Dust bunnies and divine sovereignty: a response to John Piper

In the above vide, John Piper, a respected neo-Reformed pastor and author, fields the following question:

Has God predetermined every tiny detail in the universe, such as dust particles in the air?

In response, let’s be clear: the choice we have to make here is not between a God who’s sovereign and one who isn’t, even though some (not all) Calvinists try to frame it this way.

The real question is, “How does a sovereign God exercise his power?” Does he use it to determine in advance absolutely everything that will happen, down to the tiniest detail? Or does he superintend history without having to micromanage it — guiding all things to their eventual fulfillment but leaving room to for us contribute meaningfully?

Piper goes for option A.

Does God predetermine absolutely everything? Yes.

Including dust motes? Yup.

But there’s more. “There’s a great quote from Spurgeon about dust motes.”

Ah, yes. The neo-Calvinist reading list, roughly in order of importance:

  • Charles Spurgeon, collected works of
  • Westminster Confession of Faith, the
  • Romans 9

Back to the video. After a brief aside about the dust bunnies in his bedroom, Piper shares the relevant quote from Spurgeon: “Every one of those [dust motes] is keeping its position and moving through the air by God’s appointment.”

He then follows up with a loosely paraphrased Bible verse: “ ‘The dice are thrown in the lap, and every decision is from the Lord.”

That’s Proverbs 16:33, by the way, which Piper reads as an absolute statement.

The problem is, proverbs are short, pithy sayings that express general truths. Building exhaustive theology from them is dangerous at best. If you do so, be prepared to explain why some kids reject their Christian upbringing (despite Proverbs 22:6) and why not all monarchs are benevolent (despite Proverbs 16:10,12).

Proverbs 16:33 is one of a number of sayings that basically urge humility before God when making plans. It’s not a treatise on the nature of divine sovereignty. To make it one is, well, to misuse the Bible.

Moving on…

Yes, every horrible thing and every sinful thing is ultimately governed by God. And that’s a problem.

Indeed it is a problem. This is where the neo-Calvinist theology runs into trouble. Because this sounds a lot like saying God is the author of sin.

To be fair, this is something they vigorously deny. For example, R.C. Sproul insists, “This is not the Reformed view . . . but a gross and inexcusable caricature.”

Except that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that God “governs” every evil thing — when by govern you mean “with absolute, meticulous control over every detail” — and NOT end up making God the author of evil. This, by the way,  borders on blasphemy—attributing evil to God.

Which might explain why, to their credit, neo-Calvinist theologians are so eager to avoid calling God the author of sin. But I believe they’re pressing a semantic and ultimately artificial distinction.

Back to Piper. He presses his argument by citing a single case of divine intervention, concluding from it that God is meticulously sovereign over all of history:

When you go to Acts 4:27-28 and you read that Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles and the Jews were all gathered together [for] the killing of Jesus, you have God’s plan and God’s hand determining the most horrible sin ever committed.

I don’t know any professing Christian who would dispute that God ordained his own sacrifice for the rescue and restoration of the world. One of the relatively few things Piper and I would agree on is that God worked in and through history to bring about the death and resurrection of Jesus for our redemption. But there are two things worth noting.

First, Piper reads more into Acts 4 than what seems to be there. Here’s the passage in question:

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

In other words, yes: God predestined that Jesus would die. See that phrase “decided beforehand”? That’s the same Greek verb used in the hot-button “predestination” passages, Ephesians 1 and Romans 8.

But according to this text, God predestined the what. Acts 4 says nothing about predestining the who. “They did what [Greek, hosa] your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” It does not say, “They were the ones God decided beforehand should kill Jesus.”

Second (and more importantly), it’s quite a leap to go from saying God orchestrated the most important event in history to saying that he likewise orchestrates every mundane detail—for example, what I had for breakfast this morning.

The Bible frequently speaks of God as our Father, so a look at our own experience of parenting might be useful here. Naturally, I take an active role in any number of potentially life-altering decisions affecting my daughter. Where she’ll go to school, for example. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be equally interventionist about every little thing she does. That wouldn’t be good for her, and it would border on neurotic for me.

Continuing with Piper’s video…

“I pray that when you contemplate believing in a sovereign God who governs the dust motes, the waves — including tsunamis . . .”

Let’s stop there for a minute. Just to be absolutely clear, John Piper believes God orchestrated the South Asian tsunami to kill a quarter-million people in 2004.

