Piper and Olson: Does God Ordain All Sinful Human Choices? image

Piper and Olson: Does God Ordain All Sinful Human Choices?

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Does God ordain all things, including all sinful human choices? It’s a question we posed in advance of the THINK conference, but didn't really have time to explore properly. Now, prompted by an interesting exchange between John Piper and Roger Olson, I’m hoping to explain how I handle the question.

Piper has preached and written about this extensively for thirty years or more, and answers with an unequivocal “yes”. God foreordains all things: good and evil, fall and redemption, slavery and exodus, rebellion and repentance. God ordained the people who would be saved from before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8), which means he must also have ordained the fall; he ordained sinful choices such as the sale of Joseph (Gen 50:20), the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 4:21), the Davidic census (2 Sam 24:1), the Assyrian (Is 10:5-19) and Babylonian (Hab 1:5-11) invasions, and most obviously, the crucifixion of his own Son (Acts 4:26-28). Not only that, but the Bible is clear that even the roll of the dice is governed by God (Prov 16:33), and that God does all that he pleases (Ps 115:3). And of course, there are key Old Testament phrases like “is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and bad come?” (Lam 3:38), “shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10), “I make well-being and create calamity” (Is 45:7), and “does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” (Amos 3:6), not to mention the comprehensive “he who works all things in accordance with the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11). Scripture, for Piper, repeatedly speaks of a God who ordains all things, including all human choices, whether righteous or sinful.

Roger Olson has written about it a fair bit as well, and couldn’t disagree more with John Piper. For Olson, a God who ordained sinful human choices would be, inescapably, the author of evil. No theology should be believed which cannot be preached at the gates of Auschwitz, he says, and a God who ordained the Holocaust from before the beginning of time, and rendered it certain, simply could not be good in any meaningful sense of that word. As such, Olson says, the God of high Calvinism, whom Piper describes, is far, far worse than the God of open theism, because the God of open theism is at least good. So it disturbs Olson that Piper preaches this way, and it disturbs him that Piper’s fellow Calvinists do not take him to task for doing so; he quotes approvingly some who do, but expresses dismay that so many younger preachers (whom he rather patronisingly refers to as “Piper cubs”) have followed him into the error that God ordains sin. As Wesley said of Romans 9, Olson remarks, whatever the biblical text means, it cannot mean that.

Now, time to put my cards on the table: I do not believe Scripture teaches that God ordains all sinful human choices. I don’t see any biblical evidence that God ordained the fall and rendered it certain, nor that he ordained the Holocaust and rendered it certain, and in that sense, I agree with Roger Olson and disagree with John Piper. But Olson is right for the wrong reasons. He does not (as far as I can see) make an exegetical argument that (say) Ephesians 1:11 does not imply what Piper thinks it implies; instead, he states that because the Calvinist view would mean God was not good, it cannot be correct (a move which both short-circuits an important discussion of Pauline theology, and relativises the importance of exegesis dramatically, as I have argued before). Piper, on the other hand, is (in my view) wrong to say that all sinful human choices have been ordained by God. But this is for the right reasons: he has genuinely let the text shape his conclusions about what God is like, what goodness means and how the ancient Jews saw God’s providence, and he has faithfully presented his exegetical conclusions, despite their unpopularity.

Personally, I am unpersuaded that any biblical text teaches God ordained the fall. To conclude this from the fact that names are written in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundation of the world, as Piper does, is quite a leap, both logically and theologically, and the narrative of Genesis gives no indication that Adam and Eve’s choices were decided for them before the story even started. Neither is this implied by Ephesians 1:11, which speaks of God working all things according to his purpose; this could mean that God ordains absolutely everything that happens, or it could mean that God causes everything that happens to work out according to his purpose in the end (and the same is of course true of Romans 8:28, the context of which is also predestination to inheritance). Of the texts amassed by John Piper in his many writings on the subject, these two are the only ones which could, as far as I can see, have a bearing on whether God ordains all sinful human choices. And I think to read them that way is to overinterpret them significantly.

Having said that, several of the texts cited by Piper do show, against Olson, that God ordains some sinful human choices. In other words, I think Piper is right with the specific examples he gives - Joseph, the census, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and particularly the cross - even if he is wrong (in my view) to induce from this that God ordains all sinful choices. I cannot see, for example, how someone could read Acts 4:27-28 and still argue that God never predestines something that involves a human being sinning:

...for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.


