a brilliant example of contrast

on August 1, 2007, an interstate highway bridge collapsed in minneapolis, minnesota. This collapse and the internet combined to allow all of us to see an almost real time contrast between arminian and calvinist views of God’s sovereignty in the midst of a tragedy.

Many of you know that John Piper’s church is in Minneapolis. Here is what Pastor Piper wrote shortly after the horrible tragedy.

here is a snippet:

Tonight for our family devotions our appointed reading was Luke 13:1-9. It was not my choice. This is surely no coincidence. O that all of the Twin Cities, in shock at this major calamity, would hear what Jesus has to say about it from Luke 13:1-5. People came to Jesus with heart-wrenching news about the slaughter of worshipers by Pilate. Here is what he said.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus implies that those who brought him this news thought he would say that those who died, deserved to die, and that those who didn’t die did not deserve to die. That is not what he said. He said, everyone deserves to die. And if you and I don’t repent, we too will perish. This is a stunning response. It only makes sense from a view of reality that is radically oriented on God.

All of us have sinned against God, not just against man. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.

another former citizen of minneapolis, minnesota is Dr. Roger Olson now of Waco and the Truett Seminary at Baylor. Here is what Dr. Olson had to say about the tragedy.

here is a snippet:

What a strange calamity. A modern, seemingly well-engineered bridge in a major metropolitan area collapsed in a moment without any forewarning of danger.

Something similar could happen to any of us anytime. Similar things do happen to us or people just like us — innocent bystanders passing through life are suddenly blindsided by some weird tragedy.

So where is God when seemingly pointless calamity strikes? Some religious folks say, “It was God’s will.” Let’s just focus on Christians here.

A well-known Christian author and speaker pastors a church within a mile of the collapsed bridge. To him and his followers, God foreordained, planned and indirectly (if not directly) caused the event.

A popular Christian band sings “There is a reason” for everything. They mean God renders everything certain and has a good purpose for whatever happens. The pastor and the band are Christian determinists. Both happen to adhere to a form of Protestant theology called Calvinism.

This theology is sweeping up thousands of impressionable young Christians. It provides a seemingly simple answer to the problem of evil. Even what we call evil is planned and rendered certain by God because it is necessary for a greater good.

But wait. What about God’s character? Is God, then, the author of evil? Most Calvinists don’t want to say it. But logic seems to demand it. If God plans something and renders it certain, how is he not culpable for it? Here is where things get murky.
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.

In this world, because of our ignorance and sinfulness, really bad things sometimes happen and people do really evil and wicked things. Not because God secretly plans and prods them, but because God has said to fallen, sinful people, “OK, not my will then, but thine be done — for now.”

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.”

It’s a different picture of God than most conservative Christians grew up with, but it’s the only one (so far as I can tell) that relieves God of responsibility for sin and evil and disaster and calamity.

Now. Which view of God is more comforting? The God who works everything for his glory and for our good? or the God who would say “OK, not my will then, but thine be done — for now.”?

Notice which one of the two distinguished scholars above based their view on scripture and which one based their view on logic.

Go read both articles in their entirety. Think about them. Maybe take a look at Tom Ascol’s take on the contrast. very fascinating stuff.

here is how Tom concludes his post:

Olsen writes that the “God of Calvinism scares” him because he is “not sure how to distinguish him from the devil….In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he must have limited himself.”

Such rationalism should submit to the revelation of God in Christ. No, Dr. Olsen, Calvinism does not offer a “seemingly simple answer to the problem of evil.” Rather, it bows in humility to what God has revealed. And it gazes with faith and hope at the zenith of that revelation in the crucified Savior. When understanding fails and questions remain, we look at the Jesus of the scars and remember that our God–the only God there is–was wounded for us, and we let His wounds speak to ours.


UPDATE: Larry Thompson (clicking this link takes you to his comment page where you then have to click “show original post” to read the text.) is worth reading on this incident as well. He points out the absence of scripture in Dr. Olson’s assertions and deftly uses scripture to refute those assertions. an example:

Olson also says “What if God is in charge but not in control?” He means God could control things but chooses not to. That, my friend, is not Christianity, but Deism, the idea that God made us then sat back to see what happens. Besides, again, the Bible tells us God is in control. Daniel 4:17 says the Lord rules the kingdoms of men. Daniel 4:35 says he does according to his will. He works all things according to the counsel of his will according to Ephesians 1:11. He says not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from him (Matthew 10:29).

UPDATE II: Reformed Baptist is also very much worth reading on this topic.

Olson: 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.

I do not doubt that the “God of Calvinism” scares Olson, but I would assert that it is really the God of the Bible that scares Him, a God who cannot be so easily put in the “limited” box in which Olson wishes to place Him. And if Olson can’t seem to distinguish Him from the devil, it is an indictment on Olson rather than on God (or on Calvinists who are simply repeating what God has said about Himself). Many believers throughout the history of God’s dealings with mankind have had no problem at all making such a distinction, believers such as Job and Joseph… and the Calvinists who believe their word over that of men such as Olson.

