A Critique of John Piper’s Theodicy: Purposing Evil for the Purpose of Good? Part 1

John Piper is a man devoted to God with a genuine desire to extol God’s glory. That is not in dispute. What is in dispute is Piper’s claim that his theodicy extol’s God glory. The following critique will seek to demonstrate that Piper’s theodicy is fundamentally at odds with scripture.

The core feature of Piper’s theology is found in the following quote:

“Everything that exists–including evil–is ordained by an infinitely holy and all-wise God to make the glory of Christ shine more brightly.” [1]

Piper additionally sums up the matter as follows: “He wills that evil come to pass that good may come of it.” [2]

Here Piper is following his sincere, yet misguided mentor, Jonathan Edwards, who likewise argued that God “willed to order things so that evil should come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good.” [3]

Let us pause at this juncture and take note of a critical distinction. The Bible is replete with accounts of God overruling the intentions of evil and even using the unintended, un-decreed evils of this fallen world to bring about a good. In this sense God exploits evil and is glorified as one who is capable of redeeming the evils done against us.

None of this is being contested. But Piper and Edwards go far beyond this and argue for a theological hermeneutic that asserts God divinely determined and rendered certain every sordid evil and perverse, God-dishonoring sin so that good and glory come.

However this is exactly what we cannot say. Why? Because scripture manifestly forbids it! The scriptures reject as slander any notion of moral virtue that would suggest such a theodicy.

For instance Paul argues: “But if by my lie God’s truth is amplified to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? And why not say, just as some people slanderously claim we say, ‘Let us do what is evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!” (Romans 3:7-8).

As is patently obvious, Paul condemns as reprehensible slander any notion of a person being morally justified or godly if such a person were to determine that evil happen so that good can come–even if such good is God’s glory being amplified in a context of evil.

Yet Piper would have us believe that the ultimate reason evil exists is directly correspondent with a theodicy that anchors God’s moral perfection into a determinative sovereignty that rendered certain every murder, rape, sexual depravity and God-dishonoring sin so that the good of his glory can be amplified and “shine more brightly.”

In such a muddled, theological framework God’s moral nature becomes indistinguishable from evil itself.

If all of this weren’t enough Paul additionally argues in Romans 6:9 that we “should not sin so that grace may abound.” But Piper’s unflinching commitment to his preconceived assumptions disregards all of this and would have us believe God determinatively rendered certain each person’s sins so that his grace and glory would abound.

The underlying mistake Piper makes is assuming God purposes evil for the purpose of good. Oddly enough Piper seems curiously unaware that Jesus already denounced such absurd theology as a “kingdom divided against itself not standing.”

Sincere as they are, both Edwards and Piper are masters at obscuring true meaning with words. [4] But let us not be taken in with such oratory. It is both theologically and morally bankrupt.

[1] http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/is-god-less-glorious-because-he-ordained-that-evil-be
[2] http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/is-god-less-glorious-because-he-ordained-that-evil-be
[3] http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/is-god-less-glorious-because-he-ordained-that-evil-be
[4] In the sermon cited above Piper quotes Jonathan Edward’s answer to the question as to how God can be the ultimate cause and determiner of sin and yet not be its author.  Notice how Edwards relies on the Arminian language of “permission” to extricate himself from the dilemma:
“If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing… It would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.” But, he argues, willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his “positive agency.”
Piper than goes on to quote Edwards further saying, “God is, Edwards says, the “permitter… of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the states of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted… will most certainly and infallibly follow.” As is obvious Piper is being wholly inconsistent with the logic of his own position. In Calvinism all men sin necessarily in virtue of God irrevocably decreeing that they sin irresistibly. For in Calvinism it is impossible for men to choose against God’s decree. It is pointless to say God permits what he necessitates through an irresistible decree. Piper is intentionally obscuring the true horror of Calvinism by softening his language and borrowing Arminian terms to escape the logical implications of his own theology. Does God need to act as a middleman between his will determined and his will coming about? Does God need to get “permission” from himself to follow through with his own prior determinations? Such obvious doublespeak does not give Calvinists like Piper pause. He intentionally fudges to evade the logical implications placed upon his view. For Piper to say that God “permits” sin to come about through his infallible, determinative decree is to simply say God established a world whereby each sin happens of necessity–via God’s eternal decrees men are powerless to resist.  In the Edwards/Piper/Calvinist scheme, man is powerless to control his nature. They redefine “freedom of will” as acting in accordance with one’s strongest motive, which is quite meaningless to say given the fact they also believe God determined which motives will indeed be the “strongest” and irresistibly move our wills in a predestined direction.  All these implications are logically necessitated given their believe in an eternal, meticulously exhaustive decree of God.  Adam’s sin, mankind’s consequent fallen nature, and every subsequent thought, motive, desire, and act are necessitated by God’s eternal, divine decree. A person can no more resist or act contrary to the eternal divine decree than he or she could create a universe.  How then can we speak of God merely “permitting” these “necessitated” sinful acts?” See Ben Henshaw’s devastating critique of Piper’s sermon and reliance on Edwards ill-conceived theology at: http://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/john-piper-on-god-ordaining-all-sin-and-evil-part-1-an-arminian-response-to-pipers-first-question/  (June, 2012).
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About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I am unmarried yet blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an even more broken and apathetic church.
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16 Responses to A Critique of John Piper’s Theodicy: Purposing Evil for the Purpose of Good? Part 1

