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Friday, February 24, 2006 

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God

In the hopes that I will not eventually wear out this topic, I am going to bring up John Piper's theology again. This time I specifically want to talk about the subject that I only briefly referenced in the previous post -- the controversy over at Rhett Smith's blog concerning Piper's article, "Don't Waste Your Cancer." Rhett Smith had originally posted on his blog an article that was critical of Piper's theology and questioned his pastoral counseling skills. He wrote two more posts which can be accessed here and here, in hopes of clarifying what he said in the previous post and bringing the controversy to a close by calling for unity among believers. But today he posted yet another article on Dr. Piper's article that is again critical of his theology. This time, however, he employs the words of Tyler Williams in an article he wrote on Codex Blogspot entitled, "Cancer, John Piper and the Falleness of Creation." In this article, Williams says he "takes issue" with the first two points in Piper's list, "You will waste your cancer if you do not believe it is designed for you by God" and "You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift" (you will have to go to the DesiringGod.org link to read Piper's explanations about which the following by Williams is discussed). Mr. Williams goes on to say this about those two points:
Now, perhaps I am just coming from a different place theologically than Piper (actually, I know I am), but I find the notions that God "designs" people's cancer and that cancer is a "gift from God" to be offensive. What is more, I find that Piper's proof-texting of Scripture to be troubling. In the book of Job, God does allow "the adversary" (הַשָּׂטָ֖ן, hasatan) to inflict Job, and his so-called friends did see his suffering as from the hands of God and due to his own sin. But, in the same way it is fallaciouss [sic] to see all suffering as the result of sin, so it is not the point of the book of Job to then attribute all suffering to the direct agency of God. Similarly, his series of proof-texts for his second point are perhaps relevant to part of his point that cancer is not a "curse." But saying that cancer is not a "curse" is not the same as saying it is a gift.
Williams goes on to say, "Perhaps I am wrong, or at least biased by my own personal experiences. Whether or not you agree with my perspective (which I would readily admit I have not developed in any detail in this post), one thing we can all agree on is that we should pray."

I think a few things need to be said about Williams' article.
  1. Williams clearly is speaking out of his own existential view of God. He states this explicitly twice in his article. Thus, when he calls Piper's use of Scripture proof-texting, he does so rather ironically, offering very little exegesis of the text, yet seemingly demanding that Piper do so himself, lest he be prooftexting.
  2. He offers no definition of proof-texting. Should we conclude that everyone knows what this means? From the context, it appears that Williams definition is simply, "using the text to defend one's argument." While I admit that I do know what proof-texting is, I don't think that is at all what Piper is doing. Had he done so, he would merely have quoted or referenced the text, not offered a brief, but substantial exegetical note.
  3. Williams seems to suggest that Piper is speaking "off the cuff" here, or rather, that Piper is presenting a view that he desires not to try to defend. However, that anyone familiar with John Piper knows that his intention here was merely to point the reader toward Scriptures he has previously thoroughly exegeted. Williams could have done a little research and found that Dr. Piper has numerous articles on his website about suffering and the sovereignty of God, as well as an entire sermon series on Job, in which he further exegetes this passage to which he refers.
  4. Williams offers no counter position other than his own experience and a Hebrew "lessonette" that does little to truly contradict Piper's "proof-texting." Williams himself admits that he has not explained his own position in any detail and that at best his offering was based on his own personal experiences.

So why do I feel the need to make these particular points about Williams article? It is simply because Rhett Smith makes the absurd comment that while he has seen blogs this week which have articles posted that both agree and disagree with Piper on God's role in cancer (and suffering in general), this is "the best post that [he has] seen on this issue this week." He has got to be kidding -- really! Now, while I agree that Williams ending paragraph is wonderful (he closes by calling for everyone to pray for Dr. Piper and to contribute to various cancer-fighting agencies), I think that Smith's judgment is impaired by his own personal theology, which is what I think is the problem with all those who espouse positions consistent with Open Theism. Though I don't have the time today to discuss open theism, I hope to have an article up on this movement, its implications, and resources you can obtain regarding it either tonight or by Sunday. Suffice to say, I believe open theism is a deadly theology that robs God of His sovereignty in order to give man what he most desires -- libertarian free will (hence, his rebellion at the Fall that continues today), something that Adam gave up at the Fall and we have never possessed because of his act (now, before you get all hyped up, notice the word "libertarian" as opposed to simple "free will" -- here is a brief article that is helpful in delineating between the two). Our wills are now in bondage to sin, only to be freed by the grace of God though the death of Christ.

I fear that Rhett Smith and others like he and Tyler Williams are hijacking classical Christianity in hopes of not being offended by God, and keeping others from being offended by Him as well and all this without laying out much more of a defense than one's own experience and feelings). God has never desired that we defend Him in regards to His own culpability for man's suffering. In Isaiah 53:10 (an undoubtedly Messianic passage), the prophet clearly states, "But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand" (NAS). And Luke records these words from the early disciples in Acts 4:25ff: "Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed'- 27 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, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place." Both Isaiah and the early disciples are unconcerned about whether they, Jesus, or others are offended that the Father would have brought about the death of His own Son. They are only worried about one thing -- communicating the truth they find in the Scriptures and revealed to them through the Holy Spirit. Friends, if Christ could endure suffering as a righteous man, by the Hand of God, shouldn't we be able to accept the discipline that comes from that same loving Hand (Hebrews 12:4-14), knowing that it is indeed for our good, as Dr. Piper has pointed out?

DR said:
"Suffice to say, I believe open theism is a deadly theology that robs God of His sovereignty in order to give man what he most desires -- libertarian free will.."


Forgive me for ripping the following text out of its context, but John 6:60 comes to mind: "On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?""

Now Jesus had been speaking of the necessity to "eat his flesh" and "drink his blood" to have eternal life. But my point is, the disciples had a hard time accepting the reality of what was (and is) an "offensive" teaching. (Offensive to natural man that is).

Similarly, the reality of God's sovereignty is a "hard teaching". It really chaps my hide at times! But it's the truth as revealed in God's word, and I must submit to it and ask for the grace to accept it.

I'm glad Rich cleared up that I shouldn't be aligned with white supremacists...I know that's not what you meant, so thanks for clarifying that.

As for being lumped in with Open Theists...well that's the first time that has been levied against me as well. I wouldn't call myself an open theist because I believe that God did not create or design cancer for John Piper. God can still be sovereign, yet I do not see scripturally where he is responsible for sin or evil, but is rather the condition of our fallenness. This might just be an issue where Calvinists and non-Calvinists split ways perhaps....but that view does not make one an open theist in my opinion, and from the main tentants of the open theist doctrine.

Anyways...thanks for the comments you left on my blog....I appreciate them....

And I as well, have to be careful about my tone, and how I say things via the internet...as sometimes my emotions can overtake some calm, rational behavior when I'm behind the computer.

I will look forward to checking your blog out more often....

And I'm glad to see you have a heart for college ministry...


Rhett, first let me apologize for linking you so closely with open theism. While I had my suspicions that you may be an open theist, I tried to make the point that your theology on suffering was "consistent" with this view, with which I think you might tend to agree. Also, I think your view does not conform to the classical view of God, in which God Himself is in control of all persecution and suffering, causing the early believers to desire suffering as a means of grace, believing it to be sent directly from God. And though I readily admit that these early Christians held to an Arminian-typed view of salvation, I think their view of suffering was consistent with Calvinism, and thus that is why I call it the classical view, since it transcended theological perspectives.

I am sorry that in my first post on the subject ("John Piper is the Worst Pastor - Ever!"), I was very unclear about who those open theists were. I think I jumped the gun because of some posters to your site who mentioned Greg Boyd, so I did indeed lump you in with those and again for that I am sorry (though I will say that from the comments, it is evident that those who hold to Open Theism were among the most outraged, both on your blog and that of Williams').

