I am currently reading Roger Olson’s book Against Calvinism. I would like to respond to a critique he has made of Calvinistic ideology in the book. This is not a critique of the book but of one assertion therein. Here is the quote:
“This is exactly what non-Calvinists worry about with regard to Calvinism: that its deep, inner logic leads inexorably to exalting God’s glory over and even against his love. Apparently, God can (or must) limit His love, but He can’t limit His self glorification,” (Roger Olson, Against Calvinism, Zondervan, pg. 114).
One of Olson’s main concerns seems to be that the God of Calvinism is not recognizably “good, loving, and just,” (Olson, 111). For this article, I will consider specifically Olson’s grappling with God’s “limiting” of certain attributes. For example, in the main quotation above, does God really exalt His glory at the expense of being loving? How can God be pleased to predetermine certain people to hell and still be displeased that they go there? “How is God love if he foreordains many people to hell for eternity when he could save them…? How is it that God wants all people to be saved if he determines some specific individuals to be damned? How is it that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:32) if he foreordains everything, including their reprobation and eternal punishment, for his good pleasure?” (Ibid.).
I want to give ample opportunity for Olson’s work to defend itself. He gives an alternative solution to God “limiting” His love in order to exalt His glory: “I would put it the other way around and say that in light of Christ’s self-emptying (Phil. 2), God can limit his glory (power, majesty, sovereignty) but not His love (because God is love; see 1 John 4!),” (Olson, pg. 114). I would like to restate Olson to make sure we understand the best possible presentation of his argument, but I’m bound by the fallacious reasoning he employs. In the prior statement, we have God’s glory as in the magnifying of His attributes. In this statement, we have God’s glory as in His “power, majesty, sovereignty.” This is an equivocation of the term “glory” and undermines his nod to Philippians 2.
There are two things happening on page 114. First, there is the question of whether or not God can “limit His love but not His self-glorification.” Second, there is the question of whether He can “limit His glory (power, majesty, sovereignty) but not His love.” Questions on matter of principles might be: does God have the ability to limit His attributes? Which is more valuable: God’s love or God’s glory? Is there any attribute of God that He can exalt above or at the expense of another? Can God cease to be all-powerful? Is God’s sovereignty in all things contradictory to His love as revealed in Scripture? What I want to consider in this article is this: does God actually have the ability and/or freedom to exalt His glory above His love?
God’s Glory and Love
God’s glory is the greatest possible end of all things. Is God the supremely beautiful Being? Yes. Is He the supremely good, just, moral being (He Himself being the standard of goodness, justice, morality)? Yes. Is there anyone or anything else unto which we can rightly attribute a superlative of value and worthiness of praise? No. These things being as they are, God being magnified, publicized and projected is the most fair thing to occur in the universe. We declare with the Psalmist that “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Ps 19:1). With the Seraphim: “The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa 6:3). Everything above, everything below: all of creation. Everything glorifies God. This, we recognize, is the best possible thing to occur.
When someone is prideful, we seek to humble them by saying, “Hey, the world doesn’t revolve around you, buddy! It’s not all about you.” Well, thing is, the world does revolve around God. It really is all about Him. God’s glory is the greatest possible end of all things – both of all things cumulatively and all things individually. To exalt anything above His glory would be to exalt dust above diamonds.
One reading of Olson’s comments in Against Calvinism on the matter of God’s glory and love (again, because of the equivocation, it is rather difficult to understand exactly where his critique lies – if it is not all possibilities strung into one) could easily pose this question: would it be right for God to exalt His glory above His love? “If exalting anything above God’s glory exalts dust above diamonds, are you saying His love is dust?” No, my friend. That gravely misunderstands the issue and meaning of God glorifying Himself. God’s glory is the going-public of His attributes. It is when He puts Himself on display. How, then, can one question whether He puts His glory or His love first? His love is displayed in His glory. This really makes no sense.
