Did Jonathan Edwards Undermine Calvinism?

"How can God be truly virtuous, truly good in a meaningful way, and foreordain the fall of humanity into sin and certain individuals to eternal torment in hell? It is impossible to reconcile Edwards’s account of God and virtue and 'goodness' with what he believed as a Calvinist about God’s sovereignty with regard to reprobation." - Roger Olson

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Paul Henebury's picture

Hey, there's always equivocation!

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Mark_Smith's picture

is on firm footing when you think the greatest attack against it is the Edward's use of the word "good."

TylerR's picture

Editor

I've been done with this debate for many years. I know what I believe. I leave the pontificating to younger guys in seminary! As for Edwards ... I really don't care for the Puritans, and I've never been bitten with the Edwards bug.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

While I tend to lean towards a strong view of divine sovereignty, it doesn't bug me that Edwards might be said to undermine Calvin.  The question I have is whether he added something good to the equation--Luther made mistakes, Calvin made mistakes, hey, maybe we get a chance to really put Sola Scriptura to work and fix those errors?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

So Olsen, an Arminean apologist finds an inconsistency in Edwards' Calvinism.  Is anyone surprised?

In truth, every serious minded Calvinist knows that there are aspects of Calvinism that are impossible to reconcile logically.  But the same is true of Arminianism.  Indeed, the same is true of many Christian doctrines, such as the doctrine of the Trinity.  But that doesn't render them untrue, only beyond full human comprehension.  Again, should anyone be surprised?

G. N. Barkman

Mark_Smith's picture

The article implies it is impossible to believe God is good and that He is involved in "double predestination." But let me ask non-Calvinists this. If God is good, meaning he expresses personal benevolence to everyone (see article for that point), then how is God good in ANY scenario where someone winds up in hell? The same logic Olsen uses to defeat Calvinism takes his position out as well!

If "goodness" is merely ultimate personal benevolence, then no hell is acceptable.

The problem is the definition of "good."

dgszweda's picture

This has been argued before.  The problem is that Arminians don't really understand Calvinism and the Calvinist don't really understand Arminianism.  They just talk past each other.  At the end of the day, Scripture is neither Arminian or Calvinist.  We, as humans with limited understanding, must create containers so that we can explain what we really don't fully understand.  We do this with theological models and we do this with denominations.  All the while, missing the point that in the end we don't really understand Scripture as we really think we understand it.  If none of the kings, priest, prophets and apostles fully understood it, why do we really think in the end we now have it understood because Owen finally wrote, the "Death of Death in the Death of Christ", or some other book.  I am not saying these models are necessarily bad or evil, but lets remember, we are significantly flawed by sin, including our understanding of the things that are "higher than we are", we don't fully comprehend the truths laid out in Scriptures, and our models are man constructed.  There will not be a place in heaven for Roger Olsen and another place in heaven for Jonathan Edwards.

G. N. Barkman's picture

As one who was for many years Arminian, and later was forced, by Scripture, to embrace Calvinism (though not without a royal battle over several years), I think I understand Arminianism better than most Arminians understand Calvinism.  Occasionally, I encounter an Arminian who says he used to be a Calvinist, but further conversation reveals that he was a Calvinist in a very limited sense.  Perhaps he was reared in a Presbyterian church, etc., but without a solid understanding of Calvinist doctrine.  In my experience, whenever anyone embraces Calvinism after serious study and thoughtful reflection, he remains a Calvinist for life.  He also understands Arminianism pretty thoroughly.  His wrestlings back and forth between Arminian and Calvinist interpretations over an extended period leaves him with an enlarged understanding of both systems.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Olson's "Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities" is essential to understand this soteriology. Going deeper, there are a few monographs around, but not many, that discuss prevenient grace in detail. The Nazarene systematics (e.g. Wiley) and Wesley's writings are also helpful on that score. Thomas Oden, I believe, also wrote on this.

The key thing is prevenient grace, and some Reformed Christians haven't read source docs on this -- there is often much reheated boilerplate repeated from Reformed apologists. Of course, the opposite is also often the case. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Mark_Smith's picture

Olsen is deep into prevenient grace. I have read parts of "Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities." I learned the hard way that the church I attended for 5 years really believed in prevenient grace but didn't know the word. Not even the pastor realized it!

The basic idea is that Jesus' death on the cross paid for all of mankind's sin guilt before God. The only sin not paid for is unbelief. So, Olsen can then "shift" the burden for going to hell to each man rather than God.

Olsen's argument doesn't fly in my book. God could, if He was "good," as Olsen says, get around this and let everyone into heaven. That is if "good" is "benevolence" towards everyone.

Mark_Smith's picture

The thing is many people, especially Baptists, accept this "Jesus paid for everyone's sin except unbelief" argument. The problem is, if belief is up to you... you can lose it. You can turn away from God and "lose" your salvation. Consistent Arminianism leads to loss of "once saved, always saved." But, the 2 are often seen together despite the lack of compatibility.

