Trying to understand John Piper

Posted on August 28, 2009

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John Piper’s recent blog post, which offers an interpretation of a surprising tornado as God’s providential warning to the ECLA convention during its discussion of a denominational statement on sexual ethics, has attracted a fair amount of – I think the best word would be ‘derision’ –  from theological bloggers. I have not seen, however, any attempt to explain why Dr Piper should have come to this interpretation.

I tend to the view that a large part of the task of theology is to probe the connections between ideas. I know that attempting to understand patiently, rather than to condemn loudly, is unfashionable, particularly in online theology, and it is certainly no way to attract readers to a blog, but allow me my idiosyncrasies.

As far as I can see, John Piper’s various public positions have at least a degree of intellectual coherence. In general, he belongs to a recognisable tradition of American Evangelical Calvinism. His attempts to interpret providence, however, are decidedly unusual within the modern exponents of that tradition. However, he has repeatedly, albeit usually humbly and hesitantly, suggested that we may be able to guess, on the basis of Biblical guidance, God’s reasons for permitting this or that natural disaster.

Given that this is unusual within his own tradition, it seems reasonable to ask why Piper thinks this. (A question, incidentally, which is distinct from the question of whether he is right – if he happens to be, why is it that no-one else has seen the same truths? What is it about Piper’s thinking that gives him the ability to see something here that most others in the same tradition cannot?)

Piper assumes that we can ‘think God’s thoughts after Him’ in the area of divine providence, and so interpret a natural disaster. An ill-informed commentator might dismiss this strand of Piper’s public platform as ‘medieval’; such a dismissal gestures towards something significant, but is ultimately wrong. The significance first: I believe that one of the most far-reaching and decisive dividing lines between pre-modern and modern (and now late- or post-modern) Christianity is the modern loss of confidence in doctrines of active providence. We could probably trace this to an earthquake in Lisbon of course, but for whatever reason, our ancestors in the faith prior to November 1, 1755 (to pick a date at random…) had no difficulty believing that the events of the natural world, and the course of human history, were alike actively guided by God to secure certain providential ends. We find this much more difficult, at least on a scale beyond the personal. It remains a staple of Evangelical piety that God uses at least some circumstances to guide and teach us in our own personal, family, and perhaps congregational, lives, but few of us would find a divine word addressed to our nation in war or flood. (In the UK, in the last two decades or more, I recall some suggestion that a lightening strike on York Minster was a sign of divine displeasure at the then-Bishop of Durham’s (as it happens, misreported) views on the resurrection, and one Anglican Bishop coming to notice for suggesting that the floods of 2007 might be understood as a warning of divine judgement; both positions were treated with mere embarrassment by the churches.)

Why then would describing Piper’s comments as ‘medieval’ be wrong? I think because they are made with a confidence and a specificity that medieval and early modern theologians (I will not speak of popular piety, as I know little about its normative patterns in the pre-modern period) would have found troubling. To speak of the period I know best, the Puritan fast-day sermons are striking for their lack of specific criticism of particular events: drought or famine is confidently interpreted as a sign of God’s displeasure on the nation, and a wide-ranging denunciation of the various sins of the people would follow, but claims that this event was specifically related to that error were not, as far as I am aware, at all common.

In the Puritan tradition this began to change in New England. Initially this seems (to me – I am conscious that this older historiography has more recently been challenged) to stem from a strong identification of the settlers with Israel venturing into the wilderness. God guided His children through Sinai with special providences of nature, and so the invitation to read the (presumably exceptionally puzzling, because different from old England) events of the natural world as signs of God’s evaluation of the colonists’ lives was strong. This particular theme perhaps declined as history went on, but a willingness to read nature in all its forms as the revelations of God arose. This borrowed from old England – such texts as Flavel’s Husbandry Spiritualized were very popular in the colonies – and, with Cotton Mather particularly, there was a new confidence about natural theology: the ‘book of nature’ could be read and understood with clarity and confidence – although my colleague, Bill Tooman, who knows Mather better than I tells me that this leads to a simple incoherence in his mature thought, between a thoroughgoing natural theology and a fairly traditional Puritan account of depravity. Bill tells me that Mather seems simply to acknowledge and to live with this incoherence.

Not so Mather’s inheritor in the area of reading the book of nature: Jonathan Edwards, who pressed forward in finding both natural types, and in seeing God’s hand specifically at work in the events of human history. He solved Mather’s problem by suggesting that the regenerate mind could learn from the Biblical examples how to speak the divine language of types, and then interpret with confidence supposed natural typologies that were not taught in Scripture. In history, most of his efforts seem to have been motivated by a historicist view on the Book of Revelation, and a clear belief that the events leading to the end could be perceived in the history of his own day, particularly the continuing wars between Roman Catholic and Reformed nations. Edwards thought that the French and Indian War was potentially of decisive eschatological significance.

I take it that Edwards was inspired in part by an Enlightenment confidence in the power of the human intellect to perceive truth, which he unquestionably shared in. God’s ways were not as obscure to Edwards as to most of his predecessors in the Christian tradition, but he had not lost any confidence in the fact of divine providence on a geopolitical scale (he died only three years after the Lisbon earthquake, of course). He therefore offers, in those parts of his writings that are rather less read by the current Edwards industry, a peculiarly confident and strong account of how God’s ways with the world may be perceived and understood by the attentive believer, and this as a result of a particular coincidence of Enlightened epistemological confidence with early modern belief about providence.

Of course, John Piper has read deeply in Edwards. More than that, however, it seems to me that aspects of the tradition he represents demonstrate precisely this same coincidence of epistemological confidence superimposed on early modern Reformed orthodoxy (the way claims about Biblical inerrancy are played out would be one example – at once both too confident and too diffident about Scripture when compared to classical accounts of perspicuity, as I have argued in various places; another would be Piper’s particular ways of teaching about divine sovereignty in the face of suffering which, when compared to the teachings of Samuel Rutherford, say, show a very different tone because of a considerably-lowered sense of the inscrutability of God’s ways with the world).

None of this, note, is a claim that Piper is right or wrong; it is an attempt to understand the genealogy of his thought. If one is convinced he is right, perhaps understanding this tale helps to understand why his voice is so distinctive; if one believes him to be wrong, perhaps this helps to understand why a transparently humble and godly man should entertain such strange ideas.

Of course, I realise that arguing like this in a blog post is an error of genre: the accepted use of the form demands that one shouts that Piper’s doctrine is indistinguishable from Scripture’s, or instead that one denounces him as the embodiment of evil. May I take some comfort from Biblical exemples of genres being subverted because the attempt to speak Christianly will only fit in re-made vessels?

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