January 16, 2021

Riffs: 11:21:07: Ben Witherington III asks “Is the Self-Centered God a Narcissist?”

images.jpegUPDATE VII: Ochuck makes a good contribution to the topic.

UPDATE VI: James White on the whole debate. Two things you can be sure of: 1) The longer the discussion goes on, the more likely that Witherington will eventually be called out as an apostate. 2) The longer the discussion goes on, the more it will morph into the discussion that Calvinists always want to have.

UPDATE V: Piper answers Witherington. Will that be the end of the “discussion?”

UPDATE IV: True to form, Triablogue announces that Witherington isn’t a serious scholar (like the guys at Triablogue, I guess) and is a TV celebrity. Then Steve Hays takes off on Witherington’s post.

UPDATE III: Timmy Brister chimes in, and quotes me from a discussion at Thinklings. You might want to read that discussion to get my quote in context.

UPDATE II: The discussion has moved to Denny Burk’s blog.

UPDATE: Thinkling Jared finds BW’s post over the top.

It’s been a long time coming.

The influence of John Piper’s theology has expanded enormously in the past 5 years, and few non-Calvinists have been willing to mount any kind of response. There are signs, however, that the responses are on the way.

Ben Witherington III, reacting to a volume of New Testament theology it won’t take too much detective work to identify, asks why the Bible doesn’t say “God so loved himself….?”

Is the self-centered God of Edwards, Piper and company a narcissist? More importantly, is Piper’s theology leading scholars and pastors to an imbalanced reading of the Bible?

Witherington is asking questions that many will loudly protest, but Piper has anticipated and discussed these objections in many of his books. Let’s hope his defenders will let Witherington contribute to the most overdue, much needed conversation on the theological web: a true critical discussion of Piper’s theology.

Be sure and read all of Witherington’s comments in the meta.


  1. I agree a “true critical discussion” of Piper’s theology still has happened and it would be very helpful to see. However, this is definitely not it…Witherington caricatures big time here and throws up the standard superficial objections. If the first rule of critique/debate is to present the views of those you disagree with so that your opponent recognizes himself in your words, then Witherington has failed miserably. And just so I don’t get hammered for being one-sided, I would say the same thing of many typical, unfair Calvinist critiques of Arminian thought. Would we commend some internet Calvinist who critiqued Arminian theology by calling it a sell out to modern culture, man-centered and idolatrous without presenting their views or why they hold them or honestly wrestle with them?

    As someone who is generally a big fan of Witherington, I was really disappointed in this post. Such arguments will only produce screaming matches where the worst on both sides yell across at each other without actually listening.

  2. I understood the last paragraph to be 1) the world is narcissistic, but 2) Christians should see that talk about god-centeredness could be misunderstood by that world.

    I agree with you that a critical discussion is needed, but I’m sure it will not happen.

  3. I agree with Nick that Prof. Witherington’s post, by his choice of words (“narcissist”) comes across as a caricature rather than an honest engagement with an idea he disagrees with, and I also concur that rather than a reasoned debate it will lead to a “flame war” (to borrow an older internet phrase from the computer sphere) — this is already evident in the comments so far.

    Part of the problem I see with all such discussions as well as with much that is written in Systematic Theologies is that it assumes that what God has revealed of himself in Scripture is ALL THERE IS TO KNOW about him, and that therefore by means of Scripture we can fully describe God and explain every mystery or seeming paradox. Rather, I believe that God has revealed only what he judged fit and necessary for us to know for a “saving knowledge” and relationship with him, and that there is much more to God than he has revealed or we could comprehend.

    Any dogmatic assertion about what motivated God *exclusively* is therefore out of place and we must sometimes be willing to humbly say that Scripture seems to say this about God but also that, and that we don’t know how to resolve this paradox. We have accepted this principle when it comes to the union of human and divine natures in the person of Jesus Christ; some are beginning to realize that it also applies to predestination and man’s free will; it is time we recognized that there are *many* aspects of God where this would be the appropriate attitude and stopped talking as if we had a full grasp of God.

  4. Patrick Kyle says

    What a sad religion to labor under. God’s love for you as a pretense for His glory… That’s what happens when you try to understand God from “the top down” -sovereignty, glory, etc. instead of from the bottom up- baby in a manger, carpenter’s shop, dying on a cross.

  5. A friend commented to me (and he actually likes some of Piper’s stuff, btw, even though he’s not a Calvinist guy) that while God is ‘glorious’, God *is* Love; so God is glorious, but he is not Glory.

