Friday, June 26, 2009

In Defence of John Piper and N.T. Wright

R. Scott Clark offers some criticisms of John Piper relating to his status as "Reformed" and his apparent softness on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and Federal Vision (FV). Clark makes every effort to be gracious in his criticisms, but I felt that many of his points seemed somewhat unfair or grounded on dubious assumptions. In defence of John Piper then:

1. On "Reformed", Clark objects to this description being applied to those outside the Presbyterian and Confessional churches. This is why Clark writes: "Are there as many definitions of 'Reformed' as there are definers or is there is fixed, stable, public, ecclesiastical definition of the adjective? I say the latter is the case." Now every time Clark writes the word "Reformed" I feel like quoting the movie the Princess Bride - "You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means!" Now far be it for me to lecture a historical theologian on adjectives of the Reformation, but surely, just from usage alone, we can observe that "Reformed" is a polysemous term. From my fallible experience and limited readings, I think that "Reformed" has three primary usages: (1) it can be used historically to signify those Christian groups that emerged during or from the Reformation (Lutheran, Anabaptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc.), (2) it can be used theologically to describe those who hold to a Calvinistic and Covenantal theology (though we could ask which part of Calvin is essential and whose covenant theology - e.g. Kline or Murray - is pristine?); and (3) it can be used ecclesiologically to describe those churches that stand in the Continental/Scottish Presbyterian tradition. To say that Piper is "Reformed" it is to mean it in the sense of (2) not (3). I suspect that many do not like applying the term "Reformed" to Calvinistic and Confessional Baptists because it lowers the currency of the term "Reformed," which they feel should be reserved exclusively for themselves (I have to confess that this entire discussion reminds me of Paul's debate in Romans 2 about who is a true "Jew" and Philippians 3 about who is the true "circumcision"). I can resonate against making the term nebulous, but I doubt that Clark's own idea of "Reformed" matches the historical and public reality of how the adjective is used.

On an adjacent point, and maybe Baptist historians can help me with this one, traditionally Calvinistic and Confessional Baptists have been called (or called themselves) "Particular Baptists" and I do wonder when and why the label "Reformed Baptists" can into widespread currency. I don't hear about Particular Baptists anymore. Has the title "Reformed Baptist" come into common usage in order to differentiate themselves from "General Baptists" (i.e. Arminians) and to demonstrate a close affinity with Presbyterian/Anglican/Lutheran churches who they feel that they have more in common with? Interesting question, and I don't know the answer.

People might also be interested to know that the World Reformed Fellowship includes Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Reformed Baptists! Look at the doctrinal basis of the WRF:

- We affirm the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the God-breathed Word of God, without error in all that it affirms.
- We stand in the mainstream of the historic Christian Faith in affirming the following catholic creeds of the Early Church: The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition.
- More specifically, every voting member of the WRF affirms one of the following historic expressions of the Reformed Faith: The Gallican Confession, The Belgic Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Thirty-Nine Articles, The Second Helvetic Confession, The Canons of Dort, The Westminster Confession of Faith, the London Confession of 1689, or the Savoy Declaration.

It is with great pleasure that I point out that in the WRF, Baptist and Anglican confession are right there beside the WCF and Heidelberg Catechism! Isn't that just wonderful. Evidently Clark does not represent the views of Presbyterians across the world, but only one narrow portion of it.

2. Clark takes exception to John Piper refusing to call N.T. Wright's and Douglas Wilson's gospel the "another gospel" indicted in Galatians 1. Clark writes: "I was troubled by the question and the implication of his answer that we all know what 'another gospel' is and it isn’t that which is taught by N. T. Wright or by Doug Wilson." However, we do know what the other gospel was, it was teaching the Galatians that they had to be circumcised, and to become Jews, in order to become children of Abraham. N.T. Wright and Doug Wilson, as far as I'm aware, do not teach this. Wright's definition of gospel works well in Rom. 1.3-4, 2 Tim. 2.8 (and I have a juicy Luther quote which sounds just like Wright), but I side with Piper in that I don't think it works in 1 Cor. 15.3-8. The gospel has to include both the person and work of Jesus Christ. Sadly, Reformed preachers tend to focus on the work of Christ (i.e. atonement theology) and Wright has rightly brought the person (Messiah, Lord, plus the underlying narrative) back into the picture, which is great, but he still needs to integrate it more closely to the cross and resurrection in his definition of gospel.

3. Clark writes: "Paul identifies one quality of their message as 'craftiness' (πανουργια) that corrupts the mind. Arguably both the FV and NPP are 'crafty' and 'corrupting'." Now I simply don't know enough about the FV so I won't comment there. But to call Wright "crafty" and "corrupting" seems a bit on the unfair side. There have been several good criticisms of N.T. Wright (as opposed to vitriolic ones), I think esp. of Doug Moo and Tom Schreiner, but nowhere do these acidic phrases come up. Wright claims he's getting back to Scripture and not relying on tradition - something most exegetes like to think of themselves as doing - so Wright is hardly unique in claiming to be going back to the sources. Did not Calvin and Luther think of themselves in a similar fashion? The other problem is that Clark simply regards NPP, FV, and Norman Shepherd has some kind of homogenous entity or simply variations on a theme, which strikes me as entirely inaccurate and careless. What is more, is everything in the NPP or FV wrong or equally as bad? Augustine saw Romans as being dominated by the Jew-Gentile question and Calvin was relatively aware of the ethnic dimension to Paul's debates in his Galatians commentary. So Augustine and Calvin would affirm constituent concerns of the NPP, even if not everything! I can't help but think that the old addage of baby and bathwater should cause Clark to seriously qualify his statements about NPP and FV.

On top of that, Clark states that the FVs "advocacy of paedocommunion is certainly corrupting of the Reformed faith as confessed by the churches," yet I would point out that it is possible to advocate Paedocommunion without buying into any of the FV arguments. For case in point, Bishop Glen Davies (Anglican Bishop of North Sydney) has written some excellent pieces on that back in the early 1990s in Reformed Theological Review. Clark also states, "It is beyond question that the NPP is an all-out assault upon and rejection of Paul’s doctrine of justification sola fide," yet consider Jimmy Dunn's remarks (and don't take this as an endorsement of everything Jimmy says): "I have no particular problem in affirming that the doctrine of justification (in its fully orbed expression) is articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae; I am astonished by and repudiate entirely the charge that the ‘new perspective on Paul’ constitutes an attack on and denial of that Lutheran fundamental … The point I am trying to make is simply that there is another dimension (or other dimensions) of the biblical doctrine of God’s justice and of Paul’s teaching on justification which have been overlooked and neglected, and that it is important to recover these aspects and to think them through afresh in the changing circumstances of today’s world. In a word, I seek not to diminish let alone repudiate the doctrine of justification (mē genoito), but to bring more fully to light its still greater riches." I'd hardly call that a siege tower against Geneva or Wittenberg.

In sum, I think Clark is unfair to Piper because he thinks that Piper does not put the goal posts of orthodoxy in the right place and so allows too many people onto the playing field. Whereas I think that Piper has a good grasp of what the disqualifying issues are and renders judgment appropriately. I think Clark is unfair to Wright because his criticisms are anchored in harsh rhetoric and vague generalisations. To be fair to Clark, this was a blog post and not monograph, but in whatever format criticisms need to be objective and accurate. I hope I have been objective and accurate in my criticism of Clark and I'm sure he'll correct me where I'm not!

Update: Whereas I've criticized Wright's definition of gospel as too reliant on Rom. 1.3-4 and not taking into account 1 Cor. 15.3-5, in the comments section Trevin Wax alludes to a CT interview with N.T. Wright where Wright defines the gospel as: "The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When the gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord." Incidentally, Piper's definition is as follows: "The heart of the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. What makes this good news is that Christ’s death accomplished a perfect righteousness before God and suffered a perfect condemnation from God, both of which are counted as ours through faith alone, so that we have eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth."


Trevin Wax said...


Regarding Wright on the gospel, check out his position in Christianity Today. I originally summarized "the gospel" solely from Romans 1, and Wright asked me to add his cross and resurrection in order to incorporate 1 Cor. 15. So I believe he is now seeking to incorporate the work of Christ into his gospel definition more than he did in the past.

CJW said...

I love the striking title of the post; only on this blog.

Josh Walker said...

Dr. Bird,

In your first point you make much of the fact that Piper should be called "Reformed." In support of this you use, as I saw it, two lines of reasoning. The first was to define the term "Reformed" in three ways. Then to show that Piper fits into the second definition, namely, "those who hold to a Calvinistic and Covenantal theology." The second line of reasoning you used to show that Piper should be called "Reformed" is to appeal to the World of Reformed Fellowship which includes Baptists who hold to the LBC of 1689.

While I agree with you that is it proper to call someone who fits into these two categories a "Reformed Baptist," John Piper, best to my knowledge does not fit into either of the above categories. For sure Piper does not hold to the LBC 1689, in any formal sense, and he does not hold to a strict form of Covenant Theology, not Murry's or Kline's. This is coming for someone who has the greatest and utmost respect for Piper. I think it is best to refer to Piper as a "Calvinistic Baptist" or as you brought up "Particular Baptist."

Marty said...

Thanks Mike! This debate that Scott Clark has introduced about not calling Baptists "reformed" is misguided for two reasons (amongst others!).

[1] It seems to me to be the classic power-through-rhetoric ploy about who is truly "in" and who is truly "out". This goes on in all sorts of Christian (and non-Christian) sub-groupings: who is truly Anglican, who is truly evangelical, who is truly Baptist, I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow ... It's a rhetorical set up in order to exclude people from the debate, that can often bypass the substantive issues to be discussed. 1 John gives us three tests: truth, moral, and love. We'd be much better off to use these, they are after all inspired.

Secondly, Clark's definition of reformed actually conflicts with the doyen of reformed historical theology Richard Muller. He believes that all the reformed confessions of the 16th (Gallic, Scots, Belgic, 39 Articles, Heidelberg, 2nd Helvetic) and the 17th century defined who or what is reformed. Hence, there's a degree of latitude in the tradition. Clarks focus is unnecessarily narrow: the 3FU and Westminster Standards. And, I would point out, that in the 17th century the word "reformed" was used of particular baptists. The 1689, for example, is a confession of the 17th century that should be placed in the reformed tradition.

Aren't there more important issues / people to attack than John Piper? He may have faults but he's done much good. Can't Clark pick on some issue that is *really* ripping the church apart (Matt. 23:23)?

Andrew Cowan said...

Dr. Bird,

You make some good points. I have three thoughts in response.

One, I think that most people who learn the word "Reformed" from Piper, which he uses to identify himself, think that it basically means an Evangelical Calvinist (as in the five points). Although Piper has come closer to covenant theology in recent years (I have in mind the ETS meeting where he said that Christ accomplishes something Adam should have, that's as close as I've heard him come to the "covenant of works;" cf. his comments in Future Grace), he has never fully affirmed the whole covenant theology system. I think that he and many of those who follow his work thus define "Reformed" a little more broadly.

Second, the title "Particular Baptist" may be a little infelicitous for Piper because the name of his denomination is the General Baptist Convention.

Third, I find it highly ironic that out of Piper and Wright, it is Piper who mentioned the new creation in his definition of the gospel. Having been an apprentice of Piper's and being a big fan of Wright's, I have seen much more concurrence and complementarity between their work than they seem to see in one another. I don't think that either really understands the other on the function of works at the final judgment...but that's another topic for another day.

Anyway, thanks for some good reflections. The number of scholars who accurately represent and engage both Piper and Wright is sadly few. It is refreshing to read the comments of someone who appreciates both, and will stand up for them when appropriate.

Andrew Cowan

Unknown said...

I'm far from qualified to comment on what's Reformed or what's not, but I do have two thoughts. (1) I would think Piper might be heavily influenced by Reformed theology, but his take on baptism would set him apart from the flow of the capital R tradition. (2) Any good Baptist knows the Reformed element of their heritage. (I'm a former Southern Baptist.)

Ros said...

Marty, I'm guessing that the reason Clark wants to pick on Piper is because Piper has just given Doug Wilson a fairly ringing endorsement by inviting him to speak at a Desiring God conference.

Mike, thanks for the helpful post. I haven't heard of Particular Baptists much lately, either. Perhaps they've just realised that it sounds silly in this day and age? I agree that one of Clark's real problems is the inability to distinguish correctly between NPP and FV and the various tenets of each. Easier just to condemn it all in one fell swoop, I suppose.