C. Gordon Olson is one of the better known opponents of Reformed theology today. He is an instructor at Liberty University. This past week a student contacted me (and I assure you, I will not be divulging the student’s name, for obvious reasons) with questions about the things Olson is teaching in class, and in particular, his claim that many of the key verses that relate to issues central to the gospel have been “mistranslated” not just in some versions, but in almost all versions. This caught my attention, and so I have taken some time to look into the passages noted by the student. The results have been most troubling.
I note in passing that a little net search brought up reference to Olson making a presentation at the “Grace Conference” in 2005. For those unfamiliar with the title, this would be the Hodges/Wilkin cheap-grace, anti-Lordship, anti-God has any purpose in salvation movement that is so destructive to sound theology, Christian life, and the proclamation of the gospel itself. The fact that the Reformed faith is so opposed to such falsehood should explain the constant attacks coming from that quarter.
The first argument that caught my attention was that we have missed the point of Paul in Romans 3 because Romans 3:11 should be translated “no one diligently seeks God.” Now before even quoting Olson, I must say I was struck by the argument. How is this relevant to one who wishes to defend a man-centered gospel rather than the gospel of the free and powerful grace of God? This point is very useful in evaluating all such writings, whether those of Olson or Hunt or Geisler or Bryson or whoever: so often we get hung up on the details (“Oh, do the lexical sources support that rendering? Ooh, he’s using Greek! He must be right!” etc.) that we fail to step back and ask the big questions first, “Does this make any sense in the over-all scheme of things?” When we step back and consider the context of Romans 3 and Paul’s entire point, it is very obvious that whether this is “diligently seeking” or just “seeking” is utterly irrelevant to the role of the text in the context of Paul’s apologetic for the universal sinfulness of man, let alone the role it plays in Reformed theology.
Consider: Is Paul saying “there is none really righteous (but some who are sorta-righteous)” in verse 10? Is he saying there is none who understand really well, but some who sorta understand, just enough,” in verse 11? And since he latches on to the present participle, how about verse 12? “There is none who regularly does good (but there are some who do good once in a while in and of themselves)”? Have all turned aside, or just most? Have they become useless, or just mainly useless? You truly have to wonder if Paul’s point is going to be sacrificed on the altar of the defense of human autonomy. How much plainer can Paul put it? The conclusion of his series of citations is not “Mankind is really sinful…though…not so bad as to be unable to do some good, have some fear, do a little seeking, etc.”
But the first thing that caught my attention was a more simple point. “What, less diligent seeking will bring you salvation anyway?” This is supposed to be a defense of libertarian free will? And so I wondered, what does the text in Hebrews 11:6 say? I had to chuckle just a bit when I saw that it is the very same verb, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. If Olson is consistent, then this would be “diligently seek Him,” and so, the standard remains the same: God requires diligent seeking (Heb. 11:6), and there is none who does that (Rom. 3:11), therefore, we are back to the necessity of the work of God in the heart by the Spirit. We’ve taken a completely useless trip around the bend and arrived right back where we started.
Having noted this, let’s still do the work required to give a proper response. Let’s start with his statements regarding lexical and grammatical issues:
Most extreme Calvinists base their view on the English of Romans 3:10-11: There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God.” In Paul’s paraphrase of the Septuagint of Psalm 14, he was careful to use the intensified verb ekzeteo, rather than the simple zeteo. From its usage in Acts 15:17; Heb. 11:6; 12:17; and 1 Pet. 1:10, it is clear that Paul is not referring to an indifferent seeking, but a ‘diligently seeking’ for God. (The verb has an even more intensified force in Luke 11:50, where it is rendered ‘require.’) So Paul was not affirming that no one ever seeks God at all, but rather that no one diligently seeks God. It might also be significant that this verb is a present participle, which could be either gnomic or customary. It it is customary, it would refer to a regularly recurring action, and thus, could be rendered, “no one customarily and diligently seeks God.” Otherwise, if neither of the above were true, Scripture would be in contradiction with itself. I could only find about fifty verses which contradict a superficial reading of Romans 3:10-11! Why do extreme Calvinists ignore the fifty and focus on the one? William A. Butler, that “brilliant and profound thinker,” probably got it right: “We hold a few texts so near the eyes that they hide the rest of the Bible.” In this case, it is just one text! (Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism, pp. 102-103.
You can make the argument that ekzeteo should be translated in an intensified fashion, however, the mere fact that it is an intensified form is not sufficient grounds for pressing the point. The context is what would cause us to go beyond the normative translation and emphasize a particular aspect of the term’s semantic domain. Is there reason to do this in the text? The vast majority of translation committees working on English translations have said “no.” There is nothing in the context that would suggest a “diligent seeking” versus “a less diligent, careless seeking” concept. Further, while this is, in fact, a participle, it is a substantival participle, with the article, and since it is naming a particular type of person that the apostle is negating (i.e., there is none of these folks), the person seeking to invest weight in the syntax of its present tense has to explain how any other tense of a substantival participle would have impacted the meaning. Olson simply throws these issues out, but does not substantiate them.
Of course, there is another avenue open to one who would wish to push Olson’s point: if the underlying Hebrew term substantiates an emphasis upon “diligence” or the like, one might be able to provide a stronger foundation for Olson’s argument. The underlying Hebrew term is vrEDo÷, darash. Ironically, in the very first verse in the Tanakh where it is used, it is used twice (intensive formation) and the LXX translates it with both zeteo and ekzeteo (Lev. 10:16). The term has the same semantic range, allowing for “seek” and “require.” Hence, the seeking here may well be said to partake of the same kind of “inquiring” that men made after God in the Old Testament and for which vrEDo÷ is often used. But once again, all this would mean is that there are none who inquire of, seek after, God—which changes nothing of the guiltiness of the creature man, for this fits perfectly with what Paul has already said, that men know God exist, and yet, in their ungodliness, suppress that knowledge of Him, refusing to acknowledge Him as the Creator.
So, without contextual markers to push the semantic domain of the verb into the emphasized rendering, and without any substantiation of the necessity of seeing a substantival present participle emphasizing a customary syntactical categorization of the participle, we can see why Olson’s rendering is not found in any major committee-translated version of the Bible.
Now, this issue aside, then, what is Olson’s real response to the text? I can only identify it as the “rehabilitated Pelagian” viewpoint, for he actually goes on to say:
David is saying that the atheistic fool, who says in his heart that there is no God, does not diligently seek God. Although Paul expands the application of David’s words somewhat, he is giving a generalized statement about the human race as a whole, extending to both Jews and Gentiles, but not intended to be all-inclusive. (103)
Is it not a tautology to say that an atheist does not diligently seek God? Does an atheist seek God at all? Does this not show the shallowness of the emphasis upon “diligence”? Yes, Paul expands the application, not just “somewhat,” but, in this text, universally. How can anyone read the catena of passages in 3:10-18 and yet come to the conclusion this is not intended to be “all-inclusive” when the conclusion says just the opposite? Does not Paul conclude that his words function “so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God”? How do you get “not intended to be all-inclusive” from “every mouth/all the world”?
Olson’s error become clear once we begin to examine the “fifty” passages that, truly, provide the foundation of his re-rendering of this text. Each uses the term “seek” in a command setting, such as, “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deu. 4:29). Since the Bible commands us to seek, then, obviously, we can do so! Just like how the Bible commands us to love God perfectly, and our neighbor as ourselves! We can do it! And to walk blamelessly, and…oh, wait. This seems to be an over-arching theological paradigm Olson holds that is somehow resulting in the suppression of the clear teaching of Romans 3:11! Since he refuses to see that such commands would be used of God to 1) direct and guide the regenerate soul, and 2) bring further condemnation to the reprobate who continues in love with his sin and in his rebellion, then the existence of a command must imply the ability to fulfill it. But, as we can see, no such assumption can be found in the texts, nor is there any compelling reason to adopt such an over-riding idea.
Now, there are a number of other places where Olson offers highly questionable, dubious “translations” that flow from his over-arching tradition. The next one we will examine is found in his insistence that Ephesians 1:11 should be translated “He works all these things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11), limiting God’s decree to salvific issues only. The argumentation put forward for this rendering rivals that offered by the Watchtower for its translation of John 1:1, to be honest, and to that we will turn in our future posts.