Helpful Conversation between Austin Fischer and an Interlocutor

, posted by SEA

In the comments on Austin Fischer’s reply to John Piper’s criticism of his book,Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed, a Calvinist named Clayton Hutchins got into a discussion with Fischer that is helpful for laying out some of the profound problems with Calvinism.

Clayton Hutchins Comment # 1:

Austin, I am thankful for your kind response to Piper, but it does seem to me to be inadequate in a few ways that I would like you to consider.

1. The thrust of this blog post is this: you did not say that Piper or Edwards believe God is a black hole, only that when *you* look at their God, *you* see a black hole. I can see only two logically consistent ways to understand this statement. Either you are saying, (1) “The God of Calvinism is not actually a black hole, he just seems like one to me,” or else you are saying, (2) “The God of Calvinism actually is a black hole, and he seems like one to me precisely because he is, and not all Calvinists see him this way, but they should, because he really is a black hole, according to their scheme. That’s part of why I’ve written this book: to show that the God of a Calvinism is a black hole, not the loving God of the Bible.” If #1 is your meaning, how does it advance your argument? If #2 is your meaning, how is Piper wrong in attempting to address that very question by defining what he thinks you mean by black hole and showing that according the doctrines of Calvinism (voiced by Edwards), God is not a black hole? Indeed, if #2 is the case, it is perfectly alright for Piper to say that you misrepresent his God by saying that the God of Calvinism is a black hole.

2. You claim that God’s love is an end in itself – it is not unto his own glorification. But I have three questions: (1) Isn’t love nothing other than seeking the welfare and good and happiness of the beloved? (2) And isn’t the welfare and good and happiness of man found in communion with and the enjoyment of God, in all of his manifold perfections and glory? (3) And is not praise the expression and consummation of enjoyment? If these things are so, then you simply can’t make an ultimate separation between God’s love for man and God’s desire to be glorified or praised. For then all of God’s labor to highlight the riches of his glory *is* an expression of love, because he is seeking that which is our greatest joy (namely, the full display of God’s manifold perfections), and all of God’s passion to be praised is a passion for us to be happy, because our greatest delight is found in praising his name.

3. It seems to me that you are in many ways beating around the bush of Piper’s response. His response was not merely: “Austin thinks Edwards and I think God is a black hole, but he’s wrong; we don’t. That’s that.” Rather his response was much more along the lines of, “Austin thinks that my God is a black hole, here’s why he’s not.” I would appreciate it if you actually interact with Piper’s reasoning in the podcast, specifically the last bit, where he points toward a couple texts where redemptive love is said to be given “so that” God would be praised by humans for his mercy (Rom 15), or where God endures with patience the vessels of wrath in order to display the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy (Rom 9).

Austing Fischer Reply # 1:

Hey Clayton…fair questions here.

1. I do think the God of Calvinism (consistent, high Calvinism) is a black hole of self. Piper is not wrong for attempting to refute this…by all means it’s his right and duty! I think Piper was wrong in claiming I, by “ignorance or malice” (his words), misrepresented Edwards. That’s the point, and I don’t think I do. In fact, everything Piper says in the clip and you mention above (God’s glory is our good, Christian hedonism, etc.), I say and explain in the book and was an important part of my theology when I was a Calvinist (pages 8, 14-15). I do not put words or concepts in the mouth of Edwards. I just disagree about what those words and concepts result in when traced out and mapped on to God. In short, I think you’re fudging the tone of Piper’s response. There’s a big difference in”ignorant, malicious” (again, his words) misrepresentation and “Austin said this and I think he’s wrong…here’s why.” I would think you’d agree…?

2. If you’ve read the book, you’ll note I make it clear that (in free-will theism) you don’t have to choose between God’s love and God’s glory (pages 57-58), so in a significant sense, I agree with a number of the things you say. I do think our greatest delight is to be found in praise. I quite like the idea of Christian hedonism. I do think that God always glorifies himself. That isn’t the issue. The issue is, “How does God prefer to glorify himself?” My answer: God prefers to glorify himself as the God who loves. In Calvinism, God doesn’t prefer to glorify himself as the God who loves…that is one, small (when you consider the actual numbers of elect vs. non-elect) way God glorifies himself. Love is just a cog in the self-glorification machine, a machine in which (again, considering the numbers) God prefers to glorify himself as the one creates humans in order to damn them.

