Olson’s “No” to divine determinism

The Calvinist doctrine of meticulous providence

In the fourth chapter of Roger Olson’s book, Against Calvinism, he addresses the Calvinistic doctrine of divine providence, drawing upon the writings of Zwingli, Calvin, Edwards, R. C. Sproul, Boettner, Helm, and Piper. He finds a common overall model in their works: God is meticulously sovereign in that “everything down to the minutest details of history and individual lives, including persons’ thoughts and actions, are foreordained and rendered certain by God. Even evil thoughts and actions are planned and brought about such that God ‘sees to it’ that they happen to carry out his will. Nothing at all, whatever, falls outside God’s predestining plan and activity” (83). What Roger sees in all these writers is a belief in divine determinism, even though some Calvinists eschew that designation because they understand “determinism” to entail external coercion, which Calvinists consistently deny, because of their soft-deterministic (or compatibilist) understanding.

While recognizing that “high Calvinists” consistently affirm the meticulous providence of God that is summed up above, Roger notes differences among them in the way they speak of this. He posits differences, for instance, about whether or not God coerces the wicked to do evil acts and whether or not God merely permits evil. Roger hears Calvin objecting to the language of permission because “even the evil done by wicked people is foreordained and rendered certain by God” (74).  In Edwards, Roger hears so determined a sovereignty that even God’s own decisions are necessitated or “determined by his own infinite, all-sufficient wisdom in everything” (citing Freedom of the Will). Even God’s freedom is soft-determined rather than libertarian, so that he could not have done otherwise than he did.

Roger’s objections

Roger is aware of the distinction Calvinists make between two senses of God’s will: God’s decretive will and God’s permissive or preceptive will. But Roger thinks that Calvinists such as Sproul and Boettner take back with one hand what they gave with the other, by making this distinction, because “God’s permission is willing and even determining permission; it merely reflects and enacts God’s eternal decrees” (78, 80). From Roger’s perspective, there is no room for genuine permission, within a Calvinist doctrine of providence.

Roger finds compatibilism incoherent, because only if humans have libertarian freedom of an incompatibilist kind is God absolved from the sin and evil humans do. This problem is traced back to the very first sin, in Eden, as Roger asks: “from where did Adam’s evil inclination come.” If it arose out of his inner motives and inclinations, as soft compatibilists assert, then God is the source of the first inclination to evil, even though Calvinists deny this to be the case. As I noted very early in my series of posts on this book, theodicy drives Roger’s protest against Calvinism. If God decreed that Adam and Eve would eat of the fruit which he had commanded them not to eat, then God is in conflict with himself; he “assures that his moral commands will be disobeyed” (81). Roger wonders how God could do this “without coercing people to sin,” and “without being responsible for sin” (81).

Roger is aware of the distinction that Calvinists make between the ways in which events decreed by God come about, between the good that comes about by God’s positive action in human lives, and the sins God willingly permits them to do by withholding from them the goodness or grace which would keep them from sin. But Roger does not believe that this keeps the guilt for sins’ occurrence from going back to God, despite the fact that God’s motive is pure, whereas the sinner’s motive is evil. The problem remains, for Roger, because God renders the evil certain to occur. He considers God’s reputation, his own good and loving character, to be irretrievably damaged by the Calvinist account of meticulous providence.

Roger’s methodology for deciding whether the God described by a particular theology can be worshipped

Roger recounts a class session in which a student asked him: “If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true God actually is as Calvinism says and rules as Calvinism affirms, would you still worship him?” (85). Although Roger knew that his answer would “shock many people,” he answered “no,” he would not because he could not. He could not worship a “moral monster.” He quotes at length from David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, concluding with Hart’s statement regarding what Hart considers Calvinism’s “theological fatalism”: “It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered loathsome.”  To that statement, Roger says “Amen!” (86).

My reflections


I think that Roger has accurately depicted the meticulous providence that is consistently affirmed by Calvinist theologians. I am also prepared to grant to him that “divine determinism” is an appropriate term to describe the Calvinist doctrine, provided it is clear that this is a soft determinism.

I think that Roger has correctly identified the key issues upon which Calvinism rises or falls as a coherent theology. At root, these all seem to rest on the viability of compatibilism.  Though I believe the theology that Roger abhors, I acknowledge that he has raised the hard and necessary questions that Calvinists must face.

I am not an Edwards scholar, so I lack the personal knowledge to agree or disagree with Roger’s assertion that creation is a necessary act of God in the theology of Edwards, on account of his attributing soft-compatibilist freedom to God as well as to his moral creatures. Coincidentally, however, I recently discovered that at least one other student of Edwards agrees with Roger’s reading. In a review of Steven Sudebaker’s Jonathan Edwards’ Social Augustinian Trinitarianism in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Keith Johnson lists among “several features of Edwards’s theology” that “are problematic according to Studebaker: “his account of the communicative nature of divine goodness (which seems to make God incomplete without creation)” (JETS, 54/2 [June 2011]:429). Since this does seem to have been a part of what Edwards taught, I am ready to agree with Roger (and Studebaker) that Edwards was wrong. At the very least, I do agree with Roger that creation is not necessary to God. He would be the God he is, even if had not created.


