You may be surprised to know that my series of blogs this week was inspired by Roger Olson, a man I respect very deeply. Although I don’t agree with him on many theological issues concerning salvation and theology proper, his scholarship, winsome writing style, and clarity about the importance of understanding theology irenically and historically have deeply impacted my thought and general approach to theological issues. Olson is a professor of theology at Truitt Theological Seminary. I use his textbook Mosaic of Christian Belief in The Theology Program. We had him as a guest on Converse with Scholars just a few months ago to discuss his book on Arminian theology. The primary reason why I appreciate Olson is because he often represents balance and calmness in theological issues. If you are in my profession, these traits are hard to find.

This is why I was surprised to read his response to John Piper about Minnesota bridge collapse. I did not find the Olson that I have come to know and love. Their was hardly an irenic word on the page. It was as if he had never heard of Calvinism’s belief in the sovereignty of God. His comments were defensive and very emotionally charged. Granted, he is an Arminian who does not agree with the tendencies in Calvinism to see God as one who is in charge of all things, even the most atrocious events of evil. This is understandable. While I disagree with Olson on this issue, it is not this disagreement that encouraged me to write the “Do ____ _____ and I have the Same God?” series. It was Olson’s implication that the God of Calvinism (my God) and the God of Arminianism (his God) might be different.

Here is what Olson had to say:

Many conservative Christians wince at the idea that God is limited. But what if God limits himself so that much of what happens in the world is due to human finitude and fallenness? What if God is in charge but not in control? What if God wishes that things could be otherwise and someday will make all things perfect?

That seems more like the God of the Bible than the all-determining deity of Calvinism. (emphasis mine)

Implication: His God = God of the Bible; My God = the all-determining deity of Calvinism.


The God of Calvinism scares me; I’m not sure how to distinguish him from the devil. If you’ve come under the influence of Calvinism, think about its ramifications for the character of God. God is great but also good. In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he must have limited himself.

The God of Calvinism scares him? Is the God of Calvinism (my God) different than his God? Is Olson saying that the God of Calvinism is the devil? Ouch!

My purpose in this blog post is not to debate whose view of God is the correct view, but to initially recognize with Olson that our views of God are indeed different. Like the post with Osteen and Pinnock, I want to focus on this question. When does your description of God cross the line to where ones description of God is so divorced from truth that it is not longer proper for that God to go by the name Jesus?

In the last blog, I introduced some categories or “points of reference” that are all necessary when defining someone (in this case God).

#1 An ontological point or reference (What is God?). This describes the essential essence of the object. With regards to God: God is trinity (one God, three persons). God is eternal. God is transcendent. God is immutable (unchanging). God is simple (exists without reference to time, space, or matter). God is a se (aseity – God is the first cause who did not have a cause). etc.

#2 A historical point of reference or point of action (What has God done?). This describes what someone has done in history to establish who they are now. With regards to God: God created the world out of nothing. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt to the promise land. God did sent His Son to die for the sins of man. Christ rose from the grace. etc.

#3 A personal or relational point of reference (Who is God?). This describes personality characteristics. With regards to God: God is sovereign. God loves the world. God is gracious and forgiving. God is offended by sin. God brings about His will. God provides for His people. God comforts us in times of trouble. etc.

With Osteen we found that his description of his God, while the same as my God with respects to his ontos and actions (#1 and #2), were very different than my God with respect to how He relates. Osteen’s God’s primary desire is for people to be rich, safe, and secure (Osteen’s RSS feed 🙂 ). My God, while He cares deeply about our lives, calls on us to take up our cross and suffer with His Son. With Pinnock, we found some important differences in his description of his God’s nature. His God is time-bound, changing, and ignorant of many things that are yet to come to pass. My God is timeless, knows all things (even the future free will actions of people), and unchanging.

Both Osteen and Pinnock seem to get the essence of the Gospel correct. They would both believe that Christ, the second person of the Trinity, became man, died for the sin of mankind, and rose from the grave on the third day. Yet both would deny or at least be agnostic toward the state of those who have not heard the Gospel.

Because of this, many were, like myself, hesitant to say that their God was a different god (which would really be no god at all).

With Olson, we have a similar problem. Yet, I believe, this problem is much less severe. Olson is not an open theist. Yet he is an Arminian. Olson would describe the essence of his God the same way that I describe the essence of my God (#1). He would also describe the historical actions of his God the same as I do with mine (#2). Finally, for the most part, he would describe the personality of his God the same way I do as mine (#3).

So why is Olson using provocative language when he describes “the God of Calvinism,” my God, suggesting that I might have a different God than him? After all, we are much closer in our view of God than either of us are with Osteen and Pinnock. What essential characteristic has caused Olson to suggest that we may have different Gods?