I quite like what N.T. Wright says along these lines in critiquing Piper’s definition of God’s righteousness: “Piper’s claims about God’s righteousness could be seen as going in exactly the wrong direction. He [Piper] sees it [God’s righteousness] as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns to himself. There is always a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture…is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous creative love–God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing of everything else…The ‘tsedaqah elohim’, the ‘dikaiosyne theou’, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine naricissism because God…is always giving out, pouring out, lavishing generous love…”-Justification, 70.

3. Along these lines, I have no qualms with the idea that God desires to be praised for redemptive love. Of course he does! As Miroslav Volf says it, God seeks to glorify himself as the giver and it is good for us that he does so. The big hole (no pun intended) in all the Calvinist talk about God’s glory being for humanity’s good is the reprobate, which most Calvinists consistently, systematically, (and I can only assume) deliberately gloss over. For example, in your response you say God’s concern for his self-glorification is “seeking that which is our greatest joy.” Who do you mean by “our”? I assume you mean “the elect.” But what happens when you take off the elect blinders and have the damned masses in view too?

It’s fine and well to talk about God doing all manner of things for his glory, but when you assert that God wanted (and I think this is a fair word to use) the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever existed to be damned forever and made certain they would be so he could glorify himself (flex the wrath muscles for the elect to see if you will), you run into massive problems of malicious divine narcissism where you can’t pull the “but it’s for our good” card.” No–for the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever existed, the divine narcissism is not good…it is the most horrific thing imaginable: eternal damnation. That’s what the book is about. In that sense, I think Piper has done what you think I did: refuses to interact with the actual issues I raise in the book and burns down a straw man. Edwardsian Calvinism works just fine when you ignore the damnation of the majority of humanity. How some can do that so easily and persistently troubles me.

In short, Piper (and you and most Calvinist I’ve ever interacted with) seeks to explain how the God of single predestination isn’t a black hole. I’m not asking that. I’m asking how the God of double predestination isn’t a black hole. If you think the Bible forces you to believe it, that’s fine…but either explain how it doesn’t make God a black hole of self or pull the mystery card and admit it sure looks that way to us.

Clayton Hutchins Comment # 2:

After typing my message I thought to myself, “This is a bit long… he probably won’t reply.” The mere fact that you took the time to reply by writing out an even longer response is astounding to me – in a good way. I am thankful for your interaction!

1. As I think about it more, I think your deepest dissatisfaction with Piper’s response is not ultimately with his tone in itself, but his (mis?)understanding of what you mean by the phrase “black hole.” He thinks that when you call God a “self-glorifying black hole,” what you mean is something like: “God wants our praise because he is needy or trying to fill some lack.” He thinks this because of certain statements in your book that link being a black hole/vacuum to being needy or wanting to supply a lack (he quotes one in the podcast at 2:10, and I found a similar statement in your introduction posted on your blog). Can you see why if he thinks *this* is what you are saying that he would respond harshly? If you were to say, “The God of Calvinism wants praise because he feels needy and wants to supply an inherent lack in him,” this *would* be a serious misrepresentation, since Calvinists like Edwards have clearly clarified that God does not lack and he is not needy in seeking praise. So if this is not what you mean by “black hole,” I think you should clarify that. I personally doubt this is what you mean by “black hole,” but you have to admit that in some ways you paved the way for this sort of misunderstanding since in numerous places in your book you link being a human “black hole” to being needy or lacking, and then you don’t clearly define what you mean when you then call God a black hole. This could easily lead the reader to suppose that what you mean by being a human “black hole” is what you mean when you say the God of Calvinism is a “black hole.”

As an aside, from what I piece together from your response to my initial comment (esp. your closing paragraph), I think most basically what you mean by calling the God of Calvinism a “black hole” is that the God of Calvinism is unloving, particularly due to the reality of the reprobate. I will return to this in point 3.