  1. goodbit says:

    Hi Graham,

    Thanks for wrestling with this and taking this topic seriously. What is your take then on a verse such as Genesis 50:20? How does your perspective play out on what the two “intentions” are there?

    • StriderMTB says:

      Hi Goodbit, not sure who Graham is–but if I find him I’ll tell him you said “hi.” 🙂 As for your question, the “it” referenced in the passage is essentially the brothers ridding their lives of Joseph—not their wicked, jealous hearts that prompted them to rid themselves of Joseph. This is crucial to understand. The brothers meant “it” for evil—namely Joseph’s harm. But God—in virtue of knowing the character of their wicked hearts and discerning their jealousy and evil intentions decided to exploit their evil intentions for his own purpose—rather than outright prevent their intentions. Moreover for God to supersede, supplant, or exploit an event “meant for evil” by free agents, doesn’t necessitate that he determinatively decree that the evil occur or the means for it to occur! That is the mistaken assumption many Calvinists make. God can simply know that event X will/may occur in a given situation and purpose to use it to his own advantage. Of course God would desire that evil, wickedness and rebellions never occur—but knowing full well that evil will occur in a context of free-will, he is fully prepared to respond to it and use it as he deems appropriate. God has a perfect will—what he desires—and a consequent will—what he permits in light of his sovereign intention to create man free.

      In the case of Joseph we are fully within our interpretive rights to conclude that God is allowing an evil event to occur, yet God has decided to overrule the intended evil by using it for a good that was not intended by the brothers.

      There is no reason to think God is decreeing something evil or that he foreordained the jealous, wicked hearts of Joseph’s brothers. More can be said on this…but that would be the gist of my response.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • goodbit says:

        Hi Matt,

        My apologies about the name… I must have seen the link to the post “Graham Cooke: Inheritance not needs” and put that in there. High School teacher -> Bad with names. LoL…

        I shouldn’t forget yours though, I have a buddy also named Matt on missions with YWAM in Thailand! (http://matt2thailand.wordpress.com/) How ironic is that?

        Back to the topic at hand, I’m glad we agree on the it, and I think you have hit the nail that God did purpose that the brothers sell Joseph into slavery, yet they are still morally responsible for their evil hearts in the matter.

        However, you seem to imply, that God is “responding” to what Joseph’s brothers did, instead of “intending” the actual events. I think this is a world of difference. To continue this hypothetical along, since God didn’t want this evil to take place… what would have happened if they never did sell Joseph into slavery? Or if they did kill him? Could they even have done this, or would God have stopped them? When does God intervene, and when does He not? I am just racked with questions when I consider your interpretation!

        In my perspective, Genesis 50:20 is really just the teaser to Acts 4:27-28. This is theology in tension to the max, because Luke records Peter and John as saying that God predestined the greatest evil and sin to take place imaginable… namely the rejection and murder of Jesus, God incarnate. Clearly sin, clearly the will of God, clearly the sovereign, effective decree of God. Again, I am super curious as to your reading of that passage… how is God not responsible for these sins?

  2. StriderMTB says:

    Hi Goodbit, I checked out your friend’s blog and I can understand his mission interest in Thailand. I lived there for a couple years and loved the people.

    As to your question it would be inaccurate to say I am implying “God is responding to what Joseph’s brother’s did” as if I am suggesting God was caught unawares and then had to scramble to make the best of the situation. Not sure if that is what you meant but it seems that is what you are caught up on. But that need not be so. God infallibly knew the hearts of Joseph’s brothers and was fully aware of their wicked hearts and characters and ALLOWED them to carry out their intentions of evil because he saw a way to use their evil intentions for his purposes to establish Joseph in Egypt. In actuality their truest intentions were to kill him and they explicitly say that when they see him. However God providentially had other plans and had a caravan pass knowing their response would be to make some profit and not just kill him. In that sense he exploits their evil intentions–he need not decree their evil intentions or their sinful characters. All of this keeps the passage hermeneutically sound while avoiding the error of Calvinism that insists God determinatively decreed before the world began that they would have wicked characters that would murderously desire to kill Joseph.