In this case, and a number of others (Gen 50:20 and Is 10:5-19, for example), the human agents are clearly sinning of their own volition, and are judged accordingly, but God has ordained or “predestined” their actions to bring about his purposes. This, it seems to me, makes Olson’s fundamental argument - that for God to ordain any sinful action would make him the author of evil, and render him no longer good - untenable. For Judas, Pilate, Herod, and a whole bunch of others, the sinful intentions of man and the good intentions of God are thoroughly compatible.

It is into this category that I would also place the apparently more sweeping prophetic statements quoted by Piper. Isaiah 45 clearly establishes that God can cause calamity, and that if he does, no human can blame him or demand that he act differently. Lamentations 3 and Job 2 demonstrate that the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering of Job were ordained by God, without this removing the moral accountability of the evil perpetrators: Babylon and Satan, respectively. But none of these texts demonstrate that all sinful choices are ordained by God, or get anywhere near doing so. The closest we come to such a statement is Amos 3:6, which asks rhetorically whether disaster comes to a city unless the LORD has done it (a question to which the answer is clearly no). Even here, however, the context indicates that the scope of this question is limited to judgment on Israel. The next verse, for instance, says that God does nothing without revealing it to his prophets first - but we understand from the context that it means “nothing about Israel’s future” rather than “nothing about anything” (or else the statement would be massive hyperbole, since God clearly does not reveal absolutely everything he does to the prophets). In the same way, it seems likely we should take 3:6 to refer to disaster upon Hazor or Samaria, rather than the destruction of Hiroshima or Stalingrad. The latter would not seem part of Amos’s purpose in the chapter.

Some might wonder whether this makes any difference. For Roger Olson, it probably doesn’t, since for him it would be evil of God to ordain any sinful choice. For me however, it makes a massive difference, for two reasons. Firstly, the purpose of God in ordaining that Joseph be sold into slavery, and that Pharaoh harden his heart, and that the Assyrians attack Israel, and that Jesus be executed despite his innocence, is explicitly redemptive. All of those evil things happen because through them, in the providence of God, the redemption of the world is ultimately being accomplished. God uses Joseph to save many lives, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness to show his power and demonstrate his support of Israel, and the Assyrians to drive Judah to repentance, and so on, right through to the cross. In all of these examples, the sinful human choices are part of God’s plan to bless the world through the seed of Abraham.

Secondly, clarifying that God ordains some sinful human choices but not all of them enables us to engage in theodicy with integrity. As I have said here before, many high Calvinists answer like Arminians when asked about the problem of evil, displaying a fatal inconsistency which indicates either that their Calvinism doesn’t work, or that they haven’t really thought about it properly. If you believe that God ordains all sinful choices, from the fall to the Holocaust and beyond, then saying that Auschwitz was a tragic result of God giving humans freedom is simply not an option; Nazis killed Jews because God ordained that they would, even if they remain morally culpable for it. But if you believe, as I do, that God ordained some sinful choices in the history of his people and his Son, but always with redemptive purpose, then the classic answer to the Holocaust question is the right one: God allows human beings to make evil choices, even though it grieves him when we do. And this, if we’re honest, is much more compelling on an Alpha table than saying it was all pre-planned for God’s greater glory. Especially when the Bible doesn’t actually say that.

So I don’t see any biblical grounds for saying that God ordains all sinful human choices, and I agree with David Bentley Hart (and Roger Olson) that Calvinists often do not distinguish clearly enough between what God ordains and what he allows. (I’ve been asked in the past why I believe ordaining and allowing are different; my usual response is to say, “because they’re different”. When you use two words that have different dictionary definitions – “commanding, giving orders for” versus “permitting” – the burden of proof is on the guy who thinks they mean the same thing, not the guy who thinks they mean different things.) From where I’m standing, the Bible does say that God ordains some sinful choices, but it does not say that God ordains all sinful choices. And if that makes me a woolly, fluffy, Amyraldian, four point, lily-livered, half-baked, big girl’s blouse of a 1536 Calvinist, then so be it.

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