In Chapter 2 of Young, Restless, Reformed, journalist Collin Hansen travels to Minneapolis to attend Bethlehem Baptist Church and interview Pastor John Piper. He starts out by attending the Saturday night service, speaking with a young church member about Calvinism, and then spending some time with Piper in his home. On Sunday morning, he visits Bethlehem again, this time looking over the Reformed theology available in the bookstore, and then sitting in as TULIP is taught in a college group.
Next, Hansen relates a conversation with Roger Olson, an Arminian evangelical scholar who believes Calvinists and Arminians should not spend so much energy quarreling with each other and should instead fight the real danger in American theology: Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Hansen helpfully lays out the main differences of interpretation between Arminians and Calvinists.
Shifting back to his chronicle of Calvinism among the young, Hansen then recounts conversations with other young men and women who embraced Calvinism after seeing the difference it was making in the lives and ministries of others. He devotes a small amount of space to the complementarian view of gender roles that often accompanies the current Calvinist theology. He then ends with the warning issued by Piper’s son, Barnabas – that people not undo his father’s emphasis on God’s glory by worshipping a Minneapolis pastor instead.
This chapter, in many ways, increases my admiration for John Piper. I celebrate the emphasis he puts on biblical theology. Piper is a pastor who understands the ramifications of getting theology right. He is one of the greatest preachers of our day, a faithful expositor of Scripture whose passionate delivery helps drive home his God-centered messages.
Collin has done a terrific job showing what it is about Piper that makes him so “irresistible” to young adults. Piper manages to combine biblical exegesis with an infectious passion in his preaching. He understands that biblical knowledge should never be an end in itself, but should instead be intended to transform our lives. I also appreciate the pastoral sensitivity and passion for his theology that leads Piper to so freely share his resources online. In a world of online sermon-purchasing, Piper’s willingness to sacrifice personal gain for his message is a breath of fresh air.
I also celebrate the emphasis that Collin puts on evangelism. Throughout the chapter, the tired refrain that “Calvinists don’t evangelize” is unmasked as a stereotype that is simply untrue. Collin wisely included the testimony of one young girl speaking of how Calvinist theology actually emboldens evangelism. Absolutely. Those who believe in unconditional election have the confidence that their gospel-sharing will result in people coming to faith.
My major concern comes, not from Collin’s research, but from Piper himself. At one point, Piper says:
One of the most common things I deal with when talking to younger pastors is conflict with their senior pastors… They’re youth pastors and they’ve gone to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and read something R.C. Sproul or I wrote and they say, ‘We’re really out of step. What should we do? I try to say you have to be totally candid with your pastor and tell him where you’re coming from and pray that God will help him share your vision. And then ask permission. And if they give you permission, teach away. Build your movement.”
I appreciate Piper’s emphasis on honesty and candor, as well as his instruction for young pastors to submit to pastoral authority. But there are some major problems here. First off, what happens when the pastor says “No”? Piper seems to give the impression here that a young staff member should only teach Calvinism if the pastor agrees. Does this mean that if the pastor disagrees the younger pastor should just keep quiet? I doubt it. Piper wants the “movement” to grow, so I assume he would tell young pastors to find another church.
But there are bigger problems than this. Just what are we asking permission for? To share the gospel with lost people? To preach expository sermons? To teach our churches the Bible? No… we’re asking permission to spread a system of theology, which leads me to more questions. Is this what we’re called to do? I appreciate Piper’s instruction, but what’s the point? To see Calvinism spread throughout evangelicalism? The Great Commission will take a backseat to Calvinism if we focus on ”building a movement.”
What happens when the “movement” of Reformed theology takes center stage? By placing Calvinism at the forefront of what we are to “build,” we are necessarily putting the local church and the gospel itself at the backburner. (I understand that there is a Calvinist church-planting movement. However, once the emphasis shifts from “build for the kingdom” and “preach the gospel” to “build your movement,” our trajectory changes and we begin going in a direction that will ultimately lead us astray.)
Piper’s emphasis on Calvinism also clouds the issue for his followers. The passionate delivery and way he articulates the five points would have you think that a denial of Calvinism is, in effect, a denial of the true and undiluted gospel. Roger Olson is right to point out that many Calvinists treat Arminians as if they did not believe the gospel. The problem here is that the system of soteriology has replaced the gospel announcement.
Ironically, for all its emphasis on being God-centered, the Calvinist resurgence often replaces the gospel message about Christ with TULIP. Calvinism is the gospel for many of the young, restless, and Reformed. Any deviation from Calvinism is seen as a lesser, incomplete expression of the gospel. Confusing “the gospel” with the doctrines of grace is an error which will lead to less and less cooperation with Christians who differ on the issue of Calvinism.
The final concern I have in this chapter is the troublesome image of Piper’s fandom. Collin manages to be even-handed as he describes the “Piperites.” For me, the most disturbing statement comes from a young lady at the end of the chapter who talks about how Piper is like a dad to her, even though they’ve never met. Why is this troublesome?
First off, the double standard should be obvious. Later in the book, ”professional” pastors that are not easily accessible receive harsh criticism. Yet I wonder how many secretaries I would have to go through before I could reach John Piper? I am not criticizing Piper here. As pastor of a mega-church, there are only so many people he can talk to. I am merely pointing out the double standard in critiquing pastors outside Reformed circles for being inaccessible, when the great Reformed pastors face the same issues.
Secondly, and more importantly, the very idea that a man can be “like a dad” to a young lady even though they’ve never met tells us something about God himself. Fathers image God. The fact that a young lady would express the concept of spiritual fatherhood in relation to Piper shows what her view of God the Father is. Far off. Transcendant. Powerful. Distant. If fatherhood can take place without ever meeting, then we must have missed something about the immanence of God that expresses itself in God’s condescension to us in Christ.
This story is surely a warning light that we have gone too far in our view of God’s transcendence. In our reaction towards the “buddy Jesus” of youth group, have we swung the pendulum too far the other way?
Tomorrow, we look at Collin’s chapter on Southern Seminary.
written by Trevin Wax © 2008 Kingdom People blog