In fairness, I don’t believe that Olson was really suggesting this, but possibly provoking thought (as I have been doing in this series of posts). Yet, at the same time, he must see some serious character distinctions in the God of Arminians and the God of Calvinists to make such a provocation.

While Olson’s God and my God are very much alike, his description of God is different with respect to his understanding of divine sovereignty. God, to Olson, is “in charge, but not in control.” That is a bit ambiguous, so let me change this to the terminology we use in The Theology Program. God is providential overseeing things in general, not meticulous intervening in all things. To Olson, God’s will may be thwarted by human freedom. To me, God’s will cannot be thwarted. Olson believes God is self-limited in that He will not intervene in the free will acts of men. I, on the other hand, believe that if God does not intervene in the current state of our freedom, we are all up creek skubulon.

Without getting into the arguments on both sides, I would like to pose this question once again. Does the distinctions in our definitions of God’s sovereignty warrant Olson’s provocation that maybe, just maybe, we worship different Gods? Does the differences in the way Arminians define sovereignty and how Calvinists define sovereignty cross the line?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    58 replies to "Do Roger Olson and I Worship the Same God?"

    • tnahas


      I do also believe that when we make our theological constructs in speaking of God, we unavoidably emphasis His transcendent over His immanent attributes and vice versa. In TTP language that would whether we described God below or above the arch and maybe if a mix of the two. So even definitions of love, grace, justice, peace, mercy, etc., will actually mean different things when believers are dialoguing with each other.

      As an example when we say “love”, notwithstanding the many different words is used in Scripture, it will invariably have different meanings when we speak to one another. I believe that theologians fall into that trap as well. So before a dialogue commences, each should define his terms before they begin and they may find that they may have more common ground then first believed.

    • C Michael Patton

      I agree Taffy. I am glad that the Golden Arches proved to be the inspired illustration of choice for you today 🙂

    • Glenn Shrom

      Are you insisting that God’s will cannot be thwarted? Peter wrote “God is not willing that any should perish …” Does this mean that you believe nobody will perish in a Creation where God’s will is not thwarted?

      I believe that many will perish because many do not believe on Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is not what God wills for those people, and therefore God does not always “get His own way”. God is not selfish.

      He allows people whom He loves to perish, even though He’d rather see them in heaven with Him for eternity. He both allows people to perish, and He will use their perishing to work together for some type of good, even though it is not good that they perish.

    • Glenn Shrom

      I just read through some more of the comments here. I was about to write that perhaps we need more than one definition of the word “will”, but I see you already have at least two: perfect vs. permissive. (Are there others? Another chart?)

      Olson simply seems to be accusing the Calvinist of calling everything that happens part of God’s perfect will, whereas the Calvinist can simply explain to Olson that this is not the case – that God permits some/many things that he does not condone or instigate.

      I should probably go to a page on Pinnock, but I’ll just add on here that I wish we’d associate Pinnock with books like The Scripture Principle and Reason Enough, instead of with open theism.

    • Jennifer

      Haha, I’ll join Glenn in commenting WAAAAAY after the fact.

      How I have appreciated this post! It is so rare to see a Calvinist accurately characterize Arminianism and vice versa. So rare to see genuinely respectful dialog — between people who seem to actually believe that Arminians and Calvinists will be together in heaven. (I think there will be quite a few on each side shocked to see adherents to the other there — and then we’ll all find out where we got it wrong!) Beautiful to see.

      I am a Reformed (or Classical or what have you) Arminian. I agree with Vance’s views quite strongly. “Christian” is a thousand-fold more important to me than Arminian. Christian means I believe in and trust God, Christ, and Christ revealed through the Word. Arminian indicates only a certain way of understanding some complex issues that frankly are on God’s level and not mine. God does things as He chooses to do them and I’m for it — whether I was conditionally or unconditionally elected! 😉

      I have really enjoyed Olson’s writings — really appreciated his Arminian Theology. There are very few authors I can stomach on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate due to the abundance of mischaracterization and vitriol, but he is one of them. Some of what he said I can definitely understand as a “defense of those you love” — however, I have to agree the comparison to Satan is way over the top, as is “do we worship the same God”. In this instance he is doing exactly what Arminians always get so tired of Calvinists doing to Arminianism — taking a reactionary perception of the other side viewed through your own, and treating it as reality — and exactly what he spends a good bit of wordage speaking against in Arminian Theology. Disappointing, but, then, this is why I don’t put anyone on a pedestal but Christ. Everyone else will always disappoint from time to time. Luther had a few big flaws as well (brief support for bigamy, anti-Semitic writings) — but that doesn’t stop me from having immense respect and admiration for his faith and steadfastness, for the impact he had and continues to have to this day.

