[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 13 is included in this post.]
Critique 13: DOES GOD’S HARDENING OF PHARAOH PROVE THAT GOD HAS DETERMINATIVELY WILLED ALL EVIL? DOES GOD RESPOND TO WHAT GOD DOESN’T LIKE ABOUT WHAT GOD DECIDED GOD SHOULD DECREE?
Piper then moves on to Calvinism’s favorite “sugar stick”— Pharaoh. He states,
“Another evidence to demonstrate God’s willing a state of affairs in one sense that he disapproves in another sense is the testimony of Scripture that God wills to harden some men’s hearts so that they become obstinate in sinful behavior which God disapproves. The most well known example is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart…what we see is that God commands that Pharaoh do a thing which God himself wills not to allow. The good thing that God commands he prevents. And the thing he brings about involves sin.
What can be said of this? The text certainly does state that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the Hebrews go. And there is no denying that God’s command to Pharaoh was, “Let my people go!” So is Piper right? Does this prove that God determinatively willed Pharaoh’s sin? And does that in turn serve as evidence that God sovereignly decreed every act of human and demonic evil since the dawn of time?
Fortunately, for the sake of God’s character, we can again declare– No.
Piper’s argument would only work under the mistaken assumption that the phrase “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” must mean God willed that Pharaoh commit sin that he otherwise would not have been inclined to desire or commit of his own will. That is to say his view requires the assumption Pharaoh would have desired to obey God’s command from his heart if only God had not interfered and hardened his heart. If this were true it would indeed serve as evidence that God strangely usurps his own moral will and coercively manipulates and causes men to commit evil they would otherwise not have been inclined to morally commit.
This is understandably alarming, for if God can act this way towards Pharaoh what is to stop him from acting in such a coercive manner towards any of us? Certainly not his moral character! For within Piper’s theology there are no safeguards to be found in God’s character. Rather Piper thinks God’s character and nature is morally perfect insofar as we understand morally perfect means God can will anything he wants– even if it means the vilest of evils.
As it specifically concerns Pharaoh and the key phrase “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, Piper’s view appears to rest upon the faulty assumption that Pharaoh’s own will was passively stuck in the gear of neutral until God shifted it into motion by hardening his heart. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be more analogous to say God helped Pharaoh remain unnerved as he recklessly careened towards self-destruction and a course of action that Pharaoh had already committed himself to.
The fact that Pharaoh hated the Hebrews and had already been brutally enslaving them under a regime that systemically committed genocide on Hebrew boys under the age of two tells us we are dealing with a tenacious will to follow through with evil that few possess—but Pharaoh did. Secondly as it concerns the first five plagues the scriptures do not say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Rather Pharaoh obstinately hardened his own heart. It is only from the sixth plague onwards that we are told that Pharaoh consequently came under a judicial hardening from God. Yet even here many misinterpret the phrase as meaning God changed Pharaoh’s heart from repentance to rebellion. Not in the least is that accurate. Rather God encouraged Pharaoh’s resolve. It is helpful to quote Kevin Jackson’s response at length,
“To better understand the “hardening” of Pharaoh , it is important to note that the Hebrew word chazaq (translated as “harden” in English) does not carry the same connotation in Hebrew that it does in English. Chazaq is usually translated as “encourage”, “strengthen”, “repair”, “fortify” and “assist”. In God’s Strategy in Human History, Forster and Marston…. provide a chart that documents occurrences of the word chazaq. It is a term that is frequently used in the Old Testament (They document 55 examples outside of Exodus). The only time chazaq is translated as “harden” is in reference to Pharaoh in Exodus. In all other occurrences, chazaq is translated as “strengthen”, “encourage”, “repair”, “fortify”, etc.
Here are a few examples:
- Joshua is encouraged (Deut 1:38).
- Jonathan helps David find strength in God (1 Samuel 23:16).
- The neighbors assisted Judah (Ezra 1:6).
- The Levites helped the priests complete a task (2 Chron 29:34).
In the passages above, chazaq describes assisting or encouraging someone with a course that they have decided on. It means helping someone to do what they already want to do.
The same is true of God in his dealings with Pharaoh. God did not change Pharaoh’s heart to make him want to kill the Hebrews. Pharaoh already wanted to kill them. What God did was give Pharaoh the courage to follow through with what he already desired to do. Pharaoh was an evil man, but he was also timid and fearful of the Hebrews and their God. God simply gave Pharaoh the tenacity to follow through with the desires of his evil heart.
Understood in this sense, we can see that God’s dealings with Pharaoh were above reproach. As a result, we can be confident that God’s dealings with us will also be good and trustworthy.” 
Now Piper attempts to anticipate this response and deflect it by arguing that even if Pharaoh’s wickedness caused him to harden his own heart during the first five plagues, and even if God’s hardening is best interpreted as God strengthening Pharaoh to follow through with the desires of his own heart,“this observation does not succeed in avoiding the evidence of two wills in God” [since there remains] “a sense in which God does will that Pharaoh go on refusing to let the people go, and there is a sense in which he does will that Pharaoh release the people. For he commands, “Let my people go.” This illustrates why theologians talk about the “will of command” (“Let my people go!”) and the “will of decree” (“God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”).
