When I was teaching at Wheaton College in the early 2000s, all the smart theology students seemed to want an internship at John Piper’s church. Since then, his influence has only grown. Piper has started his own in-house college and seminary, a model for how local churches can supplant universities in providing theological education. If secular media want to know the beating heart and zealous mind of the movement, they should look to Minneapolis.
So it’s no small matter that Piper has written a major new book on a signature subject, one he has dwelt on for more than seven decades: the glory of God as revealed in Scripture. His argument in A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Crossway) is straightforward: that God’s glory, attested to in Scripture, is self-authenticating. That is, it requires no external, extrabiblical validation. The Scriptures’ glory is that they reveal Jesus to us. And the peculiarity of that glory is a majesty revealed in meekness.
In other words, Piper is using Scripture to defend the reliability of Scripture, with supplementary glances at John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. But as he admits, he cannot prove it conclusively. Only the Holy Spirit’s inner witness can show the fulsome glory of God in the Bible.
We Can Trust
It’s not any one understanding of biblical truth that Piper seizes upon and defends so much as the beauty of Scripture itself. There are, however, ideas he aims to set aside as unreliable. Piper worries about views of Scripture based on Pascal’s wager—the notion of believing in God because there is much to gain if the Bible is true and little to lose if it isn’t. He also worries about Kierkegaard’s language of a “leap” into belief, because it leaves the leaper far too ill-informed. For Piper, knowing God is more like the knowledge of a spouse than the knowledge of a book or doctrine, much less a bet on something one can’t know for sure.
In fact, Piper argues, Scripture gives us quite a lot of knowledge about God. We can trust it. And not only we scholars. Piper alludes often to his parents and his upbringing in their Bible-believing home—they knew enough to trust. So did Billy Graham, who persevered through a mid-career crisis of faith in the Bible at a time when his colleague, Charles Templeton, was starting down the road to agnosticism. Graham’s and Piper’s parents could trust enough to glimpse God’s glory in Scripture and obey. Piper wants his readers to have the same confidence.
The book has many delightful detours. One revealing anecdote concerns Piper’s time as a New Testament doctoral student in Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, he was sure his professor would insist on using scholarly methods to verify the accuracy of a passage before venturing to interpret it. Actually, the professor answered, we can assume the Bible has been reliably passed down to us.
Sure enough, boilerplate criticism of Christianity often treats Scripture as wildly unreliable. In fact, it is remarkably trustworthy. Measured against comparable ancient texts, biblical manuscripts are both greater in number and closer in origin to the events they recount. Piper is also right to reject the claims of more liberal scholars that Jesus is an ethical teacher. Ordinary believers need to know such things. Making them clear is among Piper’s greatest gifts.
But A Peculiar Glory is not necessarily pitched at a popular audience, despite Piper hinting at this goal (“if you are new to the Bible, these terms may be new to you”). It touches on several complex disciplines—biblical hermeneutics, exegesis, the doctrine of inspiration, Christology, the internal witness of the Spirit, and more. Evangelicals have been active in these fields in recent generations. Kevin Vanhoozer has reshaped the landscape at the intersection of theology and the Bible. Dan Treier, Todd Billings, James K. A. Smith, Michael Allen, and many more have also rearranged the furniture.
Unfortunately, Piper engages none of these figures. He cites a James Barr essay (1963) to show that some scholars too easily dismiss the notion of divine self-communication. He misinterprets a Wolfhart Pannenberg book (1970) as saying the church must wait on scholars’ research before knowing what to trust. He occasionally cites scholars from the conservative Reformed world like Sinclair Ferguson and John Frame. But that’s nearly it.
This is no fatal flaw. No one thinks scholars are priests who mediate salvation—Christ alone does that. But evangelicals are currently leading the way on rigorous scholarship on these topics. At the least, by failing to engage them, Piper denies himself valuable allies.
Piper cites historical Bible research when it banks in his favor—for instance, that no reputable scholar doubts Paul’s authorship of Galatians. But what about historians who question whether certain later New Testament texts were written by their stated authors? Piper never brings them up. This is fine, until he enthuses that we “remarkably” have Peter’s personal testimony about Christ’s Transfiguration in his epistle (2 Pet. 1:16-18). Actually, many scholars believe this is a later author writing in Peter’s name. They may, of course, be wrong. But it’s a discussion not to be brushed aside.
Piper might have taken his cues from scholars like Richard Hays, Gordon Fee, and N. T. Wright (with whom Piper had an impressive book duel over the nature of justification). Their work proves that evangelical scholarship can delve into matters of historical accuracy and come out none the worse.
Beyond Piper’s World
The problem is not mainly a lack of footnotes. It’s a lack of charity within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Piper loves Edwards. He has little affection for Pascal. The Frenchman, he claims, should have “immersed himself in the truth of the Scriptures” rather than in Roman Catholic life. But surely we can discern Christ in as serious a Christian as Pascal—welcoming him as a salutary challenge, not just an opponent.
As Piper admires the story of the Transfiguration or expounds lovingly on the glory revealed in Scripture, he might glance over Eastern Orthodoxy’s two millennia of devotion to precisely those themes. Occasionally, he seems to merge salvation itself with having a proper doctrine of Scripture. I don’t think I’m reading him uncharitably here: “Paul does not believe in a spiritual revelation of the glories of the mystery of Christ apart from a right understanding of inspired Scripture.” Without that, we are awash “in a sea of relativism.”
I know what he means. I work in mainline and liberal denominations where we are indeed awash and adrift. On my side of town, we need Christ-centered, biblically attentive doctrines of Scripture. This book doesn’t quite fit that need. As for Piper’s fans, they could use more than mere assurance that they need not look outside the conservative Reformed camp for either allies or worthwhile foes. Piper’s world is enormous. But the church is larger still.
Jason Byassee holds the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology.
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