The Folly of Doing Theology in an Echo Chamber: A Thorough Examination of Piper’s “Two-Wills” View (Part 1)

, posted by stridermtb

[StriderMTB’s lengthy article, “The Folly of Doing Theology in an Echo Chamber: A Thorough Examination of Piper’s ‘Two-Wills’ View,” has been divided into 30 parts and edited for serial publication on this website. Here is a link to the original post. After the entire series is published, it will be made available as a single article on this site. The Introduction and Critique 1 are included in this first post.]


 INTRODUCTION: WHY THIS EXAMINATION?

John Piper is a man much loved by God. John Piper is a man much in love with God. Unfortunately, John Piper is also a man much confused about who God is and how his divine nature, character, and sovereignty intertwine. It is most unfortunate because there is a great deal of pastoral teaching and passion that Piper can contribute to the Church–passion and teaching that I can only extol and applaud. However when any person, no matter how noble their intentions, embarks on a path to inculcate Christians into a theological paradigm that does not ultimately ground God’s glory in God’s good character (Ezek 33:19), we have no recourse but to dismiss their viewpoint as misguided from the start and warn believers of the perils that lie concealed and cloistered behind their passionate oratory.

The following critique will largely be an examination of Piper’s popular article, “Are There Two Wills in God”.[1] However, as the need arises, other key statements he has made will be pulled from other articles so as to present a fuller portrait of his theology. Quotes without a specific citation are taken from Piper’s “Two-Wills” online article cited above. Piper’s principle aim is to layout his case that God can sincerely and divinely will two seemingly contradictory things. He starts off attempting to show how God can sincerely will all persons to be saved while purposely willing that all people in fact not be saved. To say on the one hand God wills that all be saved, yet on the other hand assert God does not will all to be saved may sound like an internal contrariety within God, but Piper assures us no such contrariety exists—not because logic demands it, but because Scripture demands it. Piper then proceeds to lay out his case by grounding his initial thesis into an explorative journey through the Scriptures that purportedly show how God can sincerely will that certain evil never occur while simultaneously purposing and decreeing that those very evils ought to occur and therefore will occur unfailingly. As we will discover, Piper considers such a view, however unpalatable to our moral senses and logical deduction, to be the signature piece of evidence that makes the Calvinist view of sovereignty reign supreme over and against Arminian views of divine sovereignty.

Though his commitment to Calvinism is beyond question, his reticence to be theologically consistent and transparent when it most counts is also beyond question. Time and again we will see how Piper intentionally seeks to shield the utter horror of his view behind euphemistic language and innocuous phrases—going so far as to insist God decreed all evil and then lapsing into inconsistency by borrowing terms that only make sense in a robust Arminian paradigm (i.e. “God permits evil”) when he needs to extricate God from moral dilemmas inherent to exhaustive, divine determinism. The reader will discover the following examination to be a hard-hitting denouncement of Piper’s deceptively shrewd use of obscuring, lofty language to misdirect the reader away from apprehending the moral bankruptcy of his view, just as much as it is a denouncement of his theological conclusions.

It is also my intention to demonstrate how Piper is completely closed off to any interpretation that does not reinforce his preconceived assumptions on what divine sovereignty means in a Calvinist context. In that sense the whole of Piper’s theology functions as little more than a privately enclosed echo chamber, with the result being a distorted theology cut off from God’s good character and glory. To approach the whole of Scripture in such a manner is misguided and prone to commit many interpretive errors. We will repeatedly see how his view is informed by an extreme and unwarranted extrapolation of the biblical data, which in turn causes him to trade in a healthy dose of common sense and objectivity for unflinching, blind dogmatism.

Critique 1: IS GOD’S PERFECT WILL CONTESTED AND CHALLENGED BY GOD’S WILL OF DECREE, OR IS GOD’S PERFECT WILL COMPLEMENTED BY GOD’S CONSEQUENT WILL?

In defending his view that “God has ultimate control of all things, including evil,” [2] which is euphemistic, “Piperneze” language for saying, “God’s ordaining mind is the conceptual and decretive origin for every sin and act of evil throughout human history,” Piper principally goes to the Old Testament. For in the OT Piper sees great fodder for his view. There is nothing particularly wrong in looking to the OT to substantiate one’s theology, but we obviously need to tread carefully—for a great deal has changed. However, God is the same yesterday, today and forever and therefore we must assume that God’s holy character and relation to sin and evil is consistent throughout time. In this post I will seek to delve into the alleged evidence—both in the OT and NT that Piper elicits to substantiate his view. For starters, it is of crucial importance when reading the Bible to discern the difference between what is God’s perfect will (i.e., ideal will) and what is God’s accommodating will (i.e., consequent will). Because Piper’s viewpoint exists in a Calvinist echo chamber that drowns out all other competing viewpoints, he never bothers to seriously consider how the Arminian view not only can explain the alleged disparities but also preserves God’s holy, good character—something Piper’s view does not.