    Now if this explanation is not satisfactory to someone who wants to press it even further and ascribe even more providential control to God (that still avoids the Calvinist interpretation of an irresistible, eternal decree that determinatively necessitates evil characters and choices) an Arminian, (or a Molinist) can say God—via his middle knowledge—can know what we will do in any given circumstance. Or in the Open Theist view God can know all the possibilities and anticipate with a high decree of accuracy what we might do in any given set of circumstances. Either way God could have exploited the brothers’ undetermined, un-decreed jealousy and hatred by providentially arranging circumstances (such as the caravan passing by) that he knew would naturally lead them to freely act in a particular manner that would ultimately result in not only saving Joseph’s life from their intentions of murder but also result in His sovereign plan (to establish Joseph in Egypt for a saving purpose) to be realized.

    Concerning your second question to Christ’s predestined crucifixion, the related texts only require us to understand that by God’s “predetermined plan and foreknowledge” Christ was “delivered over” to “wicked men” to carry out their own wicked intentions—intentions that are fully known to God. It is crucial to understand that the event of the crucifixion was predestined—not the evil motives and characters of those involved. This where I think most Calvinists get tripped up. God can exploit and use to his own advantage the evil characters and intentions of others. God can override the wicked characters of people–not by decreeing that they first occur–but by exploiting them for his own purposes. Many Calvinists erroneously ASSUME God needed to exhaustively and meticulously predetermine all the means in order to reach a predetermined end. As such they think God had to predetermine certain persons to have certain evil characters to do certain things to arrive at a certain, predetermined end (i.e. Christ’s death). But this just doesn’t follow. When Calvinists read that Herod, Pilate and certain Jews “did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” they automatically and mistakenly assume that Herod, Pilate and others must have had their individual, wicked characters causally determined via God’s irresistible decrees in order to carry out the crucifixion. However this just doesn’t follow.

    For example God could have sovereignly arranged Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem to occur when it did—knowing it would naturally force the hand of the ruling authorities to respond in a manner resultant in Christ’s crucifixion. All of this avoids the morally bankrupt view of Calvinism that insists God decreed EVERYTHING– including every person’s desires, characters and intentions.

    All the best.

  3. Now Dimly says:

    Matt,

    Great post. I have a couple of comments.

    First I think you are right on the money with the issue of the terms “ordain” and “permit.” The former has the connotation of “to cause” while permit comes across so passive. Yet according to the Westminster Catechism, God ordains all things. Any talk about secondary causes is worthless, because it takes the result of those secondary causes (i.e. sin) and puts them out of God’s control. If he didn’t ordain it, then how did it get there? I don’t know if you’ve ever read Lorainne Boettner’s book “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination,” but it’s full of words like ordain, meticulous sovereignty, etc., and then when it would make his position ugly he whips out the word “permit” or “allow” only after heavily pushing a strong deterministic position. To try and understand what Calvinism really is is futile and confounding because of its doublespeak.

    You said, “Many Calvinists erroneously ASSUME God needed to exhaustively and meticulously predetermine all the means in order to reach a predetermined end.”

    As I was leaving Calvinism I spoke to my pastor about this. I posited that God was sovereign enough to predestine most things while allowing some “non-predestined” things to occur in between (such as this conversation or when I go to the bathroom, or what I eat for lunch). He said that there were just too many contingencies or too many things that could happen to change the course of history for God to remain sovereign or to be able to keep to his predetermined plan. I think that’s kind of an all-or-nothing approach. If God is sovereign enough to ordain EVERYTHING, then he is certainly sovereign enough to ordain somethings and permit others in the way Arminians talk about it.

    It seems as if you have to use words like permit and allow when you’re a Calvinist, but only after thoroughly expressing yourself in a deterministic/fatalistic manner for long periods of time. My two cents 🙂

    • StriderMTB says:

      Thanks for stopping by Dimly. Very good comments, such as:

      “Lorainne Boettner’s book “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination,” is full of words like ordain, meticulous sovereignty, etc., and then when it would make his position ugly he whips out the word “permit” or “allow” only after heavily pushing a strong deterministic position. To try and understand what Calvinism really is is futile and confounding because of its doublespeak.”

      I couldn’t agree more. In my series on Piper’s Theodicy I may devote a whole post to the ordain – permit doublespeak.

