Bewildered by “seeing as”

Bewildered by “seeing as” November 27, 2011

I admit to being a soft perspectivalist, but I also admit to being uncomfortable with it. My mind is wired to think rationally, to look at other people who radically disagree with what I see clearly as either ignorant (even if only in the sense of not seeing some evidence I see) or irrational (even if only in the sense of embracing paradox comfortably). And yet, I am convinced by experience that there is such a phenomenon as perspective–two people seeing the exact same evidence and “seeing” different things. It bothers me because it throws a monkey wrench into the works of trying to reason together toward agreement which is important for public truth.

I once had one of those “Aha!” moments about this.  I was arguing with a colleague about necessary criteria for being Christian (something I still think we cannot escape). He was one of those cultural relativists I wrote about earlier. I said to him “If someone draws a giraffe it MUST have a long neck.” My point was that there must be essential marks or characteristics of Christianity or else Christianity becomes meaningless, just as there must be essential marks or characteristics of (for example) animals for us to recognize them (for example in a drawing). His reply was “Not if it’s seen from above.” Indeed.

“Seeing as” is illustrated by Wittgenstein (or perhaps it was one of his disciples) with the famous “duck/rabbit” picture–a simple drawing that can be either a duck or a rabbit depending on how one sees it. There are other similar pictures (e.g., the old lady or the peacock). Sometimes a person looks at the drawing and can ONLY see a duck while another person looking at the same drawing can ONLY see a rabbit. Of course, that’s mundane; the point is that we all tend to see the world as something. One person looks at a plot of ground and sees a garden that needs tending; another person looks at the same plot of ground and sees wilderness that coincidentally has some apparent order to it (playing on Flew’s famous example).

Philosopher R. M. Hare called this phenomenon of seemingly incorrigible perspective as a “blik.” Two people look at exactly the same evidence and see very different things and are often radically committed to their own perspective and tempted to think that others looking at the same datum while seeing something else must be either crazy or stupid or blind.

The Enlightenment attempted to do away with bliks–at least in important matters of public truth. The idea was that reason (in either its rationalist or empiricist forms) can settle such disputes and bring all reasonable people to agreement about reality. Of course, even the choice to be either a rationalist (a priori deductive approach) or an empiricist (a posteriori inductive approach) seems to be a matter of blik. Can anyone prove Descartes and his followers right and Locke and his followers wrong? Well, both seem to be wrong about the role of perspective; it seems to be irreducible in some cases.  All one can do is appeal to the other person who sees the same evidence radically differently to try looking at it one’s own way rather than their way–to see it “as” something other than how they do see it.

I have written before here about Calvinism and Arminianism as bliks–perspectives on God and scripture. When I wrote Against Calvinism I didn’t think that I was showing Calvinists some evidence they hadn’t noticed (although that is probably true for some not-so-dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist readers). I was attempting to explain why I see the same evidence Calvinists see and “see” something different. I know some Calvinists believe the same about our disagreement.  I routinely invite a group of educated Calvinists to speak to my class on Reformation and post-Reformation theology.  At some point in the discussion they usually appeal to some kind of conversion-like experience that gave them a new perspective on God and the meaning of scripture and salvation.

This is what John Wesley meant when he said about Romans 9 (as if both sides don’t read it!) that whatever it proves it cannot prove “that”–the Calvinist interpretation.  Why? Because IF that’s what it means God is a monster. (Wesley didn’t use that word, but he meant the same thing I mean by it.) He knew very well that he and Whitefield and others saw the same chapter and book and canon.  What he thought was that they, his Calvinist friends (and some enemies like Toplady!), were simply seeing it “as” the wrong thing while he was seeing it “as” the right thing (or at least more closely to right). Of course, Wesley did not think these perspectives were incorrigible or he wouldn’t have written his anti-Calvinist rants.

I tend to think that in some cases, at least, our perspectives so seem to be incorrigible bliks. And I’m bewildered by that AND by the fact that at least most of my Calvinist conversation partners DON’T see our disagreement that way.  In other words, my perspective on our disagreement and theirs is itself a matter of bliks. From where I sit, I have trouble fathoming that they think our disagreement is a simple matter of one side honoring scripture and the other side not honoring scripture. (Of course, some Calvinists do seem to have the same blik I have on this–as in the example I gave above of my Calvinist friends who appeal to a conversion-like experience that drew them to Calvinism.)

It seems to me that MOST evangelicals who write about hermeneutics do not take bliks into account.  Bultmann did, of course, but most evangelicals shy away from his approach.  One of his basic axioms was that there is no such thing as presuppositionless hermeneutics. Most evangelicals who write about hermeneutics seem to think there are objective rules that, if practiced rightly, will always lead reasonable people to the same interpretation of scripture. In that case, of course, either Calvinists or Arminians are simply not practicing sound hermeneutics.

This pops up every time a Calvinist points the finger at me and cries “Where’s your exegesis?” as if exegesis is the solution to everything.  If only it were. And I agree it is the solution to some things.  In other words, there are cases where people are simply practicing bad exegesis and hermeneutics and arriving at blatantly wrong interpretations of scripture. But I suspect many of our disagreements about scripture have more to do with blik than objective exegesis. I know that no exegesis could convince me that God is a monster.  If I thought it possible that God is a monster there would be no point in doing exegesis because a monster cannot be trusted.

And that brings me to a deeper level of blik involved in this disagreement (and no doubt many others). It seems to me that SOME Christians view the Bible as divine. That is, they regard it so highly that they put it on the same level with God himself in terms of authority. This is what Brunner meant when he accused fundamentalists and evangelicals of treating the Bible as a “paper pope.” But I would go further and say that some Christians treat it as if it were God himself or somehow participated in the divine essence. This appears when people say they would believe whatever the Bible said EVEN IF it said God is a monster. Then I know they are investing too much faith in scripture and not enough in the God who inspired scripture. In my opinion, they are flirting with bibliolatry. From my perspective, anyway, scripture is the divinely inspired, infallible witness to God; it identifies God for us. But I only believe that because through it I “hear my Master’s voice” (to use another metaphor from Brunner). My experience of WHO GOD IS is not limited to scripture; I have unmediated experience of God as good that convinces me that scripture is God’s Word–the oracle of God.

I am convinced this is a watershed difference between contemporary evangelicals. There are those of us rooted in Pietism and there are those rooted in Protestant Scholasticism (e.g., Turretin and Hodge and Warfield). I claim Calvin on my side even if it would be wrong to call him a Pietist.  He appealed to the Holy Spirit and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as the only ground of Scripture’s truth and authority. Post-Calvin Calvinists largely forgot that.

When I look at scripture I see it “as” the testimony to the God who I experience also outside of it. The experience I have of God outside of scripture does not communicate doctrines, but it does “speak” to me of God through my personal relationship with Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit within me. But that experience always points me back TO scripture as God’s written self-communication for understanding him more fully. Nothing in my experience of God contradicts scripture; that’s not even possible. But neither is God the prisoner of scripture.

So what is the blik difference I’m talking about here?  Some evangelicals seem to see experience of God as always mediated through scripture which, from my perspective, seems to incline them toward bibliolatry. This is why they say they would believe God is a monster (or the author of evil or whatever) IF scripture said so. Other evangelicals (like I) seem to see experience of God as BOTH mediated by scripture AND as unmediated with the latter as primary in terms of knowing God’s character as good.

When I got saved I was not converted to the Bible; I was converted to the God of Jesus Christ.  THEN I found more about God through the Bible and believed in it BECAUSE it told me about the God of Jesus Christ I encountered in conversion and in my pesonal relationship with him. My experience of God is both unmediated and mediated and the two are inseparable. But when I open the Bible to read and study it I NEVER do so as a tabula rasa–prepared to believe whatever it might say EVEN IF it says (in some passage I had henceforth never noticed) that God is a monster who might hate me and want the worst for me or who loves his own glory more than he loves me (and all of us). If I am tempted to believe that, I go to God and rediscover him in unmediated experience of him through Jesus Christ or at least remember those times when my heart was strangely warmed and I KNEW without any ability to doubt that God loves me and wants the best for me and does not hate me or love his glory at the expense of my (or anyone else’s) well being in its most profound sense (wholeness).

This is my perspective on experiencing God. People experienced God before there was a Bible and have experiences of God apart from the Bible.  But the Bible fills experience of God with cognitive content. But it cannot contradict the God I know as good through my unmediated experience of Jesus Christ because the only reason I believe the Bible is because it is THAT GOD’s WORD. In and through it I hear my Master’s voice in a unique way–as communicating himself to me in a cognitive way, filling my unmediated experience of God with information.  But that information cannot contradict the very pre-cognitive experience of God as unqualifiedly good that I had in my conversion and have in my post-conversion relationship with Jesus Christ.

Luther’s “tower experience” is what I’m talking about. And that’s what led him to doubt the spiritual value of the Epistle of James and the Revelation of John. Later, unfortunately, in his dispute with die Schwarmer, Luther backed away from this epistemology. But I think some conservative evangelicals forget or conveniently ignore the fact that Luther always held to the Bible’s authority as rooted in the Holy Spirit and not in some self-authenticating quality.  His sola scriptura was not bibliolatry or even close to it. He was just afraid of certain fanatics who wanted to abandon scripture.

It seems to me that this is a fundamental watershed between evangelicals. Those of us in the Pietist tradition claim unmediated experience of God that authenticates scripture to us but makes it impossible to see scripture as proving that God is evil or the author of sin and evil or loves his own glory more than he loves people created in his own image and likeness. Those evangelicals in the Protestant scholastic tradition at least claim to experience God only through scripture and at least say they would believe the Bible even if it said God is a monster, the author of sin and evil, who loves his own glory to the extent that it causes him to hate some of the creatures created in his own image and likeness.

No amount of arguing or crying “exegesis!” is going to solve this blik dilemma, this continental divide among evangelicals. To be perfectly blunt, I shudder when I encounter people who seem to me to be worshiping scripture to that extent–that there is no unmediated experience of God outside of scripture. I shake my head and wonder about their spirituality even as I continue to embrace them as fellow evangelicals (even if they reject me as one to them).

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  • Some people treat the Bible as a frog in Biology, dissecting it with great skill. They often see the trees clearly but lose sight of the forest. Some believe that if the Scriptures are not completely inerrant the none of it is true. It is borderline idolatry.

    If the entire Bible was just Romans chapter nine I would be a Calvinist. But since hundreds of Scriptures reveal truths at odds with a Calvinist rendering of Romans nine, then we must look for an interpretation that is compatible with the overarching theme of the written revelation.

    And the “proof text” phenomenon? It’s usually a worthless game of smug “gotcha” without a shred of redemption or edification. It desires to win an argument which it already has in the mind of he who wields such texts.

    • Steve

      Great post.

      • Steve

        By the way you have touched on a problem that is overlooked too much, namely, the EGO. In Christian circles the treatment of the ego is simply never touched on. Yet the trouble it gives us is immense. I’m not talking about a shallow idea of what the ego is but how the ego actually keeps us out of contact with God and also, particularly in the west, hinders us from living in the moment and thus beginning to understand who we are. A lot of mental illness is simply either living in the past with all its guilt associations and/or living in the future with its anxieties. The proof texting thing for example is part of this constant need to be right at all costs which is part of the ego and a destructive and divisive process.

  • M. 85

    Thanks Dr. Olson for putting into words what i’ve been feeling for years now. I find it so scary when people dogmatically interpret Scripture to the point that their interpretation is the exact opposite of 1) God’s general revelation of Himself in nature: Good and loving
    2) God’s revelation of Himself through the character of his Son Jesus and his death and resurrection (Kerygma)
    3) My personal and intimate (what you call unmediated) experience of God before and after conversion, before people started telling me their idea of who God is.
    Of course biblio-idolaters will always accuse others of placing their own experience above Scripture (that is their interpretation of Scripture) and i suppose that is a genuine concern, but i also believe that God will not allow people who are genuinely seeking the truth to be deceived.

  • Percival

    Thanks Dr. Olson. This gives me encouragement.

    I am in a pastoral role serving a group of Christians serving among Muslims who often have a Calvinist perspective or a fundamentalist bent, and when I am trying to help them deal with difficult issues, it makes me sad to hear them try to deal with these issues from viewpoints what I consider to be distortions of truth.

    How to communicate a fresh perspective to someone who is really struggling? Sometimes stories help communicate a new perspective, but stories don’t seem very authoritative even when they ring true. Actually, I often keep my theological opinions to myself so that I don’t get labeled and dismissed as a liberal.

    I sometimes feel that the narrowness of evangelical orthodoxy today is a straightjacket for my ministry and a heavy ball and chain for those believers/missionaries who need to find a freedom from their religion. More and more I see commonalities between the theologies of the missionaries who come and the Muslims they are sent to. If we don’t offer full freedom and abundant life through the Holy Spirit, what business do we have preaching here? Offering a rationalistic theology of atonement and exegisis of a holy book can never meet the deepest needs of our Muslim friends or of the Christians sent to serve among them.

    • Steve

      So sad to hear but I understand what you are saying and have experienced this myself. So much harm is done along these lines in many cultures around the world.

  • CarolJean

    This explains alot! Thank you.

  • Most of the biblioaters I come across are cessationist Dispenasationalists. Since they believe God stopped interacting with us, it stands to reason that the bible has become their god now. But since the bible is not a living god, they treat it like a cadaver–they pick it apart, fiddle with the parts out of context, and put it back together in freakish and horrific ways.

    I have the same problem with them as you do with the Calvinists: Under their system, God is a monster; He has abandoned us until the End Times, when He will intervene again to torture the Left Behind until they turn to Him. Meanwhile, the only one performing miracles anymore, since it can’t be God, is the devil; it doesn’t matter if a miracle helps direct anyone to Christ, ’cause it’s the fruit of a poisonous tree. And there are other creepy beliefs.

    I’m not so much bothered by these beliefs when the folks who hold them produce fruit–if they love Jesus, share Him with everyone, do good deeds out of love for God, and exhibit a loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, kind attitude. I figure the Spirit’s working on them, and will correct them at some point. I only grow concerned when I encounter folks with no fruit, bad fruit, or their only fruit is their so-called “orthodoxy.”

    • Steve

      Here, here.

  • Zach

    Great thoughts! Two questions come to my mind: first, most evangelicals, at least I feel that this is the case, tend to reject Brunner’s doctrine of inspiration; you seem to accept it more. What do you think of that? Does this mean that (gasp:)) neo-orthodox folks like Brunner, Barth, Niebuhrs, etc. weren’t that off base after all? Also, doesn’t Grenz talk a lot about this, y’know, the whole Spirit empowered reading sort of thing?

    • rogereolson

      Yes, Grenz does (did), but so did Calvin! 🙂 Rather than simply label Brunner “neo-orthodox” in order to reject him (which many conservative evangelicals do, never reading him) I prefer to take from him the good and leave behind the bad (e.g., his denial of the virgin birth). He was inspired by Kierkegaard, Buber and P. T. Forsyth (the turn-of-the-century English evangelical). One thing Brunner was right about is the necessity and priority of the I-Thou encounter with God.

  • Steve Dal

    A really interesting post. I am fascinated, what is this ‘strangely warm’ thing? So when yours or others attempts at theology fail or leave you feeling frustrated etc. you go to this strangely warm feeling. I like it. I definitely know what you mean even if ‘strangely warm’ is awkward and could mean anything really. Others would describe it in various ways but mean the same thing (joy etc). At this point I think we could even be ‘fellowshipping’ or at least on the edge of it.

    • rogereolson

      I used “strangely warmed” as a cipher (borrowed from Wesley) for the personal intercommunion a Christian has with God through Jesus Christ in conversion. There is or should be a feeling involved–a sense of the personal, transforming presence and power of God that touches the affections. A. H. Strong defined regeneration as “the expulsive power of a new affection.” (I think he borrowed the phrase from someone else, but I don’t remember who right now.)

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I’ve heard that term many times from Mormon missionaries. They seem to use it as evidence when no other evidence exists. This does not discount their (or your) experiences, but it remains only convincing for the individual themselves (and those who make decisions based upon this kind of argumentation).

        That being said, I’d like more of this in my own life.

        • Steve

          Your ‘experience’ is often the final arbiter in your witness for Christ. I know in my life my conversion experience, the fact that I know God came into my life at one definite point (I felt Him), has helped me to stay on track many times. I also remain convinced that many people who claimed to be Christian and have walked away have based their Christian walk on exegesis and argumentation which can never be enough. You must experience God regularly in your life or your walk will become something else, like the need to constantly argue about theology which will never satisfy you in the way that God would want you to be satisfied.
          Also, I would offer this, in the New Testament, the Gospel was accompanied by signs and wonders. These people would never have stepped out in such a way unless they had experienced God in a supernatural way themselves. The disciples were going around in circles until they were baptised in the Holy Spirit (which is pure experience). The indication that it is the HS and not something else is the fruit of the Spirit (love , joy, peace, pateinece…..). The interesting thing is when there was no ‘evidence’ the only thing left is experience as witnessed by signs and wonders. Its a challenge for sure. It is much ‘safer’ and easier to blog on about Calvinists and Arminians than it is to have step out in God in the moment and pray for healing or cast out demons. My experiences in India, where demonic activity is par for the course, have helped me to see that nothing has changed in the spiritual realm. In the west we have santised it out the window by our theology. Very sad.
          I encourage anybody to seek the experience of God in their lives more and more. Theology then finds its place.

          • Tim Reisdorf


            I agree with what you’re saying. Knowing theology is not knowing God. In terms of experiencing God, I have baggage in that department that I still need to work through. Currently, I’m open and quite cautious.

            Thank you for your thoughts here.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Could it be that Scholasticism, with it’s ‘high view’ of scripture is a seemingly effective way of having our cake and eating it too? If we want to hang on to ourself (and who doesn’t?) and yet be faithful to God, strict adherence to and belief in the Bible as His chosen and only way of revealing Himself to us seems to be a solution-even seen as a somewhat pious and certainly God-fearing solution. But, if yielding to the Holy Spirit (who is 100% God) so that we no longer hang on to ourself but actually lose ourself in Christ is what it’s all about, the extra-biblical communication you speak of is opened up and we ‘let go and let God’ rule in our lives. This really does put the Scriptures in a new light. According to the NT, it puts Scripture in the light that God intends. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Isa 9:2 ” But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” 1Jo 1:7. “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. Re 21:24.

  • Mike Anderson

    “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27) whereas those not His sheep “search the scriptures” (John 5:39) but do not hear. Since I believe a loving God allows free will, I would say that “bibliolators” need to be careful that they don’t make their concepts of God (such as monergism) an idol as did the teachers of the Law who could no longer hear God when He was in front of them. But a monergist would read “my sheep hear my voice,” assume he is of Christ’s fold because by grace he confesses “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and then view with suspicion anyone who denies sovereign grace as not “His sheep.” I could give a number of other texts that seem to support unity of belief among believers. It’s as though we are encouraged to see the “true believers” as the small group who believe as we do.

    You say that Post-Calvin Calvinists largely forgot about the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit in authenticating the Scriptures. Perhaps this is true, and since I’m not a Calvinist I can’t testify differently, but many of my friends who have become Calvinist say the Spirit illuminated their minds to see the truth. They speak of it almost like a conversion experience. So I think the epistemological priority for each perspective (synergist, monergist) seems to be subjective experience.

    My notion of a “fair” God requires there to be some objective standard to settle debates, usually involving proper hermeneutics and better exegesis. But God often hides Himself as a sign of judgement (Matthew 13:13) , and no amount of rational discourse will reveal God’s character to someone hardened in unrepentance. But far be it from me to know whether God is judging my opponent or we just have a lot of unexamined presuppositions to overcome. I think the best chance I have to overcome presuppositions is to examine God’s character as revealed throughout the Bible–His holiness, trustworthiness, lovingkindness, etc. If we can’t establish this common ground, I’m not sure what else to do.

    The divide on charismatic gifts is similar in some ways to the Calvinist/Arminian debate, as both sides claim textual support but actually give priority to subjective experience. I recently participated in a debate on whether speaking in “tongues” is for the church today. As you would expect, one side suggested “tongues” were a sign to unbelieving Jews and have ceased, that modern “tongues” were of the flesh or the devil, and that they witnessed “tongues” doing much harm to the church. The other side said that you can’t even discern which “tongues” experiences are false until you have allowed the Spirit to give you a “tongues” experience, since the same Spirit also gives you the gift of discernment, and that “tongues” edify the church. I suggested appealing to the authority of 1 John 4:1-3, but I’m not sure that even this passage could arbitrate the debate.

  • Chris W

    There is for many of us, I think, a strong temptation to assume that since Jesus was a revolutionary who defied expectations and challenged people’s narrow beliefs about God, then any sort of paradigm shift or reversal of values—implications notwithstanding— evidences a move towards spiritual maturity within the life of a believer. This, then, would be especially true if the implications of the new paradigm seemed profound—and if they called us to take our eyes of ourselves and look up to God. The move from a simple belief in God’s love for all humans to the view that everything in life is an expression of God’s glory, is one such revolutionary shift. John 3:16 reads differently through this lens; it is not “For God so loved the world,” so much as it is “For God so loved himself.” I suspect that many who embrace presuppositional apologetics or some form of bibliolatry have, at some point, yielded to this temptation.

    And it is a powerful temptation, indeed. After all, who can argue with the claim that we must allow God to “be who he is, not who we want him to be”? But the subtext of such claims seems to be: “we must be prepared to accept whatever Scriptures teach us about the reality of God, no matter how harsh that teaching may be, and no matter how radically it frustrates our expectations of him or challenges our basic understanding of concepts like love.” Unfortunately, until you affirm the same, a person who thinks this way will tend to view you, Mr. Olson, as someone who hasn’t submitted to the “authority of scripture” and who, therefore, remains spiritually immature.

    Sadly, I think some of these people become so obsessed with the idea of “going deeper,” that they lose the heart of God in the process. They don’t understand that there is such a thing as maturing in your knowledge of God while maintaining simple, childlike faith and devotion to the Jesus you’ve known from infancy. Perhaps Udo Middelmann explains it best in The Innocence of God: “…there is always ‘something more’ we can discover about God,” he writes, “this is not surprising, since ‘something more’ can always be said and discovered about all reality as well […] But the ‘inexhaustible,’ by definition, touches on the quantity of knowledge, not its quality. It does not mean that limited knowledge is necessarily erroneous. True knowledge about God—though finite—does not imply that what we know of God is in the end contrary to what God has said and done.”

    We should never end up with a knowledge of God that runs contrary to the revolutionary love that is revealed in what Jesus Christ has said and done. Indeed, we believe the bible because it is—as you say—“that God’s word.”

  • Mike Anderson

    “At some point in the discussion [the Calvinists] usually appeal to some kind of conversion-like experience.” For some reason I couldn’t find this comment when rereading and thought it came from a different blog. Sorry for ignoring it.

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Fantastic! You develop themes that I have wrestled with for a long time. Thanks for dealing with it and helping me think further.
    The place you give to Scripture in your Christian life and experience is really helpful and seems to me to be very sound.
    Can’t you write a book where you develop all this (or have you already?)!

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the vote of confidence! Maybe I will someday. In the meantime, I’ll just mention one of my theological heroes who has already said and written most, if not all, of what I wrote–especially about the place of the Bible in Christian life and experience: Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt–the German pietist, pastor, revivalist, healing evangelist, exorcist, socialist, univeralist, Christian intentional community leader who influenced Barth and Moltmann. He’s one of those rare individuals in church history who fits no single known category so he can’t just be labeled and put away. He was a genuine prophet to Christendom who loved scripture but loved Jesus more. His motto: “Die so that Jesus may live!” It is not easy to find his sermons and one book in English. My friend Christian Collins Winn is writing about him. A good introduction to Blumhardt’s theology is Pneumatology and Theology of the Cross in the Preaching of Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt: The Holy Spirit between Wittenberg and Azusa Street by Simeon Zahl. Unfortunately it is extremely expensive. However, one might obtain it through interlibrary loan.

      • CarolJean

        Here is a site that offers free e-books on and by the Blumhardts.

      • Mikael Stenhammar

        Thanks for that! Blumhardt is a new name; I liked the description “loved Scripture but loved Jesus more”.
        Zahl’s book is difficult to locate in Sweden. I guess I have to wait 205 days till it comes in an affordable paperback.

        • rogereolson

          It’s published by T&T Clark, so I’m not sure it will ever be published in an affordable paperback! 🙂 But you can find several books about Blumhardt and collections of his and his father’s sermons and devotions at Plough Press. Also look for publications by my friend Christian Collins Winn who is emerging as a leading authority on Blumhardt.

  • This is exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks for the clarity on a difficult to perceive, and to understand, topic. While reading your post I was applying the insights in my mind to textual criticism. What strikes me about that field is how reasonable the different views are when read, even though they often come to different conclusions. And they exhibit exactly the phenomenon you referred to: namely looking at exactly the same evidence and then coming to different conclusions. Each side presents reasonable arguments and often the rhetoric gets quite heated and contentious. Your post helped me to understand why this is so and I want to thank you for that.

    Best wishes,


  • MikeC

    Prof. Olson,

    I’ll admit that I am a little suspicious of any appeal to an “unmediated” access (experience?) of God. By “unmediated” do you mean an experience of God that is not structured or informed by God’s revelation of himself in Scripture?

    If so, then how can you be confident that your unmediated access to God is NOT an experience structured by fallen, unregenerate assumptions of how God must be?

    If not, then it is hard for me to understand what you mean by “unmediated access” to God. That is, if you appeal to an experience of God that IS informed by God’s self-revelation in Scripture, then how is that experience “unmediated”?

    Many thanks.

    • rogereolson

      It cannot be in conflict with revelation given in scripture. I set forth (I think it was) seven criteria for evaluating prophecies based on unmediated revelation or experiences of God in Christianity Today some years ago. I’ll try to dig that out and re-publish them here later.

    • Job

      How can I be confident that my mediated access to God through exegesis is not structured by fallen, unregenerate assumptions of how scripture must read? Slavery and patriarchy being examples.

      The Bible and the deeds of those who in theory follow it kept me from Christianity for many decades. It was a stumbling block. It was only an unmediated experience with God that converted me.

      If all I had was Christ and no scripture, I would still believe in Christ, knowing that He would reveal himself in other ways, even if those ways were invisible or undetectable to anyone else. But if the only evidence I had of Christ was scripture, I probably would still be an unbeliever.

    • Steve

      Roger/Mike C
      I think ‘criteria’ can be helpful but can also be an excuse to smother the work of the Holy Spirit so that you don’t have to confront the spiritual realm yourself. If you come to the point where you think you need to have deep Biblical understanding of everything you will never step out. So it is dangerous to always be offering criteria. People become confused and then do nothing. We revere teachers with degrees far too much. We try to fit God into our ‘criteria’ and then it dies on the vine. The absolute deadest churches I have ever been in are those where the the scripture has been made respectable and middle class and the HS has been squashed in the process. Like whitewashed tombs where people tut tut when something outside the ‘criteria’ happens. Imagine if every time the Pharisees whinged Jesus stopped and adjusted his behaviour according to their ‘criteria’. I don’t hink so. Again it should be covered in the fruit of the Spirit. Sure you make mistakes on the way but you will learn as well. We need more people with real discernment in the spiritual realm.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I, too, am distrustful of criteria for this kind of experience. What would we say to Jeremiah when he said that in his experience God was like an enemy? Would we say, “No, God is not like that – not to His own people”? Yet, that was Jeremiah’s experience as recorded in Lamentations.

        Isn’t this the lesson of Job? God rejects and actively destroys parameters that people put around Him. Would I be one of Job’s “friends” and say that God isn’t this way or never acts that way? I hope I would do better than that.

  • jeff martin

    Dr. Olson,

    Great thoughts on the idfference between different evangelicals. Would have made a great chapter in “Against Calvinism”.

    Behind the reason to use Scripture as the only clay for God is that people are too afraid to try some other kind of material. They know the “Bible clay” works well so they stick with that. They are afraid if they other material one of God’s fingers might fall off.

    For instance, with regards to modern day spiritual gifts, I tell those who are afraid to have those kinds of things in their church that it is just like a pastor’s sermon at any church one could attend on any given Sunday or Saturday. One still has to use discernment. But that does not mean that you allow no one to preach!

  • Theophile

    When I hear Romans being quoted today it is usually Evangelical and coupled with “The old testament is the old covenant, it’s all done away with”. If we place any weight on the words of Jesus: “Moses and the prophets they testify of me”, and in another place “If they will not believe Moses, they will not believe even though one returns from the dead”, then these words of Moses and the prophets are needed to understand who Jesus is, He said so. It turns out the similarity between these writings(Moses, prophets) have one thing in common; They QUOTE God. According to John, Jesus is God’s word in the flesh, if that is true, then the words attributed to God in the old testament ARE Jesus!…and it turns out God is not a monster, but does require repentance and faithfulness.
    At some point we have to decide whether or not the author of our faith is God or Paul(or what someone says Paul meant by when he said…). A good way to break down Romans is to find the OT scripture referred to, each time it’s quoted, and then read the context of the OT reference, that’s when doctrines of men start showing up as false.
    You have heard it said: “By faith Abraham obtained the promise”, but I say unto You Genesis 26:1-5 is quoting God on that very subject, read it and consider.

  • Is there a particular scholar of hermeneutics that you would recommend along these lines? Are you familiar with Kevin Vanhoozer’s hermeneutics and particularly his (in my view) helpful analogy of the Father as author, the Son as text, and the Holy Spirit as reader?


    • rogereolson

      I’ve read a lot of Vanhoozer’s work but that particular analogy I don’t remember. I like N. T. Wright’s analogy of hermeneutics to a four (or is it five) act play (I’ll make it my own here by using a four act play). Contemporary Christians are called to faithfully improvise (I think that particular phrase is Vanhoozer’s) the fourth act of a four act play of which the actors have the first three acts (Old Testament, New Testament, the Great Tradition).

  • Tom Montelauro

    Roger, would you agree that Christian tradition, especially that influenced by the church fathers and the ecumenical councils that established trinitarian theology, is needed along with individual experience of the goodness of God as a quide to our understanding of Scripture? And if we add reason, is it not the case that our epistemological chair has four legs–Scripture, reason, experience and tradition– rather that just two? And is it not true that not many of the errors Christians have fallen into have been due to the neglect or denial of one of these four legs?

    • rogereolson

      I have promoted the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in many of my writings. But it’s not an equilateral; scripture takes precedence. Tradition always gets a vote but never a veto (in matters of doctrinal decision).

  • A. Rose

    Dear Roger,

    This isn’t directly related to this post, but never mind. I just finished reading ‘Against Calvinism’ after reading Horton’s book, and I have to say that it is a brilliant book. You’ve managed to write in an irenic, respectful style whilst maintaining an intellectual rigour and emotional depth, and for that I applaud you.

    One thing that I thought would have made the two books even better is if there had been more direct interaction between yourself and Horton, perhaps in the form of an appendix in each volume where the two of you could respond directly to some of the other’s arguments. I was wondering whether you could point me in the direction of where you may have engaged in a direct debate/conversation along these lines?

    • rogereolson

      My 20 year long conversation with Mike is in many places–the pages of Modern Reformation, Christian Scholar’s Review, live on The White Horse Inn radio program and most recently at the latter’s web site and Zondervan’s web site. Another face-to-face encounter is planned for January, but I don’t know the details yet.

  • Tim McNamara

    Hello Mr. Olson,
    I really enjoyed your article. I have noticed as well that some calvinists
    make an idol out of theology. I find many authors outside of calvinism (A.W. Tozer, Thomas R. Kelly) to be more spiritually edifying. I have also read your article on Tradition from Christianity Today. Lately I have been doing a study on the “Religious Society of Friends” or Quakers as they are known. Their whole thing was no liturgy, no priests, no set prayers or creeds intoned in unison. Not even call a church a church (Steeple house as George Fox called it). I have come admire many of them Such as George Fox, John Woolman Etc. What is your take on the Quakers? Thank you again and hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.
    God Bless,
    Tim Mc.

    • rogereolson

      I once heard someone say “I’d kill to be a Quaker!” (I hope you get the irony in that; it’s meant to be funny.) Like so many other Christian sects and organizations I’m glad the Friends exist; they have done a great deal of good for the world. I couldn’t be one myself primarily because they don’t baptize with water or celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

  • After reading this blog twice, I’m left feeling a bit disconcerted, and I’m not exactly sure why. As a scientist and amateur theologian, I frequently encounter the concepts you discuss. The debates I’ve found myself appear to reduce to differences of perspectives. But as you intimated, these bliks actually distill down to presuppositions. This is why a materialist and a theist arguing over evolution will never agree—rarely will they agree to disagree. We see this in the whole debate on intelligent design. The materialist sees the universe as matter/energy that creates or recreates itself. This means nothing is real but the particulars and nothing can be explained except through the particulars. Consequently, when one presents essentially incontrovertible evidence that the universe could not happen through chance, using science that in any other context would be accepted, they will answer, “Yes but that doesn’t mean I have to invoke a deity to account for it.” For the materialist to accept intelligent design would require abandoning their gods of materialism and rationalism. And a person’s bedrock presuppositions are their gods—even if they are Orthodox Christians.

    Enter the Calvinist and Arminian debate you cited. The former’s presupposition is most often stated as God is totally sovereign; and the Arminian’s goes something like, God will not interfere with Man’s free choice. Yet these don’t seem incompatible—that surely with a bit of a discussion of defining terms and a search through the scriptures both sides should arrive on the same page. They haven’t for sixteen hundred years because these are not the bedrock presuppositions. The real god of the Calvinist is “because God wills it, it is right,” and that of the Arminian is “it’s right so God wills it.” Only when we see these distinctions will we ever come close to resolving our differences.

    But to get to what I believe is the focus of your essay, we will only properly debate these opposing presuppositions on the basis of Holy Spirit, scripture, tradition (teachings of the Fathers, rule of prayer, the creeds, and the findings of the councils), experience, and reason ( I personally see the last two the least reliable but certainly not valueless).

    Case in point: when I first met my friend years ago he was a hardcore five-point Calvinist, but today he repudiates the inner three points. What changed him? Certainly some discussions (few with me) and reading some arguments influenced his change. But the main cause has been the inner working of the Holy Spirit as he confronted the scriptures showing that God acts consistent with His character—that the holy God is love. The Holy Spirit showed my friend that the scriptures, particularly as they reveal Christ, do not support the presupposition “because God wills it, it is right.”

    So why doesn’t the Holy Spirit always get through to His children? This is the question that has disturbed me for a long time. One reason is the person fails to make the distinction between doctrines and dogmas, and clings to his doctrines as if they were dogmas—as if his eternal life depended on it. Another reason is the person might not be a child of the Lord.

    Here is my point: ultimately these matters come down to the work of the Holy Spirit. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we should discuss doctrine only so far as it is profitable, always remembering that we should all be holding on to our doctrinal beliefs lightly and so be willing to learn and, yes, change. But we should always be guiding each other back to the purposes of God’s love in holiness through faith because, when Jesus returns, that is how He will judge us. And on this all orthodox Christians agree.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I have blogged before about this basic, bedrock difference between at least some Calvinists and all Arminians. I suspect that a form of nominalism lurks beneath the surface of Calvinism (i.e., whatever God wills is automatically right and God can will anything because God has no eternal, immutable character that governs his ability to will things). I am increasingly concerned that this bedrock presuppositional difference is crucial in explaining why Calvinists and Arminians cannot seem to have a meeting of the minds.

  • Ricky Leung

    Dr. Olson,

    I am not sure if my question directly related to your article. From my limited observation, it seems that Calvinists like to build their doctrines from propositional statements derived from the epistles, especially from the Apostle Paul. Even when they quote the sayings of Jesus, they seem not interested in the narratives. For example, I never heard a Calvinist interpret in-depth of the story of the young rich ruler whom Jesus loved (Mark 10:17 – 22).

    Is it because Calvinists try to build a close theological model and that narrative, which in nature is much more open to possibilities than proposition, not conducive or even somewhat threatening to their system?

    • rogereolson

      I suspect that can be a problem with every system of theology. It is why I am wary of systems. Zinzendorf said it well (paraphrasing): The moment you try to make God’s Word into a system you kill it.

  • Matt Y.

    Hmmm, interesting. I’m sort of a soft perspectivalist myself, I guess (I’ve never heard that term before). I have long thought that people can have honest disagreements on major things without one side or the other being stupid, ignorant, or evil. I think it’s caused by the Fall. No one’s mind is perfect in logic or reasoning. This is why people with high IQ’s disagree even on issues familiar to both of them, and why a person with an IQ of 100 can be right and one with an IQ of 160 can be wrong on the same issue. The former may not know how to out-debate the latter, even if he senses that something is off in the latter’s argument.

    I would still say, however, that one side is using bad exegesis; they just can’t see it, and won’t be persuaded, because of their perspective.

    I can’t quite agree with the rest of your post. I can’t imagine any Christian who believes that we don’t experience God outside of Scripture. Obviously the Spirit speaks to us in ways other than the Bible, but Scripture is above experience in authority (which I saw you acknowledged somewhere). So we don’t change the Bible to match our experience; instead we determine what the Bible says, as best as we objectively can, and see if our experience aligns with it.

    That doesn’t seem anything like “bibliolatry” to me. (See 1611 KJV Onlyism for an example that comes close). If you can call that bibliolatry (and maybe I’m misunderstanding and you aren’t) then maybe I could say you’re advocating self-olatry by using your experience to determine the message of Scripture, even if Scripture objectively might seem to say something else. (But I’m not saying that). Sure, your (and my) interpretation of Scripture isn’t perfectly objective, but experience is even more subjective, and we KNOW the Bible is God-breathed.

    What if a universalist’s experience of God makes him refuse to believe in eternal punishment even if he admits that the Bible seems to favor the traditional view over his? What if a homosexual refuses to believe that homosexual behavior is sinful even though that’s what Scripture says? What if a Calvinist thinks that his experience forces him to believe in exhaustive determinism and thus unconditional double predestination?

    Here’s another question. Of course you won’t be convinced that God is evil, but what about the possibility of being convinced that Calvinism is correct, but that He is still good because of His love in dying on the Cross? That would probably involve changing your concepts of good and evil somewhat. This might be what you attack as “nominalism” or similar to it. But are our concepts of love, good, and evil so perfect and set in stone that they can’t change? We are after all imperfect.

    To clarify, I’m a convinced Arminian and I do think that Calvinism’s idea of God makes Him seem unloving and even evil, harsh as that sounds. I think a Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 cannot be right because of what Scripture says elsewhere, and because the passage itself makes sense according the Arminian interpretation, after you take off the modern glasses and look at it through 1st-century Jew vs. Gentile-related glasses, and because it makes much more sense in the Arminian interpretation when you consider the context (chapters 10-11). I’m just uncomfortable with some of your postconservativeness, I guess. 🙂

    I grew up in a non-Calvinist Christian home, so maybe my circumstances prevent me from seeing things the way you do. For me, the Bible taught me about God and that He is good, and I knew the Bible before I experienced Christ personally. So it’s nonsensical to me that the Bible could say that God is evil. I’ve always known the verses that contradict double predestination, limited atonement and perseverance of the saints. Several years ago I strongly considered some form of unconditional predestination of saints only + irresistible grace, but I never did accept it because I knew Scripture contradicts the other points and I couldn’t logically combine those views. Then I heard of corporate election, which was like a light bulb turning on for me. I’m now firmly Arminian.

    Sorry for rambling, but it’s late and I’m on my smartphone so it’s hard to make everything sound just right. BTW, I love your book History of Christian Theology (not sure if I have the title right), and also liked Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

    • rogereolson

      If there is no experience (broadly defined) outside of scripture that has authority alongside or above scripture, on what basis does one believe in scripture’s authority? I agree, of course, that no contentful revelation of truth stands above scripture, but anyone who believes the Bible is the Word of God does so based on some experience–even if it is an experience the Holy Spirit created through the person’s reading of scripture.

  • wow. interesting blog post. hmmmm… i wonder if down below the exegesis and the supposed inerrant, as in literalist, approach to the text is a deep anxiety and fear about Christianity? That is some of us seem to need a greater degree of certitude about our faith and therefore because of this psychological need employ a hyper-literal, to the degree of anti-rationalist, interpretation of the text.

    Roger is this all connected to this is a slavish and uncritical commitment to common sense realism? A strong correspondence theory of truth seems like it would create a real conundrum for hard core literalists. There is a difference between prose and poetry!! To follow this tack, you would have to work against the grain of human compassion and humanizing spirituality. That is sad.

    Also, i suspect that it might feel liberating and even heroically counter cultural to claim to read the text in only the most rigidly literal terms. Whoopee for you. I think we all need to interrogate ourselves from time to time to see if we are simply reading in ways that support our own sinful biases and human predilection to feel superior to some lesser opponent. If we read to support and empower our ego instead of being transformed by Christ we are all in big trouble.

    I think you are right that sola scriptura does not mean what many attach to it. Luther was much more radical than that. Perhaps he was postmodern in seeing the text as a form of address. It was not rigidly propositional but like a voice which speaks to us, a “thou” as buber would say.

    This is a great thread of discussion!

    • rogereolson

      I think Luther was inconsistent. When speaking about the Schwarmer (so-called fanatics) he insisted on sola scriptura which for him meant God does not speak outside of scripture. But at other times he admitted (e.g., in his testimonies about his tower experience) having experienced God more directly.

  • gingoro

    Roger Not intended as a comment on this topic but just to bring this to your attention.

    Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation

    > In the original Hebrew, the 10th Commandment prohibits taking, not coveting. The biblical Jubilee year is named for an animal’s horn and has nothing to do with jubilation. The pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14 is never called a virgin. Psalm 23 opens with an image of God’s might and power, not shepherding. And the romantic Song of Solomon offers a surprisingly modern message.

    Maybe this might be a good topic on your blog. I’d like to see somebody (not a fundy nor an inerrantist) address the concerns raised. How widespread are the issues that hoffman raises?

    • rogereolson

      This is why it’s important for seminary students to study biblical languages and cultural context. None of what he mentions affects doctrine or spirituality. I get worried when a modern translation injects a particular systematic theology or doctrinal viewpoint into translation. On the other hand, it’s probably unavoidable which is why it’s good to know Hebrew and Greek (if not also Aramaic!) and have several modern translations for comparison purposes.