Is John Piper Confessional?
John Piper recently answered a question about the use of confessions by a church. I’m thankful for several parts of his answer, and I have some comments to offer on the other parts.
First, Piper affirms and defends the validity, necessity, and value of confessions of faith:
Christianity that is unified around a written confession of faith, at its best, is the best Christianity… Confessional summaries of biblical truth really do help us in our faith, because I think faith thrives on deep, true doctrine that is brought out of the Scriptures, properly summarized, applied to peoples’ lives, and in our souls, in our families, in our churches, even in society. That kind of clear, doctrinal truth is healthy for life and for obedience to Jesus.
In light of this, Bethlehem Baptist Church created The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith (I believe in 2003) and they modified their by-laws to state “Elders are also required to be in agreement with the Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith” The confession states
We believe that the cause of unity in the church is best served, not by finding the lowest common denominator of doctrine, around which all can gather, but by elevating the value of truth, stating the doctrinal parameters of church or school or mission or ministry, seeking the unity that comes from the truth, and then demonstrating to the world how Christians can love each other across boundaries rather than by removing boundaries. (15:2)
The rest of Piper’s answer focuses on why they wrote a new confession rather than holding to the 1689 London Baptist Confession. Many have criticized Piper on this point, but the criticism mainly focuses on his reasons for disagreeing with the 1689. Before addressing those disagreements, we should applaud Piper. Why? Because he properly recognizes the purpose of a confession. He notes that “the elders will all be officially united under the teaching of the BBC Elder Affirmation of Faith and held accountable to maintain it through life and doctrine.” The basis of unity in their church is that the elders all confess the same doctrine. The foundational assumption here is that when people affirm a confession, they affirm a confession. That is, they don’t affirm some essence or substance or system or vitals of the faith underlying the confession. They confess the confession. That’s the whole point! They specifically wrote a confession that they could all agree on all the points, and then they use that as the basis for unity. Very straightforward.
Methods of Subscription
However, such a straightforward approach to a confession is not practiced by Presbyterians and others. In a recent helpful piece On the Need for and Practice of Confessing the Faith, Samuel Renihan notes “It is a sad day when what we confess and how we confess must be dealt with independently.” What was described above is known as “full subscription.” It is the method of subscription held to by ARBCA because it is the most logical (see James Renihan’s lecture). Everyone agrees with the document that was written to express common agreement. This was how the London Baptist Confessions were used. However, it was not how the Westminster Confession was used.
This difference goes back to the fundamental difference in ecclesiology. Presbyterians believed that the visible church was one universal institution organized geographically. The church was national and there was only one. And this national church needed a confession of faith. However, this confession of faith was not intended to be a confession of what individual ministers believed, necessarily. Instead, it was the governing standard for the national church. It was requested by Parliament so that it could be the legal basis for defrocking a minister. Specifically, it governed what could and could not be preached in the local parishes of the one national church – that is, what could be preached anywhere in the country by anyone.
If a minister wished to preach the gospel, he could only do so as a licensed minister in the national church and he was required to adhere to this confession. However, he was not personally required to agree with the confession. He was only forbidden from contradicting the confession in his preaching. This distinction between public and private reflected their view of liberty of conscience as it related to punishment by the civil magistrate. A citizen had liberty to believe what he wished in his own mind, but no citizen was allowed to publicly blaspheme God or display an idol. He was not allowed to make his beliefs public.
Eventually, because of problems with unbelieving ministers filling pulpits, the Church of Scotland began to require individual ministers to confess or subscribe to the system of doctrine underlying the confession. They did not have to confess agreement with every point, but with the essence of the faith. The confession in full still stood as the legal standard for public preaching.
Building on this, Presbyterian churches in America today (note the plural) do not require “full subscription.” Instead, they each have varying levels of requiring ministers to confess something less than the confession (i.e. J.V. Fesko’s THE LEGACY OF OLD SCHOOL CONFESSION SUBSCRIPTION IN THE OPC, & the PCA’s adoption of Good Faith Subscription and here). But because American Presbyterians reformed the British Presbyterian doctrine of liberty of conscience to be more logically consistent and more in agreement with the baptist doctrine of liberty of conscience and its necessary implication of voluntarism, they no longer require full adherence to the confession in public preaching. After all, since there is no such thing as a national church and ministers have divinely granted liberty of conscience to voluntarily be a part of whichever denomination or tradition of Christianity they believe best reflects Scripture, what basis do they have for prohibiting a minister from preaching his conscience? In other words, there was no longer any logical basis for a distinction between private beliefs and public beliefs. So the use of the confession in “full” was discarded and all that remained was the use of the underlying “system” in the confession.
