A Problem for Edwards/Piper Calvinism

Since this blog has been reduced to lame political satire and fantasy football laments, I thought I would go back to an old standby topic: criticizing Calvinism. I recently participated in a discussion on another blog about why I think the Edwards/Piper model of God is theologically suspect. For those that aren’t familiar with what that is, you will want to begin with this article, but make sure you focus on this section:

2.2 Why Does God Ordain that there Be Evil?
It is evident from what has been said that it is not because he delights in evil as evil. Rather he “wills that evil come to pass . . . that good may come of it.” What good? And how does the existence of evil serve this good end? Here is Edwards’ stunning answer:

    It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. . . .

    Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.

    If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired. . .

    So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.

So the answer to the question in the title of this message, “Is God less glorious because he ordained that evil be?” is no, just the opposite. God is more glorious for having conceived and created and governed a world like this with all its evil.

The emphasis is mine.

So the answer to the so-called “problem of evil” is that it is not really a problem at all. It is in fact necessary, for without it God could not really be God, or at least communicate the fact that he is God to a watching world. But this invites some pretty significant difficulties. If God’s display of wrath is necessary for his full self-glorification, and if his self-glorification is necessary, then wrath is essential to God. God would not be God without expressing it. Therefore, a world containing sinful creatures to be damned then becomes necessary for his self-actualization.

This in effect undermines God’s aseity, the attribute of the divine nature that makes God self-contained, self-suficient, and independent from creation. That means whatever glory he has fully contained within himself and is not dependent on anything for it. But the whole premise of the Edwards/Piper theodicy is that God ordains evil to bring about a fuller more excellent presentation of himself to his creation. However, this seems to makes creation necessary, and worse, it makes it something evil. The argument goes like this:

(1) The premise of the Edwards/Piper theodicy is that God ordains evil to bring about fuller more excellent presentation of himself to his creation.

(2) If premise (1) is true, then God is most glorified

(3) Necessarily, God must glorify himself in all that he does

(4) God created the world

(5) God ordained that evil be

(6) God displays his wrath against all that is evil

(7) God is manifestly glorified

(8) God needs an evil creation in order to most glorify himself

If this is the case, then wrath is essential to God. God cannot be God without it. However, God cannot express wrath within the Trinity. The Persons can certainly know about it, but they cannot “display” it. For wrath to be displayed, there must be something for wrath to be against–namely a fallen creation. Thus, a fallen creation is as necessary as God’s nature to glorify himself.

To avoid the problem, one might qualify (2) by specifying the creature/Creator distinction:

(2*) If premise (1) is true, then God is most glorified in creation

So conceived, this would help avoid the problem of making wrath essential to God. The omniscience of the Trinity does not need a display of wrath to comprehend the divine character. However, creatures are limited and so therefore if there is to be a created world, it necessitates a display of wrath to achieve the end of properly communicating God’s glory.

But this is not as effective as it seems. Once we go from abstract generalities to concrete examples, more problems emerge. For example, to properly glorify himself, God must decree that all people sin, but only save some to display fully his just wrath and his gracious mercy. Those who are among the saved particularly enjoy this display as they experience one and observe the other. The same might be said about the damned, but it is harder to imagine.

But is there not a perfect display of justice and mercy already found in the cross of Christ? Could not God have saved everyone by way of regenerating faith in the person and work of Christ? After all, Reformed theology rightly teaches the cross is where justice and mercy meet. This would avoid the need for a large population of souls to be damned. Nevetheless, a large population of the damned is needed to fully exalt God’s character. The cross of Christ turns out not to be the “blazing center” of God’s glory, because God is not able to communicate as much his nature through it as he can from souls suffering in hell.

In the end, not even Christ on the cross can display the wrath of God as well as sinners experiencing eternal conscious torment. This is clear evidence of a deficiency within the divine nature, and that a fallen creation is necessary to fulfill the nature. This is theology is closer to pantheism than theism and therefore should be rejected for one that either does not understand the divine nature under the compulsion to glorify himself in all that he does or does not determine evil by way of exhaustive control.


