Olson Responds to Piper, Again

December 17, 2014

by Roger E. Olson

*This article was originally published HERE.

Recently one of my faithful readers who also often comments here posted a link to a recent episode of “Ask Pastor John”—John Piper’s podcast series in which he answers questions. (All you have to do to find this series is “google” the title “Ask Pastor John” or go directly to Piper’s Desiring God Ministries.) In this episode of the series someone asked Piper which Arminians have influenced him the most. Here I wish to respond to a few comments Piper made in his response.

First, Piper denied that any Arminians had actually influenced him and that because of their (our) disappointing exegesis. He gave no specific examples. I wonder how many Arminian or just non-Calvinist theologians and biblical scholars he has even read. He mentions none. (Later in his answer he does mention John and Charles Wesley, G. K. Chesterton, George McDonald and C. S. Lewis—but I’ll come back to that later. My point is that he mentions no Arminian theologians or biblical scholars in whose exegesis he is disappointed. And I still wonder what real Arminian theologians and biblical scholars he has read.)

This seems to me like the proverbial pot (Calvinist) calling the kettle (Arminian) black. Here is what recently deceased evangelical theologian, seminary president and statesman Vernon Grounds wrote about Calvinist exegesis: “It takes an exegetical ingenuity which is something other than a learned virtuosity to evacuate these texts [viz., John 1:29, John 3:16, Romans 5:17-21, Romans 11:32, 1 Timothy 2:6, Hebrews 2:9, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 2:2] of their obvious meaning: it takes an exegetical ingenuity verging on sophistry to deny their explicit universality.” (Grace Unlimited [Bethany House Publishers, 1975], p. 27) (Vernon Grounds served as president of Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary [now Denver Seminary] for many years.)

Piper is free to have and express his opinion about Arminians and exegesis, but it would be helpful if he would at least reveal which Arminian Bible scholars he has read and found wanting and why. Instead his response was merely dismissive and ought not to be taken very seriously—unless one takes whatever Piper says seriously just because Piper says it.

In my opinion Piper’s own method of biblical exegesis, called “arcing,” leaves much to be desired. (Again, to find out what it is simply “google” “Piper” and “arcing.”) Again—in my opinion—it presupposes a kind of combined naïve common sense realism and propositionalism that reduces the Bible to a not-yet-systematized system of propositions. Underlying it is, in my opinion, a view of the Bible and theology akin to, if not identical with, Charles Hodge’s view (expressed in volume 1 of his 1872 Systematic Theology): that the Bible is to theology what nature is to science—raw data to be mined out and interpreted inductively. The problem with this is, of course, that neither theology nor science is purely inductive. And theology is as much an art as a science. Also, much of the Bible’s content is not propositional.

There is no such thing as presuppositionless exegesis. Even Charles Hodge, one of the leading Calvinist theologians of Protestant history, noted that every biblical exegete must approach the Bible with certain presuppositions that are common sense truths. One of them is, according to Hodge, that God cannot do wrong. So, if one finds a passage of Scripture that seems to teach that God did what can only be included under the category “wrong,” then it cannot mean what it seems to say. Of course, this begs the question what “wrong” includes. However, if a person accepts Hodge’s pre-exegesis principle (which surely they must!), then he or she already has some notion of what Scripture passages can and cannot mean. Therefore, no exegesis is purely inductive, presuppositionless.

Why did Hodge say that one must approach Scripture and theology with the presupposition that God cannot do wrong? The answer should be obvious: Because if the Bible reader believes God can do wrong there is no reason to trust Scripture; God might be lying. Arminian exegetes approach Scripture with the very Hodgeian presupposition that God cannot be the author of sin and evil or else God would do wrong. This is why John Wesley famously said that whatever Romans 9 means it “cannot mean that”—with “that” referring to the typical Calvinist interpretation of double predestination. (Of course I would argue with other Arminian exegetes and theologians that Romans 9 must be interpreted in its context which offers a better interpretation than the typical Calvinist one.)

