Monday, May 12, 2008

John Piper meets Tony Jones: Two views

What happens when new Calvinists and emergents talk? Collin Hansen and Tony Jones have been having good conversations online at Christianity Today about each other’s respective books and movements. I think it's interesting that John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist Church and Doug Pagitt's Solomon's Porch are just five miles away from each other in Minneapolis. Not long ago I discovered that Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt had actually met with John Piper, and I was fascinated to read their two different accounts of the same meeting.

This is from The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor):

Justin Taylor: John, you met recently with Tony Jones, who’s the national coordinator for Emergent, and Doug Pagitt, who is also involved in the leadership of Emergent. Is there anything you can tell us about that meeting or anything that would be helpful to share about your time together with them? And how did it come about?

John Piper: Tony and Doug took the initiative to e-mail me and asked if we’d be interested in meeting with them—I think because they read the blurb on this conference and were ticked off by it!

It was a very profitable time for me. I like these guys, by the way. I like them because I think they’re both hotheads, and I think I am too. That was a personal impression. However, my root sense is that ultimately, for Tony and Doug, committed relationships trump truth. They probably would not like the word “trump” but would rather say that committed relationships are an authentic expression of the gospel, and that to ask, “What is the gospel underneath, supporting the relationships?” is a category mistake. And so I just kind of kept going back on my heels, saying I just don’t understand the way these guys think. There are profound epistemological differences—ways of processing reality—that make the conversation almost impossible, as if we were just kind of going by each other. What is the function of knowledge in transformation? What are the goals of transformation? We seem to differ so much in our worldviews and our ways of knowing that I’m not sure how profitable the conversation was or if we could ever get anywhere.

Therefore I can’t make definitive statements about what they believe about almost anything, except for a few strong statements about certain social agendas in which they would clearly come out of their chair on the hatred of human trafficking or something like that. But as far as their beliefs on certain doctrinal issues, I can’t tell, because as I pushed on them, I could tell that their attitude was: “That’s not what we do. That’s not what we do here. We don’t try to get agreement on the nature of the atonement. That is alienating to friendships to try to do that, so we don’t do that.” And because of that, I say, “Well, I don’t even know where to start with you then.” This shows how different we are, because Galatians 1:8 says, “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” And that’s not friendship. Paul insists on establishing the gospel, whether there is a good relationship or not. I came away from our meeting frustrated and wishing it were different but not knowing how to make it different. (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, pp. 154-55)

And the following is Tony Jones’s take on the same meeting as chronicled in The New Christians:

Tony Jones: When the pastor accepted my invitation to lunch, I was happy, if a bit anxious. This man is the pastor of a large Baptist church, the president of a ministry, and the author of several best-selling books. He sits atop a pyramid of conservative Reformed Christians that has been particularly critical of emergents. I sent him an e-mail after seeing the promotional material for his pastors’ conference, the language of which made it clear that the emergent church movement was one of his targets for criticism. My e-mail was an olive branch: an invitation to lunch and an assurance that we both share a commitment to proclaiming Christ.

The pastor is a gentle-looking man, but his theology is anything but gentle. He believes that God’s anger burns with holy fire against human sin. Words like wrath, hate, and blood peppered his sentences as we dined at the Olive Garden (his choice). Slight of stature, he has a piercing gaze. He brought three of his compatriots, and I brought Doug Pagitt, the pastor of Solomon’s Porch and my best friend. He carried a Bible and a notebook; Doug and I each brought books that we’d written to give as gifts.

The pastor began by admitting that he’d never heard of me before, and that he really didn’t have anything against emergent Christians per se. His beef is with Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke, both emergent authors who have questioned the version of the doctrine of the atonement that he holds dear. Early in the lunch, Doug said that he’s long respected the ministry of the pastor’s church and since we’re in the same town, perhaps we could minister in partnership with one another. “Regardless of our theological differences,” Doug said, “maybe we can find ways to work together.” But as the lunch progressed, it became clear that the pastor felt that the beginning of any partnership was necessarily agreement on a particular doctrine, the atonement, a doctrine that he equates with an understanding of the gospel. To put it conversely, if you don’t understand the atonement as he does, you do not understand the gospel. To put it even more bluntly, he said that if you reject his understanding of the gospel, you are rejecting the gospel in toto, and so, by logical extension, you are not a Christian. (To be fair, he didn’t pass the same sentence on people who have never had the gospel explained to them in this way before, only on those who hear it and outright reject it.)

