Thursday, January 27, 2011

Note to John Piper: Don’t Equate Whole Bible with Theologically Accurate

John Piper - a man I generally respect, though don't often agree with theologically - made some embarrassing comments on his blog in a brief reflection he posted on January 19. The title of his post is: "Don’t Equate Historically Early with Theologically Accurate" The post is short enough that I feel it's worth posting here in full:
Beware of imputing advantage to antiquity. Seventy years after the death of Jesus the churches had neither the collected New Testament nor a living apostle. It was a precarious and embattled time.
Neither the experiences nor the teachers of the first 300 years of the church are as reliable as the finished New Testament. The church did not rescue the New Testament from neglect and abuse. The New Testament rescued the early church from instability and error.
We are in a better position today to know Jesus Christ than anyone who lived from AD 100 to 300. They had only parts of the New Testament rather than the collected whole. That’s how valuable the fullness of revelation is in the finished Bible. Beware of idealizing the early church. She did not have your advantages!
That's it. I don't know about others, but this is as embarrassing as when Reformed pastor R.C. Spoul Junior made a post about Sola-Scriptura on his own blog about a year ago (November 5, 2009) and said things like "The Bible does not have specific text that suggests that the Bible alone is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice," and "Sola Scriptura is a biblical doctrine not because the Bible says so." If comments such as these are not "traditions of men," then I don't know what are.

Anyway, focusing back on Piper's post, these are not the type of comments I'd expect a Ph.D. to be making, but I guess he genuinely believe them. I'm not totally shocked, because these comments actually conform pretty closely to what other well respected Reformed teachers have asserted (for example). I also suspect this has much to do with the fact Piper is a Baptist, since the Baptists tradition is generally known to take an even lower view of Church history than mainline Protestants such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans do.

Without realizing it, he (and all other Protestants who make equivalent claims) has refuted his own foundational doctrine, Sola Scriptura. Let's highlight some thoughts of Piper's claims:
  • By 100AD all the Apostles had died off and the NT had not been collected together.
  • The New Testament "rescued the early church" from instability and error.
  • The Christians from 100AD to 300AD didn't have the NT as a whole collection. 
  • Christians "today" are in a better position to know Jesus than the early church.
Given these details, from a strictly logical point of view, John Piper must admit the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not a Biblical doctrine at all and is in fact a post-Apostolic tradition of men. How could the Apostles be preaching the doctrine of Sola Scriptura if the NT wasn't fully collected into one volume until 300AD? How could any passage of the Bible say something to the effect "Christians are to use the 66 books of the Bible as the sole infallible rule of faith" if the books weren't even collected together until 300AD?  That would entail the Apostles telling their audience to do a historically and functionally impossible task, and thus an anachronistic fallacy.

On top of that, Piper has the audacity to claim the early Christians were less well off than us. This is wrong on many levels.

First, nobody says "theologically accurate" is absolutely tied to "historically early" - the danger in framing things that way though can cause people to disregard history all together, which is an error to the opposite extreme. The problem with the thesis of this blog post can be seen by a parallel example: 
Does "Theologically accurate = Having a Complete Bible"?
Certainly not
- yet this in no way diminishes the (great!) value of the Bible towards Theological Accuracy! In fact, Piper's own bedrock (but false) doctrine of Sola Scriptura is a prime example of how one can possess the whole Bible yet espouse heresy.

Second, how can we say the early Church Fathers - some of whom knew the Apostles or second generation Bishops - were less informed than we were? If anything, they had insights that we do not have, and were martyrs for the faith, meaning they gave their lives passing on what was passed to them. And often when heresy sprung up, it was due to people twisting Scripture while ignoring Apostolic Tradition which the Fathers both preserved.

Thirdly, it doesn't make any sense to say the Early Church was unreliable and yet we trust that same Early Church for preserving and propagating the NT books. If the Church isn't reliable in terms of holding off heresy and corruption, then they certainly can't be reliable in determining what books are "Scripture". To say the NT "rescued" the early church - as if Christianity was somehow unable to survive from 100AD to 300AD without it - is the most dubious and outrageous thesis one could espouse.

In closing, Piper speaks of "the fullness of revelation is in the finished Bible" - meaning, by his own admission, the first Christians didn't have "the fullness of Revelation". That's quite a disturbing thought!


vocab malone/jm rieser said...

What do you think the reason is that Justin Martyr never quotes John's gospel?

scotju said...

This kind of anti-historical and anti-intellectual attitude is so common among evangelicals and fundamentalists. Piper's remarks about the early church fathers being less informed than we are today is the height of stupidity. These men were on the scene with the 'big twelve'. They were given, by the apostles, the traditions that we believe to this very day. Piper, IMHO, is merely carrying on the Protestant tradition of dissing the church fathers that began with Luther. The Protestants have to denigrate the ECF's, because the more historically aware of them know knowledge of the ECF's destroys the claims of Protestantism being a restoration of the early church.

Nick said...