Piper’s “arcing” approach to biblical exegesis seems to me to assume a presuppositionless, purely inductive interpretation. I doubt that is possible or desirable. And if it leads one to claim that God “designs, ordains, and governs” evil and hell (including who will go there and rendering certain that they do), then it makes God monstrous which means nothing God says can be trusted. Why bother with biblical exegesis at all if God can do wrong? Of course, a neo-fundamentalist will simply say “I go wherever objective biblical exegesis takes me”—meaning “I will believe whatever my objective, inductive biblical exegesis reveals about God.” But, given the Scriptures cited by Grounds (above), that is simply not the case. Also, it can lead one to end up with a monstrous God unworthy of worship—namely one who actually wants some people to spend eternity in hell for his glory. But that conclusion turns back on its own method of arriving there because if that is God, then he is not trustworthy and there is no reason to think the Bible is true.

The common, contemporary Arminian approach to biblical exegesis is explicitly not purely inductive or presuppositionless. (But in this it only admits what is true of every biblical exegesis.) Contemporary Arminians typically interpret the Bible Christologically, with Jesus Christ as the “touchstone” of biblical interpretation—because he is God incarnate and therefore above even the Bible as the supreme revelation of God. Whatever in Scripture seems to conflict with God revealed in Jesus must be interpreted in light of God revealed in Jesus.

I believe that John Piper’s exegesis of the Bible is not purely inductive or presuppositionless either. I believe it is guided, if not determined, by a certain vision of God as absolute power. When Piper talks about God’s “glory” I can only hear “power.” But power without goodness, benevolence, mercy is unworthy of worship. Of course, Piper will claim that his vision of God includes all those attributes, but I have trouble seeing them there.

One event in the life of Jesus stands out to me as emblematic of God’s attitude toward unbelief, wickedness and evil: Jesus crying over Jerusalem and saying (paraphrased) “How I would have gathered you to me but you would not!” The same is revealed about God in Hosea and throughout Scripture. If people’s rejection of God is somehow rooted in the will of God such that God “designed, ordained and governs it,” and such that it glorifies God, then for God to grieve over it makes God more than “complex” (in his emotional life); it makes him unstable and unworthy of trust.

Finally, in his response to the question, Piper mentions C. S. Lewis as someone who greatly influenced him, but he says he is not sure Lewis could be counted as Arminian—based on a talk given at a conference by another Calvinist scholar-theologian. I can assure Piper that he can count Lewis among the Arminians even if Lewis never called himself Arminian. I have read virtually everything Lewis wrote—especially on Christian theology and apologetics—and can say with confidence that Lewis’ basic theological orientation was more consistent with Arminianism than with Calvinism. I co-taught a course on Lewis’ worldview at Rice University when I was a Ph.D. student there. In the process (during the summer leading up to the fall course) I read everything I could get my hands on by Lewis and by Lewis scholars—including some who knew him personally. Later, while serving as general editor of Christian Scholar’s Review, I edited a theme issue on Lewis. In that process I read numerous manuscripts by Lewis scholars. The claim that Lewis’ theology is closer to Calvinism than Arminianism strikes me as absurd. There are times and situations when one cannot take a claim seriously simply because one knows the material being talked about so well. I will claim that about my acquaintance with Lewis and his theology. Of course, anyone who doubts me must read Lewis’ books and essays for himself or herself. I urge them to start with The Great Divorce. How that can be reconciled with Calvinism is simply beyond my ability to understand. In my opinion, such a claim borders on sophistry (to paraphrase Grounds above).

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Clay Gilbreath

this, here:
“Contemporary Arminians typically interpret the Bible Christologically, with Jesus Christ as the “touchstone” of biblical interpretation—because he is God incarnate and therefore above even the Bible as the supreme revelation of God. Whatever in Scripture seems to conflict with God revealed in Jesus must be interpreted in light of God revealed in Jesus.”

since many on this blog (myself included) are non-Calvinist, and non-Arminian, I have a question: do others agree with this statement?

    Bill Mac

    I was going to ask essentially the same question. I happen to agree with the statement, but didn’t Southern Baptists write this out of our confession in the newest revision?

      Andy Williams

      “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”

      You are correct. This statement was not in the 1925 BF&M, was written into the 1963 BF&M…then removed in 2000. In reality, the statement itself doesn’t say much without further interpretation. Which is probably why it was removed. The 2000 instead has this sentence: “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.” (So it would be a mistake to say the 2000 removed Christ completely…and I am not saying you have said that).

      In fact, I would guess most christians, SBCers, Calvinists, Arminians, and traditionalists would agree with both Dr. Olson’s statement AND with the 1963 statement, and with the 2000 statement…each interpreting it to mean something slightly different.

