John Piper stirred up a little controversy last spring when he invited Rick Warren to the Desiring God conference. Due to family health incidents, Warren could not appear live on Friday and addressed the conference via video, but Piper is still determined to ask him questions about The Purpose Driven Life. Piper emerged from an 8-month leave so he could attend the Desiring God conference and for the inauguration of Bethlehem College and Seminary. He spoke with Christianity Today about his new book, Think, his invitation to Warren, and what he has been doing during his leave of absence.
Tell me what provoked your new book, Think.
It seemed helpful to describe what I've been doing for 3040 years. Early on, you talk about God because you consider him to be most important. But later you realize there are means by which God is known and portrayed. Also, we have our inaugural convocation for Bethlehem College and Seminary, and I was thinking, what would I see happen there? What kind of a mind do I want these young men and women to develop?
You dedicated the book to Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch, and you reference Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, adding that you want Christians to think through a biblical lens. So why did you look at "thinking" through that lens?
When I asked Mark to do the foreword I told him, "You're going to recognize what this is—this is tribal scholarship, this is tribal theology. It's all I know to do." WhenI say I'm not a scholar, you know who I'm measuring myself against: Mark Noll. Mark Noll, to me, is the epitome of what a scholar is. He's so intimidating in his capacities, his scope, his breadth, his comprehensiveness, his nuanced seeing of everything. I really am limited. People think I'm not; I am.
But what I can do is take a paragraph in this book (paging through his Bible) and really milk it. I took that approach because that's all I know to do. I'm a preacher. If I am honest, I would say it's important to do it that way. I looked through a bunch of other books that are out there on the life of the mind; nobody does it this way. It's just a little contribution to all those other books to say, you know, if you take the Bible really seriously, even the texts that look anti-intellectual, it really presses us to think. For the simple, for the biblistic people like me, for somebody to convince me about that would be really good. Because they're going to say, "Oh, to be faithful here I have to develop."
You invited Rick Warren; would you say he exemplifies "thinking"?
No, I don't think he exactly exemplifies what I'm after. But he is biblical. He quoted 50 Scriptures from memory. Unbelievable, his mind is Vesuvius. So I asked him what impact reading Jonathan Edwards had on him. What these authors like Karl Barth and Edwards do for him is give him a surge of theological energy that then comes through his wiring. What I wanted to do with Rick is force him to talk about thinking so pragmatists out there can say, "A lot of thinking goes into what he does."
You received some negative feedback for inviting him.
It was real risky. I don't even know if I did the right thing. If somebody said, "Are you sure you should have invited him?" "No." I think the first thing I'd say—maybe the only thing—is I think he's been slandered. I think we probably need to work harder at getting him right.
It seems like people who would be attracted to your books tend to be the "thinking" type.
I don't think that's true. It's largely true; people like me tend to be thinkers. But there are a lot of people who are friends with people like me. A guy came up to Al Mohler after he spoke and said, "I brought three unbelievers with me. Are you guys ever going to [share] the gospel?" Also, an African American kid in his 20s came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, "I don't meet people like me here. Someone gave me your book two years ago. I hadn't seen anything like it, my world is turned upside down, and I don't know where to go. My church is a black Pentecostal church." People come to these conferences from all over the map. You're right in terms of the core of who is here. But conferences are one way where you take the core group and bring another thousand or two thousand people who are just groping their way along, just getting started, just exploring theology or Reformed theology or the Bible.
You have been on leave for several months now.
We didn't cancel this conference, the Bethlehem College and Seminary convocation, and my trip to Lausanne. When I come back, I won't say a word to anybody until January.
Do you recommend a similar extended leave for other pastors?
After 30 years, maybe. Not for eight months your second year in. I'm really struggling with whether I should accept my salary for this time because it feels really over the top. All my colleagues need it as much as I do, and I have the right to pull this kind of weight. I can go to them and say, "I think I need this," and they say, "Ok, go ahead." So it's huge for a pastor to have some time away, especially eight months. So in principle, yes. In principle what it will say to families is you take commitment real seriously. Most of us should have worked on these things better than we did earlier.
Will your ministry change at all when you come back?
I'm sure it will; that's what the next couple of months are intended to figure out. Mainly the way I see it is we've been focused on marriage and sons and grandchildren. There are three parts to this: soul check, marriage and family check, and recalibration of life. I suspect the pace will look different and the focus will look different.
Back to your book, what do you hope people will take away from it?
The aim of the book is not to turn people into intellectuals; it's to turn people into radical, passionate, effective lovers of God and lovers of people. I'm totally convinced from what Jesus said and what Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:7 that an essential means to becoming that kind of lover of other people is to become more adept at thinking. I want people to grow. When I say "thinking," I mean people can open this book (picking up his Bible) and read with understanding. What do the words mean; what do the clauses mean; how are they connected; how does the paragraph work? That's my main concern. So people would say, "Hmm, it means reading well. I think I could grow in that to the end of loving God and loving people more."
When people think about "thinking," they often think academia; they think threat. They think coldness. I want to reverse all those images and say, no, the brain God gave you is intended to throw fuel on the fire of your affections for God. It's really good at it if you let it.
An extended version of this interview was posted on October 4.
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Christianity Today wrote about how John Piper announced Bethlehem College and Seminary, when he went on a leave of absence, and when he invited Rick Warren to speak at Desiring God.
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