John Piper vs. Don Thorsen

John Piper vs. Don Thorsen October 23, 2013

This recent post at John Piper’s site (by Jonathan Parnell, but repeating what I’ve heard from Piper for years) is why we need books like Don Thorsen’s fair-minded and accurate sketch of what both Wesley and Calvin believe (Calvin vs. Wesley).  Those who will but read Roger Olson’s erudite and source-quoting Arminian Theology will be well-informed of what Arminians believe. I have highlighted in bold the caricature-like descriptions.

Either Jesus died to save his church or he didn’t. There isn’t a third option.

Either he gave himself up for his bride, as Ephesians 5:25 tells us, or he died to create the possibility of her salvation that depends upon the skills of human decision-making.

Are we dead in our sins, as Ephesians 2:1–3 says, or are we slightly impaired? Are we “far from the peaceful shore” or are we gone, sunken to the bottom of the ocean with no chance of resuscitation? Does God toss us a floatation device, or does he raise us from the dead?

Was the cross of Christ a triumph over sin and evil, as Colossians 2:14–15 says, or was it just a nice first-move? Is Jesus victorious for the sake of his church, or did he spot us a few points? Did he suffer at Golgotha to demonstrate God’s grace to sinners, or was it a presentation of sorta-kinda-maybe hope for those smart enough to understand?

Did Jesus drain the dregs of God’s wrath meant for his people, or did he merely mute original sin and leave the destiny of our eternal souls in our own hands?

How we answer these questions has everything to do with what we think about our sin and the glory of Jesus, and therefore, it gets at the heart of the gospel.

Standing where Piper stands, one can see why he’d repudiate Wesleyan thinking and speak like this. In return, some Wesleyans will say Calvin’s God is a Sadomasochist Tyrant. How far do we get when we speak to and of one another like this?

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  • Luke Breuer

    Scot, I can’t help but channel you in A Long Faithfulness: if God’s grace is so secure, why are there so many warning passages in Hebrews? It’s almost as if we are no longer children, in need of a guardian (Gal 3:24-25), and as adults, we can throw it all away. It’s kind of like God treats us as libertarian free-willed agents, whom God pleads with, just like he pleaded with Israel throughout the OT. I get the Calvinist response that those warning passages may just be the tools God uses to keep those who are truly elect in the fold, but that seems like using scare tactics, which doesn’t seem very glorious to me.

    Black-and-white thinking is often letter of the law thinking, and the letter of the law brings death. I’m often ashamed to use black-and-white thinking with children, let alone adults. It’s not like I don’t believe things strongly—I believe Mt 5:23-24 is one of the least-obeyed scriptures and most important ones, for example. But if this black-and-white stuff were so useful, wisdom would be obsolete. It isn’t.

  • Mark Day

    Thanks Scot. Frustrating for me, when in conversations with dear friends who are big fans of Piper, is that they will consider the sections you have highlighted in bold as examples of Piper merely presenting the unabashed and unadorned truth. To disagree with him (and them) only confirms that they are the bold (please enjoy this pun free of charge) defenders of pure biblical truth, and that dissenters are examples of whatever epithet they feel might fit.

  • gingoro

    As a Calvinist in the CRC I never hear about Driscoll, Piper, Sproul etc except on various blogs like Jesus Creed or Roger Olson’s, in fact there seems a marked lack of interest from the pulpit and in discussions. Besides the church fathers, Luther and Calvin I hear occasional references, from the pulpit, to Plantinga, Dooyeweerd, Wolterstorff, Kyuper, Lewis,Keller and Blackwell but by far the most frequently referenced is N T Wright. The YRR group do not speak for all Calvinists.

  • scotmcknight

    So true… and a Reformed student of mine on Monday said the same thing. Why are these guys, he asked, what everyone thinks is Calvinism or Reformed? The only way for this to change is for the Reformed to set the record straight — over and over — and Ken Stewart is about the only one who has really taken this task to the table.

  • Scott Eaton

    Forgive my ignorance, but who is Ken Stewart?

  • scotmcknight

    I blogged through his book here.

  • Phil Miller

    I’d say these are worse than caricatures… They’re flat out straw men.

    I find it kind of ironic that Piper (I know, like Scot said, this isn’t Piper, but it his blog)encourages young people to enter the mission field so enthusiastically, but he’s so insistent that those being evangelized are not really capable of making a decision. If I were a Calvinist who believed all these things, why would I ever want to risk my life and livelihood as a missionary?

  • sam bullington

    Ironic that you would cry, “straw men” and then throw out the oldest and soggiest of Calvinist straw men, “If you believe in Calvinism, how can you possibly believe in missions?” Please. Even John Piper’s fanboys can set that one on fire.

  • Arrogance and ignorance often go hand-in-hand. This is frustrating and sad, though not at all unexpected. 🙁

  • Phil Miller

    Well, it would only be a straw man if I were arguing that Calvinists don’t believe in missions. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that it seems to be one (of many) point where they aren’t following their beliefs to their logical conclusions.

    If you’re adamant that those hearing the Gospel don’t have the ability to choose to reject it or not, than you’re desire to evangelize people, though well-intentioned and good, really is unnecessary. It’s really my problem with most neo-Reformed theology. It isn’t that I doubt any of their zeal or intentions. It just seems to be a whole enterprise built on these sorts of inconsistencies.

  • Paul

    I’m not sure what to make of the apparent reference to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia (e.g., Aslan, etc.) at the top of Parnell’s page. I’m not an expert on Lewis (and its been a while since I read a lot of his stuff deeply), but he strikes me as pretty clearly being for synergism–both in books such as a Problem of Pain and a few examples in Narnia. A bit tongue in cheek, but is there a school of monergist interpretations of Lewis/Narnia/Aslan I’m not aware of or did Parnell just co-opt a literary image to underscore attempted critiques of views Lewis/Aslan would have agreed with?

  • Andrew Bossardet

    As a member of the Reformed Church in America, I am befuddled by the prominence of Piper and Driscoll as the spokesmen of Calvinism in theological exchange. My guess is that the power of publishing and marketing gives them popular prominence which the smaller denominations (RCA and CRC alike) just can’t provide.

  • Andrew Bossardet

    Interestingly, in historic Reformed theology, the theological standard defending predestination (the Canons of Dort) includes some of the strongest language encouraging mission activity. But historic Reformed theology does not find election as its main foundation.

  • Phil Miller

    Lewis was a pretty staunch defender of free will. One of the most famous passages from The Great Divorce posits,

    “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘THY will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened.”(The Great Divorce, Chap. 9, pp 72-73)

  • Rick

    Does it have anything to do with their abilities as speakers?

  • Andrew Bossardet

    It could, but they are not that unique in speaking ability. Certainly there are other Reformed theologians and pastors who are exceptional speakers. They just don’t have huge churches and marketing budgets. This isn’t to insult Piper and Driscoll, just saying what is true about their work.

  • At the more popular level, yes, but as you know Muller et al., have done great historical work for some years now showing the breadth of the Reformed churches in the 16th-early 17th centuries (which is I assume what Stewart is also basing his work on).

    Having been a part of this world professionally in the past, I can tell you that much of that good historical-theological work is largely ignored, if not treated with a hint of suspicion. Which is why the Reformed churches need the Ken Stewarts to tell the tale, to set the record straight.

  • Rick

    One reason, perhaps the main reason, they have huge churches and budgets is because they are very exceptional speakers, and very effective leaders. With those abilities, those individuals are then promoted and marketed in various networks that have similar people and visions.
    I am not saying it is right, but that is what our culture is attracted to, thus giving those speakers a stronger voice.

  • Either this set of rhetorical questions is an uncharitable use of hyperbole or the author just fails to understand what Arminian Theology actually is. There isn’t a third option.

    Either Jonathan Parnell is being unkind in deliberately misrepresenting the views of those who disagree with him, or he lacks the proper training or ability to understand those views. Was Mr. Parnell actually trying to persuade anyone with this set of questions or merely cheer-leading for Calvinists for an online pep rally? Does he want to interact with actual Arminian beliefs and people or just insult huge sections of the Body of Christ to impress a few in the Calvinist corner?

    How we answer these questions has everything to do with what we think
    about Parnell’s sin and the extent of his intellect, and therefore, it gets at the
    heart of nothing, much like the question(s) driving his post.

  • scotmcknight

    Social media plays a huge role; news coverage plays a big role; so does their networking and group-building strategies. We hear about one group and not another, and equate what we hear with what is out there.

  • danaames

    Scot, I think it also has to do with the marriage of TULIP theology with American revivalist concerns, mainly (but not exclusively) with “going to Heaven when you die (Piper, Driscoll).” The “classical” Reformed view seems to not be so married. What do you think?


  • Excuse my ignorance, who is Ken Stewart? Someone I should read?

    Regarding Piper, if you don’t like him, don’t listen to him. You only circulate his opinions further by listening and talking about him.

    One obvious mistake of his from the quotes;
    “Are we dead in our sins, as Ephesians 2:1–3 says or…?”
    The text is generally rendered “You were dead” (Eph 2.1) and then it later says “God … made us alive” (Eph 2.6). Glad I’m not in a church that teaches its congregation that it is still dead in its sins and neglects to says its alive in Christ.

    Interestingly Calvin makes a similar mistake in institutes 2.1.6 saying ‘all are “by nature the children of wrath”‘. Under-realised eschatology anyone?

  • Bill Donahue

    Unfortunately my experience and personal interaction with 5 very prominent folks in the Calvinist camp, this is all too normal and definitely intentional not naive. Some would say even malicious. Just read almost any issue of Modern Reformation (which is neither modern nor reforming) or the regular blogs by Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals leaders (and similar coalitions and associations) and you get plenty of this. I am sad for my Reformed bothers who gag at this nonsense but have no platform to engage a substantive reply. Some are just too busy leading people to Christ and making disciples to bother with those whose consistent aim seems to be to demean and destroy all not-us viewpoints.

    I have zero tolerance for their antics. I have been personally misquoted and maligned to sell magazines by a few of these popular guys, and so has our church without supporting facts or real data. But NONE of them cared to visit, meet with us, or our leaders, discuss their concerns, etc. (even at our expense!). They really do not care.

    Question: Why is it I do not see this level of anger, condescension, and snide comments from MAJOR players in non-Calvinist circles (perhaps despite my global travels I do just do not intersect with them). Yes, I hear frustration, and I hear some shots fired and comments, but rarely the relentless negative tone, intensity, petty self-righteousness and bashing that I hear from these 5 and some like them. How does Keller respond to it? How does he stand it? Would love to ask him.

  • Not that I wasn’t making a point, but I was intentionally, if badly, using some satire by using the same structure as the author’s original post, but with the author as the subject. My hope was to point out how inappropriate the entire post was, in content and form.

  • wolfeevolution

    I’m no Calvinist, but how is it inconsistent to say that certain individuals in an unreached people group are predestined for salvation and that Joe Reformed Missionary is predestined to be the one to preach the gospel to them? This seems perfectly consistent to me, regardless of whether I agree with it or not.

  • Phil Miller

    Once we start saying that a person is predestined to salvation or certain events are predestined, it seems to me that the natural question is whether or not we actually have a choice in the matter. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t say God predetermined something was going to happen and I truly had a free choice in the matter. In your example with the missionary, could Joe have chosen not to go to the mission field? John Piper spends a lot of time urging young people to go into missions, so he must believe on some level they have the ability to make this choice. But if those that they are evangelizing to are really and truly predestined, than he’s asking people to make a choice that’s already been made… That’s why it’s inconsistent.

    And this is really the conundrum that you get into when you start going down the road of hard (or even soft) determinism, imo. People may say that they believe everything is predestined, but no one lives like it.

  • Joey Elliott

    In this situation, of course we can have our cake and eat it too. Of course we can! Of course we can say that God predestined someone to be saved and also that they completely made the free choice. Of course we can! The Bible does!

