A parable (not an allegory)

A Parable (Not an Allegory)

Once upon a time there was a small country involved in a civil war; a coalition of freedom fighters was trying to oust the evil dictator who had ruled the country with an iron fist for decades. The dictator was a ruthless autocrat who arbitrarily used his secret police to arrest people in the middle of the night; most them simply disappeared and nobody ever saw them again.  The purpose seemed to be to create terror among the population to keep them from rising up against him.

The coalition of freedom fighters used a variety of tactics to overthrow the dictator. Some of them were terrorists who thought that almost any violence was justified if it had the goal and some hope of leading to the dictator’s fall.  Others were pacifists who thought violence was always wrong and that using terrorism to overthrow the dictator was just imitating him. Between those two groups within the coalition was a variety of perspectives among the freedom fighters; most of them thought some violence was necessary and justified but rejected terrorism.

Another difference among the freedom fighters was over their beliefs about their hero—the exiled former president to whom they were all passionately committed as the true leader of the country who would return and lead when the dictator fell. The former president lived in a different country and was in hiding because of attempts on his life by agents of the dictator. Communication with the former president was sporadic and unclear, but all the freedom fighters agreed that he was their man, their hero, and that he would either return to lead them in a final battle against the dictator or take up power when the dictator fell.

However, there was a sustained argument among the freedom fighters about their hero. He had written a book before going into exile and the book expressed his political views and ideas about government, economics and laws. Yet, the book was open to different interpretations and those had developed among the freedom fighters loyal to him. Some of them talked about him as someone who would return and use force to impose his ideas on the country, at least temporarily imprisoning those who had supported the dictator through marshal law. They described him as a benevolent dictator who would redistribute wealth through land reform and enforce a more equal society on his subjects.  Others of the freedom fighters talked about him as a man who valued democracy and individual liberties; they described him as a peacemaker who would immediately work toward reconciliation and healing among his countrymen. Both sides could point to aspects of his book that seemed to support their view.

As time went on and the civil war progressed, the issue of the exiled former president’s character and plans became somewhat heated and people on both sides of the disagreement among the freedom fighters felt it was important to persuade all the freedom fighters to view him their way. In the meantime, as the fight to overthrow the dictator continued, in spite of their different views of the exiled former president, the freedom fighters agreed to disagree as they continued their campaigns to convince everyone involved, including non-freedom fighters who opposed the dictator, to believe as they did about their hero.

Finally, one day, two leaders of the freedom fighters met to try to hash out their disagreement and see if they could continue to fight side-by-side for the overthrow of the dictator (something they were equally passionate about) and look forward to the return of the exiled former president. They sat in a large room in a safe house and talked surrounded by freedom fighters on both sides and many who had not decided what they believed about the hero, his character and plans for the country.

One freedom fighter leader said to the other one “Look, if what you believe about our hero, our future president, is true, then when he comes back and takes over the reins of government he will not be that different from the dictator we’re trying to overthrow! We’re convinced you’re wrong about him; he’s a man of peace and good will and forgiveness and will do his best to distribute power and create a true democracy in our country.” That’s why we’re in this cause and why we support him.

The other freedom fighter leader said “No! You’re wrong.  He’ll be totally different from the dictator we are trying to overthrow; he’s not bloodthirsty and cruel like him. His will is for the common good of all the people and when he returns and takes over the government he’ll impose marshal law to crush the dictator’s people and get them out of the way so he and his people can lead the country into a time of peace and prosperity. He’s a benevolent man who knows how to use power rightly and only a single strong leader like him can put this country back on the right track toward peace and prosperity.”

The other freedom fighter replied “Well, I’m certain you’re wrong about him.  We agree that this dictator must go and that our hero must replace him, but apparently we cannot agree on exactly what he is like or what he will do when he returns and becomes president again. In fact, if you’re right, and he is as you say and does what you think he will, we won’t be able to support him. However, we’re absolutely sure you’re wrong and that’s why we will continue fighting alongside you in loyalty to him.”

“Good,” said the other freedom fighter.  “We’ll worry about exactly what kind of president he’ll be once we’ve overthrown the dictator and our hero returns.  One of us will turn out to be right.  In the meantime, we’ll just have to continue to agree to disagree and fight on and remain loyal to him.”

