Friday, September 21, 2007


Dr. Ben Witherington, Professor of NT Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, posted an article a few days ago in response to John Piper's comments on the Minneapolis bridge collapse. I've posted earlier on that event and the issues of theodicy related to it here and here. It seems very clear that Witherington disagrees with Piper's take. He writes:

John Piper on his website of course recently had a post about the disastrous collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis. His view was that however random it might seem to us, that actually this was the will of God, and in essence we should just suck it up. God is sovereign and he disposes things as he will, and according to his sovereign pre-ordained plan. If you just happened to be on the raw end of the deal, so much the worse for you. Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, actually God has a right to judge the whole world now, if he so chooses. The fact that he spared some shows God's mercy, according to Piper, but he was under no obligation to spare anyone. 'There but for the grace of God go I", so to speak. This doesn't sound much like an attempt to mourn with those who are mourning.

I wrote my masters thesis on Jonathan Edwards's theodicy, and I am certain that Piper follows Edwards down the line on this issue. So let's examine Witherington's critique and see if he has correctly understood Piper.

First let's look at what Piper posted having said about the event in talking with his young daughter Talitha the night of the collapse:

"God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand." Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills."

So Piper understands that "God could have held up that bridge" and that "God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge." In short God allowed (or permitted) the bridge to fall, and he had a reason for allowing it to fall. In allowing it to fall for a reason, it is proper to say that God willed the fall of the bridge. Witherington reflects a correct understanding of this in his article when he writes:

[Piper's] view was that however random it might seem to us, that actually this was the will of God.

But unfortunately that appears to be where his understanding of Piper's view both starts and stops. Witherington proceeds to ask questions that clearly demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding. He writes:

My question for them would--- is God the author of sin as well?

First, the question "Is God the author of sin?" is a bit loaded. Piper is in agreement with Edwards in answering this question. Edwards writes:

If by the author of sin, be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing; so it would be a reproach and blasphemy to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin; rejecting such an imputation on the Most High, as what is infinitely to be abhorred; and deny any such thing to be the consequence of what I have laid down. But if, by the author of sin, is meant the permitter, or not a hinderer of sin, and, at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted, or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow;—I say, if this be all that is meant by being the author of sin, I do not deny that God is the author of sin, (though I dislike and reject the phrase, as that which by use and custom is apt to carry another sense), it is no reproach for the Most High to be thus the author of sin. This is not to be the actor of sin, but on the contrary, of holiness. What God doth herein is holy, and a glorious exercise of the infinite excellency of his nature (Freedom of the Will, vol. 1 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957], p. 399).

So is God the author of sin? It depends on what you mean by that. If you mean, "Does God sin?" or "Does God tempt creatures to sin?" then Edwards's and Piper's answer is an emphatic no! God is NOT the author of sin. If, however you mean, "Does God foreordain (decide beforehand) whether sin should occur in his creation or not, so that it must then come to pass?" then yes! God IS the author of sin. The distinction is important. It is unfortunate that Witherington either isn't aware of it or failed to address it. As we will see, it makes all the difference.

Next Witherington asks:

Is God responsible for all that goes wrong in the world?

Again, Piper understands this issue in Edwardsian terms. If by "responsible" you mean "Is God culpable for wrongdoing?" then no. Of course, not. God is NOT responsible for all that goes wrong in the world. If, on the other hand, you mean "Is God the ultimate cause of wrongdoing?" then yes. God IS responsible for all that goes wrong in the world. Again, the distinction here is of utmost importance. Fundamentally it is a distinction based on the ideas Witherington addresses next. He asks:

Do these folks really have no clear sense of secondary causes which, while we can say God allows them to happen, we certainly would not want to say God causes or ordains them to happen? Is there no such thing in their vocabulary as God's permissive will? And even if there is-- what good is it for them to talk about God's permissive will, if in fact they think that God pre-ordains both what he permits as well as what he does directly?

Of course they do! Piper, along with Edwards, affirms the idea of secondary causality and the permissive will of God. That's why the distinctions above are so crucial. The idea of a second cause fundamentally implies what? A first cause. Every second requires a first. What Piper was trying to explain in his response to the bridge collapse was that God is THE first cause. Nothing happens that God, in the order of causes, is not ultimately responsible for causing. Where Witherington errs is in conflating the concept of order in causation with the concept of efficiency in causation.

The question of culpability is a question of efficiency. It is a question of who actually did the wrong thing. Both first and second causes can be efficient causes. But only second causes are efficient in wrongdoing. Only second causes have wrong motives and do wrong, which is sin. When God permits wrongdoing he functions as a first cause, which means that in the order of causation God is first. In that sense (i.e. that God is the first cause) it is appropriate to speak of God as having willed the wrongdoing. But, we must remember, even though he is first in the order of causation, he is not therefore culpable for actually doing wrong. Culpability is dependent on efficiency in causation. Order does not necessarily speak to the issue of efficiency. Just because God is a first cause that does not automatically make him an efficient cause. God may foreordain and permit a wrongdoing without doing wrong. How? The wrong is done through the efficiency of a second cause. The second cause is the agent who has the wrong motive and actually does the wrong act NOT God.

And finally, on the issue of what Witherington calls pre-ordination, more commonly known as foreordination, in my judgment he seems to be missing a very important disctinction that Piper would make. Foreordination only speaks to order in causation. It does not speak to efficiency in causation. Therefore, it is proper to speak of God as pre-ordaining wrongdoing in the world so that wrongdoing must necessarily come to pass. God is THE first cause (i.e. he is responsible) for all that comes to pass. However, that in no way means that God actually does the wrong thing. When God pre-ordains that evil occur, he is active only in the decision to allow it. While that decision insures that the wrongdoing must then come to pass, God is not active in the doing of it. God's role in the chain of causation is an inefficient one. Without the evil motive of a secondary agent, the wrong would not come to pass. In other words the agent of secondary causality is the sole efficient cause of the evil itself. Therefore, he is the only one culpable for evil.

Here's how it breaks down when evil occurs in the world:

There are agents involved:
(1) God
(2) Moral creatures

There is an order of causation:
(1) First cause- God; ultimately responsible.
(2) Second cause- Moral creatures; penultimately responsible.

There is an efficiency in causation (speaks to being motivated wrongly and therefore doing the wrong):
(1) Inefficient cause- God; not culpable for evil.
(2) Efficient cause- Moral creatures; culpable for evil.

Unfortunately Dr. Witherington's critique fails to address these fundamental distinctions which leads to a total misrepresentation of Piper's Edwardsian theodicy.

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