My Lunch with John Piper

I wasn’t planning to post on my lunch last month with John Piper, but since he mentioned it in public at his conference last weekend, I guess it’s on the record. I emailed him (and three of the presenters at his conference — all the rest said they were too busy to get together) to ask him to lunch or coffee in order to clear up any misconceptions. So many caricatures of emergent(s) exists, that I wanted to see exactly who he thought we are and see if that was accurate.

We met on September 13. I brought Doug Pagitt, and Piper brought three of his co-workers. Piper said he’d never heard of me before, and that he was only vaguely aware of Emergent Village. His beef is with the writings of Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke. He’s read Chalke’s book, and says that he was personally hurt by Steve’s characterization of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement as “cosmic child abuse” (I personally find this phrase, which Chalke borrows from feminist scholars, to be overcharged rhetoric). I didn’t get the impression that Piper has read anything by McLaren, but Brian’s endorsement of Chalke’s book was enough to concern him (in fact, Brian writes about penal subsitution in Generous Orthodoxy, but in his usual “This is what some people have said about this” way).

The lunch was nearly two hours long, so I am not able to recount everything that took place. I will reiterate what Piper said at the conference: we are all passionate persons, and the dialogue was predictably fiery. But it was also very respectful and generous, on both sides.

One thing that won’t suprise anyone who knows about these things: John Piper basically equates a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement with the gospel. I am unwilling to do that. I don’t disparage that theory of the atonement (see my recent endorsement on the back of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Stott’s The Cross of Christ), but I believe the birth/death/resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the pivot point of cosmic history. Thus, I do not think that one theory interpreting that event to be sufficient. Every theory of the atonement is 1) human, and 2) bound to a context. The penal substitution — while there are seeds of it in Pauline writings — is tied to the development of the Western legal mind. Nor am I willing to condemn the billions of faithful Christians who have lived and died in the past two millennia with alternate understandings of the atonement (here see Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor).

When I expressed these thoughts at the lunch, Piper told me that I should never preach — his point was that my ideas about historical context would merely confuse listeners. He said this with a smile on his face, but then he turned serious and said that people need “fixed points of doctrine” in order to believe in Christianity. I think I disagree with that statement, and I surely disagree with Piper on which points are most important.

But it was an enjoyable lunch, and I’m glad that John accepted my invitation. He’s a fine person, and I respect his church and ministry (even if he’s never heard of me!).

  • mark

    Tony,Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I really apperciate the ethic (that hopefully may come to define “emergent”) of non-violent rhetoric in response to critiques attempting to bring closure to the conversation.This is of course is primarily embodied in the move to the face in concrete lunches, etc., like you have described. Levinas would be so proud..(and maybe even Jesus)..and for the record, you really should preach..peace..mark

  • mh

    Tony,Thanks for the generous description of your time with Piper. It was charitable of you not to disparage him because of his generally negative stance toward emergent(s).However, your take on the roots of the “theory” of penal substitution is not accurate. You said that this theory “is tied to the development of the Western legal mind.” Insofar as this statement has merit, I am willing to concede its truth. The conception that some people have of penal substitution may be warped by their exposure to and full embrace of the Western legal tradition. However, penal substitutionary atonement, as found pretty explicitly in the writings of Paul and other NT writers, is really based in the Old Testament and its covenants, and even more accurately it is historically based in Ancient Near Eastern treaty forms. Emergent types seem to like the idea of God’s communicating himself through cultural context, so, for more on this (if you haven’t read these already, and if you are at all interested) may I recommend a couple of books to you? “Kingdom Prologue” by Meredith Kline, “God of Promise” by Michael Horton, and Covenant and Eschatology” by Michael Horton. You may have read these already, but I believe they deserve careful attention, and I actually think you would enjoy them.Grace and Peace.

