Roger’s God

Editor’s note: Originally posted on Saturday, September 1, 2007 at 09:46AM. Lightly edited.

Roger Olson is at it again. He wants to know where God was when the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. The smart aleck answer, of course is, “Everywhere, right where He’s always been.”

There’s a more important point to be made here. A lot of bad theology is the result of asking the wrong questions. Roger is asking the wrong question and it’s leading to bad theology. It certainly isn’t the question that Jesus asked at times like these.

When our Lord and his disciples were confronted with the man born blind (John 9), how did he deal with it?  Well, I know that, as a Calvinist, I’m supposed to follow some logical a priori (a thing we made up and with which we ruthlessly control the Bible) but just this once let’s follow the Scriptures and see what happens.

Scripture says:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.  And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.

The narrative has it that Jesus first saw the man born blind and then the disciples asked him about it. Perhaps Jesus pointed out the man? The narrative doesn’t say explicitly. The question the disciples asked was, “Who sinned?” The question assumes, post hoc ergo propter hoc, a direct causal connection between one’s actual sin and an effect, in this case, blindness. Jesus rejects that premise categorically — which is a major point of the narrative, the other being that Jesus is the one who gives sight to the blind, i.e., who saves the helpless (not those who cooperate with grace)–  but he also assumes something. He says that the man is blind “in order that…” It doesn’t matter for the sake of this argument what the purpose was. What matters is that Jesus says that the man was blind for a purpose. The man’s blindness wasn’t an accident. He was blind for a reason. Even if we say that, according to Jesus, God permitted the blindness for a purpose, there’s no notion of “bare permission” here. The blindness was purposed. If it was purposed, then there must be one who purposed it and that One, God, must be able to, must be willing to, purpose things such as human blindness in order to accomplish other things (His own glory; “that the works of God might be displayed in him” – John 9:3).

That this is the way Jesus thinks of the problem of the man’s blindness is confirmed by the resolution of the first part of the narrative. Jesus uses homely instruments, namely spit and dirt, to heal the man (means of grace?) in a direct, sovereign act of restoration and renewal. By implication, the same sovereign God who caused/permitted the man to be born blind also caused him to become sighted. We can’t have the latter without the former. The God of Scripture is not a Mr. Fixit, running cosmic errands to repair the damage that He would like to prevent but can’t or just won’t because it would violate our autonomy. Where is the biblical evidence for the doctrine of human autonomy? Why is it that we’re to be concerned about human autonomy only relative to evil? Where was the blind man’s autonomy when he was given his sight (without his help!)? There’s not a word in the narrative about any negotiation with the blind man. Who knows, maybe he liked being blind? Jesus just up and violated that poor man’s autonomy right there in front of God and everyone. Perhaps, biblically considered, our autonomy relative to God isn’t very important? Perhaps it’s not even a biblical category? Perhaps it has nothing whatever to do with the biblical doctrine of humanity? Perhaps it’s an utterly modern idea that some folk use to control what the Bible is allowed to say? Nah! It couldn’t be, could it?

Then there is Luke 13 and the Tower of Siloam. The immediate context is the crisis created by Pilate’s grotesque pollution of a sacrifice. Jesus raises the question of the problem of evil.  “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.”

The real point of the narrative here is his warning about the coming judgment and the necessity of repentance. This passage could have come from any of the minor prophets. That’s the point. This passage and all those in the minor (and major) prophets that warn of the coming judgment all suppose the utter sovereignty of God to bring about what he will. Consider Amos 3, a warning about the jeopardy of defying Yahweh. Scripture says,

Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?

The assumed answer, of course, is no. That is why Yahweh is to be feared. He is a God who is able to open the earth and swallow up people. He is the sovereign God who decrees 10 plagues and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. He is the awe-inspiring God who parted the Red Sea so His people could cross over on dry ground.

Where was God when the bridge fell? Well, there is real truth in the smart aleck answer. He really was completely, utterly present in his sovereign sustaining power, governing all things according to His perfect wisdom. He was in the same “place” he was in the Exodus. He was in the same place He was when Herod slaughtered all the little boys in Bethlehem (Matt 2:16). He was in the same place He was when our Savior cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mk. 15:34).

