[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. Critique 26 is included in this post.]
Critique 26: ANOTHER PIPER MISFIRE: THE FOLLY OF LOOKING TO PROVERBS TO UNVEIL A UNIVERSAL THEME OF EXHAUSTIVE, DIVINE DETERMINATION
We now move on to some selections of Scripture where Piper’s obsessive bias is most glaring and troubling–his interpretive approach to Proverbs. But note again how he will shrewdly attempt to couch his Two-Wills View in the most positive light possible as “living in the hands of God” while completely omitting the fact that his view of God’s sovereign control over “all the details of life” also entails the morally bankrupt and theologically repugnant proposition that God determinatively willed all the sin and evil of the world. He writes,
“This sense of living in the hands of God, right down to the details of life was not new for the early Christians. They knew it already from the whole history of Israel, but especially from their wisdom literature. “The plans of the mind belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:1). “A man’s mind plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established” (Proverbs 19:21). “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33).”
Lets just pause for a minute and truly ponder the underlying claim Piper is trying to make. He believes Proverbs, a book wholly devoted to living wisely and rightly and warning against living wrongly and unwisely, is simultaneously teaching that every decision a person makes, whether wise or unwise, worthy or wicked, was a decision God sovereignly determined they make. The glaring silliness of such a theological proposition should be sufficient reason in and of itself to dismiss Piper’s hermeneutical approach to Proverbs outright. But let’s explore it because Calvinist literature is rife with the same inane claims.
Let’s start with Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established.”
Does this verse dictate that God meticulously determines and controls everything humans do—such as prostituting children for sex? Since Jesus stated it would be better for a man to have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the see then cause a child to stumble (Lk 17:2), we can rest assured that God’s morally perfect nature did not desire or causally determine child human trafficking. Therefore let us look at other possible interpretations of which I can readily think of two:
(1) Far from saying man’s plans originated in God’s decretive mind and that man is merely the intermediate instrument to bring about God’s eternal decree, the verse actually grounds man’s plans in the mind of man—not God. We have already noted earlier that God’s sovereignty is best seen in overruling man’s ingenuity and evil to bring about his own sovereign purposes. There is no violation of God’s moral nature in saying God can use man’s own sinful intentions (known to God because he knows our characters) to ultimately fulfill his purposes. That is to say God can exploit man’s plans to fulfill his own purposes. His purposes can trump ours. Again his sovereignty is best seen in overruling evil by exploiting evil wherever possible for his own good purposes. But it quite another thing to say God decrees evil for those purposes.
For example lets look at the story of Joseph and how God meant for good what the brothers meant for evil (Gen 50:19–20). The “it” referenced in the text is Joseph being sold as a slave in Egypt—not the wicked character of the brothers. And God does no wrong in planning or purposing that Joseph be a slave in Egypt. We owe our very lives to him and if God wishes that I become vulnerable and subject to the evil whims of men such that I serve his overarching purpose as a slave so that good can come, that is God’s prerogative. God can do this through any number of means. It is simply fallacious to say God must predetermine the means to bring about a predetermined end. His sovereign wisdom is not so rigid and limited as that. As it pertains to the story of Joseph it is important to note that the hatred and jealousy of the older brothers arose out of their own wicked hearts and minds (i.e. many are the plans in man’s mind,” Prov 21:9). God did not have to create it within them or decree their evil character before the foundation of the world in order to later exploit their jealousy and sin to achieve his own good intention (“meant it for good”). Such is the nature of true, God-glorifying sovereignty: overruling evil for good, not causing all evil to bring about good. Vastly different.
(2) All of the above entails one possible interpretation of Proverbs 19:21 that avoids violating God’s moral character as does Piper’s Calvinism. But even then I am cautious in thinking the writer wants us to think of this verse as denoting a universal truth applicable without exception. Another possible interpretation is to rightly assume Proverbs is intended to generally instruct—not the wicked, but the one seeking wisdom! Therefore when a person submits their plans to God—as the Scriptures advise us (“commit your way to the Lord”), the Lord is faithful to ensure “his purpose will stand” in our lives. This is all the more credible when we realize 19:21 parallels Proverbs 16:9 which states, “a man’s mind plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” Yet 16:9 is prefaced earlier in 16:3, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do and he will establish your plans.” Obviously then we can surmise that Proverbs 19:21 is making the point that while a man’s plans may be many, if he commits those plans to the Lord, the Lord will establish the way forward.
Similarly Proverbs 20:24, “A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” need not mean that God determined the steps of a rapist to his victim. If it were intended to mean that every person’s steps and path is ultimately controlled by God’s irresistible decrees, then what do we do with the multitudinous verses that advise persons to depart from the path of evil, wickedness and foolishness and adopt the path of wisdom? It is much more likely to assume that the writer of Proverbs is saying that the person who has committed his path to the wisdom and guidance of God will more often than not find himself to be on a journey of faith where full disclosure and understanding is often beyond our grasp. Proverbs 3:5-6 puts it this way:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not lean on your own understanding, but in all of your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight (i.e. direct your steps).”
