A Non-Calvinist, Relational View of God’s Sovereignty

A Non-Calvinist, Relational View of God’s Sovereignty April 14, 2013

I gave this talk at this week’s Missio Alliance gathering in Alexandria, Virginia. For those who are watching me carefully (from the Arminian camp) I must say I make no claim for this being “the” Arminian view. It is simply my view and I’m an Arminian.



A Relational View of God’s Sovereignty


Roger E. Olson



            My office phone rang and I answered it. A stern voice said “Is this Roger Olson?” who which I confessed. The man introduced himself as pastor of Baptist church in the state, implying that he was a constituent of the seminary where I teach. Anyway, I got the message. “I hear you don’t believe in God’s sovereignty,” he declared. I responded “Oh, really? What do you mean by ‘God’s sovereignty’?” He said “You, know. God is in control of everything.” I decided to play with him a little. “Oh, so you believe God caused the holocaust and every other evil event in human history? That God is the author of sin and evil?” There was a long pause. Then he said “Well, no.” “Then do you believe in God’s sovereignty?” I asked. He mumbled something about just wanting to “make sure” and hung up.


            My experience, based on teaching Christian theology in churches and three Christian universities over thirty-one years, is that many, perhaps most, Christians don’t know what they mean when they talk about “God’s sovereignty”—beyond “God is in control.” My concern has been to help Christians think reflectively about God’s sovereignty and arrive at beliefs about it that are biblically sound and intelligible.


            My own view of God’s sovereignty is what I call “relational.” I believe in God’s “relational sovereignty.” What I want to do here, today, is explain what I mean by that and invite you to consider it as an alternative to the view of God’s sovereignty currently enjoying great popularity—the Augustinian-Calvinist view that I call, for lack of any more descriptive term, “divine determinism.” It could rightly be called “non-relational sovereignty.” Thousands of Christian young people are adopting it, often without critically reflecting on what it implies and without knowing any alternatives to it.


            I identify with a different movement in contemporary theology called “Relational Theology” or “Relational Theism.” There’s no single “guru” of the movement and it’s not nearly as popular or easy to identify and describe. But it also has biblical roots and historical precedents.


            In 2012 thirty theologians, nearly all self-identified evangelicals, wrote chapters in a book entitled Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow. It was published by Point Loma Press, an imprint of Wipf and Stock publishers. The volume covers many issues of Christian theology and practice from a “relational point of view.”


            It’s an excellent little book and I can recommend it highly as an introduction to contemporary Relational Theology—especially that segment of it that is evangelical. Most of the authors, maybe all of them, are Wesleyans in the evangelical tradition (or evangelicals in the Wesleyan tradition). However, one weakness I find in the book is the lack of a chapter on God’s sovereignty from a relational perspective. That is a gap I hope to fill here.


            Everyone familiar with current religious movements knows about the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement led by John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler and Louie Giglio (among others). Some call its theology “neo-Calvinism.” It’s actually a contemporary form of the theology of Jonathan Edwards, John Piper’s favorite theologian. Anyone who has studied Edwards or Piper knows they have a distinctive view of God’s sovereignty. It’s enjoying great popularity, especially among twenty-something Christians. According to it, whatever happens is planned, ordained and governed by God. Another way of saying that is that God foreordains and renders certain everything that happens without exception. As John Piper has said, according to his view, if a dirty bomb were to land in downtown Minneapolis, that would be from God.


            Many people simply believe this view is what is meant by “God’s sovereignty” and anything else is a denial of God’s sovereignty. If God is not the all-determining reality, then he is not sovereign. Or, as Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul likes to say, if there is one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God. Or, as British Calvinist Paul Helm says, not only every atom and molecule but also every thought and intention is under the control of God.


            My purpose today is not to expound this wildly popular view of God’s sovereignty or spend a lot of time critiquing it. I will do both briefly. My purpose is to expound and defend an alternative perspective on God’s sovereignty that I believe is more appealing—biblically, rationally and experientially. And it has historical appeal as well, even if it has been throughout much of Christian history a “minority report,” so to speak.


            At risk of over simplifying, I will argue that there are three main views of God’s sovereignty in Christian theology. That is to say, in spite of many variations, all views tend to “come home” to one of these. Think of them as large tents under which people with different interpretations of them gather, talk, and debate. They are divine determinism, relational theism, and mediating views. The third, “mediating views,” have much in common with each other and so represent a single over-arching view even if they emphasize singular points differently.


            I begin with divine determinism which I actually began describing above. According to all versions of it, all events are traceable back to God who controls history down to every detail according to a blueprint. God has never taken a risk. God micromanages history and individuals’ lives. Nothing surprises God. Nothing can happen that is contrary to God’s will.


            Now, of course, there are many versions of divine determinism. Hardly any advocate of that view likes my label for it. Sproul, for example, adamantly rejects “determinism” as a descriptor of his view. However, a quick look at any major English dictionary will reveal why it’s a fair descriptor. By whatever means, even if through “secondary causes,” God determines what will happen and that determination is as Helm says “fine grained.” Nothing at all escapes it.


            Some proponents of divine determinism make use of something called “middle knowledge” to attempt to reconcile it with free will. Others reject that tactic. Some attempt to define free will compatibilistically, that is as simply doing what you want to do even if you could not do otherwise. Others reject free will altogether. Some admit that this view makes God the author of sin and evil; others adamantly reject that, appealing to God’s permission rather than authorship of sin and evil. However, when pressed, they say that God’s permission of sin and evil is “effectual permission.” In any case, God still plans and renders them certain.


            The second view of God’s sovereignty, the one I plan to expound here, is relational theism. Oord, one of the editors and authors of Relational Theology, defines it this way: “At its core, relational theology affirms two key ideas: 1. God affects creatures in various ways. Instead of being aloof and detached, God is active and involved in relationship with others. God relates to us, and that makes an essential difference. 2. Creatures affect God in various ways. While God’s nature is unchanging, creatures influence the loving and living Creator of the universe. We relate to God, and creation makes a difference to God.” (p. 2) Another author, Barry Callen, says of relational theism (or theology) that it focuses on “the interactivity or mutuality of the God-human relationship. God is understood to be truly personal, loving, and not manipulative. The interaction of the wills of Creator and creature are real.” (p. 7)


            Relational theism or theology comes in many varieties, some of them quite incompatible at points. All share in common, however, belief that creatures can and do actually affect God. The relationship between creatures, especially human persons, and God is two-way. God is, as Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof said, the “defenseless superior power” within a genuine covenant relationship with us whose immutability is not impervious to influence but “changeable faithfulness.” According to relational theism, the God-human relationship is reciprocal, mutual, interactive. God is not Aristotle’s “Thought thinking Itself” or Aquinas’ “Pure Actuality” without potentiality. Rather, God is Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover”—the superior power who allows creatures to resist him and becomes vulnerable and open to harm as well as joy.


            One of the best descriptions of relational theism, I believe, is found in Thomas Torrance’s little book Space, Time, and Incarnation:


The world…is made open to God through its intersection in the axis of Creation-Incarnation. … But what of the same relationship the other way round, in the openness of God for the world that He has made? Does the intersection of His reality with our this-worldly reality in Jesus Christ mean anything for God? We have noted already that it means that space and time are affirmed as real for God in the actuality of His relations with us, which binds us to space and time, so that neither we nor God can contract out of them. Does this not mean that God has so opened Himself to our world that our this-worldly experiences have import for Him in such a way, for example, that we must think of Him as taking our hurt and pain into Himself?  (p. 74)


            In sum, then, relational theology or theism is any view that imports the creation into the life of God so that God is in some way dependent on it for the whole or part of his experience. The implications of this for a view of God’s sovereignty are enormous and take it away from divine determinism. As I will be spending the second half of this talk exploring this view of sovereignty I’ll settle now for what I have said about relational theism in general.


            The third main Christian view of God’s sovereignty is what I call, for lack of a better term, mediating. These are views that attempt to combine, usually with some appeal to paradox, divine determinism with relational theism. An excellent example is the late evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch. Throughout his career Bloesch boldly expressed and defended the paradoxical nature of Christianity following Kierkegaard and Barth. In his book The Evangelical Renaissance he declared that


God knows the course of the future and the fulfillment of the future, but this must not be taken to mean that He literally knows every single event even before it happens. It means that He knows every alternative and the way in which His children may well respond to the decisions that confront them. The plan of God is predetermined, but the way in which He realizes it is dependent partly on the free cooperation of His subjects. This does not detract from His omnipotence, for it means that He is so powerful that He is willing to attain His objectives by allowing a certain room for freedom of action on the part of man. (p. 53)


            This may sound relational or deterministic and Bloesch reveled in that ambiguity. “The plan of God is predetermined” is deterministic; “The way in which He realizes it is dependent partly on the…cooperation of His subjects” is relational.


            I think that many theologians and non-theologically trained Christians alike tend to embrace a kind of ambiguous, paradoxical view of God’s sovereignty. I often hear the same person say “Oh, well, God knows what he’s doing” and “People have free will, you know” in different circumstances—the former to comfort in grief and the latter to get God off the hook when evil raises its ugly head.


            Relational theology or theism lends itself to a particular view of God’s sovereignty that is neither deterministic nor paradoxical. Divine determinism of any type cannot explain how God is good in any meaningful sense or how people are responsible for the evil they do. Mediating theology, theologies of paradox, cannot explain the consistency of God’s comprehensive, meticulous providence with genuine free will and prayer playing a role in the outworking of God’s plan. Relational sovereignty, which is what I will call the view of God’s sovereignty derived from relational theism, seeks and finds consistency and flexibility.


            What I want to outline for you and recommend to you is a non-process, narrative-based, relational view of God’s sovereignty. It is not rooted in process theology which, while relational, detracts too much from God’s transcendence. Process theology is one form of relational theology, but not all relational theology is process. Process theology denies God’s omnipotence which is its main failing. From that flow other flaws such as its denial of any eschatological resolution to the struggles of history and eventual end to evil and innocent suffering. Process theology, in my opinion, sacrifices too much of the biblical portrait of God and, in the process, robs us of hope for the world. It is right in much of what it affirms but wrong in much of what it denies. It rightly affirms God’s vulnerability and the partial openness of the future; it wrongly denies God’s power to intervene in human affairs to rescue, heal and defeat evil.


            No doubt some critics will regard my own non-process, narrative-based, relational view of God’s sovereignty as an unstable middle ground between divine determinism and process theology. I hope to show that it is not unstable or incoherent and preserves the best of both of those alternative perspectives while avoiding their fatal flaws.


            Rather than focusing on proof texts of Scripture or philosophies, this relational view of God’s sovereignty arises out of and is justified by a synoptic, canonical, holistic vision of God drawn from the biblical narrative. Obviously I do not have time now even to summarize “narrative theology,” but I will mention a few of its major points.


            Narrative theology regards stories and symbols as vehicles of truth. The Bible contains propositions, but it is not primarily a book of propositions. It is primarily a book of stories and symbols from which propositions can be drawn. The Bible is the story of one great “theodrama.” Its purpose is to identify God for us and transform us. Transformation is its first and highest purpose though it does also contain information.


            Narrative theology refuses to treat the Bible as a “not-yet-systematized systematic theology” which is how I believe too much conservative evangelical theology treats it. No system can replace the Bible which always has new light to reveal and more truth into which to guide us.


            Narrative theology resists too much philosophical speculation into matters beyond our possible experience and beyond the biblical narrative which is not about God-in-himself but about God-with-us. Narrative theology resists metaphysical compliments paid to God that cannot rest on the portrayal of God in his own story.


