Day Three - Finding joy in God’s glory
I can’t name a conference speaker that has been more stimulating than John Piper. He has stretched us theologically, passionately urging us to a renewed vision of, and joy in, the glory of God.
Not having listened to much Piper, I was suprised at the raw intense honesty of his preaching. Piper speaks with such transparent longing for the joys of heaven that it rebukes my shallow contentedness in the here and now. The embrace of that hope flowed out in earnest concern that his people and the lost would also find joy in God’s glory.
His debt to Jonathan Edwards is acknowledged and everywhere. Sydney evangelicalism has not streamed from this well but from Britain. He is therefore ‘like us but not like us’. Like someone speaking the same language with a different accent - you listen more carefully, and realise that you too have an accent.
It was no suprise when some Moore College students proudly described themselves to me as ‘Piper fanboys’. I hadn’t realized though how much Piper is a ‘pastor to pastors.’ I spoke to ministers who’ve been fed by Piper books through long hard seasons of ministry. Some spoke of marriages and ministries being saved by listening to his teaching
In the first minutes of his first talk he detonated any notion of an unbridgeable cultural gap between the Mid-West and Sydney. The audience laughed with approval as he said: “It doesn’t matter where you are from- I’m not into contextualisation. So that’s a flaw - deal with it.” He didn’t write the talks for Australians but for humans. Instantly, we were in a different space than that Mark Driscoll talk. No one could say he was picking on us. There will be no silly debates about whether Piper truly understood who we were or what we needed.
Affecting our affections
Piper’s biggest legacy will be his elevation (or perhaps retrieval) of the place of affections in the Christian life. With hammer blow after hammer blow he pounded his message: “Right thinking about God exists for the sake of right affections for God. Logic exists for the sake of love. Doctrine exists for delight. Heads exists for hearts.” There is plenty for Sydney Anglicans to learn here. I’ve never believed the stupid caricature of us as all head and no heart - it’s as unfair as it is untrue. Yet caricatures don’t spring from nowhere. In throwing out the bathwater of the charismatic movement and with the death of the prayer book, have we inadvertently lost the vital place of emotions in genuine evangelical piety? Piper will help us think positively about the affections. It will be interesting to see how this is picked up by this year’s Moore College School of Theology: ‘True Feelings: emotions in Christian life and ministry.’
I wonder though about Piper’s claim to offer a third way between the pendulum errors of anti-intellectual charismatic extremes and a cold and lifeless orthodoxy. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make - both are wrong. What is at issue is whether a re-discovery of the affections gives the right place for doctrine and doxology. Piper himself put this claim tentatively and asked for it to be tested by scripture. There must be a way for us to humbly do that in Sydney. The rise of the Reformed Charisatic movement gives an urgency to answer these questions again.
John Piper has been stimulating. I’m sure his visit will start many important conversations. I’m left with two big areas that I’m genuinely uneasy about and want to think more. Please keep in mind I am writing this from the conference floor and am not across the Piper corpus. I expect he does address them elsewhere but these are my reactions to his talks so far. The two areas I would want to push back on are:
Is Piper’s schema too reductionist? He keeps making the same philosophical move to ask what is ultimate. So characteristically he says:
I am always pushing on in my bible to the ultimate - what is the ultimate meaning? I may never come back to Australia. I have just a little little window - why would I talk about something peripheral. There is nothing more ultimate than you spending your life glorifying God. Thats it!
Now of course any theological system is going to be reductionist or it wouldn’t be a system. But Piper’s pursuit of the ultimate is remarkably relentless. It draws him to God’s glory as the controlling principle. Even the cross is penultimate because it exists for God’s glory (a friend suggested this may be a confusion of purpose and result).
Some asked in question time whether God’s love would produce a more biblical and trinitarian understanding. I felt this choice of glory or love was like asking whether your heart or lungs were more important. Do we need to make the philosophical move to keep asking for the ultimate? Won’t it flatten out the contours that are there in Scripture?
By constantly pushing for the ultimate, everything needed to find its place in a very rigid theological system. It felt like each thesis had 4 objections noted and answered, 12 scriptural proofs listed, and another 12 clarifying sub-points. Does this system become so rigid that you can’t help but read the bible through its grid, rather than build the grid up from the bible? The test for this could be in listening to his expository week to week preaching. Is it captive to the system?
Where is glory to be found and how is it to be known? Illustration after illustration kept pointing to knowing the glory of God in the spiritual heavenly realm by the affections. I couldn’t help but think of Luther’s theology of the cross - where is glory found for Luther? Is glory in the God hidden in the heavenlies? Or is God’s glory revealed in the humility and shame of the cross? How is God to be known? By faith or by faith plus a semi-mystical experience of his hidden glory?
Now let me be as clear as I can - Piper’s theology is not medieival mysticism! But his illustrations kept locating glory in the heavens. He did not speak about the glory of God being seen in the cross. It would be supremely unfair to judge him by this silence - the man has written books on the cross that I haven’t read! But my question is where Piper’s schema could take you rather than where he is. If heavenly glory is the main game, and the cross is penultimate to that end, then doesn’t that sound more charismatic than evangelical? Won’t faith become secondary to the more ultimate experience of joyous delight in God? Will preaching push people to visions of heavenly rapture or to the shame of the cross?
Starting a conversation
These are my quick thoughts from the conference floor. I offer them as humbly as I can. Piper’s contribution is enormously significant and deserves further discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts, but only if we can do it in the right gracious spirit.
In the last session he pleaded that his talks not be caricatured but said they would be. I hope I haven’t done that here. It would be worth getting hold of the talks from the KCC website yourself and reading his books. I plan to start with ‘God is the Gospel’.
John Piper is right. If we accept what he is saying then everything changes - our understanding of God, our life’s purpose, our understanding of ministry, what we want for our people, and how we view our world. We should be thankful for John Piper giving so generously of his time and energy, and to KCC for briging him out.
Photo credit: KCC/ Asterisk Photography