The inner logic of Calvinist attacks on "Love Wins"

Roger E. OlsonRoger E. Olson, as one of his “evangelical Arminian theological musings”, explains Why I defend Rob Bell’s Love Wins (and other controversial books). In doing so he offers some fascinating observations about Calvinist attacks on Arminianism and other perceived theological errors. He refers to “American evangelical Calvinisms’ DNA”, but much of what he says applies equally to some strands of British Calvinism, such as that of Adrian Warnock.

Olson considers Calvinist responses both to open theism and to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, and compares them with general Calvinist criticisms of Arminianism. He is careful to point out differences between these three positions, but point out that Calvinists who reject them offer the same arguments against all three, that

they are human-centered, belittling the glory of God, neglecting God’s justice and wrath in favor of too much emphasis on God’s love, etc., etc.

At this point I would add that there is a similar character to much Calvinist and “Reformed” polemic against those seen as rejecting penal substitutionary atonement, like Steve Chalke, with the same arguments being made that the rejected position is human-centred and neglects God’s justice and wrath.

Olson then considers specifically the arguments against Bell’s book. He looks at 1 Timothy 2:4:

God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

He rejects the Calvinist position that “all people” here means any less than everyone. He also agrees with Bell’s rejection of universalism. So the implication is that what God wants does not actually happen. And, Olson writes,

I think that is what offends critics of Love Wins–the suggestion that God doesn’t get what he really, perfectly wants.  That seems to them to demean God, to lessen his glory. …

The deep, inner logic of the attacks on Love Wins seems to me of this variety.  The ones I have read and heard ALL arise out of Reformed assumptions about God rather than out of Arminian assumptions about God.  And there’s the main difference.  Not all Arminians will agree with everything Bell says, but the general thrust of his theology in Love Wins is classically Arminian–that God permits free creatures to resist his love out of love and therefore love wins even as God seems to lose something.  Because of the risk his love forces him to take, and human resistance to it, God ends up not getting all that God wants.  ON THE OTHER HAND, of course, God DOES GET WHAT GOD WANTS–this world in which his love can be resisted.  It’s dialectical but not contradictory.

Olson makes it clear that he does not accept all of Bell’s arguments. But he concludes with

I would like to suggest to both sides that what is really going on in this whole controversy over Bell’s Love Wins is another round of the old Calvinist versus Arminian debate.

That’s what it looks like to me as well.

22 thoughts on “The inner logic of Calvinist attacks on "Love Wins"

  1. Has he read Love Wins yet? Have you? I don’t need any calvinistic theology to have grave concerns at his mockery of basic evangelical teachings (shock horror arminians and calvinists agree on a lot of stuff!) such as salvation by faith.

    As an aside Olson seems to provide his own ‘2 wills in God’ theology here, even as he’d presumably disagree with the reformed understanding of God’s sovereign will and moral will or to quote Piper and some other ways of talking about the same thing “efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will”

  2. Joel, I haven’t read “Love Wins”, as I have written here several times. Olson has read it, twice, as you would know if you had read his post. Why do you ask? Do you dispute that Bell rejected universalism? Have you read the book?

    So I suppose you are accusing Olson of “mockery of basic evangelical teachings … such as salvation by faith” based on the brief quotations in my post. But there is no mention in them of salvation by faith. So where is the mockery?

    If you had read Olson’s post you would have seen his explanation of his position on the idea that, in my words, God has multiple wills which contradict one another.

  3. Interesting point about Arminianism and Calvinism. I think that there is something to that.

    I *have* read the book and I’m convinced that Bell rejects universal salvation and that Bell *did* say, in effect, “God wants all people to be saved and no, God doesn’t get what he wants.”

    The main problem with the book is that it’s written as an extended sermon rather than as a theological work, which leaves it open to more than the usual interpretation by the reader.

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  5. One day a Calvinist can explain to me why it offends God’s holiness and sovereignty to allow human beings to make their own choices. Presumably it can’t be that God isn’t able to give us our free will?

  6. Well Peter, this is the post that finally kicked me over the edge and compelled me to read the book. Thank you!

    There’s a lot to consider there… and although now I’ve (speed-)read the book I can offer some opinions, really I’d like to consider more. I can say that Bell soundly rejects universalism in the book. He’s proposing something that goes outside the bounds of what the Church considers “orthodox”… I’m not sure what I’d call it, but I know I wouldn’t call it universalism.

    Quite a few of the reviews I read really had a problem with the fact that Bell asks a lot of questions – some of which, “everyone already knows the answer to.” One thing I’ve learned in walking in the Kingdom of God is that often, asking the question is more important than knowing the answer – and I’m glad tht someone is asking these questions.

    Here’s my brief, off the top of my head review: I may have more to say after I’ve slept on it.

  7. Kay, I’m glad I got you to read it. Maybe I should too! But what you say agrees with what others I trust have said. I too am glad that Bell is asking questions, but Calvinists don’t like that in case someone finds an answer they don’t approve of.

    I’ll look at your review.

  8. Peter, I woke up this morning wishing that I’d bought the book last night – might see if I can score a used copy cheaply (since the issue is the budget, summer classes, and full-time school for two people in the fall).

    The tidbit of sleep I got didn’t help me to settle in my mind “love it” or “hate it”, “agree” or “disagree”. But it did settle into my heart that love it or hate it, agree or disagree, Bell’s book is important.

    I suspect that his goal was less to win anyone over, and more to make people THINK – really think, not just think the thoughts their church told them to think – and to the extent that it causes people to ask the questions and dig into the Word for themselves, it’s a vital book. Unfortunately, it looks like most reviewers aren’t willing to ask those questions, because most of what I’ve seen is parroted apologetics that’s far from redemptive in nature.