I've never heard of that before: does Justin Martyr really never quote John's Gospel? It doesn't seem plausible, but maybe he didn't.

If he didn't, then maybe he never had access to it, but I don't see a 'problem' with that.


Unfortunately, it's starting to become more and more 'public' as to just how anti-historical many of the big name Protestant theologians and universities are. I believe it's a slippery slope mentality, where if one grants credibility to the ECFs to begin with, to stay consistent he soon will have to grant more and more credibility, until he finds himself having to explain why his overall theology is at such odds with their overall theology.

This is why I frequently ask Protestants to tell me which ECFs they believe were good "Christian" testimonies. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most difficult questions to get an answer for, since they know that once they apply the label "genuine Christian," they'll have to compare their theological views to them - which simply doesn't mesh. The alternative, while 'safer', though tending towards 'anti-intellectual', is to not claim any of the ECFs were true Christians.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

I was just reading Justin's First Apology today - I have much respect for him and was not dissing him.

My point was that it is true that not all early writers had access to the full canon and their theology suffers at times. Justin in particular has some less than orthodox views on the Son and his role. Perhaps if he would have had John's Christology in view, this could have been avoided?


Anonymous said...

Hi Vocab,

Does Justin ever refer to any of the gospels by name, or does he refer to them simply as "Memoirs", or "Memoirs of the apostles"? Btw,
Justin had access to John's gospel, check out Apol. 61.4
"Christ also said 'Unless you are born again you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven'. Jn 3:3

Peace, J

Nick said...


I doubt any (alleged) problems with Justin's Christology were due to an incomplete canon. There is/was just as much (if not worse) Christological error going around in Christendom with greater access to the full canon. The early Ecumenical Councils (addressing the major Christological heresies) were in fact after the timeframe whic Piper claims the full canon was widely available.

Jim Paton said...

Nick, I once came across a similiar scenario: "since they know that once they apply the label "genuine Christian," they'll have to compare their theological views to them - which simply doesn't mesh".

I once asked one of James White's sychophants [who was really fond of informing me that St Augustine believed in double-predestination] I asked him if he believed the great saint to be someone he would consider a fellow Christian. He stated that he believed Augustine was closer to Calvinism in doctrine than he was to Romanism. You couldn't get a straight answer.
So I asked him if he would consider someone who believed the Mass to be a propitiatory sacrifice that brings about the remission of sins to be a Christian? His answer was no, under no circumstances. I informed him that the great St Augustine believed and taught that the Mass was exactly this.

I also pointed out that in a debate with Fr Mitch Pacwa [Justification debate I believe] James White stated that St Augustine had a sacramental view of how God pours out his grace. Amazing to think when White believes that sacraments are diametrically opposed to grace. How on earth can Augustine even be considered a Christian by the likes of White?

So I doesn't matter if the fathers are "genuine Christians" or not. What matters for most of these guys is whether they can use them against the Catholic Church or not.

A perfect example is John Calvin who taught that the Mass was an abomination unknown to the purer Church. One wonders why a crackpot like Calvin would even want to quote Augustine. If Calvin is correct then Augustine wasn't part of the purer Church. So why would he use Augustine? Why? when it is clear by Calvin's own standards that Augustine could not have been a Christian. That's like Pope Benedict using the writings of Arius or the Waldensians to promote the case for Catholicism. At least Luther was honest enough to admit that he couldn't trust Augustine. When I think about it, Piper is continuing in a long tradition in dissing the fathers as "scotju" has so rightly pointed out. But they use them when it suits them, which makes it so disingenuous to say the least.

Nick said...

Hi Jim,

I've had many identical experiences. One of the more off-the-wall Reformed guys out there now is John Bugay, and I asked him this very question. He told me Ignatius of Antioch qualified as a "genuine Christian" in spite of the fact he denied the Calvinist "doctrines of grace" (which are supposed to be essentials).

The honest Protestants don't touch the Church Fathers, the dishonest/inconsistent ones quote them selectively but would never stand by them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nick,

Fascinating article. Some Protestants will say the most astounding things.

Aside from your fine analysis, I am also reminded of the Ecclesial Deism article at Called to Communion: on Piper’s reading of history, God left the Church twisting in the wind for three centuries until there was a complete canon. But it is merely special pleading to say that a Church without God’s help could define the canon, and so really the whole show has been over from the death of the last apostle if Piper was right.

Thank God that he is not. :-)


Anonymous said...

Hi Nick, just found this entry. Thanks for writing.
I think, though, you misunderstand Piper's point and that your logic is a bit off with regards the sola vs. early church issue.

1) In saying the early church was less well off I believe he meant any given believer in the early Church, not the Church as a whole. There may have been some with as full an instruction as we may or may not have, but that a lack of the collected Scriptures means less familiarity/access too the truths of God. This is the same principle as pre/post printing press, and also why believers in the world today with a Bible in their own language are better off than those where no such Bible yet exists.

