An Open Letter To John Piper
(Courtesy of Frank Turk at Pyromaniacs)
Dear Dr. Piper
First of all, I am personally still grateful that you are back in public ministry. I am personally still edified by you, and am grateful for your spirit and your mission to make Christ known. I would in no way retract my original open letter to you as I believe that you have been mightily used by God for his work to make Christ known in the English-speaking world, and I credit you for it.
I am also on-record to say that you were right, back when Rick Warren spoke by video at the DG conference, to point out that we allegedly-reformed people have something to learn from Warren when it comes to being intentional about people and not just about doctrine. I wouldn't retract one word of that post either.
While I can't speak for my fellow bloggers here at PyroManiacs, I can say that I am probably the least-unimpressed with Pastor Warren. Without naming names or trying to line out who would say what about whom, it's enough to say that the consensus here is that Rick Warren harms the church in general. His books have done more of a dis-service for local churches than they have served to improve them, and his own methods and writings are frankly a bad example for others.
Personally, I'm not a fan of Rick Warren. I can't get excited about his approach to Scripture and Ministry because I see all his writing and sermons as glib, simplistic, mediocre, and often muddled in his broad endorsements of people in interfaith settings -- something I know you disagree with. This was the major stunner from last year's conference: you see Pastor Warren as a great communicator -- which I think is startling because you are yourself a great communicator, and I would think you personally would know better than this. From my perspective, Pastor Warren has done what so many Southern Baptist pastors have done: he has created a local civic institution which has come into national prominence because so many people have come to it. And on that platform his shortcomings are simply magnified, so that the kinds of criticisms he receives are at least warranted because they have such a wide-reaching effect.
But at the same time, I also cannot bring myself to brand Rick Warren, as Chris Rosebrough would say, a rank heretic of a pelagian stripe [a view Phil Johnson has a lot of sympathy for]. I can't do it because I know where he comes from denominationally and ecclesiastically, and I simply can't write off the standard vocabulary of the average SBC pastor as inherently-pelagian. It may be populist in intention, and anti-intellectual in spirit, and simply and finally guided by the view that the number of people who agree with you and will follow you defines the success of your work, but I honestly don't see Rick Warren as anti-Christian. He's just mediocre, and popular, and most of his critics cannot evaluate him from that perspective because, frankly, they cannot muster a generous or balanced approach to discernment in general.
That, I think, is what guided your interview of Pastor Warren: a reaction against his most-unfair critics. As you see him as your friend, I credit you for wanting to defend a friend against injustice. But here's the thing: it seems to me that you thereby missed the point of all the fair criticism of Rick Warren and the PDC/PDL approach to local church life. In seeking to overcome the unfair criticism, you brushed over the concerns legitimate people have about your friend.
There were great opportunities to address those problems during this interview. For example, when pastor Warren boasted that he'd put any 500 members of Saddleback up against any 500 members of any other church with regard to doctrinal knowledge (cf. pg 36 of the transcript), this was a great opportunity to consider his consistency. If the members of his church are deeply educated in systematic doctrine, why does he preach without using the language of the Bible for the doctrines of the Bible -- let alone the common language of systematic theology (cf. pg 37)? Isn't this kind of latently anti-intellectual approach to doctrine and the Bible the most serious cause for concern about what Pastor Warren has advocated for 25 years?
To that charge, it's also interesting that he offered the claim that he has read the "complete sets of Jonathan Edwards ... 22 volumes, 800 pages each" (pg 4), and it had a significant influence on PDL. PDL was published in Nov 2002, and written presumably in the previous year -- and through that time, only volume 18 of the Yale "Works" series had been published. Perhaps he forgot how much he had read prior to writing that book; we are all getting older and are not the Grad students we once were. But more to the point, if Edwards was such a profound influence on PDL, why is his name so conspicuously-absent from it? Others are plainly mentioned in the book: Brother Lawrence is mentioned 5 times; Dr. Hugh Moorehead is quoted 3 times; Mother Teresa is cited twice; Hudson Taylor is mentioned once; Billy Graham is mentioned once; George Bernard Shaw was mentioned; Lane Adams [an author with fewer readers than this blog can claim] is quoted; there are others. [Thx, Kindle Edition search, since the book lacks a subject index] Plainly, these influenced Pastor Warren's writing of this book. Why not mention Jonathan Edwards if he had, as Warren said in the video, greatly influenced PDL?
To point this out and to ask Pastor Warren how he can substantiate this statement when factually it seems, at best, unsupported by the text, would not have been a hard item to come up with. I had not read PDL in almost 10 years, and this bit of emendation to the text seemed obvious -- an interesting and challenging point to investigate; it's unfortunate you missed the opportunity.
