Retractare: John Piper and the Origenist Problematic

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:

  1. 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.
  2. He is probably one of the leading reasons in the revival of Jonathan Edwards among non-specialists.`
  3. His “Christian Hedonism,”while prone to problems and misunderstandings, very easily combine doctrine and application.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. I have always leaned towards continuationist views on prophecy; Piper’s arguments solidified those views.

Cons:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Piper’s lecture on Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Piper’s Talk on Martyn-Lloyd Jones

I’ve been largely critical of Piper for some years now. That said, Desiring God’s decision to put all of their audio online for free was nothing short of genius (and rightly makes all other “scholarly” websites look very bad and useless; good for DG). Because of that, I was able to listen to Piper’s talk on Martyn Lloyd-Jones “Passion for Christ-exalting Power.”

Pros:

I’ve listened to a fair number of Piper’s biography talks and while they are usually well-done, the one on MLJ is by far the best. Piper explicates Lloyd-Jones’s key ideas on baptism of the Holy Spirit, false ecumenism, the coming failure of Evangelicalism, and Spiritual Gifts. The part on spiritual gifts was the best. (I’ve long held the view that the typical arguments for cessationism are very weak. Note, I did not say that I am a charismatic. Nor did I say that the office of prophet and tongue-speaker is still binding today. I don’t think it is. Still, the standard argument, “That gift is past because we have the Bible” is a woeful non-sequitur.)

Piper spoke with much force and power, but he spoke in a more “down-to-earth” way. He was very frank with MLJ’s shortcomings, real and alleged. Piper’s further expositions of MLJ on spiritual gifts and baptism of the Holy Spirit were outstanding and very helpful.

Cons:

At the end of the talk Piper listed about five areas where MLJ failed to come to grips with his (asserted true) teaching on spiritual gifts. I don’t think Piper did a good job in critiquing them, though the criticisms were interesting.

  1. The first criticism was that MLJ overly qualified the cautions on exercising spiritual gifts to the degree that the average layman would not seek to exercise them. Maybe he did. On the other hand, and it must be said that neither Piper nor I know the exact context, the abuse of spiritual gifts is worse than the use and can sometimes border on demonic (see Fr Seraphim Rose’s criticism of Pentecostalism). When I was in college a lot of “charismatics,” under the guise of spiritual gifts, would roll on the floor, bark like puppy dogs, etc. MLJ’s cautions are well-heeded, contra Piper.
  2. Piper criticised MLJ for not having an all-night prayer meeting. Supposedly people were getting excited about revival and asked MLJ to organize an all-nighter. He said no. Piper thinks this was wrong. I’m not sure. I agree with Murray-MLJ-Piper on revival, but none of them pointed out that in the Reformed tradition, God works through the preaching and the sacraments. All-night prayer meetings have their place, but the importance is on preaching, since the latter is a means of grace.
  3. Piper criticized MLJ’s negative view on “new music.” Admittedly, neither Piper nor myself understand what kind of music MLJ rejected. I’m tempted to pull the RPW card and say, Well, what does Scripture say on it?”

 

Despite my criticisms of Piper’s criticisms in this post, I highly recommend the lecture.

Monotheletism in the formation of the canon?

Restorationist sects and even respectable Calvinists like John Piper will say the early church had it completely wrong.  Yet at the same time, these guys have no trouble accepting the canon/table of contents page in the Bible.  The problem is that the table of contents page is not Scripture.  It is man’s tradition about Scripture (which presumably dictates how you are to interpret Scripture.  If Scripture interprets Scripture, but we only know the outliers of interpretation by a man-made tradition–the table of contents–then we are not really interpreting Scripture by Scripture, but by tradition).  But I digress.

The point is that these theologically errant men with bad theology, which Piper and Co., affirm, formed the canon.  How then do we know they did not screw it up?   They had bad theology.  They venerated relics, icons, burned incense, had bishops, took the Lord’s Supper frequently, and Constantine.  By all restorationists’ accounts they were the most rank of heretics.  Yet they happened to get the canon correct.  How did that happen?

People will then say the Holy Spirit guided the canon process.  In other words, the Holy Spirit’s will overrode the bishop’s will.   This, unfortunately, is another form of monoenergism (a corollary of monotheletism), which is heresy.   Demetrios Bathrellos makes it clear in The Byzantine Christ (quite likely the authoritative book on monotheletism) that the heresy didn’t simply say that Christ had one will, but that Christ’s divine will overrides human will(s).  In other words, there is no room for synergy, human cooperation with God.

What did the apostles say?  “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” That’s a much healthier approach to take to the formation of the canon.