At about 3pm on 1st August 2007 a interstate bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed. Workmen had, just a few days previously, been conducting extensive repair work to the 40-year-old bridge. There were tons of building materials piled up on the bridge at the time of its collapse.
Bethlehem Baptist Church is within sight of that bridge, and John Piper is its Senior Pastor. Just a few hours after the disaster Piper, not yet knowing the scale of human injury and loss, or whether any of his own friends and colleagues had been directly affected, wrote of his immediate thoughts and feelings about what had just happened.
It so happened that family devotions in the Piper household that evening centred on Luke 13:1-5. Piper wrote that an appropriate response to the news of the bridge collapse would echo that of Jesus concerning the 18 people who were killed when a tower in Siloam collapsed. Jesus’ hearers would have been expecting him to answer in terms of degrees of sinfulness (‘These were killed because they were greater sinners than the rest’). Many of Piper’s readers would have wished him to respond primarily in terms of God’s love and compassion (‘God is as hurt and distressed as we are: but he is with us in our pain and he brings comfort to us in our sorrows’). But both place the emphasis somewhere else: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
I don’t want to dwell on Piper’s immediate reaction, still less do I want expound my own reaction to such an event: I am not equal to the task of solving the problem of evil in a single blog entry.
What I do want to do is to ponder Roger Olson’s reaction to all of this. Olson is a leading evangelical scholar. He is a generally well-informed, thoughtful, and irenic writer. But I find his reaction to Piper unhelpful and misleading. In fact, I’m astonished at the number of ways in which (in my opinion) he gets it wrong in such a short piece:-
According to Olson, ‘to [Piper] and his followers, God foreordained, planned and indirectly (if not directly) caused the event.’
But what Piper actually said to his 11-year-old daughter that evening was:-
You and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand…Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.
Olson warns that Piper’s theology ‘is sweeping up thousands of impressionable young Christians.’ Goodness, what a terrible thing this new-fangled Calvinism must be! He makes it sound like a ruinous epidemic! Olson knows better than this. He knows that Calvinism has a long and noble history in the Christian church. He knows what its teaching has achieved in terms of moral reform and evangelistic success. He knows that the principal Reformers (Luther as well as Calvin, for instance) were agreed on the doctrines of election, predestination and providence. He knows that this teaching goes back to Augustine and beyond, and that a strong case (many of us would say, a convincing case) can be made for it from the pages of Scripture.
One of the most common criticisms by the Arminian against Calvinism is that it is over-logical. However, I think that the Arminian’s bluff should be called on this. It is the Arminian, rather than the Calvinist, who is prone to take things to their ‘logical’, and sometimes absurdly unbiblical, conclusions. Olson writes:-
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. (My emphasis)
Lack of Scriptural support
In his short piece, Piper appeals to Scripture several times (Luke 13:1-5; Isa 43:2; Romans 8:35-38; Psal 71:20). Olson, however, does not refer directly to Scripture at all. Where he does mention Scripture, it is in general, rather than specific, terms:-
Some Calvinists will say [God’s] not guilty because he has a good intention for the event — to bring good out of it, but the Bible expressly forbids doing evil for the sake of good.
But what does Scripture actually say?
This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. (Acts 2:23).
Surely, this (and other, similar scriptures) teaches a compatibalist view of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
Lack of viable alternative
If Olson does not like what he regards as Piper’s Calvinism, what would he put in its place?
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.
But no: this seems much more like the God of open theism (which Olson claims to disavow). And what, we might ask, is gained by suggesting that the bridge collapsed because God, who could have intervened, limited himself and so held back from doing so? How is this morally more acceptable than saying, for example, that God permitted the bridge to collapse in order that a greater good might ensue, or even that he allowed it to happen as a warning against some greater disaster? The whole subject bristles with difficulties, but I dno’t see how Olson can be claiming to occupy the moral high ground.
Olson concludes with a stern warning:-
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.
What a sad echo of something John Wesley (an Arminian) once said to George Whitefield (a Calvinist): “Your God is my devil”.
I thought we’d got beyond that.