As I noted above, it is essential that those who read Calvinist descriptions of God’s meticulous providence understand the difference between soft and hard forms of determinism, i.e., between external and internal necessitation, between mechanistic and voluntaristic accounts of the determination, and between incompatibilist and compatibilist conceptions. I believe that Roger knows this but, because he finds compatibilism logically contradictory, this important distinction is not always in view. Calvinists acknowledge that all the details of human history occur as foreordained by God in his eternal purpose, but they assert this to be compatible with morally responsible creaturely agency. Hard determinists, by contrast, are incompatibilists, as Arminians are. The difference is that Arminians, as indeterminists, deny God’s meticulous or detailed providence in order to preserve human responsibility, whereas hard determinists affirm that all things are determined but deny, on that account, that creatures are morally responsible.


Re: permission, I disagree with Roger’s contention that “non-Calvinists take God’s permissive will more seriously than Calvinists” (84). Roger contends that Calvinism’s “idea of God’s permission is different than ordinary permission” because it is “willing and even determining permission” (85). On the contrary, I posit that it is the Arminian concept of God’s very general permission, rather than the Calvinist view of his specific permission that is unusual. In daily life, when people say that someone was “permitted” to do something, they mean that someone else who had the authority and the power to prevent them from doing it, chose to allow it. We use the term in human affairs often, to denote permission of specific actions. Roger might respond that the issue lies, not in the distinction between general and specific permission but in the manner in which the giving of permission makes the action certain. On the contrary, when we give someone permission to do something, we assume that they will indeed do it. Their doing it is precisely what we gave them permission for. The critical thing, from the Calvinist perspective, is that when God “permits” creatures to sin, he does nothing to bring it about, he simply lets creatures do as they wish, without his gracious restraint.

The Arminian proposal that, in giving humans and angels libertarian freedom, God permitted everything they do is not incoherent but it is a sense that rarely parallels use of the concept in human experience. Thus, when Roger asserts that Calvinists can only say that God allows or permits evil “in a highly attenuated and unusual sense of ‘permits’ and ‘allows,’” I decidedly disagree. It is, in my view, the broad general sense of Arminian permission that is attenuated and unusual. If someone is killed in an accident and a Christian says of the event, as Christians often do, that God had permitted it, they usually mean that this particular event had been allowed by God to occur, even though he could have prevented it. They do not mean to assert simply that the accident had been “permitted” by God because everything that happens has been permitted, by virtue of God’s creating libertarianly free creatures. It is when I hear “permission” used in situations like this, from the lips of professed Arminians, that I sense incoherence, but such is not the case when I hear a Calvinist speak in this way. Specific, not blanket general permission, is the meaning in common usage, I believe.

Incidentally, I suggest that Roger has misconstrued objections, such as Calvin’s, to the language of permission. In my reading of those texts, the “permission” that is being rejected is the “mere permission” which Arminians were later to assert. Their intent is to affirm, as Roger himself has emphasized, that what God permits he deliberately permits. His permission is no less deliberate than his active effectuation, though the difference in God’s operation between these two kinds of determining is deemed highly important by Calvinists. I agree with the tradition on this point and disagree with Roger that the difference is insignificant, but the root of our difference on this lies in our varying assessment of the coherence of compatibilism.

Despite Roger’s protest, I find compatibilism coherent and essential to an accurate representation of the biblical teaching concerning God’s meticulous control of the details of human history and the justice of his condemnation of human sin. I will take this up in a separate post.

Re: the appropriate timing for declaring particular truths, I find strange Roger’s agreement with Hart that we “ought never to say” something that we think it unwise to say to people at the moment that they are suffering a great tragedy or loss (90). There are times when a particular truth is helpful and times when we are wise to discern that a person’s state of mind is not best addressed by that truth. In other instances, however, in the same circumstances the Christians suffering the tragedy find comfort in precisely that truth, and then we can together draw strength from it.

I think that Roger has misunderstood the Calvinist emphasis on God’s glory as the goal of all that God does, and it puzzles me. I wonder what else could be deemed God’s proper end. It would be idolatrous for God to seek to glorify anyone other than or more than himself, just as it is idolatrous when we attribute to anyone but God a glory that is properly his. We must do everything we do for God’s glory. Why would he, being God, do otherwise? I am particularly puzzled by the suggestion that this makes God “dependent on the world for something that he needs” (93). Calvinists regularly assert that God created freely, without any need or necessity for  doing so. To say that God has chosen to glorify himself in choosing to actualize this particular universe is not to assert that God could not have been glorified by doing otherwise, including creating nothing at all. I find it not at all surprising that God chose to create other beings whom he could love and who could worship and love him, but Scripture seems to me explicitly to deny that God could not have done otherwise.

Future agenda from chapter 4

This post has become long enough but we are not through with chapter 4. So, before moving on to chapter 5, in future posts, I plan to do the following:

1) to describe and assess Roger’s alternative proposal to Calvinism’s model of meticulous providence.

2) to ruminate aloud about Roger’s response to the student who asked whether Roger could ever worship the Calvinist God. Methodologically, is Roger on the right track or, if not,  how should we proceed in such a case?

3) to explain why I find compatibilism coherent, including mention of some of the proposals I have offered elsewhere to address precisely the same questions that Roger has enunciated very clearly in this chapter.

4) to consider the nature of God’s freedom, in light of the problems that arise from an assertion that, like us, God is soft-deterministically free, and in view of the common Calvinist complaint that libertarian freedom is problematic because it would make a creature’s decisions amoral by virtue of their being arbitrary.

Earlier posts in the series: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

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