January 17, 2021

Riffs 11:03:08: Justin Taylor Models Critical Engagement With John Piper

Over the last two years, I’ve raised the issue of the need for positive, level-headed, analytical and appreciative critical engagement with the theology of John Piper. I believe such a need is pressing, particularly as more and more future pastors and ministers take in Piper without any awareness that other solid evangelicals may appreciate him AND disagree with him at points.

While N.T. Wright’s theology has been examined from all sides almost as a test of reformed loyalty, Piper, arguably the most influential conservative/reformed evangelical pastor-theologian of the last decade, has seen almost no scrutiny of his theology and its application. Despite the fact that Piper is a major innovator in theological vocabulary, almost no one in good standing within the reformed camp has disagreed with Piper in print.

The general feeling, at least in the comments and emails I have received, is that there is no need to critically engage Piper and no desire to do so, despite an increasing series of controversial and provocative writings and statements on various issues. That’s a loss, and it is not a good thing for the overall appreciation of Piper’s unique and helpful contributions.

Now Justin Taylor shows us exactly what such critical engagement would look like, why it’s needed and how it can be a respectful and ultimately edifying exercise.

Read Justin’s engagement with some of Piper’s recent political pronouncements.

Piper’s influence has become controversial enough in Southern Baptist circles to be used as an immediate accusation of being “un-Southern Baptist.” Thousands of young people are aligning with Piper without any idea what a dialogical and critical engagement with his theology would look like. Can that change? Justin’s post suggests that it can, and I’ll suggest that it should.

Thanks, Justin, for an excellent post. Much needed and a great model for that book of Piper-discussing essays Crossway should publish.


  1. Bob Sacamento says

    Not a Calvinist myself at all, so it’s no surprise that I am not a fan of Piper like some are. But what gets me about him is pretty much what you said — “Thousands of young people are aligning with Piper without any idea what a dialogical and critical engagement with his theology would look like.” Like I said, I’m no Calvinist here, so when I speak about it, I’m on the outside looking in. But it seems to me that one could be Calvinist without taking the attitude, as some people seem to, that Piper’s opinion is the Calvinist opinion. (And, dare I say it, he himself seems to believe that too, at times.)

    We have such short memories now. J.I. Packer is a Calvinist, and he has written so much that is edifying for all theological camps, and not nearly so disruptive. (Can’t imaging J.I. writing anything like what Piper wrote about that birdge collapse in Minnesota.) And he was the big dog on the evangelical theological hill less than a generation ago. Why don’t we read him anymore?

  2. What’s sad/ironic is that John Piper is probably the president of the “Don’t Give Piper Unquestioned Allegiance” club.

    I wonder if he’s even aware of such goofiness. I am reminded of his great surprise (and shock) when he discovered the goofs that were using his admonishment of Driscoll (“don’t be too clever”) as validation of their horror of Piper inviting Driscoll to speak at his church.

  3. Justin’s critical engagement was pretty mild, by the standards set around here, but it was needed. Piper, nor Packer, nor anyone else has a corner on the Truth no matter how much we love and respect them. I think both men would be the first to agree with that.

    One interesting point was made in a comment on Justin’s blog. We really do not, as Christians, hold the pro-life party accountable for anything other than abortion. Most of us don’t expect them to respect any of the other issues some of us may have, such as poverty, civil rights, hunger and other items that span the entire Christian spectrum, Protestant and Catholic. In this election, perhaps, that chicken has come home to roost.

  4. stan in san diego says

    Obama is more white than black.

    I’m weary of Dr. Piper’s two wills of God theories (the secret will of God?). I’m either moving toward Open Theism or simple mindedness as I grow older (64 yrs and not counting). I find myself humming “Jesus Loves Me” and reciting John 3:16. I also find myself allowing for God to have His mysteries and secrets.

    I already wrote in Petraeus but should have written in Deborah. Is it OK with Piper that she was a prophetess and judge and commander in chief? Barak(sp?) didn’t have any trouble serving under her and my how those two could sing. Jael the Nail for secretary of defense!