2. This may get me into the same trouble as Piper – and I can only hope it won’t also earn me a response blog post 😉 – but I think you have misrepresented the Calvinist view with regard to the role of God’s saving love in his self-glorification. You say that according to the Calvinist, “God doesn’t prefer to glorify himself as the God who loves…that is one, small (when you consider the actual numbers of elect vs. non-elect) way God glorifies himself. Love is just a cog in the self-glorification machine, a machine in which (again, considering the numbers) God prefers to glorify himself as the one creates humans in order to damn them.” Again I’ll talk about the reprobate in point 3, but the point I want to make here is that according to Calvinism God’s desire to glorify his grace and love is not on the same level as his desire to glorify his justice and wrath. In other words, Calvinism (at least Piperian, neo-Calvinism) does not teach that grace is merely one way among many ways in which God chooses to glorify himself. Grace is the point. Above all else, he wants to be magnified for his redemptive love through Christ. Folks like Piper (see… have argued on the basis of Romans 9:22-23 that God shows his wrath and his judgment and power on the non-elect in order to make known how great and amazing his love for the elect is. The point of it all, according to Calvinism, is love. So it is misleading to say that according to Calvinism “God doesn’t prefer to glorify himself as the God who loves,” or that love “is just a cog in the glorification machine.”

3. What an ambitious task I have before me in this third point. I want to try and briefly argue that Edwardsian Calvinism works just fine in showing how God is a loving being not only in spite of the damnation of the non-elect, but rather because of it. Allow me to say preliminarily that the most fundamental reason why I believe both that God is loving and that God predestines some to hell is because I think the Bible clearly teaches both ideas. So at the end of the day if I can’t completely figure out how those two truths cohere, I’m just going to trust that they do because I see that both are there. However, this does not stop me from trying to see how they both cohere, and I think I have made some significant progress. I commend this view for your consideration (I also know that Piper and Dan Fuller have stated this as their own respective views before).

Short version: God created the world to communicate himself for the greatest amount of joy for the greatest amount of people, and this can only be accomplished through ordaining that some rebellious creatures should be punished for their sins. Long version: God is loving when he seeks the creature’s happiness, and the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God. Therefore if some of God’s attributes are not made fully known to the creature, there will be a proportionate lack in the creature’s happiness. So in order to make the attributes of his love, holiness, and grace fully known, he must also make known his wrath and judgment as well. It is not possible for God to make known the former attributes to some creatures without there being other rebellious creatures who experience the latter. So God decides to create a world that would have a fall, in which all men would be sinful and deserving of hell, and in which he would graciously redeem some and justly pass over others. In all of this, God is wanting to make himself proportionately known in all of his perfections to as many people as possible, and in order for the greatest number of people to experience the greatest amount of happiness, a certain number of people must be punished. Reprobation thus serves love. I say the “greatest amount” of joy and the “greatest amount” of people because I trust that God is wise and he knows the proper proportion that should exist between the amount of wrath that is fitting to be displayed and the fitting amount of people who will know the riches of his mercy.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this explanation. In my mind it does seem to show how God can both be “kind in all his works” (Psalm 145:17) and yet ordain that some perish. And I don’t want to get in a fight over Romans 9, but it does seem to be an extension of the sort of logic that is found in verses 22-23 of that chapter: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?”

Austing Fischer Reply # 2:

Haha! raised some good questions and deserved a response. I think your explanation is just about as good as Calvinism can get ;)…so I’ll just briefly mention the points that I still think stick.

As to the notion that the complete manifestation of God’s glory (which is also the good of the creature…well, the elect creature 😉 ) required damned humans so God can display his wrath…this view has never made much sense to me because of the cross. Briefly, if what the Bible says about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is true and God truly takes God’s wrath upon God’s self and dies our death…what more could possibly be needed to display the seriousness of sin and the wrath and justice of God? I cannot think of a grander, more awe-inspiring display of wrath. Indeed, compared with the crucifixion of God, the foreordained, predetermined damnation of a human being just seems, well, very silly, superfluous, and rather “not awe-inspiring.” So for me, the notion that God needs to damn the reprobate so the elect can see wrath displayed falls flat on its face from the start, ignoring no less than the central event of Christian faith.

I know you think it’s misleading for me to say that (in Calvinism) “love is just a cog in the glory machine” and that you think “grace is the point” and that “God’s desire to show grace and love is on a ‘higher’ level than his desire to show wrath”…but I just can’t get that math to add up. How is “grace the point” when it’s only the point for such an unbelievably small slice of humanity? How is grace the point when the whole universe is oriented towards the eternal misery of the majority of humans who have ever existed so a select few may be eternally happy? I get how grace is the point for the elect, but the leap from there to “grace is THE point” is quite a chasm.