The other freedom fighter said “Yes, that’s what we’ll have to do.  Oh, we can keep studying his book and the few communications from him and see if we can’t agree.  We don’t have to quit arguing as we fight together in loyalty to him.” His counterpart agreed with a nod.

Then, suddenly, a young freedom fighter on one side, the side that viewed the exiled president as a benevolent dictator, stood up and said “No!” to the freedom fighter leader who viewed the exiled president as a man of peace and liberty for all.  “You have said you don’t really believe in our leader. You’ve just said that if he returns and turns out to be as WE view him you won’t support him. That’s treason! In fact, some of us don’t think you’re loyal to our hero at all and that you’re not even a true freedom fighter!”

The accused freedom fighter replied, “Let me explain myself. First, your interpretation of our hero is wrong; it’s your interpretation I oppose—not him! I have no doubt that he is and will be as I believe and that’s why I continue to fight for him and why I will support him when he comes back and becomes our president again.”

The accusing freedom fighter interrupted him with “No! You obviously don’t even believe his book because it clearly says what we believe about him.”

The other leader responded “No, your interpretation of his book is the wrong one, but we will continue to fight alongside you for the overthrow of the dictator and the return of our beloved hero to be president of our country because we at least agree that he is benevolent. And we agree the present state of affairs in our country is horrible and must stop.”

The accusing freedom fighter replied “But what about your statement that you won’t support him when he returns? How is that not traitorous?”

The accused freedom fighter said “It’s not traitorous because our hero is not as you say but as I believe. How can I be traitorous toward him when he’s not as you believe but as I believe? And how could I be disloyal to him and his cause when I am fighting for his return and looking forward to it? Of course I’ll support him when he returns because then we’ll all see he is as I believe and not as you believe.”

Then the leader of the accusing freedom fighter’s groups chimed in. “But what did you mean when you said you won’t support him when he returns?”

The accused leader said “I didn’t say that. You’re completely twisted my words. I said IF he turned out to be as you say he is and rules as you say he will I won’t support him, but that’s a hypothetical. Your subordinate there keeps ignoring my ‘IF’ which is huge because it won’t happen. I’m just trying to get all of us to see that you’re wrong about him and you’re hurting his reputation among those who with us oppose the dictator and support his replacement by our hero.”

Then the accusing freedom fighter shouted “Traitor! Traitor! You said you won’t support our hero!”

The accused freedom fighter responded back “I did not! You’re assuming he is as you think he is and will lead as you say he will and I say you’re wrong. But I do support him and will support him because he is and will lead as I believe.”

Then the leader of the accusing freedom fighter’s group said to the accused leader “But why? We agree that he’s benevolent.  Don’t you want him to be benevolent? I think you do, so what’s your complaint?”

The accused leader replied “It’s this and only this.  You SAY he’s benevolent and I agree that you believe he’s benevolent, but I think your description of some of his characteristics and plans aren’t benevolent at all. What you apparently don’t realize is that IF he is as you say and plans for our country what you say he plans, he will have to be a dictator not that different from the one we are fighting himself! I know you don’t realize that, but that’s how we see it.”

Then a freedom fighter in the middle who wasn’t committed to either side stood up and said “Wait, wait. Let me see if I understand you.” Speaking to the accused freedom fighter leader he said “You’re not saying these other freedom fighters are totally wrong about our hero, right?”

The accusing freedom fighter jumped up and shouted “Yes! He is saying that! He said he won’t support him when he returns! He’s a traitor and not one of us!”

The freedom fighter in the middle who wasn’t yet committed to either side said “Shut up and sit down! That’s not what he’s saying and he’s not a traitor; he just has a different view of our common hero than you.”

The accusing freedom fighter jumped up again and yelled “No! He doesn’t believe our hero’s book!”

The freedom fighter in the middle ignored him and turned back to the accused freedom fighter. “When you say you won’t support him IF he turns out to be as they say, are your saying THEY’RE false freedom fighters and don’t really believe our hero is benevolent?”