  5. Obviously, there’s a lot that needs to be discussed, and I hope one day it will be. I’m sure Dr. Piper would be in favor of such a discussion.

  6. DaveMc

    I am not sure “chickens come home to roost” is a good thing to bring up this election. As far as holding a party to something other than pro-life: There is a school of thought that says the government should provide us with security, enable us to do business, and get out of the way. That does not mean the poor should starve, but if people have more money in their pockets, they can help others through the church and other agencies. It is not cold hearted at all, it is a differing philosophy.
    I feel pro-life is a trump card issue. You don’t have to worry about children being hungry if you’ve killed them.

  7. “Thousands of young people are aligning with Piper without any idea what a dialogical and critical engagement with his theology would look like. Can that change? Justin’s post suggests that it can, and I’ll suggest that it should.”

    This smacks of sour grapes and is short on proof. I understand your disenchantment with Reformed Theology, Michael, but I think such a statement needs to be backed or admitted as an ad hom.

  8. You can explain what you mean by sour grapes.

    Excuse me for appearing to “prove” something in a blog post. It’s an opinion medium. But it’s hardly outrageous. What do you disagree with? That thousands are adopting his views or that there aren’t plenty of Piper critical materials out there to study? (And I’ll assume your expressing an opinion.)

    I mean thousands of young reformed leaning students (See the CT articles, hanson’s book, etc) are taking in Piper with NO critical books in print.

    No matter how a person feels about Piper, that’s not a good thing.

  9. Well, there are plenty of critical books and essays about Piper in print, but they are almost all from extreme Arminians or flat out open theists. There does need to be a deep discussion within the evangelical reformed community, I agree. And I agree, too, that Piper would very much welcome this.

  10. Don’t the thousands of young people who are “taking in Piper” have a responsibility here? I think I mean that this is kind of a common thing among the young, getting excited about someone and then later on discovering that maybe some areas of debate exist. Thank God I am not cursed with that problem anymore. From what I have seen Piper has his share of critics. If anyone chooses to ignore the debate, than that person is not being honest about the Gospel. I am sure Piper would be the first to say, he is not the Gospel.

  11. Every time we put anybody up in front as a leader of the church or at least a leader of current thought, something will happen to disappoint. It could be Piper or Billy Graham, or Stanley or anybody. They are just men. Take what you can from each of them, but only Jesus will provide perfectly.
    We sit around and talk Sola, but we, like Israel of old, seek an earthly king, or at least a judge. We want some one to quote as an ultimate authority. Hopefully someone who agrees with us. Spurgeon works for a lot of us, and since he is dead we can depend on him to say nothing stupid, or at least nothing to break our bubble of conviction.
    Keep trying, keep looking, but I doubt any of us will find anyone perfect enough for us to say ,”he’s the guy!”
    Maybe we are not supposed to have an earthly big high muckety muck. I love C.S. Lewis, but I think he was wrong on some important stuff.
    There will always be a new Big Giant Head whose words we can glom onto, and then he too, [or she] will fall out of favor or say something a bit off. NEXT..
    I have been with the SBC for over 10 years, and we excel at flavor of the month. What ever is “working” is viewed as anointed.
    I have learned a lot from Piper, but I took the pedestal down long ago for lack of a suitable topping. I feel that way about all kind of christian teachers, that is reason #1 for not being Catholic. Hey, maybe that is it, we raise these guys up due to papal envy.

  12. I keep hearing that Piper would welcome the critical interaction. I’m not so sure.

    I have seen him on numerous panels and he strikes me as rather unflinching and seems to take himself very seriously. I’ve heard him do much correcting, but I never hear him being corrected.

    When the whole i-35 Bridge tragedy happened he made his pronouncements and stuck by them although others (mainly Arminians) were crying foul. There didn’t seem like much willingness on his part to engage the debate.

  13. Ky boy but not now says

    “We want some one to quote as an ultimate authority. Hopefully someone who agrees with us.”

    Love it.

