August 14, 2020

Witherington on Piper’s Theodicy

ben_wittheringtoniii.jpgBen Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary, joins the discussion on John Piper’s I-35 theodicy.

Or think for a moment about the Beelzebul controversy in Mark 3. Jesus is accused of being in league with Satan. Now notice how Jesus responds to this charge. He doesn’t say, “I couldn’t do otherwise, because God foreordained me to do this, whether in league with Satan or on my own.” No, Jesus calls it blasphemy! To attribute the work of God to the work of the Devil is ‘blaspheming the Holy Spirit’ who only does good always. Now the corollary of this is also true. To attribute the work of the Devil to the work of God is also blasphemy. Careful Rev. Piper, you might being falling under this warning Jesus gave here to his interlocutors.

Read the entire post at Witherington’s web site, and prepare for the response.

Witherington’s point about ignoring secondary causes and attributing the work of the devil to God is exactly what certain other theologians were saying….and that brought forth the charge of committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. As I said then, it’s a common objection, and certainly has been part of the Wesleyan tradition of rejecting some views of God’s involvement in tragedy for a long time.

But this cannot be said of Rev. Piper, I am afraid. He’s just guilty of having an unBiblical view of God, that ironically is closer to the fatalistic one found in the Koran, than the Biblical one found in the New Testament.

Time for another round.


  1. Michael,

    An honest question for you (Scouts honor, no snark). You recently took Rick Phillips to task for his response to Roger Olson’s article in which Olson said that he has trouble distinguishing the God of Calvinism from the devil. You clearly thought this was over the line and that the TR’s were finally throwing down the gauntlet.

    So my question is: Do you feel the same way when Dr. Witherington implies the same about Dr. Piper? Witherington warns Dr. Piper that by maintaining God’s ultimate sovereignty over the bridge collapse he is coming dangerously close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit. He then describes Piper’s view of God as unbiblical and compares him to Allah.

    When Reformed types accuse Arminians of blasphemy and say that they worship a man-centered and unbiblical “god” (note the obligatory lower case spelling and scare quotes in order to drive the point home), you take issue with them. When a Wesleyan like Witherington responds in kind, should our response be similar? Or are there other mitigating factors (like the TR’s are louder and more annoying, etc)?

    There, I restrained all snark. Thanks for sticking your neck out again.

  2. Nicholas Anton says

    To suggest that everything that goes wrong from humankind’s perspective is sin as Ben Witherington seems to suggest; and I quote… “— is God the author of sin as well? Is God responsible for all that goes wrong in the world?”, does not make sense to me (I must be pre-determined to think otherwise).

    In regards to naturalistic determinism, I do not recollect any naturalist suggesting that humankind is predetermined to believe a lie. However, should naturalistic determinism be true, the person who believes because of logical reasoning is no more and no less predetermined by nature in his/her beliefs than the person who disbelieves despite logical reasons. It could be argued that a person who believes because of logic is simply predetermined to see the arguments presented as logical because of his/her predetermination, even though they may not be so.

    Hence, to the hyper conservationist, the brushing of one’s teeth could be sin because it kills millions of organisms. However, for the hygienist, brushing the teeth is good, because it kills organisms that destroy the teeth. Frequently, what we might see as sin/wrong/evil may not be sin/wrong/evil from God’s perspective. That perspective explains the flood, the destruction of the Canaanites, the fire bombing of Sodom and Gomorrah (not Dresden) etc.. On this subject Piper’s arguments make sense to me. I will permit God to decide for me.

    I am not a determinist, or should I say, I am only a determinist from God’s perspective. Nevertheless, since I am not God but human, I am not a determinist from humankind’s perspective. I however believe in both the complete Sovereignty of God (from God’s perspective), and the free will of humankind (from humankind’s perspective). Can I explain it? No, not satisfactorily! Do I believe the Bible teaches it? Absolutely! Can and do I believe it? Yes!

    Furthermore, God is not bound by a set of universal laws, He Is The Law. Therefore believe and follow Him.

  3. So Many Stones says

    I hope someday I find a satisfactory answer to the theodicy, or at least accept the lack of one. Then I can do something.

