Piper’s New Book Is Edwardsian

The major—and expected—exception is Jonathan Edwards, whose view of faith no doubt stands behind Piper’s approach to this issue. Edwards believed that love is at the heart of faith: “That even faith, or a steadfastly believing the truth, arises from a principle of love.”

Although Piper denounces some of what he sees to be unfortunate expressions in Edwards’s theology, he can’t completely escape the difficulties in Edwards’s doctrine of faith when he appropriates it—as he notes some of his critics have already brought to his attention (24n11, 283).

By trying to draw heavily upon Edwards’s highly affectional theology, Piper encounters a host of complexities for the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is precisely why he continually has to try to qualify and clarify his understanding of justification throughout this book. Those complexities that risk endangering justification by faith alone include a view of faith that comes close to a faith formed by love for justification (which is the Roman Catholic view), a confusion of the transformation that belongs to sanctification with the trust in Christ that is at faith’s heart unto justification for the ungodly, and a blurring of faith’s fruits and evidence with what makes it saving—traditionally understood by its object, Jesus Christ, rather than one of its subjective aspects or effects. The success of Piper’s qualifications and clarifications is beyond the scope of this review. Read more»

Harrison Perkins | “Review: What Is Saving Faith?” | May 5, 2022


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  1. With the passing of the YRR fad, I wasn’t aware that any Reformed folks regarded Piper as being Reformed or took his aberrant theology seriously anymore.

    • Piper is very influential with people who are moving from generic evangelicalism to a more Calvinistic (but not Reformed) position. He might not be as popular as he was ten years ago, but he still wields influence.

    • J.B.: By “more Calvinistic (but not Reformed)” I assume you are referring to 4 or 5 point Baptists?

  2. Even though I trust in Christ’s active and passive obedience alone, whenever I read Piper and Edwards on their own terms, I come away discouraged doubting my salvation. I’ve often thought they make faith law.

  3. One way discussions about concepts such as faith and love are NOT helped is by use of the common categorization of whether one thing being defined thing (faith) “includes” another defined thing (love), and this leading to whether it (faith) “necessarily” includes it (love), and this leading to whether it (faith) includes it (love) in a particular way, “as supreme treasure (p. 20).” Not only that, but whether it does at conversion: “I will speak of saving faith as receiving Christ as our supreme treasure (p. 20).”

    This “timing” attribute should be noticed, along with this “including” attempt, separately from how tremendously so Christ is our supreme treasure. It is a “did you get Him all” kind of attempt, as if “if you didn’t get Him all, you didn’t get Him at all.”

    To show how simply this is false, ne of the great narratives in the history of the world is the incident in John 1:35-39 (ESV): “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see. So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.”

    Have you ever been scared that the hour in which you thought your conversion took place contained some dumb comment to Jesus on your part? such as Jesus asking us what are we seeking, and we answer with “where are you staying, Jesus?” Have you had people tell you, your ducks were not all in a row, at the beginning, so you’re not saved? Does it help when they write a book about all the great things that are true when our ducks are in a row?

  4. When you add “All this I will do” to “Have mercy on me a sinner,” you think you’re getting Calvary, but all you’re really getting is Sinai.

  5. Thank you for posting these articles that shed light into the darkness of men’s imaginations. I am surrounded by people who admire Edwards and Piper.
    It appears that J. Edwards rejected the Reformed Catechisms, Confessions, Cannons, and the WCF, WSC, and the WLC. Instead of conforming his thinking to these standards of the Reformation, he wrote ‘his standards’.
    Does Piper have a any connection to the Reformed Standards?
    Have Edwards and Piper missed out on election, Ephesians 1:1-14?
    Have they not considered The Source of The Fruit of the Spirit? Galatians 5:22-24?
    Do they believe they can access The Fruit of the Spirit without God’s election and/or before His effectual call?

    • Catherine, you wrote this: “It appears that J. Edwards rejected the Reformed Catechisms, Confessions, Cannons, and the WCF, WSC, and the WLC. Instead of conforming his thinking to these standards of the Reformation, he wrote ‘his standards’.”

      I’m not necessarily saying you’re wrong, but I’d like to see evidence that Jonathan Edwards rejected the Reformed doctrinal standards.