The enduring legacy of PDL, though, is Warren's use of any and every translation of a passage to allegedly make a point. For example, in Chpt 8 of PDL, Pastor Warren cites Ps 147:11 as "The LORD is pleased only with those who worship him and trust his love." This theological point is certainly true enough, but this is the CEV translation of a passage which reads "the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love," (ESV) or "The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy," (KJV) -- a phrase which, in the context of the Psalm in question, as you know, is a contrast of God's will to do good over and against the normal hope of man that one's own strength or accomplishments will carry the day. This example is a rather-mild incident in PDL, but it is by no means the only one. For your reference, Tim Challies shares this concern, as does Mike Oppenheimer of "Let Us Reason" Ministries. Monergism.com points out that PDL is not the only source of data regarding Pastor Warren's misuse of Scripture.
This practice of cherry-picking the loosest and most-imprecise translations of passages to make a point in PDL is probably the most-pervasive criticism of the text, and you never arrive there. Of all the things you are from the pulpit and in your ministry, you are a man of God's word, and the misuse of Scripture is not something you usually lay hands on lightly. From my desk, it seems to me you can't possibly have missed this. Let's admit this: you didn't ignore the issue of hermeneutics. You opened up the question of how one uses Scripture (pp. 5, 14, 34). You simply didn't pursue it. You allowed Pastor Warren to simply say that he doesn't believe in contradictions in the word of God, and let that be enough. It's a casual approach to the man and his philosophy, not a deep consideration.
And in the end, this is why I have written to you. I am your fan, and deeply indebted to you for your lifetime of faithful ministry. I'm not a quack blogger who is now emptying my library of anything you may have written or edited because you are endorsing a dubious partner in ministry. I'm a guy who has grown because of your engagement with the glory of God, and have felt the weight of the divine act of the incarnation and crucifixion because of your meditation on and exhortation of God's Grace. I am a better man, and a better father, and a better husband, because you have put the Gospel to me in serious and sober and joyful terms. I believe completely that the greatest cause in the world is joyfully rescuing people from hell, meeting their earthly needs, making them glad in God, and doing that with a kind and serious pleasure that makes CHRIST look like the treasure He is.
I believe in your faith, and in your good judgment. While I cannot and will not question the former, I ask you to reconsider the latter as you are now campaigning for a broader and deeper acceptance of Rick Warren among those in broader "reformed", "T4G", and "Gospel Coalition" circles. He is, after all, a pastor and not merely a blogger. He's a shepherd and not merely a popular author. He's sending missionaries and not merely encouraging middle-class values. And as you seek to leverage the good name and good faith relationships you have among your partners in the groups listed above, remember that part of fellowship among brothers is honoring the concerns and objections your fellow workmen have expressed throughout the years about Rick Warren. He only has something to gain from their acceptance -- while they clearly would tell you there is something to lose by uncritically allowing him in as a teacher and leader.
In closing, I have a great empathy for your efforts to seek to be inclusive for the sake of Christ toward those who are in Christ but not in our basic theological camp. As I close in on a decade of internet punditry as a blogger and advocate for the Christian faith, I am deeply sensitive to the dark and unrestrained excesses of those who count themselves as defenders of the faith but are unaccountable for their strident pronouncements. As someone who is often lumped in with those sort, I think it's important to say plainly that I don't think it's an easy or uncomplicated thing to write you, a seasoned pastor, a critical open letter. I think you are right that some have treated Rick Warren with injustice -- but he is not hardly the man your interview with him paints him to be. He's not hardly someone deeply concerned with a robust declaration of the Gospel and its consequences. His weekly preaching does not reflect this, and his books do not reflect this. After 40 years of demonstrating pastoral care for real people and careful, weekly expository preaching, you must be able to see the deficiencies in what he has done, is doing, and will continue to do if accepted without asking the serious questions his writing and actions create.
Please: for the sake of your own continued credibility, and for the sake of the partnerships in the Gospel which you have forged with other men of good faith, reconsider the broad and uncritical endorsement you are giving to Rick Warren. Underscore your differences with him clearly and cogently, and ask him to respond seriously for the sake of his commitment to your integrity and his own.
For that reason, I leave you with a blessing. As the apostle charged, it is always our purpose to give a reason for the hope that is in us -- to put to shame those who would revile us for Christ's sake -- with gentleness and reverence. As you have spent your adult life doing this, I ask God our Father, through the Holy Spirit, and in Christ's name, to bless you for it now with these things: love for your friend beyond mere bonhomie; courage to speak prophetically and evangelistically; and humility to see the limits of your own approach to what you believe is addressing injustice.
My thanks for your time.
And my thanks to Frank Turk for some excellent perspective on an issue that has huge damage potential!
Go On To Part 4
Go Back To Part 2
Go Back To Part 1