Norm

Brother Olson’s essay hits at the very heart of the issue that creates the soteriological divide among Christians who have vastly differing understandings of what the Bible says about salvation. Exegesis is not at the bottom of that chasm, but the cause of it — or should I say faulty exegesis?

As I have read after Calvin, Calvinists and when I served for about two years as moderator of this blog, I was struck by the way Calvinists allow their theology to drive their exegesis and not vice versa. Of course, there are those limited number of times that a biblical understanding of the character of God (theology) will drive our exegesis when a passage is difficult to understand. We should always defer in those cases to what we know about character of God.

However, to say that “all” (GK., pantes, panti, etc.) does not mean “all” is an exegesis of convenience and not convention.

At this season, I am reminded of the angel who told the shepherds that the coming of the Messiah was (is) good news for *all* (panti) people. But for Calvin and his ilk, “all” cannot be what is in view. Of course, that makes the angel a liar. And if Calvin(-ists) reject that logical conclusion, then the explanation must come as to why the Savior’s birth is good noes to all, when among the “all,” some have already been deemed hell-worthy and have no chance of redemption, and will spend eternity in hell for God’s good pleasure.

Olson’s point about Piper’s “arcing” is exceedingly well taken and applied here: If the Savior’s birth is good news for all, then why is it that some have not the first chance to know this good news since God sent them to hell before the foundations of the earth?

Either the angel lied or Calvinists are wrong. Either God is disingenuous and deceitful, or his word is true and trustworthy.

As an older teen, I was exposed to Calvinism — and that after having read the Bible though a couple of times. This was an especially spiritually formative time for me. I walked with the Lord, and he with me. I prayed frequently. I was also studying my Bible and was led by the enlightening ministry of the Holy Spirit (Ps. 36:9; 1 Cor. 2:9-10). And when I read and heard of the tenets of Calvin, I said, “This is not the God I know.” Lo, these many years later, I reject the soteriology of Calvin as not coming from the God I know. (I made a similar statement at the blog long ago, and it was construed to mean that I said Calvinists are lost. I am not saying that at all. I am focusing on the soteriology of Calvin(-ists) and not salvation (huge diff).

In that regard, and to my mind and heart, the soteriology of Calvin(-ists) is not entirely bankrupt; but it will forever be in exegetical arrears as noted by Olson’s above citation of Vernon Grounds: “Vernon Grounds wrote about Calvinist exegesis: ‘It takes an exegetical ingenuity which is something other than a learned virtuosity to evacuate these texts [viz., John 1:29, John 3:16, Romans 5:17-21, Romans 11:32, 1 Timothy 2:6, Hebrews 2:9, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 2:2’ of their obvious meaning: it takes an exegetical ingenuity verging on sophistry to deny their explicit universality.”

If you are interested in where Calvinism leads some people (as it has led some of our own to deny the faith and become agnostic), then read the comment below (not mine) that appears on the blog of several days ago regarding the evangelization of the chidden of a Calvinistic generation:

“I live in the Netherlands, in a city where a large part of the population is a member of orthodox Calvinist churches. The vast majority, 98 percent, of the members of these churches have no assurance of salvation. In evangelization among these people it is inevitable that you enter into a conversation based on the Bible.
What you must do is defend and proclaim that Jesus died for all people. Do that with the Bible! This is the point of Calvinism that is easiest from Scripture to refute. Read the texts. There is power in the word of God. Explain them. God can take away their blindness. If this the truth of this point is acceptend then the whole Calvinist building collapses. It corrects the unbiblical image of God of Calvinism. The Bible teaches that God loves all men and desires to save each person, that’s why he gave his Son. He longes for you and invites you to come to Him. Such a God Calvinism does not know. The second thing that must be stressed is that God means what He says. If he says “Come”, he means that. This ignores the doctrine of the special and irresistible call, but must be done anyway. It is important to repeat this over and over.”

Norm mayfield

I have not been able to locate the book by Vernon Grounds that you quoted. Is it out of print?

That is an excellent quote from Dr. grounds.

Donald

“Piper’s “arcing” approach to biblical exegesis seems to me to assume a presuppositionless, purely inductive interpretation…”

I doubt that Piper would claim to be without presuppositions. There are certain things that we accept without proof (axioms), and these are necessary in order to be able to form an argument for anything. If one begins with the conviction that the Bible is inspired, inerrant and infallible; one begins with presuppositions. Certain axioms have to be in place in order to even begin, else we are stuck with Descartes debating our own existence.

