Monday, May 12, 2008

Piper and Pedagogy

I started working on this post back in March shortly after Piper John's comments at the 2008 Resurgence Conference hit the blogosphere:

Here’s my rule of thumb: the more responsible a person is to shape the thoughts of others about God, the less Arminianism should be tolerated. Therefore church members should not be excommunicated for this view but elders and pastors and seminary and college teachers should be expected to hold the more fully biblical view of grace. Do you separate from a denomination that allows pastors and seminary teachers to believe and teach this error? You can. We do. (See for the whole talk; HT: Scot McKnight's Weekly Meanderings)

There is plenty to take issue with in this statement--see here and here for some examples--and Piper himself decided they required nuancing:

By way of clarification, I would say: In an Arminian institution, Arminians should be allowed to teach. But in institutions that regard Arminianism as a defective view of God’s grace, they should not be allowed to teach. Or, more broadly, in an institution that thinks the truth is better served by having advocates of Arminianism and Calvinism, both should be allowed to teach.

Then the question shifts to whether churches and Christian educational institutions should be devoted to a mix of Arminianism and Calvinism. No, I don’t think they should be. I think the truth, the church, and the world are better served by confessional institutions—that is, institutions which settle on the great things about God that they believe, and then build their teaching and research upon them.

Why, one might ask, is the church better served by institutions that require all faculty to side with either Arminianism or Calvinism? And how does one avoid the charge of indoctrination?

When this kind of teaching and research are done well, the charge of indoctrination does not stick. No one’s ultimate aim should be to be Calvinist or Arminian. The aim should be to be biblical. Therefore, teaching and research will labor with all their might to show students what the Bible teaches. That will not be indoctrination. It will be true education.

The fact that we all have blind spots and profit from perspectives different from our own does not imply that we should hire someone to teach those perspectives in our pulpit or class room. It means we read and listen and carry on whatever conversation or dialogue or debate is appropriate.

In my 22 years of formal education . . . it became increasingly clear to me that diverse theological positions on the same faculty of a Christian institution diminished the importance of those differences. For some issues, that is good. For others it is not. Which those are is one of the great challenges of every generation.

If I did not agree with Piper to some extent, I would not be teaching at a confessional institution. We all work within a framework of understanding, and it is appropriate to agree on where the major boundaries are. However, Piper makes it sound as though everything boils down to what one considers the big issues on the dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy. Piper thinks Arminianism is a heresy worthy of excommunication. I don't. End of story.

But there is more to my uneasiness with Piper's comments than mere disagreement about the boundary lines of Christian orthodoxy. At issue is two differing conceptions of the goal of a confessional Christian education. Piper seems to live, think, and teach as though he has the Truth within his grasp, and he knows what it is. I am much more comfortable with Miroslav Volf's chastened epistemology, but my concern here is that this posture seems to disregard the process of learning:

As Piper acknowledges, the goal of a "true education" is not adherence to a party line. But it is also more than showing "students what the Bible teaches" as if students are only so many empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. A true education will encourage in students the ability to think for themselves so that they can continue to be nurtured by their own ongoing study of Scripture. What better way to encourage careful thinking than in a setting where faculty are able to model respectful debate (and disagreement) about vital issues within the framework of broader Christian orthodoxy?


Anonymous said...

Hi David!

Thank you for writing this post. I appreciate what you have to say.

Our church is part of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network (which plays a significant role in this 'Reformed Resurgence'), so I am observing closely what guys like Piper are saying. I was left a little discouraged when I watched Piper's message online.

There's much I'm thankful for within this movement, yet, there's much that bothers me...Piper's statement being an example.

"A true education will encourage in students the ability to think for themselves so that they can continue to be nurtured by their own ongoing study of Scripture."

Thank you for helping to shape my education in this way. It's helping me to wade through these issues, while guiding me to greater balance.



RogueMonk said...

Since when is Briercrest a confessional institution? That certainly does not resonate with my expereince or understanding of Briercrest. Please explain.

d. miller said...

Hi roguemonk,

What is your experience of Briercrest?

Eric said...

Thanks for your sensible comments on this issue, David.

RogueMonk said...

I'm wondering what you mean by "confessional institution"? Briercrest does not fall within a confessional tradition (eg. Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.). It holds no confession (Westminster, Hiedleberg, Belgic, Barmen, etc) as part of its statement of faith or of its historical heritage. The very closest it comes to this is its affirmation of the Lausanne Covenant--which in no means has any roots or implications a la a confessional church.

d. miller said...

Thanks for the clarification, roguemonk. I was using "confessional institution" more loosely to describe an institution whose members affirm their agreement with a specific statement of faith.

ErinOrtlund said...

One of the things I appreciated about Trinity, and currently appreciate about Briercrest, is that the faculty have diverse viewpoints. I think it's probably a good thing for students to wrestle through issues themselves.

RogueMonk said...

That is certainly true. Some diversity is healthy--within the broader confines of an orthdox evangelicalism. Thank God the days of the "dispensationalist rule" are mostly gone at Briercrest. Although, there are still some fundies around.

Blessings on you both!