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Thinking About Rick Warren & John Piper

Desiring God Ministries has posted John Piper’s long-awaited interview with Rick Warren. This has brought to completion the invitation Piper extended to Warren to speak at the 2010 Desiring God National Conference. The interview was supposed to happen at that event, but in the end Warren was unable to travel to Minneapolis and the interview was postponed. The men got together on May 1, 2011 and this video is the result.

Today I want to offer up some thoughts on it. I do so because over the years I have come out as a bit of a critic of Rick Warren and his ministry. This is not something I am entirely comfortable with, but it was no surprise to me that when the interview was posted I began to receive questions; people wanted to know what I thought of it. And, frankly, I wanted to know what I thought of it. So what I intend to do in this article is simply let you into my mind as I wrestle through the interview and its implications.

Before I begin, let me say a word about critiquing Warren. Many people seem to imagine that there is some kind of a Calvinist conspiracy against Rick Warren. I will grant that there are many outrageous critics out there who seem to put Warren in the same league as Jezebel and Judas. Despite such people there are many others who have good, legitimate critiques of the man and his ministry. I think we need to be careful that we do not combine these 2 groups—that we do not ignore legitimate critiques because of the outrageous ones.

Having said that, let me tell you where my mind went as I watched and read the interview. I am very glad to hear from you whether my thinking has gone off-track or if I am just plain wrong. The comments are open and I will be reading them as I am able.

1. Awareness

I find myself aware of my youth. As I begin to think through this issue I immediately realize that both of these men are old enough to be my father and I want to be very careful that I do not play the role of the impulsive, self-assured, prideful young(er) man. The Bible commends age and maturity and this leaves me inclined to doubt my own interpretation when it conflicts with those who are older than I am. Both of these men have far more knowledge of Scripture than I do and both have much greater ministry experience. Both have obviously been used by the Lord in unique ways.

And yet their greater age and ministry experience does not mean that I cannot have legitimate concerns. I know that what was true of Rick Warren before I saw this interview is true of him still. And this means that the concerns I had before remain concerns. While I am aware of the age difference between myself and these men, I am also aware of what I am convinced are legitimate concerns.

2. Uncertainty

From awareness I went to uncertainty. I found myself grappling with this question: What does John Piper wish for people to take away from this interview? Piper knows that he is a leader within the church, one who is much admired; he knows of the concerns people have for Warren; he knows that this interview will be widely watched, dissected and interpreted. All of this means that he must want people who watch this interview to come to a certain conclusion. As far as I can tell, that conclusion is this: Rick Warren has been misinterpreted and misunderstood. The implication is that he is an orthodox brother in Christ, and that Piper is leading us to see that many of Warren’s critics are being unjust toward him.

This is one of the takeaways I am seeing in the blogosphere and in comments left right here at my web site. My friend Timmy Brister seemed to say this in an article he posted at his blog where he marvelled at the theological agreement between the 2 men. A commenter at my blog wrote “Hope you will have the integrity to comment on the interview Tim, as it shows some of your previous critiques might have been off and misplaced. Very good interview, and helpful in showing just what a sharp, Bible-loving pastor Rick Warren is.”

3. Confusion

I find myself confused with this. Now hear me say that I love John Piper. I admire him a great deal, I’ve benefitted immensely from his ministry and on the few occasions I have spent time with him, have enjoyed him on a personal level. My disappointment in no way means I am turning on him or negating all that his ministry has meant to me. I feel like I need to repeat this so it does not get lost in the noise. I love and admire John Piper.

And yet I find that I disagree with his conclusion. And here is why: I do not think he has given us an accurate understanding of Rick Warren or his ministry. It has given us a very partial understanding, one based on a very limited scope of conversation. I do not think there is any malice here or any intent to deceive. It’s just reality as I understand it.

This interview was meant to be a frank one. Piper asked Warren some of the questions that people have been wondering. He asked about the gospel, about the existence of hell, about preaching philosophy, about God’s sovereignty, about the doctrines of grace. Yet, because Piper’s questions were based almost entirely on the text of The Purpose Driven Life, the interview was narrow in scope. And because it was an “appreciative interview” it steered away from some of the book’s most pronounced concerns. The fact is, though, that there is far more to Rick Warren than this 1 book. He has written several books; he has preached thousands of sermons; he has written other things and spoken other places.

