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.
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.