As hinted in an earlier piece, I’ve been a fairly sharp critic of John Piper for the past few years. I have since moved back to earlier theological convictions and realized my criticisms were entirely fair. To be sure, Piper does have some problems–some of them substantial ones–and I would certainly caution a young ministerial student in making Piper (or even Jonathan Edwards) the staple of my theological diet. Still, few critics of Piper actually realize the good he has done.
The title of my post represents an ancient problem in theology. The early Christian writer Origen fashioned his theology around the idea of “dialectic.” Something has a corresponding opposite. This isn’t new with him, but it did become problematic when applied to God. Criticism was then made of Piper that Piper’s construction of God’s sovereignty necessarily entailed sin, the fall, etc.
Addressing this criticism of Piper will allow me to say where that position (the Anchoretic one, for lack of a better term) made some correct observations, but in doing so failed to come to grips with SCripture. Even worse, their criticisms of Piper must also apply to Scripture. So, does Piper’s construction of God’s sovereignty entail a dialectical corollary? It kind of does, but in the long run it isn’t that big a deal. First, Piper isn’t the first major thinker to suggest this. He’s simply offering a new take on the whole “would the incarnation have happened if there were no sin” problem. I am not actually convinced that the problem is a good one, nor does one even need to give an answer. That Piper is addressing, however, is not that unusual. The neo-Palamites made a mountain out of a molehill.
There might be another way to salvage Piper’s reading. Does the fact that God’s knowing future events make them certain? It seems hard to affirm otherwise. If God knows something will happen, then will it happen of a certainty? It seems so. So when Piper hints towards a necessary connection between God’s glory and sin, he is simply making explicit the above premise (though I think men like Bruce McCormack have done a better job dealing with the problem). Now, the sharp Anchorite will say, “Ah, but what about Molinism and all those problems?” Well, I am at the point in my life where I really don’t care. There are about five Eastern Orthodox guys alive who really understand that issue (which is highly ironic, given that Orthodoxy usually charges everyone with “rationalism,” yet these arguments are the most insanely technical I’ve encountered). The truth is, few people who do not have a Master’s degree in Medieval philosophy will care about these arguments, let alone understand them. My argument, underlined above, is quite easy to understand.
However, as Piper’s sermons on Romans 9 make clear, the problem still remains, eschewals of the dialectic notwithstanding. Here is the hilarious thing: these guys will attack John Piper for saying this, but when Paul says, “vessels of wrath prepared beforehand for destruction,” there is silence. Further, Piper in that sermon gives seven incontestable reasons why the phrase “he hardens whom he will” means that God first hardens those who have not yet done anything. And at the end Piper says, “I haven’t removed the mystery. I’ve simply stated it. To say ‘free will’ solves the mystery is in truth to say nothing at all. Free will only makes the problem worse. Free will doesn’t explain anything at all.”
So, I formally retract my earlier criticism of John Piper as an Origenist. If he is an Origenist on the dialectic, so is Paul. This is why studying Romans 9 is so exhilarating. One gets to bask in the sheer majesty and saving power of God. And if someone sneers “nominalist,” so be it. My argument is simple: Give a refutation of my system that does not equally apply to Romans 9:22.
Just read Chrysostom on Romans 9. His reading of it is literally the opposite of what the text said. This is not merely “oh, just a nuance of interpretation.” It is literally the difference between A and ~A.
(Interestingly, the only decent non-Reformed interpretation is NT Wright’s: Romans 9 is the recapitulation of the story of Israel. Few non-Calvinists accept this reading, though. Origen was the first to really deal with it in De Principiis. Origen’s arguments haven’t really been improved upon by synergists in 1,900 years. This is not surprising. While I don’t agree with Wright’s interpretation, I know why synergists do not use it: it does not exalt and magnify the free will of man. Period).
Now, for some other thoughts on John Piper.
Pros of Piper:
- Like him or not, he is a dynamic speaker who impressed upon one the urgency of eternal things. Few can match him as a preacher.
- He is probably one of the leading reasons in the revival of Jonathan Edwards among non-specialists.`
- His “Christian Hedonism,”while prone to problems and misunderstandings, very easily combine doctrine and application.
- His website made all of his lectures (and I think, books) free. Few ministries truly understand this. Piper does and he is light-years ahead of everyone in marketing techniques (which is ironic, since he is critical of the marketing ministry approach).
- I have normally sided with NT Wright over Piper, but I retract most of that. Wright did make one good point, though: few scholars accept Piper’s definition of God’s righteousness. That’s true, but I now think Piper makes a good case. If one takes corresponding passages between Exodus 33 and Romans 9, there is a clear connection between God’s righteousness, God’s glory, and God’s Name.
- I have always leaned towards continuationist views on prophecy; Piper’s arguments solidified those views.
- I hesitate to make Piper and Christian Hedonism the focal point of my theological diet. Men need systems and all men have them. Piper’s system is not coherent enough for someone who doesn’t have a strong background in church history, philosophy, and theology. On the opposite side, those who do little else but chant “Westminster Confession” have a remarkably coherent system, but they do not always go further.
- I think Piper got sidetracked on the “racial equality” issue. I admit that racial problems exist in America, but when someone mentions “racial equality,” what they usually mean is how bad whites treat blacks today. I’m sure that happens somewhere, though I haven’t actually seen that phenomena in fifteen years, but what is never mentioned, aside from the regular Department of Justice report, is the overwhelming percentage of black-on-white (and for what it’s worth, black-on-black) crimes. In fact, to even mention this is to commit the heinous sin of “racism” (which is a Marxist construct). I probably agree with 90% of what he says on this, but I am deeply troubled about what is usually not said.
- I don’t agree with him about his usual baptist conclusions, obviously. But I also don’t agree with the corollaries to this: separation of church and state and the general Baptist take on politics. These are problems with Independency in general.