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 withÂ him on many theological issues concerning salvation and theology proper, his scholarship, winsome writing style, and clarity about the importance of understanding theology irenically andÂ 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 meÂ to write the “Do ____ _____ and I have the Same God?” series. It was Olson’s implication that the God of Calvinism (my God)Â and the God of Arminianism (his God)Â 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 postÂ is not to debate whose view of God is the correct view, but to initially recognize with Olson that our views of GodÂ 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 fromÂ 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”Â that are all necessary when defining someone (in this case God).
#1 An ontological point or reference (What is God?). This describesÂ the essential essence of the object.Â With regards to God:Â 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 didÂ not have a cause). etc.
#2Â A historical point of reference or point of action (What has God done?). This describes whatÂ someone has done in history to establish who they are now.Â With regards to God:Â 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.
#3Â A personal or relationalÂ point of reference (Who is God?). This describes personality characteristics.Â 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 hisÂ 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, andÂ 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 (whichÂ would really be no god at all).
With Olson, we have a similar problem. Yet, I believe,Â 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?