      Edwards’ first congregation was a Presbyterian church in New York City. Now granted, in that early era, presbyteries in the American colonies were very loose affairs, and that particular church had separated from another Presbyterian church whose pastor was viewed by those who separated as overly authoritarian. They called Edwards, as a Congregationalist, to pastor what can probably best be described as a de facto independent church that had local elders and, from what we know of it, subscribed to the Westminster Standards.

      As Dr. John Gerstner personally reminded me a number of times, at a much later time in his life after being removed from the pulpit of First Congregational Church of Northhampton, Edwards was invited by the Erskines to join their then-new Associate Presbyterians in Scotland. The Erskines were far from moderate in their views and were not known for toleration of lukewarmness. They asked Edwards if he could subscribe to the Westminster Standards and he not only responded in the affirmative, but said he preferred the presbyterian system of government after seeing the abuses of New England Congregationalism. Now perhaps Edwards was being polite — he did turn the Erskines down and took a call instead to another Congregational church serving Native American missions on the far western frontier of Massachusetts — but Gerstner had a point when he reminded me that Congregationalists who love to claim Edwards have to admit that Edwards was not a convinced Congregationalist when it came to church government.

      I realize Edwards’ willingness to become president of what is now Princeton is more ambiguous and we may not be on sound ground reading the later confessional stances of Princeton into its earliest history. If Edwards had survived longer, it is possible that the institution would have become more of a joint Congregational and Presbyterian “union seminary,” and not the strictly Presbyterian body it eventually became. However, even discounting his role at Princeton, it appears from the evidence at hand that at least two times in Edwards’ life, perhaps three, he either took or was willing to take vows of subscription to the Westminster Standards, even the sections on church government.

      So much for Edwards’ willingness to subscribe to Presbyterian standards while serving Presbyterian churches and institutions.

      Now moving to Edwards’ service in Congregational churches, I’m not going to say that evidence may not exist that Edwards rejected the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but I’d like to see it. That would have been unusual in the context of early-to-mid 1700s New England, and if it happened, it would have been commented upon, at least by his critics and perhaps by his supporters.

      The older practice in the Congregational churches of New England was to subscribe to the Savoy Declaration (the Congregational revision of the Westminster Confession) and to use the Westminster Shorter Catechism for instruction. Granted, Congregational churches in New England at the beginning of Edwards’ ministry were in serious decline and formal subscription was far from strictly enforced. The same can fairly be said of Presbyterianism in England and Scotland, which is a major part of why the Erskines seceded. But only half a century later, subscription to the Westminster Shorter Catechism became a dividing line between the early Unitarians and the orthodox Trinitarians within Congregationalism, and many of the opponents of Edwards — Chauncey, for example — at a later date became Unitarians or were moving in that direction, though most were dead before the Unitarian Schism became a formal separation.

      It’s at least theoretically possible that Edwards rejected the Savoy Declaration, repudiated the Westminster Confession after leaving his New York City church for the Northhampton church, and refused to catechize with the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There were plenty of English Presbyterians in the 1700s who, while formally claiming to adhere to the Westminster Standards, were moving toward views later described as Unitarian. In New England Congregational churches, it was more common in the first half of the 1700s for people who disagreed with Savoy and Westminster to downplay, avoid, and ignore the confessions than to openly attack them. But again, where’s the evidence?

      I would not be surprised if evidence exists that Edwards affirmed what the Dutch Reformed would call a “quatenus” (insofar as) rather than “quia” (because) view of confessional subscription. That was a live debate in American Presbyterianism of the 1700s, but if true, it would merely show that Edwards’ view of confessional subscription was more or less the same as the modern PCA, namely, that ministerial candidates can cite “exceptions” to the confessions and have them evaluated during their ordination examinations. Even if it can be shown that Edwards rejected “strict subscription” to the Savoy, which is possible and perhaps likely, that’s not the same as saying Edwards rejected the confessions.

      It seems the only clear evidence that Edwards “rejected the confessions” would be with regard to Presbyterian church government. That should be no surprise to anyone. After all, he spent almost all of his life as a Congregationalist.

      If Edwards went beyond church government in rejecting the confessional standards, especially the Westminster Shorter Catechism which was still in widespread usage, there will be evidence of that. I’d like to see the evidence.