“Not quite,” the accused freedom fighter said. “What I’m saying is that THEY don’t even seem to realize what they’re saying.  Because when our hero returns, to accomplish the things they say he must do to restore order and promote peace and prosperity, ideals we all value, he will HAVE TO be a dictator like the one we are trying to overthrow

Then a roar went up from some among the freedom fighters who viewed the exiled president as a benevolent dictator totally unlike the one they all were trying to overthrow. “Traitor! Traitor! How can you say such disloyal things about our hero?”

The accused freedom fighter once again tried to explain (more to those among the freedom fighters who hadn’t made up their minds yet how to view the hero than to those doing the yelling) by saying “That’s ridiculous. You’re confused about what I am saying.”

Then the leader of the accusing freedom fighters looked at the accused freedom fighter leader and asked “So what you’re saying is that we just don’t really understand what we believe about our hero?”

The accused freedom fighter replied “Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that the implications of your view of our hero, which I can’t separate from some of what you actually do say, are frightening. But you don’t draw out those implications yourselves. I guess you truly do believe he’s a good and benevolent man, but to do the things you believe he will do he can’t be good and benevolent. I’m accusing you of being confused. IF all you meant is that our hero, when he becomes president, would have to use force to restore order and move the country toward democracy, that would be fine. But I believe some of the plans you ascribe to him, if true, would require him to be ruthless, violent and even a monster too much like the one we are trying to overthrow.”

His counterpart, the leader of the other group of freedom fighters, said “Oh. Well, you’re wrong.”

The accused freedom fighter said “I don’t see how. I think you’re wrong.”

Then one of the youngest freedom fighters among those who viewed the exiled former president as a benevolent dictator stood up and said to his own leader “Wait. I thought we WERE hoping our hero, when he returns, would simply kill all his opponents and rule with an iron fist—but for the common good.”

His leader looked at him and said “I never said that.”

But the accused freedom fighter leader said to him “See. That’s what your description of our hero and his future leadership of our country leads to. What have you done to correct that impression among your young followers?”

Then the accusing freedom fighter jumped up again and shouted “Traitor! Traitor! You don’t believe in our hero’s book or in him!”

Even the leader of the accusing freedom fighter’s group looked perplexed.

Later, after all the freedom fighters went to their tents in a forest away from the safe house to sleep for the night, the accusing freedom fighter kept running up to the accused freedom fighter’s tent and pushing his head inside it and yelling “Traitor! Traitor!” and running away back to his own tent.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This is excellent. Sums up the problem perfectly.

  • Percival

    I thought parables were supposed to be short. ; )

  • Scott Gay

    I hope that the accusing ones are not causing you to lose sleep. I honestly don’t even try to talk with them, mourn their militant attitudes, and seriously wonder about their psychological motives. They don’t come to my tent, probably because my approach is taken as not one of the other group of freedom fighters, but that of a non-freedom fighter. However, they miss my influence among a large extended family and with work among hundreds of young people. Our work of reconciliation and healing among our fellow countrymen creates bonds of goodwill that far surpass ideological bounded sets.
    I sincerely appreciate your leadership in hashing out the disagreements and forming a coalition in our fight against the dictator. This entire issue calls for a maturity that you exhibit, and many younger fighters don’t seem to appreciate. I believe your dialogue, attitude, and motives truly reflect our hero.

    • rogereolson

      As I’m extremely tired tonight (it’s very late and I have no other time to work on this these days) I may disappoint you by failing to be as mature as I should in response to some of my hecklers. I ask for everyone’s forbearance and forgiveness.

  • Randall

    That was truly a innovative depiction of what much of this debate appears to be over in my view. After reading it I hope everyone can at least appreciate the heart of the matter in this divide. The implications of ideas have to be taken seriously even in a theological debate, and while I try to, it renders some views absolutely incoherent, or worse, in any way that I can understand them.

    That this parable has to even be related to demonstrate why some don’t buy into certain theological systems is remarkable to me. It feels like being told that molesting is nurturing and asked why we object to the suggestion. The redefinition of terms, ideas, and whatever else to resist the obvious is just scary and even more so considering the gravity of the subject. Since I believe we come to reflect what we worship, it has dire implications given that, in the story, one side has completely surrendered the meaning of concepts to embrace there inverse.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Dear Roger,
    Many of us are praying for you and recognize the spiritual battle in which you are bravely engaged. The following quote reveals that, were Calvin still with us, he may well be one of your strongest supporters.