      Moreover I’ve always noticed that Calvinists like to invoke God’s ordination over natural evil–such as one’s mother dying of cancer:
      “Well God ordained your mother’s death for his glory–blessed be the name of the Lord.” However when it comes to many moral evils like a husband beating his wife so bad he puts her in the hospital, the Calvinist pastor does not approach the husband and say: “Well on the one hand it was against God’s revealed will. But take comfort in knowing in God’s secret, decretive will He ordained you to be an abusive husband for his glory–so blessed be the name of the Lord.”

      Calvinism has survived for so long by shielding the most sinister and evil implications of its theology behind Arminian terms like “allow” and “permit” which are rendered meaningless in a deterministic framework.

      • Now Dimly says:

        What would you say about Job’s case, particularly Job 1:12–2:10? My Calvinist pastor/friend referred to this a few times saying that Satan did it, the Sabeans did it, the Chaldeans did it as well as God, bringing harm to Job. I never countered him on it, but now that I just read the text is states that God gave Satan permission. That being the case, God certainly didn’t harm Job in a causal way. But then there are two statements that need interpreted: “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong,” (1:22) and to his wife, “But he said to her, ‘Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (2:10)

        My thoughts are that Job didn’t charge God with wrong because God didn’t decree or cause such an act, though he certainly remains sovereign. Secondly, Job doesn’t say that they received evil from God, just that they received evil. I’m reading out of the ESV…not sure what other versions might say. I would be interested to know your thoughts on this scenario.

      • StriderMTB says:

        I think your thoughts are on the right track Dimly. I was going to post on this later, but I will go ahead and share some of my rough draft thoughts. In the life of a Christian, God can USE evil to bring about His purposes, but this does not mean He causes it or authors it. Instead God seeks to redeem certain evils by using them as His own tools to bring about particular purposes here upon the earth. In other words, God has purposes on earth that He does not necessarily have in Heaven. In a sense God is accommodating himself to a fallen creation infused with evil, but he seeks to exploit such evil (including the Devil’s handiwork) whenever possible. For instance, God can use tragic and evil circumstances in someone’s life to humble someone and bring about an increased intimacy with Him—but there will not be a need for such a paradigm in Heaven because his full presence will draw us like iron filings to a magnet. Heaven’s paradigm will be different because all veils will be removed, and God will not need to resort to using a marred creation of evil and suffering to bring people to a greater knowledge of Himself.

        I would even say God can permit our worst fears to occur if he feels those fears are actually holding us captive and holding us back in the grand scheme of things. In other words God can allow our fears to become realized in order to deliver us from them by overruling them for good. I do think Job fits this picture. For example it is interesting to note that in Job 3:35 after the tragic events transpired, Job says, “What I have most feared has come upon me. What I have always dreaded has happened to me.” All of this is meaningless and absurd in a Calvinist context because they would have to say God decreed Job’s fears and decreed that Job would be held captive to anxiety and dread…the very same dread God seeks to deliver him from by using the Devil’s own plan as his own “tool.” So I think it could very well be the case that this was part of God’s consideration in allowing the Devil to do “his worst.”

        In short here and now God seeks in all ways possible to redeem suffering that comes from living in an imperfect, fallen, evil world for His own ends. In this way, He is sovereign over it, but only in the sense that He possesses the power and ability to redeem its earthly presence to achieve His own good ends. But even this is not automatic. There are conditions to this.

        So I am arguing that ever since the Fall of man, God has sought to redeem the paradigm we have chosen to live in. In this sense, the suffering God allows into our lives is truly evil on the one hand, but in another sense, it can be redeemed for His own purposes. It is need not be arbitrary or meaningless, and as we see in the book of Job, Satan’s inspiring influence of evil cannot trump God’s ultimate purposes in a righteous man’s life.

        Therefore a Christian whose heart is truly obedient to the Lord can have confidence in knowing that all suffering and pain that comes from this world must first pass through the redeemed hands of Christ’s nail pierced hands. However, this leaves open the possibility that those who are unbelieving, stubborn, callous, worldly, disobedient, and out of covenant with God forfeit the overcoming, redemptive purposes of God in their lives. This ultimately means they forfeit God’s sovereign purpose to redeem evil in such a way that He causes “all things to work for the good.” For as the Scriptures make clear this overcoming, redemptive, purpose of God is conditioned on those who “love God and called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). In sum the question concerning the problem of evil is often asked with the objective being that one wants to hear how God justifies evil. But this is misplaced. God does not seek to justify evil—He seeks to redeem it and through his Son went to great lengths to do so.

