A Response to Roger Olson

Roger Olson is a professor of theology at the Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is a good writer and I am sure a good and decent man. But his article “Calvinist view of bridge collapse distorts God’s character” that ran in the Baylor Lariat (The Lariat Online) that ran in the Baylor Lariat is proof that kind, intelligent men can sometimes get it wrong. Dr. Olson’s sadly misguided article not only shows a lack of interest in the Scriptures but sloppiness regarding the beliefs of those he criticizes. For a man that has a reputation for complaining about how mean Calvinists have been to him, Dr. Olson shows an ability to write with a very sharp quill.

In the article, Dr. Olson makes a not-so-veiled reference to John Piper. He expresses concern that many young people are being swept up into the doctrine advanced by Dr. Piper (and many others). But what Olson describes as if it was a cult is actually the doctrine held dear by some of the greatest theologians and preachers in church history. Personally, I don’t consider the doctrine of Augustine, Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Knox, Owen, Bunyan, Whitfield, Edwards, Carey, Judson, McCheyne, J.P. Boyce, J.C. Ryle, and Spurgeon to be dangerous. Nor do I consider the doctrine of D. James Kennedy, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, Al Mohler, Alister Begg, Mark Dever, D.A. Carson, Sinclair Ferguson, and Joni Ericson Tada to be dangerous.

Perhaps the most provocative statement in the article is, “The God of Calvinism scares me; I’m not sure how to distinguish him from the devil.” Dr. Olson had better tread carefully. Did he once consider that he just might be wrong before he wrote those words? Of course, it’s too late. The genie is out of the bottle. If Olson is wrong, as I firmly believe he is, then he has not only slandered many of his brothers and sisters in Christ, he has blasphemed God. Is Dr. Olson unaware of all the biblical texts that explicitly affirm the total sovereignty of God in all that comes to pass? Or is he like so many of the Arminian professors I had during my education who were not conflicted about ignoring certain pesky portions of the Bible? Incidentally, God scared Noah and Moses and Isaiah and, well, everyone else as well, but that is another subject.

God’s sovereignty over creation, providence, and salvation is basic to biblical faith and worship. One of Scripture’s most prominent descriptions of God is the King who reigns from his throne (I Kings 22:19; Psalm 11:4; 45:6; 47:8,9; Isa. 6:1; Ezek. 1:26; Dan. 7:9; Heb. 12:2; Rev. 3:21; 4:2). The Bible tells us repeatedly that God exercises dominion over everything, great and small alike (Ex. 15:18; Ps. 47; 93; 96:10; 97; 99:1-5; 146:10; Prov. 16:33; 21:1; Isa. 24:23; 52:7; Dan. 4:34-35; 5:21-28; 6:26; Matt. 10:29-31). God’s sovereignty is total. He acts precisely as He wills and everything he purposes comes to pass. The Lord exercises his rule through seemingly ordinary events, extraordinary events, and even through what appears to us to be chaotic or accidental.

God’s rational creatures, angels and humans, possess free moral agency. That is, humans and angels do what they consciously choose to do and are thus held accountable by God for all their actions. This free agency, however, does not diminish or limit God’s sovereignty for He ultimately rules over human actions so that all his purposes come to pass. Mysteriously, this overruling power of God does not diminish the meaningfulness of human action (Gen 50:20; Acts 2:23; 13:26-39).

It seems that Dr. Olson wants to force a choice between a God who is entirely good or a God who is entirely sovereign. His implication is clear: If God is entirely sovereign then he cannot be good because of all the calamity going on in the world. On the other hand, if God is entirely good then he must not be entirely sovereign. In contrast, Calvinists have always affirmed that God is both entirely good and entirely sovereign because this is what the Scriptures explicitly affirm. This seems only to be a problem for Arminians, open theists, Pelagians, and atheists.

Dr. Olson knows for a fact that Calvinists heartily affirm the goodness of God. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt because I cannot imagine him being a very good theologian if he has not interacted with the writings of the Reformers and the Puritans. I defy anyone to find writings that sing more beautifully of the goodness of God than those of our forerunners from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Olson concludes his article by writing, “In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he [God] must have limited himself.” God limits himself? So this is it? This is the big conclusion? It’s not that I don’t understand. This is precisely the refuge I sought comfort in for years. It’s the “I can’t logically reconcile the Bible’s teaching in this area so I will manufacture an explanation that makes more sense to me” syndrome. Dr. Olson offers no Scriptural support for the claim that God limits himself. He just asserts it. It’s logical. It’s neat and inoffensive. It gets God off the hook for the unpleasant things that happen. But how can a theologian make a sweeping statement about the very nature of God without any appeal to the words of God? God has, after all, told us a great deal about Himself and nowhere does He claim to be limited. Dr. Olson and his Arminian brethren seem to be saying, “I can believe in the goodness of God so long as I can affirm the limitations of God in running his universe.”

