C. Gordon Olson needs to be held to the standard his own writings have placed upon him. As we have begun noting, Olson seems to view himself as one with sufficient basis to overthrow the consensus translations of all major English translations of the Bible as long as it fits into his “mediate theology,” i.e., his particular brand of synergism. Should someone say he is merely suggesting these translations and understandings as a mere possibility, a quick glance at his writings will disabuse you of this very quickly. Note this paragraph from page 63 of his larger work, Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism:
Augustinian theology is an extreme extrapolation of the biblical data: it is not only risky but dangerous. Since the Old Testament says so little about God’s decrees and the New even less (zero), the decrees of Calvinistic theology are pure speculation. All discussion about the logical or chronological order of God’s decrees in eternity past is absolute nonsense. It is worse than the medieval theologians’ discussions about the number of angels which can dance on the head of a pin.
He then goes on to say that “Ephesians 1:11 has been grossly pulled out of its context and extrapolated to make it a reference to an all-inclusive decree(s), when the subject at hand is God’s gracious plan of salvation, planned by the Father and implemented by the Son of God.” Before examining his incredible re-translation of Ephesians 1:11, let us note that to argue that there is little to nothing about God’s “decrees” based upon the usage of the single term “decree” is without merit. I have no idea how Olson can read through the trial of the false gods in Isaiah 40-48 and not see that terms like purpose and intention intertwine with the theme of creatorship to lead us directly to the concept of God’s decree, but he manages to pull it off. Contrast his presentation with material such as this.
How to Misuse Scholarly Resources
Let’s begin with a few of the standard English translations of Ephesians 1:11:
NASB also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will,
ESV In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,
NET In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession, since we were predestined according to the one purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will
ASV in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will;
CSB In Him we were also made His inheritance, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will,
ERV in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will;
KJV In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will:
NIV In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,
NKJ In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,
NRS In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will,
RSV In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will,
And let’s throw Tyndale in for good measure:
that is to saye in him in whom we are made heyres and were therto predestinate accordynge to the purpose of him which worketh all thinges after the purpose of his awne will:
One will see that the phrase rendered “all things” (ta. pa,nta, ta panta) in the NASB receives two translations in this list: “all things” (NASB, ESV, NET, ASV, ERV, KJV, NKJ, NRS, and Tyndale) and “everything” (CSB, NIV). Obviously, to suggest another translation of the text will require a fair amount of substantiation on the part of the one making the claim. Of course, suggesting, or defending, a particular understanding of “all things” is part and parcel of serious interpretation. But confusing interpretation with translation can be very misleading, as we are about to see.
Olson briefly addresses this text (he does not provide any kind of in-depth exegesis) on pages 57-58 of BC&A. He quite correctly says that “it is absolutely imperative that we focus on the real context here if we are to understand Paul’s words aright.” But for some reason, he does not provide any meaningful exegesis of the text itself. Here are his comments:
Has Paul been discussing anything relating to all-encompassing decrees of God in this context? Quite the contrary, Paul is focusing on God’s glorious plan of salvation. The word ‘decree’ is not found here, or for that matter, anywhere in the New Testament of God’s decrees. In Ephesians 1:3-6 Paul was focusing on the Father’s eternal plan of salvation, and then in 1:7-12 he surveyed the Son’s work of redemption past and the inheritance which He purposes for us in the consummation (“the fulness of the times”). Verse 12 is a segue into vv. 12-13 in which the Spirit’s work of applying salvation is described. Thus, the total context, before and after verse 11, is salvation oriented.
We must also examine the grammar more closely. Note that the article ta with panta (all) probably has a demonstrative force, that is, “He works all these things.”[C] This would make it clear that the “all things” of 1:11 has to do with the ‘all these things’ of the redemptive plan of God just alluded to, not all the rest of human events. Any universalizing of the outworking of God’s sovereignty in ‘secular’ events is totally absent from the context.
[C] “The article was originally derived from the demonstrative pronoun, ho, he, to, and is clearly akin to the relative pronoun hos, he, ho. It always retained some of the demonstrative force. This fact is evidenced by its frequent use in the papyri purely as a demosntrative pronoun” (Dana and Mantey, p. 136). “The article was originally derived from the demonstrative pronoun. That is, its original force was to point out something. It has largely kept the force of drawing attention to something” (Daniel Wallace, Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 208). He states that the article intrinsically conceptualizes, also identifies an object, and at times definitizes (pp. 209-10). Cf. A.T. Robertson, Short Grammar, p. 68).