No doubt Piper is sincerely trying to make sense of scripture and the occasional complex intersection recorded between the divine and human will. But good intentions can be sincerely misguided. And here Piper reveals just how far he is willing to go to stretch out the skin of scripture over the drum of his theology to beat out whatever sound he deems necessary.
He tries to argue that even if God’s hardening of Pharaoh was in response to Pharaoh’s prior hardening of his own heart it wouldn’t change anything. Actually it changes everything! Yet Piper is unwilling to see this. Instead he demands that it would still serve as evidence God possesses two wills that desire and determine two vastly different, if not contradictory, outcomes (i.e. the will of command vs. the will of decree). This is a gross extrapolation of the facts given in the text and Piper ought to know better.
Time and again Piper completely hides the fact that his Two-Wills View rests upon the absurdly confusing premise that in eternity past God decreed what men will do and then what he subsequently wills to do in response to what men do— which remember is exactly what he decided men must do in the first place! Another way to put it would be God responds to what God doesn’t like about what God decided God should decree. The proverbial dog chasing its own tail would be an apt analogy. Piper’s view is logically and morally self-defeating.
Six short points summarize why Piper’s usage of Pharaoh to support his two-wills view is misguided from the start:
1) Piper completely fails to appreciate the fact that God’s hardening is always a consequential act of judicial judgment upon someone who has already committed themselves to open rebellion against God and resisted all previous overtures to repent and respond to truth. We have already seen how Romans 1 speaks of “people who suppress the truth in their unrighteousness,” and “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” and are consequently “delivered over to the cravings of their heart” (1:18-25).
2) As it concerns Pharaoh, Pharaoh hardened his heart to a point of complete forfeiture, but God, in virtue of being God, knew that Pharaoh’s pride and character would cause him to act in a manner resistant with the divine command to let his people go. In response God determined to confirm him in his willful disobedience and deliver him over to the desires of his own heart by strengthening his disposition further, such that he would not wilt under the pressure of the coming judgments that Egypt must experience.
3) Egypt had enslaved God’s people for over 400 years and the time for Egypt’s judgment had arrived. God’s plan is to exploit both Egypt and specifically Pharaoh (the most powerful ruler on the earth at that time) as a means to demonstrate and showcase a level of personal power and authority that the Israelites will need as a reference point during their exodus. He would do this in part by encouraging the heart of Pharaoh to stay committed to a course of action he knew Pharaoh had already set himself upon– i.e. not letting the Hebrews go under any circumstances.
4) We can confidently say God’s perfect or ideal will was that Pharaoh not perish as he did. But when men freely reject God’s will for their lives (Lk. 7:30), and spurn his offerings of light and truth (Rom. 1:18,19), they forfeit God’s perfect will and are consequently handed over to judgment that can come in many forms. Though God did not irresistibly and unconditionally decree Pharaoh’s wicked character that is not to say God can’t responsively use Pharaoh’s character in a way that convenes with his own aims. Given the rebellious state of Pharaoh character, God’s consequent or accommodating will is to exploit Pharaoh’s known character as a means to achieve his own sovereign purposes that will entail both judgment and a demonstration of divine power over earthly powers.
5) That Pharaoh’s heart became judicially hardened while he was still under the command “let my people go” is no evidence that God irresistibly and determinatively decreed Pharaoh’s wicked character before he was born. And make no mistake about, that is the underlying premise behind Piper “two wills” theology that he is trying to smuggle in to offset the moral ruin and wreckage of Calvinism’s grand metanarrative. For Piper, divine determination of every word and deed is the end game he must always be driving towards, and anything less would fall short of the cardinal virtue of Calvinistic sovereignty. So in a Piper worldview we are all little Pharaoh’s being causally determined to play out our part in God’s cosmic play scripted before time began. This is not loose rhetoric being thrown around. I would challenge any Calvinist who affirms exhaustive, divine determinism to provide one example of human decision that lies outside God’s prior act of unilateral, decretive decision.
6) In concluding our remarks on Pharaoh, let me add the point that in all God’s dealings with Pharaoh God never compromises or re-negotiates himself morally. Why? Because we can be assured that God dealings with all people are just and right. He is perfect goodness. That is his essential nature and therefore that must always be our starting place when it comes to biblical interpretation. We should never feel the need to trade in God’s unambiguous separation from evil in order to extol God’s displays of power and glory. Indeed his glory is his goodness (Exodus 33:19). Piper’s view cannot say the same for he holds that both good and moral evil ultimately stem from the same source– God’s all encompassing, decretive will.
In contrast it is no moral contradiction to state that it lies within God’s just prerogative to confirm people, like Pharaoh, in their own self-chosen disobedience when such disobedience convenes with God’s own purposes— such as judgment. Similarly just like Eli’s wicked sons, such people can reach a point where their obstinacy disqualifies them of a life and future that could have been theirs in accordance with God’s will. Sadly repeated refusals to repent can set people up to become vessels of dishonor that consequently forfeit a life that could have been different. In such a state they are judiciously judged to be used as little more than tools as God sees fit, just as the scriptures allude to in Romans 9:17 and forthrightly declare of Pharaoh in Exodus 9:15-16, “By now I could have stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with a plague, and you would have been obliterated from the earth. However, I have let you live for this purpose: to show you My power and to make My name known in all the earth.”
 Jackson, Kevin. See: http://wesleyanarminian.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/the-hardening-of-pharaohs-heart/