We Cannot Escape (or Ignore) the Ugly Truth of Piper's Theology

Whatever can be confessed of the theology of John Calvin, the same can be admitted regarding the theology of John Piper. The view of God for one is the view of God for the other. Just as we cannot escape (or ignore) the ugly truth of Calvin's theology, so we cannot escape (or ignore) the ugly truth of Piper's theology: the reason why any of us think, say, or do anything is because Calvin and Piper's God has decreed we think, say, or do anything. If we are to be consistent with Calvin and Piper's theology, the reason why I wrote this piece is because God decreed it, causing me to think of each word to type, and to draw the conclusions I have drawn. If this be the case, then, Here I stand, and by God's decree I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.

John Piper received a death threat within the first three years of his ministry. How did his view of God's sovereignty play out in real life? From his view, if on his way to church he were gunned down, he must insist that such an act was not an attack from the devil, or his agents, but as one that was strictly God's doing and good pleasure. Piper reminds us of Jesus' words, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matt. 10:28) He has the correct context: Jesus is speaking to His disciples regarding their life being threatened by opposition. However, I do not believe Jesus' words are meant to, in an unhealthy manner, make us fear God in killing us at any moment.

"Do not fear those who kill the body," said Jesus, but He did not confess that God would kill the body at His sovereign whim. If we are to have fear of God, it should be a proper fear, that of the awesome nature and justice of God Himself. He has power not merely over the body but over one's very existence. This fear is a proper respect of an infinite and all-powerful God.

The Easter morning that Piper was threatened, he informed his wife and then called the police. After being interviewed by the police, he walked over to his church to minister, confident that if the one who threatened his life should appear and take his life then God wanted him killed. (link) This conclusion is completely consistent with his views expressed years ago, when questioned by Cathy Grossman from USA Today, concerning how he would comfort loved ones whose lives were forever effected or destroyed by the 9/11 catastrophe. Again, while reading this, keep in mind that this is Piper's words of comfort:
Because, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's [we, meaning all people, and not just believers]. In other words, if I get shot tomorrow, if I walk out of here and somebody didn't like what I said and would shoot me dead, God was totally in charge of that, and that will be the best thing that could happen to me. (emphasis added)
While we may wonder why Piper called the police that Easter morning, given that God is "totally in charge of that," and if he should die, then "that would be the best thing that could happen" to him; we at least understand his views on the nature and character of God. Though a devil, like a roaring lion, may be prowling around, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), Piper's view, as that of Calvin, is that such a prowling devil is a pawn in the hands of God, the One who predetermined, decreed, and brings about all such devouring.

What I mean by God "governing" the world is not at all equivalent to Piper's deterministic, Calvinistic view, whereby God has, from eternity past, meticulously predetermined what each person should think, say, and do, and brings such to pass by various causes, whether primary or secondary. As I have noted before: sovereignty is not determinism. According to Piper, the fact that God is "absolutely sovereign" is supposed to bring a grieving person stability, strength, and hope. Yet, if God brings to pass by decree all of the evil and suffering in the world, how on earth is someone supposed to be stable, strengthened, and brimming with hope? That would cause people to live in fear, wondering what God is going to bring upon them at any given moment. Such a worldview is the mental anguish that Calvinism offers its adherents.

God has the ability to stop all evil. Evil, contrary to the assumptions and ideas of some, is not a problem for God. He could stop all evil and sin by not allowing anyone to have any freedom to do any act conceivable. "So," one could ask, "exactly how much evil or free will does one want God to stop? All evil? Most evil? Some evil? Your evil? My evil?" If an individual ever took the life of John Piper, we would be forced, according to his own worldview, to admit that his death was "the best thing that could happen" to him. His funeral should be nothing less than a celebratory amusement honoring God's actions in slaughtering one of His own servants. His tombstone should read: "This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes." (Ps. 118:23)

Moreover, we would have to view death itself not as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) but as a precious instrument of God Almighty. Grief and pain are to be banished since "the best thing that could happen" to anyone is actually death, should God so decree it and bring it to pass. I can only assume that Piper conducts funerals in the same fashion. The death of an infant, a mother with cancer, a father with tuberculosis, an aborted baby -- such are "the best thing that could happen" to them. Now this is consistent Calvinism!

Commenting on his embracing the deterministic view of the sovereignty of God and his mother's death (a vehicle she was in ran into another in Israel and a piece of lumber came through the window and took her life), Piper states:
Never once did it occur to me I should somehow get upset about God. I simply thought, "If God cannot control the flight of a four-by-four flying through the front of a bus after a van hits it, I can't worship him." How can you worship a God who just fumbles the ball? He can't control a piece of lumber? That's not a God I'm going to worship. It is far easier to me to worship a God who is totally in control and offers me the mysterious hope [that] this is going to be good for you, for her, for your dad, for the cause of evangelism. (emphasis original)1
"That's not a God I'm going to worship." So, is he not choosing to worship a God of his own making? He has a view of God, which he deems worthy of worship, and he has searched the scriptures to support his own preconceived view of God. Is not this the same charge that is constantly leveled against Arminians (and other non-Calvinists) by online Calvinists and scholars?