The only way this makes sense is if we are speaking of ends. Which is the greatest end: that God would love others or that God would glorify Himself? This is a reasonable question (reasonable in the sense that it actually makes sense).
Supremely Pleasurable Decisions
First, we must recognize that Scripture does not say God must exhaust every opportunity to be loving. If you say this then you must do the same with his justice – then how is anyone saved by grace? You must do the same with patience – then how does His longsuffering ever run its course and culminate in punishment of sinners in hell? Consider this question, friend: does God have the freedom to delegate which of His attributes is manifested in any particular situation?
By freedom if you mean “right,” then of course. By freedom if you mean that nothing external influences the decision, of course. By freedom if you mean it is undetermined by His own greatest pleasure, of course not. God does not do what He is supremely displeased to do, in any situation. We should not express this by saying that God is limited, because the limit is intrinsic. We express this in the following manner: Positively, in every situation God delegates that attribute which He is most pleased to express therein accomplishing that end which He is most pleased to effect; Negatively, in no situation does God delegate an attribute which He is not supremely pleased to express therein never accomplishing an end which he is not most pleased to effect. Every act of God is the work He is supremely pleased to do, and every event is the accomplishment He is supremely pleased to effect. He is supremely satisfied with all that He does, and nothing He accomplishes supremely dissatisfies Him.
We must now state this in simple language. What does this mean? We must understand that God does not choose to express an attribute in the way one chooses which shirt to wear on a given day. Because then we would have to ask which attribute God utilized to choose that attribute – but then which attribute did God utilize to choose that attribute which He utilized to choose that attribute – etc. The circle would never end. God’s expression of His attributes is not a decision He makes but something He does naturally. It is the automatic, free, instinctive thing for Him to do. By definition it is “undetermined” in our use of the word, because its determinating agent is God Himself.
We see then that God always does what He is most pleased with doing. “Most pleased with doing as in the end of His doing or the doing itself?” Scripture seems to point us to the end for certain. Undeniably, though, since God is sovereign and always accomplishing His purposes, every action is something He is most pleased with doing. And this is another question: “End as in effect or purpose?” Since God always accomplishes what He intends, this distinction is unnecessary for our purpose here. Thirdly, Scripture also points us to every deed, as He is working “all things after the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11) and doing “all that He pleases” (Ps 115:3). Therefore, every event and every end is what God is supremely pleased with accomplishing. Yet we cannot alienate any action of God in history, for all His actions are in a particular context. What He does in Numbers is in the context of Genesis, and Genesis in the context of Revelation. This means that all God does in and upon history has a context and we cannot rightly understand what God is most pleased with by looking at one action in isolation. We must take into account the context, being His other actions as revealed in Scripture.
For example, consider the cross. As an isolated event, outside of any other act of God as context, it is probably best seen as a demonstration of how God hates His Son (it could not be a demonstration of God’s injustice in punishing an innocent person, because as an isolated event, we have no other action or word from God whereby to judge whether or not He is being consistent/unchanging). In context we see that God inexhaustibly loves His Son – of course! But, then, why did He crush Him on Calvary? Evidently, something was more important than preventing the suffering of His Son. Something had a greater value. You might be thinking of Romans 3:25-26 and 5: “The demonstration of His attributes!” Scripture clearly points us to that, no doubt. I absolutely agree. Yet I believe that if one considers the ultimate context of God’s actions, a glorious new picture unfolds. What ultimately was more important than preventing the suffering of His Son?
We must look at the ultimate context: the end of all things (the purpose and result of all things). What end of all things? In eternity future when all of history sums “up in Christ” (Eph 1:10) as Redeemer and Lord, and God’s attributes are most clearly glorified. The ultimate plan God has for the universe is that ultimate end that He is ultimately satisfied in. Therefore, in any situation, God’s pleasure in accomplishing His plan for history over-rides His pleasure in any other possible outcome. God’s displeasure in Christ’s suffering did not over-ride the pleasure He had in glorifying His grace in the redemption of a people. In this way, then, God always does what He is most pleased with: His greatest possible present pleasure in relation to His greatest possible future pleasure. This is how God can be in a real sense both pleased and displeased with the death of His Son and the damnation of the wicked.