18 thoughts on “A Problem for Edwards/Piper Calvinism

  1. Nick says:

    I agree Piper hasn’t always been very careful over the years in the way he talks about this. I do know Edwards does not hold what you ascribe here; if you want to check out a great defense of JE’s view of God’s purposes in creation and why it does not undermine God’s aseity, check out a phenomenal essay by Walter Schultz from 3 or 4 years ago in JETS called something like “End of Creation: Exposition and Defense.” It is long, and philosophicall oriented, but Schultz brilliantly shows how Edwards is much more trinitarian here than many recognize, and demolishes the arguments of Beilby up at Bethel along these very lines, that Calvinism undermines God’s aseity. If you want, email me and I can send you a PDF of this essay.

    Going back to Piper (who in my opinion has not been as careful as Edwards in talking about these things; sometimes he really has said things that sound like a compromise of God’s aseity), there is a forthcoming issue of Trinity Journal in which an Arminian systematic theology professor at Trinity criticizes Piper under these same auspices again, and Piper responds in the same issue by trying to be more clear on what exactly he is saying and what he isn’t saying. I’ve read it, and I think it will be helpful.

    In the end, I’m convinced that on a purely logical level alone, Calvinism (and this is true of Arminianism too) doesn’t come close to violating God’s aseity. It really does come down to the heart and character of God, relationally, to what He values and desires and cherishes most. I know a lot of Arminians over the past few decades have (no doubt with good intentions) have increasingly tried to short circuit this debate before it even starts by throwing out the charge of denying God’s aseity, but it just doesn’t fly.

    Sorry for being so long! I’ll pull up some stuff I wrote on why Calvinism doesn’t compromise God’s aseity in a little while and post it here; thanks for your care and desire to present both sides clearly. There needs to be more of this! Blessings.

  2. Nick, first off–have I met you? Did you teach a class on Religous Affections at B-Bap awhile back?

    Second, I have read Schultz’s paper and spoke with him in an interview about it. I think its fair to say he offered a good corrective to Beilby’s interpretation of Edwards. However, past scholars (like Charles Hodge) haven’t been as sanquine on Edwards’s view. I’ll leave that to better minds, but I think if Beilby is wrong on Edwards, so is Piper.

    Third, even though Beilby fell short in interpreting Edwards, I think his argument holds against the sloppy parts of Piper’s theology. Thomas McCall (the guy from Trinity?) and I discussed in an email group and found Beilby’s argument to be quite valid against Piper’s interpretation of Edwards.

    Fourth, post your links!

  3. Nick says:

    The main thing I would say in response to the charge that Calvinism undermines God’s aseity, is that it is absolutely crucial here that we make a distinction between what God inherently must do to be God, and what God must do GIVEN what His prior purpose in creation is. For JE (and Piper at his best), talking about the necessity of evil is always a secondary argument, one that already assumes a purpose, a goal, a design by God in creation that comes before it. Ironically, Calvinism and Arminianism are strikingly similar here. They both believe, in their own ways, that evil is absolutely necessary in the world, GIVEN what God wants to accomplish in this world. Sure, God could prevent evil, it is not necessary for Him ontologically or that it be in the world per se, but both sides agree that if God is to achieve His aims in creating, evil must be a part of the plan. Of course, WHY evil must be part of the world we live in is explained very differently by the two sides, given their radically differing views of God’s goal in creation. But at bottom, both theological systems are greater good defenses of the problem of evil.

    I would flesh this basic, but important, insight out like this. For Calvinism, God’s goal in creation is to communicate Himself fully to the elect, to the church, to His bride, so that they know and love and rejoice in God as fully as possible. Though there are other things that motivate Him in lesser ways in this world, this is the chief goal He pursues as the means by which He glorifies Himself. Notice no hint of evil being necessary is here. However, IF something like this is God’s goal in creation, THEN the argument becomes logical (even if you disagree) that evil is only necessary, GIVEN what God’s prior purposes are in creation, which do not even come close to denying God’s aseity. God does not create because there was a deficiency in the Trinity that needed to be remedied by creation; instead, He created to make known Himself to us in all His splendor and beauty. There are simply so many things about God, intellectually and experientally, we could not know or treasure nearly as much as we do now if we lived in a world in which we never tasted suffering or evil or loss. Now, as an Arminian you might disagree with this, it might be repugnant for you–but that has nothing to do with God’s aseity! It has to do with His character and heart–and for whatever struggles I have had with Calvinism over the years, the overwhelmingly clear support of Scripture for what motivates God towards us and towards evil is transparently in support of something like Calvinism.

    Logically, it is easily demonstrable that Calvinism doesn’t come close to compromising God’s aseity, as long as this important distinction is maintained. The main weakness of the Beilby argument a few years back that ran along these lines is that he collapsed JE’s view of (1) why God created in the first place, and (2) why God allowed evil, GIVEN what he wants to accomplish in creation. God’s purpose in creation was not to glorify Himself in a way He wasn’t before, or more than He was before, but rather, to glorify Himself by making Himself known, and loved, and enjoyed by us. This is the opposite of insufficiency. But once this is in place (if it is true), the charge against aseity can no longer logically be raised if evil is seen to be connected not to what God inherently needs to be God, or even why He chose this specific goal in creating, but rather evil only relates to the accomplishment of a prior and evil-independent design in creating.

    Sorry again for rambling so much, I hope I have been a bit clearer than I feel I have been. Please do respond if you want clarification or if you disagree with some of this. I would just say that for me as a Calvinist to defend this view from compromising God’s aseity, I don’t need to persuade you it is right (though I wouldn’t mind that:), rather, I just need to show that logically on my own premises the conclusions you draw are not valid. Calvinism might be wrong for other reasons, but it is coherent in a way that never comes close to denying or compromising God’s aseity.

    Let me know if you want that Schultz essay. Take care! Peace.

  4. Nick says:

    Sorry, I was writing my second long post before I saw your response! I did teach at TBI up until a few years ago (I’m a campus minister at Harvard now in Boston). Glad you read Schultz, I think his stuff there is paramount for both sides to understand. And I agree that Piper has been sloppy at times. McCall is the guy who is taking Piper up on the charge of aseity, and Piper will respond to him in the same issue.

    I would only say, modestly, that for one, my understanding of Calvinism doesn’t stand or fall on Piper (unfortunately, as you know for too many it does)–I disagree with him on many things, and how I talk about this issue is one–and second, I do think there is a difference between Piper being sloppy on this at times because he hadn’t thought it through from this angle as much, and it actually being a real, unrefinable plank in this theology. I think Piper’s response to McCall will make that clear; and I admit I am convinced that many “Piperian” Calvinists need to strive to be more careful and balanced in how they talk about these things.

    By the way, post what links? I’m an internet ignoramus! Do you mean the Schultz stuff, or something else?

  5. Nick, do you have a blog? That’s what I meant by links, if you have one.

    I think you have some good insights here. I still am not buying that GIVEN what God wanted to do with creation, evil was necessary, particularly in the form of the “dreadful decree” to not save all. The cross of Christ was sufficient to display his character, but for some reason God chose not to apply it to everyone. Instead, the nature of God (to glorify himself through the manifestation of attributes) contrains him to a theater where the eternal end of created souls are both saved and damned. This is why I think Calvinists like Piper go wrong, because it seems to be good evidence that wrath is essential to God.

    But with that said, if we can both agree that wrath is not an essential attribute of God–that he can be God without expressing it–then the argument from aseity fails.

  6. Greg The Anonymous Troll says:

    I notice that Nick is making exactly the same point that I made over at Denny’s Blog admittedly in a much clearer manner.

    I also notice that you had to take the word “necessary” wildly out of context to make what amounts to a very weak point.

    So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love.

    Notice the quote goes on to say: “in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world;”

    “In order to” indicates the reason that evil is necessary and the reason is definately not so that God can acheive as you put it “self actualization”.

  7. Right, but as I’m sure you know the “highest happiness of the creature” is equal to God being most glorified. Piper’s aphorism is “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” The necessity of God having to glorify himself drives this idea of “creaturely happiness” which includes evil, suffering, and damnation.

    And I have yet to see a response to my question on why the Cross was insufficient to display God’s glory to every creature–not just some of them. The idea that damnation was necessary to communicate himself to his creatures for highest glory doesn’t bode well for a position trying to argue that wrath is not an essential attribute of God. Self-actualization is precisely the issue at hand.

  8. Greg The Anonymous Troll says:

    I’m trying to understand your point. It’s already been shown that God’s aseity is not in question just because God has chosen to express wrath in order to demonstrate His righteousness to His creation.

    “There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! …..What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon (AT)vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, ” Romans 9:

    Your question implies that you think the Cross alone IS sufficient to display God’s glory to every creature–not just some of them. Is it then your position, that God displays wrath and damns people un-necessarily? If not, can you please explain from your own perspective why YOU believe that Damnation of some is necessary. I really am interested.

  9. Thanks for the interest. This has been a good discussion. I think the way Nick has shown how the argument from aseity fails is by a point I have already acknowledged: if wrath is not an essential attribute of God, meaning he does not need to display it in order to be God, then aseity isn’t compromised.

    My larger point is drawn from the question as to why God does not save everyone. According to the Piper/Edwards quote above it is because of something within God’s nature that constrains him from doing so. In other words, God cannot save everyone if he wants to (has to?) to communicate the fullness of himself to his creatures. Since it is proper and excellent for the divine glory to shine forth by the display of all of its attributes, it is argued that it is necessary for God to decree and punish sin, so there could be a manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin. However, it seems to me that this could be sufficiently displayed in the Cross of Christ, and all creatures could see and enjoy God’s character. But it is not, and hell is needed to do properly make himself known and loved by a few. If it is, then hell, the devil, and everything else is unnecessary, and we would have to think of some other rationale for a theodicy.

    Now, it may still be true that if hell is needed to communicate the full measure of God’s glory to his created agents, aseity may not be compromised. But it seems to make wrath essential to God’s nature, because 1) he could not save everyone even if he wanted to, 2) Christ’s suffering can’t communicate the glory of the divine nature as well as souls in hell, and 3) the kind of wrath needed to communicate the divine nature is dependent on something created (whereas the atonement would be on something eternal).

    Let me know what you think!

  10. Greg The Anonymous Troll says:

    When I said I did not think that wrath was a positive or essential attribute of God I was thinking that wrath is simply a manifestation (a subset if you will) of God’s Righteousness/ Holiness. It becomes “necessary” only after God freely chooses to Create the world as it is. I am an artist and not a trained theologian so I am willing to be corrected on this, but it seems to me that your argument hinges on your concern that The Piper/Edwards view necessitates some flaw or lack in the very nature of God. I think that concern has been adequately addressed.

    As to the larger question of why some are saved and some not; I think the same arguments endure. This is the way God has freely chosen to do it.

    I would like to hear the other side of the picture, as I said:

    “Your question implies that you think the Cross alone IS sufficient to display God’s glory to every creature–not just some of them. Is it then your position, that God displays wrath and damns people un-necessarily? If not, can you please explain from your own perspective why YOU believe that Damnation of some is necessary. I really am interested.”

  11. I’m not going to get into a back and forth after this, but feel free to respond if you’d like.

    You make three errors that I can see:

    1) The first is simply logical, and is shown in the difference between the following:


    2) Related to this is the conflation of liberty and ability. God certainly had the ability to create a different world (or not create it at all), but was not at liberty to do so. To speak of ‘could’s in this sense must be clarified. I could have worn a yellow shirt this morning, but I couldn’t have flown to the moon.

    3) An unspoken assumption in your discussion on the level of glory found in the cross of Christ is the typical Arminian emotional appeal that more saved people would necessarily mean more glory.

  12. Greg, I think the cross is sufficient to display God’s glory to every creature, and the need for hell is unnecessary. But that is assuming that irresistible grace is a given. Of course, being an Arminian, I think that the reason for hell is found in judgment upon our willful rejection of God. It grieves God that he is rejected, and it does not give him pleasure to execute judgment.