We keep coming back around to this point and it really is an impasse: I just cannot get myself to ignore the reprobate in the way most Calvinists seem comfortable doing. Indeed, an essential part of Edwardsian Calvinism (which I think you do a great job concisely explaining by the way!) is a systemic dismissal of the reprobate and fixation on the elect (shown in the willingness to say grace is the point when it’s only the point for a few at the brutal expense of the many). When I was on my last legs as a Calvinist, I clung to my Calvinism because I thought the Bible left me no choice (similar to what you’ve claimed), but I gave up the illusion that grace was the point. Because if grace was THE point, double predestination is a rather bizarre way of making the point.

All that to say, I don’t think Edwardsian Calvinism (even in its most articulate treatments) comes close to explaining how the God of reprobation is love, in any intelligible sense of the term.

Clayton Hutchins Comment # 3:

If the person you’re talking to says you both are “at an impasse,” there’s no avoiding it. It’s no use arguing against it – for in that case you would be at an impasse over whether or not you both are at an impasse, in which case the person arguing “yes” wins. 😉 I’ve enjoyed getting to hear from you, and you have provoked me to think in some helpful ways with your pushback on my argument for God’s love in double predestination. Briefly, I also want to state the points that seem to me to “stick” in light of your most recent comment, and then maybe if you want to follow up even more, we could take this conversation elsewhere – email or what-have-you. (Sorry for the length! It is mostly due to your aforementioned thought-provoking question which I wanted to explore, and it really is at the heart of our discussion, as I will show.)

You say: “I get how grace is the point for the elect, but the leap from there to ‘grace is THE point’ is quite a chasm” – yes, but only if you can’t see how the damnation of the non-elect is meant *for the purpose of* highlighting the fullest amount of the riches of God’s grace for the fullest amount of creatures. On this topic you raise an interesting rebuttal: “Wasn’t the death of Christ enough to put God’s holiness, hatred for sin, wrath, and justice on display for the enjoyment of God’s elect? Doesn’t the eternal damnation of even a large number of human beings seem silly and totally unneeded for the purpose of highlighting these divine attributes which were already so sufficiently displayed in Christ’s sacrifice?” I want to affirm that God’s hatred for sin and his concern for the upholding of his law and justice is in no place more fully displayed than at the cross – the damned will suffer for all eternity, never making up for their sins or completing the amount of punishment they deserve, so in that sense it is incomplete (viewed from a temporal standpoint) and inadequate as a full and complete expression of God’s hatred for sin and his concern for justice. But I think that upon deeper reflection, it can be conceived that the eternal punishment of the wicked does truly *add* something to the display of the fullness of God’s glory and the elect’s capacity to enjoy it than if no human were ever condemned and Christ’s past death was the only event in the universe where God’s wrath and justice was displayed. (An assumption in all this is that the saints in heaven are aware of and in some ineffable way able to view the torments of the damned, an idea which I find in Scripture: Isa 66:23-24; Luke 16:22-26; Rev 14:10 [cf. 7:15]; 18:20; 19:1-3.)

1. Christ’s sufferings were a past event, but the torments of the damned are ever-present and everlasting, and as such they serve to further impress God’s justice on the minds and hearts of the glorified saints. Though Christ’s sufferings are the fullest and most complete display of God’s hatred for sin and his concern for justice, the sufferings themselves are a past reality. Christ’s hands still have holes in them, true – but being raised and glorified, he no longer can experience pain. It is important to note on this point that the glorified saints will be eternally embodied creatures, and as such they will have creaturely limitations. Their capacities to feel and have holy affections are dependent upon their knowledge and mental conceptions. So while the contemplation of Christ’s death will indeed incite them to praise God for his mercy, grace, and his holy concern for justice and righteousness which led him to offer up his own Son to make atonement, yet this contemplation is of a past event of suffering which they never personally viewed. But having the damned ever before their eyes, whose great and terrible sufferings are ever available to be viewed, will in fact give them a further reason to praise (as in Rev 19:1-3); the present display of God’s wrath will give their minds conceptions which will further allow them to feel the weight of God’s wrath and justice, since they have seen it being poured out themselves – not just heard about Christ’s past experiences.

