Is John Piper Really Reformed?
The answer to the question is obvious to most people, but often in two different directions.
For many people, John Piper is the most well known and most vigorous proponent of Reformed theology in the evangelical world today. He’s the guy who calls himself a seven point Calvinist. He exults in the sovereignty of God at every turn. He is, according to Mark Dever, “the single most potent factor in the recent rise of Reformed theology.” Of course, John Piper is Reformed.
But for others, it’s just as obvious that John Piper is not really Reformed. Reformed theology is defined by the Reformed confessions and finds its expression in Reformed and Presbyterian ecclesiastical structures, so clearly John Piper—as a credobapstist from the Baptist General Conference—is not Reformed. Why should “Reformed Baptist” sound any less strange than “Lutheran Baptist”?
I understand the point that those in the second category are trying to make. There is a real danger we equate Reformed theology with John Calvin and then equate John Calvin with TULIP, so that “Reformed” ends up meaning nothing more than a belief in predestination. Scholars like Richard Muller have worked hard to remind us that both equations are terribly reductionistic. Reformed churches existed before John Calvin, and Calvin’s thought was but one stream (a very important stream) flowing into and out of the Reformed tradition.
Likewise, anyone who has a deep appreciation for the Reformed confessions and has studied the development of Reformed theology will be understandably jealous to help people see that there is much more to being Reformed than a predestinarian soteriology. As one who subscribes to a historic Reformed denomination and has written a book on the Heidelberg Catechism, I am enthusiastic about all that the Reformed tradition has to offer, from ecclesiology, to worship, to our understanding of the law, to our understanding of the sacraments, to a dozen other things. I sympathize with those who are quick to point out that a college freshman who believes in a big God is not exactly plumbing the depths of what it means to be Reformed.
But on the other hand, it doesn’t bother me when John Piper is called Reformed. Besides the fact that he could likely affirm 95% of what is in the Three Forms and in the Westminster Standards—and I’m not suggesting the other 5% is inconsequential, I’m just making a point that the differences are not as great as one might think—I can readily acknowledge that the word “Reformed” is used in different ways. “Reformed” can refer to a confessional system or an ecclesiastical body. But “Reformed” or “Calvinist” can also be used more broadly as an adjective to describe a theology that owes much of its vigor and substance to Reformed theologians and classic Reformed theology.
Herman Bavinck’s chapter on the history of “Reformed Dogmatics” provides a good example. For starters, Bavinck notes how different Reformed theology is from Lutheran theology, the former being less tied to one country, less tied to one man, and less tied down in a single confession (Reformed Dogmatics, 1.177). Doctrinal development, Bavinck argues, has been richer and more multifaceted in Reformed theology (which may be one of the reasons you don’t hear of Lutheran Baptists).
In particular, Bavinck claims, “From the outset Reformed theology in North America displayed a variety of diverse forms.” He then goes on to mention the arrivals of the Episcopal Church (1607), the Dutch Reformed (1609), the Congregationalists (1620), the Quakers (1680), the Baptists (1639), the Methodists (1735 with Wesley and 1738 with Whitefield), and finally the German churches. “Almost all of these churches and currents in these churches,” Bavinck observes, “were of Calvinistic origin. Of all religious movements in America, Calvinism has been the most vigorous. It is not limited to one church or other, but—in a variety of modifications—constitutes the animating element in Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed churches, and so forth” (1.201). In other words, not only is Bavinck comfortable using Calvinism has a synonym for Reformed theology (in this instance at least), he also has no problem affirming that Calvinism was not limited to one tradition alone but constituted the “animating element” in a variety of churches. Calvinism, as opposed to Lutheranism, flourished in colonial America as the typical orthodox, Reformational, sola scriptura-sola fide alternative to the various forms of comprised Arminianism and heterodox Socinianism.
The reason “Reformed” has not been confined in this country to those, and only those, who subscribe to the Three Forms or the Westminster Standards, is because from the beginning the basic contours of Calvinist theology pulsed through the veins of a variety of church bodies. Does this mean nothing but “the basic contours of Calvinist theology” matter for life and godliness? Certainly not—why else would Herman Bavinck go on to carefully delineate the intricacies of Reformed dogmatics for 2500 more pages. I am gladly Reformed, with a capital R as big as you can find.
Which is why my first reaction to the proliferation of even some of Reformed theology is profound gratitude. Do I think TULIP is the essence of Calvinism? No. Do I wish many who think of themselves as “Reformed” would go a lot farther back and dig a lot deeper down? Yes. But does it bother me that people think of Piper, Mohler, and Dever as Reformed? Not at all. They are celebrating and promoting Calvin and Hodge and Warfield and Bavinck and Berkhof—not to mention almost all of the rich Scriptural theology they expound—in ways that should make even the most truly Reformed truly happy.