In order to verify this interpretation of Ephesians 1:11 it is vital to do a study of the use of the article with the Greek word ‘all’ (pas), found 45 times in the New Testament, usually in the neuter plural (ta panta). A careful examination of the context of these usages shows that about 25 times the article has the demonstrative force mentioned by the grammarians, which restricts its meaning to some referent in the context. About 14 times the demonstrative force is absent, giving a more universal force to the expression. The remaining five are ambiguous or have a textual problem. This leaves the usage of ta panta in Ephesians 1:11 as most probably being the demonstrative force, referring back to the outworking of the Father’s eternal plan (1:3-6) as implemented by the Beloved Son through the blood-redemption of the cross (1:7-11). All uses of this verse as a proof text for the exhaustive sovereignty of God is isogesis [sic: eisegesis; in the shorter version of this book, this has been changed to “Scripture twisting”]. If there were some antecedent development of such a notion in the usage of the terms, we might be able to excuse such isogesis [sic], but there is not a scintilla of such development in either the Old or the New Testaments! (57-58)
Once again, it is the information that is not given that is so very important in this matter. Most of the information above is technically correct; most if it is likewise irrelevant to serious exegesis of the text. Just a few examples: the entire footnote provided seems only to exist to impress the non-specialist, the non-Greek reader. Everyone knows where the article came from, but it does not follow that Dana and Mantey, Wallace, or Robinson, would ever support the argument Olson is putting forward. The impression is given that these sources are supportive of the odd rendering offered, but this is untrue.
Next, the entire presentation regarding the relative number of possible contextual readings of ta. pa,nta is highly misleading. This is a Pauline use, and there are plenty of highly relevant contextual parallels in Paul’s corpus. In fact, any discussion of ta. pa,nta that does not discuss his very specific use of this phrase in such signal passages as Colossians 1:16-20, or right here in Ephesians (3:9, for example, where it is clearly used in a universal sense) is not worthy of the subject. Merely presenting numbers and percentages is fallacious argumentation at its best. Indeed, one could use Olson’s arguments to substantiate very unorthodox readings of these key texts so as to deny the creatorship of Jesus Christ!
But these troubling issues aside, it is Dr. Olson who is engaging in rank eisegesis here, not the Reformed theologians who have addressed this passage over the centuries. Olson ignores the tremendous texts presenting God’s kingship and His decrees (based upon His creatorship) that provide a very relevant background to Paul’s description of God in this text. But more so, as is so often the case, the discussion misses the syntactical context while looking at percentages instead. I refer to the fact that ta. pa,nta does not appear in a vacuum here. Olson does not deal with the fact that Paul’s actual phraseology is tou/ ta. pa,nta evnergou/ntoj. Those familiar with the language see that ta. pa,nta is inside a phrase consisting of the article tou/ and evnergou/ntoj, “the all things working one.” This is more descriptive than if ta. pa,nta were not placed between the article and the substantival participle. I am tempted to point out that if Olson were consistent with the comments he offered about the present participle in Romans 3:11, he would have to note that God is “working” here as well, since this too is a present participle. The question the serious interpreter must ask is, “when Paul speaks of God as the one working ta. pa,nta according to the counsel of His will, in the context of our having been predestined by this God, should we first think of a limitation of ta. pa,nta, or should we see it in the context of the over-arching sovereignty of God illustrated even in the words of a pagan whose eyes were opened to the nature of Yahweh:
But at the end of that period, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever;
For His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
And His kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
But He does according to His will in the host of heaven
And among the inhabitants of earth;
And no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’ (Daniel 4:34-35)
But the most obvious refutation of the artificial limitation Olson attempts to read into the text is seen in making God’s salvific work, that is, the central work of God’s self-glorification, the heart of the very reason of creation itself, some kind of sub-category wherein God gets to be sovereign, as long as He isn’t sovereign in the “secular” world (i.e., “Any universalizing of the outworking of God’s sovereignty in ‘secular’ events is totally absent from the context”). “Secular events” are secondary to the purpose of God in Christ to begin with. Further, there were all sorts of “secular events” noted in the sacred history of what God has done in Christ; in fact, you simply cannot separate them! To limit God’s ability to work all things in accordance with His will and purpose to “religious” stuff while leaving man sovereign in the secular realm is to demonstrate a grossly unbiblical view of history and redemption itself. The “secular” events of Israel’s history are redemptive; the “secular” actions of Herod, Pilate, and the Jewish leaders, were part and parcel of what God had predestined to occur (Acts 4:27-28). How does Olson read into this text his very Western, very unbiblical view of secularism? In the process he has read out of the text the very foundation upon which we have assurance that God will not fail to bring about His greatest work of self-glorification, the summing up of all things in Christ (1:10)! In case Dr. Olson is not familiar with Pauline theology, that is truly all things, for Paul would know nothing of his thoroughly Westernized compartmentalization of life into the “secular” and the “sacred.”
So, in conclusion, the odd over-emphasis upon the article really accomplishes nothing in Olson’s attempt to find a less-than-truly-sovereign Creator in the text of Scripture. Even if one were to accept the suggested rendering he offers, the context is, in fact, the eternal purpose of God to redeem a people in Christ Jesus, and all that it entails. That included a myriad of thoroughly “secular” things down through the ages, including the actions of men and nations. “The all things working according to His will” God, Creator of time itself, had revealed His true nature long before Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:
“You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
So that you may know and believe Me
And understand that I am He.
Before Me there was no God formed,
And there will be none after Me.
“I, even I, am the LORD,
And there is no savior besides Me.
“It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed,
And there was no strange god among you;
So you are My witnesses,” declares the LORD,
“And I am God.
“Even from eternity I am He,
And there is none who can deliver out of My hand;
I act and who can reverse it?”