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Tuesday, September 04, 2007 

On Scandal: Of Theology
Part 2

Dr. Roger Olson, of Truett Seminary, recently penned his reaction to the I-35 Bridge collapse in MN, along with his reaction to other reactions, most noticeably certain Calvinists. Chris Coleman thinks about the fallout for worship. Dr. R. Scott Clark thinks Dr. Olson is asking the wrong questions and that the smart aleck answer is the correct answer. Macht gives a neo-calvinist take on articulating sovereignty and idolatry. Justin Taylor quoted choice tidbits. One commenter (leaping to Olson's defense!) noted that:
Olson's point in this sentence, is nothing different than what Jacob Arminius, John Wesley, and every other classical Arminian like them have been saying for centuries... Olson thinks like an Arminian.
And this is all, I'm sure, a fairly good thing, since the man who penned this book ought to think like an Arminian.

But I do have a question that I need some help with. Yes, Dr. Olson did pen the above mentioned book, but I have a question of Arminian theology that maybe someone can illuminate for me.

First, Dr. Olson says, "The pastor and the band are Christian determinists." The pastor he is referring to is John Piper, and I don't care know who the band is. However, if he is talking philosophically, Piper is a form of Christian compatibilist, not determinist. I think Dr. Olson knows this full well, and it isn't hard to demonize compatibilists, so why the wrong label?

Secondly, Dr. Olson seems to imply a limitation on God's part. I infer this from quotes like the following:
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? ... 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?
Now here's where things get sticky for me. As I understand it, one of the main tenets of classic Arminianism (which Dr. Olson subscribes to and defends) is God's complete foreknowledge of all things. If this were not the case, then God could not look down through the corridor of history and elect individuals based on their faith; the Arminian doctrine of conditional election. So - 1) Dr. Olson claims God limits Himself, and 2) classic Arminian theology acknowledges God's complete (fore)knowledge of the future. This leads me to believe, then, that Dr. Olson thinks God is either limiting His desire or His ability to act in these situations. Since God completely knew every detail of the bridge's collapse, He could have limited His desire or will to save the people on the bridge - He simply didn't want to. Or, perhaps God perfectly knew of the bridge's collapse, and perfectly wanted to save them, but (perhaps for a variety of reasons) wasn't able to save them.

Am I tracking with everyone? Are there any Arminians out there who agree/disagree? Are there any options I've missed? Remember, this isn't Open Theism, where God doesn't know for sure if the bridge will fall. In Dr. Olson's Arminian theology, God completely foreknows, since the dawn of time, that this bridge will fall on that day at that certain time and that many people will die or be injured. So am I right so far?

Dr. Olson asks, "What if God is in charge but not in control?" I'm not quite sure what this statement means. I don't wish to go exegeting sentences that were meant to be throw away statements, but I imagine it means something like, "God is responsible (in charge) but unable to make things act how He wishes (not in control)." Wait, God's still responsible but unable to make it go His way? How does this help Dr. Olson's theodicy?

Lastly, I would like to admit that I have taken Dr. Olson's final request seriously, and that I am reconsidering what effect my Calvinistic lens has on my understanding of God's character. Thank you, Dr. Olson, for desiring to be careful to honor God's character. May we all be as quick to honor God's character.

So, any Arminians out there to help me out? Especially if you've recently graduated from Truett?!

[Arminianism] | [Olson]

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1. I think he would concede your point. Compatiblist is a better term to describe Piper’s and I’m guessing Cademans Call’s position, though I haven’t read the article.

2. I tried to re-read your question several times so that I could use some of the same language and speak directly to your question, but I’ll just answer it based on what I think you are asking and stand ready to be corrected if I have interpreted incorrectly. Olson is aware of Arminianism’s weaknesses as I have repeatedly pointed them out to him. It is interesting that he appeals to logics requirements of God considering what I believe logic requires of the Arminian version of God.

I suspect that he would answer you with something like the following all of which you have already heard. God foresaw the bridge collapsing but because of his essential commitment the libertarian version of human freedom will not repeatedly override this freedom to spare us of all our problems because that would make human freedom/existence somewhat disingenuous. This is bit puzzling, but all the sudden God’s in breaking of the natural to do the supernatural seems fairly idiosyncratic given the lack of Arminianism/Open Theism ability to appeal to the will of God.

Of course the natural objection is that even if God foresaw and prevented the atrocity has his knowledge of would have happened not just changed? I have repeatedly asked Olson how he answers the question of how God comes by this foreknowledge in Simple Foreknowledge Arminianism, or even more importantly when God comes by this knowledge in relation to the creation project. He often quotes Stephen Davis who offers the suffering analogy of God looking into something like a crystal ball. A poor answer even for Olson, but one in which he feels he can do no better.

