Is Mystery a third theological option?

ONE post in October? Mother of pearl. What has happened to the good ship The Eagle and Child?

So I took a break from reading the fascinating A Brief History of Tea (which I was reading while drinking tea and listening to CBC classical online–very refined, folks), which I bought for all of $2 at Indigo Books today, and came across a new blog post from the theologian Roger E. Olsen.

Apparently somewhere, to someone, Olsen said, “if somehow it were revealed to me that God is as TULIP Calvinism says and as its good and necessary consequences imply, I would not worship that god.” This apparently caused some controversy and his post seeks to explain his position.

I’ve never given a whole lot of thought to Calvinism or Arminianism (which is Olsen’s position). Two of my theology of professors here are Calvinists. I think there are also some Arminians on staff. But I won’t come away from my seminary studies with a detailed knowledge of either theological position. It seems to me that the difference between them comes down to how they understand divine sovereignty and human freedom intersect.

I’ve never been able to align myself fully with either position. This is no doubt largely because I know little of both beyond the notions of freedom and sovereignty (and I can almost list all of the words that make up the TULIP acronym). My non-partisan theology (in this regard) is also partially due to the fact that from what I do know of the two theologies, I agree and disagree with both on various points.

And the truth is, I’ve never seen the need to make a choice between the two.

The idea of prevenient grace–of God always acting first–makes sense to me. On the other hand, I find the notion of double predestination (it’s in Calvinism at least by implication)–that some are elected for salvation and some (again, at least by implication) elected for damnation–problematic at best and horrific at worst. Olsen argues that taken to its necessary conclusions, the Calvinist God would not be good, faithful, etc. Ah, but! A Calvinist might say, You are going by human standards of good, faithful, etc. Well, I say back to the Calvinist, so are you.

Calvinism also seems to go against the grain of Jesus’ mission during his time on earth.

On the other hand, the Arminian position seems to jive more with Jesus’ mission and activity, as well as his commands. And somehow it doesn’t seem all that irrational to think that human freedom can fall within the realm and boundary of God’s sovereignty.

But something Olsen says in his post startled me. As a counter example, he shares an argument John Piper (a Calvinist) gave him against Arminianism. According to Piper, ‘Arminians “must say” that the cross did not save anyone but only gave people an opportunity to save themselves.’ In other words, Arminianism leads to the Pelagianism, that ancient heresy that states that it is within an individual’s capacity to save him or herself.

Maybe it does. I can see how Arminianism might get you to this point. And maybe I really do need to brush up on my knowledge of Calvin and Arminius. Maybe it is important for me to make a choice–and one not based on the overwhelming personalities one sees online coming from one of these camps.

On the other hand, maybe the quest for a neat-and-tidy theology is a futile one. Calvinists and Arminians both bandy about all manner of scripture in support of their position. This suggests at least two possibilities: both sides are reading scripture incorrectly or scripture allows for both. Alternatively, my limited understanding of both is just a caricature.

Is Mystery a legitimate third theological option?

6 thoughts on “Is Mystery a third theological option?

  1. Andrew

    Calvinism and arminianism are both theological constructs that try to make cohesive sense of the different voices throughout the bible. Beyond “it helps me make sense of my experience of the world” either one becomes an idol and puts arbitrary boundaries around God… so I think you’re third option (really one of many) is a must. Piper’s position seems so arrogant.

  2. Toni

    We humans always want to find an absolute rule, an extreme and incontrovertible position. God seems to be someone who thrives on tension, being He is who He is, and is completely at home holding 2 apparently contradictory positions under tension and in perfect balance.

    There are aspects of both positions that align with both scripture and experience, and aspects which seem to contradict. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that they are flawed positions that fail to adequately describe the greater God. Or some of us are simply reading scripture wrong……

    [shrug].

  3. Jeff Wheeldon

    Love this post, and the comments!

    This is one thing I love about my own understanding of salvation that I’ve gleaned from Lewis and Bonhoeffer – it doesn’t seem to fall into either camp, and focuses on relationship with God rather than on some cosmic notion of an in-crowd, or even notions of free will or determinism.

    As I understand it, our eternal destiny is an issue of the love and will of God vs. sin. It always has been, and always will be. Hell, by anyone’s definition, is separation from God caused by sin – not caused by God, who chose some people to go to hell, and not caused by someone’s failure to say the sinner’s prayer and thus “receive” (or earn) salvation. In this sense, both positions are far too anthropocentric, and both make God out to be some sort of gatekeeper – one who either wants to keep some people out of bliss, or else one who does not seek to bring people in. Jesus portrays God as someone who goes out and draws people in through great effort; it strikes me as foolish that either a) God doesn’t actually do this for everyone, or b) that we can (or would) resist such a wonderful action.

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