    I agree with BW’s statement that if things are as they sound coming from certain theologians, then John 3:16 should read “For God so loved himself…” I would put it this way– it is to God’s glory that Jesus died for sinners. But I would not state it so that it sounds like it is so specifically *for* God’s glory. I think that framing it with “glory” as the main object that God is seeking distorts the reality of God’s love as presented to hearers of the word. He came to seek the lost, of course.

    I like the way N.T. Wright puts it in his book Following Jesus:

    “John does not describe the transfiguration, as the other Gospels do; in a sense, John’s whole story is about the transfiguration. He invites us to be still and know; to look again into the human face of Jesus of Nazareth, until the awesome knowledge comes over us, wave upon terrifying wave, that we are looking into the human face of the living God. And he leads us on, with our awe and bewilderment reaching its height, to the point where we realize that the face is most recognizable when it wears the crown of thorns. When John says, ‘We beheld his glory’, he is thinking supremely of the cross.”

  6. I would say that the statements “God does all things for his glory” and “God is a narcissist” are not the same statement.

    I do believe, however, there is a sizable problem with reading the Bible consistently as a book about a being who does all things in an omnipotently self-glorifying way and with a single-self glorifying motive. I agree that “God so loved himself” would be “truer” than “God so loved the world” in that system.

  7. If this rises to triablogue’s notice, I predict the results won’t be pretty.
    I think there’s a lack of clear distinction between what is involved in God’s intermediate purposes, and what his ultimate purpose is.
    Note BW3’s argument shifts on Phil 2:5-11 after Danny brings up this point.

  8. I think it is a bit unfair to blast BW3 for caricature and overstatement. Has anyone ever read Piper? He is one of the most dramatic, overstated guy I’ve ever read. Of course, he uses this as a device to arrest the attention and imagination of his readers. It seems that turnaround is fair play.

    Unfortunately I do agree that reasonable dialogue (with emphasis upon reasonable) on this issue will probably not occur. Piper has risen to the level of “pop icon” in much of evangelicalism. For some evangelicals, criticizing Piper would be like Catholics critizing the Pope’s words.

    To me this raises another question. Why can’t evangelicals engage in reasonable dialogue. Is there any reason we cannot humble ourselves and consider another position? Or to hear criticism of our position? This is the problem I have with so much that goes on in the blogosphere.

  9. I’m not so sure that a real critical discussion of Piper won’t happen. Mark Dever has been openly critical of Christian Hedonism (“I’m not sanctified enough for that”), Piper’s response to N.T. Wright is going to generate some serious debate about the assertions of both men, and what seems to be a rising tide of thinking young believers (including some emergent/emerging types) is, at some point, going to yield substantive questioning. I for one am looking forward to it. Not because I don’t love Piper (I do!) but there is much there that needs to be examined more thoroughly.

  10. On Piper and overstatement: Yes and amen. He is provocative to the point of inventing and defending completely new vocabulary and the most extreme examples. That is the irony of those who will criticize BWIII. The Calvinist high ground is “No one can say bigger things about God than we do. And if you question or step back, you’re abandoning the Christian God.”

    On the debate: Wait till Triablogue gets ahold of this is right.

  11. I went through my Piper phase back in college. I still appreciate some of his stuff, but I think that the way he sets up the issue is not particularly helpful. As a Reformed Pastor I knew once put it, “Piper’s categories sometimes seem to make God out to be Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” rather than the covenant-keeping God of the Old and New Testaments.”

    I think part of it is Piper’s near-“adoration” of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was, no doubt, brilliant, but he also had a decidedly scholastic streak which got him into trouble from time to time (e.g. his whole theory about the ever increasing union between the soul and God in heaven).

    Some of this also goes beyond Edwards and reflects Piper’s other reading habits. I know that he is a huge fan of 17th and 18th century Puritan writers, and frankly as much as I respect the Puritans, one of their huge problems was their scholastic methodology and tendency to cram certain theological constructs into every verse of Scripture.

  12. @Scott: just read the comments on BW3’s blog. Criticism of Piper is definitely taking place there.

    On this:

    > Why can’t evangelicals engage in reasonable dialogue.
    > Is there any reason we cannot humble ourselves and
    > consider another position? Or to hear criticism of our
    > position? This is the problem I have with so much that
    > goes on in the blogosphere.

    It is hard to escape the R.C. charge against Protestantism that the reason for this is the “everyone his/her own pope” syndrom inherent in Protestant ecclesiology and rejection of the Petrine magisterium. Not that I am convinced that the R.C. model is without problems — they are simply different.

  13. Sorry, I didn’t bother to read all the comments here, and I’m not familiar at all with Piper, but in Catholic theology, the argument against a self-centered God is very basic, high school catechism. God is a Trinity, three Persons in one God.