    But before I do something, I’ll need a better understanding of God’s sovereignty and/or human responsibility — since it might be a waste of time to do something if I can’t do anything that I wouldn’t already be doing.

  4. It’s obvious what BWIII is doing and why he’s doing it. He doesn’t believe Piper has blasphemed the HS, but the irony of the two way street of causation needs to be brought up. If I thought Dr. W, like Rick Phillips, believed Piper had blasphemed the HS by asking theological questions, I’d take him to task as well.

    This is more, “Please note how much the gun you are shooting looks vaguely familiar.”

  5. Nicholas,

    First, it is impossible to be a determinist from “God’s perspective” because you have no access to God’s perspective.

    Second, if determinism is true, then there can be no free will from the “human perspective” except to say that it only appears that way. In fact, since all is determined by God, we have no free will. So we are deceived.

    Third, the claim that God is the Law is unclear, but I’ll go ahead and say that, if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, then God is Himself determined since his nature is immutable. Since the Law is identical to his essence, the Law couldn’t be other than it is. In other words, the typical sort of problem generated by the doctrine of divine simplicity and the worship of the God of the philosophers rather than the God of the Scriptures.

    Finally, it really isn’t consistent to make various claims about God – even to have access to His perspective – and then to conclude by saying that it’s really all a mystery. If you don’t have reasons then how can you make the claims you make.


    Concerning Dr. Witherington,

    He may be criticized on the internet for the position he articulates on his blog, but at least he won’t take it personally and obsess about it endlessly. I doubt he’ll be constantly surfing the blogs of those who disagree with him looking for their disagreements and critical remarks, especially the ones that will inevitably call him names. Even when they come to his place with their nastiness he’ll reply graciously, even if he must be stern at some points with some people. As far as his blog personality is concerned, there are many on the internet who would be wise to emulate Dr. Witherington’s tact in dealing with others. Ahem.

  6. Michael:

    Thanks for the link: I think BWIII provides an important and balancing corrective in the points he raises. Like many others of all denominational stripes, Piper takes a biblical teaching (God’s sovereignty), pushes it to its logical conclusion (God intended for people to die that day on I-35), and comes up with an unbiblical idea (God is directly responsible for all that happens).

    Calvinism, like all systems of theology, ultimately breaks down under the weight of biblical revelation. Better to just admit it than to take foolish stands and risk taking God’s name in vain (i.e., associating God with things in which He is not directly involved).

    When faced with tragedies and disasters, sometimes “I don’t know” is a brilliant – and biblical – answer.

  7. Joe, I hope you’ll read the post again. At no point did Dr. Witherington say, “The god of Calvinism is very similar to the devil.” Not even close. He said that Piper is guilty of having an unBiblical view of God. And, I might add, I’m sure Ben restricts that observation to this one area of theology and not all of it as they share a good amount of theology in common. As we all do.

  8. Bob Sacamento says

    From Nicholas Anton: Frequently, what we might see as sin/wrong/evil may not be sin/wrong/evil from God’s perspective. That perspective explains the flood, the destruction of the Canaanites, the fire bombing of Sodom and Gomorrah (not Dresden) etc.. On this subject Piper’s arguments make sense to me. I will permit God to decide for me.

    I think you and I are in agreement in most ways here. And I, like you, think BWIII missed the argument somewhat here.

    Piper’s comments still burns my biscuits, though. Regarding the current discussion, the point is not that tragedies in general can’t be part of God’s greater plan. As you have pointed out from scripture, they obviously can be. What bugs me about Piper is that, like it or not, he has absolutely no idea why God permitted that bridge to collapse, no more than you or I do, but he pontificates on it as if he has a direct line to the celestial switchboard. It seems to me that in situations like this the thing to do is not publicly speculate (which is exactly what Piper is doing, whether he knows it or not) on why God let the bridge collapse, but to figure out how to help those who are hurting and how to, if possible, prevent or mitigate this kind of thing in the future. Piper sounds for all the world like the disciples pontificating aloud on why the man was born blind instead of saying, “Hey, Jesus, can we help this poor guy somehow?”

