John Piper Does It Again: My Response to “The Self-centeredness of Arminianism”
For those of you who are new to this blog or have missed reading my earlier messages here about John Piper and his many anti-Arminian messages (both in writing and in talks), let me catch you up briefly. (If you are already aware of this history or have no interest in it, please skip down to paragraph 9 below.) I have known John Piper “from a distance” for a very long time. I first met him personally in the early 1980s when he was teaching at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was there to visit a faculty friend with an “eye” toward joining that faculty at some point in the future. My friend was a professor of theology in the college (not the seminary) and was my former professor—as a “visiting professor”—at North American Baptist Seminary (now Sioux Falls Seminary) in South Dakota. My Bethel faculty friend, who was also hoping I could eventually join the Bethel faculty, showed me around the campus and introduced me to several professors including John Piper. I had read Piper’s article about “Christian Hedonism” in HIS magazine and so was glad to meet him even though I had certain qualms about that concept. At that time Piper was little known outside Bethel College and Seminary.
My Bethel professor friend, however, knew a lot about Piper and his spiritual-theological journey and spoke highly of him then. He had been chair of the Biblical and Theological Studies Department (BTS Dept.) and had been instrumental in Piper’s coming to teach at Bethel. In 1984 my dream of teaching theology at Bethel came true; I was called and hired after a rigorous interviewing process that including much talk about “biblical inerrancy.” Bethel then considered itself a centrist evangelical institution. Millard Erickson was a professor of theology at the seminary. The college and seminary were one institution under one president at one board of regents or trustees and controlled by the Baptist General Conference—a non-fundamentalist, non-cessationist broadly evangelical denomination that I knew very well. During my many interviews I expressed concern about the BGC’s and Bethel’s Statement of Faith because it included language about the Bible being without error in the original autographs. I did not consider myself an “inerrantist” and asked everyone involved in the hiring process what “without error” means in the Statement of Faith I was being asked to sign. My Bethel theology professor friend showed me a two page, single-spaced explanation of “inerrancy” written by John Piper specifically for Bethel when he was interviewing there several years earlier. It basically said that “biblical inerrancy” means “perfection with respect to purpose.” With that I could whole heartedly agree. So, with that understanding, I was brought onto the Bethel faculty and taught theology there (mostly in the college, occasionally in the seminary) for fifteen mostly wonderful years.
During those fifteen years from 1984 to 1999 John Piper pastored nearby Bethlehem Baptist Church. I don’t recall exactly when he resigned from the Bethel faculty, but it was before I arrived in 1984. He built that BGC related church up; many Bethel students flocked to hear him preach there. They often came back telling me that Piper was preaching a version of Calvinism inspired by Jonathan Edwards, his theological hero. Throughout those fifteen years many mostly male students began to look to Piper not only as their pastor (many of them never joined his church but only attended it) but as a kind of Christian mentor—even if they never met him personally. A habit developed among the Bethel faculty of calling those students “Piper Cubs.”
I was not particularly concerned because one reason I joined the Bethel community and then the BGC was that they both embraced Calvinists and Arminians equally. During my interviewing process I did nothing to hide my Arminianism and freely told everyone that I considered myself Arminian. That was fine, I was told, because the BGC and Bethel had always allowed both. The Statement of Faith did not require or exclude either one.
The first red flag appeared the day a devoted male Piper Cub came to my office after class and said “I’m sorry to say this, Dr. Olson, but you are not a Christian.” I kindly asked him why he would say that and he responded “Because you’re not a Calvinist.” I asked him where he ever got the idea that only Calvinists are Christians and he said “From my pastor, John Piper.” Years later, during a two hour heated conversation over lunch, the inquisition I have written about here before, Piper claimed he never said that non-Calvinists could not be Christians. I told him about the student and he laughed, saying that the student, whom he knew well, must have misunderstood him.
I left Bethel in 1999 partly because of John Piper. Bethel and the BGC were then in the midst of a very heated, very divisive controversy about open theism. My colleague Greg Boyd was actually tried for heresy on campus. He and his theology of open theism were exonerated and found by the jury, on which I sat, to be “within evangelical boundaries.” That only added fuel to the fire raging among BGC pastors and greater pressure came down on not only Greg but on me for defending him and his theology as not heretical.
It was clear to me then that John Piper was at the center of that controversy—at least within the BGC and Bethel. He told me to my face that he would not try to get me fired merely for being Arminian, as much as he did not like Arminianism, but that he would get me fired for defending open theism as an “evangelical option.”
After that meeting Piper and I exchanged many letters and e-mails. I read many of his books as they were published. I listened to many of his talks on tape and then watched many of his podcasts on the web. I believed I was noticing a harsher tone toward Arminianism. Students who heard him speak at Passion conferences and other places began to ask me about Piper and especially about his Calvinism. And, as they knew I am Arminian, many of them have asked me over the past seventeen years—since I left Bethel and the BGC partly to escape Piper’s influence—about what they perceive as Piper’s misrepresentations of Arminianism.
