The Supremacy of Christ and Joy in a Postmodern World
or Certainty, Truth & Humility Trump Mystery, Conversations & Confusion
Better a week late than never. I’ve already summarized three messages (and some of my thoughts on them) from this year’s Desiring God Conference, The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World: David Wells, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll. Now, as promised, I’m finally posting about my final “favorite” message. As usual, the MP3 of John Piper’s talk is available for free.
There's a stream of postmodern/emerging thought which is overly eager to apply the “mystery” label or write off divisive doctrinal issues as too “puzzling” or “unclear” to talk about.
I think that of all the speakers, John Piper hit the targeted topic most directly. Generally, this was, “How should biblical Christianity interact with the doctrinal slippery slope of the ‘emerging church?’” Or, to put it more bluntly, “What should I take from emerging church, and what should I throw out?”
In one sense, this question had been partially answered by Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll, who combine strong biblical theology with the “cultural relevance” emphasis of many emerging types. Both Keller and Driscoll, in fact, are generally classified as “emerging”—which reveals the great diversity of perspectives within the label.
The only God-honoring joy that flows from “mystery” stems from a projection of what we do know about God.
However, Piper’s talk brought an essential dimension of theological reflection to the issue. He founded his message on John 17:13 (“these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves”), and summed it up in one sentence: Joy must be doctrinally based if it is to be in Jesus, and Christ-exalting.
Piper described this sentence as the “short version” of his message, and preceded to unpack it at length. Rather than transcribe everything he said (I recommend the MP3), I’ll paraphrase my personal highlights, and how they related to the current emerging church situation. These notes will be infused with my own reflections, so Piper can’t be blamed for all of 'em. :)
Mystery vs. Certainty
God-glorifying joy flows from true knowledge of God—not a hazy, general idea of Godness. God has gone to great lengths to reveal himself to us through the Bible. Therefore, the only God-honoring joy that flows from “mystery” stems from a projection of what we do know about God (which may be small or flawed, and thus problematic). This is not to say that the mysterious depths of God are not a catalyst for praise. But we are moved to awe by God's infinite, unfathomable goodness only because we've seen a degree of that goodness revealed—and therefore know that we're looking at a glorious, beautiful God and not an insidious, endlessly wicked monster!
Chronic uncertainty is stylish, but it's not reality-based, and needs to be slapped back.
However, postmodern discomfort with certainty can lead us astray when it is directed towards what God has clearly revealed. Therefore, propositions about God must be defended—because joy flows from truth understood. There's a stream of postmodern/emerging thought which is overly eager to apply the “mystery” label or write off divisive doctrinal issues as too “puzzling” or “unclear” to talk about (i.e. Brian McLaren’s hazy position on homosexuality). Stances like this do God a disservice because, quite simply, they do created reality and revelation a disservice. Chronic uncertainty is stylish, but it's not reality-based, and needs to be slapped back.
Conversations vs. Truth
Right knowledge about God is foundational to God-glorifying camaraderie. The question at play here is, What kind of “friendship” is founded on devastating misstatements? A central idea in the Emergent church proper is that “conversation” is to be valued over biblical orthodoxy. Problem is, how does failing to argue for truth constitute an act of friendship?
Central issues of faith should be kept on the table, not swept under the rug.
For example, if I agree to disagree on the question of Christ’s deity in order to maintain our relaxed coffee breaks, it will be, at the very least, an ironic friendship when one of us ends up in hell. Alliances that are not rooted in biblical truth (reality) will not glorify God, and they will not prove to be very strong. This premise provoked a lot of thought—and a lot of discussion on the drive home. In the end, I found myself agreeing with Piper here, though with the following qualifications:
- Does this mean that orthodox Christians and “heretics” cannot be friends? No—but it does mean that central issues of faith should be kept on the table, not swept under the rug. I also think that the depth of such alliances will be limited, because our core beliefs about Christ tend to transform and define our lives.
- Friendships with lost people should be evaluated within a different rubric, because our conversations do not primarily revolve around theology. We don't expect pagans to be doctrinally solid until they meet Jesus!
Humility vs. Uncertainty
Ultimately, I think Piper's talk opened my eyes to the bottom-line issues at play in the emerging church milieu (in which I would probably place myself). Being "emerging church" doesn't need to mean you stop defending the truth, as revealed by God's word. Rather, you defend it persistently and humbly. And you do this with a correct (biblical) understanding of humility.
"Humility" doesn't mean we get fuzzy vision when we open the Bible.
Some people mistakenly assert their own personalities while "arguing for the truth," and this alienates those who hear them. However, the antidote to such heavy-handedness is not postmodern/emerging uncertainty about clear doctrine. In other words, "humility" doesn't mean we get fuzzy vision when we open the Bible. Humility does not imply the inability to know truth. I think John Piper embodied this reality when he gave this message and I hope I can learn to do so as well.