The logical step to me seems to be to just embrace Bill Craig’s Molonism, but Olson rejects it for the same reason I do. I think it just pushes off the answer that God’s desire ultimately conditions our actions and ends up being something a lot like compatiblism with even less control on the part of the Divine. Though Craig successfully preserves libertarian in this system it seems to me as though libertarian freedom is fairly useless since the circumstances that give rise to my decision making have been rendered certain by God based on a mystery criteria. This seems strangely familiar to the sort of compatiblism that Paul Helm proposes for example.

On top of this is the grounding objection. I don’t remember my essence making any decisions before the dawn of time or the beginning of creation. Lastly, Craig’s position on time seems especially screwy to me. Wouldn’t God in his atemporal existence have stumbled on the facts of the temporal existence which would, as I understand atemporality, been rolled up in into his atemporal existence?

Sorry I guessed I’ve ended up preaching my own sermon and not so much Roger Olson’s, but I think this is at least somewhere he might end up. I know he is committed to Arminianism because he thinks that the alternative causes a problem for God’s character, but won’t go as far as open theism because he sees problems in it as well. I think the day after he retires he will admit his open theist tendencies. But I’m glad someone is trying to make sense of SFA.


Look forward to a rebuttal or two or even a correction and point of clarification. This is kind of fun. I haven’t gotten to think about this for a while. Clearing out the cobwebs.

Yes!! My favorite recent Truett grad! By the way, props and congrats on landing the new job. I'm envious! I bet you and Lindsay are thrilled. Hope all is well.

This is kind of fun. I haven’t gotten to think about this for a while. Clearing out the cobwebs.

I agree! I haven't thought about some of these terms for a few years!

Regarding #1:
Fair enough. Maybe in a scramble to get the article on print, Dr. Olson used a term he though more people would understand. Fair enough.

Actually, you were very helpful. As I read you, you are agreeing that Dr. Olson (given his current theological position, albeit acknowledging a potential shift in the future) believes that God foreknew the bridge collapse, and desired to save/stop the catastrophe, but chose to limit Himself in regards to His ability to stop it because of the principle of libertarian free will. As I read you, I think that is the pretty standard philosophically-informed reading of Arminian theology. Thanks for clearing that up. Dr. Olson never referred to the role of LFW in his article, so I appreciate your input.

You mentioned Dr. Olson may change his position in the future; is this related to any policies at Baylor/Truett?

The real reason I brought all of this up was more historical than it was theological. While I agree with you about LFW in current debates, I'm not so sure this element (libertarian free will) was clearly understood or articulated by James Arminius, John Wesley, or many of the other (in)famous Arminian theologians. My take is that libertarian free will is a more recent philosophical development, rather than theological. As Dr. Olson recently penned that monograph defending classical Arminianism, I was surprised at his comments about the bridge. I understand classical Arminians to sound virtually identical to Calvinists when it comes to Providence, time/history, and suffering, while merely wishing to nuance a few things in soteriology.

I agree with you about Molinism. Do your worries about Craig's flavor of Molinism extend to Dr. Boyd's neo-Molinism, or do you feel his particular augments help his theory escape your worries?

Sometimes I'm surprised we spend so much time on theodicy, on "getting God off the hook." It seems we all agree God actually is on the hook for all the bad stuff. Is He responsible for bad stuff because He's evil, because He can't stop it (for one of three reasons), or for a different reason? Christian theologians tend to frown at calling God evil. But this world is cursed, and we are a cursed race. Where did the curse come from? For me, that is where these questions keep getting pushed back to.

Lemme know your thoughts when you have a moment...

On Baylor/Truett Policies...

I suspect that this would be even less than an issue at Baylor, but I don't think this is the sort of thing that would get Olson in trouble here...though you never know where baptist money is coming from and unfortunately scholars end up dancing more than I think is necessary...reformed and heretical alike:)

I said that tongue and cheek. For example...I've used the time discussion to ask Olson very related and acute questions...given he subscribes to Nick Wolterstorff's understanding. At this point he's said something like "well, you have me." He may love the peace too much to ever admit it.

On current and historical Arminianism...

I think you are completely right. The few primary texts I've read by Arminius and Wesley, indicate that the version of Arminianism they espoused was a slight soteriological nuance and had little to do with the philosophical/theological notion of LFW. Should that be an alarm to modern Arminianism and Open Theism perhaps.