      • Darrell and Catherine,

        Take a look at the resources under this post. There is plenty of evidence to think that Edwards deviated from Congregationalist (e.g., Savoy) and Westminster orthodoxy on a number of issues. I surveyed some of those in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

        See the resources under that post for more. There are serious questions about Edwards’ orthodoxy on the doctrine of God. He has been plausibly charged with pantheism (everything is God). The evidence is very strong that he deviated from the Reformed understanding of sola fide.

        The main culprit was his turn to Cambridge Platonism. One of my concerns about the current (mainly Baptist) fascination with Plato is that, in the history of Christian theology, the attempt to synthesize Plato with Christian theology has usually led to pantheism and to what we call Pelagianism. We should call it Origenism, since Pelagius learned from Origen. It did a lot of damage to Edwards’ theology.

    • Fair enough, Dr. Clark. My disagreement was not primarily with what you’ve written, but rather with what Catherine posted today. I agree with you that it’s patently obvious there were serious problems with the followers of Edwards even if he himself was essentially orthodox but said unwise things. I’m much more critical of those who followed Edwards, and I think you’re on good ground saying there’s something wrong in the root that produced bad branches.

      When I read the comment today that Edwards “rejected the Reformed Catechisms, Confessions, Cannons, and the WCF, WSC, and the WLC,” I understood that as saying something considerably more than “that Edwards deviated from Congregationalist (e.g., Savoy) and Westminster orthodoxy on a number of issues.”

      I think it will be very difficult to make the claim that Edwards rejected the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which by the early-to-mid 1700s had become the primary confessional document that was known to ordinary laypeople in New England Congregationalism. I’m open to evidence, and perhaps it exists somewhere in the records of First Congregational Church of Northhampton, or the various ecclesiastical councils of the vicinage in which Edwards participated, or in the controversial literature of the day. But I’ve never heard that Edwards rejected the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and that would be very much out of character for the conservative ecclesiastical parties of his day. It is true there was a lot of debate about the authority of creeds and confessions vis-a-vis Scripture, and there were conservative people who took some pretty bad positions early in the 1700s, but by the mid-to-late 1700s it was becoming increasingly obvious that the people saying, “We follow Scripture alone” were saying that to make room for their developing Unitarian views.

      The history of the use of the documents produced by the Cambridge, Savoy, and Saybrook synods gets into a level of detail that probably isn’t relevant here. Suffice it to say that the touchstone of orthodoxy, in actual practice and in the minds of the ordinary laypeople and ordinary pastors and church leaders, became the WSC. That de facto status became formalized during the Unitarian Schism as the trinitarian churches of Massachusetts began to join a new association of churches that required affirmation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, while the non-trinitarians, and those that wanted to avoid taking sides, remained in an older association of Massachusetts churches that didn’t formally require affirmation of the WSC because at the time the older association began, agreement with Reformed orthodoxy was assumed rather than formally required.

      That’s not necessarily rejecting the possibility that Edwards (or his subsequent followers in the New Side/New Light movement) may have affirmed the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and used it to catechize their young people in their churches, while deviating in various ways from Reformed orthodoxy.

      Professing agreement with a confessional standard is not the same as actually agreeing with it, but it’s also not the same as rejecting it. Once a church accepts something short of strict subscription, all kinds of problems can put down roots and grow into large trees, but that’s not a new problem in the American context.

      There are plenty of men in Dutch Reformed pulpits who still use the Heidelberg Catechism because their elders insist they do so, but have deviated from Reformed principles in important ways. After all, even Karl Barth wrote a (partial) commentary on the Heidelberg and virtually nobody reading this website would consider Barth to be soundly Reformed merely because found the Heidelberg to be helpful in some ways.

      The current problems of the PCA with confessional subscription have echoes in late Puritan New England. There are important differences, but some of the same underlying issues were present in New England of the 1700s that are present in the modern PCA. The nature of confessional subscription, the role of personal faith (i.e., whether personal faith or confessional adherence should take primacy), and how the church should relate to science and philosophy are not new debates in the Reformed world.

