I’ve just about had it

When is someone gonna skewer Piper in public for his nominalist theology?


39 thoughts on “I’ve just about had it

    • Nominalism was a move in late Medieval theology that placed power above everything else, and is this is often seen as part of the root of modern political power and state sovereignty. Before nominalism, the transcendentals were tied together — the Good, the True, the Beautiful — defined each other, but nominalism placed power over all. Nominalism also did quite a few other things, but it is the function of power — a God of sheer power — that I’m thinking about here. Here is a God who is unintelligible because to be so would limit God’s power, says the nominalist. Piper’s conception of divinity is all too similar.

  1. Stephen Norris says:

    Oh. I see. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree entirely with Piper then.

    I can’t see any way in his system that he places power above everything else – divine glory, maybe – but that certainly does not equal power in his system.

    Piper’s controlling matrix is Edwardsian. Was Edwards nominalist?


    • I don’t think he has a good notion of glory, partly because it is conflated with power. Glory is not supposed to be divorced from aesthetics and certainly not predicated on how super great God is because divinity is so powerful (Piper’s narrow definition of divine sovereignty).

  2. Stephen Norris says:

    But Piper’s whole system is how super great God is because divinity is so happy.

    He may not share your or my conception of aesthetics but there is an ontology of beauty replete in his thinking – because he’s following Edwards – so Piper in his reading of Edwards’ “The end for which God created the world”. I can’t see how anyone can read that as nominalist, as you describe it.

    • Divine happiness under Piper is arbitrary and largely unintelligible. This is to say that God’s will (what you’re calling happiness here) is untied from goodness and truth, and only bound to what God wills in each instance and largely unconnected from previous instances — and this is a key point that underlies nominalist power, where God is arbitrary in what God does because God is no more than the master-sovereign. In short, your point about happiness actually makes part of the point I’m getting at. I suggest you look into Michael Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity, Louis K. Dupré’s Passage to Modernity, and for a much more indepth work, Heiko Oberman’s The Harvest of Medieval Theology — which are all significant scholarly works and worth paying attention apart from any concern with Piper. Still, it is ridiculous how closely Piper’s notion of sovereignty and God tracks with nominalist theology, but I’ve got little more time to say than what I’ve already said so I’m recommending you do some of your own study.

      As for Edwards, I doubt quite a lot, considering Piper’s theological acumen displayed elsewhere, that he is following well the man who has been called America’s greatest theologian. Piper certainly sees his work as holding to Edwards, but I’m far from convinced that Edwards would have him. In fact, I pretty sure Edwards would be embarrassed.

      • Honestly David,

        I think there needs to be a debate about who is America’s greatest theologian, and I can’t for the life of me see why Jonathan Edwards’ support of African enslavement just gets a get out of jail free card. It’s right there in his writings. Any uncritical engagement with any theologian I find problematic from the start. Hence my issue with Edwardsian studies in the first place.

        • I’ve assumed that when people call Edwards the greatest American theologian is about his impact on America and his theological skill — not always how helpful his work is. Granted, I’m not sure he is the greatest, then again I’m not sure I even appreciate a discussion of greatest. And you’re correct that there are problems often ignored.

  3. Stephen Norris says:

    Thanks D.W.

    To be honest I find the whole suggestion here to be just bluster and bumbling without any clear argument. Simply to assert that for Piper that God is no more than the master-Sovereign, and to assert that you ‘doubt’ his reading of Edwards and are ‘far from convinced’ while nevertheless still being sure JE would be embarrassed’ about JP is pretty staggering. You sound like someone who can’t stand John Piper, not someone who is able to clearly articulate his views with (if you will pardon the expression) chapter and verse, and then respond in depth.

    Nothing you have said here shows any evidence that you really understand the person you want to skewer.

    I am genuiely interested. If you can show me quoted examples of Piper separating God’s will from his other attributes I will reconsider. I have no vested interest in defending Piper. But I am interested in having an argument that moves beyond theological journalism to theological scholarship … and so far there’s nothing here.


    • Perhaps you’ve missed something here Stephen. The original post above assumed an audience — one that knows Piper and nominalism. Frankly you are not the audience intended for the post, because at the very least you literally don’t know half of what is going on. I didn’t set out to explain because I was looking for someone who may have been thinking it as well, but I did explain some (some very rough rudiments) because you asked. If you feel cheated that you are not the audience, I suggest you read the about page where I make it clear that some posts will be more technical, and I may or may not explain.

      Now, if you can study up on nominalism, older notions of divine sovereignty, the transcendentals, will, and modern conceptions of power, because these are all at play here, then perhaps in the future we can discuss this. I’ve even provided a small book list above to get started.