    This conversation drives me crazy. I apologize I butted in late with out of context remarks. But to let our “logic” force us to deny these coexisting truths is an enormous tragedy.

    Scot, have you and John Piper ever interacted publicly? I think that would be very helpful. I think you misunderstand him a lot of the time, even though of course I know you disagree with him. And I have to think he initially misunderstands you, and would benefit from the dialogue. I know I would benefit from the dialogue.

  • Phil Miller

    There’s a difference between a contradiction and a paradox. The concept of the Trinity, for example, is a paradox. God is three person, but one beings. These are both truths that are in tension, but they aren’t contradiction. Saying that I freely chose something that God predestined would happen is a contradiction. God can’t make a square circle. This is limiting God’s power. It’s just saying that if we throw logic out the window, what we’re left with is incoherence.

    Traditionally, the way a lot of Christians have dealt with this is to resort to something like “middle knowledge” – God knew what we would choose even if He didn’t predetermine it. Even that, though, has it’s problems.

  • Joey Elliott

    If you throw your logic out the window, you are absolutely not left with incoherence.


    “I do not see that the whole counsel of God is declared, unless those two apparently contradictory points are brought out and plainly taught… Espouse but one phase of the truth, and you shall be cried up to the very heavens. Become such a Calvinist that you shut your eyes to one half the Bible, and cannot see the responsibility of the sinner, and men will clap their hands, and cry Hallelujah! and on the backs of many you shall be hoisted to a throne, and become a very prince in their Israel. On the other hand, begin to preach mere morality, practice without doctrine, and you shall be elevated on other men’s shoulders; you shall, if I may use such a figure, ride upon these asses into Jerusalem; and you shall hear them cry, Hosanna! and see them wave their palm branches before you.

    “But once preach the whole counsel of God, and you shall have both parties down upon you; one crying, ‘The man is too high,’ the other saying, ‘No, he is too low;’ the one will say, ‘He’s a rank Arminian,’ the other, ‘He’s a vile hyper- Calvinist.’ Now, a man does not like to stand between two fires. There is an inclination to please one or other of the two parties, and so, if not to increase one’s adherents, at least to get a more ferociously attached people… Therefore, it was no mean testimony that the apostle asked for himself, that he had not shunned to declare the whole counsel of God.

    “But, then, let me remark further, while there is this temptation not to declare all the counsel of God, the true minister of Christ feels impelled to preach the whole truth, because it and it alone can meet the wants of man. What evils has this world seen through a distorted, mangled, man-moulded gospel. What mischiefs have been done to the souls of men by men who have preached only one part and not all the counsel of God. My heart bleeds for many a family where Antinomian doctrine has gained the sway. I could tell many a sad story of families dead in sin, whose consciences are seared as with a hot iron, by the fatal preaching to which they listen. I have known convictions stifled and desires quenched by the soul-destroying system which takes manhood from man and makes him no more responsible than an ox. I cannot imagine a more ready instrument in the hands of Satan for the ruin of souls than a minister who tells sinners that it is not their duty to repent of their sins or to believe in Christ, and who has the arrogance to call himself a gospel minister, while he teaches that God hates some men infinitely and unchangeably for no reason whatever but simply because he chooses to do so. O my brethren! may the Lord save you from the voice of the charmer, and keep you ever deaf to the voice of error.”

  • Of course Jesus died to save his church, and gave himself up for his bride. Certainly the cross of Christ was and is a triumph over sin and evil, and we by nature are absolutely dead in our sins and in need of rescue. On all these points Christians (and certainly Arminians) would agree. They are all essential parts of the gospel.

    But, none of that requires one to be a Calvinist. Our awesome God graciously made a way for any and all (vs. just some/the elect) to come to Him through the victorious cross and resurrection. All are welcome and invited to become part of His church and His bride. And, yes in love God offers even more grace so that we are enabled to understand our need for the cross and to respond in faith. May He get the glory for so great a salvation offered so freely!