Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Calvinism and the collapsed bridge

There's an important discussion of which you should be aware. Is God in control of everything that happens, or do some things happen that He does not intend? How you answer the question depends greatly upon your views of God's power and of history.

Pastor John Piper of Desiring God Ministries sees the Minnesota bridge collapse from a few weeks ago as evidence that God is at work in the world.

All of us have sinned against God, not just against man. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.
Greg Boyd points out what he believes to be errors in Piper's line of thinking. He concludes:

There’s undoubtedly plenty of blame to go around for why this bridge collapsed, ranging from fallen cosmic powers to a wrongly prioritized government to the wrongly prioritized people who elected these officials into office without holding them sufficiently accountable. But if you accept that God created a world with free agents, the one being you don’t need to blame is God.

If, on the other hand, you don’t accept that the cosmos is populated with free agents who can therefore make decisions that are contrary to God’s will, then you have an even greater problem. (This is the camp the pastor whose blog I’m discussing is in). For in this case one has to explain how everyone can deserve to die when everything every person has ever done, however sinful, was part of God’s great plan from the start!

Not only this, but if angels and people don’t have free will that can go against God’s will, then it’s no longer adequate to say God “allowed” a bridge to fall. You have to say God “caused” the bridge to fall. Other agents may have been instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the bridge, but they only did what God’s sovereign plan decreed they do. So one is fudging words to say God “allowed” the bridge to fall and that God is not to blame for the bridge falling.

In the end, this view requires that we accept that God punishes people with catastrophes – and then eternally in hell -- for doing precisely what he predestined them to do. Good luck making sense out of that!

I suggest it's far more biblical, and far more rational, to simply say that in a fallen, oppressed world, bridges sometimes collapse -- and leave it at that. Rather than trying to see the vindictive hand of God behind catastrophes, it’s wiser to simply acknowledge that the world is an oppressed place where things sometimes go tragically wrong and focus all of our mental and physical energy turning from our self-centered ways to carry out God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Dr. Roger Olson of Truett Theological Seminary believes that God's character is distorted if seen through Calvinism's lens.

A well-known Christian author and speaker pastors a church within a mile of the collapsed bridge. To him and his followers, God foreordained, planned and indirectly (if not directly) caused the event.

A popular Christian band sings "There is a reason" for everything. They mean God renders everything certain and has a good purpose for whatever happens. The pastor and the band are Christian determinists. Both happen to adhere to a form of Protestant theology called Calvinism.

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.

But wait. 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. If God plans something and renders it certain, how is he not culpable for it? Here is where things get murky.

Some Calvinists will say he'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.

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.
Prosthesis believes Olson wants to make God in his own image:

We all have a tendency to try to make God into our own image. We want God to act in the way that we think is right. And when God doesn't meet our own expectations, the curse of the fall leads us to think that we, rather than God, is right.

If we can take anything away from Olson's essay, it is that Calvinists need to be careful in how they articulate God's sovereignty. God has given humans authority over his creation. We are responsible for caring for it, tending to it, and cultivating it. When a bridge falls, you better believe that one or more of God's caretakers royally screwed up. But you also better believe that no thing, no event, no bridge collapse, no deaths of 98 year old great-grandmothers, can happen apart from the will of our Father.

Rick Phillips believes Olson has written some "damning words":

So here we have it, from the keyboard of one of the most prominent postconservative thinkers today: He objects that the biblical God is frightening (as if a more preferable God would not be frightening) and he cannot tell the biblical God from the devil. Things really are much worse than we thought out there in post-evangelical land. It argues to me that Reformed theologians must be more bold and aggressive in our biblical portrayal of the true God. And we must take up this more aggressive stance not merely to win the debate with our postconservative fellows, but for the sake of their souls.

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