Fesko Critiques Piper’s Appeal to the Reformed Tradition

In his most recent response to Harrison Perkins’s TGC review of his book, Piper cites John Calvin as an example of someone who includes affections as a part of faith: “‘In a word, faith is . . . a warm embrace of Christ.’ Even the aspect of faith called ‘assent . . . consists in pious affection.’”[2] This is an example of the inaccurate way that Piper cites texts, as Piper fails to note that Calvin is not here talking about justifying but sanctifying faith:
. . . In fact, Calvin is very clear that faith produces love and takes issue with Peter Lombard, who claims that love takes priority to faith: “For what the Schoolmen say as to the priority of love to faith and hope is a mere dream (see Sent. III.xxv, &c.) since it is faith alone that first engenders love.”[4]
. . . A similar pattern unfolds with Piper’s citation of Owen in his response to Perkins. Piper makes the following quotation: “[Faith] is to receive the Lord Jesus in his comeliness and eminency. . .  Let us receive him in all his excellencies, . . . comparing him with other beloveds, . . . and preferring him before them, counting them all loss and dung in comparison of him.”[6] Once again, the context of this statement is crucial to understanding what Owen is saying. Within Owen’s broader corpus, he is very clear about the nature of justifying faith. In his The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, Owen takes aim at the Roman Catholic view: “Others plead for obedience, charity, the love of God, to be included in the nature of faith; but plead not directly that this obedience is the form of faith, but that which belongs unto the perfection of it, as it is justifying.”[7] What, then, is the context of Piper’s quotation of Owen? He quotes Owen from his Communion where they context is not justification but rather communion with Christ…
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J. V. Fesko | “A Historical-Theological Response to John Piper’s What Is Saving Faith?” | Reformed Faith & Practice, Vol. 8 Issue 1


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  1. We can also point out that in saying with Edwards that love is the main thing in saving faith, Piper never states what remains to say about saving faith: what is left to say about saving faith, beyond the love that he wants to say is the main thing?

    Another way of saying this is to ask, is anything else, in the Piper-using-Edwards view of saving faith, of the essence, so that someone would not have saving faith, who doesn’t have it as well?

    To the extent that his view is that nothing else is of the essence of saving faith besides love, the theory amounts to love replacing, not just being the main thing in, saving faith.

    Thanks for the two articles, this by Dr. Fesko and the other by Dr. Waters.

  2. Dr. Fesko,
    Thank you for writing this review.

    Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for posting the review.

    Distinguishing John Pipers’ study and application of Calvin, Owen, and Turretin regarding their understanding that ‘Justification is by Faith Alone’ (Paul’s case in Romans 4:1-8) displays a pattern of J. Piper’s ‘misunderstanding’ that is missed by most. But more helpful are the notes that define Edwards’ obvious rejection of the doctrine of Justification Sola Fide.

    Perhaps theologians can become reliable if they are first committed to philology, especially Greek, Hebrew, Latin, then French, German, and Aramaic. And I am learning how to study the Bible – Sola Scriptura.

    How a ‘theologian’ reads the Bible makes a difference for those who hold to that theologian’s ideas.

    • Sam,

      I’m not sure that it is “full of” Edwardsians and nomists but they do exist and they are visible and they do have an influence.

      1) Most people haven’t actually read Edwards or, if they have, they don’t have the background to understand what he wrote or the implications. E.g., virtually no one knows that he was credibly understood to be a pantheist and most don’t know about the other issues in his theology (e.g., his wobbly—at best—doctrine of justification). Americans are proud of Edwards because he was a (proto-) American. He was predestinarian and for some he is a gateway to the doctrine of divine sovereignty but most, even some scholars, don’t know how far he deviated from Reformed orthodoxy (or they defend him doggedly despite the evidence).

      2) Nomism we shall always have with us. People are terrified of antinomianism and they too often react by turning to nonism. Many are nomists and don’t know it. When the Sonship movement, then Key Life, and then Tullian arose, people felt (particularly in the SE USA) that there was a wave of antinomianism. To be sure, Tullian did turn out to be a genuine antinomian; his assurances to the contrary not withstanding. The Sonship Movement did mature some but it’s still weak on the third use of the law. I don’t know the Keylife movement well enough to comment. American evangelicalism is widely antinomian, however. It is a given for most of the 60 million American evangelicals that “the Ten Commandments are not for today.” Typically what they really mean is that the 2nd and the 4th are not for today but P&R people react by turning to forms of nonism (the NPP, FV etc).

      It’s a real problem, which I spent countless pixels and barrels of ink combatting but there are a lot more people in the P&R world talking about law and gospel now than there were when I entered c, 1980. I’m optimistic.

  3. Being ordinary Laity. Of Small mind and not as one being like these Dr’s on reviewing Piper.
    I managed to get thru Dr Fesko – and think I have it right – I hope.
    Then when it comes to reading Dr Waters review, I am confused now.
    Maybe I am wrong as to his conclusions or I missed the boat on this.
    As to Dr Waters Last paragraph:
    In conclusion, we may be grateful to John Piper for his passionate desire to be steadfastly faithful to the Scripture in conversation with the best of the Reformed tradition.

    So, I am at a loss as to where to go with a stance on Piper being a (2 tier salvationist/YES?) or what.
    I went to Bethlehem for many a year till I just started hearing what I did not like.
    My wife conquers. He made mention in a sermon again that we can never be 100% sure of our salvation, there was always that 1% where…

    So, how do I come to a conclusion as to Piper. Our PCA church has a good amount of his books in the library. Does one have to be careful reading all of his books, or just some books?
    Help on this matter would be most appreciated! And I hope this makes some sense in my questions? Being 70, my Grey matter does not work like it once did, so I need direction.

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