  • Anonymous

    I hear emergent leaders saying that emergents need to listen carefully to critiques (I’ve heard Mclaren say this on more than one occasion – especially when he was responding to Carson’s critique) – what I never hear is emergents saying something like, ‘yes Piper or Keller or whoever has a point, we should consider it…’ all I ever hear are rebuttals or non-answers. Emergents criticized Carson of not really listening to them – but I don’t think they’re actually listening to anyone else either.I find this intensely frustrating as I think that the emerging movement has so much to offer, but I fear they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

  • blind beggar

    Tony: Thank you for sharing and for taking the initiative to enter into a dialogue with Piper. Regardless of ones position on the issues, a willingness talk is both positive and encouraging.

  • Nick Hill

    Tony,I appreciate your generous comments and your support of people like Stott. I think conversations like this over lunch are great, leading to more clarity in distinguishing points of disagreement, and ultimately, I hope, more faithfulness to guarding the truth of the gospel, the teaching sound doctrine, and the preaching of Christ crucified with gentleness and respect. May God richly bless you,Nick

  • Buck Eschaton

    Just for reference sake, where, what verses, can penal substitution atonement be found in, in the New Testament. Just want to narrow the disagreement/confusion.

  • David Mitchel

    Dear Tony:Just wanted to quickly correct a misstatement in your original post: You indicated that Dr. Piper equates penal substitution and the gospel. That is not true. For details, see Piper’s recent book God is the Gospel, especially chapter two, which is called something like “The Biblical Scope of the Gospel.”Now I have no doubt that Dr. Piper would say that if you lose penal substitutionary atonement, you lose the gospel. But that is not the same as saying the gospel is simply penal substitution and nothing else.Just wanted to clarify.

  • Brian G. Hedges

    Tony,There is something to saying that the pivotal point of the gospel is in the events of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. However, when Paul articulates these events and launches his defense of the resurrection, he explicitly says that Christ died “for our sins, according to the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). Paul is likely quoting an early Christian creed, and it is notable that it defines the gospel not just as the pivotal events you mentioned, but as including some theological definition as to why Christ died. I would agree that there are multiple biblical (not just cultural and historical) nuances to the cross, but Christ dying under God’s wrath as a substitute for our sins is both clear and primary. I’m glad you initiated the meeting and appreciate Piper’s willingness to come. I hope there is more (not less) dialogue like this in the future.

  • St. Brianstine

    Without the atonement, you don’t have Christianity, period. This is the purpose for which Christ died, to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). What other reason do the scriptures give for Christ’s death? Without the atonement we are still lost and dead in our sins. He who knew no sin became sin for us

  • St. Brianstine

    Buck,Here are a few (of many):Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:4-6)Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isa 53:12)but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom 5:8-11)For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2Co 5:21)who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, (Gal 1:4)for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Heb 9:26)For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, (1Pe 3:18)But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:7)

  • Anonymous

    There is a really great blog out there by one of the pastoral interns at Pipers church. This guys seems to be on the cutting edge as far as “reformed types” go. He is very articulate and not just a party line toter. Check it outwww.alexchediak.comhttp://www.alexchediak.com/blog/

  • Bryan C. McWhite

    Hi Tony,We’ve never met, but I do appreciate your sitting down with Dr. Piper to hash out some of your differences. I wish there were more dialogues like this happening between emergent folks and those who think emergent is a more destructive rather than constructive movement.I must say, however, that I agree with Dr. Piper that you should not preach until you straighten out your views on the atonement – this issue is too close to the heart of the gospel. Your statements about the “context” of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement evinces a lack of, may I say, homework done. I hope you’ll read Leon Morris’s (who died this year) The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, because it settles the issue one for all on exegetical grounds. Blessings, brother.Mook

  • andrew

    having fun, Tony?hey – thanks for this. i mentioned it today on my blog and quoted you.link

  • Bill Arnold

    Yeah Tony, you should read more of book B and less of book A. That will settle it all for you. How could you be so uninformed?