DISTORTED IMAGE BY CEDRICO FERNANDEZ

I am always astonished that Calvinists would rather believe in this version of God, that He meticulously controls and causes (whether primarily or secondarily) and has decreed all events, rather than that events can happen by God's permissive will. Piper prefers to believe in a God who would thrust a 4x4 into his mother's face, thus killing her,2 than to worship a God who permits the reality of physics to result in the death of his mother. My friend, Jason Clark, rightly responds: "The only control God put in place was the physics governing mass and acceleration. If we abuse physics we end up injured or dead. Thanking God for the consistency of the universe does not mean we are holding him responsible for every faulty interaction with said universe." But let us view all of reality within the framework of Piper's theology.

The rape of a two-year-old girl, for example, was strictly controlled and decreed by God, not merely permitted or allowed to happen, in Calvinistic philosophy; and this, somehow, brings Calvinists like John Piper comfort. According to consistent Piperism, and quoting Piper directly, the rape of that two-year-old is "going to be good for her, for her parents, for the cause of evangelism." Quoting Piper directly, the rape of that two-year-old is "the best thing that could happen to her." Why? Simply because his God decreed it and brought it to pass. Since God can do whatever He wants (Ps. 115:3), within a determinist-Calvinistic understanding of this verse, and still remain holy, good and righteous, then whatever God brings to pass, by His eternal decree, is the best thing that could happen to us. I doubt victims of rape would share Piper's enthusiasm for this distorted portrait of God.

From my perspective, many Calvinists find holding various tenets of their views in any consistent manner next to impossible when encountering the real world. Suddenly, when tragedy strikes, what was once dogmatically defended in black and white is then played a bit fast and loose. I see more evidence of such from Piper's "Letter to a Parent Grieving the Loss of a Child." If I were a parent, and especially a parent who had been listening to Piper's sermons and reading his many books over the years, my response to this piece would be rather perplexed: "How can he make such statements," I would ask, "when I know that he teaches and believes something seemingly contrary?"

In his letter, he is responding to an email from a parent who lost a child prior to giving birth to the little one. He begins by assuring the mother that her infant "simply skipped earth. For now. But in the new heavens and the new earth, he will know the best of earth and all the joys earth can give without any of its sorrows." (link) From this we learn that he, in part, rejects the restrictive, Calvinistic interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states, "Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit." (link) (Imagine being a "non-elect" infant and then appearing in hell upon death -- death which God allegedly decreed -- without the slightest notion of why you are there.)

Regardless, he is insistent that the woman will see her infant in the new heavens and the new earth. Of course, another assumption is made in this confession as well, that of the woman and her husband being among the number of the unconditionally elect. But how could he possibly know that? He cannot know that, but assumes that their faith is the genuine faith granted by God to His unconditionally elect. Calvinism can be very tricky business.

Piper then encourages the woman to grieve in a healthy manner, and I think his advice here is spot on. But I also wonder how the grieving woman (and her husband as well) might learn to trust, love, and serve God more so because of this tragedy from a Calvinistic perspective. Why do I ask such a question? Well, because in Calvinism, even the woman's loss was at the decree of God. Westminster states: "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass." (link) (emphasis added) This is Calvinism 101.

Piper concurs with Westminster: "The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby for his own glory, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass." (link) (emphases added) Rape? Foreordained by God for His glory. Incest? Foreordained by God for His glory. Murder, sexual perversion, greed, lust, theft, pride, backbiting, lying, demonic possession -- all foreordained and, might I add, brought to pass for His glory. This is the ugly truth of Piper's Calvinistic theology. His God has rendered certain, by a strict decree, every heinous event, no matter how seemingly insignificant, bringing such to pass, and has done so, allegedly, for His glory -- a strange glory, indeed.  

Are we not left to wonder, then, why he did not inform the grieving mother and her husband that their unborn infant's death was "the best thing that could happen" to him or them? Certainly the infant belonged to the Lord, like everyone else, right? How could Piper offer the above-quoted "comfort," to those grieving loved ones whose lives were taken by the 9/11 tragedy, but offer a seemingly contrary "comfort" to the grieving woman and her husband?

I find no comfort or assurance of hope in the Calvinist God: I did not when I was a Calvinist, and I certainly do not today. Who has time to worry about devils and the effects of the fall and the evil motives of evil people when God has already foreordained all the sin and detestable wickedness that I shall ever endure or even cause? There is no amount of grief counseling that could lead me to hope and trust in the Calvinist God.

On this subject alone, the sovereignty of God, do we see the most distinguished and sharp disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians -- nearly to the degree (nearly but not completely) that the two are worshiping different Gods. I understand that we are not worshiping two different Gods; but the more I read Piper and Calvin over the years, the less I recognize the same character in the God we both claim to worship.

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1 Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, eds. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 222-23.

2 Piper continues: "I believe in a God who was in total control and did what was best for her, best for me, best for my dad, even best for my sister, who, when looking into my mother's coffin upon its arrival from Israel ten days later, fainted onto the floor because the embalming situation wasn't so good." (223) Mind you, the Calvinist God meticulously arranged for the shoddy embalming situation, thus causing Piper's sister to faint. The point is this: In Calvinism, every seemingly insignificant event, no matter how minute the detail, was orchestrated, decreed, and brought about by his God.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.