As the interview drew to a close I saw that many of the predominant concerns I have with The Purpose Driven Life as well as Warren’s wider ministry went unaddressed. Let me speak to just 2 of them. And I think this is the crux of what I am saying in all of this—we do not have to change our critiques of Rick Warren based on this interview. What he said in this interview simply does not correlate to the facts of his books and ministry.

A Theological Chameleon
One of the most common critiques of Rick Warren and one of the most important is that he is something of a chameleon. There is a kind of pragmatism to him where he will be A and Not A depending on the context. I have little confidence that in a different context Warren would have answered the questions the same way. I am not saying that he outright lied to Piper, but simply that his track record shows that he adapts to fit the context.

Warren has been lauded in the secular media for speaking for a long time to a large group of Jewish leaders without ever using the name of Jesus. He is now being lauded by Calvinists for affirming the doctrines of grace. He has received praise from Roman Catholics. After all, he recently wrote the introduction to a special edition of TIME magazine that celebrated the life of Mother Teresa. This introduction praises the woman and holds her up as a model of Christian virtue. There Warren tells about a handwritten note by Mother Teresa that adorns the wall of his office. He proclaims that Mother Teresa “offered the same unconditional love our Savior did. By being the hands and feet of Jesus, this petite Albanian nun became one of the great evangelists of the 20th century.” He declared her “exhibit A of a true hero—a saint.” Mother Teresa, though, was a Catholic of Catholics, a devout follower of her church. She was also a universalist and one who saw no reason to seek to convert people to the gospel.

I think I am right to be confused here, right to ask questions. How do the doctrines of grace allow for an ardent Roman Catholic, one who denied those doctrines as anathema, to exemplify the Christian faith, to be a true hero—a saint? Surely I am not the only one who sees a contradiction. Surely I am not wrong to balk at Warren teaching Jewish rabbis how to increase the strength of their congregations.

Warren gave all the right answers in this interview, but I am not at all convinced that they reflect what he truly believes at all times and in all contexts. And certainly his ministry does not appear to bear out the kind of theological underpinnings that would reflect the theology he espouses here. Where is the influence of Edwards? Where is the monergism? Where do we see a belief in total depravity consistently applied in any of his books?

Use of Scripture
Another very common critique of Rick Warren and his books concerns the use of Scripture. Throughout The Purpose Driven Life he consistently and unapologetically tears verses from their context and applies them haphazardly, relying on a long list of translations and paraphrases to do so. Examples abound and would probably number in the hundreds; these are very well documented and very widely known.

Piper spoke to Warren about Scripture but stopped short of asking about his use of Scripture. If I were to preach in my church and Scripture as Warren does, I would be rebuked and I would deserve the rebuke. If a man stood in the pulpit of Bethlehem Baptist Church and used Scripture as Warren does, he would be rebuked as well, I am convinced. We do not want men to learn from Warren how to preach, how to use Scripture! He does not treat the Word of God as the very words of God. He can speak of his indebtedness to Edwards and Spurgeon and others, but his preaching shows very little of their influence.

These are just 2 critiques that remain unaddressed—very important critiques that seem to get to the heart of what he truly believes.

4. Unconvinced

There is still a pronounced gap between what Warren says in this interview and what he says elsewhere. And there is just as large a gap between what Warren says here and what his ministry bears out. Saying all that he said and affirming all that he affirmed is not enough; he also needs to show it. But he has not done that. The reason everyone was so surprised that Warren is Reformed is that he has never given us any reason to imagine such a thing. As Michael Horton wrote in a review of The Purpose Driven Life, “Judging by The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor Warren’s theology seems to reflect run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism, especially with its emphasis on the new birth as the result of human decision and cooperation with grace.  There are also heavy traces of Keswick ‘higher life’ teaching throughout the book.” What he says in this interview is not at all consistent with what he has shown through his ministry. So why would we believe that it’s true?

Now hear me say that the fact that his theology is “run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism” does not mean that he is not a Christian; it does not mean that he cannot be a godly man or a good pastor. But it does mean that it is not Reformed, because A cannot also be Not A.

I love John Piper (I already said that, right?). I’m glad that he has risen to a position of leadership within the church. But this interview has not at all convinced me to retract what I believe about Rick Warren. I firmly believe that those who have respectfully offered measured critiques of Warren and his ministry—substantial and important critiques—have done so for good reason. And those reasons remain.