Thursday, September 06, 2007

Olsen, Piper, tragedy and theodicy

John Piper pastors Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, whose main campus is about 1 mile from the I35 bridge over the Mississippi River that collapsed August 1. His reflections on that tragedy has been distributed far and wide and helped provide a biblical perspective on such events. Piper also responded forcefully and helpfully to the awful, God-dishonoring, soul-destroying and comfort-robbing words of Rabbi Harold Kushner on that tragedy. Both articles are worth reading and passing along to anyone and everyone who wonders "why bad things happen to good people." They are models in pastoral theology and ministry.

Roger Olsen used to live in Minneapolis before becoming a professor at Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas in 1999. He has taken issue with Piper in the August 28, 2007 edition of The Baylor Lariat. The article he writes is entitled, "Calvinist view of bridge collapse distorts God's character." Without naming Piper he refers to him as a "Christian determinist" who adheres to "a form of Protestant theology called Calvinism."

Olsen laments the growing resurgence of Calvinism. His observation, as one is who is a stated opponent of the doctrines of grace, ought to encourage those of us who believe those truths to be biblical. He writes,
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.
I met Roger Olsen in the Fall of 2000 when he invited me to speak to his theology class at Truett. He wanted his students to "see a real, live Calvinist in person," something, which, he assured me, most had not experienced. Originally, I was invited to speak in chapel, but, due to factors beyond his control, that part of the invitation got rescinded. I guess a real, live Calvinist behind a lecturn was scary enough; letting one stand behind the pulpit might have pushed some over the edge.

Dr. Olsen was nothing if not cordial to me. He was wonderfully warm in welcoming me to the class. Though we were and are polar opposites theologically, he treated me with grace and kindness. Other students were invited and several faculty members also showed up. I spoke on what Calvinism is and why I believe it. The dialogue following was spirited, to say the least. One young man discreetly whispered to me on the way out, "Thanks! I am the only one here," before quickly walking away. It almost made me wish that Calvinists had some sort of secret handshake that we could have used!

Olsen and I had some time before and after the lecture to talk. He described himself as a "true Arminian" in distinction from the "Tom Oden kind." He also said that he was "open to open theism" at that time. From what he has written in The Lariat, it seems like his openness has morphed into embrace. He writes,
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."
Why pray, then? It is a question that open theists struggle to answer in a satisfactory way. Olsen offers a response by once again putting words into God's mouth rather than quoting the words that God has actually spoken in Scripture.
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."
Recognizing that some of his readers might find his thoughts uncomfortable, he admits,
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.
This is the exactly wrong approach to theodicy. God has not asked to be let off the hook for the presence of sin and evil in His world. He tells us plainly that He cannot be tempted by evil and does not tempt anyone (James 1:13). He also tells us that He is absolutely sovereign over even the most seemingly insignificant events in His world--such as a sparrow falling to the ground (Matthew 10:29).

What then are we to do about evil in the world? How are we to respond to it? We are to go to the cross where God delivered up His own Son for sinners. The death of Jesus is the greatest tragedy, the greatest display of injustice, and the greatest evil that has ever occurred on the stage of human history. Yet, Scripture unmistakably teaches that God was not merely standing by or out of control when it happened. He orchestrated the death of His Son according to His preordained plan. Peter said it: "this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death" (Acts 2:23) and prayed it: "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur" (Acts 4:27-28).

If God was sovereignly involved in the planning and executing of that horrible event, and He did so in order to accomplish His deepest work of mercy and grace, should we not, then, trust Him in the face of and wake of other grievous but necessarily lesser horrors that occur in His world?

Recently, I preached on 1 Peter 2:24 and ended the message with this well-known poem by Edward Shillito, who ministered during WW I outside of London. As he reflected on the ravages of war and the toll that it took on soldiers, he penned "Jesus of the Scars."
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
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.


Noah D. Lee said...

Thank you for beautifully and truthfully explaining the kind of Calvinism I believe-- Bible truth about the sovereignty of God in the world. If God is not in charge and in control, I have no hope.

Weston "Hank" said...

Amen, Brother Tom.

I remember how it feels being the "only one here". Things have changed since I moved up to Louisville, but from my perspective, the theological alienation of A v. C seems to only run one-way...

Perhaps another reason we call it the Doctrines of Grace...

kingofbleh said...