    Chris, I don’t see what you are getting at in your first criticism. You don’t seem to be engaging anything I’ve said, and instead have made a straw man of my position. Nor do I see how your second criticism makes any sense. God could have done other than he did, but couldn’t do so? The law of contradiction can not allow such a distinction between “ability” and “liberty” in the way you use those terms. Your third criticism is simply wrong. There is no appeal to emotion, but rather an argument based on the premises given in the Edwards/Piper rationale of true creaturely happiness being satisfied by the manifold display of God’s character.

  13. amy terry says:

    Hey Adam,
    I’m no intellectual, just let me ask a few basic questions. Your last comment says the cross is sufficient to display God’s glory, but why is the the cross necessary if there is no hell? I’m not understanding your views here about God and evil., isn’t evil automatic if good exists? Just like there is a wrong answer and a right answer? Why can’t God have wrath? Don’t we all deserve hell? I personally don’t think any of us would chose good without God’s intervention, given our sinful nature. Can you break this down into layman’s terms for me?
    p.s. your Armenian now?

  14. Amy,

    Yes! I have fallen away from Calvinism :) I have the reasons why explained on a page called “Why I’m Not A Calvinist” linked on the main page (www.ochuk.wordpress.com). In it I detail a very personal struggle with it that hopefully comes across as respectful.

    Your questions are actaully really good. There is a lot to parse when we use the word “necessary.” It can be tricky, because most things aren’t necessary at all, say for example the existence of the universe. God is a necessary being, because he can’t will himself into non-existence. His reality is a brute fact, as is his goodness, his triune nature, and his glorious being. Heaven and hell are created realities and therefore, are not necessary in this sense.

    But as Nick was saying if God wants to do something, say create a world, he necessarily will have oppurtunity costs–meaning he forgoes other options when he chooses a course of action. For example, if he creates us with a free will he must allow the possibility of us not using it in the way he would intend. That is the basic point to a free will defense, that uses free will as a mechanism to explain our falleness. Now if we use it (or free will) to deteriment, can we thwart God’s intention for his creatures to see his glory by of communion with him? Not necessarily! If there is the Cross, redemption is possible. But to make redemption possible the Cross must be necessary. God’s wrath will be taken into account on the Cross to make relationship possible, or it may still be expressed against the sinner if he persists in rejecting Christ. Either way God necessarily opposes all that is sinful. However, this does not mean that God NEEDS people to be sinful because he does not NEED to express his wrath.

    This last point is what I am getting at when I take on the Piper/Edwards model, because it seems to me that the reason God can’t save everyone is because something in his nature constrains him from doing so. Thus, it is impossible for God to save everyone because he needs some souls to be damned in order to manifest his divine nature. But I don’t think this is necessary, because the Cross could have made it possible for God to both manifest his divine nature and save everyone.

    Now you could say that “But that’s the way it is” and that is fine, but all I am trying to say is that “the way it is” wasn’t necessary. Why God chose this course of action rather than another is a mystery.

    We certainly don’t deserve to be saved and we would never make it without God’s intervention, but I would also say that the reasons why lie with our stubborn resistence to God intentions for us, not because of a prior divine decree.

    Hope that helps! (Btw, I need a haircut soon!)

  15. puritanpastor says:

    Evil is simply the absence of good – neither created nor ordained. God cannot create God lest He cease to be God – hence, no “Free will” for man. Freedom to choose, yes, but not freedom to “Will”. No man can change his spots or choose his future. He does have the freedom to choose what clothes to wear, car to drive, foods to eat, etc., and yet even this is given to him by God (Matthew 6)
    In “Choosing” to do “Good” or “Evil” mankind fails to do good for “all his righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Is. 64:6), All mankind has sinned and come short of God’s glory (Rom.3:23)This is a direct result of the “fall” of man and the fact that he cannot choose to do good (Gen.6:5).
    This failure was not built into us, it is us, we are not God,therefore we have not God’s wisdom to perform righteous acts of justice, judgment, and mercy apart from His divine intervention vie., His Holy Spirit.
    There really is no problem “Of” evil, only the problem of mankind accepting that apart from God he alone is evil.

  16. Deborah says:

    Thank you so much for your posts on Calvinism. It is a breathe of fresh air for me after recently coming out of being involved in Calvinism for so long!

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