Trying to understand John Piper

John Piper’s recent blog post, which offers an interpretation of a surprising tornado as God’s providential warning to the ECLA convention during its discussion of a denominational statement on sexual ethics, has attracted a fair amount of – I think the best word would be ‘derision’ –  from theological bloggers. I have not seen, however, any attempt to explain why Dr Piper should have come to this interpretation.

I tend to the view that a large part of the task of theology is to probe the connections between ideas. I know that attempting to understand patiently, rather than to condemn loudly, is unfashionable, particularly in online theology, and it is certainly no way to attract readers to a blog, but allow me my idiosyncrasies.

As far as I can see, John Piper’s various public positions have at least a degree of intellectual coherence. In general, he belongs to a recognisable tradition of American Evangelical Calvinism. His attempts to interpret providence, however, are decidedly unusual within the modern exponents of that tradition. However, he has repeatedly, albeit usually humbly and hesitantly, suggested that we may be able to guess, on the basis of Biblical guidance, God’s reasons for permitting this or that natural disaster.

Given that this is unusual within his own tradition, it seems reasonable to ask why Piper thinks this. (A question, incidentally, which is distinct from the question of whether he is right – if he happens to be, why is it that no-one else has seen the same truths? What is it about Piper’s thinking that gives him the ability to see something here that most others in the same tradition cannot?)

Piper assumes that we can ‘think God’s thoughts after Him’ in the area of divine providence, and so interpret a natural disaster. An ill-informed commentator might dismiss this strand of Piper’s public platform as ‘medieval’; such a dismissal gestures towards something significant, but is ultimately wrong. The significance first: I believe that one of the most far-reaching and decisive dividing lines between pre-modern and modern (and now late- or post-modern) Christianity is the modern loss of confidence in doctrines of active providence. We could probably trace this to an earthquake in Lisbon of course, but for whatever reason, our ancestors in the faith prior to November 1, 1755 (to pick a date at random…) had no difficulty believing that the events of the natural world, and the course of human history, were alike actively guided by God to secure certain providential ends. We find this much more difficult, at least on a scale beyond the personal. It remains a staple of Evangelical piety that God uses at least some circumstances to guide and teach us in our own personal, family, and perhaps congregational, lives, but few of us would find a divine word addressed to our nation in war or flood. (In the UK, in the last two decades or more, I recall some suggestion that a lightening strike on York Minster was a sign of divine displeasure at the then-Bishop of Durham’s (as it happens, misreported) views on the resurrection, and one Anglican Bishop coming to notice for suggesting that the floods of 2007 might be understood as a warning of divine judgement; both positions were treated with mere embarrassment by the churches.)

Why then would describing Piper’s comments as ‘medieval’ be wrong? I think because they are made with a confidence and a specificity that medieval and early modern theologians (I will not speak of popular piety, as I know little about its normative patterns in the pre-modern period) would have found troubling. To speak of the period I know best, the Puritan fast-day sermons are striking for their lack of specific criticism of particular events: drought or famine is confidently interpreted as a sign of God’s displeasure on the nation, and a wide-ranging denunciation of the various sins of the people would follow, but claims that this event was specifically related to that error were not, as far as I am aware, at all common.

In the Puritan tradition this began to change in New England. Initially this seems (to me – I am conscious that this older historiography has more recently been challenged) to stem from a strong identification of the settlers with Israel venturing into the wilderness. God guided His children through Sinai with special providences of nature, and so the invitation to read the (presumably exceptionally puzzling, because different from old England) events of the natural world as signs of God’s evaluation of the colonists’ lives was strong. This particular theme perhaps declined as history went on, but a willingness to read nature in all its forms as the revelations of God arose. This borrowed from old England – such texts as Flavel’s Husbandry Spiritualized were very popular in the colonies – and, with Cotton Mather particularly, there was a new confidence about natural theology: the ‘book of nature’ could be read and understood with clarity and confidence – although my colleague, Bill Tooman, who knows Mather better than I tells me that this leads to a simple incoherence in his mature thought, between a thoroughgoing natural theology and a fairly traditional Puritan account of depravity. Bill tells me that Mather seems simply to acknowledge and to live with this incoherence.

Not so Mather’s inheritor in the area of reading the book of nature: Jonathan Edwards, who pressed forward in finding both natural types, and in seeing God’s hand specifically at work in the events of human history. He solved Mather’s problem by suggesting that the regenerate mind could learn from the Biblical examples how to speak the divine language of types, and then interpret with confidence supposed natural typologies that were not taught in Scripture. In history, most of his efforts seem to have been motivated by a historicist view on the Book of Revelation, and a clear belief that the events leading to the end could be perceived in the history of his own day, particularly the continuing wars between Roman Catholic and Reformed nations. Edwards thought that the French and Indian War was potentially of decisive eschatological significance.

I take it that Edwards was inspired in part by an Enlightenment confidence in the power of the human intellect to perceive truth, which he unquestionably shared in. God’s ways were not as obscure to Edwards as to most of his predecessors in the Christian tradition, but he had not lost any confidence in the fact of divine providence on a geopolitical scale (he died only three years after the Lisbon earthquake, of course). He therefore offers, in those parts of his writings that are rather less read by the current Edwards industry, a peculiarly confident and strong account of how God’s ways with the world may be perceived and understood by the attentive believer, and this as a result of a particular coincidence of Enlightened epistemological confidence with early modern belief about providence.

Of course, John Piper has read deeply in Edwards. More than that, however, it seems to me that aspects of the tradition he represents demonstrate precisely this same coincidence of epistemological confidence superimposed on early modern Reformed orthodoxy (the way claims about Biblical inerrancy are played out would be one example – at once both too confident and too diffident about Scripture when compared to classical accounts of perspicuity, as I have argued in various places; another would be Piper’s particular ways of teaching about divine sovereignty in the face of suffering which, when compared to the teachings of Samuel Rutherford, say, show a very different tone because of a considerably-lowered sense of the inscrutability of God’s ways with the world).

None of this, note, is a claim that Piper is right or wrong; it is an attempt to understand the genealogy of his thought. If one is convinced he is right, perhaps understanding this tale helps to understand why his voice is so distinctive; if one believes him to be wrong, perhaps this helps to understand why a transparently humble and godly man should entertain such strange ideas.

Of course, I realise that arguing like this in a blog post is an error of genre: the accepted use of the form demands that one shouts that Piper’s doctrine is indistinguishable from Scripture’s, or instead that one denounces him as the embodiment of evil. May I take some comfort from Biblical exemples of genres being subverted because the attempt to speak Christianly will only fit in re-made vessels?

35 Comments

  1. David Campton
    Aug 28, 2009

    Thank you. Very helpful, even if I believe that Piper’s comments are not so helpful, or indeed true…

    • Steve H
      Aug 28, 2009

      Thanks, David. I won’t disagree…

  2. Terry
    Aug 28, 2009

    Thanks for this, Steve. It’s nice to read a measured post on Piper. For me, I think a lot of it’s due simply to the idea of pancausality, however that might be conceived: If God is sovereign over all things, then those things that happen must happen for a reason. Of course, it’s at this point that your comments about epistemic confidence, etc., come into play, for when we know that God has acted, we can determine why God acted so.

    • Steve H
      Aug 28, 2009

      I guess my point is, Terry, that ‘pancausality’ (assuming that means what it looks like it should, etymologically, and no more) has been a very common Christian belief, but that in Piper’s hands it occasionally becomes something rather distinctive. That seems to invite some attempt at exploration.

      • Terry
        Aug 29, 2009

        Two things. Would you explain your parenthetical comment further? I’m curious! Also, I confess that on the basis of blog posts alone (yours and others), I’m not sure I see the way in which Piper’s comments are distinctive. It seems to me that from the little actual Piper I’ve read, he’s just taking the Reformed stance on providence to (one of its) natural conclusion(s).

        Help me?

      • Steve H
        Aug 29, 2009

        Hi Terry,
        ‘Pancausality’ sounds like it might be a technical term meaning something more (or less) than merely ‘God causes everything’. I’m not aware of a technical usage but, particularly with your book on providence (for which many thanks) waiting to be read on my shelf, I wanted to acknowledge the possibility.
        As I said above, I think what distinguishes Piper from the broader Reformed tradition is a confidence in making particular judgements. That God sovereignly ordered that tornado in that place at that time, and that this was a part of God’s providential care for His creation, is common to the Reformed (and indeed the ecumenical) tradition; stating that God did it because the ECLA was talking about this – or for any other specific reason – is, it seems to me, rather more unusual.

  3. Chris E
    Aug 28, 2009

    I think part of the reason that John Piper explains things in the way he does, is that he comes from a stream that takes standard Reformed doctrine, and then tries to arrange the various stages in a logical – if not necessarily biblical – order.

    He takes the Glory of God as the end of all things – but then sometimes seems to take that as the primary revelation about God – it might help that like Edwards he seems to have a higher view of what natural revelation can tell us than others in the Reformed world. Some might call this a theology of glory.

