You may be surprised to know that my “Do ____ _____ and I worship the same God” posts this week have been inspired by Roger Olson, a man I respect very deeply. Although I don’t agree with him on many things, 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 have used his textbook Mosaic of Christian Belief in The Theology Program for years. The primary reason why I have appreciated Olson in the past is because he often represents balance and calmness in theological issues. If you are in my profession, these traits are very hard to find.
However, as of late, he does not come across quit as calm and balanced. In fact, I would say that some of what he says on his blog comes across as downright belligerent. I began to notice this years ago when he wrote a response to John Piper about the Minnesota bridge collapse. I did not find the Olson that I have come to know and love. There was hardly an irenic word on the page. It was as if it was the first time that he had come across some people’s view on God’s sovereignty. His comments were defensive and very emotionally charged. As well, lately he has taken up the blog pen (a very dangerous thing to do). He spends much of his time speaking about issues that divide Calvinism and Arminianism. He is an Arminian and seems to have less and less tolerance for Calvinists. In fact, just this week I got a book from a publisher called “Against Calvinism” by Roger Olson. 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 discourages me. It is Olson’s repeated 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 in his response to John Piper:
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.
Again, he goes on:
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.
Although I have yet to read Against Calvinism, it would not be hard to find this kind of rhetoric (“the God of Calvinism” vs. his God) on his writing on his blog. I suppose the main redemptive thing I am getting from him lately is that he still keeps “my” God in caps! (Instead of “the god of Calvinism).
In fact, after writing my last post about Osteen, another Arminian suggested the same thing on another forum. About me he says:
“Lets see. [Michael] follows a Reformed view of theology has written blogs on being a cessationist. I have the same question when I talk to Calvinist, do we serve the same God? Why would anyone serve such a bitter vengeful and hateful God, who really doesn’t care about us that much. At least that’s been my experience when talking to [Calvinists].”
I have the feeling that this guy has been reading Olson.
Since the implications of Olson’s increasingly polemic stance against Calvinism are clear and, increasingly, influential, I feel comfortable writing this and asking this question: Is the God of Calvinism (my God) different than the God of Arminianism (his God)? Is that responsible rhetoric?
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, 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? When is it proper to use rhetoric such as “his God” vs. “my God” in Christian circles?
Let me introduce some categories or “points of reference” that are all necessary when defining someone (in this case God).
#1 An ontological point of 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 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. God, in my view, while He cares deeply about our lives, calls on us to take up our cross and suffer in and with His Son. But Osteen seems to get the essence of the Gospel correct. As far as I know, he believes 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. I dare not dismiss this as it represents significant agreement. Because of this, many are, like myself, hesitant to say that Osteen’s God was a different god, though it is a good question.
With Olson, we have a similar problem. We have some differences in our view of God. Yet, I believe, these differences are much less severe. Though an Arminian, Olson would describe the essence of God the same way that I describe the essence of God (#1). He would also describe the historical actions of God the same as I do (#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—implying 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 (much less liberals who don’t affirm the historic essentials of the faith). What essential characteristic do we have in our views of God that cause Olson to suggest that we may have different Gods?
In fairness, I don’t believe that Olson is 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 explain. For Olson, God is in providential control over all things. He is overseeing our lives in general but not intervening so as to violate our freedom. To Olson, God’s plans, hopes, and desires may be thwarted by human freedom. To me, God’s perfect will can and has been thwarted, but his will of decree cannot. 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. In other words, Olson has much more confidence in man’s ability to make godly choices without His direct intervention. I do not.
Again, I am not trying to solve anything here. While the question of whether Osteen and I have the same God leaves me wondering, I don’t think the same about my view of God and Olson’s view of God. I believe our devotion and love is to the same God. So, 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 in your opinion? Do you think that Olson’s rhetoric is responsible here?
Let me say once again: though this is an important issue I bring up here, I have a great deal of respect for Roger Olson and pray that this does not come across as defensive or divisive. Even if he suggests that our Gods are different, I look forward to taking a class he may offer in glory!