    Just some thoughts over coffee… if you have time, would love for you to read the last three “big” posts – If, and Abide 1 & 2 – love feedback on them. IF you have time 🙂

  9. Thanks, Kay. I have just subscribed to your blog and skimmed your posts on “Abide”. I will look again at them at your request.

    Yes, Rob Bell was encouraging people to think. Many pastors don’t want their congregations to think, only to accept what they say without question. That, I suspect, is the main reason why “Love Wins” was rejected so unreasonably.

  10. Calvinist pastors don’t want their people to ask questions? Seriously guys (and gals)… I’m sure there are some reformed pastors who don’t want their people to ask questions, just as I’m sure there are some Arminian pastors to ask questions but to generalize like you’re doing is unhelpful and disrespectful.

    Peter, no I’m not accusing Olson of mockery. I’m saying Rob Bell mocks basic evangelical teachings and I don’t need to be a calvinist to have grave concerns about some of what he says in the book. Several of my arminian friends have raised exactly the same issues with Bell’s book that I have.

    No I didn’t read Olson’s post, I read yours and yes I’ve read Love Wins. Plus I’ve listened to his very revealing interview with Warnock, in which he clarifies, to an extent, what he believes. That’s pretty important when you spend any time with the book at all, because it’s really not easy to tell if he’s saying anything at all at points.

  11. Joel:

    >>Rob Bell mocks basic evangelical teachings<<

    The assumption in your statement is that all "basic evangelical teachings" are correct, and that all orthodox Christians believe them in lock-step with one another.

    Do you have a link to the Warnock video? I'd love to see it.

  12. Joel, I did not single out Calvinist pastors as not wanting people to ask questions. Nor did Kay. I might have done but realised that this was true not only of Calvinists. Please don’t put words in our mouths.

    For the Bell-Warnock debate, see this post of mine. I have not watched the whole debate.

  13. I’ve noted that many Arminians are closet calvinists until you challenge them in that error.

    That said, “questions” are not very welcome in most churches, regardless of the persuasion. Either they are discouraged, or they are answered and you must take the answer as Truth. One thing I love about the church we are now covenanted with (and indeed, one of the main reasons we took that step) is that questions are always encouraged and seldom answered. Yes, guidance is given (no one’s sent off on their own to search out the wilderness and go off the rails)… but there’s no dogmatic teaching that says, “This is the answer.” Funny how, when given lots of freedom within the parameters of alignment and covering and honor, people “get it”…

  14. The more I listen to Bell & Warnock in these videos, the happier I am that I’d never paid attention to Warnock before, and the sadder I am that it took me this long to discover Bell.

    Still not in agreement with him (nor am I in disagreement) … just glad that he’s asking the questions.

    I do love this interview… especially what Bell says about the Kingdom:

  15. “Joel, I did not single out Calvinist pastors as not wanting people to ask questions. Nor did Kay. I might have done but realised that this was true not only of Calvinists. Please don’t put words in our mouths.”

    True, you didn’t. But seeing as the entire post is about calvinists not liking Rob Bell’s I made what I felt to be a reasonable assumption. If that is not what you meant, I apologise.

    Kay, the amazing thing about God’s revelation to us is there are answers. Not answers to everything we want to know but there are answers enough to everything we need to know.

    “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3 16-17) Scripure tells us everything we need to know to thoroughly equip us for every good work.

  16. Joel, I was thinking of criticisms of Bell like those of Mark Galli, who may be a Calvinist but is not saying it explicitly, and more generally of pastors who like to be six feet above contradiction. I suspect more of these are Calvinist than Arminian, but that was not the point I was making. Apology accepted.

  17. >>Kay, the amazing thing about God’s revelation to us is there are answers. Not answers to everything we want to know but there are answers enough to everything we need to know. <<

    Joel, we found something we agree on! Praise God. I do believe that although there is and always will be a tension between mystery and revelation, at the same time God reveals those mysteries by Holy Spirit to those who seek Him.

    That said – sometimes it's more important to ask a question than to arrive at "the" answer. One of the most freeing moments of my Christian walk came when I was able to ask, "IS Jesus returning? Could his return be purely spiritual? Could He already have returned?" (I concluded yes, no, and no in that order) … but to be free and indeed, led by Holy Spirit to ask that… and unencumbered by "what I was always taught" and free to dig in the Word and arrive at a conclusion… THAT is why I feel that Bell's book is vitally important.

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  19. Kay, you said: “I suspect that his goal was less to win anyone over, and more to make people THINK – really think…”

    Not only is that true but it is also the reason agreeing or disagreeing with Bell is not the point. He was addressing post-death issues about which discussion is not allowed and I see the book as an attempt at opening dialogue.

    I think calvinists reacted to Bell because he clearly confronted head-on one of their pet doctrines, free-will-not, and most others reacted to misunderstandings about post-death issues which, as I said, haven’t been developed in most conventional theologies.

    It was actually some of these post-death issues the most calvinists targeted in their diatribes. They didn’t mention distinctive calvinistic issues because it would have disrupted the hate-Bell momentum.

    I read the book twice, scanned it numerous times and even put together an index. Most of what I wrote about the book is late but the issues are timeless. The book shouldn’t be dismissed but, sadly, it seems interest is waning.

  20. Ennis, thank you for your interesting perspective. I’m sure “Love Wins” will have a lasting effect in getting people to develop these underdeveloped areas of their theologies. I must say the conversations linked to my recent post A Harrowing Saturday for Jesus confirm to me that among Christians there is a great deal of misunderstanding and muddled thinking about what happens after death.

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