A Confession within a Confession
Of course, determining what exactly constitutes this underlying system and what would constitute an actual violation of the confession has been a matter of debate since then. For example, in response to a recent post by Mark Jones on this question, D. Patrick Ramsey notes:
How do we determine whether Hypothetical Universalism (or any other controversial view) is acceptable or not? Consider the following questions:
Do we accept HU because even though it is contrary to the Confession it is an allowable exception or scruple because it doesn’t strike at the vitals of the Confession as evident by its place within the Reformed Tradition?
If so, we are compelled to ask: What are the vitals of the Confession and why don’t we make that our Confession? How do we determine what are the vitals of the Confession? How popular must a view be in the Reformed Tradition for it to be acceptable? NOTE: I realize that we all operate upon the basis of there being the vitals of the Confession unless we don’t allow for any exceptions. But still, it does seem so elusive and subjective…
The real confession seems to be the confession within the confession.
Ramsey makes an important point: if the vitals of the Confession are the true boundaries of the Confession, why don’t they just make that their Confession without all the extra stuff they don’t all agree on? Isn’t that the point of a confession? Of course doing so would be a difficult process and it would mean departing from the historic confession, but the only other alternative is to make the meaning of the Confession “elusive and subjective” which defeats the entire point of the confession, as Piper rightly explains:
Without a written summary of biblical truth we tend to be vague about what we believe. Some people think that avoiding confessions of faith provides greater Christian unity, because writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.
But the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.
The purpose of a written confession is precision. If the precision of the written document is being discarded for an elusive, subjective, and vague “essence” then the entire purpose of the confession is being discarded. Samuel Renihan asks “Why hold to a confession of faith if you’re not confessing it to be true? Either remake the document or compose your own. And then confess that document. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37, James 5:12).”
This is precisely what Piper and his church have done. They disagree with the 2nd London Baptist Confession so they do not confess it. They wrote down what they believe and confessed that instead. That is to be applauded. We need more of that. We need both the precision of written statements of faith as well as the willingness to affirm what is actually written. Commenting on the PCA’s 2003 adoption of “Good Faith” subscription, Ryan McGraw argues
A Confession of Faith, therefore, is a written summary of doctrines that are held in common by a definite body of believers for the purpose of together confessing with their mouths what they believe in their hearts… [T]his practice [good faith subscription] has effectively abrogated the role of the Westminster Standards from being the public profession of faith of the PCA. As a result, the PCA has become a church without a Confession of Faith…
The nature of Creeds and Confessions is to be subscribed to without equivocation or reservation… if the members of the group in question do not subscribe to the Confession of Faith en toto, then the Confession has lost both its nature and its proper function…
The case would be different if the PCA subscribed to a curtailed version of the Westminster Standards, or to some other Confession of Faith that her ministers could agree upon. Instead we have an undefined Creed, which in practice amounts to no Creed… [N]o Confession of Faith is infallible and unalterable. Instead of allowing undefined “exceptions” to the doctrinal Standards of the Church, the Church ought to change the Confession to reflect agreed upon terms of unity.
In this regard, Piper and his co-elders are more confessional than most Presbyterians who “confess” the Westminster Confession.
The reason that baptists and Presbyterians approach confessions differently is because Presbyterianism is still foundationally influenced by the medieval view of the church. The Dissenting Brethren of the Assembly (Congregationalists) said “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” In short, Piper and the other elders in his church had the liberty to draft a confession that specifically reflected their actual beliefs. Their ordination and their very ministry was not tied to a confession they did not agree with. The hierarchy of Presbyterianism functionally inhibits a minister’s liberty, leading many of them to affirm a confession they don’t affirm rather than writing one they do.
Disagreements with the 2nd London Baptist Confession
Yes, Piper has disagreements with the 1689, and obviously I don’t agree with his reasons. But we can have a very meaningful conversation about those points of disagreement specifically because the differences are clearly written and articulated. Both sides agree that words have meaning. That provides the sufficient foundation for iron to sharpen iron. As Piper said “writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.”
Here are his reasons:
1) The language is somewhat foreign. Its vocabulary is like reading the King James Version. And I think it is probably a mistake to try to enshrine that today as the one if you expect families to use it without any updated form.
2) While I am able to affirm that Genesis 1 refers to literal 24-hour days, I had a hard time thinking that I should make that a matter of confessional faithfulness to Christianity, and so I stumbled over that section.
Piper’s reasoning here is more commendable than those who try to argue the confession does not require one to hold to literal 24-hour days of creation.
3) The understanding of the Sabbath is, perhaps, more rigorous and narrow than my understanding of the implications of Jesus’s teaching about the Sabbath.
Despite his disagreement with the confession’s stance, there is still much to agree with in Piper over against NCT. For example, my post Resources for Studying the Sabbath opens with an affirmative quote from Piper. You can read my post there for more arguments on the topic, but again, if Piper doesn’t agree with the doctrine, then he is right not to confess it.
4) There are certain historic categories of theology, like the covenant of works and others, that have proved useful, but you might wonder: Shall I make that the structure of the theology I am going to present?
This is a huge point. Again, Piper is to be commended for recognizing that he is in disagreement with the 1689 on this point. Some, like Gregory Nichols, agree with Piper but still claim to hold to the 1689. In fact, several Presbyterians who confess the Westminster Confession are in agreement with Piper on the nature of God’s covenant with Adam (that it was gracious and non-meritorious and thus not of works) yet they still confess Westminster (see here and here, which provides context for here). That creates more problems than just disagreeing with the doctrine. Thankfully Piper’s desire for clarity and precision and his clear understanding of the words of the Confession mean we can argue and discuss whether the doctrine is biblical rather simply getting stuck arguing about the Confession and never getting to the part about the bible (as is happening in Presbyterian circles at the moment).
Second, Piper is to be commended for understanding that the covenant of works is not an accessory of the Confession but is instead part of it’s very structure. As Dr. Sam Waldron notes in his dissertation:
Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.
–Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186
Piper is to be commended over against men like Shepherd who still try to confess Westminster, but notice the context of Waldron’s comments. Notice how serious of an issue this is. Piper’s disagreement on this point means he does not hold to the Reformed Baptist system of theology. The structure of theology provided by the doctrine of the covenant of works is the ground of the Reformation’s soteriology, rooted in a contrast between law (works) and gospel (faith). Apart from the covenant of works, there is no objective difference between law and gospel, which is precisely Piper’s view.
This is why Piper agrees with Doug Wilson on the gospel, calling him “brilliant” and his critics “dumb.” Perhaps Piper thinks Wilson is “brilliant” because in his ordination examination (which Piper specifically references), Wilson specifically quotes Piper to articulate his view of the covenant of works (the “examination” was a farce put on by the denomination he started).
45.Please comment on the following quote by John Piper:
“… I am hesitant to call Jesus’ obedience in life and death the fulfilment of a “covenant of works.” This term generally implies that “works” stand over against “grace,” and are not the fulfilment of faith in grace. Thus works implies a relationship with God that is more like an employer receiving earned waged than like a Son trusting a Father’s generosity. I see God’s grace as the basis of his relationship with Adam and Eve before the fall. I see this Christ, the Second Adam, fulfilling this covenant of grace (not works) perfectly by trusting his Father’s provision at every moment and obeying all his commandments by faith. His relationship to the Father was one of constant trust. His obedience was the effect of this trust. “Grace” toward Jesus was not exactly the same as grace toward fallen sinners. He never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Yet, in his human life he was dependent upon God similar to the way we are. Not only that, he took our sin on himself (Is.53:6). Thus God exerted a kind of “grace” in overcoming his curse on sin in order to exalt Christ (Future Grace, 413).
Wilson: I agree with this fully.
What is worth noting is Wilson’s answer to question 3:
3. Have you vowed to uphold and defend the system of doctrine contained in the WCF? Have you taken any exceptions to the WCF?…
… Chapter 7: Of God’s Covenant with Man— Para . 2: (cf. Chp. 19, para. 1, 6). We would clarify that the “covenant of works” was not meritorious and we deny that any covenant can be kept without faith. Good works, even in this covenant were a result of faith, as illustrated by the Sabbath rest which was Adam’s first full day in the presence of God.
So while Piper recognizes that his rejection of the covenant of works entails a rejection of the structure of the 1689 Confession, Wilson feels he can take an exception to the covenant of works and still hold to the Westminster Confession.
5. Do you have any exceptions, qualifications, or scruples to that confession in the areas of this examination? Please explain.
No, I do not have any exceptions in any area dealing with the federal vision controversy. However, one qualification I would like to note is that I believe the covenant of works mentioned in Chapter VII is badly named. I would prefer something like the covenant of life (WLC 20), or the covenant of creation. I believe that this covenant obligated Adam to whole-hearted obedience to the requirement of God. The one stipulation I would add is that, had Adam stood, he would have been required to thank God for His gracious protection and provision. And had Adam stood, he would have done so by believing the Word of God. In other words, it would all have been by grace through faith. Since Adam was not fallen, the nature of the grace would have been different than it is when dealing with mankind in sin. But it would have been gracious nonetheless.
…40.Was the covenant of works a gracious covenant? How is it to be distinguished from the covenant of grace?What is your view of the “covenant of works”?
Yes, the covenant of works was gracious in that Adam was surrounded by the goodness of a giving God. And if Adam had stood, even that standing would have been a gift from God, which he would have received by faith. But while all gifts are gifts, not all gifts are the same. The gift of preservation to an unfallen Adam is quite different than the gift of forgiveness to a rebellious and iniquitous race. The fact of giving is the same. The content of the gifts is different. I may give my wife a string of pearls one Christmas, and a coffee table the next. My desire and disposition to give is the same. But pearls are not a coffee table.
Unconfessional Doctrine and Church Courts
The method of subscription practiced by Presbyterian churches is clearly one of the factors (there are many) involved in their inability to keep Federal Vision pastors out of their churches (see Ryan McGraw’s comments on this point). Federal Vision theology clearly departs from the Westminster Confession, but departure from the Westminster Confession is not sufficient grounds to remove a minister from his office. On this very question of the covenant of works and the works principle, John Murray argued that the confessional position needed to be revised and recast in light of a better understanding of Scripture. He argued that there was no works principle in Scripture and he specifically rejected the Confession’s citation of Gal 3:12 and Rom 10:5 as proof of one.
In regards to this, J.V. Fesko argues that Murray’s rejection of the Confession on this point was acceptable because it was consistent with American Presbyterianism’s view of subscription.
Like their Old School predecessors before them, they [1st GA of the OPC] recognized that men could hold exceptions to the Standards, propagate them, and still be considered as officers in good standing…
“the commitment of oneself to every proposition [of the Westminster Standards] as the condition of exercising office in the Church is hardly consistent with the liberty of judgment on certain points of doctrine which has been characteristic of the Reformed Churches.” (Murray)
This statement, then, places Murray in agreement with his Old School predecessors as well as with the overall trajectory of the OPC on subscription. Murray does not merely allow semantic exceptions, but exceptions over entire propositions within the Standards…
Murray did not accept the Standards’ teaching regarding the Covenant of Works… Murray did not believe that he held to the common Reformed position that was historically advocated by Reformed theologians or by the Westminster Standards. In fact, he saw himself as a self-avowed revisionist on the subject of covenant theology…
Recall that the principle of Old School subscription states that a subscriber may take exception to propositions in the Standards. The subscriber may take exceptions to propositions so long as those exceptions do not undermine the overall system. With this in mind, we can see that though Murray reconstructs the Confession’s doctrine of the covenant, his reconstruction still retains the integrity of the overall system…
This is how, then, Murray can still subscribe to the Standards—his conclusions, though through a reconstructed and revised route, do not affect the overall system. It is important to note that this is yet another example of how an advocate of Old School ideology practices his confession subscription.
What Piper said about churches without any confession applies to churches with a confession they don’t fully confess (what Ramsey referred to as an elusive and subjective real confession within the written confession).
the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.
While I appreciate Piper’s willingness to state clearly what he believes and does not believe, I think his disagreement with the confession on this point is unbiblical (For more on Piper’s view of the covenant of works, see here and here and here). While simply having a detailed confession of faith is a very good thing for a church, making that confession a historic confession has the benefit of leaning on many, many more men than just yourselves. While Piper and his co-elders strove to not be idiosyncratic, they could not possibly have deliberated over their confession to the same degree that historic confessions like the 1689 London Baptist Confession were simply by virtue of how many people were involved, if nothing else. Furthermore, it can be well argued that those men were much better theologians and thus more qualified to write a confession. Regardless, the takeaway is that Piper’s greatest point of departure from the 1689, and his strongest reason for not holding it, is simultaneously the most problematic aspect of his ministry.
5) This is going to sound so piddly — and yet you can’t be piddly in a confession — little things like saying that bread and wine are prescribed in the Lord’s Supper. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper. That comes as a shock to a lot of people. It doesn’t say that is what was used.
This is not a subject I’ve studied, but I have heard very good things about this sermon http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=322111921180 But once again, we should appreciate how seriously Piper takes the practice of confession. He could dismiss the issue as trivial and say he still holds to the 1689 Confession, but he doesn’t because he believes words matter.