As Martin Downes points out, He’s in the  same place He was when Job was sitting on dung hills scraping his wounds. In fact, I can tell you where He is exactly. He’s far above our ability to criticize. He’s in the same place He was when Paul said, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Rom. 9:20).

The question is not “where was God?” but rather the questions are “how do we submit to His inscrutable ways?” and “how may we avoid filing charges against His righteousness?”

There are two errors to be avoided here. The first is Roger’s, i.e., trying to “save” God from the problem of evil by tying his hands (via Open Theism; God’s not responsible because it was a surprise to Him and He couldn’t do anything about it anyway) or by saying that God ties His own hands. Scripture knows nothing of a God who is either limited in his foreknowledge or sovereignty. It’s true that God can’t be other than He is, and one could say, “Well, that’s a limit.” Fine. Whatever. God is “limited” to being the utterly sovereign Creator, sustainer, and redeemer.  It’s an odd definition of “limit” and it doesn’t seem to trouble Him.

The second mistake to avoid is to try to make the problem go away by denying the existence of evil. The bridge fell. People and animals die. It’s a fallen world. Jesus didn’t deny the deaths of those upon whom the tower fell any more than he denied the reality of the man’s blindness. Evil isn’t the absence of being. Sin and evil are realities. The problem is not ontological (being). The problem is moral: sin. Evil is the result of sin. Sin is the result of a choice we made in the garden and all of it is subject to God’s eternal decree. How exactly? Well, I don’t pretend to know nor do I care to know, but I do know what I need to know. The same God who created everything and superintends and sustains all that is, is the same God who redeems His people from the mess they created.

I may not know the “answer” to the problem of evil (James 1:13), but I do know Jesus, God the Son incarnate, who bore the consequences of my sin in his body, all his life, and especially at the end. When I think of sin and evil, and if I’m tempted to shake my fist at God, I first think of the cross. Whatever evil there is in the world, whatever sin there is in the world, God the Son has faced it as a man, every day, sinlessly, righteously, for me and for all those for whom he came, whom the Father gave to him from eternity (John 10 and 17).

(HT: >Justin Taylor)

P.S. I commented briefly about Roger’s nasty comments regarding the “God of Calvinism” on Justin’s blog. You can read them for yourself. I think this should bring an end to his career as the persecuted Arminian. He’s followed that theme in his survey of the history of theology (it turns out that the Remonstrants were just minding their own business and a mean old bunch of Calvinists had a Synod and said bad things about them! Who knew?) and in his recent expose of the true nature of Arminianism.

Well, if we’re counting corpses here then I hasten to remind the gentle reader that St. Bartholomew’s Day just passed and, as I recall, about 50,000 (conservatively estimated) Calvinists were slaughtered in a week in 1572 and let’s not forget the 12,000 or so Protestants in the Netherlands (mostly Reformed) who were slaughtered by Philip II in the 1560s and ’70s). Roger may feel oppressed by the predestinarians in the SBC — why he does I still don’t understand — but I feel oppressed too! When is CT going publish, “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m a Calvinist” or when is IVP going to publish a volume on the true nature of Calvinism, clearing away all the misconceptions?

Update on Saturday, September 1, 2007 at 12:34PM.

Justin wrote to remind me that IVP did publish Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, Why I’m Not An Arminian and Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell,Why I’m Not A Calvinist.

These volumes are distinct from Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

I’d like to see a companion volume, Calvinist Theology: Myths and Realities from the same press. There are plenty of both (myths and realities) that need to be exposed and plenty of worthy, plenty of willing authors to write such a work, and, one hopes, an audience for it.

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  1. Thanks for posting this. I have been bothered by Dr. Olsen’s tendency to cast himself as a downtrodden Arminian who has to endure the darts and arrows of Calvinists. He teaches at Truett for crying out loud! Anyway, thanks for the reminder of the importance of our questions. A bad question will tend to lead us into error. A good question, while not always immediately satisfying will guard our soul.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    A great response to Olsen’s nonsense. It is too bad that you do not have the time to publish a book in response to Olsen’s Book ‘Arminian Theology: Myth’s and Realities, or do you? Put me down for 10.

  3. I did a three part review of Olson’s book on Arminianism back a couple of years ago on Phil Johnson’s Pyromaniacs blog under the heading “Calvinists in the hands of an angry Arminian”.

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