  14. Bob Sacamento says

    Scott wrote,
    I keep hearing that Piper would welcome the critical interaction. I’m not so sure. …

    When the whole i-35 Bridge tragedy happened he made his pronouncements and stuck by them although others (mainly Arminians) were crying foul. There didn’t seem like much willingness on his part to engage the debate.

    I just want to cast my vote with Scott. Piper has this uber-confident tone in much of what he writes that just doesn’t make him sound like a “talk it over” kind of guy.

    BTW, just hit me, like all these “young people … aligning with Piper without any idea what a[n] …. engagement with his theology would look like”, I did the same exact thing when I was a “young person.” The object of my idolatry was Francis Schaeffer. Here ye, young people! I still admire Schaeffer in many ways, but looking back on it from a more mature vantage point, I really feel like I was swindled in some ways. (And since this is a blog and some reader is out there just waiting to jump to conclusions, I have to say NO, I am not implying that either Schaffer or Piper are swindlers! Just that the fruit of my uncritical acceptance of the regnant ideas of my youth left me with the experience of having fallen for a swindle. And I am therefore offering a warning to those who are in a position to make the same mistake I made. So there!)

  15. I have a several books that critically interact with Schaefer. In fact, my seminary apologetics course did exactly that with FS in some detail. And he needed it,as does JP.

  16. Isn’t “over confident tone” part of most M.Div programs?

  17. Some Reformed theologians have been critical of Piper: for example, see Richard Mouw’s “The God Who Commands.” Also some TRs, such as John Robbins (Trinity Foundation), and R. Scott Clark, have criticized his earlier views in the book “Future Grace” and his previous denial of the covenant of works. I believe he reformulated his views somewhat after some of reading some of their critiques. So I disagree that he has gone unchecked, but I agree that more critique is needed.

  18. stan in san diego says

    Mouw spoke at our church. He’s a scary dude. His interactions with Mormons disqualify him for critiquing Piper or anyone else.

  19. stan in san diego says

    Piper’s comments on the bridge collapse are why I like to let God have his secrets and mysteries. Better to be like Job and put our hands on our mouths than to put out stuff like that. Weep with those that weep, mourn with those that mourn but don’t try to explain it.

  20. Scott: [Piper] seems to take himself very seriously

    I find it extremely hard to buy that, if for no other reason than the fact that Driscoll likes him so much.

  21. I am aware of several critiques, but none published by a major publisher in a work dedicated to that. Compare with Crossway’s publication of Piper’s critique of Wright.

  22. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Brendt, Driscoll liking Piper doesn’t prove anything. Maybe Piper takes himself very seriously. Maybe Driscoll takes himself very seriously. There’s no correlation there.

    What about, say, the possible theological tensions that might be inherent in Piper’s label of Christian hedonism paired up with his attempt to find some partial redemption for the philosophy of Ayn Rand?

    The two wills thing is not unique to PIper. You can find that even in Lutheranism but the way Piper employs theodicy when it comes to the bridge of the tsunami can look curiously like Job’s comforters (though not regarding 9/11). Even the prescribed ethic of “don’t waste your cancer” could fall under this umbrella.

  23. Jeremiah: Driscoll liking Piper doesn’t prove anything.

    You can’t swing a postmortem feline in Mars Hill without hitting one of Driscoll’s statements strongly taking to task those who take themselves too seriously. I find it extremely hard to believe that Driscoll would greatly admire someone who disgusts him.

  24. Jeremiah Lawson says

    You’re not comprehending the total failure of your own rebuttal to Scott, Brendt. 🙂 It simply doesn’t follow at any logical level that Piper can’t take himself too seriously if Driscoll likes him and Driscoll tells people to stop taking themselves so seriously. There are simple reasons for this: 1) Driscoll may take himself seriously 2) Piper may take himself seriously 3) there’s no automatic correlation between the mental states of two different men on opposite sides of the country who happen to agree on a lot. Driscoll’s admiration for Piper doesn’t say anything about whether or not Piper takes himself seriously, either. 🙂 How a person handles Scripture is more important than that and in that respect I would say Piper is a more responsible exegete than Driscoll every day of the week, so of course Driscoll would admire him.

