Roger Olson, James White, and the Problem of Old Testament Ethics

So a couple days ago I posted a critique of a recent debate over Calvinism vs Arminianism: Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism.

I ended my critique by pointing out that one of the debaters from the Arminian side, Brian Zahnd, clearly denied the inerrancy of the Bible, and therefore read his view of Christ into the scriptures. He denies the inerrancy especially of the Old Testament, because of it’s violent history. And of course, a violent God is in no way congruent with his idea of a peaceful Jesus. 

Recently, James White brought up this same problem with another theologian named Roger Olson. While I like much of Olson’s books, especially on church history, I think White hit the nail on the head. Olson denies inerrancy, and therefore denies much of the Old Testament’s “terror texts” (as he calls them, referring to violent texts he perceives God would never condone). It is the same issue I saw in Brian Zahnd, to a tee. White calls it a new form of Marcionism (which he will define).

Listen to White’s commentary below from 40:30 on (keep in mind, White can be colorful!)…

 

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Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 2): Answering Objections

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In my last post, I said that even though God is sovereign over sin, he by no means causes, commits, or even condones those sins. I said,

Though God’s decree to permit the fall rendered it certain, it by no means makes him a sinner. And this can be said of all sin. Though God knew it would happen, planned beforehand to permit it, and even used it for his plan, it doesn’t mean he committed the sin, or forced anyone to sin

I think that if Christians affirm God’s sovereignty, this must be the case. God decreed to permit sin to enter and corrupt the world without himself efficiency committing any sin. This view of God’s sovereignty over sin is the classical Reformed view; it is a view that has been held by Reformed theologians for centuries — and all of these theologians affirmed that God’s sovereignty included the sinful actions of men; that in his wisdom, God decided beforehand to allow sin to enter the world, even though it goes against his holy character. And most importantly, he did it to bring a better good out of the situation.

However, many Christians who would not consider themselves Reformed think that this view of God’s sovereignty over sin makes him culpable in sin. Roger Olson, a theologian whom I truly do respect and have read many of his works (but obviously differ with on this topic), says:

Does God foreordain and render certain sin in general and specific sins? Calvinism says yes but then usually retreats into the language of “permission” which, non-Calvinists believe, is inconsistent with Calvinism’s divine determinism. If God “designs, ordains, and governs” sin and evil, then, as Arminius himself said (and Wesley agreed) God is the only real sinner. Adding that God does not “cause” sin but only “permits” it only raises the question of how God “ordains and governs” sin without causing it. (source)

For Olson, for God to decide beforehand (or ordain, or decree) to permit the sins of free moral agents makes him morally complicit in all sin and evil. I guess that doesn’t follow for me. Let’s start with a few presuppositions that I start with in making my own conclusions: First, God foreknows all that could, would, might, and / or will happen. Second, nothing will / would happen unless God permits or causes it to happen. Lastly, this means that God has the ultimate say in what will happen, even if he is not the immediate cause of it. So, with that, we can say that God decreed to permit Adam to choose sin, while not himself having committed the sin.

Olson obviously disagrees. He proposes his own view by saying,

Now, an Arminian begins with the fact that God only permits sin in general and specific sins and then says that, yes, God also uses sinners and their freely chosen sins for his purposes, but without sin being part of his antecedent will. Sin is only part of his consequent will—what God wills to allow because of the fall and its consequences. So, the men who crucified Jesus, for example, were only “destined” to sin insofar as they planned and carried it out freely and God permitted them to do what they wanted to do. But this was part of God’s consequent will, not God’s antecedent will. And God did not render their sin certain. He knew what they would do, but he did not effectually manipulate them to do it nor was their sin part of God’s “design” except consequentially.

I don’t see a real difference between this view and mine, other than the fact that Olson believes that for God to decide / decree / ordain what will happen beforehand makes him complicit in sin.

But here’s where I have a problem. Even within the Arminian view of foresight-and-permission, God still foresaw the fall and all the consequent sins that would be committed, could have stopped those sins from happening, and decided not to stop them. If God dwells outside of time, and consequently can see free choices before they actually happen, why didn’t he stop those free choices which were sinful? Even more basic, why didn’t God simply not create humans if he knew they would sin? Both Calvinists and Arminians must answer that God decided to allow his free moral agents commit sins to accomplish a greater outcome. We may disagree on the reasons, but have to at least have an answer.

Here’s a helpful quote from Michael Horton on this issue:

[This issues is a] vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose. (source)

While Olson might be uncomfortable with God deciding what to permit / not permit before it happens, this is not really different from God foreseeing specific sins and allowing them to happen. In both instances, they happened necessarily because God decided to allow them.

With that said, God’s decrees do not make him the cause or originator of sin. Because God decreed to permit those sinful actions does make them certain — but it by no means makes him sinful.

I have two more posts on this subject here and here