      I have never liked the question “Do we worship the same God” — not even when referring to different religions, such as Islam and Christianity. To me it’s kind of a non-starter. There is only one God, and there is correct and incorrect understanding of Him. None of us can have a completely correct understanding of Him — to think so would be to put ourselves on God’s plane — the height of arrogance. At point, then, does incorrect understanding cross the line into non-Christianity? (Obviously the Islamic understanding of God does!) I really like the way Jon Sidnell put it above — that the understanding of Jesus is the real dividing line. I am kind of surprised at myself that I hadn’t thought of it quite those clear of terms before.

      Two other comments — first, I wonder if Olson’s comments were kind of off-the-cuff. I may be only speaking for myself, but I do not recall seeing a contrast between God “in control” and God “in charge” in at least what I have read of him. Certainly there’s no dichotomy there in my mind; I don’t see the difference. As I understand it, the dichotomy is God having control (or being in charge) vs. God exercising that control. If God chooses not to exercise His control in some situation, I don’t at all see that as negating the fact that is in control (negating his sovereignty). If I understood Michael correctly, this sounds like the view of Calvinists as well (except for those who hold to meticulous sovereignty — thanks so much for explaining that distinction within Calvinism!). I guess the difference then is that Calvinists do not extend that line of thinking to a faith response? I may still be missing something on the Calvinist side but in any event I found this really interesting.

      Second, and not terribly relevant, someone noted that the word “God” comes from the word “good.” That’s actually not true. The two words, etymologically, are unrelated. “good” is from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *ghedh- “to be associated, suitable”, while “god” is from the PIE *ghut- “that which is invoked”. I’m a linguist (ABD) and can’t help but correct that — it’s a popular folk etymology.

    • Brian

      I can sort of understand Olsen’s vercity as I myself have struggled with the fine line of the two views.

      My understanding of Calvinism, when taken to it’s logical conclusion, excludes the non-elect, predestines them to hell without an opportunity, and ultimately makes God the author of evil. Sometimes I have a hard time not thinking of Calvinism as a heresy.

      Now you can say all day that he doesn’t create the evil, but simply uses it as his means, ala the crucifiction, but pure determinism logically points to God as the author of evil, whether by direct will or allowing it. Whether right or wrong, this view can harbor strong emotions.

      To the Calvinist, Election means God chose individuals, thereby chosing to condemn the rest, also from the beginning. However, the Bible speaks and demonstrates a corporate Election. Hence we’re all offspring of Abraham, which is by faith, and it’s credited to us as righteousness.

      To further muddy the waiter, you may point to individual election in the bible, i.e. Moses, David, the Prophets, or the disciples. Must we take that text and automatically apply to all? Could it be the disciples were in fact individually chosen for the redemptive will of God? Does it necessarily mean we’re all individually chosen, thereby excluding those who aren’t? Moses was chosen individually to lead the corporately chosen nation of Israel; likewise David.

      All that to say, as I’m running out of time, Calvinism can elicit a strong response because it’s tenets are stern, if not offensive. Sorry, babies are fussy, so I can’t elaborate more.

    • James

      Wow, with this post you have quickly become my favorite Calvinist blogger. OK, so that wasn’t very hard to do. But seriously, I appreciate the “irenic” tone very much. [Now I’m scanning the above comments and seeing mine isn’t particularly original, hmm.]

      I am a Wesleyan-Arminian and have appreciated Olson’s work very much, but I’m a little concerned with what seems to be his “postconservative” theological drift. I plan on reading his “Reformed and Always Reforming” book and investigating further. I’m all for Scripture being “transformational” and for nurturing evangelical experience, and I think I may even like the “centered set” idea. But the problem is that so many others in the emergent and movement (though not Olson himself) just use these things as an excuse to jettison large parts of historic Christianity. You give them an inch and they take a mile.

      How does a centered set keep its center? Why does everyone want to be so either/or when Christ calls us to be both/and? And by that I mean: both right practice *and* right belief; both love *and* holiness; both tolerance *and* boundaries; both context *and* canon; both personal *and* social gospels, etc. It is disconcerting to see so many throwing the baby out with the bathwater and recklessly conforming Christ to culture. I hope Olson can be an anchoring influence on these movements rather than a confusing one; we will have to see what he produces in the future.

    • Michael

      Olson’s claim about the devilish nature of a strong Calvinistic theology is not something new. Its a recurring statement among their opponents. Karl Barth speaks of it in his extended discussion on election in Church Dogmatics. Barth isn’t being polemical though, and even draws the conclusion that supralapsarianism is Biblical, though Barth modified this doctrine in his own view of election.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.