I would like to briefly offer a few thoughts on a recent article written by John Piper on his trip to Europe during which he served as the keynote speaker for Missione 2016, a large evangelical conference held every two years in Italy. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the conference myself due to health issues, but I was interested to read what Piper’s thoughts were as he came away from the conference. Piper’s original article can be accessed here.
To begin, I was encouraged by Piper’s recognition of Italy’s need for the gospel. One of the questions that I sometimes hear from American evangelicals when talking about my work in Italy is this: “Why would you go to Italy to do mission work? Isn’t there greater need elsewhere?” When I come back to the US, I find that many American evangelicals are about as unaware of Italy’s lack of gospel witness as Italians are unaware of the gospel! Given Piper’s high profile, I was delighted to read his description of why Italy, along with the rest of Europe, is in desperate spiritual need. Piper succinctly sketches the reality that Italian evangelicals palpably experience every single day, namely that the Reformation never took root in Italy and that consequently the liberating solas of the gospel message are virtually unknown. For American evangelicals, Piper’s description of Roman Catholicism may seem exaggerated, but I can personally attest that he accurately conveys the feeling of many people living in Italy, not just evangelicals but Catholics as well.
However, I was bothered by the way in which Piper highlighted the classic Calvinistic construal of predestination as one of the primary “lessons” from his trip. I say this for a couple of reasons. First, Piper reports that “[p]redestination was a hot topic surrounding the conference in Italy”. This is unsurprising. Predestination was likely a hot topic there because it is a hot topic in Italian evangelical churches in general. Also in general, it tends to be very divisive. While this holds true historically outside of Italy as well, its divisiveness is particularly damaging in Italy because it polarizes evangelicals who are already a marginalized minority. Evangelicals in Italy are in desperate need of greater unity if they are to have a more compelling witness to the gospel in Italian culture, and I fear that if Piper emphasized his classic Calvinist understanding of predestination during his visit as the article implies, he has only contributed to this polarisation by alienating the many churches that do not share his views. I know this because back in my own classic Calvinist days, I personally created serious problems with many people to or with whom I was seeking to minister. In Italy, the evangelical church is just too small to afford splits over this issue.
Second, my critique in this last point would be mitigated somewhat if I were still a classic Calvinist. I have since discovered the Evangelical Calvinist trajectory (which I believe takes better account of Scripture’s witness and inner logic) that is a legitimate historic appropriation and extension of Calvin’s own thought. Despite this, Piper’s comments continue to perpetuate the idea, propounded as well by writers such as Richard Muller, that classic Calvinism (or more accurately post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy) is the only true form of Calvinism/Reformed theology, and that its version of predestinarian doctrine (as defined by Dort, Westminster, etc.) is the only option for those who wish to uphold the primacy of grace in human salvation. Unlike Muller, however, Piper also seems to perpetuate the idea that his view is simply what the Bible says: “When the stereotypical objections don’t work anymore, we are left with the Bible”. What Piper (unlike Muller) fails to acknowledge is that his view of predestination actually has a long intellectual history the roots of which can be traced in some form all the way back to Aristotle (i.e. God as the Unmoved Mover who sets in motion a logico-causal sequence of necessary events). It is somewhat disingenuous, therefore, for Piper to claim that classic Calvinism is simply Scripture taken at face-value apart from any mediating conceptual framework, something that even stalwart defenders of Reformed orthodoxy like Muller admit.
It is this kind of impoverishment of the Calvinist tradition that causes many among Italian evangelicals to run into the arms of Arminianism. Largely due to a limitation of resources available in Italian, those who simply cannot countenance the ideas of classic Calvinism assume that the only other option is that of Arminianism, and it saddens me that the Evangelical Calvinist stream is virtually unknown to them. I do think that Evangelical Calvinism has the potential for forging a mediating way between the divide because it combines a strong emphasis on God’s efficacious work for us in Christ with an equally strong emphasis on the universal scope of that work. This is not to say that Evangelical Calvinism represents a compromise between the two (as though it just borrows and incorporates elements from both) or that it end inevitably in universalism (which it does not). Rather it breaks new (or is it ancient?) ground by setting the entire discussion on a completely different foundation and set of presuppositions. Stated simply, Evangelical Calvinism endeavors to bring all theological thinking into conformity with God’s self-revelation in Christ who is homoousion with the Father by nature and homoousion with humanity in his incarnation. When we plumb the depths of these fundamental aspects of God’s self-revelation, we discover the good news of the triune God who from before the foundation of the world is powerfully, irrevocably, and eternally for all humanity in love. This, I think, is the good news that can truly bring Italian evangelicals together in unified witness but that, unfortunately, Piper misses.