    But again, I will agree that Witherington kind of missed the mark here.

  9. As interesting as all this “Why do bad things happen in a world governed by an omnipotent, loving God?” debate may be, there seems an even more fundamental question: What is God doing about it? The fact that we continue to disagree on the cause (primary, secondary, tertiary — it seems we disagree at all levels) of evil might suggest that Scripture wasn’t written to address that issue unambiguously. Scripture does, however, clearly reveal God’s plan for putting to rights all that is wrong with the world — the great mystery of our faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. It is acceptable to say, “I don’t know why, but here is what God is doing about it.” Then we can read Revelation 21-22 together and rejoice in God’s love for us.

    Peace of Christ,


  10. I think that you are right Michael in your assessment of BWIII’s use of the blasphemy language, however I find myself doing careful self-reflection as I think about this post and the earlier conversation about Rick Phillips and Roger Olsen.

    I have studied theology and consequently like many on this blog, I have strong feelings about what ideas are “biblical” and what aren’t. I often encounter theological viewpoints about which I think, “That is not just wrong, that is diabolical.” And I have come to realize that some other people, (even probably some nice people who are good to their children) feel the same way about my views.

    It is sometimes a short step from, “I find those views to be both unbiblical and diabolical” to “People who hold those views are outside of the kingdom of God, because they hold those views.” I think that BWIII does not take that step, nor do I think that Roger Olsen did. I think that Rick Phillips may have.

    I struggle for theological humility and one of the ways I do this is by working to never let myself take that step. If I ever do I depend on those around me to call me back. I am reminded that Jesus teaches, “I have sheep you don’t even know about.” How could I be so bold as to cast another out of the fold because they have studied one of the greatest mysteries of human experience and come to different conclusion.

    Thanks be to God

  11. Nicholas Anton says

    Brad in KY

    First, I was not totally clear in what I stated, and may never be. Nevertheless, I will make another attempt at it. When I stated “…I am only a determinist from God’s perspective.”, I did not attempt to put myself in the place of God. Rather, because I do not understand Deity other than from how Deity has revealed Himself within a material universe, from an psycho-anthropomorphic perspective, with human language, I can concede that it is possible for God to exist within, outside of, before and after time, simultaneously. If that be true, then obviously eternity is as clear to Deity as the present and past. Though Jesus limited Himself while on earth, The Father never did. Therefore, whether you call it(?) foreknowledge, predestination or determinism makes little difference to me.

    Second, I do believe in some sense that humankind has free choice within space and time, but not necessarily within eternity.

    Third, Christ (Who is God) does declare Himself to be the end of the law (Rom 10:4).

    Finally, we can only know God to the extent that He has revealed Himself to us. This I can believe, though I cannot fully comprehend it.

    The enigma surrounding predestination and free will is much the same as the incarnation. It is the coexistence of deity and humanity, the ability to choose and the chosen;

    We are largely limited by what we can conceptualize and analyze. There may be concepts which are articulated clearly, but, since a person may not at that time be capable of understanding them, they appear as contradictory, random, and foolish. Though I enjoy complex, contrapuntal music, once it gets beyond my cognitive abilities, it , though very mathematical and complex, is the same to me as chance music (That is why 12 tone music is so inaccessible to most people). Much of our understanding of Theological concepts or the lack thereof, falls in this category.

    Clear? Probably not.

  12. It’s interesting he misuses Job as an example to support his point. He forgets Job blamed God for what happened during the whole discourse with his friends, and God never corrected him. Job never charged God with wrongdoing, but he did lay responsibility on Him. Also, does this guy think it never occurred to God that Satan might attack Job if he was harping on him in front of “the accuser”? I guess God was just being sentimental when that old devil ruined it for Job…..but Job falls under the exact same warning he gives Piper….now is Piper being scriptural in his use of this theology, or is this guy perhaps missing the mark in diagnosing “error”?

    It’s also interesting the way he uses Scripture in James, “God doesn’t tempt anyone…PERIOD”. I guess don’t bother harmonizing passages in the OT where God is testing Israel by setting snares in front of them, or testing people’s hearts. Amos 3:6 “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” He doesn’t even sink his teeth into a text, he just gums on a few one-liners.

