Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Roger Olson

Yesterday I went to Houghton College for the Woolsey Lectures to hear Roger Olson. Here are some highlights of the day, which got better and better as it went along:

1. In the morning, he preached a brief but helpful sermon on Philippians 2:12-13 in morning chapel. The tension, there, is over the double use of the word 'work' in many English translations. Work in verse 12 is our part of continuing on the journey with God. Work in verse 13 is about God providing us with that ability/energy to continue on. There is no contradiction between the two verses. The sermon had 3 points. First, grace is free. We can do nothing to boost it. Sacraments, for instance, are not ways to boost God's grace. God's grace is constant. Second, grace is costly (in that it cost the Father the death of His Son). Third, grace is relational. Though there are no grace boosters, there are grace blockers. To 'work out' our salvation is to identify those blockers and rid ourselves of them so God's constant grace can transform us.

2. In the afternoon, there was a Q&A session. Olson insisted that the main reason his theology takes the [Arminian] form that it does is because of his emphasis on the character of God. That God is good is the center of his theology (not an insistence of free will). In fact, Olson bluntly stated that he, himself, couldn't worship the Calvinist God (unless he simultaneously became a Universalist!). Other notable points that came out in this Q&A are summarized below:

A. He doesn't like 'middle knowledge' (Molinism) as a helpful option for Arminians. It fits better with Calvinism. Olson believes that this is not the world God wanted, but Molinism insists that it is. For Olson, Molinism is still determinism.

B. He is more open to Open Theism. He thinks Open Theism is a sub-category of Arminian. What prevents him from being an open theist is the lack of support in church history/tradition. The Scriptures are not clear enough on the subject to override the non-open-theist consensus of church history. Besides (and this is tongue-in-cheek), Olson helps the open theists better by not being one!

C. The New Calvinism is largely a rhetorical device and it is very anti-ecumenical. It is wrong for them to imply that the 'others' (those that don't agree with them) are either not Christians or are just barely Christians.

D. Most people who think they are Arminian are ACTUALLY semi-Pelegian! The Calvinists are wrong about Arminianism, but rightly suspicious about most who wear the label. True Arminianism isn't held by many people.

E. We all have to live with some degree of mystery, no matter what theological positions we take. We should not accept contradictions, but we must, ultimately, accept some mystery. It becomes a matter of what mysteries we prefer to live with. Olson currently prefers mystery to open theism, but that could change.

F. On Hell, Olson endorses C.S. Lewis' view that there may be a possibility of leaving hell. Because of this, he does not like the Annihilationist view because it cuts off that very opportunity. As for Rob Bell's book, he feels it was basically identical to 'The Great Divorce' and regrets that there is an industry within Evangelicalism for discovering heresy first.

3. In the evening, Olson read an excellent paper titled "A Christian Humanist Manifesto."

Humanism is the belief in the dignity and worth of human beings, but it tends to have a bad reputation with Christians (we think of 'secular humanism'), but the original humanism was Christian. Olson feels a need to balance the anti-humanism of Calvinism (generally) and John Piper (specifically). Speaking only about our depravity misses the whole picture. We tend to emphasize either our goodness or our badness, but we must learn to balance these extremes. We are damaged goods. Damaged yes. But goods too. It is possible to overstate our depravity.

Men like Erasmus (an early Christian Humanist, emphasized that we were created in the Image of God. Sin is not essential to our nature (the Incarnation is proof enough of that!). In fact, humanity is essentially good (even if existentially estranged). God doesn't just seek His own glory, He wants to glorify us too (Eastern 'Deification' is essentially becoming truly human, not become God). We need not escape our humanity, we simply need to be redeemed. Christian humanism has the capacity to give us more energy and optimism in our kingdom work, confident that God is already in the world and is for it.

All in all, a well spent day. Olson shared some very good stuff and I was able to connect with some people I hadn't seen in a while (or much of) while also getting in some library time. Thanks to Houghton for putting this on!