Brother Tom -

I, too, know what it's like to be the "only one here". When I joined the church I attend now (a 100+ year old SBC megachurch with no history of Calvinism whatsoever). For the first couple of months I did not think I would last here given what I have seen in similar churches of this size and type. But I knew that I wanted to get to know the staff intimately because the Lord wanted me to get into ministry with both feet. So I bit down and began to introduce myself as a 5-point Calvinist who loves the gospel and loves lost people second only to loving our Lord. 1.5 years later I have found that staff at my church to be warm, inclusive and loving people who share the same passions I mentioned above regardless of their soteriology.

And blessing upon blessings, I have also discovered a good-sized group of long-time members in the chuch who share my understanding of God's sovereignty and grace and passion for studying scripture. This group includes lifelong Baptists (like me), former Presbyterians, and even a former Plymouth Brethren (go figure! a denomination that emphasizes Biblical fidelity produces a Calvinist!) This group of gracious men (and women) are neither closeted nor contentious about our soteriology. Our focus is on maintaining the purity of the gospel and taking that gospel daily to a dead and sinful world.

Your gracious example, Dr. Ascol, has played no small role in demonstrating to us how we are to treat our brothers and sisters within our fellowship. Thank you!

Lucas Defalco

Will said...

Brother Tom
'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."'

I do not see this impotent God revealed in Scripture. Therefore I must conclude one of two things- (1) scripture is incomplete, not our authority for faith and practice, and we must think up for ourselves answers to the tough questions, or (2)
the god that this man knows is not the God of the Bible, nor the God that saves, nor the God that I know.

Cedar Hill Tx

Tom said...

Thanks, Noah. I agree with you completely. If God does not rule and overrule every molecule, then I quit.

Hank, glad you are able to take advantage of the blessings God has deposited in L'ville. Keep pressing on!

Thanks, brother. What a great testimony of God's grace in your church! May He greatly use you greatly there and give you much fruit for your labor.


GeneMBridges said...

So, open to openness, eh? Isn't it interesting that the one who says "he's an Arminian of the heart" and not like Thomas Oden (I'm sure a Patrologist like Oden would love to know that he's an 'Arminian of the head'), is now, it seems falling toward doctrines of Socinians. Honestly, this is precisely the sort of problems the High Protestant Orthodox noted about Arminianism - it always led to latitudinarianism in their day, and here we go again.

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."Recognizing that some of his readers might find his thoughts uncomfortable, he admits,
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

And notice that these are all ethical problems with Calvinism, not exegetical problems. It seems that what we have here is a classic case of aprioristic theology.

Sojourner said...

Dr. Oden's comments really lack explaining power for me. If the problem he has with Calvinism is that it seems to make God responsible for evil, I can't see how his solution is any better. He says that God has purposely limited Himself so that He will not prevent evil from happening. How does that absolve God of responsibility? In the end, it seems that he has constructed a theology where God limits Himself from stopping evil, which results in pointless evil. At least Calvinism offers a view, while difficult, that still leaves room for a ray of hope in the midst of evil.

Sojourner said...

Sorry, that should be Dr. Olsen, not Oden.

Tom said...


You are correct--open theism is a Socinian error. It is very sad to see good men imbibe it.


I agree. All his argument does is push the problem back one step. It does not eliminate it.


Tom Bryant said...

Well done, Brother Tom. It is amazing how fast we move from opposition to an obvious heresy (open theism) to an acceptance of it because we won't accept the sovereignty of God.

Larry said...

Great post and I agree totally. I was very upset when I read Olson's article. It is a shame a "baptist" seminary professor is taking this direction.

Bart Barber said...

Olsen almost makes a Calvinist of me!

Bart Barber said...

that is...reading him shows me how far away I am from his position, even if I am not entirely in line with yours.

Ken Richardson said...


It seems we ask the wrong questions. Instead of why does God allow war, death, and sickness. We should ask why does he allow peace, life, and health. The question we ask will usually tell if we understand total depravity. I deserve war, death, and sickness. I have the other by the grace of God.

DW said...

That is beautiful Tom. God's sovereignty as the Bible describes it explodes with beauty and mercy.
And count me in as one who has felt like the "only one here" in a SBC. While feeling that way doesn't bother me, it is a big reason I read blogs like this one: the feeling of camaraderie. It helps me to be bold and humble.

Tom said...