  6. “Of much greater importance was the willingness of Jonathan Edwards to claim John Locke in his defense of the faith. In the attempt to utilize Locke in the defense of the evangelical cause, Edwards ultimately made such important concessions to Locke’s empiricism that he brought about a permanent change in the whole structure of Puritanism, and unwittingly aided the triumph of the Enlightenment. Edwards developed a metaphysical idealism which was quite foreign to the historic Calvinism of Puritanism. Declaring that bodies have no existence of their own, and that all existence is mental, he reinterpreted some basic aspects of Calvinism in a manner which was quite destructive to its biblical foundations. In his own theology he labored to remain true to the Calvinism which he believed, but he sowed the seeds of its later rejection in New England, and of the later rise of Arminianism and Arianism. Mosier is quite correct when he says that Edwards took the firs steps in asserting the sovereignty of man, and that in furnishing an empirical philosophy of religion he made possible a kind of democracy in redemption that was quite contrary to Calvinism.
    There can be little doubt that the idea of the benevolence of God in the Edwardian theology was a contributing factor in the rise of liberalism among the Colonial clergy after 1730.”
    Richard Mosier ‘The American Temper’ Berkeley: University of CA Pres, 1952
    C. Greg Singer ‘A theological Interpretation of American History’ P & R Pub 1981

  7. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you. It is clear. It’s time for me to reread my copy of your ‘Recovering the Reformed Confessions’. Thank you for your devotion to recovering the Reformed Confessions.

    D. Maurina,
    Thank you for justifying your views regarding J. Edwards; these clarified more of the flaws in J. Edwards’ thinking for me. I appreciate your response.

    Several years ago I skimmed through 300 pages of his J. Edwards’ writings; as I skimmed I saw his idol, ‘his ability to think’, his confusion, ‘pantheism’, and the heresy, ‘quest for illegitimate experience of God’. To me J. Edwards was a man after his own heart and mind.

    Since 2017 I have studied the Bible through the doctrinal statements and Scripture proofs of the 16th and 17th Century (1561 to 1648) Reformers. I needed to understand 16th & 17th Century Reformed Theology before calling myself Reformed in my thinking. Using the ‘Reformed Confession Harmonized’ by Joel R. Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson, as a comprehensive lens on Scripture, I understand that I think more and more in terms of what Dr. Clark refers to as Classic Reformed Theology.

    My view of Reformed Theology is the one established in the 16 & 17h Century confessions and catechisms by men whom God used to distinguish the Truth of His Word from the lies of Romanism. People who deviate, oppose, refuse, resist, develop their own ideas to those of the 16th & 17th Century confessions are not Reformed in their ideas.

    Mine is a narrow view of Reformed Theology. I subscribe to the 16th & 17th Century confessions and catechisms of Reformed Theology because these provide a ‘correct’ or ‘right’ way of reading Scripture according to Classic Reformed Theology. The Harmonized Confessions (HC, BC, CD) help me read and study the Doctrines of Reformed Theology of the 16th Century. The Westminster Standards (WCF, WSC, WLC) inform me in more detail of how to read and think about Scripture according to Reformed Theology of the 17th Century.

    In Christ,

    • I am one of those ordinary lay people (‘a justified sinner’, ‘a sanctified saint’, with whom ‘God is at peace’ because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to me). It is astonishing to me that God would elect, call, justify, sanctify, and one day redeem someone like me. I praise Him; I see I am unworthy.

      I have been saved by Grace (alone) through Faith (alone) in Christ (alone) and assured of His election and salvation while hearing the Gospel preached faithfully, participating in the sacraments and seeing the blessing of Church Discipline. I rejoice in Him, the One and Only True and Living God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

      For me, J. Edwards’ writings are blind alleys of his imagination.

      In Christ,

    • Thank you for this, Catherine: “Thank you for justifying your views regarding J. Edwards; these clarified more of the flaws in J. Edwards’ thinking for me. I appreciate your response.”

      A key issue all of us need to remember, and most especially Christian leaders, is that when we innovate, or find “new ways to restate old truths,” we run a serious risk of introducing inadvertent error, not so much in what we say but in failing to understand the conclusions others may draw from what we say — or even worse, what we write, since what we write may be read by people who have never met us, or even read what we write after we are dead.

      Some of that is necessary and even appropriate. There was a day when the Heidelberg Catechism was a brand-new document. Calvin and Luther stated old Augustinian truths in very new ways. But great care is appropriate. There are reasons why we do not confess the writings of Luther or Calvin, but rather the doctrinal decisions of synods that assembled hundreds of the best minds of their eras to write confessions. Lutherans would not want to be blamed for some of Luther’s spiteful and vindictive comments that have no authority in Lutheran churches, nor should they. While Calvin was (usually) more careful than Luther in putting his pen to paper, he also had a fiery temper and his contemporaries commented on it. Given the vicious persecutions both men endured, and the painful and fiery deaths of their friends, I won’t condemn their anger, but I will say their anger led to them saying and doing things that God graciously prevented synods from putting into confessional documents because they went beyond the Bible.