To all those who would say that God has to be limited in some way because that is the only way we can fully understand what he is doing — which seems to be Olson’s point of view — I would remind you that it is idolatry to reshape God into our image, into someone who can fit into our understanding, rather than to humbly accept Him for who He says that He is.


18 Responses

  1. “It’s a different picture of God than most conservative Christians grew up with, but it’s the only one (so far as I can tell) that relieves God of responsibility for sin and evil and disaster and calamity.”

    You are right. That is exactly what I’m talking about. Dr. Olson is going to pick the option that “relieves God”. I bet God feels a lot better since Dr. Olson has stepped in and cleaned up His mess (dripping in sarcasm). This is where I choose to stand on God’s revelation of Himself and trust that He can “relieve” Himself. Plus, it sounds extremely foolish to think that I can ever “bail” God out of a problem. I believe Dr. Olson is only steps from, if not already immersed in, open theism.

    I can’t help but think of Luke 13:1-9. Instead of trying to explain away God’s motives, the victims’ lives, etc., we should preach the message that is undoubtedly present for all–REPENT!

  2. Very interesting, it certainly refutes many misconceptions of believers of the Calvinist persuasion. Although, I still question the idea of predestination, in terms of God being limited. To the layperson, predestination theology may very likely sound like God is limited. I know we don’t have all the answers, but is there a way to explain that?

  3. Melody, I am not sure that I understand your question. I would say that a calvinist view of God says that he does whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it. It is not limiting God to believe what Paul says about him in Romans. God has ultimate freedom, power, and sovereignty. A calvinist accepts the Bible on this point without making excuses for God to “relieve God”

    Romans 9:19-21 says that, as the Potter, God can make whatever vessels he wants for whatever uses he wants to put them to:

    19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, a to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

  4. oh, well I was just saying that a lot of non-Calvinists have the misconception that predestination implies that God just arbitrarily chooses who will be saved. Of course I don’t believe in universal atonement, because then there would be no choice, and therefore the love would mean less. But surely a God who is love wouldn’t mindlessly choose his followers. That’s what I’m saying. How would one explain predestination to those who have that misconception?

  5. fascinating. I guess it depends on whether you trust God to make those decisions or not. Is God good? Is God trustworthy? Is God gracious and merciful?

    Is God not the one who chose us in him before the foundation of the world? Ephesians 1:3-14 and Revelation 13:8.

    why would any follower of Christ think that God making such choices is arbitrary? Why would believing that God has the freedom to choose mean that he isn’t love? Wouldn’t that make him more loving? Why would believing that God has the freedom to choose make love mean less? I am not following that one.

    to have sheep and to call those sheep to himself even when they did nothing to deserve such a call is the ultimate testimony of love and grace and mercy. Check out John 10. That is love in action.

  6. I meant that God could make everyone love him since he created them and loves them, but he loves them too much to force them to choose him. So he chose them instead. And I think you’re absolutely right.

  7. I John 4:19. We love him because he first loved us.

  8. […] Doesn’t this caricature of a limited God being railed against by A.W. Pink 90 years ago sound an awfully lot like the caricature of God being “relieved” by Dr. Roger Olson? […]

  9. […] Comments Julie on for political junkiessovereignty of God … on a brilliant example of co…bkingr on he knew what was in mancheswa on he knew what was in manMelody on why Russell […]

  10. Hello!

    This is the author of the Reformed Baptist article quoted above in Update II. I am glad the article was helpful to you, brother! And I am glad to have found your blog as well.


  11. thanks, Keith for dropping by and thanks for writing what you wrote. BTW, that calvinist humor song video you have posted cracked me up.

  12. […] bit about trying to wipe the blood off of God’s hands reminded me of Roger Olson being scared of the “calvinist” (I think he means the Biblical) God. The way I read the Bible it […]

  13. […] a contrast between this kind of theology and the Bible’s portrayal of God see this post of mine regarding two approaches to the bridge collapse in minneapolis […]

  14. […] Recent Comments the Shack part III … on the Shack part IIthe Shack part III … on the Shack part Ithe Shack part II … on the Shack part Ithe pursuit of happi… on the Liethe Shack part I … on a brilliant example of co… […]

  15. […] simply is not what the Bible teaches, but that kind of thinking is what animates Roger Olson and Wm. Paul Young and a lot of other people who want to help God […]

  16. “That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. ” – Piper

    This is the only point that matters when considering perceived “tragedies”. Our perspective is just that…ours.

  17. yep. That is exactly correct. But the current evangelical theological moment is elevating our perspective to the throne instead of God’s. just go read the Shack and see how everything gets run through the lens of our perspective. or just read my complaint about it.

  18. I did read your complaint about the Shack…last night around 3am, maybe. I haven’t read the actual book but a guy in the Christian bookstore the other day was raving about it. I just smiled and said, “I don’t want to read that book, thank you.” He looked confused, like I had rejected Blue Bunny Cherry Chocolate ice cream or something! ha

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