    The love of each Person for the other is a perfect, selfless (and perfectly selfless) outpouring of love. Once you conceive of God as a Trinity, three Persons in one God, it becomes impossible to conceive of the One God as self-centered in any way. The Trinitarian God is the perfection, rather, of Love.

  14. Sorry, I was going to suggest that you delete my previous comment since I evidently am getting into a discussion I don’t know much about, but instead I decided to read up on Piper after that last comment, by checking out his website. In particular, I read this.

    I think that the confusion arises because Piper talks about God having a “chief end.” The word “end” implies that God desires to “gain” something. Once you use that kind of language, God then appears to be “narcissistic” or “self-centered,” since He appears to have created Creation in order to gain something for Himself.

    I don’t know if anyone will find this is helpful, but here’s another way of looking at it. St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that God does not act to acquire any “end.” (He is supremely happy with Himself and needs nothing other than Himself.) God created Creation, not to acquire any end/gain for Himself, but with the sole intention of self-communication. (That’s how Aquinas interprets the phrase “for Himself” in Proverbs 16:4). God desired to communicate Himself (His goodness, His Being), and the very act of self-communication was Creation.

  15. I’ve long admired Piper, and I think scholastically, his arguments line up well. My problem is a practical application. We speak of suffering and our own wretchedness and the continued workings of God to drive us to these realities and we miss a much simpler, beautiful faith where the facts are true, but where laughter among friends is more God-centered than a sermon on a tower falling on people. Piper’s best I think came when his own dad died – little speaking on an otherworldly soverignty, and much on the memory of a man who held up a simple yet deep and passionate faith.

  16. http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2007/02/12/was-gods-purpose-in-creation-to-glorify-himself/

    Micheal Patton had a great post on this issue last February

    “There is a popular notion in the evangelical world today that I think has become part of our folklore and can very easily misrepresent the character of God by attributing to Him motivations for creation that I do not believe are true. Some would say that God’s purpose, intent, and motivation for creating humanity and all of creation was for His own self-glorification. I think that this is a difficult position to sustain biblically and theologically.”

  17. Michael,

    I was wondering if you think it’s completely fair to say that the issues at hand are pertaining to “Piper’s theology?”

    Twenty years ago, I sat in the basement of my SBC, arminian church with Mr. Hosea, our 3rd grade Royal Ambassador leader, and ten other boys my age when I first learned that God created me for His glory, and that God does everything, ultimately for his glory above all his motives. He even used Edward’s argument that since God is completely perfect, then he MUST value himself above everything. He explained sin grace to us in these terms, as well as God’s holiness using Romans 3:23. I learned this in 3rd grade. He used to ask us questions before cookie time, and this was one he asked often, “Why does God do what he does.” The right answer was not “JESUS” which was the sunday school answer, but “To show his Glory.”
    Frankly, when I heard about Piper and Calvinism (from those who actually represented it fairly) in college, this aspect of reformed thinking seemed to fit with what I thought every Southern Baptist R.A. must have heard in 3rd grade-in other words, it was the believable part!

    I know that Mr. Hosea was a devout baptist and a one-point calvinist and I know for afact he has never heard of John Piper, neither has more than a handful and the staff at that church today.

  18. Interesting thread. The challenge with theological thinking is that it must in the end be fully consistent with both the God of the universe and the whole of scripture. There is a reason that the bible is not a systematic theology…God did not choose to express himself that way. ( is there a regulative principle hiding there?) Not that there is anything wrong with theological thinking. It’s just that we have to keep a sense of humility about ourselves and our capacity. Once we think we have it all figured out we are in the gravest danger of missing the mark.
    Too many systems of theological thinking are fully consistent with themselves but inconsistent with the plain communication of the God of the Bible.
    Our theology is like tribesmen trying to explain electronics without understanding electricity.

  19. Blanca locuta est, causa finita est! 🙂

    Note that neither Piper nor Hays contradicts what Witherington says about God’s ultimate motivation – they critique his exegesis and whether he represented Schreiner fairly. Maybe all that’s happened here is that Witherington has headed off a distorting tendency, and must deal with rhetoric thrown at him to save face, but his opponents aren’t really disputing his basic premise.

  20. Patrick Kyle says

    I was in an email conversation with Dr. Rosenbladt peripherally addressing these issues and he said something that shed a lot of light on the subject for me; “The overall paradigm in Calvinism is
    In classical Lutheranism, it is Father/child and one goes to church
    to receive good gifts
    from His good and gracious hand. Incredibly, He kneels and washes
    our feet rather than
    the other way round.”

    I think the view of God as primarily Father resides in other theological traditions and makes them uncomfortable with these extreme Calvinist statements also.

Speak Your Mind