            Finally, narrative theology insists on taking the whole biblical story into account when theology attempts to derive truth about God.


            A relational view of God’s sovereignty begins not with philosophical a prioris such as “God is by definition the being greater than which none can be conceived” or “If there’s one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God” but with God as the personal, loving, self-involving, passionate, relational Yahweh of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ.


            This God is not aloof or self-sufficient in himself or impassible. His deity, as Barth taught us, is no prison. And as Jürgen Moltmann has taught us, his death on the cross is not a contradiction of his deity but the most profound revelation of it. And that because this God is love.


            Does this all mean that God needs us? Not at all. This God could have lived forever satisfied with the communal love shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but he chose to become vulnerable in relation to the world he created out of the overflowing of that love. Is that just a metaphysical compliment unnecessarily paid to God or a truth necessary to the biblical story of God with us? I would argue it is the latter. A God who literally needs the world is a pathetic God hardly worthy of worship.


            The key insight for a non-process relational view of God’s sovereignty is that God is sovereign over his sovereignty. The missio dei is God’s choice to involve himself intimately with the world so as to be affected by it. That choice is rooted in God’s love and desire for reciprocal love freely offered by his human creatures. None of this detracts in any way from God’s sovereignty because God is sovereign over his sovereignty. To say that God can’t be vulnerable, can’t limit himself, can’t restrain his power to make room for other powers, is, ironically, to deny God’s sovereignty.


            Allow me to use the words of Torrance again to express this view of God and God’s sovereignty. Contrary to classical theism,


If God is merely impassible He has not made room for Himself in our agonied existence, and if He is merely immutable He has neither place nor time for frail evanescent creatures in His unchanging existence. But the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as sharing our lot is the God who is really free to make Himself poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich, the God invariant in love but not impassible, constant in faithfulness but not immutable. (p. 75)


There is a doctrine of God’s sovereignty subtly included in those phrases about God’s vulnerability. Torrance’s vulnerable God cannot be the all-determining reality of classical theism and Calvinism. Such a God has not really made room for us in his existence, his life, whatever certain neo-Calvinists might say. Rather, the God of Torrance and relational theism is the God who makes himself partially dependent on his human partners so that our history becomes his, too.


            What does that mean, then, for God’s sovereignty? First, the relational God of the biblical story is not, to quote Baptist theologian E. Frank Tupper, a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God.” (A Scandalous Providence, p. 335 ) Second, however, the relational God of the biblical story is a powerful God who lures, persuades, cajoles and occasionally overrides the wills of people. He is the “superior defenseless power” in the covenant relationship he has established with us.


            I argue that such a view of God’s sovereignty, one that sees God as truly relational with us, that views us as genuine partners with and sometimes against God, can support and give impetus to commitment to participation in the mission of God. The picture of God as invulnerable, static, unmoved, all-determining derived from much traditional Reformed theology, for example, undermines participation in the mission of God towards God’s kingdom because it makes our participation with God superfluous. We are then seen as pawns rather than knights.


            Am I, then, advocating so-called “open theism?” Not necessarily, although I think that’s far superior to classical theism in many ways. Relational theism and its attendant view of God’s sovereignty are larger than just open theism which is one form of relational theism. The view I have outlined here goes back at least to German mediating theologian I. A. Dorner in the middle of the 19th century who helped Protestant theology complete the Reformation by reconstructing the doctrine of God inherited and left virtually untouched by the Reformers. According to Dorner, God is historical with us and we are created co-creators of history with God. Listen to Dorner after he has expressed his view of God’s ethical immutability in which he changes in relation to creatures, not in his nature but in his “thoughts and his will”:

To be sure, God does not hand over the reins of government to the faithful; but neither does he want to make them automatons [robots], beings resigned to a determined will. From the very beginning, he has preferred to give his friends a joint knowledge of what he wills to do…and to deal historico-temporally through them as his instruments, which as personalities may co-determine his will and counsel. (Quoted in Claude Welch, God and Incarnation, p. 116)

This is, so far as I have discovered, the best brief theological expression of a truly relational view of God’s sovereignty that I have found in Christian thought. The only correction I would offer is to the use of the word “instruments” for created personalities that “co-determine” God’s will and counsel. To contemporary ears, anyway, “instruments” sounds like “pawns” which is clearly not what Dorner intended.


            Finally, in sum, then, a relational view of God’s sovereignty is one that regards God’s will as settled in terms of the intentions of his character but open and flexible in terms of the ways in which he acts because he allows himself to be acted upon. Only such a view of God’s sovereignty does justice to the whole of the biblical drama, to God as personal, to human persons as responsible actors and potential partners with God in God’s mission.


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  • James Petticrew

    Dr Olson whatever your experience of being a theologian in a local church, these essays are giving you a profound and pivotal role in the wider church, your ability to describe issues succinctly and get over theological concepts with clarity is a much needed and appreciated gift to the church. If it wasn’t for you and people like .Jerry Walls it would like as Arminians we were being steamrollered by the whole NeoReformed movement.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks. I do wish there were more of us–Arminian theologians speaking from an evangelical Arminian perspective into the evangelically-oriented churches and institutions. There are Arminian theologians, but most are Wesleyans and for whatever reason I think people tend to think “Well, what do you expect from a Wesleyan?” That’s not a proper response, in my opinion, but I think it’s a realistic evaluation of why they don’t get more attention. Too few non-Wesleyan evangelicals have been willing to call themselves Arminian or even speak out “Arminianly,” so to speak. There’s still that stigma attached to being Arminian among (non-Wesleyan) evangelicals.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thank you Roger! This will be helpful in so many ways. On the faith-science front, which most of the time could be referred to as the classical divine determinism-biology front, your article exposes the very heart of the problem. Relational theology offers a clear way out of the fog. In fact, it may well be a necessary move to break the impasse. Though not always explicitly stated, conflicting theodicies also underlie much of the debate. Fortunately relational theology has good arguments to put theodicy on a solid footing (Boyd, “Is God to Blame?, as you have often recommend). In addition, in a recent book that has so far flown under the radar, Amos Yong clearly outlines how relational theology might be very effectively brought to the evangelical theology-life sciences table (see “The Spirit of Creation”). All of these critical realism approaches will be extremely helpful as evangelicals proceed further into the twenty-first century.

  • I appreciate this very much. British author Terry Pratchett said in one of his “Discworld” books that the best kind of ruler “doesn’t drive; he steers.” The planned destination will be arrived at, but the subjects will be involved in getting there, not merely used as vehicles.

  • Roger, this is a very interesting piece. I am Jewish, and while we’re not a highly theological bunch, I suppose we’d more or less fall into the mediating, paradoxical camp you describe here. But trying to consider things non-paradoxically, I think that your relational theology is beautiful and profound. Also, I think it doesn’t exactly work.

    I want to re-read the above more carefully, so forgive me if I’ve missed something crucial. But you use the example of the Shoah. You want to believe that God did not cause the Shoah, and I understand where you’re coming from, but I struggle to imagine the nature of the God that you’re describing. Please understand, I’m willing to entertain the notion that God might not be as omnipotent as we commonly imagine. So perhaps God was powerless to prevent the rise of European Antisemitism. Perhaps God did not foresee what Hitler’s rise to power would lead to. Perhaps God even lacked the power to see what was going on in the death camps while it was happening. I’m willing to imagine all of this, even though it describes a God that few in the West would recognize.

    But I cannot imagine a God that is deaf to the prayers of those in the death camps. So, even if God could not see what was happening there, God must have known what was going on. Also, I cannot imagine a God that was powerless to intervene. Folks debate what FDR could have done to interrupt the Nazi murder machine; certainly God is at least as powerful as FDR! We might say that God has a policy not to intervene in human affairs (sort of like the Prime Directive in Star Trek TOS), only the Bible records countless such interventions, and my religion (Sinai) and yours (Incarnation, Resurrection) are both built on belief in such interventions. So, trying to view this situation non-paradoxically, relational theology tells me that God chooses to help some of us and not all of us (Calvinist irony intended), and God chose not to interfere with the Nazis.

    I see no meaningful distinction between (a) God being the “author” of the Shoah, and (b) God permitting the Shoah to proceed even though he could have stopped it. Perhaps the God in (a) is more disturbing than the God in (b), but neither such God is (in my humble opinion) much of a God.

    Oddly enough, when I think of the Shoah, where I lost 1/3 of my people and nearly half of my ancestral family, I find the deterministic God more comforting than the relational God. With a deterministic God, perhaps the Shoah WAS part of God’s plan for the good, in a way that I’ll never understand (not in this life, anyway). Perhaps there are times (and may they be few!) when God must act in a way that’s contrary to God’s relationship with us, because there are other things at stake that require such action. Perhaps I can just trust in God in a Book of Job kind of way. Perhaps all I can do is say Mourner’s Kaddish (“Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name …”) and try to move on. But if theologically, God is the nonparadoxical, relational God, then the Shoah is unbearably heartbreaking, because it suggests both that our relationship with God is THE most important thing AND that God is not faithful to the relationship. Then the only rational Jewish response to the Shoah is some kind of non-devotional theism.

    Here’s the thing. I believe in God more than I believe in theology. Somehow God is all powerful and God’s intentions matter. Somehow we are responsible for our actions and the way that our history has unfolded. Somehow it’s all for the good, and somehow we live in a broken world, and somehow it matters very much what we decide to do.

    Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given. Embrace the paradox.

    • rogereolson

      I do embrace paradox, but always uncomfortably. I want to keep working on resolving a paradox. But I prefer the language of “mystery” as “paradox” always sounds like something unintelligible–illogical, irrational. I don’t think Christianity (I won’t speak for any other religion) ought to be irrational or illogical. The reason I mentioned theologian E. Frank Tupper is that he has written what I take to be the most insightful thoughts about God’s providence in relation to evil. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in his book (A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God) but I am intrigued by and attracted to the idea that there are rules God abides by. “The world is arbitrary but God is not.” The next is a paraphrase of Tupper but comes close to being a quote: In every truly tragic situation God does all that God can do. But he doesn’t opt for a non-omnipotent God (as in process theology or “Boston personalism”). Rather, he opts for two things we cannot fully understand but can imagine: 1) that God limits himself in relation to free creatures, and 2) there are complexities in every situation we cannot understand (but God can) that govern what God can do in that situation.

      • I don’t know. I think paradox in inherent in human understanding. I also think that is why narrative is so important. It can contain paradox. A story about God destroying the earth and yet still loving his creation (as in the story of the ark) has an inherent sense to it, even though it contains a huge paradox. We may think about this, and struggle with how, exactly God might be able to contain elements of love and destruction, but there is a way in which any explanation will never actually explain the idea in the same way that the story does. The story contains the paradox and makes sense of it only as a story.

        It’s always seems to me the same as dissecting a frog in biology class. You take the frog apart and figure out how it works. But give me the real frog any day, sitting in my garden and eating my bugs. The frog with all the pieces put together is the thing that makes sense and that contains the essence of “frog.”

        I understand wanting to get all the understanding that we can out of a story, but I think ultimately the story, the thing that contains the paradox is far more important than the explanation or the resolution of it.

        • rogereolson

          Of course the story is what’s most important (under God himself), but I prefer to think it contains mysteries, not paradoxes. But, whenever “paradox” comes up, it seems people mean different things by it. I’m uncomfortable with embraces even apparent contradictions. That’s not allowed in any other intellectual discipline, so why theology? Doing it makes theology esoteric.

    • Bev Mitchell


      It is so interesting and helpful to get insight from other traditions, thank you. On the relational theology front, do you know the work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks? His recent book “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning” left me thinking that this man and John Wesley would have gotten on famously.

      With a different but related focus, the orthodox scholar Jon Levenson is also very helpful in his influential “Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence”. This book is often referred to by Christian relational theologists.


    • K Gray

      I find Larry’s understanding very beautiful and also common to many Christian laypeople. God’s word is so replete with paradoxes that any study of him (theology), to be faithful, must at least acknowledge some of them and even embrace them “as is.” Perfect love and perfect justice, sovereignty and free will, most of the beatitudes, when we are weak we are strong, faith in the unseen more than in the seen (Heb. 11:1),Christ dying in order to defeat death. becoming more than conquerors through submission, the least will be greatest and the last will be first, and so forth. Even that which is revealed to us is not particularly logical. Knowable through the spirit – yes; logical, sometimes.

      • rogereolson

        Again, as so often happens here, we are using “paradox” differently. Sure, many people use the word “paradox” for any tension between two things that seem to belong together. I’m using it for apparent (possibly real) logical contradictions (e.g., “square circle”). I don’t see any of your stated paradoxes as real paradoxes. It may be mysterious to us how some of those dualities fit together, but that’s why we have theology–to explain why they aren’t sheer contradictions. I don’t think there are any real paradoxes, only apparent ones that need deeper thought. Otherwise, we can’t communicate the Christian faith intelligibly. And, as I’ve argued here several times before, one cannot believe two absolutely contrary things at the same time.

        • K Gray

          Yes, it’s interesting that even this comment stream includes the following concepts:

          paradox – apparent or “real”
          logical contradiction – apparent or “sheer”

          Of these, I suppose only ‘mystery’ is a term appearing in God’s word; not that the others aren’t useful sometimes.

  • John A.

    I have been wondering about this. I hold the paradox view. I personally see it as
    Paradox view(molinism?) maybe Lutheranism-acceptable

    I am sure I forget a few views but this is how I see the list. I personally see that one hand God predetermines the elect. On the other Jesus said to the woman who wiped his feet “Your faith has saved you.”. The Bible says that none seek God but it also says man was made to seek God. It says God wishes all to be saved yet not everyone will be.
    I am struggling with what view I currently believe myself.

    • rogereolson

      I suggest you look further into classical Arminianism; I think you will find it resolves the apparent contradictions you see and wrestle with.

  • Would you say that a denial of the impassibility of God is essential to Relational Sovereignty? I was finding myself in agreement with everything in this talk until you brought up this attribute of God.

    • rogereolson

      I guess it depends on what impassibility means. If it means God cannot be affected by creatures, then it must be denied. If it means God does not have an emotional life just like ours, then I affirm it. Before responding, I would need to know what you mean by it.

  • Ben

    Ahem, umm, you misspelled Calvinist in “Non-Calvinist” in your title and URL. Not that it really deserves to be spelled correctly or even capitalized. 😉

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the correction. I often do this in the morning and my eyes are still a bit blurry. So mistakes will happen.

      • Dwight Gingrich

        You don’t think God determined that this would happen? 😉

        • rogereolson

          Don’t know. So long as it doesn’t involve sin or innocent suffering I’m not particularly concerned with whether God determined something. I tend to think God does that a lot.

  • Terry Graves

    Dear brother, this was outstanding. I’m a church of Christ minister. I know you are familiar with church of Christ ministers/scholars like John Mark Hicks. The vast majority of our folks are Arminian or a lot Arminian with a little bit of Calvinism thrown in (and more and more of us are grace-oriented and not sectarian and exclusive). Folks like you, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd and Ben Witherington, have helped me to be a better Arminian. Would Baptist theologians Dale Moody and Herschel Hobbs be considered Arminian? I am going to share this material with others. Good stuff. Thanks.

    • rogereolson

      I think Hobbs was half Arminian and half Calvinist and often semi-Pelagian (without intending to be, of course). I consider Dale Moody an Arminian although he may not have wanted that label applied to him.

  • I’ve recently been rereading the late Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.” I’ve always found his notions of dialogism a beautiful description of God’s action in the world, and think it nicely fits what you are saying above.

    Speaking of the Dostoevsky as “a” creator, Bakhtin writes, “The consciousness of the creator… is constantly and everywhere present… and is active in the highest degree. But… the author’s consciousness does not transform (the consciousness of the characters) into objects…”

    That seems quite in harmony with Relational Theology.

  • This seems right-headed to me–thanks for articulating it. It intersects a great deal with Forlines’ emphasis on God as a personal, relational being, and that God relates to us as human beings. This is articulated at length in his CLASSICAL ARMINIANISM.


  • I have mixed feelings about this post. I like relational theologies (as defined by Olson), but I’m hesitant to sell the whole farm for it.

    1) Does Olson need to make a distinction between historic classical Arminian theology and his relational Arminian theology? Perhaps, he could have defined that distinction and explained that further.

    2) I felt like Olson needs to tighten his definitions of “relational theology” vs. what he calls “mediating views.” The only distinction between them I found in this article is that relational theology rejects Aristotle/Augustine/Anselm/Aquinas’ God, while mediating theologies do not. And, Olson rejects process theology on the grounds that process theology denies God’s transcendence. So what is God’s transcendence mean for Olson if one can’t appeal to views of transcendence that Augustine and Aquinas put forward? Also, how then are we to understand God’s eternal nature?

    3) It seems to me (correct me if I’m wrong please), the problem is that a relational view (as Olson defined it) commits one to abandon any ontological existence of God outside of creation and time. Then, relational theology (as Olson defined it) commits one to only an A-theory of time. As a result, it also commits one to understand God’s perfection (God’s ACTUALIZED ontological/relational identity) as merely foreknown by God, but not actualized until the moment occurs in creation and time WITH CREATION (he has to wait for the future like the rest of us).

    4) Olson quotes only mediating theologians (Torrance and Dorner) for support of his relational theology (Olson admits this for Dorner), but they aren’t relational theologians in Olson’s definitions, so why use them as if they were?

    5) Olson’s only rationale for siding with relational theology over mediating theologies is that it’s not paradoxical. Unfortunately, this is where Orthodoxy, grounded in Scripture, lives (i.e., Trinity, Christology, Soteriology, etc.).

    6) I would argue that one can hold relational views of God and still uphold a mediating theology (as Olson shows by quoting Torrance and Dorner).

    7) Underlying this whole discussion is some serious metaphysics that needs to be dealt with (i.e., panentheism, Creator vs. creation, time vs. eternity, A-theory vs. B-theory etc.), and I didn’t find this article helping in this regards. In fact, just the opposite, Olson implicitly seems to ignore, side step, or just reject any philosophical discussions (but in reality there are metaphysical claims to realtional theology as I mentioned above).

    I’ll take relational and mediating views over divine determinism any day, but I feel the relational views (process theism, open theism, and Olson’s relational Arminianism) have short comings as well. That’s why I feel compelled to an agnostic type of “mediating view” or maybe classical Arminianism (if it is philosophically inconclusive in regards to metaphysical issues mentioned above).

    I know you read all these comments Dr. Olson, I highly admire you and follow your work. I apologize ahead of time if I sounded to negative in my comments here (I would say just hesitant to your proposal). I hope that we can refine each others thoughts, and as an amateur theologian I expect to be corrected 🙂


    • rogereolson

      I would just say a couple things by way of response. First, one can only do so much in a 30 minutes talk (the time I was allotted). To do all that you ask would take far longer and probably a book. The basic difference between the mediating view(s) of God’s sovereignty I mentioned (e.g., Bloesch’s) and my relational view is paradox. The mediating views all embrace paradox too quickly and comfortably. I don’t deny mystery, but I am not comfortable embracing paradox. Don’t confuse my use of “mediating theologies” (e.g., Dorner’s) with the views of God’s sovereignty I called “mediating.” I realize now that I set up the reader for confusion by using the term “mediating” in two entirely different ways. Dorner was a mediating theologian (a technical category in historical theology) but his idea of God’s sovereignty fits with what I am calling a “relational view.” He doesn’t appeal to paradox so far as I could discover.

      • Thanks for the clarification Dr. Olson.
        Could you respond to my points 2 & 3, if you have the time?

        • rogereolson

          I simply don’t have time to respond to everything. I apologize for it.

  • “Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul likes to say, if there is one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God. Or, as British Calvinist Paul Helm says, not only every atom and molecule but also every thought and intention is under the control of God.”

    Syrupy Christians are so careful not to attribute anything that turns out bad to the Creator, but God, himself, is not so touchy. In the biblical flood account God takes full responsibility for sinful humanity, saying, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that HE HAD MADE MAN ON THE EARTH, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, ‘I will wipe mankind, WHOM I HAVE CREATED, from the face of the earth–men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air–for I am grieved that I HAVE MADE THEM'” (“Genesis 6:5-7 (NIV).

    • rogereolson

      “Syrupy?” That’s an adjective I’ve never heard used to describe me before! Hah! I must have changed a lot since Bible college, huh?

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Narrative theology refuses to treat the Bible as a “not-yet-systematized systematic theology”

    This is an excellent starting point for theology.

    Last week I was reading an online debate (here) about Open Theology. The proponent of Open Theology contrasted 5 major characteristics of God’s sovereignty from a “Settled” perspective with his own:
    Instead of “Omniscience” he emphasized “Living”.
    Instead of “Omnipresence” he emphasized “Personal”.
    Instead of “Omnipotence” he emphasized “Relational”.
    Instead of “Impassibility” he emphasized “Good”.
    Instead of “Immutability” he emphasized “Loving”.
    That these are emphases is important, because the “Settled” view characteristics are not dismissed. Rather, the more relational aspects of God are highlighted and promoted above the others. If nothing else, it brings a better balance to a perspective of God.

  • UI_SP2013

    An exposition of books is just fine, but unless you can demonstrate the truth as it is written in the Bible, then it is merely an opinion based in human understanding. At least Piper, and others, can reason from Scripture and not need to rely on human “intellect.” By saying that God “occasionally interferes” with the will of people removes his authority and debases Scripture. There is no text in the Bible which supports this view. God’s sovereignty is no easy truth, but time and time again we see it related in Scripture.

    • rogereolson

      Oh, please. Does Piper just quote Scripture verses? No, he relies heavily on Jonathan Edwards’ theology. Your point of view here is just naive.

    • Jesse Ward

      There are many books that defend a relational view of God from scripture. I hope you will take the time to look over some of them. I think if you read them carefully you see that the relational view of God relies on scripture and not on human intellect. Here are some recommendations:
      Most Moved Mover; Flame of Love by Clark Pinnock
      The God Who Risks by John Sanders
      Creation Untamed by Terence Fretheim
      God of the Possible; Is God to Blame? by Greg Boyd
      Also, I personally agree with Roger that the whole Bible tells a story of genuine give and take relationships between God and people and people and people.

      • rogereolson

        And I would just add A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God by E. Frank Tupper (Mercer University Press). Also anything by British Christian philosopher Keith Ward.

  • Patricia Macindoe

    Shared this on FB and a friend wrote “very interesting but I’m surprised there are no scripture references”. Any pointers with such/that please?

    • rogereolson

      Um, the whole Bible?

      • Patricia Macindoe

        Umm 🙁
        I was looking for a starting point, a little help getting there, not trying to be obtuse.

        • rogereolson

          A good starting point would be Hosea. The whole book is about God’s relational sovereignty with Israel.

          • Patricia Macindoe

            Thank you 🙂

    • RandyD

      That’s the thing about a narrative approach, as is outlined above–simplistic proof-texting (which you can literally argue for anything by using) is set aside in favor of taking the whole of the narrative into account. What are the overall currents of the Scripture? What are the sounds, rhythms, and themes that repeat? This is a much needed corrective to how we have come to read the Bible. The means by which the Bible is communicated (mostly narrative) needs to be taken seriously. Instead of looking only to “truths” boiled down from the stories in the text, attend to the stories themselves.

      That said, it probably won’t satisfy your friend! Alas, old habits die hard.

      • rogereolson

        Good, succinct explanation of narrative theology. Thank you.

  • Curtis

    Dr. Olson, thank you for your thoughts. I contributed a chapter to the book you reference and I am very pleased to read you appreciated the book…although my chapter may be one you find less acceptable 🙂
    I am wondering if you have read much Keith Ward. I have found him to be an extremely helpful thinker in these areas. I am disappointed her is not better known and used here in the States.


    • rogereolson

      Yes, I read Keith Ward and find his philosophical theology extremely well-stated and helpful. I always benefit from reading him.

  • Hi Roger,

    I am happy to see you appeal to Thomas Torrance, but the way you have used him is to misunderstand his general onto-relational project. When you write in conclusion of the quote from Torrance,

    “… Rather, the God of Torrance and relational theism is the God who makes himself partially dependent on his human partners so that our history becomes his, too.”

    This is not correct. For Torrance, as for Barth, the Vicarious Humanity and homoousious person of God in Christ for us (and so the consubstantial with God, person of Christ or the unio personalis) is where the open texturedness of God is given shape. For Torrance, then God does not make ‘himself partially dependent upon His human partners’, but instead God’s being and reality is contingent and upon His life in the Son, and thus relational (or onto-relational for Torrance) theism cannot be, for Torrance, one where God is ultimately (even if by His free choosing) dependent upon His human (simpliciter) partners. God’s life is objectively and only contingent upon the novum reality of His Son become human, and not just any human, but archetypal human, such that the rest of humanity has the capacity now to participate from His humanity (for us), not by nature (as the Son does with the Father; i.e. this is the shape that Jesus’ humanity has e.g. an/enhypostatic), but we by grace and adoption.

    Anyway, I am happy to see you using TFT, but your usage of him here is not reading him totally from his context. I have heard, recently, that other Open Theists have been trying to use Torrance in a similar way to your usage. Just because Torrance used the language of ‘Open’ does not mean he would endorse, in any way, the kind of relational theism you are proposing, or Open theism that others are. For Torrance (as for Barth) a Christ conditioned conception, of all things, takes the precedence, and over making any part of who God is contingent (or dependent) upon his human partners. God only has one (become) human partner by nature, and the rest of His human partners only participate from this relation (as I said) by grace and Spirit spirated adoption. This is different than the way you have left this, at least with the way you have construed Torrance.

    • rogereolson

      I was simply construing Torrance’s plain language in that portion of Space, Time and Incarnation. If he meant something other than what he wrote, he didn’t make that clear there.

      • Well, as you know, Roger, there is always a broader context that impinges on the nearer. The broader context of TFT’s theology does not support your usage of his near context that you appealed to. I am just trying to keep TFT from being construed as some sort of incipient endorser of open theism, or even your relational theism (which sounds very very much like open theism, even with your caveat about foreknowledge. I have heard Greg Boyd speak of humanity as co-creators with God, which when he unpacks that sounds exactly like what you wrote here: “… Rather, the God of Torrance and relational theism is the God who makes himself partially dependent on his human partners so that our history becomes his, too.”

        Anyway, thanks for sharing your approach with all of us.

        • Bobby,
          What do you make of Torrance’s argument that God experiences successive ‘moments’? (Not like ours, granted, but a kind of God-time nonetheless). I think that gets at something relational theology is trying to grapple with. One does not need to say that Torrance supports such and such a view to find some level of compatibility. I think Torrance goes on to argue that even human experience of time must have some ontological grounding. So, it’s not that God’s experience mirrors our, but that ours participates in his.

      • Myk Habets

        When Clark Pinnock was in New Zealand I spent some time with him and he told me that he took the term ‘Open theology’ etc directly from TFT’s usage. I was horrified and told Pinnock why. He simply said he took the term and didn’t really read the book. Hmm.

        • rogereolson

          You and Bobby seem to misunderstand my (not Pinnock’s) use of Torrance’s quote from Space, Time and Incarnation. Why are you bringing Pinnock into it when I did not affirm open theism? I affirmed what I call “relational sovereignty” as part of an over-arching perspective called “relational theism.” I was claiming ONLY that there, on those two pages, Torrance said something that well expresses relational theism and, I take it, relational sovereignty. There, on page 75, Torrance explicitly denies the immutability of God. What else does “not immutable” mean? And how else can that long paragraph be interpreted than as affirming what I call “relational sovereignty?” Are you, is Bobby, arguing that Torrance held to a deterministic view of God’s sovereignty? Or perhaps that, overall, he affirmed the via media view I call paradoxical (e.g., Bloesch’s)? In any case, Torrance’s plain words on pages 74-75 illustrate and support what I call “relational sovereignty.” If you want to argue that elsewhere he qualified those words, fine. Happens all the time. To illustrate from another case–for years John Cobb thought Pannenberg was a process thinker because he said things like “God does not yet exist.” Later it became clear that Pannenberg was not at all Whiteheadian (he’s more Hegelian). Still, without claiming that Pannenberg ever was a process theologian, how would it be wrong for Cobb to quote the early Pannenberg’s statement “God does not yet exist” as expressing what he, Cobb, believes (assuming he would agree with that statement in any sense)? I made no claim that Torrance held exactly the view I hold; I quoted his words as illustrating what I believe. Frankly, I don’t see what other meaning they can have (than mine), but that’s another conversation. If someone quoted the early Pannenberg to support process theology I would simply note to them that Pannenberg was not a process thinker in the sense of Whiteheadian thought, but I would not chide them for quoting him if his words really did illustrated and express what they believe–so long as they did not claim Pannenberg as a process theologian. Frankly, I’m not sure what Torrance believed about God’s relationality with us. I’m not sure what Barth believed about that. Both, it seems to me, said contrary things impossible to express with total systematic coherence. Kierkegaard would be smiling.

  • Tyler Geffeney

    Great work Roger. Like you, I would greatly desire there to be far more Arminianists engaged into the foray. Personally, I tend to favor the Molinist explanation for how God can be utterly sovereign, but not responsible, and yet entirely relational. Essentially it has seemed to me the most elegant way to explain most of the data. In your post, you also seem to connect it with a deterministic view which surprised me in that during my post graduate work in apologetics, our class was divided along the lines of the deterministic Calvinist, and the molinist (which btw, most were in the latter camp.) Also, the impression from your blog that you do not consider the Molinist view adequate. Am I understanding that correctly, and if so can you clarify why that is?

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I disciple a lot of young guys who are being persuaded by thedeterministic view of God’s actions and I would really like to expose the underbelly of the claims held by the likes of Piper. Could I trouble you for references to some of the more outlandish claims, one like the kind you reference where Piper suggests: “if a dirty bomb were to land in downtown Minneapolis, that would be from God” ?

    Thanks again for your excellent work. BTW, my friend Mr. Hess I think was emailing you some interesting information about the gnostic influence on Augustinian theology. If you didn’t get that, let me know and I can send it to you.

    • rogereolson

      The quote was heard on a CD of a talk Piper gave. I do not believe in “middle knowledge” and have discussed that a lot here. Perhaps you can find those posts (in the archives) where I explain why.

  • Francesco C.

    Maybe I am just wrong, but I believe in a fully relational view where God uses fully his middleknowledge and micromanages everything with omnicasuality. I don’t hook to paradox or mistery. I am fully libertarian, don’t accept determinism. Everything seems very consistent in my mind. I think most of arminians are with me in this view, I can’t imagine I am alone. When I read Arminius’ doctrine of concurrence, I read exactly my view (but maybe I am just fooling myself…).
    Are you sure no theologian refers to a fully-relational-but-mediating view without reference to “mistery” or “paradox”?

    • rogereolson

      I think you are misunderstanding Arminius’ doctrine of concurrence. It has nothing to do with micromanaging with omnicausality–unless you are using those words in a very unusual way. As I understand those words, they imply determinism.

      • Francesco C.

        From ‘Works of Arminius – divine providence’

        ‘but I declare that it (Divine Providence) preserves, regulates, governs and directs all things and that nothing in the world happens fortuitously or by chance’ (quotation ended).”

        “All things” speaks to me about omnicasuality.
        “nothing” speaks to me about micromanaging (“not even the smallest hair…”)

        I am not saying this is the only possible way to read Arminius’s statement, but I think it is clearly possible, even in the direct context of this sentence.

        What is wrong with this reading according to you?

        • rogereolson

          Not long ago I quoted that statement from Arminius with surrounding context that elucidates it. For one thing he explicitly excludes evil from God’s causality. Read deeply and broadly; don’t cherry pick a sentence like that out of its context.

          • Francesco C.

            Dr. Olson,
            I remember in some way to have read your notes about this Arminius’ statement, but I think that all your references to this special subject lack a clear clarification about the nature, history and logical strength of “micromanaging” Arminianism.
            I mean, for example in this case, I know that Arminius didn’t believe that God was directly responsible for evil, because I agree: evil is “caused” from sinful free will of angels and human beings. But in Arminius’ view God surely “preserves, regulates, governs and directs” every single act of evil. “Cause” is an ambiguous verb in this context.
            While you are very objective and clear every time you deepen and compare Arminian soteriology with Calvinism or Open Theism, and in this sense your view is theologically and historically very accurate and powerful, from the notes you write it seems that you are not so clear, deep and objective when you treat the “other” arminian position.
            In my opinion, the jokes and mistakes that calvinists usually do when they explain all “evangelical” matters only from a mere calvinist view (for example when they speak about “sovereignity”) and they describe arminianism like it is a confused, confusing, not-worthy-of-existing, unconsistent middle-ground between calvinism and semipelagianism, exactly the same kind of biased approach you seem to use when you speak about “arminianism” or “relational view of sovereignity”, denying the existence and consistency of the “micromanaging” arminianism.
            I do keep to think that Arminius and most part of first arminians stand on micromanaging arminianism, that involves a kind of omnicasuality very similar (but not equal) to molinism. Your recent post confirms to me that also contemporary arminians take it as the normal, “orthodox” position. Probably we should just go deeper into this difference and its biblical and historical roots.

          • rogereolson

            I do not know what you mean by “omnicausality” if not that God causes evil. That is the antithesis of Arminianism (and explicitly rejected by Arminius in many places).

  • Fred Karlson

    Great little post. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  • Chad

    Roger, May I be the first to publicly welcome you to the Open Theist camp? If not, then I hope it is because someone else has already done so. If so, then you are very welcome indeed!

    • rogereolson

      If you mean I’m an open theist, you’re wrong. If you mean I can comfortably worship with open theists and accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ, you’re right.

      • Terry D. Jones


  • CarolJean

    How does this differ from Open Theism?

    • rogereolson

      I believe in God’s simple foreknowledge; open theists don’t.

      • CarolJean

        .Is simple foreknowledge the same as exhaustive foreknowledge?

        How does simple foreknowledge play into God’s relations with humans in that if he knows ahead of time how we will respond in a certain situation, ie: we will pray, and he knows what we will pray, and then he knows how he will respond to our prayer, etc, etc…how can our prayers truly affect him in the moment (the actual time we pray) in changing his mind like Mose’s prayer did when he interceded for Israel? In other words, if God knows ahead of time exactly what we will do in a certain situation and how he will respond, then how can he get angry when we sin or how can he be glad when we seek after him? How can his emotions be authentic? Aren’t emotions that are stirred up in the moment part of what it means to be in a true relationship with someone and to be vulnerable to another person?
        God may expect us to behave a certain way based on our track record but if he knows ahead of time what we will do and he will relate to us according to his foreknowledge, I don’t see how he could be truly angry with us. For instance, how could God be genuinely angry with Isreal in the moment when they disobeyed him and made the golden calf since he would have been angry with their actions according to the time he foreknew that they would eventually happen. For God to be angry with them when they actually made the calf having already foreknown that we would definitely rebel seems odd since the He already knew it would happen. The making of the calf was not a surprise to God, so why did he get angry? Why does God get angry with them in the moment before Moses when Israel disobeyed him, if he knew full well that they would disobey him? This type of relationship is not in the moment and spontaneous but expected. It seems contrived.

        How is simple foreknowledge any different than the blueprint view? Is it because in one view God allows evil and in another God determines evil? According to simple foreknowledge, God knows what will happen but doesn’t determine what will happen yet what God knows will happen will happen therefore it is still a blueprint view, isn’t it? I think that any type of blueprint view diminishes the relationality of God with his creation where God cannot be “real” in the moment but more of an actor. His anger is not real anger since he already knew Israel would disobey him. His response to Moses to destroy them and create a new line of chosen people through him wouldn’t have been authentic in the moment but a portrayed anger (unless God had become angry with Israel from the moment he foreknew Isreal would disobey and kept that anger fuming within him until the actual time that they actually disobeyed.) and a portrayed/feigned anger is not truly relational.

        I’ve been struggling between the simple foreknowledge view and open theism since I heard of open theism. I think I’m leaning more and more toward open theism. It seems to me that open theism allows for a real, authentic relationship between God and man

        • rogereolson

          I think there’s a difference between a blueprint one creates oneself (and then uses to create the world and govern its history in every detail) and one one simply “sees.” But I admit God’s simple foreknowledge involves mystery; I’m okay with that. It’s a mystery I can live with–so long as it is not based on any kind of determinism.

          • CarolJean

            Thank you, Dr. Olson, for you response.

            Does simple foreknowledge as simply seeing the future, all of the future, diminish an authentic relationship aspect of God’s sovereignty with his creatures? Because I don’t believe that God is as forgetful as we human are except when it comes to sins that have been forgiven.

          • rogereolson

            I don’t think it does.

  • Chad

    “As John Piper has said, according to his view, if a dirty bomb were to land in downtown Minneapolis, that would be from God.”
    Wow… Just wow… -.-

    • rogereolson

      But ANY Calvinist should say that. Piper is just completely open and honest about the good and necessary consequences of Calvinist divine determinism (although I think he should go further and admit that among them is that God is the author of sin and evil).

  • Allen M Rea

    Dr. Olson,
    Thank you for your academic ministry. Your books, blog, and articles are an asset to my ministry in the local church. Your scholarship proves that there is nothing embarrassing about being labeled a “mad dog”. In the local community of faith, as I struggle to be a shepherd of souls, your work is used by the Holy Spirit as a light of direction. Thank you.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you. And you’re welcome. Has someone labeled me a “mad dog?” If so, I hadn’t heard of it yet. But if so I would just reply that Luther was labeled a “wild boar in the vineyard of the Lord.”

  • Roger, this was a very helpful essay. Thank you.
    In looking at how you lay out the issues of sovereignty, I wonder if it might not be useful to define the term a little more precisely. I think it helps to remember that a “sovereign” is one who has authority and power. In God’s case, it is a way of saying that God has the authority and right to determine what he wills, and the power to accomplish what he determines. But along with that, God as sovereign also has the authority and right to grant or delegate authority as he wills … that is, to give to his subjects/creatures (us and others) certain decisions with the right and the power to determine them as we will. Just because we act on authority granted to us by God, does not in any way diminish the fact that such authority is vested in us by God.
    I think you might agree that what I’m describing is certainly “relational” sovereignty, in that it defines us in relationship to the one who both has authority over us, and has granted some authority to us. So I, with you, acknowledge that God is absolutely sovereign over creation, and yet has willed, for all the relational reasons you correctly described, to delegate to his creatures a great deal of autonomy … autonomy that is genuine, but absolutely owing to the One who granted it in the first place.

    • rogereolson

      That is what I meant. 🙂

  • Thank You Dr. Olson the information on Relational Sovereignty was very affirming. I had the opportunity of being in a Prayer Chapel at McMaster Divinity College. There a man prayed as if he really was in a dialogue with God. As he prayed it seemed he took us to the throne of heaven with him. The man that was praying was Dr. Pinnock. Later in an another afternoon Cohort Session with Dr. Pinnock it was obvious that the driving force of a theology a “Moved Mover” was the foundation of his prayer. Because of his influence I went further and read Saunder’s The God Who Risks. Your Relational Sovereignty helps fill some gaps for me. Where my understanding has developed is that God has no past or future but is always present, hence when we make a decision to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ that decision is always in God’s present.

  • Eric Landstrom

    Roger, I’m continually amazed by people who are part of the Arminian trajectory of theology who are unaware of the major gaps in their personal Arminian theology. The personal, interactive dynamic between God and people is a major theme of orthodoxy—let alone Arminian-Wesleyan theology that is generally covered under discussions about how we consider grace works on a personal, situational level through the communication of divine attributes to the created as each creature is able to bear and reflect those attributes by means of faith through grace.

    There is a post on the SEA Facebook page that drew my attention to your introduction of relational theology and I threw down a reply on Facebook which I’ll share now:

    The relational dynamic between persons is something I discussed in my article “The Reciprocal Dynamic of Grace” ( http://evangelicalarminians.org/the-reciprocal-dynamic-of-grace/ ). The active interaction between persons (e.g., the Person of God and the created persons) isn’t merely an Arminian emphasis, it is an ancient orthodoxy that is preserved in Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Wesleyan-Arminain theology and practice.

    The thesis is simple enough: We are saved by faith, and not by works, but saving faith also signifies receptiveness on the part of the faithful and the willingness to receive and act on what God is doing in the lives of his disciples. As a result, for the faithful, living faith isn’t an abstract because there is an experience of participation in the indwelling of Christ. This is because through salvation Christ is no longer “for us,” Christ is “in us” reestablishing the communion that sin had numbed between Creator and creation. Thus our Lord saves us by becoming what we are and enabling us to become what he is through a reciprocal exchange between persons while communicating to us his divine life and so we become “sharers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) and “not I, but Christ in me” (Gal. 2:20) as well as the accounts of the Gospels where:

    We know God (the Spirit) because He abides with us and will be with us (John 14:17)

    Christ is the vine and we are the branches “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4).

    As the Christ abides in the Father, so we are to dwell in Christ (as thrust in and remaining there) and He in us (John 17:21-23).

    And many other references.

    Thus ancient Christians understood the mutual indwelling and could say of Jesus that “He became man that we might be made God” (Athanasius). As a result, we become by grace what God is by nature through the process of theosis (deification) or what us westerners call sanctification (cf. Psalm 82:6; John 10:34-35)

    The rediscovery and reemphasis among westerners that sanctification, like salvation, is also by faith through grace, and this theosis as a dynamic, interactive process among persons has its beginning in the writings of Wesley but the doctrine of theosis has always existed in writings and day to day practice of Eastern Orthodoxy.

    As a result, the relational dynamic is a major trajectory of Christian doctrine that is not limited to a small handful of theologians.

    • rogereolson

      Just yesterday I read Rowan Williams’ essay on “Lossky, the via negativa and the foundations of theology” (in Wrestling with Angels). There Williams, commenting on the implications of Lossky’s kenotic view of person, including God, says “In creating free personal beings, God voluntarily limits his own omnipotence; there is a sort of risk involved, God making himself impotent before man’s freedom.” (p. 16)

  • Anonymous

    Although nominally Christian, I’m entirely ignorant of the theology you’re discussing, so forgive me if I’m way off base. But I spend some time thinking about these issues, and I find so much of popular Christianity inane in the face of evil, or even natural disasters. I have recently several people publicly say “God doesn’t make mistakes,” which I find bewildering, when the implication is that God fully intended the horrors around us. It seems to me, that if it’s all part of God’s plan, that means that He values some lives over others: He is willing to inflict incredible amounts of pain and suffering on innocent children in Haiti, say, or young girls abducted into human trafficking elsewhere, while permitting Pol Pot to die peacefully in his sleep, unrepentant, all in order to arrive at some final “resolution,” that it would seem he could have achieved in some way that did not involve suffering (since he is omnipotent). If I understand relational theology as you present it, it seems that God loves us so much, that He decides to handicap himself, thereby making Himself vulnerable to our love or lack of love, with the consequence that He somehow can’t exercise his power to stop evil. And this self-handicapping is a choice on His part. Which again means that he permits tragedy and torture of children to gratify himself (and to gratify those few of us who are aware of Him and love Him back) in this powerful spiritual relationship with his creation. I still find that incredibly disturbing. It still seems to me to be dependent on those who suffer on earth receiving a reward hereafter, but what does the Bible say about salvation for non-believers? None shall enter the Kingdom of God but through me? (I’m sure I’m misquoting.) So those who are ignorant, or on reject the Bible on the basis of honest good-faith skepticism are forever deprived of His Grace, no matter how much they blamelessly suffered in life? It hardly seems like a just and loving God.

    • Percival

      Just to let you know that there are many of us who are devoutly Christian who ask the same questions you are asking. One thing to consider is that Love may be of higher value than lack of suffering. This is shown in that Jesus preferred to love rather than to avoid suffering. It is a good point that an innocent child is often not given that choice, but it may be that a universe where we can choose to love and a universe where all suffering is avoided cannot be the same universe. Dr. Olsen would probably recommend that you read Greg Boyd’s book, Is God to Blame. I’ll save him the trouble of writing yet another recommendation.

  • I have always been a fan of Middle Knowledge but I find my thoughts about God to be moving more towards a ‘narrative theology.’ The problem with Middle Knowledge is that it builds upon a philosophical framework, whereas a narrative approach seems more biblical.
    It seems that God is truly knowable in a relational sense, making himself known in the lives of people in and through a story, ultimately in the embodiment of Jesus.

    • rogereolson

      I entirely agree. “Middle knowledge” is speculation beyond anything the biblical narrative reveals about God. And it creates more problems than it solves.

  • Iwan

    BTW, I don’t see The Westminster Confession of Faith fit in any three main views of God’s sovereignty that you argue.

    God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (Chapter III Of God’s Eternal Decree, #1)

    • rogereolson

      Pure paradox. Except that by “will of the creatures” the divines almost certainly meant compatibilist free will–merely doing what you want to do even if you could not do otherwise.

  • Cai Talvio

    Thank you, Dr Olson, for giving this excellent & helpful summary. What would you say regarding the following. Much writing we have from the early church are interactions with the academia of the day. This means, that the biblical concept of a relational God (as you describe), is fought out with a different “grammar” of Greek philosophy instead of the “grammar” of the Kingdom of God, so to say. I know I am oversimplifying a lot. But would you agree, that this has lead for example Augustine to make the statements he makes and that theology has been caught up in this conceptual dilemma since quite early on? That is, a lot of “has been lost in translation”.

    • rogereolson

      I would and do say that. In my opinion, Augustine was unduly influenced by neo-Platonism and the myth of the “perfect emperor.”

  • Chad

    Dr. Olson-

    I shared your blog post on facebook and one of the international graduate students that I work with posted this comment in response your post:
    “BTW, I don’t see The Westminster Confession of Faith fitting in any three main views of God’s sovereignty that he argues.
    ‘God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (Chapter III Of God’s Eternal Decree, #1).'”

    Where do you see the Westminster Confession of Faith fitting in regard to the three views you wrong about? How would you respond?

    • rogereolson

      Paradox. Except that the paradox is relieved once one realizes what the Westminster divines mean by “the will of the creatures.” No doubt they were all compatibilists.

  • pete zimmerman

    I make no claim as to whether god did need us in the past. But along with Catherine Keller, I think omnipotence is a greek concept, not a hebrew one. All-mighty is in the bible, but does might equate to our modern word “power” there are many forms of power: the power to coerce, the power to cause despair, etc. I wonder why god never grows back an amputees limb. I will go with Frank Tupper, “God does what God can.” I don’t have an all powerful god. I have a God that is the most powerful force in the universe, but not an all powerful force. So theodicy, for me, is solved. not always a comfort when things go south.

    • rogereolson

      Again, as with most theological concepts, much depends on what means by “omnipotence.” I never mean by it that God has all the power. To me it simply means that God can do whatever is consistent with his character and is possible within the framework of the rules he has himself settled for his relationship with creatures.

  • Dr. Olson,

    Thanks so much for this article. I read your book Against Calvinism recently, and it was extremely encouraging and helpful. I’ve been buried in so much of this debate coming from high school and even more recently my collegiate studies, but I believe God is opening doors for me to hear more speakers/authors/bloggers like you, and that is really making a difference. I’m a southern baptist by denomination, so I don’t really affirm the title of Arminian (I try to avoid titles all-together), but certainly believe in God who limits himself, and man who is responsible. I find it so hard to reconcile the neo-reformed position with a God who is repeatedly emotionally “hurt,” “saddened,” or “angered” in the Old Testament while his people walk away. He gave Hosea as an example, and I’m certainly sure that Hosea was upset when Gomer left him repeatedly. And if God is causing (whether actively or passively) their walking away, even if it is just by withholding His spirit in the passive sense, then I’m sorry but I fail to see what He is upset about.

    Anyways, I intend on looking more into classical Arminianism, but I do tend to lean more towards a molinist view at the moment. Again, I don’t like the title because so many negative associations come with each one, and my view is harder to label than that. I don’t lean into paradox or contradiction and I have yet to find one; the system mentally makes sense to me in light of libertarian free will. I plan to read Kenneth Keathley’s Salvation and Sovereignty sometime soon to get a more well-articulated definition of the subject. Anyways, I just wanted to thank you a bunch for writing this article, and for your other texts on the subject as well. You’ve made a profound impact on my life; not because you helped me convince myself and others that Calvinism is wrong, but because you’ve quieted the spirit within me that told me I was a near heretic or just a Biblical idiot for not believing in Calvinism, as some of them seem to put forth. Thanks for your ministry; keep serving the Lord!

    • rogereolson

      Thank you and you’re welcome.

  • Robert

    Hello Roger,
    I really believe that what you are calling “relational sovereignty” is critical in the area of understanding God’s providence. As one commentator noted (i.e. Eric Landstrom) “relational sovereignty” has been held by many Christians throughout church history, most notably the Eastern Orthodox. It seems that anyone who believes that God’s interactions with human persons are genuine and not fully prescripted as determinism necessitates, is going to affirm some version of “relational sovereignty” That being said there were a couple of places that I am not sure I agree with you and I also want to note that Tupper is on the right track as well.

    First the concerns.

    At one point you wrote:

    “It rightly affirms God’s vulnerability and the partial openness of the future;”

    I believe that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events. I also believe that in normal circumstances we experience libertarian free will. So I believe these two realities are compatible. I also believe that if God foreknows all future events, though in many cases our choices determine the outcomes that occur, the future is not partially open. God knows what we will in fact choose to do, but we will in fact choose to do specific things. What we will freely choose to do will make up the future and as it is all known to God via foreknowledge, the future is not open at all. What is open is the present, the time frame in which we have choices and then make choices. So “openness” is present in the present, when we face choices, but the future is not open. There will only be one future and that future is known fully to God. Therefore the future is closed.

    Roger what do **you** when you speak of the future being “partially open”??

    At another place you wrote:

    “This God is not aloof or self-sufficient in himself or impassible.”

    I do not believe that God is aloof and I do believe he interacts with us in genuine and meaningful and non-prescripted ways. I do believe that as He is a Trinity He **is** self-sufficient in himself. God has no needs and the members of the trinity are self-sufficient which partly explains why God did not have to create the universe in order to experience personal relationship or love. He already experiences perfect relationship and love as all of the members of the Trinity have a perfect love for one another. Based on this eternal and perfect love then, God is *self-sufficient in himself*.

    At another place you came up with a phrase that is interesting but may not be accurate:

    “The key insight for a non-process relational view of God’s sovereignty is that God is sovereign over his sovereignty.”

    I define sovereignty as God has the right to do whatever He pleases (note there are multiple scriptural statements that state this very claim) in any and all situations. Some mistakenly confuse sovereignty with power or determinism. So for them God is not sovereign unless he has prescripted everything (determinism) or unless He always gets His way (power). But sovereignty involves His right to do whatever He pleases. So for example in one situation he chooses to use his power and in another he does not. As I view sovereignty this way, the phrase that “God is sovereign over his sovereignty” seems misleading, as if sovereignty is His power, so He has power over His power. In my thinking He is sovereign (and so does as He pleases in any and all situations; and so chooses to use or not use his power as He pleases) or He is not. There are not degrees of sovereignty, nor does he exercise power over his sovereignty.

    This brings me to the last point that I want to make.

    Speaking of Torrance you wrote:

    “Torrance’s vulnerable God cannot be the all-determining reality of classical theism and Calvinism. Such a God has not really made room for us in his existence, his life, whatever certain neo-Calvinists might say.”

    I believe a critical concept stated here is this idea that God makes room for us.

    This is closely related to another concept that you brought up when you alluded to Tupper:
    “I don’t necessarily agree with everything in his book (A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God) but I am intrigued by and attracted to the idea that there are rules God abides by.”

    Now if God is sovereign (i.e. does as He pleases in any situation) then this means that he sets up the rules, He sets up the nature of the universe which he created. Bruce Little speaks of what he calls a “creation theodicy”. What he means by this is that God sets up rules which allow for us to have meaningful and genuine personal relationship with Him. These “rules” include that we have our own minds (which also includes our having our own self-consciousness, that our mind is not controlled by others). That we have the capacity to have and make our own choices (i.e. limited free will).

    One of these rules is also going to include that God is not operating at full power when He interacts with us (if He did so we would be overwhelmed, destroyed, we just could not handle it).

    I have often used the analogy of imagine a Father who is playfully wrestling with his young daughter. If this Father is say 6 ft 4 inches tall, weighs about 230 lbs, has been training with weights for years and is at the black belt level in the martial arts. If he is going to wrestle with his daughter He cannot go all out, use his full power as He would seriously injure or even kill his daughter. Since this is true at the human level, how much more must it be true when it comes to the divine and human relationship? This means that one of the “rules” is that God must be limiting his power when relating to us.

    Roger you also wrote that Tupper’s view leads to the following points
    “1) that God limits himself in relation to free creatures, and 2) there are complexities in every situation we cannot understand (but God can) that govern what God can do in that situation.”

    I believe these to be valid points. One of the rules which God abides by is that He must limit his power when interacting with us. Also because we do not fully understand the rules which God is playing by, this second point will be true as well. I cannot overemphasize that the rules that God has set up and is operating by allow for genuine and personal relationship between us and Him. He is self-sufficient and does not need us, and yet He has chosen to create beings that are capable of a loving relationship with Him. And He will maintain the rules that make this personal interaction possible. I also believe that a lot of the issues of theodicy involve the reality of these rules and the implications for how God exercises his sovereignty in the world and specifically in his personal interactions with us.


    • rogereolson

      When I say the future is “partially open” I mean it is not yet determined; it is under determined. How God knows it anyway is a mystery; I admit that. But I think God is omniresourceful–able to respond with wisdom and power come what may so that nothing that happens spins the world out of God’s ability to bring it to his future for it.

      • Robert

        Hello Roger,

        Thanks for the clarifying comments. It appears we are in substantial agreement; we may just word things a bit differently.

        You wrote:

        “When I say the future is “partially open” I mean it is not yet determined; it is under determined.”

        I was leery of the “partially open” language because it sounds a lot like the kind of thing claimed by open theists. Open theists argue that the future is “partially open” in that God knows some things that will happen in the future and not others. The traditional and majority view among professing Christians is instead that it is “closed” (i.e. there is one future, and God already knows what the one future is before it occurs).

        Roger if you say that you mean “it is not yet determined; it is under determined” then I am wondering if you are using the word “determined” as a synonym to mean “decided.” So you would be saying that the future is not yet fully decided.

        This would mean that we need to distinguish between God deciding how future events will turn out and God foreknowing how future events will turn out. With regard to foreknowing future events, God foreknows them all. With regard to deciding future events or bringing them about, God decides some of them and brings some of them about, and we decide some of them and bring some of them about. So this would mean you are claiming that God decides how some future events will go and we decide how some future events will go. To this I would agree as we have limited freedom and so in some cases we have and make our own choices: and these choices are up to us/determined by us. In other cases, God decides and the decision is not up to us at all.

        An example of this would be our relation to the second coming of Jesus. God leaves the decision up to people in the future whether or not they want to become believers or not (so that is a decision left up to them in the future) and will be made before the second coming (assuming these people are alive when Jesus returns). On the other hand, God alone decides when the second coming is going to occur and it is a unilateral decision on His part. So the future involves both decisions and outcomes that God brings about as well as decisions and outcomes that we bring about. The future involves a combination of outcomes produced by God, us, angels, animals, natural phenomena (such as wind and rain).

        “How God knows it anyway is a mystery; I admit that.”

        I completely agree with you on this.

        I have said for a long time we need to distinguish between HOW and THAT. When it comes to God there are some things THAT we know to be true, though we do not know HOW they are true. We know THAT God knows the future exhaustively as that is what proper exegesis of biblical texts yields. But we do not know HOW God knows what He knows. This is also the case with God’s knowledge of the past and the present. We know THAT God knows but not HOW He knows what he knows. Or take another example, we know THAT God acts in the world, but we do not know HOW he acts in the world. He is a spirit with no hands or legs or physical body and yet he brings things about in the world. We know THAT God is a trinity, but we do not know HOW that works. It seems to be that in regards to some of the most obvious (and important) truths that Christians affirm we are within our rational rights to affirm THAT some things are true without knowing HOW they are true.

        “But I think God is omniresourceful–able to respond with wisdom and power come what may so that nothing that happens spins the world out of God’s ability to bring it to his future for it.”

        I would agree with this as well. God has lots of ways of accomplishing particular outcomes that he has purposed. And yet at the same time it is an error to affirm that he has purposed all outcomes that occur in history, as theological determinists claim and want to believe. There are some events that God purposes to occur: what you are referring to when you write: “nothing that happens spins the world out of God’s ability to bring it to his future for it.” And yet “his future” does not include every event that occurs in the future.


        • rogereolson

          I think we completely agree in spite of preferring different words for the same realities.

      • Eric Landstrom

        Roger, consider a universe where freedom is not only assumed to exist but really
        does exist. Now consider a camera that witnesses freedom. This camera is
        special for two reasons: the first reason is that it exists in a dimension
        that compresses all time to a mathematical point and the second reason the
        camera is special is that the dimension it exists also compresses all space
        into a mathematical point.

        Now we have a camera that sees all throughout all time. Yet freedom can and does

        Now consider that the camera is more than a camera and ask yourself why the
        future must be open for freedom to exist given that what the camera witnesses are the free acts of creatures?

        • rogereolson

          I find it difficult to imagine–unless the camera is God. Still, it’s a mystery.

  • Elliott Scott

    I’d like to hear more and I encourage you to consider making this the subject of a future book.

  • steve dominy

    Another great post! I remember wrestling with process theology and open theism as my understanding of God developed. Dad would never force it, but would let me think out loud and then would ask the questions that inevitably drew me back to the relational view of God’s sovereignty that you have posted. Reading it is a breath of fresh air, many thanks.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Steve. Your dad and I think much alike. I miss him around here.

  • Andy

    I really enjoyed this article and have read over it a few times.
    However, I am interested/ slightly confused in your dealings with the tension of God’s simple foreknowledge (knowing the future from the dawn of time) and God’s dynamic, relational interaction with us (e.g. getting surprised, God ‘changing his mind’ due to the prayers of his people ).
    It seems from this article that your position is slightly closer to Open Theism than Classical Arminianism – Is this correct?
    I get the sense that you believe God limits his knowledge of the future in much of his dynamic interaction with us (as opposed to Open Theists believing that God has created a reality where most of the future cannot be ‘foreknown’ at all). Is this the correct analysis? I find the idea of God desperately seeking people to come to faith (who he ultimately knows will reject him) is strange….or God desperately leading someone to love the poor in the community when he ultimately knows that this person will just keep watching TV and ignore the call of God.

    Whilst I presently hold a position that closely aligns with your perspectives, it is thoughts like these that lead me to give serious creedence to Open Theism. Is there a greater depth to your theology that I am missing that deals with what appears to me to be a paradox within the relational perspective.

    • rogereolson

      You have stated the challenge better than most. I have said for years that I am “open to open theism.” For now I am still holding on to God’s simple foreknowledge without claiming to know how that is possible. I don’t see it as a paradox (apparent contradiction like “married bachelor” or “round square”) but as a mystery (like how light can be both particle-like and wave-like). I affirm both God’s openness and exhaustive foreknowledge because both are necessary to the biblical narrative. Take one away and something important to the story falls away. But I don’t see open theism (in contrast to process theology) as heresy. I just think it is unnecessarily speculative. Of course, my open theist friends think the same about my view. To me, it’s unimportant to practical Christianity, discipleship.

      • ChadH

        Roger, you said, ” I affirm both God’s openness and exhaustive foreknowledge because both are necessary to the biblical narrative.” I, as an Open Theist affirm this as well, as do most Open Theists.

        • Robert

          Chad says that open theists affirm that God has exhaustive foreknowledge.

          This is not true at all.

          If it were true then there would be no disagreement between all other Christians (including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants) and open theists. If we ask why there is disagreement, the answer is that open theists mean something very different than what others mean by “exhaustive foreknowledge”. Open theists define things differently than other Christians and then operate by **their redefinition** when speaking of God having “exhaustive foreknowledge.” I will say more on this in my second response to Chad below.


    • ChadH

      Andy, you said ” Open Theists believing that God has created a reality where most of the future cannot be ‘foreknown’ at all”. An open theist would instead say that all possibilities are presently ‘foreknown’ by God, exhaustively. An Open Theist believes in God’s omniscience. The debate is not about IF God is omniscient but rather what actually exists for God to know. There is no definite future in existence to be known, but if there was then God would surely know it.

      • Robert

        I claimed in my earlier post that open theists redefine things in order to claim that God **has** exhaustive foreknowledge. In this post Chad says things that allow us to understand how their redefintion of foreknowledge operates. Note first that he says that God has knowledge of all **poasibilities**. All other Christians believe that there is an actual future (i.e. what will in fact take place in the future). For example tomorrow I either will or will not go to a major amusement park with my family. If I will in fact go there tomorrow, then my going there is part of the one actual future that will in fact take place. If I will not in fact go there tomorrow, then my not going there tomorrow is part of the one actual future. By the nature of reality I cannot both go there tomorrow and not go there tomorrow, so there are not two actual futures, there can be and will only be one actual future. Christians (except for open theists) have always affirmed that what ever that one actual future is, God knows what it is before it occurs, while it does not exist.
        Chad claims that:

        “An Open Theist believes in God’s omniscience.”

        Do they believe it in the same way as Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians do?

        No. They believe in their own version of “exhaustive foreknowledge”. There own version becomes more clear in Chad’s next words:

        “The debate is not about IF God is omniscient but rather what actually exists for God to know.”

        Here we see how open theists redefine things. According to Chad the debate is really about “what actually exists for God to know.” Open theists believe that God can only know what “actually exists”. So if something does not presently exist, then God cannot know it as thee is nothing to know. Well consider what all other Christians mean by the future. We mean events that have not yet taken place but will in fact take place. If you ask us whether these events not exist we would answer No, they do not exist now because by its very nature the future involves people and events and circumstances that do not yet exist. And the open theist comes along and tells us that if it does not exist now, then God cannot and does not know it as there is nothinhg to know. All other christians have not been bothered or concerned about this as biblical prophecy often involves people and circumstances that did not exist when the prophesies were made.

        There is another major problem with this erroeneous claim that God only knows what actually exists. The past circumstances and events also do not exist now. I cannot approach Lincoln and have a conversation now. Nor can I go to Ford’s theatre and see Lincoln being assassinated. If God cannot know something unless it presently exists then God cannot know past events such as the life of Lincoln or the assassination of Lincoln as these events no longer actually exist.

        The only persons and events and circumstances that actually exist are all in existence now in the present. By the open theist logic God can only know the present, not the past or the future. Claiming this is very different from claiiming that God has “exhaustive foreknowledge.”
        Chad claims:

        “There is no definite future in existence to be known, but if there was then God would surely know it.”

        The prophets never said that there was no definite future to know. Instead they spoke accurately about what this one definite future would include. Jesus speaking of Peter’s denail did not say well he might or may not deny him. He spoke specifically of events that would be part of the one actual future that did not yet exist.

        If we understand how open theists define things, how they do not believe that God can know events that do not exist now, we see clearly that they deny God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. They do not mean by “exhaustive foreknowledge” what other Christians mean by this term. They try to make their view seem reasonable by their redefintions but the biblical witness of innumerable prophecies completely refutes and contradicts their view. The biblical writers who prophesied had the same understanding of the future, of foreknowledge that other Christians have. If we look carefully at what open theists actually believe we see that their views are error and not at all what other Christians believe. If they affirm the essentials of the Chrostian faith they may be believers and are not to be seen as heretics. at the same time their errors must be recognized for what they are, errors concerning foreknowledge and what
        God does and does not know.


        And that leads us to the second major and erroneous claim made by Chad. Note he says that

        • rogereolson

          Greg Boyd speaks for most open theists, I think, when he says that the future is a realm of definite and not definite but possible events. God knows it as it is. Therefore his foreknowledge is exhaustive and infallible.

          • Robert

            Hello Roger,

            I read your quote that:

            “Greg Boyd speaks for most open theists, I think, when he says that the future is a realm of definite and not definite but possible events. God knows it as it is. Therefore his foreknowledge is exhaustive and infallible.”

            And it leads me to laugh. Not because Boyd is not an intelligent guy or that I am laughing at him, or because he is saying something foolish. No, that statement that “when he says that the future is a realm of definite and not definite but possible events” THAT is exactly my way of thinking about the *******PRESENT*******. Boyd then is so close to where I am at and yet far away because he confuses the future and the present.

            It is in the present that libertarian free will exists, that choices will or will not be made. It is the present that consists of a combination of both what is actual and what is possible. It is the present that is a “realm of definite and not definite but possible events”. This is true because before we MAKE A CHOICE, is the time frame in which we HAVE CHOICES. It is when we have choices that we could choose one possibility or the other possibility.

            Once we MAKE A CHOICE, then alternative possibilities are closed off regarding that particular choice. Up until the moment when I choose to either go to the movie or stay home and watch the sports event on TV, if I am acting freely, I can go either way, alternative possibilities are present, available and accessible. Up until the moment when I ***make*** my choice I ***have a choice***. Once however I make a choice (either going to the movie or staying home to watch the sports event on TV) then the bell is rung and you cannot un-ring the bell (because in our present experience time flows unilaterally, once the choice is made it is fixed and you cannot do it over or have it taken back). The choice made becomes an immediate past event (becomes part of the past and is fixed).

            Similarly since God foreknows what we will in fact choose to do in the “future”, his foreknowledge concerns a set of fixed events (just as definite and just as specific as the past). So the past and future foreknown by God involve fixed events.

            So then when are things open, when are things not yet fixed but about to be fixed by a combination of what God does, angels do, and we choose to do???

            In the realm of the present, before we make our choices.

            If this is correct, it also means we do not directly experience either the past or the future, instead, we experience a series of consecutive *presents*. And it is in these presents that we are faced with and then make our choices.

            Boyd’s statement then, is correct, but Boyd is mistaken when he references it to the future. With regard to the future Boyd’s comment is mistaken. With regard to the present Boyd’s comment is both true and accurate. I think a lot of people make the same mistake, they think of the future as coming at some later date and that it is at that later date that we have and make our choices. But that is incorrect, the only time reality that we ever directly experience is the present. And it is in the present, not the future, that we have and make our choices. It is in the present, not the future, when we find ourselves in a realm where there are “definite and not definite but possible events”.


          • rogereolson

            That’s counterintuitive, but I’m “open” to it. 🙂

  • Eluros Aabye

    Thanks for the amazing post, Dr. Olson. Do you have any recommendations on where I could learn more about “narrative theology” as an approach to scriptural interpretation? It seems like such a stark contrast to systematic theology, and I’d love to learn more about it. Most of my life, I’ve seen scripture treated as “not-yet-systematized systematic theology”, as you put it, and would like to learn more about the alternative (including historical justifications/etc).

    • rogereolson

      The place to begin is with the “Bible” of narrative theology which is Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.”

  • Jesse Ward

    Roger, what do you do when a Calvinist defends their view of God’s sovereignty by quoting a lot of scriptures? I know that that way of defending doctrinal truth will be very convincing to a lot of people. Justin Taylor does. My first thought is that something must be wrong with this view because it makes God not sound like a very good God. But there is still the problem of a strong biblical basis for the calvinist view of God’s sovereignty.

    • rogereolson

      Jehovah’s Witnesses also can defend their doctrines by quoting a lot of scriptures.

  • Vladimir

    Thank you, dr Olsen! What books can you recommend on the narrative theology?

    • rogereolson

      Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.

      • Vladimir

        Thank you!

  • Andy

    Thank you for your response.
    I am really interested in the term you used: ‘unnecessarily speculative’.
    I am actually interested in the specific reasons that you don’t embrace Open theism.
    I am interested in the key scriptures that lead you to hold to a doctrine of God’s foreknowledge.
    As I mentioned previously, I am Arminian in my theology but I am finding that many of the scriptures that I previously thought were completely incompatible with Open Theism – I am beginning to see how they could fit within a partially Open view of the future.

    I find that my faint reluctance to accept Open theism is based upon:
    a) remembering my initial extremely negative reaction to the doctrine (worried about embracing something that I clearly thought was wrong when I first heard it)…I admit this is a pretty lame reason….
    b) the fact that it is ‘new’ (e.g. one of the key reasons I reject rapture theology is becuse of how ‘new’ it is) contributes to my suspicion…
    c) it seems a bit of a ‘neat’ way of dealing with the complexity of foreknowedge and the bible (a bit ‘too neat’) – this is the same reason that I am slightly suspicious of Boyd’s attribution of anything within scripture where God acts in ‘violent or horrific’ ways, as the darkness of humanity projected onto God – it just seems like an explanation that is ‘too convenient and simplistic’ – and not messy enough – even though I appreciate his contribution to that challenging question and admire strengths within the argument…
    d) obviously there are a few key passages that for a long time I thought leant towards a simple foreknowledge explanation….but I am rethinking these…..

    What are the key factors for you that prevent you from taking the ‘leap’ into open theism…..

    • rogereolson

      First, I don’t think of it as a “leap;” I would prefer to think of it a a step. Maybe it’s just outside my comfort zone. But, as I read the biblical identification of God, God is portrayed as knowing the future exhaustively and infallibly.

      • CarolJean

        If God knows the future exhaustively how do you explain the “now I know” in Gen 22:12 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” ?

        • rogereolson

          The problem is how to square that with Jesus’ foreknowing Peter’s denial (so specifically that it was clearly not a guess or prediction).

  • Dr. Olson,

    Two questions for you. First, will this piece be published at some point (apologies if you mentioned that already somewhere above). Second, do you have in mind specific instances where Calvinists use the phrase ‘effectual permission’ (rather than ‘willing permission’) or is this more a distillation of how you believe they construe the notion of divine permission?

    Thanks for your time,
    Steve Duby

    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure where I first found the phrase “effectual permmission,’but I think it was in a Calvinist book (of which I have read too many to remember or count). It well describes what real Calvinists mean when they talk about “willing permission” in combination with what God permits being designed, ordained and governed by God.

  • I like the phrase- “God is sovereign over His sovereignty.” Is your view of relational sovereignty similar to the explanation of the difference between the essential and economic Trinity? God’s eternal being and God’s eternal purpose? On one hand God doesn’t need us for His existence or for anything related essentially to His being, but in His economic operations He Himself has chosen to limit Himself to our cooperation. For the fulfillment of His purpose He needs us. I’ve always understood this as God’s way of dealing with a rebellious created will (Satan) with other created wills (humans). Rather than doing everything unilaterally in salvation, He graces man to cooperate with Him (without marginalizing his faculty of free will) to defeat His enemy and fulfill His purpose. This doesn’t detract from His glory but brings Him more glory. Anyways, just trying to clarify my viewpoint and get your take on it. I guess this would be a way of explaining God’s sovereignty with the two aspects of the Trinity. The question is though, we don’t have two Trinities so God’s economy surely ties into His being, so that His purpose isn’t just a casual interest but something deeply personal to Him, His heart’s desire. I guess the mystery to me is that God has a way of preserving the integrity of His being without violating our being.

    • rogereolson

      I believe in the immanent Trinity but only because it’s necessary to preserve God from being panentheistically tied into human history. What I would resist is any attempt to separate the two (immanent and economic). I agree with Rahner’s Rule (“the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity) as interpreted by Catholic theologian (and cardinal) Walter Kasper (in The God of Jesus Christ)–the relationship between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity is not identity but also not separation (as in a hidden God). IMHO, the immanent Trinity truly enters into history with us (but would not have had to). I don’t see anything in the biblical narrative that would point to a God “above” or “behind” or separate from Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation.

      • Robert

        Roger I want to write one more post to indicate where I see the problems regarding “relational sovereignty”, calvinism, open theism, free will and foreknowledge. I believe two major concepts must be simultaneoulsy affirmed. The problem with open theism and calvinism is that each of them stronglyaffirms one of the concepts but strongly denies the other by its theology.

        Start with foreknowledge. Calvinists strongly affirm foreknoweldge as do all other Christians whether they be Catholics, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant. Open theists by their theology deny foreknowledge.

        There there is what I will call “openness”here. By openness I mean that God has genuine and persoanl relationship and interactions with us. Openness includes the reality of free will as ordinarily understood, that everything is not prescripted. That we can and have genuine relationship with God. Open theists strongly affirm openness as do Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants. Calvinists by their theology, especially those who affirm exhaustive determinism deny openness.

        Roger you have spoken about “narrative theology” which I take to refer to what the Bible properly interpreted presents. The Bible properly interpreted presents BOTH foreknowledge and openness. That being true, this means that calvinists are correct about foreknowledge but wrong in regards to openness. With open theists the converse is true, they are correct about openness and wrong in regards to foreknowledge. Arminians and other Christians have for the most part affirmed both foreknowledge and opeenness simultlaneously. Looking at calvinism and open theism shows us clealry where the errors are and what the nature of these errors are. if we go by the Bible or “narrative theology” we will without hesistation affirm both forekknowledge and opennesss and reject both calvinism and open theology. If we understand the errors we will not be tempted to embrace either open theism or calvinsm. There really is not need to embrace either or them if we stick with what the Bible reveals. We can be sympathetics to both calvinists and open theists, view neither of them as heretics and yet see both of them as presenting significant errors and departures from what most Christians believe.


  • Thanks, Roger, for this good essay. I should tell you, however, that I saved it while changing the font to Geneva!

    • rogereolson


  • Love it, love it, love it. Thanks! This has been the entire focus of my web journal these past two years (along with trying to determine what emergent theology is and the meaning of postmodernism for our faith today).

    Btw, to get around the “paradox” you mentioned I have combined open theology with relational theology… it makes more sense to me than the “mediating position” you describe (and I very much sympathize with). Like you, I like Process Theology but see its limitations. However from PT came the revolutionary idea of Relational theology that I began to develop on my own until reading months later of its many advocates.

    Lastly, the idea of Narrative theology revolutionizes doctrine and dogma… moving from folklore, static orthodoxy, and propositional statments, to a living, open faith. I have whole sections on my web journal discussing our Open Faith, Open Theology, Open God, Hope, and Bible!

    Many thanks again,

    ps – I reposted your article along with additional comments. It’s always nice to have additional voices from differing perspectives.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you. But let me be clear, I don’t “like” process theology. I see no need for its radical conclusions (e.g., denying God’s omnipotence) and think they are pernicious to Christian faith.

      • Yes, I gathered that you are no fan of Process Theology. 🙂

        For myself, I’m still looking into it and found that I like parts of process theology but other parts of it goes a different direction than I would go. In effect I think it is possible to have a syncretic/mediating position between it and classical theology by using relational theism and open theology as their offspring. As such, I have been pursuing that route.

        On the whole I was surprised by your broad-mindedness in consideration of this topic – not that I didn’t suspect you were not leaning this way but glad for the stated clarity you expressed on this topic. At this age of our lives it is surprising to find openness and flexibility based upon past training and career prejudices. As you’ve said, Clark Pinnock was a good example of a theologian willing to rethink prior commitments and re-judge its correctness against his own evangelical background.

        I too have done a 180, belated, but at the last much more satisfying. Hopefully my web journal these past few years is bearing that out. Of course I didn’t expect to have gone through such a drastic turn-about until listening to my “evangelical friends and following media” speak so rashly, harshly, and irrationally w/o thought of stopping, listening, or considering. Sometimes our “defense of the faith” simply harms our capacity to think and discern.

        I must have already been on a different life path but because of evangelicalism’s undue outcry a couple of years ago over “Love Wins” it motivated me to lay out a theological framework that they were unwilling (or unable) to do. At the time I didn’t think it was my responsibility because I was neither a pastor nor professor, but a simply layman studied in bible but not as a profession. And that is both my advantage and failing. It forces me to listen to others like yourself who can discern, but it also allows me to more freely think beyond my religion’s ideology.

        Since I’m good at writing prose it has been a joy to write of God’s Word and all that He is doing through Jesus my Lord and Savior. What you stated in your article my web journal is full of, and hopefully will lend some light to the darkness of well-meaning, sincere Christians, unwilling to think of God or His Word in any different light other than what they have heard for so many years from the pulpit and their favorite books. My exploration has been broader and less boundry oriented and allows a freedom of sight of the Holy Spirit only glimpsed long years ago as a youth. I find it refreshing.

        So thanks again. You remind me of my fav NT bible prof. and very good friend, Carl Hoch. A German savant and learned exegete of the Scriptures. All the best.


        • rogereolson

          Thank you.

  • Zach

    I believe that Calvinism and Arminianism are both overreactions due to the failure to embrace paradox.

    • Roger Olson

      See my book Against Calvinism for explanation of why this is not the problem. On certain issues you cannot “combine” or affirm “both/and” in the disagreements between Calvinism and Arminianism. I have discussed this a lot here, too.

  • docta4me

    Terrific article. Much gentler and courteous than what I am capable of. I’ll refer to it often.

  • Jack Hanley

    Well I have read this post as you suggested, it is certainly a lengthy post, so I cannot comment on all of it. It does not seem to me to answer the questions I posed in the other post, like, who determines our place of birth, upbringing, or whether we will hear the gospel?

    I would however like to pose this question concerning this post. Do you believe God was in control of the holocaust? Now there is a big difference in God being in control, or God being the cause. If God is in control, in other words, if God could have intervened to keep this event from occurring but did not, is not God in some way responsible? If I have a party at my house for teens, and I see the use of alcohol, that I did not supply, and yet I turn a blind eye, am I not still responsible? So then if God is in control of this world that He surely can intervene in, and yet decides to allow such events, how is God off the hook? But let us turn to the bible to see just how responsible God is for such things as this. Did God not command the Israelites to completely wipe out races, men women, children, and animals? Did He not use other nations to punish the Israelites, with great lose of life to His own people? And did He not in the book of Genesis place curses on us as a human race? Do you think that just maybe, events such as the holocaust, and other such events just maybe the result of these curses placed upon us? If so then who caused these curses? Now please do not say we were the cause of the curses, we are responsible to face the consequences, but we are not the cause, rather God was the cause. If God is the cause of the curses then where does this leave God in view of such events? In other words is there room in your view for God’s judgement here and now?

    • Roger Olson

      We are quibbling here. I think my article made quite clear that when I say God is “not in control” (of the world) I MEAN he is not controlling everything that happens. I also make clear he is “in charge.” You have a habit of putting the worst construction on what I say in spite of my going to great lengths to explain why that interpretation is not what I mean.

  • Jack Hanley


    It had been months since I have responded to one of your blogs. So you may be referring to something in the past, I’m not sure, but I have read, and reread everything I have said over the past few days, and I cannot find one instance where I have constructed anything you have said. In fact, the majority of what I have done here, is simply pose questions. I can only see two instances where I have cited something you have said, and I in no way constructed it, so can you please refer me to where I have been guilty of what you are accusing me of? You say I have a habit of doing this, so it should not be hard to give me examples. If you are referring to something in the past, then why bring it up in this case where I have not? If you can demonstrate where I have been guilty of what you accuse me of, I will gladly concede and apologize.

    • Roger Olson

      My point is simply that you and I have discussed everything there is to discuss about Calvinism and you keep coming back to issues I’ve addressed before as if I had not. I’m sorry that I don’t have time for this or for doing what you ask. I ask that you move on to other subjects or build on what we’ve discussed about Calvinism before rather than re-addressing the same questions.