I mentioned the billions and billions of people who have lived and died as faithful, albeit not Reformed, Christ followers over the past two millennia, to no avail. Doug mentioned that there are lots of things that our two churches might work together on, like fighting sex trafficking, that have nothing to do with how one sees the atonement, but the pastor didn’t budge. I mentioned that it might be arrogant and a bit deceptive to preach that one of them is the sole and exclusive means of understanding the single greatest event in the history of the cosmos: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. “What do you tell your congregation about how Christians understood the atonement for the thousand years prior to Anselm?”

The pastor paused, looked at me, and said, “You should never preach.” He went on to state that in this confusing, relativized, and postmodern world, people need “fixed points of doctrine” around which they can orient their lives. In other words, a correct understanding of a particular doctrine is the beginning of all Christian ministry. If you don’t have that, he was saying, you don’t have anything.

Then I tried another tack in explaining emergent Christians. “For you,” I said, “it’s the fixed point of doctrine that is the litmus test of all ministry. But for us, it’s the Apostle Paul’s call to be ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. Everything we do in the emergent church is surrounded by an envelope of friendship, friendship that is based on lives of reconciliation. And it’s within that envelope that we have all sort of discussions and debates about the atonement and sex trafficking and baptism and AIDS in Africa.

“In fact,” I continued, “I’m not sure it’s even possible to be an orthodox Christian if you’re not living a life of reconciliation.” (The New Christians, pp. 76-78)


chris wignall said...

Wow Al!
I'm so glad you juxtaposed these perspectives. It is truly enlightening to see two understandings of the same conversation that seem to reflect well two sides of a much larger conversation (does calling it a conversation rather than a debate make me emergent?).
I wish there was enough common language to at least engage this issue. Perhaps Doug and Tony could have accomplished more if they were willing to enter into a more strictly theological discussion... Of course the strength and weakness of the Emergent paradigm is the insistence on raising the level of discourse beyond propositional statements; but it sadly gives the impression that there is no theological common ground.
Perhaps what's needed are mediators/interpreters who can speak both languages and build understandings where language fails. I wonder if Al and IVP might be in a position to explore that role...

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating! It reminds me of the old beer commercial - "Less filling...tastes great!" And all you can say is, "Um, yeah... I think maybe you've each got a point." I'm with Piper that solid doctrine is pretty important (though I'm not sure I could ever reach the point of certainty or certitude that John seems to have achieved); and would have to agree with Tony that reconciliation of all things is the goal.

In some ways it may be a bit of an artificial divide here: I know from personal experience that Piper's church is doing a pretty decent job of seeking to bring reconciliation to some significant areas in his city, and in other places around the world. I don't know Tony but I would guess that most of his belief set probably falls within the boundaries of generally accepted orthodox Christian doctrine.

Unfortunately, the test in a divisive situation where both sides have some claim to truth may be to ask which one is seeking to build a bridge to the other. 'Tisn't too hard to answer that one :)

Blessings, Al!

Unknown said...

What a fascinating, yet heart-breaking, post. (I wonder if they've read each other's words about the incident and feel any differently about it since then?) Thanks for sharing it with us!

Mooner said...

Wow, Tony Jones and Doug are so evil.

AReid said...

An interesting post. I realize I'm entering the discussion a bit late (about 2 years late), but posting a comment is too hard to pass up.
Tony Jones's comment that friendship between human beings is the ministry the Apostle Paul is calling Christians to in 2Cor 5:18 is horribly out of context. It’s clear from the passage as a whole that the reconciliation Paul is talking about is not between one human being and another, but, rather, between human beings and God. In speaking of Christian ministry to sinners, Piper is certainly right to use words like “wrath” and “hate” and “blood” to describe God’s attitude toward sin and those who commit it, because without those ideas, the idea of God reconciling spiritually rebellious human beings to himself has no meaning. For example, Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” And Romans 5:8-10 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” That’s the biblical message of Christianity to sinners, and that’s the ministry Christians are called upon to engage in.
Tony Jones seems to want to eliminate the biblical severity of the human sin problem. But that severity is ultimately what brought the Savior. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to simply reconcile one sinner to another. He sent Jesus into the world to save sinners (1Tim 1:15).
I have to wonder where Tony Jones gets his idea of ministry.