    I keep thinking, “unbiblical”? Is that what he called Piper when he’s just as, if not more one-dimensional on this issue? I’m let down actually. This has been the most one-dimensional take on the whole issue, I’d rather have Piper’s theology called devilish than just slobbered on by this guy.

  13. I remember a possibly apocryphal story of an exchange between Wesley and Whitfield. To be honest, I think they were both erring theologians, but I have a lot of sympathy for Wesley’s purported comment:

    “Your God is my devil.”

    If god is the author of sin, and has out of his sovereignty elected to send millions to hell without the possibility of redemption, then I must say, such a god sounds like the devil.

    For consistent Calvinists it comes down to all doesn’t mean all. The world is not the world. Love isn’t love.

    The god of Calvinism becomes, like Satan, a liar and a murderer. He says that he desires that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, but he eternally elects the vast majority to hell anyway.

    The answer to theodicy is the cross. God allows suffering, but more than that He suffers. He dies. He destroys death. And suffering will end for all who trust in Him.

    God uses all things for the good of those who love him, and for this reason the brother of our Lord encourages us to rejoice in our sufferings.

    God is God enough to save people through suffering, to use it to draw them to Himself. In a world where God is God, even suffering (which is evil) can be used for divine mercy.

  14. Nicholas,

    I don’t have time to reply to such a substantive post at the moment. I just have one question: Why should I think that the concept of foreknowledge is the same thing as predestination is the same thing as determinism? As you say, ‘call it what you like’; I assume you mean they’re all different names for the same thing. But that sort of claim needs an argument.

    You might be interested in an article at the following website called “A Christian Approach to the Philosophy of Time”:

    It might be easier to understand if you also read the article, “The Concept of the Divine Energies.”

  15. Pr Lehmann,
    either way you slice the ham God has created millions of people to be sent to hell. Whether you leave it up to them or him, it’s him.

    Unless you take away God’s foreknowledge completely you have a God who molds the clay knowing whether it is heading to unspeakable glory or unspeakable wrath. Wouldn’t it be better for him to just stop molding right then and there on some of us? Yet he doesn’t. Whether he determines, or he allows, it is all the same if he knows. You have to find an allowance for that in the Bible and work it into a theology, regardless of the system you choose.

  16. It so happens I just wrote on Desiring God when I saw this post. Indeed Dr. Piper in that book says (p.35), “His purposes encompass all things, including sin”.
    Now I know some Calvinists who will choke in such a statement. I do not think there are those in that camp who will go so far as to couch it in that language, for to me his statement alludes to God being the author of it(sin).


  17. For you, it may allude to that. That statement, however, only says God’s plan is not thwarted by sin. Piper’s theology nowhere says God authors sin, because the Bible never says that. It does say, however, God’s plan is sovereign over, and uses sin, to accomplish its end. (Jacob sold by brothers, Jesus betrayed and crucified, etc)
    I am not defending Piper with a blanket statement, I don’t agree with everything, but I’ve read a lot of his theology on providence, and I believe what you said above is a little slanted.

  18. Rick Campbell says

    I just had a triple bypass 6 days ago at the age of 49. It was not terribly life-threatening as I am in otherwise good-health and it has become a routine procedure. The “direct” cause concerns me little (okay, I do have to address my food intake). What does concern me is what I do from here now that I have been clearly reminded of the brevity of life and God’s priorities for it. So I will celebrate with Joseph that whomever may have intended it for evil (even my own selfish lusts for comfort foods), the Sovereign God of the universe can still use it for His glory which will ultimately also be for my good. I also don’t think God is half as concerned with justifying himself to others as we are in justifying Him to them so that they will find him enough to their liking. Another blessing of the surgery for me was the fellowship before, during, and after the procedure with Christians of all walks, many of whom I’m sure I would drive theologically crazy. I can clearly picture the beauty of the older urban black woman who was gracious enough to honor this semi-redneck baptist’s request for prayer just before he was wheeled in to surgery. I am grateful to be part of the family that includes her and so many others so different from me. I hope to seriously distance myself from my “clanging gong” gang.