  • Nate Myers

    St Brianstine and others…The atonement. clearly. was not. restricted. to the cross.It is clear that history pivots on the totality of the Incarnation, not just the climax of the cross. For all its beauty, Protestant theology has been just a bit obsessed with the cross over the course of history…to the detriment of a disciplined life in the pursuit of Christ.Christ died not so we could participate in a one-time cosmic transaction sometime in our lives, but to set us free to be able to live the lives we were created to live. We don’t live a cross-centered life, we live a Christ-centered life.And I’m with the poster just above me…it’s ludicrous to suggest Tony shouldn’t preach because he doesn’t have the “right” (with all the subjectiveness of that comment) approach to the atonement. Suggestions for indoctrination aside, if any of us b/c of someone else’s issue with some aspect of our theology decided to quit preaching/sharing our faith, we’d all sit at home on our hands weeping with ineptitude.

  • Christian Cable

    Dear Tony,I was at Piper’s conference and it is helpful for me to see your reply. For the poster above, and for my own benefit, does your epistimology permit absolute truth? If not, how are you sure?Sincerely,Christian

  • wezlo

    Hey Tony, you’re right The Cross Of Christ is an excellent book. John Stott can write. I don’t agree with him everywhere (nor do I have too) – but it’s a great intro to substitutionary atonement w/o the “cosmic child-abuse” angle.And I still, to this day, am perplexed by folks who react so oddly to people pointing out that substitutionary theory is only one of several major theories of the atonement. Each is just a different facet of the same diamond and without them all playing off of one another there’s no sparkle. Why is is always either/or? Why do Evangelicals insist that everything is binary (0 or 1, on or off)? I don’t get it. Why can’t we, like our brothers and sisters before us, affirm substitutionar and exemplar and Christus Victor and satisfactory theories (just to name a few)? What’s wrong with that?I’d go so far to posit that the people who are moving away from orthodoxy are those who can’t affirm the multiplicity of theories of the Atonement. Of course I do have a struggle with some of my fellow emergent-types who want to toss substitution aside completely – I don’t get that one either.I’ll just go back to banging my head against the wall now….

  • Anonymous

    if Jesus became sin and was made to be sin, wouldn’t that sort of spoil the spotless sacrifice aspect of the legal requirement, or am i being too literal? i don’t understand how becoming the most concentratedly abhorrent thing ever in history to present itself to God could possibly appease the wrath that demanded a flawless specimen.that, and the fact that the OT model of the scapegoat that bore away the sins of the people was just shooed away, not horribly tortured to death.between paying ransom to the devil, Anselm’s penal substitution and this Wezlo fellow’s sparkling multi-faceted satisfaction approach, i find myself confused over exactly what it was that reconciled us to the God of Abraham. any clarifying word would be appreciated.respectfully,cornelius

  • Christian Cable

    Dear Brothers,(And I do believe you are brothers) Could our confusion be addressed by turning to the Word? Or should fine sounding arguments about faceted diamonds persuade us? Subtle digs about the intellectual capacity to understand alternate theories aside – - what is the primary story asserted in the gospels? Why did Jesus say he would be crucified? Was it a mistake? Is Paul just an ancient pre-technical blogger, or was he inspired by the Spirit to write the Holy Words of God?Just how much do you think of God? Is he made in our image or the converse?The point is this: (I knew you were asking for the point) – - there are hills worth dying on. Not every hill and I completely agree with having family discussions (in person at lunch or in this format) about difficult things. If Christ did not become abhorrent to his Father, then how are we saved?I’m comforted that God became a man, was tempted and didn’t sin; but am I saved if the wrath of God was not satisfied? Wezlo, please don’t bang your head against the wall and don’t shudder at the horror of Christ’s death – - it should have been me.In Him,Christian

  • Nate Myers

    Christian Cable,It simply was not necessary for the Son to become “abhorrent to the Father” in order to redeem humanity. The atonement, again (by my estimation), is less about God’s wrath and much more about God’s desire to redeem the world. Jesus represented this from conception to death and resurrection. His blood wasn’t required; that was simply the avenue he took to redeem us.God could have redeemed us by speaking the word…but he didn’t. So the little dig at the multifaceted diamond lacks significant weight because of your failure to answer his contention. These atonement theories are simply that. Theories. Human musings on God-given Scripture. Theories. The hill to die on is Jesus and the great love of the Father to give himself for his enemies; by my estimation.

