Monday, December 03, 2007

Monday Thoughts: John Piper Review 2

Today we continue our review of John Piper's new book: The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. For the first installment, click here.

"On Controversy"
Between the Introduction and Chapter 1, Piper has a brief section called "On Controversy," where he gives his perspective on a fight like this one.

First, he has a somewhat "Wesleyan" quote from John Owen (1655): "When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth... when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but hte sense of the thing abides in our hearts... then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all assaults of men" (28).

I felt that I should point that out :-)

But of course he turns next to one of the fathers of twentieth century American fundamentalism, J. Gresham Machen, who left Princeton and was one of the founding faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Previous generations of ministers will know Machen for his Greek textbook, which was unquestionably the best in the day when students already knew Latin and English grammar.

The Machen quotes of interest to Piper, however, are about his attitudes toward the controversies of his day:

"The New Testament is a polemic [attacking] book almost from beginning to end" (28).

"Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy" (29).

"Controversy of the right sort is good; for out of such controversy ... there comes the salvation of souls" (29).

Piper runs with one of Machen's themes in the rest of this section. Machen was recounting a professor encouraging fellow teachers to focus on 1 Corinthians 13 as the essence of Paul's teaching and to avoid controversy. Machen then noted that 1 Corinthians 13 itself could not be understood without noting the controversy Paul was addressing over spiritual gifts in the chapters before and after.

So Piper follows this lead: "it is remarkable how many of Paul's letters were written to correct fellow Christians" (30).

"... truth frees us from the control of Satan" ... "For the sake of unity and peace, therefore, Paul labors to set the churches straight on numerous issues--including quite a few that do not in themselves involve heresy" (31).

So how might we respond to Piper's thoughts here?

First, I am of course very interested in truth and would not be blogging on Piper's book if I did not desire to dismiss error. I also affirm orthodox Christian belief and am mindful of the serious line those cross who do not affirm it. I also believe at the same time that Piper (and Machen at least in these comments) have not accurately expressed the priorities of the apostle Paul.

So we must ask exactly what the nature of the controversies was that Paul attacked:

a. 1 Thessalonians--Paul does address a misunderstanding of doctrine, but he does not "attack" those who do not understand. He writes so that they will not be troubled about those who die before the second coming. His purpose is to encourage, not to fight.

b. 2 Thessalonians--Paul does indeed warn the audience about false information, but he does not "attack" anyone. He writes so that they will not be troubled by those with false teaching. His purpose again is to encourage the Thessalonians. His indirect response to a "rumor" about his thoughts is not in the form of a polemic.

c. Galatians--Paul is here polemical. He both attacks false teaching and shames the audience for their susceptibility to it.

But before we are deceived into thinking this instance is a straightforward illustration of Piper's orientation, let us remember a few very important aspects of Paul's argument in Galatians.

First, the issue is not abstract doctrine, but the manner in which Gentiles might not be accursed. In other words, the destiny of people is at issue, as well as Paul's own apostolic authority with his churches. Galatians is far more than a mere contention over doctrine.

Second, we should remember that Paul's debates in Galatians are not with non-believers but with other believers who do not agree with him. Indeed, he even recounts disagreements with Peter and James, and never says that they came to see it his way. It is canonically clear to us that he was right. But at the time it was perhaps just as likely that it looked to many he was wrong.

Third, Paul indicates in Galatians that the entire law is summed up in the word to love one's neighbor (Gal. 5:14). When all is said and done, love holds the ultimate place in his ethic, and his "doctrinal" treatments play a secondary role. Paul's correction of "doctrine" (in itself hardly the most appropriate word) is usually the servant of another, more affective goal like unity in fellowship (in contrast to unity of doctrine).

d. 1 and 2 Corinthians
While Machen's critique of a fellow scholar seemed justified, 1 Corinthians 13 is in fact Paul's solution to the Corinthian problem over spiritual gifts--love. Paul does in fact correct the Corinthians significantly. But his correction is not primarily about doctrine. The proposition of 1 Corinthians (1:10) is for them to be of the same mind, but anyone who thinks "mind" here is intellectual agreement or agreement on doctrine hasn't read very far into 1 Corinthians.

The disunity has to do with pride in leaders, boasts over spiritual knowledge and spiritual gifts, not disunity over doctrine. They do misunderstand resurrection, but Paul does not indicate that this is the key to the disunity in the congregation. There is a good deal of behavioral instruction in 1 Corinthians. In short, theology serves ethics and body cohesion in 1 Corinthians.

2 Corinthians has a majorly affective dimension. Related words referring to comfort are used almost 10 times in the space of about 5 verses in the first chapter.

e. Romans
Romans is Paul's most theological letter, and yet we misunderstand it if we see it as Melanchthon did--as a compendium of Christian doctrine. Paul is preparing to visit churches he has never visited before. He is hoping they will help him on his way to Spain. There are false rumors about his thinking (Rom. 3:8).

In other words, Romans is a defense of the gospel that Paul preaches as he introduces himself to the churches at Rome--on his terms. It is true, Paul does seem to know some things about conflict in the community, but these are the matters of chapters 12-15. In other words, the issues are practical and are about community disunity rather than doctrine per se.

It is mistaken to think of Romans primarily as a polemic on the topic of doctrine. It is more of an apologetic, a defense of his doctrine.

f. The Prison Epistles
Of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, only Colossians has majorly to do with issues of knowledge. Ephesians is primarily about the unity of Jew and Gentile, not doctrine per se. Philippians is about unity, but not unity of doctrine. When Paul urges them to have the same "mind" as Christ, it is the attitude of self-sacrifice (Phil. 2:3-4). Philemon is about forgiving the slave Onesimus. None of these books is fundamentally about Paul sparring over doctrine.

Even Colossians discourages far more than the adoption of a belief. "Philosophy" in Colossians cannot be taken in the sense we use it but is more of a set of religious beliefs and practices. Indeed, the group in question has visions and seems to follow certain ascetic practices.

g. The Pastoral Epistles
It is really in the Pastoral Epistles that we get a shift toward an emphasis on sound teaching. Yet 1-2 Timothy and Titus are hardly the place to start looking at Paul's theology. Even when we assume that Paul wrote them, we can't ignore how significantly their content differs from the teaching of Paul's other letters. Indeed, they scarcely contain any discussion of the doctrine of justification that drives Piper's book.

So while we have no problem with Piper defending his understanding of Paul, it is a serious defect of Piperism to think that it was all about the doctrines for Paul. Doctrine played a supporting role in the world of Paul's writings. More than anything else, Paul used theology in the service of things like ethics, body cohesion, and the inclusion of Gentiles within the body of Christ.

And that is the Wesleyan priority--heart first, head second. A personal relationship with Christ and a life lived that coheres with it, these are our priorities. We are interested in the head of course--but we have our priorities straight.


Anonymous said...

Oh, if only the great Machen could have had Ken Schenck to enlighten him and expand his understanding of Paul, maybe the Fundamentalists/Modernists split could have been avoided:)

Ken Schenck said...

Schenck, who's Schenck? If only he could sit at the feet of Hays, Keck, Wright, Dunn, Fitzmeyer...