  25. Everyone takes themselves seriously. Just look at the comments in this thread. People are taking themselves very seriously in regards to their opinion over whether Piper takes himself too seriously.

    As far as Piper being inflexible, I thing the man simply believes he’s right. Everyone thinks they’re right. Do you really think it would be a virtue if he folded whenever someone told him he was wrong about something? He’s a pastor, a truth-guarder, and that means he needs three things: two testicles and one backbone. I get sick when teachers constantly couch their statements in uncertainty, because it seems to undermine the fact that we really can know the truth. Maybe he does need more humility. Hopefully we, the undersigned of this comment thread, can pull him up to our level.

    If there isn’t a mainstream engagement with the guy, that’s a different issue. It would be a good idea. I heard a panel he did at his DG conference on the Trinity a few years back, and Bruce Ware openly disagreed with him on his sharing of Edward’s view of the Trinity, and it rocked my world to think he might actually be wrong about something. Sure, I’ll never listen to Bruce Ware again, but it helped me mature a bit.

  26. You’re not comprehending the total failure of your…

    Wow, that was gracious.

  27. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Thanks 😉

    In case I need to point it out, Brendt, if you don’t agree with Scott’s claim that Piper takes himself very seriously as a real argument against Piper’s actual teaching I’m with you. The problem is that the rebuttal to “X takes himself seriously” isn’t “Well that can’t be true because Y likes him.” The working rebuttal to that is the one tim provided. Wouldn’t we expect pastors to take themselves (and more importantly, Scripture) seriously?

  28. I hope everyone is taking this discussion very seriously


  29. I think Piper is off on his adherence to the Sproulian principle: that the positive imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ is the heart of the gospel.

    I find myself agreeing with him on most things though. Emotions are important and at the heart of godliness and faith, Christians should engaged the culture with God’s truth, the door to the local church should be about the size the door to the universal church, Calvinism, etc.

    Michael … I get the sense that you find something dangerous about some of his teaching. Why don’t you tell us what about his teaching concerns you? His Calvinism? Certain political statements? What? I would love to hear.

  30. 1) Christian hedonism can very easily be construed as a Gospel of works rather than sola fide, esp when we say that we are commanded to delight in God in all things.

    2) Piper’s pastoral use of his Edwardsian view of the Sovereignty of God has led to some uses and pronouncements that seem very deficient in pastoral wisdom and compassion.

    3) I think some of his teaching in the past intentionally bred fanatical applications, esp in regard to martyrdom.

    4) I believe he is of two minds on C.S. Lewis and needs to make a clear statement in regard to whether Lewis is an orthodox teacher of the Gospel.

    5) I sense a lot of God-centeredness at the expense of Christ-centeredness. Edwards over Luther.

    6) Mark Dever once said in an interview, when asked for a brief summary statement on a variety of contemporary reformed men, that Piper was ruthlessly logical. I would agree, and I think that is the difference in the Piper we heard before his Romans study and the one we hear now.

    I like Piper and have benefited from him a lot.

  31. While I am thankful for Justin Taylor’s critical engagement with John Piper, it seems as though their disagreements were fairly minor compared with what some, dare I say many, evangelicals would disagree with Piper on: namely his assertion that Christians must never vote for a pro-choice candidate under any circumstances, “even if he could balance the budget tomorrow and end all taxation.”

    Under this type of logic, the failures of the current administration (assuming he believes the economic crisis, massive budget deficit, wiretapping, torture, response to Katrina, Abu Graib, Guantanamo, Walter Reed etc. represent failures of the Bush Administration) are a necessary price to pay for ensuring that we have a pro-life president.

    For Piper, Taylor and many of my well-intentioned evangelical friends, abortion is the only issue with dealbreaker status, and therefore it automatically trumps the magnitude of all the other issues combined: the economy, foreign policy, energy, environment, healthcare, education, fiscal responsibility, immigration, gun control, death penalty, adoption reform etc.

