Ben Henshaw, “An Arminian Response to the Calvinist Use of Genesis 50:20 as a Prooftext for Compatibilism”

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[This post is an excerpt from John Piper on God Ordaining All Sin And Evil Part 1: An Arminian Response to Piper’s First “Question”]

“Piper quotes numerous passages of Scripture that he believes support his contention that God controls all evil (natural, animal and moral).  It seems to me that all of these passages could just as well fit with the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty over evil as I described it above (See Daniel Whedon’s response to such passages below).  I will only focus on a few passages that I think Piper severely misuses.  Concerning Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, Piper writes,

For example, all the choices of Joseph’s brothers in getting rid of him and selling him into slavery are seen as sin and yet also as the outworking of God’s good purpose. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers when they fear his vengeance, ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.’

It seems to me that Piper is quickly softening his language here.  To say that the sinful actions that led to Joseph coming to power in Egypt was also the “outworking of God’s purpose” is quite a different thing than saying that those sins were necessitated by God in accordance with an irresistible eternal decree.  Piper makes reference to the insufficient response that an open theist might give to the way Piper sees God’s sovereignty at work in these passages, but does not really interact with the Arminian view as I described it above.  However, it seems that in his response to the open theist, Piper intends to undo any Arminian interpretation of this passage that would see it in the context of permission and using sinful actions to accomplish His will, while in no way causing those sinful actions,

But this will not fit what the text says or what Psalm 105:17 says. The text says, “You meant evil against me.” Evil is a feminine singular noun. Then it says, “God meant it for good.” The word “it” is a feminine singular suffix that can only agree with the antecedent feminine singular noun, “evil.” And the verb “meant” is the same past tense in both cases. You meant evil against me in the past, as you were doing it. And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it. And to make this perfectly clear, Psalm 105:17 says about Joseph’s coming to Egypt, “[God] sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” God sent him. God did not find him there owing to evil choices, and then try to make something good come of it. Therefore this text stands as a kind of paradigm for how to understand the evil will of man within the sovereign will of God.

Piper’s points concerning this passage hardly undermine the Arminian understanding of God’s sovereignty with respect to sin.  It doesn’t really support Piper’s case that God meant their sinful actions for “good” while they “were doing it.”

Why would it?  This only means that throughout the whole process, God was working ultimate good out of their actions that they intended for evil.  But this doesn’t mean that God caused them to sin so that He could bring good out of it.  Rather, at every step of the way, God was working out His plan to get Joseph to Egypt, even through the sinful free choices of his brothers.  In this way, God was “sending” Joseph to Egypt by ensuring that Joseph got to Egypt even through the sinful free will choices that God in no way caused Joseph’s brothers to commit.

God is so wise that even the free will choices of His creatures cannot thwart His ultimate purposes, and God can use those choices, even sinful ones, to accomplish those purposes.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that Piper’s appeal to Joseph being “sent” in Psalm 105:17 lends any support to his contention, since this Psalm is speaking in generalities (as Psalms often do), without concerning itself with philosophical specifics like the exact inner workings of what was involved in Joseph being “sent”.

So we conclude that while Joseph’s brothers’ intentions in their actions were to get rid of Joseph forever, God’s intentions in (or through) their actions were to get Joseph to Egypt.  This in no way means that God caused those actions.  But this will not do for Piper.  He seems to want this passage to say something more, though appears hesitant to come right out and say it.  He makes specific reference to the language in a seeming attempt to more directly involve God in the actions of the brothers,

The text says, ‘You meant evil against me.’ Evil is a feminine singular noun. Then it says, ‘God meant it for good.’ The word “it” is a feminine singular suffix that can only agree with the antecedent feminine singular noun, “evil.” And the verb “meant” is the same past tense in both cases. You meant evil against me in the past, as you were doing it. And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it. (emphasis mine)

Surely, Piper does not mean to say that God means evil for good as evil.  But this is what we would have to conclude from Piper’s language when he writes, “And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it.”  Again, I would suspect that Piper would shy away from the claim that God means evil as good in the sense that God actually considers evil actions as good.  But if that is not what Piper is expressing, his point cannot stand.  Rather, God means evil for good in that the evil will still accomplish God’s purpose in getting Joseph to Egypt, which will ultimately result in the “good” of Joseph saving his family and the Egyptians from starvation.  There is no reason to believe that Joseph did not mean that God had the end result in mind in saying that God meant their evil actions for good (the good of how God would use Joseph in Egypt), even while they were doing them.

Biblical scholar Brian Abasciano gives a helpful illustration as to how God might intend for something other than what Joseph’s brother’s intended by their actions without in anyway needing to cause those specific actions or even approve of the motive behind them,

Normally, when one person does an action and means something for it and another person who does not do the action also means something for the action, there is no suggestion that the person who did not do the action somehow really did do it or irresistibly caused the other person to do it. If my son chooses to sign up for baseball, and means to have fun by it, and I mean for him to learn discipline by it, it does not mean that I made him sign up or that I irresistibly caused him to sign up or somehow irresistibly caused him to desire to sign up. He means it in the way appropriate for the person actually doing the action, and I mean it in a way appropriate to someone who has authority over the situation and power to stop the action. Any number of examples could be thought of for this, including ones with an evil purpose in the perpetrator of the action vs. a good one in someone who has power to stop or allow the action. (quoted from a  discussion thread)

Piper is placing a burden on the language of the passage that the language alone cannot be made to bear.  Strangely, Piper seems to plainly undercut his point here at the end of his sermon when he tries to prove that God ordaining sin does not make Him the author of sin.  He quotes Edwards approvingly,

God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet . . . it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all consequences. . . . God doesn’t will sin as sin or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that he permitting, sin will come to pass; for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. (emphasis mine)

Later he writes,

“It is evident from what has been said that it is not because he delights in evil as evil. Rather he ‘wills that evil come to pass . . . that good may come of it.’” (emphasis mine)

Here, Piper, following Edwards, seems to be plainly focusing on the end result of evil being good, rather than viewing the actual evil acts as being “good” as they are being done (and notice the subtle language of permission here; more on that later).  If that is the case, all of Piper’s comments about specific language use (i.e., the word “it” referring back to their evil actions) fall to the ground (and it should be pointed out again that the view I am advocating is the traditional Arminian view which affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge in contrast to the “openness” view which denies God’s foreknowledge; the latter being the view that Piper is most directly attacking).  But it may be that Piper is saying that the word “evil” in the passage has reference to their intentions and that God willed or “meant” their evil intentions for “good”.  This can hardly be determined from the language.

It may be that both their intentions and their actions are meant by the word “evil”, with the focus from God’s perspective being on His meaning for their actions, resulting from their intentions, to bring about the good result of getting Joseph to Egypt.  But even if we say it has reference only to the specific evil intentions of Joseph’s brothers, it still does not create any problems for the Arminian view as shown above.  God can mean for their evil intentions to bring about the good that God intends (getting Joseph to Egypt and saving many from famine and ultimately reconciling Joseph to his family, etc.) without in any way causing those actions or decreeing them from all eternity.  Piper’s focus on the language meaning that God’s intention for their evil as being for good “while they were doing it” simply cannot demonstrate that God had some part in their evil actions while they were doing it.”

[Link to the original post and comments on Ben Henshaw’s website]