Why Does John Piper Misrepresent Evangelical Arminianism?

, posted by drwayman

As I begin writing this I realize I’m not actually going to attempt to answer my question. I think the question would be better answered by John Piper himself. What I am going to contend is that John Piper continues to misrepresent evangelical Arminianism and fails to interact with its foremost spokesperson.

Recently John Piper answered the question: ‘Where’s the Arminian John Piper?’ (Episode 238 of ‘Ask Pastor John’) This was in response to an article where Roger Olson had lamented the lack of theological awareness among evangelicals as a whole in America and especially among evangelical Arminians (‘Needed: Robust Arminian Theology for Lay People (Especially Youth)’).

Piper initially agrees with Olson on the need for greater theological depth and reminds the listeners that Arminians have historically had plenty of passionate and popular leaders and preachers – all well and good. Then he gives his theological analysis of why Arminianism is struggling.

The primary reason Piper gives is that he thinks the distinguishing marks of Arminian theology do not lead people to worship or “blow them away with wonder or amazement” (in his own words). Piper states:

“Calvinists and Arminians both believe that Jesus is the only objective foundation for our imputed righteousness and thus our justification. And we both agree that the only instrument that God uses in connecting this work of Christ with the undeserving sinner is faith – which is an act of the human soul – it is – it’s a human act – it’s an act of the human soul faith is. But when the question is asked: “What is the ultimate, final, decisive reason why one person has that faith or believes and another doesn’t?” the Calvinist says: “The sovereign grace of God.” And the Arminian says: “The free will of man.” (meaning the final decisive power of self-determination).”

Piper says of Arminian theology:

“At the core it is about the powers of human self-determination.”

Piper then claims that what makes Arminians able to worship God at all is not what distinguishes them from Calvinists but what is held in common with Calvinists.

He then claims that Arminianism is based on a core (distinctive) “…philosophical presupposition that man cannot be accountable if God has final control of his will.”

Then he explains that this is the reason he does not expect to see a “…God centered, biblically rich, exegetically rigorous, robust worshipping resurgence of Arminianism.”

Then once more he insists: “Its distinguishing core is man-centered…”

Now I could well reply by doubting whether much of the laity associated with the rise in Calvinism really understands Calvinism or whether they are affiliating themselves with people rather than doctrinal systems. I could also doubt whether some of the pastors who enjoy celebrity status as leading Calvinists really understand Calvinist and Arminian theology aright. I could also question whether Calvinists really get their theology inductively from scripture or whether they, too, bring philosophical presuppositions to the text. And I could also question whether Calvinists are really focusing on the distinctive aspects of Calvinist theology when they are worshiping God (how many songs express the idea that the reason I am currently singing to God is ultimately because God has causally determined everything from eternity?). (I might even dare to ask where the Calvinist Charles Wesley is?)

All of these are worthy of exploration I think but here is my primary problem with Piper: He insists on failing to interact with what Roger Olson holds up as standard evangelical Arminianism. Olson has, in fact, addressed this claim that Arminian theology is man-centered on numerous occasions. This has been one of the primary complaints of Olson throughout his profound theological career. It’s not that Piper has missed some footnote in some obscure theological paper – rather he is failing to interact with a primary point being made by Olson.

Here is Olson from his book ‘Against Calvinism’:

“Even though I had proven to him that my theology, classical Arminianism, does not say persons save themselves through their good works or contribute anything meritorious to their salvation, my Calvinist interlocutor wasn’t convinced. “Your theology,” he accused, “is still semi-Pelagian if not fully Pelagian.” Somewhat offended because I regard these as heresies, I asked him to explain more fully. I thought he had come to realize Arminians do not believe in works righteousness and do believe salvation is all of grace and has nothing to do with meritorious works. But he responded: “Because you make the decisive factor in salvation your own free will decision.” At that time, years ago, I had never heard that accusation, but I knew for sure no Arminian says that… I’ve encountered this accusation against Arminianism (and all non-Calvinist theologies) many times since. Somehow this notion that non-Calvinists make their free will decision the “decisive factor in salvation” has become a mantra for many Calvinists.” (p.155)

Olson goes on to say, by way of contrast:

“The sole reason non-Calvinist evangelical Christians object to monergism is because it makes God the ultimate, even if indirect, cause of the reprobates’ unbelief and damnation. It does serious harm to God’s reputation.” (p.158)

In relation to our salvation, Olson frequently uses the biblical analogies of being given a gift or being saved from death. He points out how ridiculous it would be for someone to claim that the “decisive factor” in why someone has a lavish gift bestowed upon them which they completely did not deserve was because they accepted it and how absurd it would be for the drowning swimmer saved by a lifeguard to insist that it was their lack of resisting the lifeguard pulling them to safety that was the “decisive factor” in their being saved.

Now, clearly, the drowning swimmer can resist. They can lash out and make it impossible for the lifeguard to save their life. Clearly their response is a factor. It’s surely a crucial factor in terms of whether they are saved or not as well. But then this would simply represent the amount of responsibility the Bible puts on human beings for the responses they make to God. Piper would need to show that man can be held responsible for his actions if God has causally determined his actions (through the nature he has ultimately given him) and Piper doesn’t do that. Neither is it fair to suggest that a human decision, granted by the sovereign grace of God, makes this choice a man-centered soteriology. Classic Arminian and Wesleyan theology makes the sacrifice of Jesus Christ the central aspect of salvation history and nothing else.

So is it really representing Arminianism aright to say “Its distinguishing core is man-centered…”? Well the problem is, the language is too vague. It could mean man is the center of the plan of salvation history. But if that’s what “man-centered” means then Calvinists would want to affirm that too. All evangelicals see the plan of salvation as being centered on saving humanity. So, in that sense, we would all affirm it is “man-centered”. If the Calvinist is a compatibilist then they would also agree that the choice of man is also central to their being saved (as compatibilist Calvinists do not think God saves people against their wills but in accordance with their wills). But this is the only sense in which an Arminian could agree with the phrase. It is only man-centered in the sense that the choice of humans does determine whether (s)he is saved. But then that’s no different than what the compatibilist Calvinist believes too; so that would hardly be a huge criticism – especially since Piper appears to be a compatibilist Calvinist.

He is making his view clear that everything in the universe, from the smallest particle to the biggest things in the universe are all being sovereignly governed by God. And then he states that:

“…that’s a problem but the center of the solution to the problem is a choice you have to make about the cross.”

It therefore seems very hypocritical that Piper would criticize Arminians for having man’s choice as a central aspect of salvation when he does the very same thing, but just in a compatibilist sense rather than an incompatibilist one.

The other interpretation both Calvinists and Arminians would disagree with and that is “man-centered” means that the entire plan of salvation was brought about by the will of man and that he does something significant in himself to make salvation happen. That kind of “man-centered” soteriology is clearly rejected by Arminians. So one is left wondering what point there is in claiming Arminianism is “man-centered” unless it’s only being used as a rhetorical device.

Could it be that one possible reason many people (who are committed to justification through faith by grace) become Calvinists is actually because leading Calvinists, like John Piper, are unfairly suggesting that it’s only in Calvinism they can hold to a God-at-the-center theology consistently?

This post was written by SEA member, Michael Rundle. You can find his original post here