Saturday, January 14, 2006

Philippians 1:29 And The Gift Of Faith (Part Four): A Look At The Interpretation Of Gordon Olson

This is a continuation of my look at a few different non-reformed writers who disagree that Philippians 1:29 teaches faith is God’s gift. Specifically, I’m directing my scrutiny towards those writers who have written full works against Calvinism.

A lesser-known work that I’ve written about previously is C. Gordon Olson’s Beyond Arminianism And Calvinism (New Jersey: Global gospel Publishers, 2002). This book probably hasn’t sold as many copies as other books against Calvinism. Probably the folks in New Jersey have more copies than most other regional locations, since the book appears to be self-published. The book is out-of-print, though it looks as if the material has been scaled down and repackaged in a book entitled: Getting The Gospel Right: A Balanced View Of Salvation Truth.

Olson taught the content of this book a year or two back at a local church in my area. I wasn’t able to attend due to the fact that I was teaching a class at the same time. I attempted to get the tapes of the classes, but rather ended up getting into an e-mail brawl about predestination with audio/video guy in charge of the tapes. Later I went to hear Olson speak at an evening church service, and I found him to be a very nice man. Out of all the books directed toward the downfall of Reformed theology, Olson's is the most intricate.

Gordon Olson’s book is 500+ pages. He offers this interpretation of Philippians 1:29-

Calvinists also use Philippians 1:29 (‘For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…’) to prove their point, but it is clear that we are given faith only in the same sense in which we are given suffering, that is, mediately through circumstances. No one would argue that suffering is an immediate and irresistible work of grace. As in the two Acts passages above [Acts 5:31 and 11:18], Paul is referring to the privilege and opportunity given to the Philppian Christians to believe, while alerting them to the fact that suffering for Christ comes with that privilege.”

Source: C. Gordon Olson’s Beyond Arminianism And Calvinism (New Jersey: Global gospel Publishers, 2002), 222.

This interpretation is much meatier than Vance and Hunt’s, though it’s point is not much different. Let’s work slowly through this paragraph:

Calvinists also use Philippians 1:29 (‘For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…’) to prove their point, but it is clear that we are given faith only in the same sense in which we are given suffering, that is, mediately through circumstances.”

Mediately through circumstances” is theological jargon from Olson’s interpretive paradigm. He means that God uses means. Olson says, “God has a mediate role of carrying out much of His plan in this present world- through His agents” (p.29). What Olson is saying about Philippians 1:29 is simply that God is giving people the opportunity to have faith through the preaching of the word. In other words, we’re really not given a supernatural gift of faith via God’s grace; we’re given situations like preaching in which we can express our faith in Him. Olson’s wording is tricky, since he says “we are given faith”. He definitely does not mean this- he explicitly states that "repentant faith" is within the means of spiritually dead man.

He then qualifies it with “in the same sense in which we are given suffering.” He goes on to explain:

No one would argue that suffering is an immediate and irresistible work of grace.”

Olson does what all “theologians of glory” do: they invent philosophical paradigms by which to analyze scripture. “Mediate” and “immediate” are terms which remind me of the unstable bulwark of medieval scholastic theology that Luther rallied against. But to be fair, let’s play in Olson’s ballgame for a minute. Reformed theologians (by and large) do not deny God’s use of “means” in salvation. The Preached Word does enter the heart and give spiritual birth. So faith, in a sense, is indeed arrived at "mediately." On the other hand, Reformed writers by and large note that regeneration and faith in a man's heart are the immediate work of the Spirit. Suffering is also a mediate work, as it is related to our sanctification. Both belief and suffering are gifts of God- as Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Olson continues:

As in the two Acts passages above [Acts 5:31 and 11:18], Paul is referring to the privilege and opportunity given to the Philippian Christians to believe, while alerting them to the fact that suffering for Christ comes with that privilege.”

Olson arrives where Dave Hunt does: inserting the word “privilege” into the text of Philippians 1:29. He also adds "opportunity." The striking thing about these two words is that throughout his book, Olson accuses Calvinists of reading their theology into the Bible, rather than doing inductive study, verse by verse. Here is a striking example of just that: neither "privilege" nor "opportunity" are in the text of Phillipians 1:29. Where then do these ideas come from? Olson notes they come from two passages in Acts. Leaving his interpretation of Acts aside, how is this doing inductive study? It isn't. Further, why is God giving the Philippians a privilege and opportunity to believe? What does this mean? Olson doesn't say. Does it mean God is giving them the preached word? Does it mean God the Spirit is now working to produce continuing faith in one's heart? Thus, the interpretation ultimately doesn't even make sense, nor is it the result of a close inductive look.

3 comments:

Ray said...

Hi Jim,

You requested that I defend Olson's position on Phil 1:29. Here goes.

Olson's primary argument is a semantic one. Two things are given to the Philippians: 1) faith, 2) suffering. Because the verb charizomai applies to both believing and suffering, whatever sense or meaning Paul has in mind in this semantic structure must be the same for both. It cannot change from one to the other since the verb and its usage apply to both. Olson argues that as a consequence of this fact, if we infer that this passage is saying "faith is a direct gift from God," then we should also conclude that "suffering is a direct gift from God." In other words, if one is to be considered a theological maxim, then so should the other.

He then points out that since no one would argue that "suffering is a direct gift from God," (he obviously hasn't met you) it follows that this is not the meaning Paul intended to communicate. If one takes this verse literally instead of figuratively as I have argued, then you end up with something very awkward, namely, "suffering is a direct gift from God." Olson seems to recognize this and offers that a figurative use is more appropriate.