Does that sound Calvinistic? Not at all–because the onus is on us to trust the Lord and submit to him in order for our paths to be directed. Yet it is speaking to the same issue as Calvinist proof-texts like Proverbs 20:24. This leads to my basic contention that any attempt to ground a universal, deterministic sovereignty in Proverbs is ill-conceived from the start.
It is wholly irresponsible for us to read Proverbs in a manner divorced and isolated from the overall emphasis of its genre—which is to instruct one in the way of the Lord. Calvinists invite contradictions all down the line when they seek to universalize these passages into doctrines and principles that deterministically and exhaustively apply to all matters of life.
Proverbs is thoroughly understood by scholars to be within the genre of “wisdom literature,” which was not all that uncommon in the Ancient Near East (ANE) culture. It was a form of literature that sought to articulate general wisdom for society to follow. It is the height of folly to approach Proverbs with a hermeneutic that tries to mine out absolute doctrines of universal, binding truths. If we attempt to do so we will find ourselves awash in dozens of contradictions and falsehoods.
For example there are highly skilled people in this world who have remained unknown and unrecognized by kings and rulers despite Proverb 22:29 saying otherwise. A soft answer does not always turn away wrath (15:1). Humility and the fear of the Lord do not always bring riches as Proverbs 22:6 asserts. Nor do we find that the wise always inherit honor and that fools on this earth are always shamed and brought to disgrace (3:35). Rulers are not always friends with the kind and pure of heart (22:11). Training up a child in the way of the Lord does not guarantee that he won’t depart from it (22:6). Proverbs asserts that the Lord will ensure that the righteous never go hungry and that the desires of the wicked are never realized (10:3), but this is also not universally true. We live in a corrupt world where the wicked do prosper and even Paul said he suffered great hunger.
One can go on and on. Should we assume that since Proverbs is so untrue to many instances of life on a universal scale, that it is contradictory, errant and fallible? Not at all— the genre is general wisdom, not a final verdict on every aspect of life. Ergo since Proverbs contains many passages that are clearly unfulfilled and tenuous in their universal binding nature, why are so many Calvinists, including Piper, so confident in believing that Proverbs 16:1, 16:9 and 21:19 are announcing universal truths that God predetermined every occurrence of life? Clearly something is amiss.
Lastly lets deal with Piper’s enlistment of Proverbs 16:33 (one of his favorites). Any Arminian would concede that God in his power is more than capable of determining the outcome of any casted lot— we just feel the Calvinist is overstepping his case in teaching that God determines every throw of the dice in every monopoly game based on this verse.
Moreover this verse is not without its historical context. It was not uncommon in the history of Israel to attempt to discern God’s will in a particular matter by casting lots. For instance, when the faithful of Israel gathered together before the Lord to seek his council they would ask that the decision of the lots come from the Lord, such as in Joshua 18:8 where we find that Joshua cast lots for his men “before the Lord” or in 1 Samuel 14:41 where lots are cast to determine guilt between Saul and Jonathan. Many scholars think the Ephod, Urim and Thummim were inanimate objects of divination like flat coins or dice in which the priest or king prayed for God to uniquely manipulate the objects to reveal his will. The writers of the OT would not have believed every roll of the dice or every lot cast in every gambling foray was equally manipulated and determined by God. For it is quite obvious they would not have bothered to cast lots to discover God’s will in such a unique way if they already assumed every event and all human decision was equally manipulated and determined by God as a divine rule of the universe. Yet Calvinists would have us believe Proverbs 16:33 is asserting such a universal rule.
In the NT we also find a situation in which the disciples uniquely gathered before the Lord to seek his decision by casting lots to fill Judas’s spot as the twelfth disciple (Acts 1:12–26). These are specific cases where men are seeking the will of the divine, and God in turn honors their faith and manipulates the dice to reveal his specific will. God is more than capable of manipulating any object; that is obvious enough. After all the disciples knew he created the universe. But for them it was not a question of raw power. It was about God honoring their faith. That is the key— it was done in faith. There just isn’t good warrant for a Calvinist, like Piper, to universalize this passage deterministically over every bounce of the gambling dice in Vegas. Common sense tells us Proverbs16:33 is extolling God’s ability to intervene (at will) into random lots cast, but that such intervention is contextually appropriate to situations where God has a specific course in mind and controls the lots in accordance with his guidance in a certain matter.
Shocking as it may be to some, the writers of Scripture had an inherent, fundamental expectation that certain passages of Scripture would be read with at least a modicum of basic common sense so as to not to slip into moral and logical absurdity. But when a theology of meticulous, universal determinism is forced upon the Scriptures there can be no allowance for exceptions, and common sense is tossed aside and replaced with narrow-minded dogmatism that fears any departure from the safety of its fundamentalism.
So in sum, if we cannot universalize a host of passages in Proverbs without undermining the very nature of the book, we ought not to assume that the passages Piper cites are intended to unveil a universal theme of exhaustive, divine determinism.