Leafblad who has become unapologetically Barthian has me rethinking freedom. I guess as of right now I would submit that when the Bible talks about freedom it is talking primarily if not exclusively about freedom in regards to the ability to be obedient...Romans 6:18. Leafer argues that this leaves room for LFW, but that is almost meaningless for Barth because it has little soteriological implications. This gets dicey for me when I think about the relationship between noetic consent and it's relationship to Biblical freedom and it's interplay with LFW. Seems like something like secondary causes could only make sense of this relationship.

On Molonism/Neo-Molonism...

Aside from my position, but rather addressing this from a purely logical standpoint, I do think Greg clears up a few hurdles that Craig doesn't. Most simply his suggestion that the logical antecedent of the counterfactual "would" is not "would not," but rather "might" or "might not" makes a great deal of sense to me. In this case of the both circumstances that give rise to our choices and the choices themselves can be only partially conditioned...and probably mostly conditioned by the time we make them. The key difference here is that I think Greg isn't forced to posit that in some sense God rendered certain the circumstances at some point in history without the moral culpability of other free agents or other fallen world factors being by large responsible. in short pretty much the explanatory power of his six TWT in SATPOE.

i do think there is an Achilles heel in Greg's theory. well probably several, but one seems especially poignant to me. As far as I know God comes by knowledge of the future by
1. solidified character action
2. casual circumstances rendered certain within history
3. what God himself has promised to do

Say on the night of the Crucifixion an unsolidified character decided to throw a rock at the rooster just after Peter denied Christ, but before it crowed and killed it? This seemingly unsolidified character could have only been perfectly presently understood by God in terms of might or might not counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. How does God know that someone with their libertarianly free choice won't screw up what is supposed to unfold in the drama of the Biblical narrative be it even a rough sketch of what is supposed to happen?

I think there are some answers...hermetically and philosophically that can be given, but I'll leave that to the Ph.Ds.

On God being evil...

Your point is well articulated and taken. I took a Providence and the Problem of Evil class with Olson my first semester here and one girl, I thought very astutely, pointed out the sudden appeal of gnosticism. Not literally of course, but your point is well made. Even in the system of Arminianism/Open Theism we must answer where the propensity to commit the very first sin came from. This is where you have me by the tail.

Excellent discussion fellas! I especially liked your second post, Carney.
I'm not sure I can follow you guys on the novelty of the LFW thesis. Didn't some of the Counter-Reformers and the Socinians produce some good arguments? I'm pretty sure some of Arminius' followers, who leaned toward and fed of off Socinianism, also produced some pretty good arguments for LFW. I've heard some well respected guys say that the 16th-18th century arguments are the archetype of what we read today.

Also, didn't Thomas have some opponents when it came to his doctrine of predestination? I seem to remember that he did, maybe even a few of his contemporaries.


You'll have to help me out on which Socinians and Thomist opponents were articulating their understanding of agency and the will. When Carney said, "the version of Arminianism they espoused was a slight soteriological nuance and had little to do with the philosophical/theological notion of LFW," I (and he?) am thinking of simple free will, with the ability to do otherwise than I might have, even under the rubric of God's complete foreknowledge. Where I see the LFW group differing is that they are talking in largely philosophical (as opposed to exegetical or theological) language of the ability to do other than even "motives" or reason suggest. Creaturely autonomy that, to my knowledge, hasn't been heretofore suggested in the history of thought. I guess I'm thinking of the debates in 18th century England.

Is this what you are talking about? Again, maybe if you drop some names I can catch up with you.

Alas! you caught me. I was hoping my question would jar something in your memory since you have more in yours than I do in mine. I have no names to drop other than secondary ones like Pelikan and Muller. I would be hard pressed, however, to remember where the heck they talked about LFW in the high scholastic era of RCism. I thought it would be easy to find their thoughts on the high orthodox era, but I can't find that either.
I guess I'm stuck with three less than compelling reasons for not following you guys on this.
1)Sometime I read something somewhere by somebody
2)every time I've thought that something as fundamental as LFW was novel it turned out to be quite old
3)I have a hard time believing that the brilliant men in the 14th-18th centuries didn't think of this idea.

And I guess I'll have to work on two things.
1)Find out more about this so I can hopefully redeem myself
2)Keep my mouth shut in the future so I won't have to work so hard at redeeming myself

I guess I could just flog myself. I'm pretty sure that's not a novel idea.

Thanks for sharing that. It was fun reading it. :-)

That was a VERY interesting one! Seriously interesting.

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Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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