How exactly would Dr. Olson suggest that God limits Himself? Does He only limit his sovereignty or does he also limit his love? “Oh certainly not!” But how do you know? “Because the Bible says that God is love.” But the Bible also says that God is sovereign. What about goodness? Does God limit His goodness? His holiness? His justice? Arminians think that God’s limited sovereignty preserves His goodness. This is a fallacy. Is it a good and loving God that wants to stop calamity and human evil but chooses not to because he loves human free will so much that he will allow untold millions to suffer and die because of it? Under this scheme do you think the average lost person who ends up in hell will wish that God had tampered (even a lot!) with their free will? Does a Christian parent hope that God will “tamper” with their children’s free will by drawing them to saving faith? Isn’t this, after all, how we pray for the salvation of others? How can we pray for God to save the lost if He has subordinated His entire redemptive purpose to the “free will” of man? If God so values this kind of unfettered free will on the part of his human creatures then why does He not preserve it in heaven? Isn’t it unfair and unloving for God to take away our ability to sin in heaven? How can I truly love God in heaven if He robs from me my “free will” to sin against Him?

Is it comforting to have a God who refuses to stop evil and calamity because he has chosen to limit himself regardless of the consequences? Is that more reassuring than a God who sovereignly works all things including calamity and evil and human salvation according to the council of His will (Eph. 1:3-11)? Is meaningless suffering outside the sovereign plan of God more comforting than the truth that one day He will make it clear that everything we have suffered served His good and glorious purpose (Rom 8:18-30)? It seems that Olson is more comforted by a God who means well but cannot quite bring it about. God “wishes” things were better but He’s not in control. That sounds an awful lot like…me.

I was confronted in the church parking lot one Sunday after services by a very angry (now former) church member who proceeded to “explain” to me that God’s sovereignty does not mean that He is in “control” of anything much less everything. Sovereignty, he told me, simply means that God is a king and like any king there are many things in His kingdom that are outside His control. Of course, he could offer me no Scripture to back up his rather novel definition of sovereignty. How quick we are to project our own limitations upon God. Where in Scripture does God claim to be a King who “rules” with the same kind of limited power as earthly kings? Indeed, does God ever claim to possess the same weaknesses and limitations of His human creatures? Is God, God or is He simply man writ large?

Certainly, Scripture tells us that Jesus “made himself nothing” (Phil 2:5ff); that he willingly entered into humanity in order to become our “sympathizing high priest” (Heb 4:14ff). But the Triune God was still enthroned and in control. The Father and the Holy Spirit were not incarnated in frail human flesh. Indeed, even Jesus, the one who “emptied himself” told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10:15-18; 19:10-11). Even God incarnated in human flesh who took on the role of a servant does not sound very “limited.”

Olson includes more curious theology when he offers a statement from none other than God Himself: “And God says, ‘Pray because sometimes I can intervene to stop innocent suffering when people pray; that’s one of my self-limitations. I don’t want to do it all myself; I want your involvement and partnership in making this a better world.’” Is this truly the God who has revealed himself in His Word? When you read the Bible do you behold a God who wants to make things better but needs our help to get it done? Certainly God uses His people as means to accomplish his purposes but this is a far cry from being dependant upon us.

I am curious as to where Olson received this insight. Is this truly what God has said? Perhaps God told him this in a dream. The Professor needs to get word out. He has just reformulated the purpose of prayer and it was apparently no less than God who gave him this fresh insight. One must be careful when attributing a quote to God. Notice that in the imagined statement God says, “sometimes I can intervene…” Does this seem more than just a little pathetic? “If you pray I may be able to heal the cancer or stop the accident, but then again I have limited myself. I am particularly limited on Mondays but if you catch me on Tuesday you’ll help your odds.” This formulation really gets God off the hook. If the cancer is healed then praise the Lord He didn’t limit Himself that time! If the cancer persists then it’s not God’s fault. After all, he has limited himself. I would love to have that little responsibility in my work.