  • Nate Myers

    p.s. strike the second “by my estimation” from the record.I have a painful habit of repeating phrases in short responses while lacking the awareness (somehow) that I’ve said them twice. Strange, I know. I beg forgiveness. :)

  • Christian Cable

    Dear Nate,You are clearly an intelligent person, repetition and retraction aside! I do not want to appeal to our understanding alone, but rather how we divide the Word of truth.What does the Bible say? At the core, I trust the reliability of Scripture to portray God’s intentions. God is knowable because he decided to reveal himself to us. Scripture is not the only truth (I believe that creation speaks to the splendor of God) but it is true.If Scripture is reliable, then we can have a cogent discussion. If not, our topic is epistemology and not Christology.Sincerely,Christian

  • Anonymous

    just a bunch of conservative evangelical protestent fundamentalists bickering at each other….and around and around we (more accuratly, they) go…enjoy the junior varsity theology

  • molly

    Great post. Thanks for the thoughts and the book recommendation. This is somethign I want to look into further. Not saying that there can’t be a penal substitution element, but rather, is that the heart of the gospel? Seems like if it is, then a lot of western christianity is on the right track, because the essence of the gospel would be “getting it right.” Yet 1 Corinthians 13 seems to be saying that there is something bigger than getting it right.

  • Chase

    Anonymous,anonymity is like fiction, never certain of anything.

  • Nate Myers

    Christian,How we “divide the word of truth” is extricably connected to our understanding…because we could pick several Bible verses we go different directions with in interpretation, and talk for the rest of our lives. So, it’s deeper than a surface idea that “I’m right, you’re wrong.” There are underlying themes that thread their way through all the narrative, poetry, and song of the Bible that are primary to our understanding of who God is.I just disagree with you that the Wrath of God is as sweeping of a theme as the great Redemptive Love of God.All that should lead up to my agreement that, of course, Scripture is reliable. But there’s layers to that reality that go beyond a modern, mechanistic approach to Scripture of forcing Scripture into neat categories and systematic theologies. It’s bigger than that.If my foundation pleases you, feel free to approach me Scripturally.

  • Nate Myers

    somehow I left off the “in” with the word “inextricably” at the beginning of my post. Consider it added.

  • Christian Cable

    Dear Nate,We may agree to disagree on my modern and your postmodern approach to biblical interpretation, but we agree on the authority of the Scripture and that indeed is a worthy foundation.If you are against taking a single verse of the Bible out of context (textual, historical, or cultural) then indeed we agree more than we differ. If you believe the wrath of God is not a sweeping theme of the Bible, then lets start in Galations 3:13.”Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’.”It this verse is isolated, lets read the paragraph, if that is not sufficient then the chapter. If we still lack perspective the book, the remainder of Paul’s writing, the Gospels and the Hebrew Scriptures. Tony’s original post acknowledged the “seeds of substitutionary atonement” in Paul’s writings.They are big seeds indeed, fully germinated and growing in fertile soil. Although the cross of Christ is more than propitiation, it is not less.

  • Ali Campbell

    What was the point of the Cross? Rather than rattle on about what Paul says (who, dare I say it, great though he is, was called AFTER the death and resurrection of Christ . . . ), I’m more interested in what Jesus has to say. Possibly the most amazing stuff ever written that issued from His own lips is the prayer in John 17. What does Jesus say? “This is eternal life . . . “, what that our sins are attoned for? that we have been spared hell? that I am going to my death for you? The AIM the PURPOSE is that we might know the Father. Relationship! That we might be one as He and the Father are one! What a prayer! When will what Jesus prayed for happen? I long for it.