That was one reason I wrote Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press)—to correct misunderstandings and misrepresentations of true Arminianism. I made sure Piper received a copy. My main point in that book was that real Arminianism is not primarily about free will; it is primarily about the character of God. Using many quotations from Arminius himself and leading Arminian theologians since 1609 (when Arminius died) I demonstrated conclusively that true Arminianism is not obsessed with humanistic belief in free will; it is obsessed with God as revealed in Jesus Christ as loving and good and wanting all people to be saved. I have gone to great lengths there and here and in recorded talks later put up on the web to emphasize and prove that Arminianism is not what John Piper and other (mostly Calvinist) critics say it is. I have practically begged them to stop misrepresenting it as “human-centered love of free will and self-determination.”
If you watch and listen to this twelve minute clip of what must have been a longer talk, you will notice that nowhere in it (as I recall) does Piper actually say that Arminianism is “self-centered,” but someone at Desiring God Ministries (that put the clip on Youtube) interpreted it that way. I have no doubt Piper does as well. But I want to point out several things about Piper’s approach to the whole subject in this brief video clip. First of all, he ridicules Arminianism indirectly, but I’m sure the audience gets the point, by referring to himself before his own conversion to Calvinism. He was, he says, a “flaming free willer.” There can be no doubt that that is how he views Arminians—in spite of everything I have demonstrated from Arminian texts. As a lifelong Arminian I can confidently say that I have never been a “flaming free willer.” I have believed in and defended what I call “freed will” because I believe it is everywhere assumed in Scripture and without it the only alternative is divine determinism in which God monstrously (to me) “designed, ordains and governs” (Piper’s own words) every horror of human history including the fall and all its consequences including the Holocaust and hell.
In this talk Piper focuses primarily on his claim that Arminianism starts with philosophy and then rejects portions of the Bible that do not agree with a preconceived philosophy of free will. He also emphasizes that Arminians, not Calvinists, are uncomfortable with mystery and therefore cannot simply accept the paradoxes (my word for what he clearly meant) in the Bible. The message is clear: Calvinists believe whatever the Bible says and Arminians don’t. Arminians don’t, he suggests, because they place philosophy over the Bible as having greater authority.
The only evidence Piper offers for this in that talk is a second-hand account of an unnamed “evangelical philosopher” who allegedly teaches at an evangelical seminary. Someone e-mailed or texted Piper an account of a conversation with said unnamed Arminian philosopher. He reads that person’s account of his or her conversation from his cell phone. Basically, the person tells Piper that he or she heard the unnamed Arminian philosopher baldly say that the Bible is on Calvinism’s side but philosophy is on Arminianism’s side. I have to doubt that that is what the unnamed Arminian evangelical philosopher actually said. I suspect that the philosopher’s message lost a lot in the translation. I know that happens from hard experience of people misrepresenting things I said to others.
The implication of the anecdotal report is that Arminianism prefers philosophy to the Bible. Nowhere does Piper mention the many biblical passages Arminians have always relied on or how Calvinists twist and turn simple biblical passages such as John 3:16-17 to fit their systematic theology.
I believe Piper’s accusation can just as easily be turned around and used against his Calvinism: The starting point is not the Bible but a nominalistic/voluntaristic idea of God in which, in order to be God God must be all-determining.
However, while I think there is some truth in that regarding some Reformed theologians (clearly in the case of Zwingli, for example), I will not use that argument here. Here is what I will say—much to the chagrin of many Calvinists and Arminians alike: The Bible can be interpreted either way, both ways. I do not accuse Calvinists of “dishonoring the Bible” as I have heard many Calvinists say about Arminians. I can see how Calvinism (except “limited atonement”) can be derived from Scripture. I think it’s a mistaken interpretation; I think sound exegesis is on the Arminian side, but I do not say Calvinists place philosophy over the Bible or cannot be good exegetes. What I say is that if you are going to interpret the Bible that way—viz., as teaching double predestination, God as designing, ordaining and governing (rendering certain) all that happens including the fall and the Holocaust and hell itself including who will be there selected individually without free will “in the picture,”—you must swallow the “picture” of a monstrous God who gets glory out of the torturing of children and the eternal torment of people created in his own image and likeness predestined to that eternal torture without their free will decisions or choices.
I tell my students that when the Bible is not as clear as we wish it were, which is often the case (I’m not a fundamentalist), the way “forward” when you must move toward a doctrine about which the Bible is not perfectly clear you must look at all the options rooted in Scripture, good biblical exegesis, and choose the one that has the consequences you can live with. Then I tell them that there is nothing in the universe more important than that God is good in some meaningful way and not a moral monster completely unlike Jesus who wept over Jerusalem because he wanted them to embrace him but they would not.
I have heard all the objections to this approach, but they all come from a fundamentalist approach to the Bible deeply colored by a systematic theology launched first by Augustine, then promoted by the magisterial Reformers, then taught by Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge. No Christian before Augustine believed in unconditional individual election to hell or irresistible grace.
These Calvinist attacks on Arminianism are shameless and unworthy of Christian gentlemen and scholars. So much has been published in recent years about true Arminianism that anyone who continues to misrepresent it as Pelagian or semi-Pelagian or even “humanistic” or “man-centered” or “self-centered” or preferring philosophy to the Bible—is simply bearing false witness against his or her brothers and sisters in Christ. Or else he or she is ignorant. I don’t want to believe either about John Piper; I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But on what would that be based? He’s a scholar; he reads biblical and theological literature voraciously. He’s brilliant and articulate. I personally explained true Arminianism to him face-to-face. I sent him a copy of my book. So I do not believe he is ignorant. What’s left to think?