        Again Calvinism is absurd in this area. They like to think Christ’s crucifixion to redeem us from sin is an example of God decreeing sin (failing to realize the death of Christ was decreed and NOT the individual, wicked characters whom God knew would act in manner X under circumstances Y). And from there they try to cast a net over all the sin of the world! Think of how absurd that is! They are suggesting the one act to set the world free from sin is the key piece of evidence they need to insist that God decreed and determined all the sin in that world! I am literally at a loss sometimes to comprehend how many people believe it… Jesus dismissed this absurdity long ago when he said “a house divided against itself can’t stand.”

        Lastly not everything we read from the lips of those involved in the story of Job is sound theology–rather it is their honest reflection to make sense of what occurred. For example there are great numerous statements of theodicy and theology Job’s friend’s say that we discount as not good theology. So also I think Job’s statement “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” is horrible theology IF we are using it to throw a drag net over everything that occurs in life as if all things stem from God’s decree. For example does a Calvinist pastor tell the adulterous husband in the midst of divorce, “The Lord gave you your wife, and the Lord took your wife away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” No! He says–you brought this on yourself through your adultery. Did the Lord allow it? Yes. Can the Lord ultimately use it for good–such as to bring the adulterous husband to a place of true repentance and future transformation and intimacy? Yes. Does it mean God ordained/determined it for that purpose to be realized. NOT AT ALL.

        But getting back to Job…does he say God was the principal cause and the conceptual, inspirational source for the tragedies that struck him? No. But Job also knew he was a righteous man and as such he trusted and believed that all the evils that befell him had to go through the permissive hands of God. In that sense and in that sense alone should we interpret Job’s comments about “Receiving evil from God.”

        My take anyway 🙂

  4. Now Dimly says:

    Thanks for your reply. It makes a lot of sense. It’s funny, when I speak to Calvinists it seems they let themselves use permissive terms, but I am corrected for distinguishing between between ordaining and permitting. Scripture does say such things as, “Our God is in the heavens, he does all that he pleases,” but it certainly doesn’t explain what the “all” is. C’s jump to the conclusion that he decrees everything that happens to the minutest detail, and that leaves no room for permission.

    I will say that I feel a little uncomfortable with your statement, “God is accommodating himself to a fallen creation” as it sounds reactionary on God’s part or as if the fallen creation has a one up on God. But I think I understand your point and could probably agree with it. I look forward to your next post.

    • StriderMTB says:

      Glad to hear. Yes “God does all that he pleases.” No one would argue that God doesn’t do what pleases him and is in accordance with his righteousness, love and holiness. But Calvinists are remiss when they suddenly jump to their preconceived notion (as you rightly pointed out) and assume rape, child abuse and abortion pleased God.

      I use the term accommodating because I do think some of God’s actions (like the flood) are reactionary in the sense that sin and rebellion were not part of his perfect will. God’s accommodating will is to put up with our sin while achieving his own purposes in spite of such sin. Much more can be said about this. It is a relational issue not necessarily a power issue.

  5. Now Dimly says:

    Thanks for clarifying that last part. C’s will often charge A’s as making God into someone who is wringing his hands in heaven because he is taken off guard by man’s “free will.” I think that is just silly given God’s omniscience, and it shows one’s lack of understanding when it comes to Arminian thought. God does respond to mankind’s actions. If he didn’t there would be no hell as a response to sin, or he wouldn’t answer prayer. And he does so because of who he is in all his attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, love, justice, etc). I have come to believe that Arminianism has a better explanation for God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility–one that doesn’t confuse terms and ideas and doesn’t muddy the waters as compatibilistic determinism does.

  6. Charlie says:

    I have just recently been directed to your site and have enjoyed reading your refutation of Piper’s theology as relates to divine determinism. One of the challenges I have encountered from Calvinists of whether God decrees all evil, even murder and rape they will counter that I believe in a God that allows murder and rape. That he is able but unwilling to stop the murder and rape. My only response to them is that God has sovereignly allowed murder and rape as by products of giving man real volition. That evil exists only because God desires a loving relationship with His creatures and to have a real relationship God has given man freedom of the will. Is there anything you can add to that answer that may help prevent the determinists from trying to seek refuge in the fact that to them God allowing is not much different than God decreeing? Thanks

  7. Did you ever read the Fathers of the Church — and Augustine and his school are not among them. They are not Fathers but simply ecclesiastical writers. They Fathers, East and West, are good allies of Arminius.

    • StriderMTB says:

      I have red some but admittedly could and should read more. I am aware that up until Augustine what we call Arminianism today was simply normal Christian teaching in the early church as witnessed by the church fathers.

  8. Pingback: Big Trouble in Little Geneva: Good Series Exposing the Major Theological Problems Inherent in John Piper’s Calvinist Theodicy | Arminian Perspectives

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