  • Chase

    Nate, How can the wrath of God not be a sweepeing theme if redemption is? Were we not children of wrath and now we have been made alive? How could there be one without the other?

  • Christian Cable

    Dear Ali,I appreciate your desire to have an open discussion and I read your post in Tony’s post about “neo-reformed” theology as well. Your heart is clearly conciliatory and Christ-like.That said, for you to say “rattled on” about “Paul’s writing” is a failure to ackowledge the New Testament epistles (as well as the gospels) as inspired by God.You and I could rattle on about the difference between inerrant versus infallable, the difference between inspired and “God-breathed”, but when you give up the authority of the Scripture and try to say that John was more valid than Galatians you clearly give up too much.Respectfully and with no glint in my eye,Christian

  • Anonymous

    The atonement is more than just penal substitution but it certainly is not less. Making Christ less then what is found in scripture is only less then what Christ did on the cross. We must understand the atonement first and foremost before any other doctrine of Christ or Salvation. You say that, “is tied to the development of the Western legal mind.” I would say to that Tony, that it is the western mind that has changed scripture to mean what ever you want. There is now getting around passages like, 1Cor.15:3, Matt 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7. I think that your view and your interpretation has been corrupted by this western mind set that America has grown in the last 40 years. That Is I would believe why Piper and his friends had the conference that they did. Because it is not just “emergents” I am worried about, but the mind set that postmodernist like your self have fallen into, and bring to the Word of God.Sola Scriptura, may God Word speak alone, and not the mind of men that bring their thoughts, and conclusions before they have even began to study the Word of God.

  • Anonymous

    Ali,Considering many of Paul’s epistle’s were written decades before the Gospels (and thus provide a window into the earliest form of Christianity), and considering that the Gospels are not the direct products of Jesus (written at least 30 or more years after his death/resurrection), it seems odd that you would so quickly by-pass Paul. Your simply trading Paul for John (or Matthew, or Mark, or Luke).If the point you are trying to make is that we cannot allow just Paul to be the interpretive key for understanding New Testament theology, than I can (somewhat) see your point. Sadly, people who usually say that generally just pick another NT writer to be the interpretive key (usually John). Good biblical theology doesn’t ignore any of them.

  • kwilinskik

    I’m bordering on formal logic here, so I apologize. How entirely modern of me.(A) Sola scriptura (Latin ablative, “by scripture alone”) is the assertion that the Bible as God’s written word is self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to the rational reader, its own interpreter (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian doctrine.(B) Christian doctrine is not uniform and consistent. Disagreements abound.Premises A and B cannot both be true. Either Sola Scriptura is false as stated in premise A, or premise B is false and any doctrine that is not yours is not christian.Is there any way out of the dichomtomous thinking? Maybe, maybe not… Either adjust one’s understanding of sola scriptura or abandon it. Depending where you fall on the continuum will probably indicate where you’re at in the atonement discussion. That is, if you reject sola scriptura altogether you’re probably not even participating, meaning you aren’t christian at all or are “too liberal” to care. If you find yourself in the discussion, either (1) you affirm it absolutely and believe others to be nonchristian, in error, or irrational, or (2) you don’t think scripture is entirely perspicuous which is why christian doctrine isn’t uniform and consistent.I guess I’m a “quadralateralist” and a little soft on sola scriptura. I mean I think it’s clear to me, but clearly people disagree who I don’t believe are entirely in error, nonchristian, or irrational. I guess I’m comfortable with different views on the atonement (I appreciate multi-layered meanings anyway), but of course if one thinks right doctrine is a matter of eternal destination, it’s difficult to be very ecumenical.

  • kwilinskik

    BTW, I borrowed definition of sola scriptura from wikipedia.These discussions always seem to come down to how one reads and thinks about the bible. I suspect there are a lot more approaches to the bible than inerrancy vs. just another book.

  • kwilinskik

    I’m so bad with these blogs. I didn’t realize this is almost a year old. So I’m clearly irrational and in error. Oh how I undermine myself!

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