Why does John Piper misrepresent evangelical Arminianism?

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 misrepresents evangelical Arminianism and fails to interact with its foremost spokesperson sufficiently enough.

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 so far. 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 [Arminianism’s] 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 celebrity pastors 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. [1] I could also question whether Calvinists really get their theology inductively from scripture or whether they, too, bring philosophical presuppositions to the text of Scripture. And I could also question whether Calvinists are really focussing on the distinctive aspects of Calvinist theology when they are worshiping God (I’m no authority on Christian worship lyrics but 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 including my current act of worship?). 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 complaint with this interview: Piper 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’:

“I have no interest in man-centered theology; I am intensely interested in worshiping a God who is truly good and above reproach for the Holocaust and all other evils too numerous to mention. Too many Calvinist authors misrepresent non-Calvinist theologies as if they are all man-centered, humanistic, less-than-God-honouring, and even unbiblical without ever acknowledging the problems in their own theology.” (p.24)

“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)

ol

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 was the “decisive factor” in their being saved.

In the analogy 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 very important factor in that sense. One can even say it is a crucial or decisive factor in terms of whether they are saved or not as well. [2] 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 (either directly or 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.

Notice what Piper says in this interview @2:13f.

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.”

The “center” to the solution is “a choice”? A human choice (albeit a compatibilist ‘choice’). It therefore seems somewhat hypocritical that Piper would criticize Arminians for having man’s choice as a decisive aspect of salvation when Piper himself does the very same thing but just in a compatibilist sense rather than an incompatibilist one.

The other interpretation of this accusation both Calvinists and Arminians would disagree with. This would be the claim that “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 (Pelagianism). That kind of “man-centered” soteriology is clearly rejected by Arminians and numerous Calvinist scholars have also demonstrated that Arminianism is not Pelagian or semi-Pelagian.

So one is left wondering what point there is in claiming Arminianism is “man-centered” unless the phrase is only being used as a rhetorical device. I would suggest this is the way many people will read Piper but this distorts what classic Arminianism affirms about the depravity of fallen humanity.

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?

In reference to Arminian theology Piper also claimed that:

“…this essential distinguishing core is not the kind of truth that blows people away with wonder and amazement and worship.”

Now I could question whether the doctrine of double predestination causes such a reaction or whether the doctrine of divine determinism causes such a reaction when we consider serious cases of moral evil or whether technical distinctions between ‘decretive’ and ‘preceptive’ wills in God lead to such reactions but instead I will only reply with the words of Arminian songwriter who Piper himself much adores:

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

 ‘And Can It Be’ – Charles Wesley

I confess I am inspired to worship despite Piper’s protestations.

—————————

[1] Mark Driscoll is a very good example of this.

[2] For more on bad Calvinist arguments from analogy see A Story of Four Lifeguards.

 

After writing this I have found some other responses well worth reading so I will link them here:

William Birch

Andrew Dragos

For an even worse misrepresentation of Arminian theology take a look at this piece of Calvinist propaganda especially from 54 minutes onwards where the writers used a summary from J.I. Packer which misrepresents Arminian theology horribly:

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About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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3 Responses to Why does John Piper misrepresent evangelical Arminianism?

  1. labreuer says:

    I wonder how Piper’s precise interpretation of imago dei interacts with all of this. I also wonder how he deals with “you are gods” in Jn 10:34 and Ps 82:6. Or how about “we are God’s fellow workers” in 1 Cor 3:9? I was recently in engaged in a discussion where the other person thought that the amount of awe you have is dependent on how much bigger the thing is than you, which you are looking at. I wonder if there is some taste of this in Piper’s thinking, that leads him to think that God being in control of our every flinch is somehow better.

    Allow me to rant for a bit more. Jesus famously overturned traditional authority structures with Mt 20:20-28, and Paul defined agape love this way in 1 Cor 13:5 “It does not insist on its own way.” Love can certainly want a way—Ezek 18:32 and 1 Tim 2:3-4 come to mind—but this is different from forcing that way down everyone’s throats, whether by marionette string or something more gossamer. And yet Piper pushes a God we do not see in Jesus; can you see Piper’s portrayal of God as one who weeps as Jesus did in Mt 23:37-39? And yet we are told that Jesus is the “express image of God” in Hebrews 1.

    I understand how every individual passage can be twisted and fit into a Piper-like theology. I’ve done it myself in my past in various ways. Some of the twists quickly seem small. But what is the overall effect, the overall tension, when one looks at many verses like this at once? The marionette strings seem to just snap, or vanish, because our God is not a God of dominance. That’s Baal. He was a god of lusty power. Our God asks the rich young rulers to follow him, loves them, and lets them walk away if they so choose. Somehow though, this is all man-centered. I know enough about definition-munging that I could probably make that phrase descriptive. But it would just be more twisting.

  2. I am Catholic. I married a Lutheran and learned about certain forms of Protestantism. At first so much of this discussion was very foreign to me and strange to me. It still seems strange even though it is no longer foreign. But the analogies you mention seems to line up with scripture quite well. Its not that we “earned” heaven by our conduct but that doesn’t mean our conduct doesn’t play a role in whether we go to heaven.

    “I was recently in engaged in a discussion where the other person thought that the amount of awe you have is dependent on how much bigger the thing is than you, which you are looking at. I wonder if there is some taste of this in Piper’s thinking, that leads him to think that God being in control of our every flinch is somehow better.”

    This reminds me of children arguing about whose dad is better. To say we are accountable for our actions somehow makes God worse seems very strange.

    The protestant theology that denies free will seems irrational on its face. Is it rational to concern yourself with things outside of your control?

    If its “all God” then is God judging us, or himself?

    I often wonder things like this.

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