Additionally, consider the references to the OT prophets and others pre-Christ. Paul teaches us that they were faced with a mystery to which they did not have an answer, but with which later Christians, and us, are not faced, for we know of Jesus Christ.

2)Common misunderstanding of the doctrine of Sola Scrip., it is not to say that other input is not valuable or appreciated but that Scripture retains the unique place of authority about God, His Gospel, and His ways.

3)Sola Scripture cannot logically be discounted by the lack of a New Testament in the Early Church.

To answer your question, "How could any passage of the Bible say something to the effect "Christians are to use the 66 books of the Bible as the sole infallible rule of faith" if the books weren't even collected together until 300AD?" It could say that because the principle of Sola Scriptura is the authority of God's inspired word over and above any other authority. The 'scripture', the gospel, can be transmitted orally and people can respond to it. The point is that they respond to the authority of God's word not to the authority of any particular individual. When the texts were written, they could be engaged in that way. When they are spoken, then that way. No matter in what form, it is God's teaching which holds authority, not an individual. So Paul could say, "If we or anyone else preach any other Gospel...let him be accursed." (Gal. 1:8-9) Though Paul carries an Apostolic authority, he nevertheless is able to separate himself from the message. He sees himself as the carrier of the message and ultimately the message is the authority, the Gospel, not Paul. That is the difference between Sola Scriptura and the RC stance. It is also why the Bible can teach that concept without all the writings having been put down. It is adherence to God's message that is necessary, oral or written.

Vocab Malone said...

I recently preached a sermon on the Protestant position on Sola Scriptura. If you are interested, Nick, here is the video - and likewise, we covered this topic on our apologetics program here - -

It would be great to maybe set up a friendly debate w/an RCC apologist on this topic on the radio show if any of you guys were up for it.


R.C. said...

Anonymous, Vocab Malone:

(Yes I realize that those posts were over a year ago; I'm making sure that folks who come later don't think they're unanswered, and thus unanswerable.)

Protestants realize that Solo/Nuda Scriptura ("jus' me an' my Bible") is intellectually bankrupt.

But to keep Sola Scriptura, they try to argue that Sola Scriptura is different from Solo/Nuda Scriptura.

They do this by appealing to the Church Fathers and tradition, while saying that they put scripture first.

This looks good on the face of it.

But it is ALSO ultimately irrational, because Sola Scriptura ALWAYS ends up being Solo Scriptura in the end. There is no principled way to prevent the former from being identical to the latter.

We can see this, as follows:

1. The Bible teaches infallibly, but not always perspicuously or exhaustively;

2. On topics where the Bible teaches non-perspicuously or non-exhaustively, the interpretative guesswork fills in the missing or ambiguous data;

3. Different persons' (or groups') interpretative guesswork produces different interpretations. These are HELD to be "what the Apostles taught" but are ACTUALLY "what we INTERPET the Apostles to have taught, on the basis of surviving bits of their inerrant writings and that of their associates."

4. The Early Church Fathers teach us their interpretation of "what the Apostles taught"; however, in the case of the ECFs, it's an interpretation on the basis of the Apostles' inerrant writing and infallible sermons and private instruction, and that of their associates."

5. The Protestant defends Sola Scriptura as different from Solo Scriptura, saying that the former takes the writings of the ECFs into account to guide interpretation, whereas the latter relies only on private individualistic judgment.

6. But the ECFs are much, much closer to the faith and practice of modern Eastern Orthodox and Catholics and even Monothelites and Nestorians, than they are to modern Protestants.

7. So, when a Protestant encounters a passage of Scripture which can be interpreted either in a Catholic fashion, or a Protestant fashion, he checks the ECFs, saying that this shows how Sola Scriptura is different and shows more deference to tradition than Sola/Nuda Scriptura.

8. Having checked the ECFs, he finds that for every 10 quotes relevant to the passage he's interpreting, 1 can ambiguously be interpreted either Protestant or Catholic, and the other 9 are unambiguously Catholic.

9. Of this, the Protestant says, "The 1 shows agreement with the Protestant understanding of the gospel, albeit in a vague or confused way, in germ. The 9 are just errors, which goes to show you the ECFs are not infallible."

10. So the Protestant excludes the 9, on his individual initiative, and keeps his interpretation of the vagueness of the 1, on his individual initiative, and says that he is thereby using tradition together with Scripture to interpret Scripture. He says that this shows how his Sola Scriptura, which makes use of tradition, is distinct from Sola/Nuda Scriptura, which only applies individualistic interpretation to the text.

11. Obviously this is really no more than a Protestant using individual judgment about what he wants Scripture to say to exclude the evidence of any ECF who say something different.

12. Therefore Sola Scriptura is actually Sola/Nuda Scriptura with a thin glaze of attention to the ECFs...but this thin glaze has no functional impact on how the Protestant interprets Scripture. It is functionally identical to Solo/Nuda Scriptura.

All this has been treated multiple times at Called to Communion and elsehwere.