    “Constant reading of these many volumes In the course of sermon preparation…….convinced me that Calvin’s own theological position was very different from the hardened system that has long passed under the name of Calvinism. It is a sad reflection that the Reformer’s thought should have been crusted over for so long by a species of Aristotelianism, the very damnosa hereditus against which Calvin himself revolted with the full impetus of his mind and soul.” 

    from the Preface of T.F. Torrance’s “Clavin’s Doctrine of Man” as quoted by Alisdair Heron in Participatio, Vol 2, 2010

    • Your excellent parable teaches me that Christ sits at the right-hand of God while His followers remain embroiled in a conflict with the powers and principalities. Sadly, these freedom fighters are divided by how they interpret the Scriptures through which God had lovingly revealed Himself. The opposing sides are the Reformed and Arminian. As I see it, the locus of their disagreement is Romans 9. This seems reasonable considering Augustine, who invented the theology of the Reformed group, fingered Paul’s quotation of Malachi in Romans 9:13 as his starting point (On the Predestination of the Saints, Chap. 7). The Reformed side sees Romans 9 as double predestination, whereas, the Arminian group sees it as God’s faithfulness to His covenant. But if the two groups ever hope to iron out their differences, they have to isolate the drivers of their interpretations; because, after all, they are both reading the same book.

      I propose that the lens used by each group is a philosophical presupposition. The Reformed group reads through the lens of voluntarism, which simply stated is “a thing is good because God willed it.” Voluntarism was fully developed by Duns Scotus, and became the philosophical foundation of both Luther’s and Calvin’s particularism and ultimately modern Reformed theology. The Arminian reads through the lens of essentialism, which simply stated is “God wills it because it is good.” I refuted voluntarism and upheld essentialism in my primary comment to your last blog.

      Your parable raises another question with me: Can the two groups agree to disagree and still properly serve King Jesus?

      When we all stand before Christ, we will be judged by whether or not we are covenant people—kingdom dwellers—in the Light (John 3:19-21 ). It is most certainly both possible and essential for the Reformed and the Arminian, through the grace of God, to love God with all their heart, mind, and strength by obeying Him. To obey Him is to love others as He has loved us (John 15:12)—and this begins with each other. If they are doing this, then it won’t matter how they explain their entry in the covenant, living to please the King will totally consume them. And Jesus will say to them, “Well done my good and faithful servants!”

      But if they define their relationship with Christ and therefore each other along doctrinal (notice I said doctrinal and not dogmatic) constraints they impose on God and therefore others, no doubt in the end they will say “Lord, Lord!” and Jesus will answer, “Be gone, I never knew you.”

      • Bev Mitchell

        Absolutely! The Great White Throne Judgement (as we called it back in the day) won’t be a theology exam. Another bit of wisdom from decades ago was “let go and let God”. This could be unpacked to great advantage by Reformed and Arminians working together. I still think Roger Olson and Michael Horton should co-author a book that fully develops their many areas of agreement.

  • gingoro

    Roger I am sorry that the differences between you and the high Calvinists has gotten so personal and bitter. Talking with the high Calvinists is very difficult even for someone who, like myself, is a moderate Calvinist. Just last week one of them suggested that I was an Arminian and as far as I am able I try not to discuss theology with them.

    IMO we will all be surprised when we meet the Lord face to face as all of us probably will find that our view was not totally correct.

    We should not anathematize one another over the doctrines of grace which I see as disputable but which the high Calvinists see as indesputable Dogma.
    Dave W

  • Kyle Carney

    Well put. I went back to the A&O website from the last post. There, the author decided to post that you don’t believe the Bible instead of what you actually said–that you couldn’t believe the description they ascribe to God if it were so. Also, the author apparently couldn’t understand you when you said if you were a Calvinists you would have to believe things they don’t. The author said something rather moronic like, “How could he believe what we believe and still believe things we don’t believe?” Again, the author sorely missed the point that you believe God’s word as ultimate authority, and if the word meant what they say it means then the word would not be ultimate.

    Sadly, people like being told what to think, so many will continue to buy mean rhetoric and poor logic because they simply like authors like this. I liked that the post included young freedom fighters who actually believed the bad implications that the leader apparently did not. Many of my Calvinist friends (well-meaning, sincere followers of Christ) actually believe God planned, ordained, and caused their sins. I know this because they have argued with me when I say things like, “We know God does not cause me to sin.” They seem to follow the logic of the “two-wills in God” argument (wrongly) to attributing sin, even everyday sins from the subtle ones all the way to blatant and grotesque ones, to God’s design. I added “wrongly” in parentheses because the people who make the argument of two wills should say that God controls them by using their already base will and the duel will of God is in election, not good and evil. I think the fact that so many people in undergraduate, university Christian culture are making this mistake is due in part to the error of the system and in part to the people communicating the system sometimes emphasizing the wrong things when trying to make their point about how they think God controls things. I am actually going to recommend Horton’s book to every Calvinist I know because, if they are going to buy into this system, they need to understand it in the way he lays it out.

    • rogereolson

      I completely agree. Astute, learned, thoughtful Calvinists strictly avoid claiming that God causes anyone to sin. I happen to think what they DO say leads to that conclusion, such that if I believed what they believe about God’s sovereignty I would have to conclude that God does actually cause people to sin and therefore sins himself. The distinction many Calvinists make between God’s good intention and the sinner’s evil intention in which the same God ordained act can be both good (for God) and evil (for the sinner) doesn’t help because it just raises the question of where the sinner’s evil intention came from.

  • Western Orthodox

    The dictator, on the other hand, was somewhat more sophisticated than the average despot (a ‘man of wealth and taste’, as one prominent rock group sang about him). He actually had a comprehensive knowledge of the hero’s book, although he hated every word of it; he also knew that there was nothing that he could ultimately do to prevent his return, but being fundamentally nihilistic he took a perverse, even refined enjoyment both in his own power and in the thought that, in the event of his demise, he would drag as many citizens of the country down with him as possible.

    His strategy for shoring up his present power was simple but masterfully effective; being a trained psychologist he knew that he should do everything possible to encourage the tendency of the freedom fighters (idealistic types not lacking in passion but sometimes led astray by it) to mistake the actual person of their hero for their own representations of him, and to forget their capacity to project onto their hero their own power fantasies. This, the dictator knew, would not only divide them among themselves and distract them from their common enemy, but would crucially hamper them from becoming LIKE their hero, which is what he knew would be more fatal to his own régime than anything else, since it would cause others to defect.

    What he most desired was that the freedom fighters should play according to his rules (which one of the more lucid figures in the resistance movement termed ‘the myth of redemptive violence’). As future historians would note, the dictator’s tactic proved remarkably, if thankfully not ultimately, successful …

    • rogereolson

      Nice addition to my parable!

  • Ricky Leung

    Dr. Olson,

    My church is also affected by this issue. Thank God that we don’t experience the ugly scenes depicted in your parable. I am perplexed why people will react so uglily when we are discussing theology. If you believe that you have understood the truth well, you should explain to people calmly as instructed by Peter in 1 Peter 3:15. I wonder if people can act so uglily to fellow Christians, how much more ruder will they be to non-Christians?

    Is it possible that the inappropriate reaction is out of fear of loss of identity? They may have defined their identity by the doctrines that they hold rather than by a clear and simple personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed. I simply cannot understand why some people go ballistic when I only explain why I disagree with their belief system without insulting them or their friends (or people they admire) and without misrepresenting what they do actually believe. (Apparently some of them cannot distinguish between what they do actually believe and what I think those beliefs actually lead to if taken to their good and necessary consequences.) I can only suspect that they are not all that secure in their own beliefs and defending them vitriolically is their way of assuring themselves they are right.

  • francisbeckwith

    I don’t get it. Why did some seeds fall on rocks? 🙂

    • rogereolson

      Help out with that question, Frank. I’m dense this morning. 🙂