Olson then argues that this passage is similar to Acts 5:31 and 11:18 where repentance is said to be granted to the Jews and Gentiles respectively. Since these two passages can't be referring to repentance as a direct gift (most Jews and Gentiles are not regenerated), he concludes that they are really speaking of the opportunity or privilege to repent. I don't think Olson is saying that Phil 1:29 should be interpreted this way because of Acts 5:31 & 11:18, but only that they are similar. Thus, there's no deductive mechanics going on here. In my estimation, Olson's conclusion rests squarely on the semantics of Phil 1:29 alone.

Olson adds an additional point where he says that "we are given faith only in the same sense that we are given suffering, that is, mediately through circumstances." Since the "direct gift" interpretation is not likely here, Olson offers this view, and uses some deduction to say that our faith as well comes mediately. I personally don't think this passage is trying to communicate anything about the source of faith and suffering and so I won't defend Olson here. Remember that Olson is not trying to exegete this passage, he's only pointing out that a viable alternative interpretation exists and this shows that Phil 1:29 cannot be used as an inductive source for establishing faith to be a direct gift from God.

To sum up, I believe Olson has recognized that the use of charizomai cannot be taken literally because of the semantic structure and its associated implication that suffering is a direct gift from God in the sense that Calvinists view faith as being a direct gift. In other words, he sees that figurative use is more likely, and concludes that privilege and opportunity are Paul's intended meaning. I also see figurative use in play as I argued earlier, except that I see roles and responsibility as the intended meaning as it fits better with the context. That the roles and responsibilities can be viewed as privilege and opportunity is certainly possible, although I don't think Paul has said or implied it in the passage.

Lastly, I would like to comment on your defense of this passage as supporting the view that faith is a direct gift. The reasoning you offer to conclude that faith is a gift is just that: reasoning, and deductive reasoning to be sure. You cite Hebrews 12:2 for some reason. The word for author is "archegon" which has the primary meaning of preeminent leader. It cannot be shown in this context or any other that it carries the meaning you suggest, viz. the one who gives faith as a direct gift. I think you undermine your position when you adduce tenuous arguments like this. The best approach to solving this issue is to find a solid inductive base, i.e., a section of scripture dedicated to developing this concept where there can be no dispute. Because I believe there are none, we need to address the significance of its absence, and then try to arrive at a compelling reason to still conclude faith is a direct gift other than by inference from theological principal that itself is part of the dispute.

Anonymous said...

Well Ray did a great jog of showing that the Calvinists have no case in Phil. 1:29. Not only does it NOT TEACH that faith is a direct gift given to SOME so they can believe and get saved, but it also does not teach that God is sending us persection so we can be sanctified. The context of chapter One shows this, as does the rest of the epistle, and the NT as well. Persecution comes from the Devil, and we share in "Christ's sufferings". They come for "the word's sake(Luke 8, Mark 4). God does not oppose himself and hassle His children. The DEVIL hassles us, and there is no inherent virtue in what he tries to do to Christians.

Our diet, for strength, growth and victory is to worship God, meditate on His Word, and put on the whole armor of God so as to stand and not fall when the enemy comes. The word of God builds us and sanctifies us-John 17. it cleanses us. And when we fellowship and experience His Presence, we are purged by being near to Him. We don't need persecution, we need a closer walk with Him.

Persecution is a priviledge GIVEN TO US--an opportunity to not deny the Lord but stand fast. Olson's exegesis is correct, that is obvious if one comes to the text without prior doctrinal presuppositions and committments.

barryp said...

Jim(another Jim) said

"Actually the Bible does talk about falling in love, but after an engagement. We are drawn to the Lord after salvation, etc."

"We are drawn to the Lord after salvation, etc" sounds dangerously like the heresy of calvinism which Dr. Olson repudiates and disproves(along with Dave Hunt and Laurence Vance's masterpiece, "The Other Side of Calvinism")


Belief, conversion, and faith DO NOT happen AFTER regeneration or the new birth. The unBiblical doctrine of "total INABILITY" (and NOT "total depravity")is FALSE. Now, "total depravity", which in itself Biblical, is NOT "total INABILITY" but calvinists DEEPTIVELY call what they mean as "total INABILITY" by the Biblical name/doctrine "total depravity". Make no mistake, I am NO Arminian; I do NOT believe in "lose your salvation" but the twisted "god" of calvinsim is a capricious, ARBITRARY, despotic, SATANIC MONSTROSITY.

As George Bryson said, "To sum up calvinism: you are damned FOR all eternity because you were damned FROM all eternity!"

Also although there isn't much I agree with him on(at ALL), John Wesley VERY accurately said, "Call it therefore by whatever name you please, election, preterition, predestination, or reprobation, it comes in the end to the same thing. The sense of all is plainly this, -- by virtue of an eternal, unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, one part of mankind are infallibly saved, and the rest infallibly damned; it being impossible that any of the former should be damned. or that any of the latter should be saved. But if this be so, then is all preaching vain!" and also, "If you know they(ALL men) are either the one or the other, -- that they are either elected or not elected, they MUST be of either the one or the other, elected or not elected -- all your labour is void and vain. In either case, your advice, reproof, or exhortation is as needless and useless as our preaching. It is needless to them that are elected; for they will infallibly be saved without it. It is useless to them that are not elected; for with or without it they will infallibly be damned; therefore you cannot consistently with your principles take any pains about their salvation. Consequently, those principles directly tend to destroy your zeal for good works; for all good works; but particularly for the greatest of all, the saving of souls from death"

I say calvinism is as VISCIOUS as "lose your salvation" arminianism!