Wednesday, March 04, 2020

John Piper’s God

John Piper’s God is not someone I find particularly appealing.

Piper’s Calvinist determinism makes his version of heaven a scary place where every microscopic detail of human existence is examined, and from which God himself administers rough justice to his subjects on the spot as he sees fit, to believers and unbelievers alike, sometimes in the form of really bad weather.

A rash of tornados across the U.S. in 2012 prompted Piper to express his opinion in this post.

Misleading and Confused

Here is a selection of Mr. Piper’s thoughts:
“Why would God reach down his hand and drag his fierce fingers across rural America, killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?

We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.

Jesus rules the wind. The tornadoes were his. But before Jesus took any life in rural America, he gave his own on the rugged cross.”
There is just enough truth here to give one pause, but much that is misleading or simply confused.

Having the Last Say

For example, it is certainly true that “God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows”, just as any CEO technically has the “last say” on every single act performed by every individual employed by the company he oversees. That in no way implies that every decision made by every employee officially crosses the CEO’s desk (the vast majority do not, thank goodness), nor it is obvious that the long-term goals of a company are best served by a CEO who overrules every sub-optimal decision made by his subordinates of which he becomes aware. Sometimes it is necessary to allow one’s employees to make mistakes in order to teach them how to better do their jobs.

Piper then trots out a series of Bible quotes, including one from Hosea. Piper does not appear to recognize that Hosea uses “wind” as a metaphor for the nation of Assyria, and that the reference does not help his case at all. The rest of these verses refer to specific acts of God accomplished through his control of the wind: Israel’s Red Sea crossing, Jonah’s lesson about pity, a storm that prompted imperiled sailors to cry out to God, and Jesus’ stilling of a storm that terrified his disciples.

However, Piper seems oblivious to the fact that demonstrating that God sometimes uses the wind as his agent does not even begin to prove that God does so in every case, let alone that God did so in the case of the 90 tornados in 12 states back in 2012. To say that Bob has on a number of occasions lifted 300 pounds does not tell us anything about whether he is inclined to do so at every possible opportunity, let alone whether he did it at 10:00 p.m. last Tuesday. It certainly does not equip us to infer that whenever we observe that 300 pounds has been lifted, then Bob must have been the one responsible. Likewise, demonstrating that God can do something is not equivalent to demonstrating that he always does, or that someone else did not. That is something Piper takes on faith, and expects his readers to do the same: “We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil,” he says.

The Ascription of Independent Power

Actually, that’s wrong too. I certainly ascribe it. I assume that by “Mother Nature” Piper means the ordinary operations of natural forces subject to observable laws which were set in place by God when he created the world. But it should be obvious that granting authority to a subordinate does not necessarily equate to exercising total control. Once divinely empowered, those mindless natural forces possess exactly the same near-limitless capacity for destruction whether God opts to personally exercise his sovereignty over them or whether they operate on the equivalent of divine autopilot. The question of whether God is personally at the helm in any given situation is a separate one that has nothing to do with relative power levels.

Moreover, Satan certainly has been granted independent power. He is the “god of this world”. The power he exercises did not originate with him, but he wields it independently and freely, doing things which our Bibles tell us do not please God and which God himself would never do.

Piper himself references the case of Job, whose ten children were killed by the wind. But God did not send that wind; Satan did. The only reason he hadn’t done so earlier is that God had up until that point provided Job with an exceptional layer of personal heavenly protection. We do not have to speculate about this; the passage itself insists on it.

God Gave the Command?

Now, we may argue all day about whether the power to level cities across 12 states, in the hands of either nature or Satan, may be considered genuinely “independent”. In the sense that created beings or natural forces could ever generate such power on their own, of course not. But Satan’s actions in the case of Job are certainly independent in the sense that God was not granting him sovereignty over the natural world that he does not normally possess and has not already been granted by virtue of his position; rather, God was simply relinquishing the unusual level of preventive control he had been exercising on behalf of Job. Moreover, Satan was not given any direction by God about how he might go about injuring Job. That was all on him. The use of wind was very much Satan’s independent choice.

To say as Piper does that “God gave the command” is both simplistic and grossly misleading, whether we are discussing the case of Job or the case of any particular U.S. city leveled by a tornado.

In the case of Job, God flat-out did not. In the case of the tornados, we simply do not know. He certainly could have, but we have no compelling reason to believe he did.

Maryville and Minneapolis

God always has the last say. He does not always choose to exercise it. I believe there are many reasons he doesn’t, and Piper inadvertently hints at one of them when he asks, “[W]hy Maryville and not Minneapolis? Why Henryville and not Hollywood?”

Indeed. One reason might be that when God acts in judgment, he generally warns people first. The pre-Flood world got Noah, a herald of righteousness. Sodom got righteous Lot in residence, about which they objected, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge!” Pharaoh got nine warnings before human lives were taken in Egypt. The Amorite tribes in Canaan got 400 years to repent. Nineveh got the preaching of Jonah. Israel and Judah got prophet after prophet after prophet, then John the Baptist, then finally God’s own beloved Son. All gave specific, clear warnings of coming judgment and the sort of changes that needed to be made in hearts and lives: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise”, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do”, and “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

When God judges in this life, there is always a point. He is seeking repentance, first from the individual who most obviously needs it, and secondly in those looking on. But producing repentance requires making people aware of the specific sin or sins which require it, not just some generalized sense that “We’re all sinners”, which may be perfectly true, but is quite unhelpful to those of us hoping for a chance to self-correct. “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.”

So what prior warning did God give the American Midwest, and of what behavior were they supposed to repent? You tell me. Piper certainly can’t.

Likes and Dislikes

So no, I don’t much like John Piper’s God, mostly because he isn’t much like the God I find in my Bible. Piper seems incapable of distinguishing between the ordinary consequences of living in a fallen world and the consequences of being exposed to the specific displeasure and judgment of God. By my reckoning, the way Piper manages his own confusion does not do God service or bring glory to his name.

That said, I’m not like some folks whose excuse for unbelief boils down to the fact that the God presented in the Bible does not suit their personal taste in some way. That’s a ridiculous position. Reality is what it is; it doesn’t give a fig about our opinions and preferences. Moreover, theology is not the study of what we like, but the study of what is. C.S. Lewis spoke about having become “the most reluctant convert in all England”. Now that’s the spirit! Presented with sufficient evidence, Lewis grudgingly accepted the truth of God’s existence, only to belatedly discover that when a man humbles himself before his God, he finds him merciful, gracious, and abounding in forgiveness and love.

So, assuming John Piper is correct and, in every single instance, God personally and deliberately afflicts the Midwest with tornados, Japan with tidal waves and the Chinese with the Corona virus, I’m quite prepared to bow the knee to Piper’s version of God whether I find him to my taste or not. God will be what he will be.

But hey, the teensiest bit of actual biblical evidence might be nice first.

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