformed” thinking, Olson tackles “mere Calvinism” (the TULIP). His critique of the “arbitrariness, lack of fairness, and apparent lovelessness” of unconditional election—what Calvin calls “that horrible decree”—is quite effective. Here is a sample quotation from the book:
“Who would believe that a teacher who withholds the information students need to pass a course merely permitted them to fail? What if that teacher, when called on the carpet by parents and school officials, said, ‘I didn’t cause them to fail. They did it on their own’? Would anyone accept that explanation or would they accuse the teacher of not merely permitting the students to fail but also of actually causing them to fail? And what if the teacher argued that he or she actually planned and rendered the students’ failure certain for a good reason — to uphold academic standards and show a great teacher he or she is by demonstrating how necessary his or her information is for students to pass? Would not these admissions only deepen everyone’s conviction that the teacher is morally and professionally wrong?” (85).
There are many other such accessible analogies and illustrations Olson uses to make his point. Loved the book!
Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I am Not a Calvinist. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. This wide-ranging book, according to Roger Olson, states that the “biblical, theological, and rational case against Calvinism” has not be “more clearly, concisely, ironically or convincingly” stated. (It happens to be the companion volume to Why I Am Not an Arminian by Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams.) The book offers biblical and philosophical reasons for challenging Calvinism, and it offers a terrific summary and defense of Arminianism as well as some of the common, but important, challenges to Calvinism. In my estimation, the final chapter (“Calvinism and the Christian Life”) is the most helpful one. It tackles some specific problems entailed by Calvinism as they relate to evangelism, the fate of the unevangelized, Christian assurance, the problem of evil.
Though I found myself in disagreement at particular points (e.g., being a bit softer on open theism and harder on Molinism in chapter 4), the book is instructive in many ways. Throughout, the book reviews arguments from Reformed thinkers such as John Piper, R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, R.K. McGregor-Wright, et al. and offers insightful responses that put these arguments into clearer perspective. For example, the authors probe J.I. Packer’s assertions that “Christ the Savior is freely offered…to sinners” and that God gives to “all free agency” (169-173), which sounds very unlike Calvinism. And they challenge R.C. Sproul’s belief about libertarian freedom of Adam and Eve in Eden—in contrast to Calvin’s claim that this idea is “a barren invention” (181-184). Much good material here!
2. Popular Defenses of Molinism
William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000. The Westminster Confession declares that “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Sec. III). Perhaps surprising to some, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig affirms that he has “no problem” with this and certain other classic statements of Reformed theology. Advocating the “middle knowledge” view of Luis de Molina (1535-1600)—(known as Molinism)—Craig writes, “Now this is precisely what the Molinist believes! The Confession affirms God’s preordination of everything that comes to pass as well as the liberty and contingency of the creaturely will, so that God is not the author of sin.” He adds, “It is a tragedy that in rejecting middle knowledge Reformed divines have cut themselves off from the most perspicuous explanation of the coherence of this wonderful confession.”
I first read pre-published material from Craig’s book while I was in seminary back in 1986, When his Only Wise God book was published, it proved to be an important breakthrough for theologians; this work brought to light a significant resolution to the sovereignty-free will tension that evangelical theologians had generally ignored. Craig’s popular-level book spells out a high view of divine sovereignty that does not undermine libertarian human freedom, and we are in his debt for the ground-breaking work he has done for evangelicals.
Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009. In contrast to the Calvinist’s T-U-L-I-P, Keathley is a very readable exposition of Molinism, using the R-O-S-E-S acrostic: Radical depravity, Overcoming grace, Sovereign election, Eternal life, Singular redemption. This book is irenically-written (reflecting the gracious spirit of the author). Yet it challenges the mechanistic determinism in much Calvinistic thinking. For example, he notes how he does not see how Calvinism comports with Scriptures referring to believers being “truly free” in Christ (Jn. 8:36) or with the fact that succumbing to temptation is not inevitable, but can be avoided because God will make a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). Keathley admits to being baffled by Calvinistic statements such as, “While God commands all people to repent and takes no delight in the death of the sinner, all are not saved because it is not God’s intention to give his redeeming grace to all” (cited on 57).
This book offers an important response to R.C. Sproul Jr., who is so committed to theological determinism that he claims God is the actual “creator” of evil (though God himself does not do evil). The book has plenty of charts that delineate different theological positions, definitions of terms, and so on. If you want to begin learning about Molinism in the context of the Calvinist-Arminianism discussion, this is the best entry-level book.
3. Corporate—not Individual—Election in Christ:
William Klein, God’s New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock. William Klein is a New Testament scholar at Denver Seminary. When I first came across his book (then published by Zondervan) in early 1990s, I found it immensely helpful in exegeting the key New Testament texts commonly utilized by Calvinists in defense of their position (e.g., Mark 4:11-12; Jn. 6:44-5; Acts 13:48; Romans 9:11-13; Eph. 1:4). Klein’s emphasis is on corporate election to salvation—that God “chose us in Him [Christ]” (Eph. 1:4). The Scripture’s focus is on God’s calling and choosing a people to salvation—not individuals. Yes, individuals like Paul or Jesus’ disciples are chosen for a task or mission: “Have I Myself not chosen you, the twelve, but yet one of you is a devil?” (Jn. 6:70). But when it comes to election to salvation, God has chosen a people “in Christ,” the chosen Son of God. So, by faith in him, we become incorporated into God’s elect people—a corporate body. Biblically speaking, we should say, “God chose us,” not “God chose me” (264-5).