That being said, Dr. John Sailhamer advocates a text-based theology and it seems to me that would be the place to begin for all of us who hold to a high view of inspiration. If we are a people of The Word, then shouldn’t we pay great attention to those very words?

However, it seems the real error lies in filtering the text thru our conclusions – seeking to explain away problematic texts rather than dealing with them.

Jim Poulos

A comment on Donald’s post:

Particularly the last sentence: “However, it seems the real error lies in filtering the text thru our conclusions – seeking to explain away problematic texts rather than dealing with them.”

This is easy to say but all but impossible to overcome. The endless divisions are endless mainly because, I believe, real exegesis demands a level of rigor that most don’t have the time, training, and/or desire to invest. Add to this, if a 100% accurate interpretation was presented, it will usually conflict with others’ presuppositions. Some One said, “Because of your traditions you nullify the Word of God.” Those traditions can hinder deep dialog.

Thank you, Jim Poulos

    Donald

    “real exegesis demands a level of rigor that most don’t have the time, training, and/or desire to invest”

    Truth.

      Andy

      2 things:

      1. For those who want us to all put aside our presuppositions when approaching the text, can we all agree that no one ever does this, and that the best compromise in a fallen world is that we TRY to approach the text knowing what our presuppositions are, and TRY to be willing to let the text alter our viewpoint if it seems to lead that way. This is a good ideal, but we must realize that everyone WILL approach the text with presuppositions even if we tell them not to. Hopefully, some of those presuppositions will be altered by the text as it shows flaws in our thinking.

      2. For Jim and Donald…where is the fine line between “real exegesis demands a level of rigor that most don’t have the time, training, and/or desire to invest” ….and the perspicuity of scripture? Because on the face of i, that statement sounds very elitist, as if a normal Christian, or even a “normal” pastor, just doesn’t have the skills or the time to properly interpret scripture.

      -Andy

        Donald

        Andy,
        I am pretty much in total agreement with point #1. My issue is with those who do not seem to really try. The book “Intro to Biblical Hermeneutics” has a chapter on “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics” by Moisés Silva in which he contends that “proper exegesis should be informed by theological reflection. To put it in the most shocking way possible: my theological system should tell me how to exegete” (p. 261). It that theological tradition it then becomes more palatable to explain why the Inductive details of the text do not mean what they so clearly seem to mean, but must have a meaning read into them from the Deductive conclusions of their theology.

        On #2, I don’t feel like an elitist. I do think that a believer dedicated to understanding the text should develop skills over the course of a lifetime as they indulge in their love of the Scriptures. Scripture testifies of itself that it is clear in in everything that God requires us to believe. Consider when Matthew (2:14-15) quotes Hosea it is very clear what Matthew is saying. It is likewise very clear what Hosea (11:1) is saying . Now, completely understanding the hermeneutics used by Matthew has kept some guys up a night and there have been some very interesting scenarios developed that are rife with presupposition and speculation. One of them might even be correct. I do not believe that the clarity of scripture means that every truth to be gleaned from the text is obvious to the most casual reader. I do, however, believe that all of these truths will nowise be in contradiction to the plain meaning of the text.

        Les Prouty

        Donald,

        You noted that “Moisés Silva in which he contends that “proper exegesis should be informed by theological reflection.” It’s been a long time since I referenced that book but if memory serves, Silva says that it is naive for any of us to think that when we approach the text that we do not come to it with our presuppositions. Our bias and theological system. We all have such bias he says. He says it is best to recognize that…be aware of it and then makes his case that the Calvinistic presupposition or Reformed theological framework is the best bias when approaching exegesis. FWIW.

        Blessings brother.

jim Poulos

Hello Andy,

Well stated, both points. “Where that fine line is?” I am not sure normal Christians or normal pastors have the skill or time. But that does not leave them with no excuse. All believers, the skilled exegete and the babe in Christ have been given ‘the mind of Christ,’ (1 Cor. 2:16). What more need if that is the case? Which is the case. Your first point does touch on the answer,
which I believe is what Someone said suggests, “unless you become as a little child…” There must be the cultivation of that character quality, childlike humility, to truly go forward in discerning and understanding God’s written Word so the Church can fellowship with the Living Word. A cultivation I hope is true of me.

Thank you,
Jim Poulos

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