      Did some of that happen with Edwards and his writings? I think so. His intent was clear — recovering the critical importance of personal conversion and personal faith — but his writings have no confessional authority. He never claimed they did. He didn’t spend a great deal of time in ecclesiastical politics, regarding his pulpit and his pen as being more useful tools than his membership in the local Congregational ministerial association, except insofar as he sometimes came to the defense of other pastors who were being hounded for emphasizing personal conversion. In his own lifetime, his role was not comparable to the Westminster Divines or the delegates to the Synod of Dordt; he spent most of his life as a parish pastor and regional evangelist in a provincial backwater of the British Empire, dying just after he became president of what is now Princeton and before he had the opportunity to systematize his writings and subject them to scrutiny of fellow students and professors.

      Rather than blaming or praising Edwards, I’ll point fingers at myself. On too many occasions in church and family settings, I have heard people say things and attribute them to me, and my response has been, “Uh oh. That is what I said, but not at all what I meant.”

      I’m not talking minor stuff. In the case of a person attending my church nearly thirty years ago — the person is long since dead and cannot be identified by what I write here, so I’m okay with repeating an unidentifiable private conversation — the woman, who was a Roman Catholic just beginning to learn about any form of evangelical Protestantism, let alone the Reformed faith, heard something I had said that would have made sense to people who are used to Reformed theological terminology, but she completely misunderstood my point and thought I was advocating a clearly heretical view of Scriptural authority.

      In that case, she understood what I had said but not what I meant to say, and I learned an important lesson about clarity in what I say about Scripture to a person who is not Reformed. But in other cases, people misunderstand not only what we meant to say, but what we actually said. How many times have fathers and mothers said things to their children that, with only a very minor change, could lead to false teaching or even heresy?

      That’s part of why we need a confessional framework and not run off on our own saying, “I believe the Bible, and I pick and choose what men say based on whether what they say is biblical.”

      Now technically that’s true. Luther and Calvin were correct in rejecting the role of tradition and the magisterium of the church.

      But we need to be **VERY** careful to be humble and respect those who have gone before us. Systems of theology have their own logic. The main streams of the magisterial Reformation — Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism — all differ based on core presuppositions that work themselves out in what are now, hundreds of years later, well-developed systems of doctrine that have examined the underlying principles and biblical texts and worked out the logical conclusions.

      When we sing that horrible line in the old hymn, “Our little systems have their day; They have their day and cease to be: They are but broken lights of thee, And thou, O Lord, art more than they,” while the words may seem devout and God-honoring, what they’re really doing is attacking creeds, confessions, and catechisms, and behind them, the whole concept of a “system of doctrine.”

      What we need to do is understand the presuppositions behind the system of theology that we believe, and that our pastors and our churches believe.

      It’s not uncommon for many evangelicals to adopt bits and pieces of this and that, and cite Scripture proof texts without thinking through where their beliefs will lead them.

      In the case of Edwards, I think that’s what happened with his followers. There were major problems with the “New England Theology” of the next generation, and even in Edwards’ own life, not all of the “Old Side/Old Light” opponents of the Edwardsean revival were opposed to personal conversion, though far too many were.

      I realize there are people who will say the whole Edwardsean tree needs to be cut down because it has a bad root that produces bad fruit. I disagree.

      But I most definitely do think the tree needs pruning, and most modern supporters of Edwards who are within the confessional Reformed tradition would agree. Let’s just say there is a lot of difference between Joel Beeke and John Gerstner and John Piper, and even more difference between the first two men and the “YRR” movement.

      I live in the Bible Belt where the Reformed faith is all but unknown. I’d rather encourage people who have encountered the YRR movement, or Piper, and who are REALLY upset with American evangelical decisionism and Pelagianism, to keep reading and come to a fuller understanding of the Reformed faith. But I’m not unaware of the problems, and a case can fairly be made that many of Piper’s problems are in fact rooted in Edwards’ problems.

      I hope that helps clarify my views, Catherine. I suspect we’re much closer than we might initially appear to be based on what I initially wrote.

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