There are some things in the Bible—especially in the OT that occurred solely because God is seen to be accommodating His will to a fallen situation that he neither desired nor sovereignly decreed. In that sense, it is not what God wills ideally but consequently. Three short examples will suffice: polygamy, the law of retribution, and divorce. God tells us that His ideal, perfect plan is for one husband to be married to one wife and that they would be united to each other for all their life. But in the fallen world of the Ancient Near East (ANE), God was faced with a less than ideal situation in which agricultural feuds and wars would erupt subsequently leading to the early deaths of husbands and sons. Consequently, wives and mothers back home are immediately thrust into a situation of vulnerability, wherein they find themselves alone in a violent world and unable to work the land by themselves. The result is that food runs out and starvation becomes a real risk. Due to the corrosive effects of sin that God did not intend, He is now faced with a decision between what is bad and what is worse.[3] It is bad that you have polygamy, but it is worse having vulnerable, unprotected starving children and starving widows, so God accommodates Himself to the situation and says, “This is not my perfect will. Yet my perfect, ideal will is unattainable for the time being, so for now, let’s go with polygamy.” God never prescribed polygamy as a rule, but God allowed it in the light of other circumstances. That many people in the OT abused this allowance is another witness of people’s un-decreed fallen state and indeterminate freedom.

So in sum, God’s allowance of polygamy for a period of time is not evidence of an eternal, hidden sovereign decree, but rather God accommodating His will in a manner that accords with his wise counsel. God is trying to move the culture and his people along to a place of maturity where polygamy is off the table and his ideal, perfect will for monogamous unions is realized. There is a progressive ethic taking place in the OT we cannot overlook. Hence we must be careful when we read the Scriptures that we don’t eternalize what God is merely accommodating himself to and allowing. The same holds true for God’s provisional form of justice through lex talionis or the law of retaliation witnessed in the common ANE phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Christ signaled the end of that provisional accommodation and sought to introduce God’s perfect, ideal will with the declaration, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:38–39, 43–45).

It is not God’s will today that we preach polygamy or gouge out each other’s eyes because such allowances were God’s accommodating, provisional will for a period of time. Another example is how God accommodates His will in allowing divorce—yet he establishes strict parameters around it as best He can so that husbands don’t start discarding their wives for trivial reasons that leave their wives uncared for in the future. Yet even in this God is seeking to move his people along to a place of greater maturity and moral development.[4]

I say all that to make the crucial point that we ought not to divide God’s will along moral lines—as does Piper (i.e. God’s moral nature decreed everything opposed to his moral nature), but along consequential lines (i.e. what God seeks to achieve within a context of a world gone astray). God’s perfect will is his idealistic, first desire in all matters because what God principally desires flows out of his morally perfect nature. God’s consequent, accommodating will is a recognition that God is not deterred or threatened by genuine human freedom, and is therefore what God wills and seeks to achieve in light of human rebellion. In all matters earthly and heavenly, God’s perfect will is the heartbeat of a perfect morality inherent to his nature. However, sin’s intrusion into the world has become parasitical upon God’s perfect desires for his world. As such God has sovereignly chosen to accommodate himself to a fallen creation that is not of his ideal. He does this because he is loving, merciful and understanding of our frailty.

As mentioned, God’s perfect will is that marriages would never result in divorce but as the OT bears witness to and as Jesus points out, God knows our frailty and propensity towards sin; therefore God accommodates his will to allow divorce in certain situations. God would rather there be no divorce—that is his perfect will. But given sin’s intrusion into the world and our human frailty to succumb to external pressures and temptations, which God did not decree, God accommodates his will to our fallen condition and allows it.

Yet it is another thing entirely to say God decreed every act of adultery or every divorce that shatters families because he needed such tragedies to further glorify himself to the maximum. On the one hand, Piper believes God is irrevocably bound by his own nature to maximize his glory in all things. Yet, on the other hand, Piper believes God decreed all things. Therefore it is no strain on logic to conclude that God needed “all things” to be exactly as they are to achieve his current, maximal state of righteous glory. In that sense, God has a need—evil—to achieve glory, and God has a need—sin—to achieve righteousness. God’s glory and moral character become muddled beyond recognition in Piper’s theodicy. This will be threshed out in subsequent critiques.


[1] See http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god Unless otherwise cited all quotes are taken from this online article. The article is originally from Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace. Thomas Schreiner/Bruce Ware, editors (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).

[2] This particular quote is pulled from Piper’s accompanying article, “Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained that Evil Be.” See: http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/is-god-less-glorious-because-he-ordained-that-evil-be

[3] I am indebted to a sermon I once heard by Greg Boyd for these remarks.

[4] For example, the Beatitudes as witnessed in Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” reveal God’s true ideal for moral reflection. However, his people were not ready to receive such a comprehensive moral grounding for their lives in ancient times. Notwithstanding that fact, God had to start somewhere. The Mosaic Law was a start and in many instances it was an improvement on the cultural norms of the day, as seen in the fact that it was the first code in the ANE culture to give rights to women. God’s conditions that surrounded divorce were light years ahead in their development compared with the surrounding cultures. Many more examples can be called upon to help demonstrate and distinguish God’s perfect will from his accommodating or consequent will in light of sin’s intrusion into the world—such as God’s judgment via the flood and the Canaanite conquest.