I wonder how Dr. Olson would comfort someone whose child is diagnosed with cancer. Would he assure them that God would change it if he could? Would the Professor comfort the family by telling them that their beloved’s cancer is random and meaningless; that there is absolutely no purpose in it whatsoever? Would he give them the hopeful news that since God has limited himself there may be little he can actually do to help? Would Dr. Olson tell them that maybe, just maybe, enough people will pray so that God will receive sufficient help in turning the situation around? Or would that come dangerously close to violating someone’s free will? If I find myself in a hospital room, please don’t send Roger Olson. I need a man with a more robust (biblical) theology.

Olson gets hung up on how exactly God can ordain evil without being the “author” of evil. Welcome to the club professor. This is knowledge too wonderful for us. There are deep mysteries here to be sure. But can anyone well acquainted with the Scriptures deny that they give witness to God’s sovereignty even over the wickedness of men while at the same time affirming His complete “otherness” from sin? Is Dr. Olson aware that Scripture walks this very mysterious path? If John Calvin, or John Piper for that matter, attributed the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers to the sovereign and good plan of God without diminishing the brother’s culpability would Dr. Olson be outraged? Would Dr. Olson have corrected Joseph when he said to his brothers, “What you meant for evil God meant for good”? Would Olson be “scared” by a God like this? Would this God remind him of the devil?

What about the cross? How could God ordain the greatest evil ever perpetrated and still hold the ones who committed the act responsible for their actions (Acts 2:23; 13:26-39)? I suppose such a thought seems absurd, unfair, and devilish to Dr. Olson. Perhaps he believes that the crucifixion of Jesus was simply a random act of evil carried out by people completely free from the sovereign decree of God. Maybe if the disciples had prayed then God could have acted to intervene and stop the crucifixion of Jesus.

How can Dr. Olson, or any Arminian for that matter, affirm that the crucifixion of Jesus was the sovereign design of God? Doesn’t this violate their understanding of God’s limited abilities? Did God keep His fingers crossed hoping that men, of their own free will, would crucify Jesus? And what if they chose not to? After all, they had free will and God never messes with free will. What if everyone refused to crucify Jesus? What if they stoned him instead? What if they beat him and let him go? What would have happened to God’s redemptive plan?

After reading Dr. Olson’s article I was perplexed on so many levels. It did not seem that I was reading the words of a man who had interacted meaningfully with the book of Job, for instance. What about King David’s census of the people (II Sam 24:1ff)? Was this action not condemned as being an act of hubris? Did not God judge the people for David’s action? Confoundingly, however, Scripture declares that God was ultimately sovereign over David’s action so that He might use it as an occasion to judge his stubborn people. Surely Dr. Olson is familiar with these texts and the many others like them.

To deny God’s sovereignty in these events is far easier than to grapple with the mysteries of God’s Word that often escape our very limited and fallen minds. This is why I was so surprised at Dr. Olson’s statement that a belief in God’s sovereign control is an “easy” answer. Is “You meant it for evil but God meant it for God” easier than simply, “You meant it for evil”?

Isn’t it easier to believe that things “just happen”? Isn’t it easier to believe that there is no purpose in suffering? Isn’t it easier to believe that Joseph’s brothers acted in complete libertarian freedom and God, nice fellow that he is, would have stopped them if he could have? Dr. Olson indicates that while God is “in charge” he is certainly not “in control.” A limited God is far easier to deal with than one who is truly in control. I am astonished that a scholar like Dr. Olson would make such a sweeping comment like, “God limits himself” without any Scriptural support. I might want God to be blue. It may make me feel better if God were blue but that does not make it so.

Dr. Olson asks the question, “So where is God when seemingly pointless calamity strikes?” Considering what Olson believes about the very limited nature of God’s sovereignty, why would he use the term “seemingly pointless”? According to Olson’s reasoning, all calamities are actually pointless, not seemingly. The believer in God’s total sovereignty would affirm that calamity seems pointless but ultimately is not for it is shot full of meaning because of the sovereign God who overrules all that comes to pass for His glory and His people’s good. While Dr. Olson thinks that God sounds like the devil I believe it sounds very much like the God I read about in His Word.

This is my Father’s World
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet