How do we identify a God not worthy of worship?

In the fourth chapter of Roger Olson’s book, Against Calvinism, he tells of a very interesting question put to him by a student, at the end of a class session on Calvin’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty. The student inquired: “If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true God actually is as Calvinism says and rules as Calvinism affirms, would you still worship him?” (85). Roger writes that he answered “without a moment’s thought,” even though he knew that “it would shock many people,” that he could not worship such a God because he “would be a moral monster.”

I’m one of those people who was initially shocked by Roger’s answer, but I’m wondering if I should be. I will think aloud about my own response, and I hope to hear the thoughts of others with regard to both Roger’s approach and my response to it.

Roger goes on to say that he realizes “Calvinists do not think their view of God’s sovereignty makes him a moral monster, but [he] can only conclude they have not thought it through to its logical conclusion or even taken sufficiently seriously the things they say about God and evil and innocent suffering in the world” (85). It is true that I do not think my view of God’s sovereignty makes him a moral monster, but it is certainly not true that I have not taken seriously what I say about “God and evil and innocent suffering in the world.” I have often done so, and I can scarcely think of a knowledgeable Calvinist I know who has not thought about it too. What Roger knows but cannot comprehend is that, in the face of terrible suffering, we find great comfort in our belief that the world is not out of control by God, and we are grateful that he has not chosen to limit his control in order to give his creatures the power to determine the outcome of a great part of history.

But I cannot say that, if God revealed to me unquestionably that he has, in fact, chosen to create a world in which all of these terrible evils happen and yet not to intervene, because creaturely freedom is so important, that I could not worship him.

Roger cites David Bentley Hart’s judgment that Calvinists “defame the love and goodness of God out of a servile and unhealthy fascination with his ‘dread sovereignty’” (86). What a peculiar perception. Does Hart actually know any Calvinists?, I wonder. I know quite a few myself and I’ve read many of their books, including Calvin’s own Institutes, and I have certainly seen nothing that I would judge to be “unhealthy fascination with [God’s] ‘dread sovereignty.’” Calvinists rejoice in God’s sovereignty and draw great comfort from it, they are not fascinated with it because it is “dreadful.”

I have had frequent occasion to observe that the root of Roger’s own passionate rejection of Calvinism is the fact that he finds the case for compatibilism thoroughly implausible. The “logical conclusion” about which Roger speaks is the conclusion that he believes we would all reach if we understood that compatibilism is illogical. That itself is not a surprising conviction; anyone who is convinced of the logic of his own beliefs and the illogic of other people’s beliefs can understand Roger’s puzzlement. But Roger’s answer to the student’s question strikes me for its extraordinary inability to consider how things would look from inside another person’s perspective. Specifically, in this case, to think how the meticulously sovereign God would look if a compatibilist account were viable, so that this God is indeed good, can not himself be tempted to sin and tempts no one else to sin, so that sinful creatures are solely responsible for the evil of their acts. I know Roger can not understand how such could be the case, but what if it were revealed to him to be true?

To test our own capacity to do this, maybe we need to ask ourselves a question like this: “If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true God actually is as X theology [here you can put the perspective within a Christian framework that seems most implausible or problematic to you]  affirms, would you still worship him?” On theological principle, I think that my answer would have to be “yes.” I am thinking about Paul’s discussion, in Romans 14, of the moral obligation of people whose consciences are faulty. From that passage I conclude that we are always obligated to obey our consciences. They are God’s voice to us. They may be wrong, and they often are, but it would be sinful to disobey what we truly believe to be God’s moral demand upon us or his revelation to us.

I grant that the leap, from believing that God is as I now understand him to be revealed in the Christian Scripture and supremely in the person of Jesus whom those scriptures communicate to us, to believing that the God is as described by theology X may be very difficult to imagine. But the student questioner spoke of a God that was revealed to me in a way I could not question or deny. I know that some of my theology is wrong, I just don’t know which parts of it are. But if I were to become convinced that I have been in error and that God had now graciously revealed himself accurately to me, to suppress that truth, for whatever reason, be that logic or sentiment, would be wrong.

I am left with another question. If we believed other people to be so terribly wrong that they were worshipping not the true God but a moral monster, could/should we worship with them? Coming from that perspective, should an Arminian take communion with Calvinists?

