This post is not brought on solely by Piper’s recent controversial comments regarding the tornado in Minneapolis, but that is a good enough occasion for me to finish this post that’s been kicking around for some time.
In conservative evangelical circles, especially among the more Calvinistic in those circles, many people regard John Piper to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Me, not so much. Those who know me may write this off by saying “Well you’re not much of an Evangelical anyway,” and you’d be right: I’m not Evangelical with a big “E” as a brand name. I am orthodox. I gladly and readily affirm all three ecumenical creeds (Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian) and a whole slew of Reformed ones to boot. I read Calvin all the time. Scarcely a Sunday goes by that I don’t have a “Calvin says” in my sermon (ask my congregation). But you won’t ever hear a “Piper says” from me. Not a fan.
OK, first off, I have to admit that my introduction to Piper was not felicitous. We sat under the preaching of someone several years ago who quoted Piper at every turn. The quotes chosen never resonated with me in the least, and they were repeated ad nauseam. Not only did they not encourage me to read Piper: they had the effect of encouraging me to stay away from him. So Piper has always had a strike against him in my book. I realize it’s not his fault, just like it was not the fault of Strick’s Barbecue that I happened to come down with a nasty virus the same day we ate their food, and I met that food again, all night long, in several unpleasant ways. Still, even though I knew it wasn’t the fault of the barbecue, the association was there, and I couldn’t even think of eating at Strick’s ever, ever again. I have a friend who had a similar experience with Golden Flake Cheese Curls. Even though it was not the Cheese Curls’ “fault,” the mere mention of them made her shudder. So Piper is my Strick’s Barbecue, my Golden Flake Cheese Curls, if you will.
But Piper hasn’t done anything to redeem himself, in my book, from his Strick’s Barbecue/Golden Flake Cheese Curls status. And I’ve tried. I’ve really tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, because so many people seem to think he’s all that. I can’t. Here’s why:
- Piper is a Fundamentalist Baptist. Please don’t be offended if you are a Fundamentalist Baptist reading this. I’m not saying you’re a bad person. But I’m not any kind of Baptist, and particularly not a Fundamentalist. I tire of hearing conservative Presbyterians quoting Piper as the be-all end-all of Reformed theology. Sure, Piper is a “Calvinist” (using the term loosely) in terms of his soteriology: he holds to the Doctrines of Grace, which of course are the Canons of Dordt. As they are not found per se in Calvin’s writings, calling an adherent to these doctrines a “Calvinist” is a bit of an overstatement. There is so much more to the Reformed tradition than simply the Canons of Dordt. Piper’s hermeneutic and ecclesiology are characteristic of the Fundamentalist Baptist mindset and bear scant resemblance to a Reformed outlook. (More on each of these below.) I’ve heard PCA Presbyterians characterized by other Presbyterians over the years as “just Baptists in Brooks Brothers suits,” and in many cases that is true. I interviewed at a church several years ago where two on the pastoral staff described the church as “Baptist with a thin veneer of Presbyterian,” and they seemed entirely OK with that. I’ve got more than a “thin veneer of Presbyterian” in/on me, so Piper doesn’t exactly float my boat theologically.
- Piper’s Ecclesiology Excludes Me, and Probably You Too. For Piper, only those baptized by immersion and “believer’s baptism” at that are part of the Church. Not just the local membership of the local church: I mean THE CHURCH. Piper’s ecclesiology posits a church that is made up only of the “faithful,” that is only those who have made a “credible” profession of faith (as determined by Piper and the elders of his church) and have undergone “believer’s baptism” by immersion. No other type of baptism is valid. Infant baptism is not a “real” baptism for Piper: it’s a sham. Even a “believer’s” baptism done by affusion (pouring) or aspersion (sprinkling) would be a sham for Piper. Piper and his elders sought a few years ago to pass a proposal that would allow believers to join his church even if they’d been baptized the “wrong” way, but this proposal was withdrawn. Still, even in the midst of that controversy, Piper still maintained that other modes of baptism were “unbiblical.” Piper’s ecclesiology does not conceive of the church as covenant community. This is quite at odds with the Reformed view.
- Piper’s Hermeneutic is Bizarre. Perhaps I should say, Piper doesn’t seem to have a hermeneutic, other than “It is what it is because I say it is.” I first noted the strangeness of his hermeneutic several years ago, when the aforementioned preacher embarked on a sermon series on worship that was entirely drawn from this sermon series by Piper. I was not aware this was a Piper series, as the preacher in question did not cite his source, but others in the church soon found the series online. I was, however, aware from the very first sermon that the thing didn’t sound very Presbyterian to me. In particular, this sermon made me bristle, because it was founded upon the premise that because there is no express mention of “worship services” in the NT (which I would strongly dispute anyway), that means that “Old Testament worship was external, while New Testament worship is internal.” I remember thinking, “He’s doing to the theology of worship the same thing the Baptists do to the theology of baptism!” A Reformed hermeneutic does not view the New Testament as a radical break from the Old, but as an outgrowth of it. We believe there is one God and one covenant of grace. Thus, for example, with baptism, we don’t say, “Show me in the New Testament where children are included in the church,” but rather we note in the Old Testament that they are, and say to the Baptist, “Show me where they are put out of the church!” In the recent brouhaha over the tornado in Minneapolis, Piper cites Luke 13:4-5 as “proof” of his position that the tornado was sent as God’s judgment on the ELCA, but Piper misses (or ignores?) the point of the passage altogether. Those who were questioning Jesus assumed that such things were direct payback for this or that sin. Jesus says in essence, “Look, you’re all going to die one way or another, so you’d better be sure you’ve repented!” Jesus’ response does not affirm their assumption that the tragedy was “payback time,” but rather refutes it.
Now, just a brief word about the tornado thing. I’m not saying Piper shouldn’t be able to call a tornado an “act of God.” I’ve heard Piper’s supporters say this all week : “How come insurance companies can call a tornado an ‘act of God’ but a preacher can’t?” That’s not the point. Of course the tornado was an “act of God.” I’m not even saying Piper had no business publicly disagreeing with the actions of the ELCA. He’s entitled to his beliefs, and he is entitled to state them. It’s in his assigning motives to God for the tornado that crosses the line. Piper says with certainty: “The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.” Not “I believe the tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning . . .” Where is he getting this inside information? How is this any different from Robert Tilton saying “God told me . . .” on TV? How is this any different from the Sunday School teacher I heard in a PCA church several years ago who said the Holocaust was “God’s punishment on the Jews for rejecting Jesus”? Piper is free to preach and teach the Bible as he interprets it (even though I think his hermeneutic is wack), but that doesn’t mean he has an inside track to God’s motives.
So, before this week, I was not a fan of John Piper. Now, even less so.