G. N. Barkman's picture

The Arminian Baptist view goes something like this.  "You can exercise your free will until you make a decision for Christ.  Then God says, 'Now I gotcha and you can't get away from Me now'."  Now, you are locked into your decision.  No more free will to change your mind.  So much for free will!  Full Arminians are at least consistent, though mistaken, in their theology at this point.  If your free will can choose Christ, then your free will should also be able to unchoose Christ. 

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

A lovely notion, but unfortunately, not taught in Scripture.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Prevenient grace says that, via the Cross, the Spirit (as it were) brings all humanity to an almost neutral point so each individual can make a free, intelligent decision for Christ and can thus be properly held accountable for knowingly rejecting Him. The grace is "prevenient" in that it "goes before" to blunt the effects of sin for all, preparing the way for the Gospel. 

It's a philosophical answer to the ambiguities (so called) of Reformed soteriology.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

It’s somewhere in my files but John Walvoord has a good article titled something like “Does the Bible Teach Prevenient Grace?”. His conclusion is in the negative.

Paul Henebury's picture

There is a lot of deflection going on here.  Not one person has actually engaged Olson's point.  I am neither Calvinist nor Arminian, although I lean more to the former, but I have read both in depth.  From my experience most Calvinists don't have a clue what Arminius taught (and I went to a Reformed seminary), preferring to label Arminians as semi-pelagian, which they are not.  Many Arminians don't get Calvinism either, but that is hardly the case with Roger Olson.   

Prevenient grace is sort of the Arminian version of common grace, although they address different issues.  Neither are exegetically solid.  Both are deductions.  

So what if Olson has uncovered a weak point in Calvinism?  Try to address it!  I would say the same thing if the shoe were on the other foot.  Olson makes a legitimate point. Ad hominem doesn't change it one iota.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I don't particularly care about Olson's point, or about Edwards. I just popped in to offer a point or two about prevenient grace! Olson can continue his quest to criticize Calvinism, and Lord bless him. His discussions with Michael Horton didn't convince him, so I doubt he can be convinced. He occasionally pops up with these little broadsides against Reformed soteriology. He'll likely issue another one in a few months ...

I'm generally unmoved by these "theologian X is allegedly inconsistent, so whaddya say now, sucker!?" articles. I can't bring myself to care what theologian X thought or wrote; especially this theologian X. As I said earlier, I leave the passionate responses to young seminary students from both sides!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

I did not have you in mind in my comment since you signaled you lack of interest.  You did call attention to Olson's excellent book.  I do wonder why you comment at all if you lack interest in the subject (but it is not for me to say what you ought to do or refrain from doing).

As for me, i think this stuff is important, and I also find it interesting.  I enjoy the joust.  But I see no jousting. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I understand. The prevenient grace aspect has always been intriguing to me. I've read Olson's essay twice, and I confess I don't understand his point. I've always found Edwards hard to follow, so perhaps that's my trouble. I've personally never had qualms with playing the mystery card on this angle, as long as we don't play it too soon and too conveniently.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

As I see it the Bible does not tell us everything we want to know.  That means that we will either have to pull up shorter than we'd like, or continue deducing doctrines without biblical light.  If we do the latter, we are sure to commit logical fallacies.  The fact is we are not given the mechanics of the new birth. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Mark_Smith's picture

I don't read any attacks on Olson above? Perhaps some eye rolling... and pointing out inconsistency in his arguments.

I wish I had the time to write a long reply on what I think "good" means, but I don't. Sorry to disappoint you Paul.

 

Paul Henebury's picture

There are several varieties of this fallacy.  Some of the "pot shots" have been against Arminians in general or Arminianism itself.  But that is not what the article is about.  It's about Calvinism, and noone has joined the argument.  Mark quibbled about the word "good", which is bye the bye, because Olson is saying that many Calvinists (e.g. Edwards) claim that something is good because God does it, whereas in his book on Virtue Edwards defines "good" as a value within God that God must be.  There lies the contradiction. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Mark_Smith's picture

What you dismissed as "bye the bye" is a response to the last paragraph of the piece:

"I ask: How can God be truly virtuous, truly good in a meaningful way, and foreordain the fall of humanity into sin and certain individuals to eternal torment in hell? It is impossible to reconcile Edwards’s account of God and virtue and “goodness” with what he believed as a Calvinist about God’s sovereignty with regard to reprobation."

Paul Henebury's picture

Olson's main point is not in the last paragraph; it is in the middle of his piece:

Now, in order to keep this relatively brief, let me turn to my one main point. Over and over again I have heard Calvinists say “Whatever God does is good just because God does it.” That pops out like a mantra when I or anyone asks them how God can be good and predestine sin and hell. As I have argued here before many times, that makes the word “good” meaningless. And Edwards agreed! I now throw his words back at them.

In “Virtue” Edwards adamantly asserted that God’s own “temper and nature” is virtue meaning love, benevolence, “the cordial consent or union of being to being in general.” And he argued that such benevolence toward being in general did not exclude anyone or anything that has being. Being itself draws forth God’s benevolence. Love of misery in anyone, Edwards argued, is a contradiction of the true nature of reality.

Then comes the “kicker.” On pages 106 and 107 of  “Virtue” (the edition specified above), Edwards rejected any idea or argument that “good” can have other meanings than he has identified—namely, benevolence toward being. He specifically labels any notion or argument that “good” in God means something different from “good” in general as “abuse of language.”

His fire is aimed at the position which claims that whatever God does is good because He does it.  Edwards calls such a claim "Abuse of language."  That kicks a leg out from under the stool of many Calvinists who resort of nominalism to account for God's decree of reprobation.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Mark_Smith's picture

the only thing that we can discuss is the "main point" of an article, or a paper, or a thesis. Who knew the rest was irrelevant? Thanks for letting me know. You should probably tell your students this. It saves a lot of time if all they do is outline the main point and skip the introduction, supporting points, and the conclusion.

For the record, I didn't address that point of Olson because I never argue that point. It means little to me. I addressed what is important to my life, not some abstract argument.

Paul Henebury's picture

you are within your rights to comment on whatever you wish to.  But what I am saying is that no one has engaged the main argument.  If you don't believe that something is good because God does it then it doesn't mean others in fact do believe it and assert that very thing.  i have encountered it many many times... in fact, in Edwards!  

And hence to Olson's main point... Anyone?

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Mark_Smith's picture

Here is my comment on the main point.

Let me outline what I think Olson's point is, and you let me know if I am wrong.

1- Some Calvinists today say "What God does is good because he is God. Everything God does is good by default because he is God."

2- Olson reads this as Calvinists saying there is no moral component to God's being good. No required benevolence to be good. Olson sees this as absurd to the meaning of the word good.

3- Olson, in his lifelong quest to write as an anti-Calvinist, has finally read something that contradicts this common statement. He has found a book written by Jonathan Edwards, published after he died, where he (Edwards) argues that God has virtue, meaning love and benevolence. In fact, no meaning of good can be otherwise, Edwards said.

4- So, Edwards just attacked the position of all the Calvinists in statement 1. Thus contradicting Calvinism!!!

QED. Strike up one for the home team....

 

My responses:

1- No Calvinist other than maybe a few kooks believe God being good has no moral, love, or benevolent component to it. Often the "what God does is good" argument is about sovereignty and death and "reprobation." It isn't an all encompassing claim about God. 

2- Edwards died 280 years ago. He is not accountable for what people said after him. 

3- Like I pointed out above, if the reprobationist Calvinist's God is not good because he sends people to hell, then the free will Arminian God is guilty of the same thing when a person goes to hell! An all-powerful God is allowing or choosing someone to pay a finite amount of sin for eternity. If "good" and "benevolence" is the issue, God is in trouble in either system.

As Tyler pointed out, Olson thinks he can dodge this with prevenient grace paying for mankind's sin debt except for unbelief. So he thinks he has transferred the guilt for going to hell to man rather than God. But this is nonsense. The fact remains, and all-powerful God is presiding over a system where sinners pay for sin eternally. That is a fact in either system. If God is not benevolent in Calvinism, neither is he in Arminianism.

4- So I think Olson's argument is weak.

5- To the extent that prop 1 is true, Calvinist's need to adjust their argument. But it is not a "death blow" to Calvinism and Edwards certainly is not attacking his own "team."

 

 

Paul Henebury's picture

Mark, you deserve credit for your engagement of Olson's argument.  However, your answer is somewhat skewed I'm afraid.  This is because it seems you have not followed Olson's reasoning carefully enough.  

The basic premise is that Edwards believed and taught that  “Whatever God does is good just because God does it.”  Olson backs that up by referencing Edwards' occasionalism, but asserts that all Edwards scholars know that he believed this statement.

The statement “Whatever God does is good just because God does it.” is nominalistic.  That is, it asserts that because God is God He makes the rules, and if He wants to call something good that we would call bad He can.  There is no ethical standard that God is held to; not even within Himself.  You deny this (except for kooks) in your reply #1, but you don't tackle Edwards known assertions of it nor his occasionalism which requires it. 

You say, "No Calvinist other than maybe a few kooks believe God being good has no moral, love, or benevolent component to it."  But you miss the point.  The assertion "Whatever God does is good just because God does it.” does just that, and occasionalism demands it.  Moreover, I myself have encountered it numerous times.  

Olson's further argument is that Calvinists often assert (and Piper definitely does!) that God's justice must be satisfied by objects of wrath.  Ergo, God has to predestine some to wrath (which also threatens His aseity btw). 

But if God's goodness as defined in The Nature of True Virtue is the only kind of goodness there is, then Edwards's occasionalism and nominalism are impossible.  And, (although Olson only hints at it) neither does God need to damn people to serve the requirements of His justice, since His benevolence glorifies Him more than His wrath. 

All this is predicated by Edwards' (and classic Calvinists) rejection of libertarian free will.  Hence classic Arminianism is not troubled by these concerns.  

I personally believe that both systems are valiant but flawed attempts to see behind the veil.  I do not have a horse in this race.    

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Mark_Smith's picture

Never mind.

 

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