2. The contemplation of Christ’s sufferings aptly demonstrate God’s hatred for sin and love for righteousness, but they do not in the same fullness demonstrate the fierceness of God’s *power* and *might* against sin as the eternally visible torments of the damned do. Christ’s torments were primarily inward and spiritual, not primarily outward and physical (for many have suffered even more physically excruciating deaths than Christ; this is not what brought him to a bloody sweat in the garden). But the torments of the damned are to a much greater degree on the physical level. Jesus tells us to fear him who can destroy both soul “and body” in hell – and the torments of the damned are described as hell-fire, and as being trampled underfoot. It is not the soul only, but also the body, which will be the subject of hell’s torments. And God’s desire to show the fierceness of his wrath and the greatness of the might that he exerts in punishing the damned is singled out in Romans 9:22 as what will display “the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy” – meaning we ought to see a link between these two. And the place where Scripture says this power and fierceness is shown is in hell. “He also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured *full strength* into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev 14:10); “He will tread the winepress of the *fury* of the wrath of God *the Almighty*” (Rev 19:15).

3. Another element is that Christ’s sufferings are not an example of God actually hating sin or a sinner, considered as such, but the damned in hell are. Christ bore God’s wrath – yes, but he was not hated by God in an absolute sense. Christ had no sin for God to hate. Jesus, as God, is eternal and eternally beloved within the fellowship of the Trinity, and this fact did not change at the cross. It is paradoxical, but profoundly true that Christ bore the weight of God’s anger without God actually hating him. But the damned are hated by God in an absolute sense – they are hated in themselves for what they are. There is no virtue or righteousness or loveliness in the souls of the damned.

I have some other reasons too, but this message is getting much too long. I hope to have shown though that while Christ’s past sufferings are the fullest and most complete manifestation of God’s abhorrence of sin and concern to uphold justice and the divine law, the visible and everlasting torments of the damned do add something to the elect’s knowledge of the fullness of God’s glory and their capacity of joy for God’s mercy. And if it is true that damning some does in fact more fully display his glory for the enjoyment of the redeemed, then my previous argument about the love of God in double-predestination would hold against the objection you brought up.

At this point you could bring up another objection that I could think about and try to answer, but at this point I am constrained to say: I believe both that God is loving and that he ordains that some perish because the Bible says so, and I think I can see how these two cohere. Now I admit I have not read your book, but it is my impression that you at first held to Calvinism because you saw it to be clearly taught in Scripture, but you came to wonder how it could be possible for God to be loving and yet ordain that some perish. Not seeing how this is rationally possible, you began to re-asses the “Calvinist texts” and asked yourself, “Could these be taken another way?” and seeing other potential explanations that would fit with your understanding of how God couldn’t be both loving and predestine some to hell, you accepted those. If this is your story (in the crudest, most simplified form), my only comment would be: I would be wary of allowing a non-Biblical understanding of love or what it means for God to be loving (an a priori “a God of love would never _______”) to take the lead for how I interpret Scripture, especially if it leads me to interpret some passages which seem clearly or at least more plainly to teach something in conflict with that non-biblical definition. Even so, I think it is at least rationally conceivable how the God of Calvinism could still be loving even in ordaining that some perish. If my comments have made that even a little more compelling, I am glad. If not . . . well, I am still glad to have talked with you! It helped me if anything. 🙂 Sorry for making this last post so long. I’m really pushing my luck. But I thought I’d go out with a bang.

Final reflections on the conversation: Fischer has not yet responded to Hutchins’ final reply, and we don’t know if he will. So allow me to simply point out that Hutchins’ final reply does not really deal with Fischer’s main point that on Calvinistic double predestination God would not be loving. Unconditionally ordaining people to be sinners and then unconditionally choosing to damn most of them for their sin is just about as hateful a thing as can be. Doing that to showcase love for the few that were unconditionally chosen for mercy does not somehow rescue that to being a loving thing, still less the act of one who is described as love. It is akin to an arsonist who sets fires and then rescues a few from the flames while allowing most to die in them when he could have saved all, and all of this for the glory of saving those few from the fire he caught them in. The picture of God painted by Hutchins, Piper, Edwards, et al. appears extremely sadistic.