My Response to John Piper’s Comments about Arminians
Recently one of my faithful readers who also often comments here posted a link to a recent episode of “Ask Pastor John”—John Piper’s podcast series in which he answers questions. (All you have to do to find this series is “google” the title “Ask Pastor John” or go directly to Piper’s Desiring God Ministries.) In this episode of the series someone asked Piper which Arminians have influenced him the most. Here I wish to respond to a few comments Piper made in his response.
First, Piper denied that any Arminians had actually influenced him and that because of their (our) disappointing exegesis. He gave no specific examples. I wonder how many Arminian or just non-Calvinist theologians and biblical scholars he has even read. He mentions none. (Later in his answer he does mention John and Charles Wesley, G. K. Chesterton, George McDonald and C. S. Lewis—but I’ll come back to that later. My point is that he mentions no Arminian theologians or biblical scholars in whose exegesis he is disappointed. And I still wonder what real Arminian theologians and biblical scholars he has read.)
This seems to me like the proverbial pot (Calvinist) calling the kettle (Arminian) black. Here is what recently deceased evangelical theologian, seminary president and statesman Vernon Grounds wrote about Calvinist exegesis: “It takes an exegetical ingenuity which is something other than a learned virtuosity to evacuate these texts [viz., John 1:29, John 3:16, Romans 5:17-21, Romans 11:32, 1 Timothy 2:6, Hebrews 2:9, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 2:2] of their obvious meaning: it takes an exegetical ingenuity verging on sophistry to deny their explicit universality.” (Grace Unlimited [Bethany House Publishers, 1975], p. 27) (Vernon Grounds served as president of Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary [now Denver Seminary] for many years.)
Piper is free to have and express his opinion about Arminians and exegesis, but it would be helpful if he would at least reveal which Arminian Bible scholars he has read and found wanting and why. Instead his response was merely dismissive and ought not to be taken very seriously—unless one takes whatever Piper says seriously just because Piper says it.
In my opinion Piper’s own method of biblical exegesis, called “arcing,” leaves much to be desired. (Again, to find out what it is simply “google” “Piper” and “arcing.”) Again—in my opinion—it presupposes a kind of combined naïve common sense realism and propositionalism that reduces the Bible to a not-yet-systematized system of propositions. Underlying it is, in my opinion, a view of the Bible and theology akin to, if not identical with, Charles Hodge’s view (expressed in volume 1 of his 1872 Systematic Theology): that the Bible is to theology what nature is to science—raw data to be mined out and interpreted inductively. The problem with this is, of course, that neither theology nor science is purely inductive. And theology is as much an art as a science. Also, much of the Bible’s content is not propositional.
There is no such thing as presuppositionless exegesis. Even Charles Hodge, one of the leading Calvinist theologians of Protestant history, noted that every biblical exegete must approach the Bible with certain presuppositions that are common sense truths. One of them is, according to Hodge, that God cannot do wrong. So, if one finds a passage of Scripture that seems to teach that God did what can only be included under the category “wrong,” then it cannot mean what it seems to say. Of course, this begs the question what “wrong” includes. However, if a person accepts Hodge’s pre-exegesis principle (which surely they must!), then he or she already has some notion of what Scripture passages can and cannot mean. Therefore, no exegesis is purely inductive, presuppositionless.
Why did Hodge say that one must approach Scripture and theology with the presupposition that God cannot do wrong? The answer should be obvious: Because if the Bible reader believes God can do wrong there is no reason to trust Scripture; God might be lying. Arminian exegetes approach Scripture with the very Hodgeian presupposition that God cannot be the author of sin and evil or else God would do wrong. This is why John Wesley famously said that whatever Romans 9 means it “cannot mean that”—with “that” referring to the typical Calvinist interpretation of double predestination. (Of course I would argue with other Arminian exegetes and theologians that Romans 9 must be interpreted in its context which offers a better interpretation than the typical Calvinist one.)
Piper’s “arcing” approach to biblical exegesis seems to me to assume a presuppositionless, purely inductive interpretation. I doubt that is possible or desirable. And if it leads one to claim that God “designs, ordains, and governs” evil and hell (including who will go there and rendering certain that they do), then it makes God monstrous which means nothing God says can be trusted. Why bother with biblical exegesis at all if God can do wrong? Of course, a neo-fundamentalist will simply say “I go wherever objective biblical exegesis takes me”—meaning “I will believe whatever my objective, inductive biblical exegesis reveals about God.” But, given the Scriptures cited by Grounds (above), that is simply not the case. Also, it can lead one to end up with a monstrous God unworthy of worship—namely one who actually wants some people to spend eternity in hell for his glory. But that conclusion turns back on its own method of arriving there because if that is God, then he is not trustworthy and there is no reason to think the Bible is true.
The common, contemporary Arminian approach to biblical exegesis is explicitly not purely inductive or presuppositionless. (But in this it only admits what is true of every biblical exegesis.) Contemporary Arminians typically interpret the Bible Christologically, with Jesus Christ as the “touchstone” of biblical interpretation—because he is God incarnate and therefore above even the Bible as the supreme revelation of God. Whatever in Scripture seems to conflict with God revealed in Jesus must be interpreted in light of God revealed in Jesus.
I believe that John Piper’s exegesis of the Bible is not purely inductive or presuppositionless either. I believe it is guided, if not determined, by a certain vision of God as absolute power. When Piper talks about God’s “glory” I can only hear “power.” But power without goodness, benevolence, mercy is unworthy of worship. Of course, Piper will claim that his vision of God includes all those attributes, but I have trouble seeing them there.
One event in the life of Jesus stands out to me as emblematic of God’s attitude toward unbelief, wickedness and evil: Jesus crying over Jerusalem and saying (paraphrased) “How I would have gathered you to me but you would not!” The same is revealed about God in Hosea and throughout Scripture. If people’s rejection of God is somehow rooted in the will of God such that God “designed, ordained and governs it,” and such that it glorifies God, then for God to grieve over it makes God more than “complex” (in his emotional life); it makes him unstable and unworthy of trust.
Finally, in his response to the question, Piper mentions C. S. Lewis as someone who greatly influenced him, but he says he is not sure Lewis could be counted as Arminian—based on a talk given at a conference by another Calvinist scholar-theologian. I can assure Piper that he can count Lewis among the Arminians even if Lewis never called himself Arminian. I have read virtually everything Lewis wrote—especially on Christian theology and apologetics—and can say with confidence that Lewis’ basic theological orientation was more consistent with Arminianism than with Calvinism. I co-taught a course on Lewis’ worldview at Rice University when I was a Ph.D. student there. In the process (during the summer leading up to the fall course) I read everything I could get my hands on by Lewis and by Lewis scholars—including some who knew him personally. Later, while serving as general editor of Christian Scholar’s Review, I edited a theme issue on Lewis. In that process I read numerous manuscripts by Lewis scholars. The claim that Lewis’ theology is closer to Calvinism than Arminianism strikes me as absurd. There are times and situations when one cannot take a claim seriously simply because one knows the material being talked about so well. I will claim that about my acquaintance with Lewis and his theology. Of course, anyone who doubts me must read Lewis’ books and essays for himself or herself. I urge them to start with The Great Divorce. How that can be reconciled with Calvinism is simply beyond my ability to understand. In my opinion, such a claim borders on sophistry (to paraphrase Grounds above).