Essentially, God always makes the supremely pleasurable decision.
The Freedom and Pleasure of God
So, we return to the original question: does God have the freedom to delegate which attribute is manifested in any particular situation? There is clearly no “delegation” – only a natural and happy acting. In any particular situation, God is wholly uninfluenced and does simply what He wants to do. He is the perfect and only example of a free being. The question, then, is flawed first in its assumption that any attribute can be “delegated” by an accomplishing entity. Second, it is flawed in assuming that in any particular situation only one of God’s attributes are manifested. God is not a series of pillars that, in certain situations, we only see one pillar. God is an elaborate tapestry of threads – a sovereign, terrifying blanket that is laid upon every situation. Some threads are more recognizable and distinct than others. What I mean, friend, is that in every situation God remains Who He is. God does not cease to be loving when He punishes sinners in Hell. God does not cease to be just when He forgives His people of their sins.
We understand also that God has absolute freedom. This is a third critique I have of the original question. I don’t think it is necessarily helpful to consider if God is free in any situation – of course He is. Instead of asking what God is able or allowed to do, we should use the language of what He actually does. For example, instead of asking, “Can God forgive sinners?” It is more correct to ask, “Does God forgive sinners?” With these things in mind, we restate the question: Does God express certain attributes over others in certain situations? The question is not in God “exalting” one attribute over another, as if one was more important, but rather in God’s expression of His nature. And yes – God can express certain avenues of His nature over others at different times.
I suggest that, in light of the things we have seen concerning God’s freedom, power, justice, etc. in this article, it is much more helpful and accurate for us to speak of God in a language of freedom instead of a language of ability. It is undoubtedly true that there is a sense in which God is unable to do certain things. His inability, however, is intrinsic. The inability to do certain things is completely within Himself, meaning that He does not do something because He is displeased that it be done. God does not refrain from walking into a bar and getting drunk, because He literally can’t accomplish the action: He refrains because He is displeased to do such a thing. God is completely free! The freedom of God is His ability to do anything He is pleased to do. He has the absolute power and right to decide upon anything. To say that God is free is principally to say that all of His decisions are supremely pleasurable, that He supremely delights in everything He does, and that such decisions are uninfluenced. This is the marriage of two principles, that God acts according to His greatest delight and that God is immutable/never changing. God’s freedom is His immutable pleasure.
In speaking strictly of the freedom of God, we perhaps need to clarify the facets and make some distinctions. God’s freedom is most fundamentally His unbounded-ness in all things. His intrinsic freedom is the immutability of His pleasures – that fact that nothing influences what He is pleased with. His corporate freedom is the immutability of His ability to accomplish His intrinsic freedom – the fact that nothing influences whether He is able to do what He is pleased with. His ethical freedom is the immutability of His right to accomplish His intrinsic freedom – the fact that nothing influences whether He has a right to do what He is pleased with.
In Against Calvinism, Olson speaks of God’s “inabilities” as genuine inabilities rather than things God merely chooses not to do. In addition, we clearly see that God’s glory is the best possible end of all things. God’s love is not some noble attribute far above the rest. Why, we must wonder, does Olson single-out God’s love as being the characteristic that God must glorify above the rest? Why not His justice? What about His patience? Why is His love the one part of His nature that Olson is so bent of exalting above all others? Why not His holiness, Roger? Aside from this problem, there is the problem of even trying to exalt one of God’s characteristics above another. As discussed some in this article, it is not viable – nor is it orthodox.
God is free. He is unchanging in His delights. To be more specific: God’s freedom is that He is unbound in all things. He is free in rights (all that He does is moral), abilities (He can do anything) and desires (He is uninfluenced in desires). Put the freedom of God together with the sovereignty of God, and you have something similar to Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens and He does all that He pleases.”
God accomplishes all He is pleased with!