    • Steve H
      Aug 28, 2009

      Is not most theology an attempt to arrange doctrines into a logical order?! (Not to say it’s right, but it’s hardly something to be down on Piper for…)
      The glory of God as the end of all things is straight out of Edwards. As I argued once in a book on his treatment of the subject, everything then depends on how you gloss ‘glory’. I think Edwards got it right most of the way, understanding God as being glorified through the gospel narrative and not otherwise, although, yes, I did quote and reflect on Luther’s strictures at Heidelberg.

      • Chris E
        Aug 28, 2009

        I think there is a natural biblical order of presenting various doctrines and that sometimes logical systems can mitigate against this and in the process lose information. [Compare Beza and Calvin for instance.]

        As you say it does depend on how one thinks of ‘glory’, and at this point it’s very important to consider that the only time we actually see the face of God in scripture, it’s in the incarnation. Considering the glory of a God who dwells in unapproachable light outside his self revelation in Christ is a very bad idea.

        On this note I remember watching an chat between DA Carson, Tim Keller and John Piper during one of the Gospel Coalition conferences. Keller gently challenged Piper about the lack of content linking to Christ in some of his earlier books – and Piper admitted that this was one thing he would go back and change if he had a chance to re-write them.

  4. Steve H
    Aug 28, 2009

    Chris gestures towards the Heidelberg Disputation, which sent me back to look at Luther’s theses. Theses 19 and 20 are, surely, impossibly strict, but certainly worthy of reflection in this context:
    ’19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which actually happened.
    ’20. He [sic] deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.’

  5. roger flyer
    Aug 29, 2009

    Steve-
    Right. Piper is not a Lutheran.

    • Steve H
      Aug 29, 2009

      Hi Roger, welcome to the blog.

      • roger flyer
        Sep 5, 2009

        Hi Steve.
        Blessings,
        Roger

  6. Jon
    Aug 29, 2009

    Steve,

    I agree with much of what you say. What I feel must be the true area of consideration is the historical locatedness of claims made by Piper et al. Why is it that these people simply pick up on those facets of contemporary culture which they don’t like (homosexuality, sabbath day observance (remember Tsunami?), etc.) and then push a divine mandate onto whatever natural disaster has struck closest in the spatio-temporal realm! To me (maybe I’m too post-modern – I hope not), that just smacks of the worst kind of God’s-eye view arrogance? All that it acheives is justifying the claimant’s view of how the world is and should be (which is something you touched on – why is JP the only to know this?). Back to the OT, the punishment of God was never used in such a way – it was an attempt to bring the people back from there erroneous ways and involved the community of God (i.e. Children of Israel) and was not simply a random chaotic ‘smiting’ of all and sundry to which one person had the privilege of epistemic access to (although I welcome comments to prove me wrong w.r.t. the prophets!)

    I remind you also of the NT where such a view of natural disaster is explored in the man blind from birth – it is precisely such a view of suffering that is discounted by Jesus – it was not this man nor his parents who sinned – that is precisely to miss the point.

    Final point, in OT, the children of Israel are punished for simply wandering away from God – these days, if such a method was employed by God, we would be moving from one disaster to the next within the space of minutes!

    • Terry
      Aug 29, 2009

      There didn’t seem to be a reply bit on our little conversation above, so I thought I’d carry on down here.

      I’m not aware of anyone who uses ‘pancausality’ to mean anything other than ‘God causes everything’. That’s certainly the way it seems to have been used in the open theism debate, from which I think I took it (e.g. John Sanders). Others have used ‘omnicausality’.

      I wasn’t aware that Piper’s distinctiveness lay in his confidence, really, though I appreciate what you’re saying. But, to build on what Jon’s saying above, there might be instances when this is possible – e.g. Isaiah 45 interpreting Cyrus as God’s messiah in Isaiah. Of course, there are a number of factors involved here, like the fact that whoever wrote Isaiah 45 was an inspired prophet (though Piper might be, I suppose); that this was Israel’s interpretation of her history; etc.

      There also seems to be a distinction in what you say between (a) the identification of something as God’s action and (b) the interpretation of that action as judgement. I’m just teasing out what you’re saying for my own curiosity and satisfaction, Steve. If your analysis of Piper is correct, then whereas the mainstream Reformed tradition can usually pronounce something like (a), Piper goes the whole hog to (b). The question then is why he has this level of confidence. It seems to me that the distinction between (a) and (b) is not so harsh that (a) can’t ever merge effortlessly into (b).