These are questions of great consequence, and I have felt reluctant to address them. But I have concluded that precisely because Roger has raised so important a question and given us his own firm answer, it would be wrong not to ponder that question ourselves with the counsel of other brothers and sisters in Christ.

What do you think about this?

 Earlier posts in the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

7 replies on “How do we identify a God not worthy of worship?”

I think the impasse is perhaps even greater than you presented here because Roger goes on to ask the question I often ask myself of my own theology or beliefs about our accountability. Roger asks of an imaginary student, “If it was revealed to you in a way that you couldn’t deny that the one presented in scripture as God is really the rebel and that the Devil is actually our creator, would you worship the devil?” That question helps identify the chasm that sometimes appears to me to be represented by this discussion. I don’t find his answer to be shocking at all, I find it to accord with the accounts of people in scripture coming to know God and growing to trust Him.

In back of this question I think is another question that gives rise to this one and I think the two of you answer it somewhat differently. Is God worshipful because of His might and power or because of His character, goodness, purity.

And regarding worship, whether or not one should worship or not is a bit different from whether or not one can worship if ‘worship’ entails adoration and loyalty, inwardly. These can be faked but I don’t think they can be genuine unless the worshiper actually believes in the appropriateness of the activity.

I believe, at the bottom of this subject lies the fact that different types of people are capable of different types of views or understandings. I don’t think the difference between the Arminian and the Calvinist is simply intellectual and much as it really emanates from two disparate personality types. I don’t think everyone can be a Calvinist and I don’t think everyone could be an Arminian. Those in one camp view the understanding of those in the other camp as inconsistent or contradictory and visa-versa. I have studied both for 30 something years and I think both overstate their evidences as times and in places.

I do agree with Roger that scripture alone doesn’t settle the question and I don’t believe it was intended to. It seems to me that the human agents who scripture came by were all over the map on this and sometimes the same author in the same letter, Paul, for instance.

In closing, I trust God as He is represented in scripture, I just don’t find either theological camp to have a great handle on the way He appears to be related to His creation and the manner by which He governs. Calvinism and Arminianism both appear to be mixed bags of good and bad so I inquire into each to glean some gems.

When I had first heard of Olson’s response to the students question I was taken aback. It would seem that a person truly seeking to know God in a personal and intimate manner would be an eager inquirer. What Olson seems to be revealing is a confidence and dare I say arrogance, without meaning to be disparaging, of the nature and workings of God that elevates him above the rest of us mere mortals. His paradigm of God, and of His character and actions seems to be rigidly static with little consideration of his own fallibility. The question that springs to my mind as I consider his response is, “Are we looking to know the God who is revealed in the Bible or some concoction?”
I agree with you that if I was confronted with an understanding quite different about God and everything He has revealed about himself I would want to entertain it. More so, as per the question posed by the student, if it was undeniable and revealed in such a way that left little doubt (this I presume is by some revelation of God that cuts deeply to the core and convicts wholly) my answer would be “yes, I will worship that God.”
In an attempt to be gracious to Olson, I hope that upon reflection that he would regret his hasty response to this student, but alas seeing that his published writing may have occurred many years after his described encounter and it was quite deliberately included in his manuscript, my hope is an empty notion.

I think the root question is being missed here. Do we worship God because of any one of His attributes or just because He is God? I don’t worship God because He is good or holy or loving or sovereign but rather because He is God. If God were revealed to be something other than what I thought Him to be, He would still be God. And He is worthy of worship simply because of who He is.

If you get this figured out, Terry, let me know please! Randall’s observation that both Calvinism and Arminianism are biblical is, I think, correct. It makes no sense to me to say that either Calvin or Wesley simply didn’t know the Bible. And it seems quite clear to me that the Bible simply was not asking this question. I would be interested in knowing if Asians or Africans think that this kind of discussion makes sense. randall looked at personality for the key to the debate; I wonder if our culture is not equally the source — and if perhaps both personality and culture play a larger part than Scripture. I may be wrong; I have often been wrong! But I wonder.

I certainly agree. Daryl, that much (or most) of what both Wesley and Calvin believed is found in Scripture, particularly where they agree. At some points of disagreement, there is probably not a contradiction at work. It is at the point of their synergist/monergist convictions, however, that both cannot be right. Both of them agreed with me on that score!

As to why it is that some people incline to synergism and some to monergism, I am largely in the dark. The study of culture in this regard would certainly be interesting. I would expect converts from Islam to gravitate naturally toward a monergistic understanding of God. Converts from Hinduism, with its philosophical affirmation that things can both be and not be might be inclined toward Calminianism, which is impossible from the perspective of Aristotelians like Olson and myself, for whom the law of non-contradiction is an absolute that owes to Aristotle nothing but its recognition. As I read Scripture, I meet that either/or logic continually, in both the Hebrew and the Greek writings.

I suspect that if we were to examine Christianity worldwide, we would see the strong influence of the theology within whose framework the gospel reached people. A significant portion of the Korean church, for instance, is Calvinistic, being the fruit of Presbyterian missionary work. In listening to Brother Yun, I was struck by the strong monergism in his own doctrine of providence. Where that came from I don’t know.

It would be particularly interesting to examine the teaching within African independent churches, whose beginnings are only tenuously traceable to the work of western denominational missionaries. In such churches, I wonder whether one hears a consistently synergist or monergist theology, or whether such coherence is unimportant to them.

I suspect that where Anglicanism is at the root of African churches, the mixture of synergism and monergism that is rooted in the diverse influences Melanchthonian-Lutheranism and Calvinism may be found. There is a strong stream of Calvinism within the Anglican tradition, which values highly the theology of the Puritans. But Wesleyanism is obviously still alive and well in that church, as is classic Liberalism.

You recount a truly horrific event, Henry, and I share abhorrence of the evil at work in its doing. I can understand why many people find it comforting to believe that God was doing his utmost to prevent the event from occurring but was unable to do so. At this point, however, I don’t see that sort of divine self-limitation in Scripture, and I find it equally hard to interpret incidents such as you described through that grid. I just don’t believe that God has tied his hands that tightly in order to let creaturely free will have its way.

At the emotional level, therefore, I don’t think that monergism or synergism are intrinsically more satisfying. That leaves us to interpret Scripture, and on that point, God has apparently chosen not to lead us all to the same conclusion. I expect that monergism and synergism will persist within the church to the end of this age.

Thank you for you perspective on the matter of worshipping together. You have put your finger on something that I did not identify in my own response to Roger, and I agree with you. Many years ago, Roger asked me if I believed that Calvinists and Arminians worship the same God and I said that I believe we do, though we understand him differently. At that time, Roger did not express his perception of Calvinism’s God in the strongly negative terms that he is now using. It is clear that he now thinks our differences of understanding are so great that we are, in fact, worshipping different Gods.

With you, I respectfully disagree with Roger, as I interpret his statements. I think that Calvinists and Arminians can indeed commune together because we do celebrate together the saving work of the same God, in Christ, by the Spirit. And I think I reach that position by the same route you have described. However wrong Calvinists might be in their compatibilist theology, the fact is that we do believe God to be good and loving. Even if that confession is incoherent, as Roger believes, our hearts are right because of our sincere belief in the coherence of divine determinism and human responsibility.

In my humble opinion, the ‘jesus’ of Calvinism is NOT the JESUS of the BIBLE!!! The REAL JESUS says, “Come unto ME, all ye that labor….and I will give you rest.” while the ‘jesus’ of Calvinism says, “Come unto Me, all ye that I PRE-destined to be ‘ELECT’…..and all you others, since I PRE-destined you to be vile sinners, and That is ALL you were EVER capable of being, (‘By MY SOVEREIGN Decree, of course!!!’), Just Go To ….”
The WORD of GOD says, “CHOOSE ye this day whom ye will serve…” while the WORD of CALVIN (which in Calvinism’s theology seems to take Precedence!!!), seems to say, “IF you are one of the FEW of GOD’s ‘ELECT’, REJOICE!”, and then, again, IF you are NOT one of GOD’s few ‘ELECT’ — well……..Praise the Lord in ALL Things!!!???????….. remember, GOD is SOVEREIGN!! So just Trust that, “All things work together for Good, for those who love GOD and are called according to His purposes!”
“Well, it was nice knowing you!”
No Wonder I have read people say something to the effect of, “How can you tell Calvin’s ”’god”’ from the DEVIL?????!!!
In my honest opinion, Calvin’s god deserves as much worship as the DEVIL, since Calvin’s god even sends people to HELL FOR the DEVIL!!!
I realize that I may Not understand Calvinism too well, and maybe I have misjudged Calvin’s god, BUT he sure does NOT sound like the JESUS of the BiBLE!!!

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