God ordered the Haiti earthquake to orphan thousands of children.

(According to Piper, God also dispatched a tornado to Minneapolis in 2009 to indicate his disapproval of a bunch of liberal Lutherans.)

“These things have driven people mad.”

Indeed they have.

“But it won’t drive you mad, if you say, ‘He loves me..’ ”

Except that according to neo-Calvinist theology, God only loves you (loves you enough to save you, that is) if you’re one of a tiny number of preselected individuals, a.k.a. “the elect.”

However, I do agree with something Piper says near the end of the video:

“People get very arrogant with these kinds of doctrines. They can use them to club people. But if you stay with the cross, you won’t.”

I know this to be true, because I used to be a Calvinist, and I could be quite arrogant in my theology. I believe there’s something inherent to this theology that encourages a particular kind of arrogance, but it is by no means exclusive to any one theological perspective. Piper’s caution is one all of us should take to heart.

The cross was the most humiliating experience in human history. It’s one that we’re called to reenact in our own lives every day. Calvinist or not, if we heed Piper’s advice and “stay with the cross,” it ought to keep us humble.

And that would be a good thing, for everyone involved.

17 thoughts on “Dust bunnies and divine sovereignty: a response to John Piper

  1. When I first saw your post about Sovereignty, I kinda rolled my eyes and thought “yet another hip dude/cousin who’s hip to Calvinism. Awesome. #smh” (Yes, I actually thought hash-tag smh). As if the Gospel isn’t a coalescence of contrarieties, sovereignty and free will.
    *Thanks for pointing out the dishonest use of Proverbs. It sorta drives me nut when folks use Proverbs as the cornerstone to any doctrine or argument.
    *Laughed out loud at the reading list.
    *Humility – In a sermon on the exclusivity of the Gospel, T. Keller said something based on Jeremiah 29 that hit home for me; “Work for the Shalom…The gospel of salvation doesn’t just humble you before people who don’t believe what you believe, so that you know in many cases that morally they’re your betters, but the gospel of salvation says serve them.” How can we serve each other while contemporaneously beating each other with a billy stick bible? Where is the humility in that? Every single day I’m forced to consider my own pride. I wonder if I might at any moment find myself sitting on a park bench with my doctrines and self-righteousness, only to discover that my pride has unleashed Mr. Hyde. Pride is an SOB, to be sure.
    Thanks for the insight.

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    • Hey Andy – thanks for sharing. Your dad told me about the conversation w/a Calvinist friend that ended w/you saying something to the effect of, “Well, I guess God pre-ordained me to believe this way.” I’m totally going to steal that line.

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      • Ha. Yeah, that guy started out a 4 pointer. As usual, he denied Limited Atonement. I proposed that it was impossible to be a TUIP. Partly because TUIP isn’t even a word, and partly because the points are interdependent. I presented an excellent argument. His solution? Convert to a full TULIP. When I refused to convert, he told me I was unlikely to be redeemed. That’s when I told him to save his breath; I’m pre-ordained to believe this way.

        Fin.

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    • Isn’t that what Gods sovereignty fights against? It fights against Hyper Calvanism that shows no humility and grace? Getting a bigger picture of Gods control gives me a more accurate picture of myself in relation to others. If I am acting arrogant I need to remind myself that Im in a jumping contest to the moon.

      I do not fully understand your thoughts on the Acts text because the text seems to extend the doctrine of God’s sovereignty to cover even the acts of sinful people though I would say those acts are done completely voluntarily. How does that work–man-blows my mind and reminds me to humbly pursue God more, but I’d love to hear more of your thoughts there. You seemed to cut it off prematurely.

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      • Hi David –
        It depends what you mean by extending God’s sovereignty over the acts of sinful people. I believe God is sovereign in that he is working in and through history to bring about the reconciliation and restoration described in Colossians 1:15-20. But I don’t believe you have to embrace Piper’s definition of sovereignty to affirm that.

        My point about Acts 4:27-28 is that Peter says Herod & co. did what (Greek, hosa) God had decided should happen to Jesus. It’s plausible to infer from this that the “what” is more important than the “who” as it is – at least as plausible as saying that God determined both the “what” and the “who.”

        The problem is, to say that God unilaterally determined Herod and Pilate’s actions makes God the author of their sin. (I know Calvinists deny this, and I’m glad they do…but I believe their denial reveals a serious contradiction in their theology.)

        It’s quite simple to think of God working through Herod and Pilate to accomplish his purpose in Jesus without having to fall back on Piper’s view of meticulous sovereignty. It was by God’s plan that Jesus came when he did, that he rode into Jerusalem when and how he did (which was an act of political provocation), that he said and did things in the temple to further provoke the establishment. God knew what was in the hearts of Pilate, Herod, and the religious leaders…he knew how they would handle such a situation (without having to control their wills), so he initiated a chain of events that inevitably led to Jesus’ death – i.e. the “what” that Peter refers to in his prayer. Roger Olson unpacks this view a bit further in Against Calvinism.

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  2. thanks for this post.

    I spent a year+ listening to paul washer, john piper, etc. i was getting more and more upset and discouraged. I was praying and frustrated. but GOD wasn’t changing my hear. but that must be ok, it must have been His will!

    needless to say, I dont listen to Piper or Washer or Tim Conway much anymore. not that I would be totally against them. I am for them and against some of their views.

    I always found it funny, how irresistible grace and God’s choosing comforted so many. I was thrown into a tailspin because I grew up believing, and couldnt decide if GOD had CHOSE to save me. (and I knew God might not care to save me at all anyway. maybe he wanted me reprobate. )

    anyway,

    I am now a non-calvinist. (i believe a term i heard from Steve Gregg.)

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    • Well, the short(ish) version is that when Zondervan published the TNIV, Sproul decided to voice his displeasure during a theological conference. So he approached one of my colleagues and told him (loud enough for others to hear), “I fear for your soul and the souls of everyone who works at Zondervan.” So apparently, Sproul’s variation of the famous Reformation motto is “Sola fide…unless you choose the wrong Bible translation.”

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      • I know there’s a danger in being *too* open minded, but wow… some people amaze me with their narrow view of “my way or you’re in al Queda” (to paraphrase Craig Ferguson)

        By the way, what does it say that you responded to my comments on your blog before my actual email to you directly? =)

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  3. Thanks, I don’t fully agree, but I’m grateful for your responsible treatment of this, I try to stay away from theological blogs most of the time they seem often to do more harm than good, and the devil loves that, so I appreciate your attitude.
    I firmly believe the doctrines of grace but I think they can be handled in such away that the simple and central message of the cross can be obscured which obviously the devil loves too. Intact I would say that’s top priority for him.
    One reason I love spurgeon is that his mind and his heart together seemed to be engaged in the truth which I think evidences a lack of intellectual pursuit but instead a knowing of the God which the doctrine reveals which is what theology is for, the pride in knowledge is intact ignorance of God in disguise and I’ve been gravely guilty of it too .
    We need to appoach theology with A LOT of prayer is what I’ve recently concluded,
    The body of Christ( or maybe the online body of Christ) is killing itself over thes things, may God have mercy on us and show us how to treat these things rightly.

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    • Just wanted to add-right apprehension of the doctrines of grace will actually sharpen your vision and understanding of the cross and all that was accomplished, It seems clear to me that the arminian position weakens the apprehension of the magnificence, significance and completeness and certainty our salvation which destroys our confidence in God which keeps us weakened and often doubting. That’s my experience, and what I think is clearly taught in the bible and the two seem to accord marvellously. It’s not essential to believe the doctrine of election for example to be in relationship with God but 1. It’s definitely in the bible and “all scripture is profitable for Doctrine…..etc”
      2. IT STRENGTHENS OUR FAITH and inspires obedience and fear of the Lord which is why it’s there.
      There’s a reason most of the titans of the faith in history were exactly that, they lived on this steady diet of MEAT

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      • Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but It seems you might be making the assumption that Arminianism necessarily means the denial of the P in tulip; or if you will; the doctrine of “Once saved always saved”. This isn’t true; in fact I would say that the majority of Arminians believe “Once saved always saved”.

        I’m not sure I quite understand what you’re saying about election either. Arminians DO believe in the doctrine of election; I think you would have to pull Thomas Jefferson and start cutting verses out of your bible not to. The difference is that Arminianism believes in CONDITIONAL election, whereas Calvinists believe that it is unconditional. Meaning that those who are among the elect were chosen by God arbitrarily; which translates into God has arbitrarily assigned men to heaven and men to hell by choosing to regenerate only some.

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  4. Pingback: The day the tulip died, part 5 « Ben Irwin

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