      Sorry… I think I’m beginning to think aloud now!

      • Terry
        Aug 29, 2009

        By the way, I’m struck by how accurate is the little picture/avatar of me!

      • Steve H
        Aug 29, 2009

        You might think that, Terry – I couldn’t possibly comment…

  7. Steve H
    Aug 29, 2009

    @Terry: OK, no problem on ‘pancausality’ then – as I say, I was just wary of using something that might have been a term of art without knowing it.
    As I indicate above, I am comparing Piper with an older tradition. This seems to me interesting because most recent commentators seem to think he has no right to regard a tornado as God’s judgement; by contrast, the older tradition would have happily seen it as God’s judgement, but would have criticised his claim to know precisely what God was judging at the time; this seems a difference worth noting.
    In the terms of your comment, let’s distinguish three lines: (a) we can know that this is God’s action; (b) we can know that this is God’s judgement; (c) we can know that this is God’s judgement on this particular failing. Piper asserts (c); the older Reformed would have asserted (b); moderns at most are prepared to assert (a) – and so tend to conflate (b) and (c), supposing they are more-or-less the same view.

  8. Steve H
    Aug 29, 2009

    @Jon. Thanks for the thoughts, Jon, & good to see you yesterday. To try to be as fair as possible to Piper, he was, if I read his post correctly, faced with a situation in which an ECLA church was surprisingly damaged at the very moment when the ECLA were debating a particular issue in that city. Combine this with a strong view that the debate was inappropriate, and the leap is perhaps not quite as arbitrary as you suggest. Still, however, one can only make the leap if one antecedently assumes that God’s providential actions are in principle interpretable – which assumption I suspect the majority of the historic Reformed tradition would not have made.
    I don’t think Piper assumes that he has privileged epistemic access – rather, I suspect that he thinks everyone should come to the same conclusions if only they thought straight.
    I take your last two points entirely. I’m not trying to defend Piper, just to understand him…

  9. Jon
    Aug 29, 2009

    “I don’t think Piper assumes that he has privileged epistemic access – rather, I suspect that he thinks everyone should come to the same conclusions if only they thought straight.”

    Which is VERY close to a tautology in my mind! I guess I’m being picky…

    • Steve H
      Aug 29, 2009

      I don’t see this, Jon. I have ‘privileged epistemic access’ to my own emotions, say – there are linguistic and physiological hints of what I am feeling that you can access, but there is more compelling data that only I have. I might claim (if I was less postmodern in my thinking than in fact I am) that ‘everyone should come to the same conclusions’ as I do on (say) Calvin’s doctrine of God – but there the evidence is all laid out in texts. It seems to me there is a clear difference, no?

      • Jon
        Aug 30, 2009

        So in the first position, you say you have privileged epistemic access to your own emotions but that is a second-order category above HAVING a privileged epistemic access to your own emotions. I could be brown-haired and never realise that fact. There is a difference between being a passive recipient of a certain state of being and epistemologically accepting that state of being as being true. All I’m trying to say is that what Piper is doing is saying that everyone else is missing something here except for him precisely because everyone else just isn’t thinking straight. But this translates precisely as direct epistemic access. It’s like the grace nature dichotomy and how you understand it? Maybe I’m being picky. I just cringe when I hear people saying that they know that what they think is right BECAUSE everyone else is ‘sinful’ or ‘broken’ – inference – God revealed it to me, not to you?

      • Steve H
        Aug 31, 2009

        Jon – either we’re using words differently here, or I’m not understanding you. For me ‘privileged epistemic access’ means I have relevant data that you do not (or vice versa) – continuing the example, you are right to point out that I might not realise that I am feeling angry/frustrated, but I nonetheless have access to data concerning my emotional state which is hidden from you.
        On this account, Piper is not, it seems to me, claiming any privilege: he seems to believe that anyone reading Scripture straightforwardly and observing the events will likely come up with the answers he offers. However, most people don’t, which makes it interesting. If he had claimed ‘God has revealed to me the meaning of this…’ we would be in a different situation, on which see the reply to Clint’s comment below.

      • Jon
        Aug 31, 2009

        Steve – I’m not using words differently so much as looking at the same event in two different ways, I think. Piper thinks that everyone thinking straight would see that such and such an event would have to be interpreted thus. I look at his claim and see it as a claim to privileged access to the interpretation of the event. That was my original point – sorry for muddying the waters!

    • James
      Jan 17, 2010

      I’m pretty sure that if everyone thought correctly they would agree with me…

  10. Jon
    Aug 29, 2009

    Oh and yeah – was good to see you yesterday.