I do want to say that I appreciate your graciousness in not slamming me the way I seemed to have slammed you. I came across as over-bearing and now I wish I hadn't. But, I still do disagree with your views on God and suffering and I believe that you do not represent the classical Christian view (and I think that is seriously problematic), nor does your position adequately explain key texts that at least at face value indicate that it is God who brings destruction and God who brings delight, both of which serve to exalt His glory and further us in His grace through our sanctification.

So, thanks again for commenting and I hope you do indeed stop in more and offer your take on the posts.

I may be hairsplitting and trying to draw middle ground where there is none, but it seems to me that semantics are an issue in this discussion.

The "hard-line' Calvinist view seems to be (or at least is interpreted to be): God directly acts to cause suffering. God directly forms the cancer in John Piper's prostate for some unknown purpose.

The "hard line' Arminian view (which I believe logically leads to open-theism) appears to be: God doesn't have anything to do with suffering, whatsoever, other than to attempt to comfort us in it. It's as if God says to the cancer patient "Gee, I wish I could help you, but...".

When I recall the stories of Job and of Joseph, I see a different picture. One where God is not the agent of sin or suffering, but who is the Almighty God who *allows* sin to occur and uses even that which is intended to disgrace him (sin) for his glory. Now of course, God does smite sinful humanity at times. It's his prerogative.

Why do I include suffering along with sin? Because both are subsequent to the Fall, both are harmful to man, and yet both are used by God for his glory.

Another comment: I see a tendency on the part of Calvinists (I'd consider myself to be one, as long as one doesn't equate it with being "mean") to overthink things to the dishonor of God and a tendency on the part of Arminians to underthink things to the dishonor of God.

Many Calvinists seem to think they actually have the doctrines of grace (DOG) pinned down and thoroughly defined, and as a result can speak with a frightening degree of certainty about incredibly complex, doctrines. We can NEVER completely grasp the reality of the DOG anymore than we can fully understand the Hypostatic Union or the Trinity. To think we can is to sully the glory of Christ.

As for the Arminian postion, I think many simply reject Biblical truth because it is initially difficult to accept - it often doesn't appeal to our emotions, but instead requires thoughtful and prayerful consideration. So rather than "thinking biblically", they rely on philosophy or raw emotion to reach the theological conclusion that suits their tastes.

God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, infinite, and without sin. And he created a universe into which sin and suffering entered. And he did it with the full knowledge (omniscience) that they would enter in.

He wasn't taken aback by the Fall ("Oh my, what do I do now!!"), his plan and purpose have remained the same from before the foundation of the world, and "In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will".

Hey, no worries. I did "slam" Piper, so I should be open to people slamming me. As I said. I wouldn't change my theological stance as I disagree with Piper, but I would change the tone I originally used. I also have the feeling that if all of us were to sit down and talk, we might be able to clear some things up, because I think language, linguistics, and our definitions of things sometimes keep us from understanding each other...though we might come to some agreements on some things.

I am in a Reformed church, and believe in reformed views, but I am also swayed much more towards the direction of free-will on many issues. We will see how this all plays out as I am currently "under care" for ordination in the PCUSA, and when it comes time to answer questions regarding ordination, I will have to see if I can do so with integrity or not.

Plus....I am wondering if Calvin's views are being pushed further than he had intended in some areas? You are right in that I don't represent some of the classical Christian views on some areas (depending on how we define those...as I have seen quite a disagreement over what those views are in the theological, academic areas).

Funny side note. I went to a SBC College, Grand Canyon University...which just recently turned their reigns over to a for profit venture, led by Assembly of God people....so the university is in quite an upheaval right now. I was a psychology major....and then decided my spring semester, senior year, to take a Church History class. It was taught by James White who was an alumni of the university. It changed my world, and is what led me to seminary at Fuller....though I think James White would have suggested some other seminary, though he went there. Needless to say, I loved Fuller, and still love it....but James White and I have obviously departed ways theologically. But that Church History class was amazing...1997....thanks to him, he ignited my passion to learn.

I should post about this...people might be shocked or find that interesting....my paper was on the Reformer Jon Hus.....

Another side note...my good friend at the university...Brent Thomas of Colossians Three Sixteen....

Proof that good friends can disagree.

So thanks for your comments....I appreciate the dialogue....


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About me

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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