A Later Reflection on My Exchange with John Piper

Re: Reformed Journal

Postby tomtalbott on Thu Jan 29, 2009 10:03 am

I was surprised to see this old debate between John Piper and me linked here (or, for that matter, linked anywhere), and I was doubly surprised to hear from Jason Pratt that several theological sites had pointed him to Piper’s first reply while ignoring my rejoinders and other matters. A wonderful thing about the web, I suppose, is the access it provides to old material and how easily one can use it to circumvent those who would try to slant material one way or another.

In any case, I thought some here might have an interest in my present attitude (many years later) towards this old debate. Quite frankly, I don’t like the polemical tone of my initial article. I originally wrote the article (several years before it was published) for a forum at Westmont College, where a friend of mine had asked me to make it as controversial and hard hitting as possible. He wanted me to “stir up the troops,” so to speak. So, not surprisingly, the article reflects a young man’s immaturity and polemical spirit.

I now find such polemics quite distasteful, however, because they are so obviously self-defeating. They not only deflect the reader’s attention away from the substance of an argument; they even foster the very “us verses them” attitude so characteristic of the most rigid fundamentalists in all religions.

The published reactions to my initial article illustrate the point nicely. For the principle objection was that my argument was not biblically informed at all; it was instead philosophically inspired and grounded in logic, a sort of non-biblical invention of my own. Almost none of my respondents seemed even to notice, in other words, that my principal argument was lifted (almost as if it were plagiarized) from the New Testament itself, albeit without the typical chapter and verse citations that some seem to relish. Accordingly, John Piper offered “as an articulate antidote to Talbott's nonbiblical argumentation the biblically saturated essay by Geerhardus Vos, 'The Spiritual Doctrine of the Love of God'….” By “biblically saturated” he evidently meant saturated with lots of specific references to specific texts in the Bible.

But why, I continue to wonder to this day, did he (and others) regard the argument I set forth as non-biblical? Consider the following offhand remark that Paul made concerning his friend and fellow worker Epaphroditus: “He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy upon him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another” (Phil. 2:27). Here Paul acknowledged an important point--and the very point I made in my article--concerning the way in which love ties people’s interests together even as it renders a person more vulnerable to misery and sorrow. Given Paul’s love for his friend, any good that befell his friend would also be a good that befell Paul and any evil that befell his friend would likewise be an evil that befell Paul.

Or consider a more general remark that Jesus made: “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me … [and] as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Mt. 25:40 & 45). So here again we encounter the same powerful point about the inclusive nature of love: how the interests of Jesus are so tightly interwoven with those of his loved ones that, if we do something to them, it is as if we have done it to him. More generally, wherever two persons are bound together in love, their purposes and interests, even the conditions of their happiness, are so logically intertwined as to be inseparable. And that is why the letter of I John can declare, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars” (4:20). For it is simply not possible to love God and, at the same time, to hate those whom God loves. And neither, given Rebecca’s love for Esau, would it have been possible for God to love Rebecca (not to mention Jacob) and, at the same time, literally to hate Esau, Rebecca’s beloved son.

Or consider, finally, Paul’s “unceasing anguish” over the spiritual health of his beloved kin: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish [or pray] that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Rom. 9:2-3). Nor is there anything irrational about such a wish. From the perspective of Paul’s love, his own damnation would be no worse an evil, and no greater threat to his own happiness, than the damnation of his loved ones would be.

So my point is that the polemical nature of my initial article was self-defeating for just this reason: It tended to deflect the reader’s attention away from the fact that my central argument, which I set forth in philosophical terms, was merely the elaboration of an important biblical principle concerning the inclusive nature of love.


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