    RE: yesterday. Is it bad that I feel closer and closer to Lutheranism these days? Have you failed in your vocation? But like you say, it does make theology easier and Big B does make it very attractive.

    • Steve H
      Aug 29, 2009

      My vocation has little to do with keeping you from Lutheranism, Jon…
      As I have said more than once, I think Bruce’s current programme is coherent, but not necessary. Marx begins his *Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right* with the claim that the criticism of religion is now (sic, 1843) complete; Bruce, as far as I can see, begins his reconstruction of Trinitarian theology with the claim that the criticism of metaphysics is now complete (after Herrmann); I find both claims unconvincing, and I find both reconstructions astonishing in their intellectual power. As Bruce said of Thomistic Catholicism at the Rutherford House conference – and as Barth said of Schleiermacher – if you don’t feel the pull, then you have no appreciation of theological reasoning.

      • Jon
        Aug 30, 2009

        I feel the pull! But that doesn’t mean I have an appreciation of theological reasoning does it?

        How do you suggest we defend metaphysics today then? Do you hold to Bruce’s notion that you can do ontology without metaphyics? I felt he was a little bit sloppy on this point – he even said that ontology involved the interelation of things that are – when does ontology end and metaphysics begin in this case? Do you think he should go the whole hog and develop his ontology into a metaphysics?

  11. roger flyer
    Aug 30, 2009

    Piper was in contact with the Vineyard movement during the 1990’s and was probably influenced by some of the proponents of ‘prophetic’ signs and wonders.

    • Clint
      Aug 31, 2009

      It is interesting that a person cannot decide how God acts sovereignly in one manner. On the other hand, we are certain that God has sovereignly decided that prophets like Agabus were only necessary for a first-century Christianity (generally with only a passionate appeal to church history and bad experiences as witnesses)–a little inconsistent I think. I’m in S. Korea right now, working in a historic Presbyterian Church. You would do well to find any Presbyterian here in Korea who doesn’t believe in the prophetic or signs and wonders. This country has seen too many miracles for even doctrinally-sound Presbyterians to deny it.

      1 Cor. 2:2,
      Clint

      • Steve H
        Aug 31, 2009

        Hi Clint, welcome to the blog.
        I’m not sure who the ‘we’ are in your sentence ‘we are certain that … prophets like Agabus were only necessary for a first-century Christianity.’ It is something I am far from being certain of – indeed, something I simply disagree with. I have been happily identified as charismatic most of my Christian life.
        Were Piper claiming a peculiar prophetic insight – ‘God has told me that this is what was meant by that’ – then we could evaluate it in appropriate ways – weighing the prophecy against the teaching of Scripture, considering the life of the prophet, &c. We know how to do that, at least in British charismatic circles. But Piper is not claiming to prophetic revelation; he is claiming that this interpretation of events is natural to any Bible-believing Christian.

  12. Shane
    Aug 31, 2009

    In Piper’s follow-up “clarification” (if I’m remembering correctly), he seems to move from (c)declaring that the tornado was God’s judgment on a particular act to (b)declaring that the tornado was judgment that should call us to repentance in all areas of our lives. His analogy is cancer in his own life – he doesn’t state that it is judgment on some particular sin, but it is a providential act of God that calls him to repentance. I guess if you carried this analogy to his statement about the ECLA, the idea would be that, due to the tornado being God’s providential act, the ECLA should consider scripturally all their actions; and, if they were thinking straight (in Piper’s view), they would repent of the obvious sin of the question they were considering. So far as I can see (which may not be that far), Piper’s clarification brings him back into line with the older Reformed tradition, though his original post seems to definitely place him in a unique position.

    • Terry
      Sep 1, 2009

      Steve, thanks for this (extremely useful) elaboration: ‘Were Piper claiming a peculiar prophetic insight – ‘God has told me that this is what was meant by that’ – then we could evaluate it in appropriate ways – weighing the prophecy against the teaching of Scripture, considering the life of the prophet, &c. We know how to do that, at least in British charismatic circles. But Piper is not claiming to prophetic revelation; he is claiming that this interpretation of events is natural to any Bible-believing Christian.’

  13. roger flyer
    Sep 5, 2009

    Terry and Steve-
    God has told Piper (and you and me) through the scriptures (his exegesis) that this was a divine warning to repent.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. In Light of the Gospel » Blog Archive » Interacting with Piper’s view of Providence - [...] his whole post for his interesting historical [...]
  2. Sausage « City of God - [...] play twister: More on Piper’s tornado [...]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

get facebook like button