    Personally, I have tremendous respect for Dr. Piper, a fellow Wheaton alum and I’m certainly not saying that Obama has it right on all of the other issues (I disagree with him on capital punishment for example), but it seems that Piper fails to allow for the possibility that mature Christians of good conscience can disagree as to whether the issue of abortion should be granted dealbreaker status over and above the multitude of other issues that have biblical/moral dimensions to them.

  32. Michael,

    I can see where your coming from now. He does say some pretty crazy things almost just for shock value.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “fanatical,” but I’m sure it doesn’t mean, “level-headed risk-taking” (and that you would agree we should take risks for the sake of the gospel, esp in missions).

    Not sure why anyone would question C.S. Lewis’ faith. Praytell. (maybe you have in mind his inclusivism or purgatory ideas?)

    Piper too logical? Not sure what the alternative would be … Illogical? More heart-spoken instead of head-spoken?

    By the way … Did you know that Martin Luther taught sacerdotalism? I would take Edwards over Luther anyday. But that’s just me.

    Thanks for entertaining my question,


  33. Got to disagree with you on Luther. He dismantled the RC system of priestly privilege to a significant degree.

    One source (Ron Rhoades?) said:

    “The New Testament does not support a sacerdotal system of worship. As Martin Luther points out in The Private Mass and Consecration of Priests, the Holy Spirit has “in the New Testament diligently prevented the name sacerdos, priest or cleric, from being given even to an apostle or to various other offices.” In other words, the Bible never uses the word priest in relation to church leadership; rather, the Bible teaches the universal priesthood of all believers.”

    Anyway, I was referring to Luther’s Christ centered Gospel as compared to Edwards’ endless speculations on Sovereignty.

    Piper is aware that Lewis is not an inerrantist, for example. Other inerrantists are cited as unusable by serious Christians, but Lewis gets a pass. Inconsistent.

  34. Ahh … I see. Inconsistency over Inerrancy. I would say we get too uptight over people who don’t subscribe to inerrancy. And I can understand your frustrations with Edwards’ theocentric (as opposed to Christocentric) focus. I actually Edwards was really convinced that the gospel was somehow dependent on Calvinism. He’s still my favorite theologian.

    About Luther …. He said:

    “Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the sense and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation. In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances.” *Martin Luther, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 440.

    For Luther, faith alone will not do, because although “faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the salutary, divine water profitably,” faith apart from the actual administration of the sacrament of baptism is nothing but a faith which is mustered up apart from the power of God’s grace and severed from God’s Word—and thus it is a human work. Luther considered the Anabaptists to be sects of the devil. “Here we come to a question by which the devil confuses the world through his sects, the question of infant Baptism.” *Luther, The Book of Concord, 442.

    Lohse makes the judgment that although Luther “with his emphasis on the strict correlation of baptism and faith…gave new accent to traditional baptismal theology…on the whole [he] did not attack it.” *Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1999), 303.

    Lohse also recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism. Ibid, 302.

    While in different polemical contexts, Luther’s teaching on baptism had radically different emphases, his basic understanding of baptism never underwent a substantial change. *Mark D. Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 24.

    I love to read Luther on many topics, but on the sacraments, he shows his true Roman Catholic roots.


  35. So Bradley,

    Help those of us who want a good answer to those who have the Lutheran/RCC view of the eucharist. What do you say is going on?



  36. Michael,

    The only fair answer, in my opinion, is to simply mimic the explicit biblical teaching.

    I Corinthians 11:24-26 – “… this do in remembrance of me. … this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.”

    Remembrance and Proclamation happen during the eucharist. Any speculation about what else it accomplishes is fine, as long as it’s seen as extra-biblical and not confused with the teaching of scripture.

    What else does the scripture explicitly teach about the eucharist? If I’ve missed something, fill me in.

    As far as Luther’s hermeneutic of “this is my body,” … This is an unjustified wooden hermeneutic.



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