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 Originally, I was invited to speak in chapel, but, due to factors beyond his control, that part of the invitation got rescinded.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.