It is amazing and scary! I fear that some are "practicing open theists" who haven't really thought too deeply about it, for the very reason you mention.


I would to God that thou were both almost and altogether... ;-) You don't have to be a Calvinist to recoil from the heresy of OT.


As John Gerstner said, the real problem isn't the presence of pain, it's the presence of good!


I understand how you feel. The good news is that there is a growing number of folks in the SBC who are not afraid of Calvinism and unwilling to demonize it, even though they are not convinced. That bodes well for real fellowship and mutual encouragement in the future. That is certainly my prayer.


WesInTex said...

Dr. Ascol,

Thank you for this post and the links to the articles by Drs. Piper and Olsen. This site and others have been a tremendous blessing to me over the past year and I trust that I will continue to grow in "the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."

This posting is particularly precious to me tonight. This morning my wife and I sat in the Doctor's office and received word that she has cancer. I can't begin to express everything that is going on with us right now as I'm sure you understand. But I just wanted to give testimony to our precious, gracious and most merciful Father. As we face this storm, we have never been more confident in the presence and purpose of God than we are right now. We could not face this battle if all we had was the god of Olsen - some impotent, unmerciful being who supposedly could do something but in his self-imposed limitation won't. We worship and praise the God who CAN and WILL use even cancer to bring honor and glory to His name.

I have to admit that I am not the brightest bulb in this theological box; and a lot of the things you talk about sends me to the Dictionary, but I have never in my life stood more convinced of the sovereignty and purpose of God as I do right now.

To God be the Glory, great things He Still does!


Tom said...


I am so sorry to hear this news about your wife. You and she are in my prayers tonight. Thank you for your testimony of God's grace in your life at this time. Tomorrow, I preach the memorial service of a dear friend and church member. It is the God you describe--"who CAN and WILL use even cancer to bring honor and glory to His name, the only God there is, who gave up His Son for us--it is this faithful and trustworthy God to whom we are looking for comfort.

May His grace and mercy strengthen you and your dear wife. I would be grateful if you would email me and let me know how you guys are doing and keep me updated. I will pray, and will ask others, too, as well. (editor at


mcprecious said...

As a person who has experienced heartache and confusion regarding God, who He is and why He does what He does,I eventually retreat to my bible and understand that He is truly soverign even when I do don't understand.
As a believer in the doctrines of grace, I too sometimes feel alone as a member of a SBC but my "loneliness" is in fact temporary because I know the truth and can still love those wonderful Christian brothers and sisters who think differently than I do.

Tom said...


"I retreat to my Bible..." What a great statement! Thanks.


Steve Hays has provided a significant critique of Olsen's article here:

Will said...

Thank you for your testimony. May the Lord deeply bless you and your wife.

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Brother Wes,

I'm sure many of us will pray for you, and especially for your dear wife. Would you please identify yourself, so we can know for whom we are praying?


Love in Christ,


WesInTex said...

Dr. Ascol and all,

Thank you for your kind words and prayers - they really do mean so much.

We just spent the day in the city park here in the town we live in (I started cooking briskets at 5 am). It was a community event in which our churches (well, most of them) came together to cook, enjoy fellowship and feed the hungry. We was a great time and we certainly enjoyed the fellowship, even through we are both "dog tired." We needed today - such a blessing to serve and get our minds off of ourselves for a while.

I am still a new comer to this blogging thing. I thought I had filled in my profile - sorry bout that :-0 Just to give you a little more (perhaps more than you wanted) about us: My name is Wes and my precious wife is Rene'. We have four children, the youngest of which is 17 and home schooled. I serve as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Coahoma, TX - a great fellowship who still doesn't quite know what to do with their new pastor (we've been here for almost a year). Our church family has been wonderful in their support through all of the tests and such. I know that we are in the right place at the right time for God to work in a mighty way.

I will try again to update my profile - and thanks to all for your kindness and prayers.


GeneMBridges said...

Steve now has a second post up:

This one is on the Open Theism angle.

Wes, I'm praying for you too.

Kevin Rhyne said...


As a brother connected to you by I-20, in addition to Christ, I wanted to pass this link to John Piper's article "Don't Waste Your Cancer" which he wrote on the eve of surgery for prostate cancer.

The peace of God, the grace of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you and your wife during this.

Stephen said...

Didn't John Piper fire Roger Olson some years ago from a teaching position. Makes me wonder what makes him tick on this issue and others.

Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.