Chapters 5-11 are something of a handbook on New Testament election-related texts—Synoptic Gospels, Acts, Johannine literature, Pauline literature, and so on. Chapters 1-4 give background material to election—from the Old Testament as well as Qumran, apocryphal, pseudepigraphal, and rabbinic literature—and the final chapters provide superb summary and application. Very highly recommended!
Robert Shank, Elect in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Election. Minneapolis: Bethany Houses, 1989. Here is a classic study of the doctrine of election in Christ. This book examines the biblical/exegetical arguments used to support a Calvinist perspective on salvation and finds them wanting. As the title suggests, election to salvation is through incorporation into the Elect Son, Jesus Christ. The logical priority is this: “the election is first of Christ and then of men in Him” (31). Moreover, this election is corporate rather than individual: “He chose us in Him” (Eph. 1:4). Shank rejects the unconditional election claim of Calvin—that “those who perish are destined to death by the eternal good pleasure of God….they are not found but made worthy of destruction” (cited on 47). He asks (in light of Calvin’s claim that God unconditionally condemned the mass of ethnic Israelites), “Why should Paul have ‘great heaviness and sorrow’ [Rom 9:1-3; 10:1] for those for whom God had no such sorrow? Why should he even wish himself accursed from Christ for those who were reprobate by the design and will of God?” (123). Shank also defends the view this salvation of grace as offered to all without exception, not merely all without distinction (e.g., race, national origin). Christ died for everyone, not simply for the elect. Moreover, in response to the doctrine of irresistible grace, he reviews many passages (e.g., in Hebrews) that indicate that God’s grace is resistible. Upon citing Stephen (“You always resist the Holy Spirit! [Ac. 7:51]), Shank asks, “If Calvin’s hypothesis of irresistible grace were true, how could this be?” (133).
This extensive defense of corporate election from an Arminian perspective is well-reasoned and repays careful reading.
Multiple Views Books
Dennis W. Jowers, ed. Four Views of Divine Providence. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. The four views of this book are “God Causes All Things” (Paul Kjoss Helseth), “God Directs All Things” (William Lane Craig), “God Controls by Liberating” (Ron Highfield), and “God Limits His Control” (Gregory A. Boyd). Taking an Augustinian/Reformed view, Helseth and Highfield are not all that distinct. Craig, of course, takes a Molinist view, and Boyd an open theist view. Craig’s nuanced account presents pointed challenges both to open theism and the Reformed views, affirming both libertarian freedom and a high view of sovereignty, which coalesce nicely under Molinism.
Molinism appears to present the best of both worlds. On the one hand, it preserves full sovereignty without appealing to “mystery” in order to (a) keep God at a safe moral distance from evil’s origin and continuity and to (b) respond to God’s willing the non-elect’s damnation independent of their doing anything wrong. These are two chief difficulties for the Reformed view that Molinism does not face. (Not that appeal to mystery is never appropriate, but that it need not be appealed to when robust biblically-supportable alternative explanations are available.) On the other hand, besides preserving robust sovereignty and human freedom, Molinism maintains the classic doctrine of omniscience, which includes divine knowledge of future contingents—against open theism.
Chad Owen Brand, ed. Perspectives on Election: Five Views. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006. This point-counterpoint book on different theological positions on election is somewhat different from the Jowers volume, even if there is strong overlap. This work includes not only the positions of open theism (Clark Pinnock), classical Arminianism (Jack Cottrell), and Reformed (slightly differing perspectives by Bruce Ware and Robert Reymond); the position of universalism is defended by Thomas Talbott (“Universal Reconciliation and the Inclusive Nature of Election”). I won’t comment beyond saying that this too is a superb exchange—and that I would also take issue with the universalistic position at a number of points.
That said, I think to round out the discussion, a chapter engaging Molinism (and dropping one of the two similar-sounding Reformed perspective chapters) would have been terrific—as would adding Talbott’s chapter on universalism to the Jowers volume above (and dropping one of the two Reformed perspective chapters there as well).
Postcript: Norman Geisler’s book Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will (Bethany House). I want to mention this book as well. It is a good resource on the Calvinism-Arminianism debate. I should mention that it is at odds with a Molinistic account (which I favor). And Geisler claims to represent moderate Calvinism (a position true Calvinists—moderate or otherwise—would reject, as Geisler repudiates central tenets of Calvin’s own thought). His representing moderate Arminianism is more accurate. Geisler ties too much of his view to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which I think is both problematic philosophically (as I argue in my Loving Wisdom) and a distraction from the debate itself. Yet Geisler’s book is still a wealth of information. Besides providing the reader with the standard (but effective) objections to theological determinism, it also contains (a) many quotations from church fathers before Augustine who typically assumed a libertarian view of human freedom as well; (b) a discussion of the five points of Calvinism; (c) an examination of the Reformed claim that “regeneration precedes faith”; (d) an exposition of Calvin’s own rejection of limited/definite atonement; and much more.
 Trevin Wax, “A Word to My Calvinist Friends” (August 28, 2012). URL: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/08/28/a-word-to-my-calvinist-friends/
 I engage with open theism in Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion (St. Louis: Chalice, 2007).
 William Lane Craig, “Molinism vs. Calvinism.” Available at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/molinism-vs-calvinism.
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