An Arminian defends John Piper

November 17, 2014

John Piper

In a recent blog post, T.C. Moore is indignant over what he perceives to be a contradiction between something that outspoken neo-Calvinist pastor John Piper said in a 2006 article and something he’s saying now. Back in 2006, Piper argued that cancer is designed by God for God’s glory. Recently, however, Piper has called cancer an “enemy of God.” It can’t be both, Moore says, unless God is his own worst enemy. How can God have two wills—both intending that cancer would strike someone while at the same time hating that cancer would strike someone?

I admit it sounds bad for Piper’s cause. I reject the idea that God “designs” cancer for anyone. But when I read what Piper says he means by “design,” I wonder if my primary disagreement isn’t merely with his use of that word?

Here’s what Piper wrote in 2006, according to the excerpt in Moore’s post:

It will not do to say that God only uses our cancer but does not design it. What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design. If God foresees molecular developments becoming cancer, he can stop it or not. If he does not, he has a purpose. Since he is infinitely wise, it is right to call this purpose a design. Satan is real and causes many pleasures and pains. But he is not ultimate. So when he strikes Job with boils (Job 2:7), Job attributes it ultimately to God (2:10) and the inspired writer agrees: “They . . . comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). If you don’t believe your cancer is designed for you by God, you will waste it.

There’s not much here for an Arminian like myself to disagree with—except Piper’s use of the word “design.” After all, we Arminians believe that God “foresees molecular developments becoming cancer,” and we believe that God has the power to stop it or not. I imagine that what Piper says next gives us non-Calvinists the most trouble: “If [God] does not [stop the cancer from developing], he has a purpose.” Piper calls this purpose “design”; I don’t.

Besides that, where’s the problem?

Do we believe that God has the power to stop these “molecular developments” from becoming cancer or not? Someone might say, “Yes, God has the power to stop it, but he chooses not to simply because it’s God’s general rule to let nature run its course. He only makes occasional exceptions. Therefore cancer happens. Aside from God’s permitting it to happen, God has nothing to do with it.”

This sounds nice in that it apparently lets God off the hook for people’s pain and suffering (but not really), except that no one gets cancer in a vacuum. Not only will this cancer change the life of the person who gets it, it will also change the lives of his family, friends, and acquaintances. These changes will in turn affect the lives of their acquaintances, and so on. It’s easy to imagine how the impact of just one person getting cancer could reverberate across generations.

In his book on suffering, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller calls this the “history-butterfly effect”: “If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about.”[†]

If we Christians are right that God plays a providential role in our lives and world—always working for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), always using the trials of life to benefit us (James 1:2-4)—at what point do we concede that God actually does have something to do with someone getting cancer: that even in permitting (but not causing) the cancer, he’s using it to serve his good ends, which is exactly the same as saying that he has a purpose for permitting it?

Besides, suppose you’re a Christian who believes that God mostly lets nature run its course. You still believe that God has the power to give us what we ask for in prayer. In other words, you believe that God will make something happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen if you didn’t pray for it. The Bible, including Jesus’ own teaching, is clear on this. If you pray for God to do something—like heal someone of cancer—and God doesn’t do it, you have three possible explanations for God’s not granting your petition: 1) God doesn’t have the power to do it; 2) God chooses not to do it, but his choices are arbitrary; or 3) God chooses not to do it for a good reason (whether we understand what that reason is or not).

Option 3 is the only Christian option. If God has a good reason for not granting your petition, then isn’t that exactly the same as saying that this event or non-event serves God purpose?

As for the apparent contradiction that Moore highlights, I disagree that it’s necessarily a contradiction (at least based on Moore’s excerpts of Piper). God can have conflicting desires. Is it so hard to see why? If we weren’t living in this sinful and fallen world, then by all means, God could will that none of us gets cancer. Life-destroying cancer and the death it so often causes is contrary to God’s original intentions for humanity. It is an “enemy” of God.

Given that we live in this world of sin, however, under these circumstances, God will use even his enemies to serve his good purposes. We see this throughout scripture, especially in the history of Israel. We may rightly pray for God to vanquish our enemy. But if he doesn’t, we ought to trust that he has good reasons not to.

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2 Responses to “An Arminian defends John Piper”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    How about, instead of “two wills,” just one will that takes into account “competing principles”? In other words, God takes into account both the good and bad that any state of affairs will bring about and chooses the best option. He doesn’t have two wills about it–he just considers both things that he likes and things that he doesn’t and balances things out accordingly (and perfectly).

    So what about “natural consequences,” “free will,” and “the Devil”? God, in his foreknowledge, knew the kinds of things people such as ourselves would be prone to choose and the culprit the Devil would always be. So he “arranged” things accordingly (including the natural events). Again, any particular scenario might not be what He would have chosen if that circumstance “stood alone,” but no circumstances ever do exist “in a vacuum.” So, once again, he chooses the best thing.

    A caveat. Part of what God takes into account is that we won’t like or otherwise benefit from certain events of “nature” (hurricanes and cancer) in themselves, so we would “fight against them.” And pray against them. We are supposed to do that. The things ARE “evil” standing alone, and part of why God brings them to pass is for the very reason that we will try to “fix” things. Same thing with fighting “thugs.” So we don’t have a fatalistic determinism.

    Also, God “brings out of us” what is in our hearts by the circumstances he places us in, as well as guiding us to “better.” God generally does not “override” our wills, but instead “weaves” our wills into the grand play he has scripted.

    Finally, the ultimate resolution of the “war” that we endure is that any present inequities in that regard will be “ironed out” in eternity. Though Jesus was being somewhat overly simplistic to make his point, “In his life Lazarus had his evil things and you good things, and now the situation is reversed.” So we don’t have any reason to cry out, “But that’s not fair!”

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree… In saying God has “two wills, I was using the same language as the blogger. Theologically, however, it makes sense to speak of God’s antecedent will (before the Fall) and consequent will, in which case God does will things that, under pre-Fall conditions, he wouldn’t will.

      In that horrible Rob Bell book Love Wins, he asks, “Does God NOT get what he wants”—meaning, if God wants everyone to be saved, how is it that human beings are so “powerful” that they could thwart God’s will by going to hell? The rejoinder, as Mark Galli said in his book-length response to Bell, is, “God wants more than one thing.” He wants everyone to be saved, by all means, but not at the expense of their free will. Again, this is what I also meant by “two wills.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: