UPDATE 12 October 2009
The remarks that follow highlight areas of significant disagreement so let me preface my remarks thus: I am thankful for the good work that John Piper has done. I’m most thankful for his clear and strong stand in recent years for the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. I realize that he’s taken a lot of heat for standing up for the gospel. I am also thankful for his opposition to Open Theism and for his defense of the historic Christian view of marriage and of male/female relations. Further, I write this as a friend to a friend. John was a commencement speaker at WSC a few years back and I’ve enjoyed fellowship with him here on campus and at a small, late-night meeting in San Diego (ETS ) a few years back. This post necessarily focuses on some strong disagreements but I don’t want those disagreements to obscure those areas where we agree and where we are able to work for a shared goal.
I also realize that a lot of folk, including critics and supporters, regard John Piper as a Reformed theologian. It would be more accurate to say that John holds certain views (e.g., predestination and justification) in common with the Reformed churches. Calling a Baptist “Reformed” is like calling Presbyterians “Baptist” because they believe in believer’s baptism. The Reformed churches do practice the baptism of unbaptized believers but they also baptize the infants of believers. No self-respecting, confessional Baptist should accept me as “Baptist” and Reformed folk should resist labeling anyone who rejects most of Reformed theology as “Reformed.” The contemporary equivocation over the adjective “Reformed” isn’t helpful and some of John’s recent comments about the Federal Vision movement and how it ought to be regarded are a good illustration of why this is a problem.
I just watched a video that John did with Mark Driscoll (and another fellow) where the question was asked: “Dr Piper – in your defense of the gospel against N T Wright – have you found [the] Federal Vision theology of Doug Wilson to be another gospel?” John replied unequivocally “That’s easy, Doug Wilson doesn’t preach another gospel. I don’t think N. T. Wright preaches a false gospel either. I think N. T. Wright preaches a very confusing gospel.” Elsewhere, in another video [since removed-rsc], John says, that Wilson “gets the gospel right.” I wish it were as easy as John says.
First, 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 by N. T. Wright or by Doug Wilson. What Paul means by “another gospel” is a difficult question to be sure. The assumption embedded in John’s answer seemed to be that “another gospel” constituted such a high test that neither Wright’s views nor Wilson’s (they are different) have met it. One almost receives the impression that we know a priori that they couldn’t meet the test.
Nevertheless, what did Paul mean by “another gospel”? Consider first Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian congregation in 2 Cor 11. So far as I know, people don’t ordinarily read the Corinthian correspondence to be about the question of justification or “the gospel” strictly defined. Thus it is instructive to note that part of Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthian problem of confusing Greco-Roman culture with the Christian faith is not only to point them to the “foolishness” (μωρια) of the “word of the cross” to those who are perishing; 1 Cor 1) but to continue his prosecution of the self-described “super Apostles” (2 Cor 11) by charging them with presenting to the Corinthian congregation “another Jesus,” “a different Spirit,” and “another gospel.” He equates the deception of the Corinthian congregation by the self-described “super Apostles” as morally and spiritually equivalent to the deception of Eve by the serpent! Paul calls his opponents “false apostles” and “deceitful workmen” who disguise themselves as “angels of light” in the same way Satan does. He “boasts” here in a way that is quite analogous to his “boasting” in Philippians. Here, however, his “boasting” is not of his Hebrew lineage and rabbinical accomplishments but of his sufferings and weakness and powerless (at least as the Super Apostles measure power) for the sake of Christ and his gospel.
My point here is that we should be certain to set up a test that is the same test that Paul used in evaluating what constitutes “another gospel” or “another Christ” or “another spirit.” Evidently, judging by Paul’s criticism of the self-described super-Apostles in Corinth, it is possible to preach “another gospel” without directly contradicting the Pauline gospel, narrowly defined, as the message of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension (1 Cor 15). What is it that makes the message of self-described “Super Apostles” “hetero” (anther)? Paul identifies one quality of their message as “craftiness” (πανουργια) that corrupts the mind. Arguably both the FV and NPP are “crafty” and “corrupting.”
One evidence that they are “crafty:” After all this time, after all these pixels and all the ink spilled, both groups still claim that their critics still do not understand them! Paul’s gospel was unequivocal and clear: Christ for us. After all these years there remains cloudiness and ambiguity, especially about the FV. Wilson himself helped to pen a statement (July 07) on the FV (which I can no longer find online) which was full of ambiguities about some of the most important matters in the faith. I imagine today that people are still confused about where “Wilson stands” on the FV despite his advocacy of it for years. Why? Because he says orthodox things and then he contradicts them or at least he qualifies them and defends those who deny them. That’s confusing. Indeed, in the video Piper says the same thing. We agree that Wilson is confusing and has dubious associates (not in the way that Jesus had dubious associates—that’s quite another thing. I’m happy to associate with sinners. I do it daily because I’m one of them!)
A second evidence that both the NPP and FV qualify as crafty: Has anyone ever read Tom Wright’s outrageous claims about how important his work is to understanding Paul? It’s breath-taking really. If we’re looking for a modern day “super Apostle” Tom’s hubris about the importance his own work in Paul seems a remarkable likeness to Paul’s opponents in Corinth. The FV movement breathes the same spirit of arrogance. The Reformed churches formed ecclesiastical study committees, came to conclusions, reached ecclesiastical decisions and rejected the FV. Did the proponents of the FV ever repent? I know of one former public FV proponent who has publicly repented of his advocacy of the FV (William Hill of covenant radio). As far as I know, the rest of them continue to defy the decisions of the assemblies of the RCUS, the OPC, the PCA, the RPCNA, and the URCs just to name a few. Some have fled the jurisdiction of some of those assemblies to the safe and warm embrace of Doug Wilson’s Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches.
The complementary messages of the the NPP and FV are corrupting. They are corrupting of the peace of the churches. They are corrupting of the assurance of believers. They are corrupting of the gospel itself. In the case of the NPP, the radical re-definition of “justification” from “forensic declaration by God that a sinner is accepted by God on the sole basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and received the faith resting and receiving alone” to a socio-religious boundary marker is nothing if not a corruption. The FV message of temporary, conditional, historical election, union, justification, adoption etc by baptism, their embrace of the Shepherdite definition of faith in the act of justification as consisting of trusting and obeying, their acceptance of Shepherd’s denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Jesus (yes, I know Wilson affirms IAO) and their advocacy of paedocommunion is certainly corrupting of the Reformed faith as confessed by the churches. Some parts of this complex of errors are more dangerous than others. Their doctrine of a temporary, conditional, historical election, union with Christ, and justification etc conferred through baptism and retained by grace and cooperation with grace is certainly a corruption of the gospel as confessed by the Reformation and by the Reformed churches.
In Gal 1 Paul speaks of “another gospel” as a sort of hypothetical. He denies that there really is such a thing as “another gospel,” but he uses the expression as a way of characterizing what he regards as a false and dangerous and deceptive message about Christ. What is that false, deceptive, and dangerous message? He gets to it in chapter 2.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (ESV).
Second, tt is very disturbing to hear John say casually that the FV doctrine of temporary election etc—a doctrine categorically and repeated rejected by the confessional Reformed churches over the last several years—is nothing but consistent Presbyterian theology. That dismissal of the work of the NAPARC churches suggests that John fundamentally misunderstands historic Reformed theology.
Third, John’s primary source of evidence, judging by his comments in the video, seems to have been the three-hour interview conducted by Wilson’s presbytery. My brief response to this is this: though I don’t expect John to be expert in Presbyterian polity I can say that John’s characterization of that interview (parts of which I’ve read) is misleading. That interview does did not constitute a “grilling.” I don’t know how Baptist ministers are examined but in classical (presbytery) exams I’ve witnessed since 1984, candidates for the ministry are routinely examined for four or five hours.
These exams are not usually conducted in the friendly confines of a self-selected, self-created denomination of which one is the de facto head. Wilson being examined by his own presbytery in his own denomination is like the pope being examined by a college of cardinals whom he has appointed! Had Wilson been examined by Classis Southwest US in the URCs or some other orthodox, confessional assembly that exam might have more significance.
Fourth, John seems impressed by how bright Wilson is. I agree. Doug is quite gifted. So what? Were not the self-described Super Apostles more eloquent than Paul? He conceded that fact but the didn’t care much for eloquence or the wisdom of this world or of this age did he? John is impressed (in the DGM video linked above) with Wilson’s passion and ability to be orthodox. Wilson’s critics in NAPARC have not denied that Wilson can say orthodox things. The problem is that Wilson’s orthodoxy is made confusing by his heterodoxy.
Here is the portion of John’s comments I find so bewildering and utterly confused about what Reformed theology is and teaches about these things:
“…brilliant! Wrong in numerous cases, but wrong the way you’d expect a Presbyterian to be wrong.”
“For him to talk about the fact that there are unregenerate elect and unregenerate regenerate and church members who aren’t church members and the saved who aren’t saved—I understand what he’s saying. It’s not heresy. It’s the same thing anybody would say whose been baptized and joined the church whether Baptist or Presbyterian and you treat them like they’re part of the family of God and you find out in the end they’re not. And there was a kind of objectivity to their membership that got them some privileges. That’s what the Federal Vision is about.”
“…There’s real objective salvation here…it’s very complicated. And don’t write Doug Wilson off very easily. He’s a very bright guy.”
In these comments John confuses the historic Reformed doctrine and practice of the judgment of charity, i.e. of accepting the credible profession of members with the FV doctrine of a temporary, historical, conditional election etc.
In Reformed theology, i.e., in the confessions of the Reformed churches, with respect to the ordo salutis (the application of redemption by the Spirit to the elect), there is no such thing as a temporary, historical, conditional election or union or justification etc conferred by baptism. When the FV folk, who teach this false doctrine of a temporary election etc in the ordo salutis, claim to be Reformed when they teach it, they are liars. Yes, there is such a thing as a temporary election relative to national Israel, in the history of redemption, but that’s a different matter altogether and it is quite unhelpful to conflate the history of redemption with the application of redemption.
In Reformed theology there is only one kind of election relative to salvation and justification. Election is eternal. Election is not conditioned by anything in the elect. Union with Christ is unconditional and gracious. Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. In the Canons of Dort we deny that the elect can fall away. The FV teaches that the “elect” can fall away. These two views are contradictory. It is misleading for John to suggest that the FV is just another version or in any way consistent with confessional Presbyterian or Reformed theology.
The Reformed churches confess that there are two ways of existing in the one covenant of grace. We’ve always confessed that the visible church, the Christ-confessing covenant community is always mixed, it always has within it wheat and tares, it is always populated by elect and hypocrites. We accept the credible profession of faith of members but we do so in light of Paul’s clear teaching that there are always those who have only an “outward” membership in the covenant of grace and not also an “inward” membership (Romans 2:28). Herman Witsius described these two ways of being in the visible church as a “double mode of communion” in the covenant of grace.
You can read more about this distinction in Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace. You can see a more technical and historical treatment of these issues in “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ.” There is a full-scale analysis of and response to Norman Shepherd, the FV movement, and aspects of the NPP, in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. There is a panoply of resources on these questions at my WSC website. Those who are unfamiliar with these issues and questions should begin here.
It is good to build bridges but it also good to make distinctions. I understand that, as a Baptist, John thinks that Reformed and Presbyterian Churches are wrong about baptism and other matters but there is no reason for anyone to be confused or confusing about what the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches teach about covenant and justification or baptism and election.
Reformed theology more than just the doctrine of predestination and the Five Points of the Synod of Dort. Reformed theology has a covenant theology, i.e. an understanding of the history of redemption, a view of Scripture, a way of reading Scripture, doctrines of God, man, Christ, salvation, church, sacraments and last things. The confessional Reformed churches do not see their theology in the FV. If we’ve consistently, publicly, and ecclesiastically rejected the FV why does John feel free to continue to regard the FV as just another variation of Reformed theology? This gets us back to the question of who gets to define the adjective “Reformed.” 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.
John, you’re entitled to appreciate Doug Wilson’s gifts and occasional orthodoxy (we all do) but you’re not to suggest that the FV is just another variation on Reformed theology. It isn’t.