      Also, I’ve been quite clear that I’m busy, so I can’t spend the time to make nominalism accessible to you, nor should I waste time on Piper when I’ve got more important texts to go through for conference presentations this month and my dissertation that I’m launching. Your attempt to gode me about theological journalism seems a bit rich considering I’ve given a far deeper and informed analysis than you have been in your dismissive and brief objections. So perhaps then you can understand why I find this exchange a bit lopsided. So until you’ve studied up, I’m not sure there is much more to say.

  4. Stephen Norris says:

    Sweet. So does this view (Rod, D.W.) hold that the classic Reformed tradition is nominalist? (So by this I mean the tradition exemplified in Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics). If so, fine – that’s your classification of Piper along with it.

    If you don’t regard the classic Reformed tradition as nominalist, I don’t see how Piper is nominalist.

    What he states in the video is Reformed orthodoxy. If that’s nominalism then I am learning.

    There’s no need to get upset guys, I am sorry for offending your super high powered thinking with basic questions asking for some arguments not assertions.


    • AS someone who once identified with the Reformed Tradition (Barth, Calvin, Kuyper), I would say that Piper represents a very Americanized departure from the classical reformed tradition. Persons who represent the CRT today: two examples off the top of my head would be James K. A. Smith and Anthony Bradley. I have my qualms about some of what they say, but I would say its not Piper Calvinism.

    • And Stephen,

      By classic, I am talking about the Dutch reformed tradition which is different from U.S. American/Edwardsian reformed traditions.

      If you can’t see the difference, maybe this comment is too “super high powered thinking” for you.

  5. Stephen Norris says:

    Thanks Rod. You mean the Reformed tradition has European roots? I learn something new every day.

    For me, by classical, I mean Calvin, Vermigli, Musculus, Hyperius, Ursinus, Perkins, Lubbertus and their ilk.

    As I read Muller on the divine attributes of life, intellect and will, and the attributes relating to the revelation and exercise of the divine will (righteousness, holiness, goodness, truth, faithfulness etc) in the Reformed orthodox, and then read Piper I hear different registers but the same theological worldview.

    Here’s the rub for us then, you, me and d.w in our two scholars and one pleb went for a ride discussion: I don’t think Piper represents a departure from the classical tradition because, despite the anomalies in Edwards’ Reformed theology (such as his occasionalism), Piper on the divine will is classical. All I’m asking here is whether this classical position is deemed nominalist by clever people like you two (if it is – fine), and if it’s not deemed nominalist why Piper is.


    • SN,

      But what differentiates Piper/Edwards from the Dutch Reformed tradition, advocated by Bradley and Smith is that the DR emphasizes covenant and the importance of the creeds. No such talk from the piper/edwards camp. I would say it is a fundamental difference.

      So enjoyed this meta convo.

  6. Stephen Norris says:

    Rod – yes, indeed. It does not make Piper nominalist though?

    D.w. – yes, Piper and the potentia absoluta, and it does not make him nominalist it makes him Reformed. For is the distinction not one of two powers in God but one that can be made ad extra concerning God’s relation to the world. There is a late medieval version of the distinction, and there is a more, shall we say, classical version of the distinction such that you find in Thomas and Calvin, and also in the early modern Reformed and I think myself that Piper’s potentia absoluta is not altogether different.

    But what do I know. As you keep reminding me.

    • Potentia absoluta came from Scotus, Occam, and the official nominalists (not Thomas!) — it didn’t originate with the Reformed, but was rather inherited. If you don’t know about Obermann and his work, I’m not sure you even know the historians to read on the reformation. Of course I keep reminding you because this is just getting embarrassing because you’re missing the bus here — the issue at hand isn’t simply explained or defined by the second generation of the reformation.

    • So much for you having nothing at stake in defending Piper.

      It does, for the emphasis in the historic creeds, confessions, and the covenant is God’s relationship to humanity and not piper’s abstract doctrine of God’s glory.

  7. Stephen Norris says:

    Hi guys – we’re all enjoying this, aren’t we?

    1. I stated above I have no vested interest in defending Piper. I mean: if he’s wrong on something, or holding aberrant views within classical Reformed theology then I have no interest in defending him on those points because of who he is.

    2. But you have not showed me why he is nominalist. You tell me he pushes potentia absoluta. But the Reformed have a place for this distinction and utilise it when necessary.

    3. You do not read what I am saying. On two counts:

    (i) I have asked several times now is the early modern, classical Reformed tradition nominalist or not?

    (ii) I thought it was obvious in what I said that the Reformed inherited not generated the absoluta/ordinata distinction but that distinction was not understood in monolithic terms. There were varities in its expression and the Reformed were aware of them and had reasons for taking on board the one(s) they did and did not. See Micahel Sudduth’s essay:

    He shows quite convincingly (in my opinion) that the Reformed have not rejected certain forms of the distinction (see n. 13 and 14 in Sudduth) and here is my argument: the forms which they retained are similar in kind to the way Piper utilises absoluta.

    You seem to greatly dislike Piper and want to skewer him for something you have not shown he is driven by. If you want to skewer all the other Reformed who use the potentia absoluta in theological thinking, I suppose this would give some balance and colour to your sword work.


    • You are apparently going to be long unsatisfied because even scholarship is somewhat divided on the place of nominalism, in distinction to humanism, in the reformation. I have been noting from the very beginning that nominalism does play a role, but will not take a position that says the second generation reformers were nominalists — the multiple voices produce a milieu that is too complex to simply be called nominalism. Piper on the other hand is not. Him and the neo-reformed movement are exceedingly crude in their constructions. And lastly, I’m still unsure how adept you are here — Sudduth argues that Calvin doesn’t reject Thomas, but Piper’s formulation is different, as made obvious yet again in his statements about tsunami: God is not moral, rather God endeavors to use evil, in fact God here needs evil (a terrible theodicy by the way), to show how awesome God is, which is conflated with God’s power.

  8. Jerms says:


    I don’t understand people who spend time on blogs and then reply for the sole purpose of arguing. As if it’s D’s fault that you took the time to read this blog and get offended. If you don’t like the content of the post and you’re so unimpressed with the replies, then stop engaging. The use of personal jibes within nearly every one of your posts from basically April 4, 2011 at 5:01 am onward is revealing: the goal clearly isn’t understanding, it’s your effort at proving your intellectual superiority by belittling D and Rod.

    “To be honest I find the whole suggestion here to be just bluster and bumbling without any clear argument. . . . I am interested in having an argument that moves beyond theological journalism to theological scholarship.”

    It’s a blog, not a scholarly paper.

    “You seem to greatly dislike Piper and want to skewer him for something you have not shown he is driven by.”

    The point of the original post and its context were explained to you:

    “The original post above assumed an audience — one that knows Piper and nominalism. Frankly you are not the audience intended for the post, because at the very least you literally don’t know half of what is going on.”

    Your comment (“You seem to greatly dislike . . .”) does not conform to the knowledge you should have gained from those data.

    It isn’t D’s and Rod’s fault that you’re here getting irritated and unimpressed. It’s yours. But then again, for a nominalist, the solution to problems isn’t intelligence, it’s power, manifested in this case in your belittling comments that boil down to nothing more than member-measuring.

    If you don’t like it, disengage. If you continue to be unimpressed, it’s your fault, not theirs, because no one’s keeping you here.

  9. Stephen Norris says:

    Wow. I am sure D.w and Rod will tell you we are actually getting on just fine. I thought we were just having a good robust blog-like discussion, with amusing asides about each other’s learning or lack of, I am not taking any of that seriously. They don’t know me and I don’t know them so we’re just messing around, surely – it is after all, just a blog.

    Thanks d.w. I take your point – “the multiple voices produce a milieu that is too complex to simply be called nominalism” – which has been what I’ve been driving at.

    I don’t doubt that some of Piper’s constructions may be crude. Does Piper ever say God needs evil? He oughtn’t to if he does. Or is that your take on Piper on God uses evil to show his power etc?

    The stuff aboutt the tsunami and power and so on, well, I genuinely don’t see what Piper is saying which you do not hear Calvin saying in the C16. On God’s power and natural occurrences, see Inst. I.xvi.6.

    And later: ‘Satan and all the impious are so under God’s hand and power that he directs their malice to whatever end seems good to him, and uses their wicked deeds to carry out his judgements’ (Inst.I.xviii.1).

    Is this nominalism? If not, what differentiates it from Piper?


  10. Jerms says:

    My point was, what’s your goal here? Learning? From people you obviously feel comfortable belittling?

    You can’t voluntarily participate here and then complain about the response — it’s you who’s putting yourself in that position. At best, it’s clear that your goal is the debate itself, not increase in knowledge.

  11. Stephen Norris says:

    But you have to admit it’s addictive Jerms, and you’ll be back to check and see if I’ve replied, and you may reply again to me and what does that make you?

    Come on now, where’s the love? Have a little fun and don’t take yourself so seriously, this is the best action this blog has had a in a long time.

    In case you haven’t noticed it was the original post which was combative in tone – I mean ‘skewer’? – and if that isn’t belitting I don’t know what it is. But who really gets upset about that? It’s just a blog.

    It’s a bit like: this blog is for anyone who agrees that Piper should be skewered for nominalism; it is not for anyone who disagrees using the tone of the original post. Is that a power-play or what?

    Now, seriously, come on, I’m not being serious. Relax.


  12. Jerms says:

    Oops – hit ‘post’ before I meant to.

    So your defense is “he did it first”? Again, no one made you read it. It wasn’t combative to you until you voluntarily read it.

    Still losing . . . .

  13. Jerms says:

    A cat and a mouse are both in a game. The difference is, one’s a cat.

    When’s the last time you talked about the topic you’re purportedly here to discuss? Nominalism & Piper, anyone?

    I’m pretty sure you’ve demonstrated that your purpose is debate, not anything intellectual.

    David, you owe me a beer.

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