Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Overreacting to John Piper's 2 Minutes with the Pope

I saw this video of John Piper’s response to the question of what he would say to the Pope if he had two minutes with him, and I just had to respond. Let me throw out a few caveats before I get to it. First, Piper is responding off the cuff to a question he wasn’t expecting and this is probably in a conference situation where everybody is operating with the same assumptions and views. All in all, the situation is not conducive for a comprehensive and nuanced response to an opposing point of view. Second, I don’t know as much as I probably should about Piper. He is a big name for evangelical Calvinists, and he has had a hugely positive impact in the lives of many of my friends. I can’t argue with this. I have every intention of reading Don’t Waste Your Life, and my personal impression of him the few times I’ve listened to him on the Internet is positive. This man is a passionate, warm, human being fully alive with love for Jesus and people kind of guy. I think he is an overwhelmingly positive force in the Kingdom of God.

That all being said, I think John Piper might have a too-narrow conception of the Gospel. If his engagement with NT Wright and here, with Roman Catholicism, is any indication, Piper has substituted a comprehensive explanation of the Gospel with a very specific formal statement about how the Gospel works to bring individual sinners into right relationship with God. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the formulation Piper here gives: “we should rely entirely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith alone as the ground of God being 100 percent for us, after which necessary sanctification comes.” This is how the Gospel works to bring people into the Kingdom of God, but, necessary and central though this affirmation might be, this does not encompass all that the Gospel entails. The Gospel put more comprehensively might go something like this: Jesus has been established as the world’s true Lord through his righteous life, death, and resurrection and that, as a result, God has lifted his curse on the whole created order, brought it into his favor, and set it on a trajectory towards its original intended end of righteousness, which will be fulfilled at Christ’s Second Coming. Take Piper’s formulation with this and we have the who, what, how, what for, and where are we going of the Gospel.

My main issue, however, is that Piper does not seem to have grasped the full nuance of the Roman Catholic position on justification, and from that flattened understanding, has rather obtusely declared Roman Catholic theology heretical.

To the Roman Catholic position on justification: are we talking about first justification as in baptism or are we talking about final justification? If we’re talking about first justification, or, to find the most analogous modern Reformed Protestant term, “regeneration,” I believe some Catholics would posit that this does come by faith alone. At any rate, the sole graciousness of God in first regenerating a sinner is quite profoundly acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church. On this issue, perhaps, if we cut through the formal systematics each side is using, the differences are not quite as profound as would first appear.

The rub is in reference to final justification. Historically, Protestants have not parsed justification the way Catholics do into initial, positional, and final categories. To be declared righteous at regeneration is one in the same as being declared righteous in the end, and this comes solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to the sinner. This is Piper’s position. I will play the game of double justification, though. NT Wright does it far better than Piper thinks he does and even John Calvin can speak of a double justification where in the end believers are judged according to works that have themselves been justified by grace alone through faith alone. Works may enter in to final justification, but they rest entirely on the ground of Christ’s righteousness for their worth.

On the Roman Catholic side, however, we have a final justification that is based on righteousness infused by faith and works. A first declaration of righteousness at regeneration does not guarantee a declaration of righteousness at the final day. Catholics must work with God for a righteous verdict on the final day. Obviously, this is quite different from justification by faith alone. There is no denying there’s quite a gulf between these views, but a look at the qualifications both Protestants and Catholics make on final justification, faith, and, works makes the gap look less imposing.

In Calvin’s case, with God justifying us in the end by works viewed in light of Christ’s imputed righteousness, or, in the case of NT Wright, with God in his covenant faithfulness working righteousness in his people in order to deliver them with the same verdict on the last day that he did when he first declared them righteous on their entry into the covenant, Protestants, with BIG qualifications, can also say we will be judged in some sense by our works. In this light, we must look at the way Protestants define faith. For John Calvin, faith subsumes a disposition of piety, and the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of justifying faith as never being alone but “ever accompanied with all other saving graces,” being “no dead faith, but work[ing] by love” (XI. 2).

Let us look to the Catholic qualifications of works. For instance, without grace removing sin from believers or without God crowning his own gifts with grace in the works of believers, Catholics teach that works do not of themselves merit favor with God. It seems to me that though works are required for salvation in Roman Catholicism, they don’t amount to a hill of beans unless God determines to look on them in a merciful light. Why is it that the distinction between mortal and venial sins is superfluous prior to baptism, unless God views Christians according to a fatherly standard the unregenerate are not privy to? Catholicism is not Pelagian or even semi-Pelagian. I think semi-Augustinian would be a better designation. If you take Catholic qualifications into account, I think it is no more pertinent to call Roman Catholic theology heretical than it is to call Arminian theology heretical. First justification there does not guarantee final justification either. Unfaithfulness can muck it up. Are the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd sectarian enough to call John Wesley a heretic?

I must also take exception to the use of the word “heresy.” I wish we Protestants would pronounce a moratorium on this word until we learn to use it correctly. In Protestant terms, it seems to me that heresy means an error so severe that it makes the holder of it almost certainly toast. Every time we Protestants call someone a heretic, this means we believe that they are almost certainly going to Hell if they do not repent. I wish conservative Roman Catholics would likewise refrain from throwing the term about when speaking of Christians who belong to what the Vatican calls, “ecclesial communities,” but even in this case, there are extenuating factors, like “invincible ignorance,” and degrees within the Catholic concept of heresy that are conceptually impossible in conservative Calvinist theology. In our post-Vatican II universe, Protestant “heretics” can still be saved unless they know in their consciences that they are maintaining heretical beliefs. For doctrinaire Protestants, it just doesn’t matter.

Finally, I must end my overreaction to a 2 minute clip by grappling with the most troubling implication of Piper’s designation of those who do not agree with justification by faith alone in the confessional Protestant sense as heretics. The implication is that prior to the rise of the Waldensians in the 12th century, all of three people were saved for about eleven hundred of the first twelve hundred years of Church history. Let me ask, is Ignatius a heretic? Is the martyr bishop Polycarp? Is Irenaeus? Is Chrysostom? Is Athanasius? Is Ambrose? Is Bernard of Clairvaux a heretic? Is predestinarian, incipient quasi-Calvinistic Augustine, our hero, a heretic? For all of his Protestantly-speaking sound teaching on the sole graciousness of God in salvation, he does not even arrive at an incipient Protestant teaching of justification by faith alone. You won’t find a formal affirmation of justification by faith alone anywhere in the first millennium of the Church. Do I believe it’s possible that it wasn’t till the second millennium of the Church that we began to grapple most fully with Paul’s teachings on justification? Yes, I do, but failing to arrive at the formal declaration of justification by faith alone hits not right at the very heart of the Christian Gospel. We must look elsewhere for the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. We have been promised that “the increase of his government shall know no end.” If the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived have failed to grasp the most central essence of the Christian faith, heaven help us all. That would be a failure of the promise of the perpetual growth of the Kingdom of God in this world. But thanks be to the abundant mercy of our God, salvation has been marching on where it has not been expressed in confessional Protestant terms. Christ saves all those who cling in simple faith to him.

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